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Leaving It All Behind

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Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 1: The Moon is Gone

The battle between the Northern Water Tribe and Admiral Zhao’s Naval fleet was a long and gruesome fight, there were many losses on both sides. The Fire Nation was ultimately defeated thanks to the Avatar merging with the Ocean Spirit, resulting in catastrophic damage to the Fire Nation’s Navy fleet.

Unfortunately, many of the ships breached the great ice wall before that happened, allowing their armed soldiers to storm into the frozen city. Sokka was assigned to a secret infiltration mission with the most annoying person in the entire Northern Water Tribe, Hahn. Lucky for Sokka, he and Hahn had a rather heated disagreement, which resulted in his immediate removal from the stupid secret mission he never wanted to be a part of in the first place.

Instead, he was assigned to the outer wall on the western side, he was stationed at the base of the great ice wall with the rest of the non-bending warriors. Sokka never thought of himself as a non-bender, but his time spent in the Northern Water Tribe was a constant reminder of his inability to water bend. Their society was focused on the division of not only men and women but also those who were given the blessing of bending and those who were not.

Even with all the warrior training that Sokka had, and his exceptional boomerang skills (which he insisted was a better skill to have then stupid water bending) he was cast aside. While his sister was given the sacred assignment of keeping Princess Yue safe, along with the Avatar.

As the Fire Nation laid siege to the Northern Water Tribe, his sister and Aang were safely tucked away in the Spirit Oasis while Sokka stood outside on the ice staring up at the massive white wall.

He could faintly make out the water benders that were posted on top of the wall, they were the first line of defense. Their only occupation was to prevent the enemy from breaching the wall and keeping the Fire Nation cruisers out to sea. If they failed, Sokka and his non-bending tribesmen would be there to strike down the invading enemy.

Sokka would never admit to the other warriors that he was cold. Honestly, he wasn’t sure if he was shivering or if his limbs were trembling in fear. As strong as he pretended to be for Katara when dad left, he carried heavy baggage full of doubt and fear. After his mother died, responsibility was shoved onto him like a full grown polar dog laying across his shoulders. He had to be a man, and he was responsible for protecting his little sister.

Even now, he felt like he should be in the Spirit Oasis with her and Aang, helping fulfill his promise to his dad by keeping Katara safe.

He wondered if his dad would even care if the great Northern Water Tribe was invaded, after they abandoned the South when the Fire Nation began raiding their villages. After that, the relationship between the two tribes became very strained. The North has always, and will always, focus their energies on staying out of the war. Even if it resulted in the almost complete annihilation of their ‘sister tribe’. Stripped of their benders, and with the only men left in the village sailing off to war, the South has been crumbling into nothing for years.

The North did nothing to help.

If Katara were hurt, would he be able to face his dad and tell him, “I was defending the wall, dad.” Would he give Sokka that look , the one that showcased the disappointment that his words would never speak. His dad loved him, this much he knew, but his dad has been disappointed in him before. Shaking his head, Sokka knew he couldn’t afford to allow himself to be distracted with those types of thoughts right now, that type of distraction could cost him his life.

Shifting his feet uncomfortably, his lungs were burning with every freezing breath he took, the soot coated icy flurries were burning him from the inside. That’s just like the stupid Fire Nation, they even tainted innocent ice flurries in the wake of their destruction.

Different parts of the city had been infiltrated already by the Fire Nation soldiers, but Sokka’s particular section was still intact. It was relatively quiet where he was stationed, but the sound of a war being fought was off in the distance. The men screamed out their battle cries as the hissing sound of fire and ice filled his ears. It was a distinct sound when a flaming projectile hit the great ice wall, it hissed like a tiger seal back home. The steam it created would cast a light mist around the impact sight, it was the same when a fire bender threw their fire at the Water Tribe men, the hiss indicated the attack missed.

When the attack didn’t miss, well… there was a different type of screaming.

The burning of his lungs, accompanied with the pounding of his heart in his ears, was enough to distract him from the lingering dread of the invasion, and possible upcoming battle. Looking at the two other warriors stationed in the same section, he could see the same lingering fear in their crystal blue eyes.

Both men were older than Sokka, actual warriors as he was informed, making him believe that maybe this entire situation was only to humor Sokka. Was it only because of his friendship with Aang that he was even assigned to a position in the city's defense? If that were the case, he would be glad to abandon his post and join his sister and beautiful, perfect, amazing Princess Yue in the warm oasis.

Before those negative thoughts could fester into something more, a loud cracking noise could be heard just overhead, accompanied by screaming. To his horror men began falling from the top of the wall, it almost looked as if some of them jumped. Sokka’s deep blue eyes shifted to the now cracked ice wall, only to see the ominous bow of a massive metal ship crashing through the thick ice, followed by a second ship.

The water benders that landed on the ground only survived because of their magic water, bending themselves ice ramps that allowed their tumbling bodies to slide next to Sokka. The water benders immediately began shooting streams of water towards the spots where the Fire Nation ships were penetrating. Icing the water, they were using all their energies to keep the bow from breaking all the way through.

If the ship fully penetrated through, it would open up, and dozens of angry fire benders would be unleashed into the city. Right where Sokka and the other men were standing, a hand to hand battle seemed unavoidable at this point. Even with all the efforts from the Water Tribe benders, the ships were not slowing down.

One of the men, who Sokka recognized from Katara’s lessons (the only one or two times that Sokka actually wandered over to watch), grabbed his shoulders.

He was older, probably the eldest of the group, his gray and brown hair was tied back in a wolf's tail and he braided the sides back. His face was leathered from years of intense training and sun exposure, his eyebrows were thick and gray, with wild hairs shot up in all directions. The man’s dark blue eyes stayed steady as he stared at Sokka, “get ready, we have a fight on our hands.”

All Sokka could do was nod, his voice was trapped in his burning throat. He tried to swallow, but all that did was remind him that his mouth was bone dry just like his throat. Reaching behind him he took his boomerang in his shaking hands, his entire body trembling like a scared polar dog puppy. In this moment Sokka wished he was stronger, more vicious, ready to kill at a moment's notice.

But that was never who Sokka was, it took him years to get comfortable killing, even though it was a fundamental and necessary part of living in the Southern Water Tribe. He remembered his first kill, it was a mouse-hare that he caught in one of the snares he placed outside of the village. Bato taught him all about how to build snares and the best spots to place them.

Sokka loved inventions, no matter how primitive, and a snare was a clever way to hunt for food without actually stalking and killing your prey. Bato assured the young Sokka that most animals that got themselves caught in a snare were dead before they were ever found by the hunter. Sokka was so excited, he remembered the morning he was going to check his first placement of snares, the dawn was just starting to pour its soft orange light onto his icy world.

The ice reflected the colors, casting a warm hue over the usually cool toned world Sokka grew up in and loved. He took his whale bone knife, pulling on his parka he slipped out of the igloo before anyone cracked an eye open. It had snowed the night before, making the journey out of the village a bit more difficult for a child. He was small, as were most kids his age, he hiked up his legs as far as he could lift them and took wide strides through the fresh snow.

The sun continued to rise as he pulled himself through the snow, the soft warm light faded into a bright morning. After what felt like forever, Sokka finally reached his first snare, to his utter disappointment it was empty. His hope shattered like the fragile and fleeting feelings children carried around with them, quickly replaced by excitement for the next trap.

Empty.

Empty.

Empty.

The last trap was further from town, Bato told him that it was unlikely that a snare this far out and so visible would catch anything. But Sokka insisted on placing his snare in that particular spot, he told the older man that he had a good feeling.

He was right, caught in the snare by its slender ankle was a mouse-hare. He remembered seeing it lying there in the snow, a few flurries resting on it’s soft white fur, with just the smallest flecks of brown in its fur as the seasons were changing. He approached slowly, wanting to remember every feature about the small creature, it was his first catch as a hunter.

As Sokka approached, to his surprise the animal moved, pulling away from the boy’s small hand. Sokka’s heart leaped into his throat, the surprise from the sudden movement sent the boy stumbling back, losing his balance and falling back into the snow. His butt hit the ground as his hands held tight to the whale bone knife he was still carrying.

The mouse-hare’s wide black eyes stared at him as its tiny pink nose wiggled with every panicked breath it took. The whiskers twitched as Sokka began to pull himself back to his feet, both hands planted firmly on the knife as he approached his prey once again. There was another sudden movement as the trapped animal tried to make a break for it, hoping to disappear back into the tundra. But it wasn't so lucky, and Sokka could see the snare digging deeper into the sling of its fragile ankle, drawing out bright red blood.

Sokka was accustomed to blood, blood was a part of hunting, it spilled as the tribe gathered together to prepare and clean each kill. Blood always looked so red against the soft white snow, but this was a different type of blood, this was fresh. This blood was still flowing through the very much alive mouse-hare, this blood was on Sokka’s small hands, and he would draw more before the kill was finished. He knew the longer he hesitated the more pain the small mouse-hare would endure, which was not what Sokka wanted from his first kill.

The first rule of hunting was never prolong your killing's suffering or you risk upsetting the spirits.

Moving towards the mouse-hare again he grabbed the frightened animal by its long ears, pulling the head back to reveal its throat. Bringing his knife to the soft flesh, Sokka closed his eyes as he cut across the vulnerable throat. The blood was dark red, unlike the bright blood he saw splattered in the snow after the tribe finished preparing a kill. This was a thick, deep red fluid that poured onto the snow, soaking into the ice by Sokka’s feet.

The animal twitched a few times before going limp, it was done. His first kill, part of him regretted it immediately, and the other part brought a small smile to his face.

It was so odd to have such extremely opposite emotions about the same situation.

Releasing the snare he grabbed the back legs and carried the now dead mouse-hare back to his igloo, imagining his dad’s excitement when he showed him what he did. Even though the back of his mind still wished that the last trap had been empty too…

Someone yelled his name, and Sokka’s mind switched back to the present day, the day that the Fire Nation was invading his sister tribe. Looking around, Sokka saw the Water Tribe men had moved back, further away from the wall, he felt someone strong grab the back of his parka and yank him backwards.

Unlike when he was a child, he stayed on his feet, stumbling backwards until he stood aligned with the other Water Tribe men. There were now 8 of them, standing in the snow, weapons ready as the two ships crashed through the wall. The benders worked together to protect themselves and their comrades from the massive chunks of ice that rained down around them.

The metal ships sliced through their icy defenses like it was parchment, and to Sokka’s horror the ship opened up; like the massive jaws of an indestructible beast, spilling out angry Fire Nation soldiers. Sokka knew this wasn’t going to be like his first animal kill, these men were not going to stare at him defenseless while he slit their throat.

These men weren’t going to look up at him with black eyes and wiggling noses, these men were going to fight back to the very end.

Sokka lifted his boomerang and picked his target, pulling his arm back and releasing it into the mid morning air. The sun was finally high enough in the sky that they were no longer trapped under the shadow of the ice wall, he could see the red and black armor of the enemy clearly.

They wore helmets and face plates so thankfully he wouldn’t have to look into the eyes of any of the men, he was struggling enough with the thought of killing a person, he didn’t want to see their eyes.

His mom taught him and Katara that a person’s eyes were the windows to the soul. She told them that you can see a man’s past and what type of person they are, just by looking into their eyes. Sokka always remembered that lesson, and he was proven how true it was over and over again. First lesson was when he looked at his sister, her bright blue eyes were soft but she had a hardness in them that only appeared there after their mother was killed.

His father had stern, compassionate eyes, his eyes were always hard like ice, but would melt whenever he looked at him and his sister. Aang was another example, his gray eyes were young and wild, full of happiness and wonder. But his eyes held something strong and wise behind them, they showed that when needed, he could let go of the child and be the Avatar the world needed.

Seeing that balance in Aang’s eyes was the deciding factor for Sokka, when he saw the young air bender being dragged away by the Fire Nation, back home in the South Pole. Sokka knew he had to rescue Aang, which is why he prepared the canoe before Katara had even decided what she wanted to do. A person’s eyes said a lot about them, his mother was right.

He missed his mom.

Fire met water as the two worlds collided on the ice, screams on both sides. Sokka saw his boomerang make contact with his target and the man toppled forwards, out cold.

Another fire bender approached Sokka on his left, throwing wild thrusts of fire in his direction. Sokka raised his club and swung towards the attacks, as the fire approached him the swift movements were enough to break up the blast’s flames before they could come in contact with his skin.

He liked to avoid being burnt.

The Fire Nation soldier kept moving towards Sokka, his menacing armor was intimidating. The soldier advanced quickly, his foot placement surprisingly steady on the ice as he approached, arms forward; he prepared for another attack.

Sokka felt the heat before he saw the flames, his right arm was covered in fire, as his parka began to crumble under the spreading fire. Another Fire Nation soldier was approaching him on his right while he was distracted with the attacks coming from his left. Swinging his boomerang to the right, Sokka dropped to the ground trying to roll out the fire on his arm. Lucky enough, the small fire was unable to eat through his outer layers, leaving his skin underneath smooth and unburnt.

Before he could raise back to his feet the bender on his left was over him, in the few seconds it took for the man to raise his hand to attack there was a warm liquid splattering on Sokka’s face.

Blinking, he saw the two large ice spikes protruding out of his enemies chest, fresh warm blood spilled from his open wounds as the ice melted to water and was pulled back to be used for another attack. Sokka was frozen in the moment, watching the armored figure drop to his knees and then fall forward. His helmet grazed Sokka’s leg before the body fully hit the ice. If it wasn’t for the more experienced Water Tribe water bender coming to his aid, he knew he would be dead right now.

Unable to take his eyes off the dead man, he completely forgot about the Fire Nation soldier to his right who was also trying to light him on fire.

Sokka was still lying on the floor, almost killed by the now dead man at his feet and letting his guard down to an attack from his right.

Blinking, he knew he had to get up.

Get up.

Get up.

“GET UP!”

Sokka felt strong arms pulling him to his feet, shoving something with a familiar shape into his hands.

“This saved your life, don’t lose it! Stay focused!” A man’s voice was yelling at him. Sokka kept blinking, trying his hardest to bring moisture back to his dry eyes. Slowly he was able to feel the focus return to his sight as he looked down at the boomerang in his hands.

He remembered throwing it at the soldier on his right just before the man on his left made it to him. Now he is dead.

The boomerang disabled the man on his right, saving his life.

Looking around he saw the battle continuing to unfold, blue and red, ice and blood, death and life. It was a nightmare, but he was living it. There would be no waking up in a panic, this was his reality and he was still alive, but if he didn’t get his shit together he was going to die.

Seeing one of the water benders, whose name he didn’t know, being overwhelmed by three Fire Nation soldiers, he thrust his boomerang once again. Running forward, he watched his attack hit one of the attackers over his head, falling to the ground Sokka’s boomerang hit the snow a few feet away.

Running faster now, Sokka grabbed his weapon out of the snow as he watched the man he knocked down stumble to his feet again. His helmet knocked sideways, Sokka watched as the man grabbed both sides and pulled it off his head. The soldier’s long dark hair was disheveled, and the pale skin of his face was bruising from where the boomerang struck.

Turning to face him, Sokka saw his amber eyes.

They weren’t angry.

They were scared.

He was young, but older than Sokka was, he shifted to a familiar fire bending stance but didn’t strike.

Even with the battle unfolding around them it felt as if time stopped, everyone faded away and left only Sokka and this unknown Fire Nation soldier. Sokka held tight to his boomerang, the sharp side facing out. He planned on making it quick, but now the man was facing him without his helmet and was not going to lie down and accept death.

There was determination in the young soldier's face, and Sokka knew… It was kill or be killed.

There was an unsaid, mutual understanding that this was war and one of them was going to walk away and one of them was going to die. Sokka couldn’t help but think if there wasn’t a war and they met under different circumstances, could they have been friends? Did he like to hunt? Did this man have a dad who he respected and loved? Did he have a pretty girl at home that was waiting for him to come back? Did he also have an annoying little sister?

Was he really willing to die for the Fire Lord and this pointless war?

Twisting his hand tighter around his weapon the soldier made the first move.

They always did.

The man sent a wave of fire in Sokka’s direction before taking a few steps forward. Sokka moved just out of the range of attack, throwing himself to the icy ground before rolling back to his feet. Turning to the side he threw his boomerang once again, just in time to dodge two fire blasts.

Sokka watched as the enemy moved closer as the boomerang struck, stopping him dead in his tracks. His amber eyes shot wide open as the sharp side of the Water Tribe boy’s weapon collided with his skull.

The soldier stumbled to his knees until his upper body slumped onto the slick ice floor, his eyes closed, blood seeping from the wound on the back of his head. Sokka didn't hesitate, moving quickly he found himself standing over the Fire Nation man. Grabbing his boomerang and wiping the blood off its blade, Sokka was relieved that this fight didn’t last any longer, that is, until the man stirred.

Slowly his arms begin to move, in an attempt to push himself up and off of the freezing ice. Sokka saw his moment, just like when he was a child on the ice and that adorable little mouse-hare stared up at him from the snare.

But this wasn’t a helpless mouse-hare, he wasn’t adorable, and when he got up he was going to start trying to melt the flesh off of Sokka’s bones. Moving as if in a daze he grabbed the man’s hair and pulled his head back, revealing his throat. With a shaking hand he brought his boomerang forward to finish the job.

But he couldn’t do it.

He was weak… He couldn’t take this man’s life.

Sokka slowly released his grip when he felt heat and smelled the pungent smell of burning fabric, just before smelling the sickening scent of burnt flesh.

It was a few seconds before he felt the pain, the horrible, burning pain on his arm. The fire bender whose life he had just spared turned around and burnt him. Falling back Sokka gripped his arm where the man had grabbed him and began burning, the fabric that once covered his arm was charred. The cold wind biting at the fresh burn on Sokka’s bicep, the burn wrapped around the top of his arm, red and blistering.

Sokka screamed out in pain as he dropped his boomerang, the fire bender was on his feet again. The man’s stance changed as he went to finish the job, he wasn’t even going to hesitate to kill Sokka, he felt like an idiot.

Sokka flinched when the man made a sharp gasping sound as a spear head broke through the bottom of his sternum. Blood splattered onto the ice once again, this time landing at Sokka’s feet. Scooting backwards Sokka’s was scared, his pounding heart was threatening to break through his chest and spill his own blood on the ice. The noise of the battle was fading away as he stared into the eyes of the man whose life he spared, just so he could turn around and burn him.

His once scared amber eyes were clouding over as that spark of life left his body. He fell once again, this time he would not be getting back up.

One of the Water Tribe men, Ghlan, pulled his spear out of the back of the new dead Fire Nation soldier. He was older than Sokka but only by a few years. He was a non-bender like Sokka, but his weapon of choice was a whale bone spear tip. He was a master at his weapon, an excellent marksman when he practiced long range spear throwing. He had dark brown hair, and wore it in a half up wolf tail style with two white beads in a braid by his right ear. His eye color was a soft blue, gray and he had an exceptionally white smile.

Ghlan reached out and offered Sokka his hand, at this point in the day the sun was moving lower in the western sky and most of the soldiers that emerged from the ship had retreated back or were laying on the floor surrounded by red. Sokka could feel his body trembling as the adrenaline pumped through his veins, he was struggling to catch his breath.

“It’s alright Sokka, just breathe, in and out. Focus on my voice, in… and out.”

Sokka watched Ghlan take a deep breath in through his nose and an equally long exhale through his mouth. He made it look so easy, like breathing was so second nature. Sokka couldn’t even imagine anything being that easy, everything in his body was tense and life seemed so complicated and difficult.

How was he supposed to breath like that!?

“Sokka, you need to get control of yourself, more soldiers could be here any moment. We managed to hold off the first wave, but more will be coming, do you understand?”

Sokka felt his head nod, but he didn’t remember giving his body the command.

How dare his brain tell his head to nod without his permission!? It was utter body mutiny, what was next? Waving without permission? Talking without permission? EATING WITHOUT PERMISSION!?

Talking to himself seemed to help, his mind relaxed and he finally got control of his breathing. Slowly, the wild feeling of fight or flight left him and he was able to stand up correctly and think straight.

“Thanks Ghlan, you saved my life.”

The Water Tribe man smiled at him, “well you owe me one, if you see one of those ash makers about to roast me, I expect you to save me.”

“Deal.”

Ghlan looked down at Sokka’s arm and saw the large red mark of bubbling flesh, he had been burnt. Untreated burns were the leading cause of death when encountering a fire bender. Sokka’s burn was enough to worry Ghlan.

“Sokka, you need to go see a healer about that burn. If you leave it untreated it will become infected and you could possibly lose that arm. Do you know where our healing station is?”

Sokka remembered the map that displayed where everyone was assigned, each person was instructed to memorize their position and places of interest. It had details about where each section's healing stations would be located, where the fallback line was, emergency evacuation routes, and names and position of each man stationed on the wall.

Sokka thanked Tui and La that he was his father’s son and reading maps was in his blood. He could read a map before he could walk, so memorizing their Chief’s battle plans was easy for him.

“I remember, should I go now?”

“Yes, hurry, nightfall is coming quickly and the moon is full. We will have the advantage once the ash maker’s beloved sun sets and our moon is revealed. We will need you back in position before that.”

Sokka gave a firm nod as he clutched his now throbbing arm and headed in the direction of the healing station.

- - - - - - - - -

The healing building was… Horrific. Men filled the scattered beds moaning and sobbing as they clutched their burned and lacerated limbs. The smell of burnt flesh was nauseating, the healers had to wear lavender and mint soaked face masks to keep the smell from disrupting their healing. The soft blue glow illuminated from bed to bed as women moved around quickly, but not hastily.

Sokka stood off to the side with other warriors that were waiting for their turn to see the healer. There was a priority system when entering the healing station, the most life-threatening wounds were first and dealt with on the right side of the building followed by the less life-threatening on the left side of the building.

There were 6 beds on each side and a long table in the center filled with bandages, water, herbs, and different varieties of tea.

The Northern Water Tribe was known for training their women water benders to be healers, putting them through rigorous training for years. Katara disagreed with the idea of women not being allowed to use their bending for combat, she was personally offended by the idea.

But Sokka could see in this scenario, how beneficial it was to have the women in their element healing the wounded men who were fighting the enemy. Each bender knew their responsibilities and what was expected of them, once the wounded warrior was healed they were expected to head back out into the ice to continue fighting.

It was an effective system for a city that has not seen a battle in the entire 100 years the world has been at war. That thought alone made Sokka’s stomach turn, how much help they could have provided the South if they had thought to lend out even a handful of their healers and benders.

He pushed those thoughts out of his mind too.

Nightfall descended onto the city before Sokka was seen by a healer, the girl had him sit on a fur pelt as she cut the sleeve off his already ruined parka. Her eyes never met him as she diligently worked on repairing the damage to his arm. She pulled water out of the basin and as it began to glow she placed it gently on his bicep. The cool water was soothing to his hot burn, he watched in amazement as the boiled skin was smoothed out and replaced with his tan, unblemished skin. The throbbing pain that was radiating from his arm up into his brain faded and then disappeared.

“Alright, you should be good to head back out, there are replacement clothing items hanging in the next room over. You may get whatever you need to replace what was burnt. Please be safe and may Tui and La protect you.”

Sokka nodded down at the young woman as she ushered over another injured man to replace Sokka. Slowly he stood and left the awful smelling infirmary. As he passed the severely injured side of the infirmary, his stomach began churning as he saw horrific sized burns that covered the warrior’s bodies. His feet found a faster pace as he practically ran out of the room.

Rummaging through the hanging clothing, he tried not to think about where these items were gathered from.

Probably dead people, these were probably dead peoples’ old clothing.

Stop it, Sokka. Just get a new coat and get back out there.

His rummaging began to slow down, as he tried on different parkas finding extreme and unbearable flaws in each one.

The armpits were too tight, he wouldn’t have enough room to throw his boomerang.

The next one was too short. What if he caught a cold because he wasn’t properly protected?

Arms too long.

Fur collar too itchy.

This one smells… Weird.

This shade of blue didn’t bring out enough of the blue in his eyes.

“You have been trying on coats here for a while now.”

Sokka turned to see the healer who helped him just moments ago, or what he felt was just moments ago. Maybe it had been a little longer than he wanted to admit.

“I wouldn’t be here so long if I could find a damn parka that would fit right!”

She smiled at him, her soft blue eyes catching him in his moment of weakness, she saw through him and into the fear that was consuming him from the inside out. Trembling, Sokka held tight to the parka he gripped in his hands, the one that he said he couldn’t wear because of the loose thread.

He just…. Needed more time to find another one.

The healer’s hand reached out and touched the parka he held in his hands, her delicate finger gripping the fabric and tugging it slowly. Sokka let his grip fall, and she took the jacket in her hands, holding it open and offering it to him to put back on.

Sokka turned and put one of his arms into the sleeve, followed by the other, the parka slid on and he turned to look at the healer once more. She was still smiling at him, touching his arm in a comforting way and giving his bicep a soft squeeze.

“I know it’s scary, being out there, fighting the enemy. But we are all thankful to you and the sacrifice you and the other warriors are making to keep our city safe. It's ok to be afraid, it is perfectly normal after an injury to be hesitant to return to the battlefield. Just know we all believe in you, and you will come out of this alive.”

Sokka looked at her, blinking and fighting the warmth that tickled the back of his eyes. Warriors don’t cry before a battle, they stay strong and fight through the fear. He smiled at her and nodded, “thank you.” Was all his throat would let him say before the lump threatened to wobble his words into sobs.

Strapping his boomerang strap around his new parka he gave the healer a respectful bow before running out the door and back out onto the ice. It was dark at this point, the light from the full moon cast a silver glow which reflected off the ice. Sokka began moving back towards his station when everything stopped.

The sky began to bleed, a heavy red glow consumed the moon, dropping his world into chaos. Water bending ceased to exist, attacks faltered and the water tribe warriors began to run. Fire Nation soldiers went back on the offensive and the sounds of painful screaming filled the night air.

Sokka began to panic, was he dead? Did someone kill him when he left the infirmary?

Of course he would finally pick a stupid parka just to die in it.

His running slowed as he watched a group of fire benders move in on a group of defenseless Water Tribe benders, without their bending they were vulnerable. The soldiers advanced onto the Water Tribe men, backed by a crazy metal tank that Sokka was slightly impressed by.

He would never admit it out loud though.

One of the benders tried to break away and Sokka watched in horror as the tank spit out a heavy stream of fire crippling the escape attempt and burning the man into ash. His screams were drowned out by the cries of his fellow tribe members. Forced to their knees the Fire Nation seemed to be collecting select prisoners.

Three men were selected out of the group of seven, no longer eight, and their arms were dragged behind their back as heavy metal cuffs were placed across their wrists. The soldier with the fancy helmet seemed to be the leader as he pointed in the direction of the outer wall and the three, now prisoners, were dragged away. The remaining men on their knees waited for their fate.

Sokka didn’t know how long he was watching the horror unfold before the moon vanished. Darkness covered the world, complete and utter blackness.

He couldn’t see anything around him, reaching out his trembling arms in front of him, Sokka tried to feel around for anything he could hold onto. Stumbling forward he fell onto the ice, just in time to see the flames break through the darkness.

Red and orange patches of light began popping up all around him, revealing the terrifying realization that there were hundreds of Fire Nation soldiers all around. All throughout the city fire benders were lighting up the darkness with their evil flames.

Sokka pulled himself to his knees, watching the men in front of him look confused, they were speaking to each other, trying to make sense out of the senseless situation they were in.

Did someone steal the moon?

Has La abandoned the city?

Forsaken its people the way the North did to the South?

Sokka was lost in his thoughts only to be ripped back into the reality of the world he was living in, the world at war.

The world on fire.

The fire benders moved into tight formation in front of the kneeling Water Tribe men, their arms extending out, palms flat and facing outward.

Sokka froze, he knew that certain fire bending position. He has seen enough fire bending destruction and fought against a certain angry pony tail jerk to know what that gesture meant for the men kneeling on the ice.

Closing his eyes, his fear was confirmed by the smell of burning flesh and the bone chilling screams of death. It only took a couple seconds for the screams to fade into whimpers and finally silence.

Rise, run, rise, run, move, run, his mind was stuck in a loop. A loop of thought’s begging him to get up, to rise off his knees and run, he needed to run to the spirit oasis and find his sister and Aang. He couldn’t allow anything to happen to Katara and he surely wasn’t going to die out here on his knees. This was a nightmare he needed to wake up from, and the only way he could do that was to find his sister and the Avatar.

When the fire stopped, Sokka was once again plunged into darkness. Now was his chance, he needed to use this blackness as cover to run as fast and as far as he could. Even with his legs threatening to wobble out from under him, and his arms being completely useless as the fear had crippled them, he managed to rise to his feet.

Sokka began moving in the opposite direction of the sadistic violence he just witnessed, phantom pains stinging where his own burn was branded into his skin just hours ago. Stumbling forward, he was either going to manage to successfully find the well hidden spirit oasis in the blackness.

Or he was going to struggle his way into one of the many freezing canals that were elegantly placed throughout the city and drown or freeze to death. He wondered, would freezing to death hurt worse than being burned alive?

What would be a better story for his father and sister, Sokka burned alive? Or Sokka, froze to death after stumbling into a freezing canal?

Both were startling possibilities of what his future might hold for him, and he wouldn’t even get to kiss Princess Yue. He couldn’t remember the last thing he said to his sister… He wouldn’t even get to see Aang kick the Fire Lord’s ass… He would never get to say goodbye to his dad.

Just as he began to panic, the world started to glow an iridescent blue color, rippling veins through the water as a huge fish monster rose atop the city. Sokka’s mouth dropped as he stood, stunned, watching the massive glowing beast make its way through the ice city, destroying anything in its path.

Sokka rubbed his eyes, trying to push his senses back to reality and not this spirit world mumbo jumbo he obviously was dreaming up. Instead of things returning to normal he was hit by a moving mass which knocked him off his feet, again. His right shoulder hit the hard ice and he felt his body slide a few feet, he was really getting sick and tired of being thrown down onto the stupid ice.

Frowning, he looked up to see what knocked him over, only to make eye contact with the only fire bender he had met that he hated worse than Prince ponytail.

Zhao.

Sokka saw the man’s bright amber eyes flash with recognition when he looked down at Sokka, without missing a beat the massive fire bender reached down and grabbed the teenage Water Tribe boy by the collar of his stupid parka and yanked him to his feet.

“Well if it isn’t the Avatar’s Water Tribe boy, get up, you’re coming with me.”

Sokka was dragged along with Zhao, closing his eyes and wondering if burning to death or drowning were still possible options for his future. Anything would be better than whatever this psycho had in store for him.

Chapter Text

Leaving it all Behind

Chapter 2: The Long Journey

The days following his capture bled together in a frightening and violent blur. Zhao was not gentle as he dragged Sokka onto the Fire Nation cruiser, throwing him down face first into the metal deck commanding his men to ‘put him with the others’.

Others? There were other Water Tribe prisoners aboard this metal death trap? Why, out of all the stupid Fire Nation ships attacking the Northern Water Tribe, didn’t the giant glowing sea monster destroy Zhao’s fucking ship?

It must be the same dumb Fire Nation luck that followed Prince Zuko and his overweight uncle around, never having to suffer the consequences of their actions. So now Zhao gets to take their people prisoner and sail away unscathed.

Stupid spirits, sometimes they were completely useless.

He was thrown into the brig with multiple other Water Tribe prisoners, the smell of burnt flesh lingered in the damp, dark hallway. Sokka felt his sense of humor fading fast as his wrists were chained together followed by his ankles. He was thrown into the cell with force, knocking his already throbbing shoulder once again.

They took his parka away, he felt a deep feeling of regret for ever making fun of that beautiful, wonderfully crafted parka he loved. With it’s wonderful loose thread, if only they let him keep it.

He wouldn’t be so damn cold right now.

The few lanterns they had lit cast an eerie flickering red light into the cell, causing visibility to be limited. Sokka didn’t know how many cells there were below deck, but he knew there were at least a few and all of them seemed to have people inside.

The trembling mass of blue fabric huddled together for warmth as the men prayed to Tui and La for protection from the Fire Nation soldiers who only came down to check on them every few hours. The soldiers never spoke, they only checked the different cells for life and removed anyone who was no longer living. Sokka could hardly keep down the bile that was bubbling in the back of his throat, threatening to spill out onto the floor as he watched the first heap of blue fabric being pulled down the hallway.

Dead.

Who knows how many Water Tribe people Zhao had trapped down here, the quiet sobbing and hushed whispering made it impossible to try and gage how many other men were in each cell.

At least he didn’t capture the Avatar, Sokka was sure he would have heard word about Aang being on board from someone if he had been.

Aang, Katara, Yue… Just saying their names to himself brought a deep hurt into his heart. He had felt that hurt there before, it was right after his mom died and the reality that she was never coming back finally sunk in. The first few days following her death didn’t feel real, but once the tribe went back to their normal day to day responsibilities, the reality that his mom was gone hit him hard.

When he woke up in the morning she wasn’t in the kitchen preparing breakfast, Katara was.

When he looked for his favorite trousers and realized they were still in the dirty clothes basket, he knew it was because mom wasn’t there to clean them, so Katara had to.

The first time they ate his favorite food, stewed sea prunes, after mom died, he realized they didn’t taste the same… He knew it was because mom didn’t make them that time, Katara did.

When he was sharpening his first spear head and the stone slipped and he cut himself, he cried for his mom, who wasn’t there anymore. But Katara came over, and she helped clean the cut and wrap it up.

Katara was always there for him, even when his mom couldn’t be anymore. Now he was alone, and even worse, Katara was alone. Yes, she had Aang, happy go lucky Avatar Aang.. But he wouldn’t be able to protect her the way Sokka could.

Katara was gone, mom was gone, and the hurt in his heart grew bigger.

Sokka sat alone in the corner of the prison cell, the one that was too small for the six grown men they had shoved in here. Everyone’s hands and ankles were chained together so they each had limited movement.

Sokka had his knees pulled up to his chest, his arms resting on the top of them as he laid his head on his forearms staring down at the dull metal floor. He watched the dancing red light create little moving shadows on the floor, he did this for most of his time awake.

Sokka couldn’t keep track of the time of day because the soldiers didn’t follow a schedule and the only light provided was the flickering lanterns. The only thing the lanterns did was make their environment look more ‘Fire Nation-y’ with the creepy red hue they emitted in the already too creepy hallway.

The men were hardly given any food, and when food was provided it was only a few stale pieces of bread thrown in the middle of the cell. The soldiers expected them to fight over the limited food supply like animals. But the Water Tribe people were known for sharing everything they had, so the oldest man in the cell was in charge of breaking up the rations fairly.

The men worked out a good system of sharing their portions of food and water, that is until one morning (at least Sokka assumed it was morning considering he just woke up) soldiers came down the hall, one stopping at each cell.

Pointing at their elder, they opened the cell door and pulled out the oldest Water Tribe man. He wasn’t a gray old man, but in comparison to the other warriors he was considerably older, possibly a little younger than Sokka’s dad.

From the brief words Sokka and him exchanged with one another, mostly saying ‘bread’ or ‘here’ maybe once he said ‘there you go’ – He had seemed really nice.

But that didn’t stop the Fire Nation soldiers from coming in and he was escorted away without a word and never came back.

One of Sokka’s cell mates, a man by the name of Jaiku, asked about their missing cellmate when a soldier brought them their stale bread.

“Where did you ash makers take Pannok?”

Sokka winced at the slang ‘ash maker’ while it was a common slur used when describing people from the Fire Nation, it probably wasn’t wise to use it when addressing their captors. Especially when they were already so fucking friendly.

The soldiers always wore their helmets with their face plate pulled down, so there was no way to track any of the guards. Sokka was desperately trying to track some kind of consistency, the only thing he noticed was one of the guards had a small dent in the side of his helmet.

But Denty didn’t come to his cell very often, and he didn’t seem any different then the other soldiers who never spoke. So Denty was just another faceless incarcerator and was of no use to Sokka in his silent schemes of escape.

This particular day they must have had the pleasure of dealing with a rather unfriendly Fire Nation individual. He threw down the bread, stepped on it and then grabbed Jaiku by the collar of his shirt and slammed him into the bars.

Using his gloved hand he repeatedly smashed his fist into the young man’s face until he was unrecognizable. Blood covered his upper body dripping down his face and it began pooling onto the metal floor. Jaiku’s nose was smashed into pieces, and after the soldier dropped him onto the cold metal floor he gave the prisoner a few swift kicks to the gut before leaving the cell.

He never said a word.

Sokka’s face paled in horror as he watched the man, who’s name he didn’t even want to say, choke on the blood rising in his throat, unable to breathe. Two of the Water Tribe men rushed over, rolling him to his side gently as they tried to help him breathe. Ripping pieces from their tunics, they attempted to do what they could for his injuries.

Within a few minutes of the attack, Jaiku took his last breath. His final moment was a mixture of wheezing, gurgling, and gagging while he choked on his own blood, before he died imprisoned, on the cold floor of a Fire Nation ship.

Sokka watched the dead man’s body twitch before a red foam broke through his lips, running down his cheek and onto the floor. Just before his blue eyes rolled in the back of his head. It was an awful way to die Sokka decided, he would rather be burnt or drowned, if only he had just died back in the ice city.

Sokka’s breathing became erratic when he realized that he was only seconds away from asking the same question that Jaiku died for. If he had spoken, it would be his dead body beaten and bloody. He did a lot of talking usually, that was obviously not a good thing to do in this murder ship.

His arms trembled uncontrollably, holding his body in a tight ball he tried to remember to control his breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. That’s the advice he was given, too bad it was polar dog shit advice and it didn’t fucking work.

He felt the rush of panic thumping through his veins as static energy filled his ear drums, drowning out any of his thoughts. His eyes began to sting, squeezing them shut, light spots danced under his eyelids, mocking him for being such a weak excuse of a warrior.

Is this what being terrified felt like?

Was he going to die on this ship, his last meal being stale bread that some Fire Nation asshole stepped on?

Did Katara and Aang even think he was alive?

Would they come looking for him?

How would they even begin to try to find him?

What would they tell his dad?

He heard a loud sob, as he looked up to see who it came from, he heard it again and he realized the sound was coming from deep inside of his own throat. Taking a few deep breaths he stifled the sobs and focused on keeping himself invisible and silent.

He needed to survive long enough to come up with a plan of escape. If he didn’t do something soon everyone was going to die.

He was the plan guy, he could still make it out of here alive, he just had to focus.

—————————————————

It took too long for someone to come and remove the dead body out of their cell. Maybe it was their way of sending a message, or maybe the Fire Nation just didn’t give a fuck. It was probably the latter.

Sokka spent all his free time trying to notice any details about their surroundings that would help him escape.

So far he had a whole pile of nothing. There were no windows, so he couldn’t track the time of day. The soldiers didn’t follow any particular feeding schedule, and everyone was growing weaker with lack of proper food and water rationing. The elders of each cell were taken away, assuming to have been murdered, leaving less civil order in between cellmates as desperation began setting in.

So far he didn’t see any water benders on board, at least no one in his cell was a water bender. He could really use some of their magic water shenanigans for his plan.

Well, whenever he came up with a plan.

It would be easier to come up with a plan if he had a water bender, that was a definite.

For now, they were stuck, at least until the ship arrived at whatever destination they were headed to; hopefully not the Fire Nation. Sokka felt a gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach, deeper than the dull ache from lack of nutrients. He was afraid that most of these men wouldn’t survive this trip from hell, selfishly, he was more afraid that he might not make it to wherever they were headed.

What was keeping that psycho Fire Nation person from coming back to their cell and beating another person to death?

What if they decided to stop feeding them all together? (Not like the moldy pieces of bread were providing any real nutrition.)

But the food did tell the hungry voice in his head to shut up for a while, and it seemed to settle the hungry feeling that was clawing at his stomach lining. At least for a short period of time.

He couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to just stop eating all together.

Oh how he missed meat, if he was ever given the chance to eat meat again he was sure it would be the most glorious moment in the entire world. Maybe even more glorious than when Suki kissed him, but possibly not as glorious as if Yue ever kissed him.

Yue or meat… That was a hard choice.

Why was he making himself choose between a beautiful woman and equally beautiful meat? He was going to have both damn it!

Sokka convinced himself he was going crazy, comparing women and meat, the hunger was starting to make him delusional. His crazy thoughts that weren’t coherent were silenced by the sound of heavy footsteps in the hallway, headed in their direction.

Sokka’s eyes peeked out from under his arms when the clanging metal sound indicated that the door was being opened. Three armored men came into his cell and started tugging on the arms of the hunched over men.

“Get up, lets go.”

First words spoken to them from the Fire Nation soldiers since being incarcerated, they were about as kind and gentle as Sokka expected them to be.

Slowly the three men began to stir, they struggled to lift their weak bodies into a standing position, even with the guards hoisting them up. One of the weaker men stumbled and fell, only to receive a few swift kicks to his ribs from a pointed Fire Nation boot.

The Water Tribe man gasped for air as the soldier reached back down, this time snatching the man up by his hair. With a firm grip on the man’s long wolf's tail, he was lifted back to his feet, a small trail of blood dripping from his hairline down his forehead and over his right eye. He was shoved in line with the others without a word spoken.

Sokka rushed to his feet as one of the menacing soldiers approached him, moving as quickly as he could with his ankles chained, he staggered in line as they left the cell.

No need to get grabby or punchy. He would follow their directions just fine without any unnecessary force. He wanted to say, but definitely did not. He kept his mouth shut tight.

——————————————

Apparently all the cells were being emptied and the entire group of prisoners were being escorted up onto the deck. Sokka began making a mental list of all the information he could gather from being out of his cell.

What direction he would need to run if he were to break out of his cell.

The position of the stars, so he could figure out which direction they were headed.

Where the lifeboats were on deck so he could possibly steal one.

How many soldiers were stationed on deck and where they were posted.

How many Water Tribe captives there were and if any of them appeared to be water benders.

His mental list was cut off when the blinding light from the sun attacked his eyes, dropping his head down he squeezed his eyes closed as the sharp pain from the light sensitivity dulled.

Blinking, Sokka was able to coax his eyes to open back up, not wanting to waste any more of this valuable time to take in his surroundings. His vision was blurred from the blinding light that the sun, apparently, always emitted during the day. Was it always this bright?!

Stupid sun, and stupid Fire Nation for worshiping the stupid sun. Why was everything working against him at all moments!?

“Stop. Kneel.”

Kneel?

Sokka tried to swallow the rather inconvenient lump that liked to wedge itself in his throat when he was scared. Dehydration caused his throat to do whatever it wanted, without any moisture he was powerless against the throat lump.

A heavy hand shoved the back of his shoulders rather hard, pushing his body into a kneeling position. His knees hit the metal floor hard enough to make his teeth rattle, lucky, he was still allowed to keep his pants so the force didn’t skin his knees.

Glancing to his left and then to his right, he saw a number of other Water Tribe men, all dressed proudly in blue. A few of them even held their heads high as if to display their lack of fear for the Fire Nation.

Sokka did a quick count and including himself there were 23 men that were captured, they must have all come from the battle on out on the ice because they all wore warriors attire. There were no women taken prisoner so that was something positive. He was sure that if the glowing fish monster didn’t show up, they might not have been as lucky.

The group kneeled in silence for a while until the sound of heavy marching feet made their way across the metal deck. Three sets of feet stood in front of the group, Sokka was afraid to look up, even though he was fully aware of who was standing in front of them.

“Good afternoon Water Tribe savages, for those that do not know who I am, my name is Admiral Zhao. You have the pleasure of being guests on my ship. I’m sure you have questions and because I consider myself a compassionate man I will allow you to ask them in an orderly fashion.”

Sokka finally looked up, his eyes moved slowly towards the source of the voice, doing his best not to draw any extra attention to himself.

Zhao was a tall, strong man as he stood in his arrogance with his arms crossed over his gold and red chest plate. His armor was fancier then the black and red armor Prince Zuko wore, Zhao’s armor was flashy and had gold trimming. The shoulder pieces stuck out on the sides and he wore a red cape that was fluttering ever so gently in the soft breeze. The entire get up looked heavy, and if someone were to push Zhao into the ocean he would probably sink like a rock.

But if someone were stupid enough to do that, with at least 15 Fire Nation soldiers (that Sokka could visually count) standing around them, they would burn him to a crisp before Zhao’s side burns even if the water.

“Where are you taking us?”

Sokka peered down the line to see one of the oldest Water Tribe prisoners holding his head high as his deep voice asked his question.

Zhao smirked, “some of you will be headed to the Pohaui Stronghold, and a select few of you will going to a more discreet Fire Nation prison camp.”

The same man kept talking, “What are you planning to do with us once we get to the Pohaui Stronghold?”

Zhao chuckled, “assuming you will be one of the lucky few that has the privilege of going to the stronghold, then you and whoever else will be interrogated for information and once you are no longer useful you will be disposed of.”

Sokka’s limbs felt colder in the sun than they did below deck in the dark. At least in his cell he had been unaware of their fate, left guessing what the future might hold. Now he knew, and it was a frightening future, one filled with promises of pain and suffering.

He was a ‘friend of the Avatar’ who knows what type fo torture they would use to extract information from him about Aang. He wouldn’t tell them anything, they would be forced to kill him, but after how long? How long would his body hold up against the pain? The cold fear was consuming him, creeping into his chest and causing his heart to beat faster to try and stop it from freezing.

Sokka’s eyes shifted back to the floor as he practiced the stupid nose, mouth breathing technique again. He could not afford to freak out on the deck in front of Zhao and bring any extra attention to himself, he still needed to come up with a plan to escape.

A hushed mummer broke out around the Water Tribe men, before a blast of fire in the air silenced the group. Zhao lowered his fist, his amber eyes glaring at the group of men restrained on their knees.

“I know you people were born savages, and it is hard for you to understand the concept of keeping order, but if you can not act civilized then I will not allow you to ask any more questions. Do I make myself clear?”

No one said anything, until the man who was apparently in charge of asking the questions spoke again.

“How will you decide who goes to the stronghold and who does not?”

“I will decide once this conversation is over.”

“What will happen to those of us that do not go to the Pohaui Stronghold?”

“That is to be determined.”

“You mentioned another discreet prison camp? How will you decide who will go there?”

“I have already decided that.”

Another, much younger Water Tribe man spoke up this time, “isn’t the Pohaui Stronghold the prison the Avatar broke out of?”

Sokka felt his hear sink in his chest, not only was that a stupid thing to ask a mad man like Zhao, but he knew that was not true. Aang was never incarcerated, especially not in a scary Fire Nation prison.

Zhao’s face stayed relatively neutral, but Sokka saw the slight hint of annoyance twitch in the Admirals right eye, which led Sokka to believe that… maybe… Aang was captured before? How would something as serious as being captured by the Fire Nation and locked away in one of their prisons go unnoticed?! Sokka has been with the kid since he came out of the ice for spirits sake!

“The Avatar did not escape out of his prison, he was broken out by a skilled swordsman who specializes in stealth. He would never have escaped without this person's help.”

Yep, Zhao was bitter about this, his right eye twitched the entire time he spoke and his eyebrows narrowed a little more than normal as he fought with his anger.

Why wouldn’t Aang tell him about the time he was captured by Zhao and held prisoner and then released by a stealth swordsman!? It was exactly the kind of story Sokka lived for.

“I heard it was the Blue Spirit, he set the Avatar free.”

Zhao’s right eye twitched, hard, and his face turned an interesting shade of red. His fist clenched into a tight fist as a small burst of flame hit the floor, causing a few of the Water Tribe men to flinch back.

“I do not know where you savages think you are right now, but I can assure you that you are not at home sitting around your primitive fire pit telling stories. You are prisoners aboard my ship and just so we are clear, that traitor the Blue Spirit, as you call him, was apprehended after releasing the Avatar and was put to death.”

A few men made a gasping noise, and Sokka was growing increasingly frustrated that he was never informed about this Blue Spirit, which was an exceptionally cool name. Or that Aang was apparently best friends with the guy, so much so that he would break into a prison single handed to break Aang out. If Sokka ever got off this murder ship he was going to have a serious conversation with Aang about secrets.

The same stupid Water Tribe man, that was apparently dead set on making Zhao angry. Decided to open his dumb mouth again about Zhao’s very obvious arch nemesis the Blue Spirit.

“Traitor? Does that mean the Blue Spirit is Fire Nation?”

Zhao smirked this time, “he was Fire Nation. The Blue Spirit is dead, I killed him personally. Now, are there any other questions, not pertaining to the dead Blue Spirit, before we move onto the next matter of business? I am growing impatient.”

Zhao made a head motion towards the young man who kept asking about the Blue Spirit, and one of the many masked Fire Nation soldiers grabbed the kneeling big mouth by his arms and pulled him towards Zhao. The inquisitive Water Tribe man shook in fear as Zhao stood only a few feet away.

“Since you want to talk about the Blue Spirit so much, and find the entire traitorous situation so fascinating, I am going to give you the opportunity to talk to him in person. You would like that wouldn’t you?”

It took Sokka far too long to catch onto what Zhao was insinuating, as he watched Zhao give his soldiers a nod and they dragged the restrained man to the edge of the deck and tossed him overboard without a second thought.

The group of men gasped, a few cried out, but no one did anything to try and stop it from happening. The faint sound of his body hitting the water was the last thing they heard, hardly audible over the roar of the waves crashing against the ship as it sailed forward.

Zhao didn’t even look back to watch the body being tossed overboard, his eyes were filled with amusement as he scanned the line of terrified men. When Sokka saw Zhao’s eyes moving toward him, he tucked his chin under and shifted his gaze back to the floor, hoping to hide from recognition.

“Now that we have taken care of that little nuisance, any more questions? Hopefully there is no one else still curious about the Blue Spirit, I would be more than happy to allow any of you to join him. If not I would like to move on to the next matter of business.”

A new Water Tribe man spoke this time, “what happened to the Northern Water Tribe? The last thing I remember was the moon vanished.”

Zhao’s smirk disappeared as his brow furrowed, “the moon spirit was killed-“

Shouting from the Water Tribe men erupted, Zhao shot a stream of fire just over their heads, singeing a few stray hairs as it sailed overhead. That made the men shut their mouths almost instantly.

Clearing his throat, Zhao stood up straighter. “The moon spirit was killed, and somehow the Avatar was able to revive it. So don’t worry, your precious people have their moon back, too bad most of you will never see it again.”

The Water Tribe men were silent, Sokka knew there had to be more questions but everyone was probably just as eager as he was to find out what Zhao meant by ‘next matter of business’.

“Now that you people have no more questions, we can finally move on. We are sailing through the western Earth Kingdom waters right now and we are only a few days from making port. With that being said, unfortunately for you, there is not enough room in the stronghold for all 23- oops, 22 of you. So we will need to trim the fat, only 10 of you will be making it to port, the rest of you, well… I’m sure you know where I am going with this.

“I consider myself a man of justice, I believe a punishment should fit the crime. In my eyes, all of you have committed the same crime of being dirty savages who dared to raise a weapon against the all mighty Fire Nation. That crime alone is deserving of death. Now, I am providing a chance of mercy for those of you who go to the Pohaui Stronghold, but only for 10 of you. I will allow you to decide amongst yourselves on who will go and who will die here today. I am running out of bread, so only 10 of you will be walking off this deck today. I will give you a few minutes to decide.”

Zhao places his arms behind his back before walking away, his head held high and an evil smirk on his face. Sokka knew that the fake compassion he was showing when answering questions, and using the word ‘mercy’ was just leading to this, where they would have to pick and choose who would live and who would die.

The men began talking to each other, some of them began yelling, while others tried to keep the peace. It was apparent that lack of food and water, plus the idea of 12 men being put to death in a few minutes, was causing a lot of stress.

“I think we should see if anyone volunteers-“

“-well do any of you want to die today?”

“-we shouldn’t be-“

“How do you expect us-“

Sokka tuned the conversation out, he wasn’t sure what conclusion they could come to in ten minutes that would be fair. There was no right way to decide if someone was going to die, especially in such a fucked up demonstration of power. Zhao could keep feeding them, even if he ran out of bread, what about real food?

Maybe some rice?

There were other options, and with Zhao’s positions and obvious need to flex his power, there had to be room in the Pohaui Stronghold for all of the Water Tribe men. He was only doing this to them so he could bask in the high he got from other people’s suffering.

It was apparent how sensitive he was about appearing weak, based on how he reacted to one man breaking Aang out of this so-called secure Fire Nation prison, he did not like looking like a fool. Now Water Tribe prisoners were going to die to feed Zhao’s insatiable ego. The whole situation made Sokka sick, well, sicker than he already felt.

Sokka only began listening again after Zhao returned to his position in front of them, his arms still positioned behind his back, the annoying smirk displayed across his face. Spirits, Sokka wanted to smack the shit out of him.

“So what did you decide?”

The man who did most of the question asking spoke up, Sokka decided to call his Chief Prisoner.

“We have a few men who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the lives of the other prisoners, all that I ask is that we are able to pray to Tui and La for a safe journey to the other side.”

Zhao scoffed before waving his hand in a dismissive gesture, urging them to hurry it up.

Sokka half listened to the older men say a blessing for the moon and ocean spirits to guide those who were sacrificing their lives. Sokka found the blessing frustrating because right now he didn’t believe in spirits actually helping his people. He had witnessed too much death in the past couple of days or weeks, to believe anything was going to magically come and save them.

He was going to count on himself and strategy to escape, not spirits. Because honestly when they did intervene they failed to destroy the main fucking Fire Nation ship and also failed to kill the main fucking evil Fire Nation guy. Those seemed like two pretty large fuck ups on the giant fish monsters part.

“- On this red road laid out for me I will not and refuse to stray, for in each and every passing day I will keep my heart to the sky and hold my head up high, for today is a good day to die.”

Sokka caught the last few lines of the blessing. Today is a good day to die - No today was not a good day to die, today was a good day to figure out how to get the fuck out of here.

“Alright, alright, now that your stupid chant is over those who are dying today please stand so my men can throw you into your precious ocean.” Zhao’s voice was cold, he didn’t spare a hint of emotion towards the death of these people. In fact, his tone sounded humored, in a mocking way.

Sokka watched as 6 men stood proud with their chins held high and their faces neutral in their final moments. One by one they were escorted to the edge of the ship, wrists and ankles still bound together, ensuring they would surely drown. The soldiers threw each man into the ocean, one by one they went over without a word.

Zhao smirked as he watched the brave warriors fall to their death, turning back to the group and chuckled. “I know it might be confusing, all these numbers and such. But I only counted 6 men just now, I believe I asked for 10. Do I need to do the honor and hand pick the rest?”

No one said anything, the only sound was the churning ocean slapping against the sides of the metal ship. Sokka’s throat felt dry, as the notorious lump wiggled its way back in, causing his breathing to come in short struggling gasps.

He might just drown after all.

When no one said anything as Zhao took a slow, calculated step forward, pointing at one man and then a second, finally a third, until he stood in front of Sokka.

There was a tense air between them as time seemed to stop when Zhao stood in front of the panicked boy kneeling on the floor. He reached out and grabbed Sokka by the front of his tunic, hoisting him up so he was standing on his feet.

Sokka didn’t know his heart could beat this fast, if his beating heart was to race a polar dog puppy right now his heart would give that pup a run for its dinner. The beating was so fast the fear of it breaking through his chest was becoming just as real of a threat as being thrown overboard.

Sokka’s eyes shifted up until the blue met amber, thinking of his mom’s lesson, he saw nothing but pure evil in this man’s eyes. The flames danced in the speaks of gold in Zhao’s eyes, he looked at Sokka with malicious intent.

“Avatar’s friend, don’t worry you won’t be dying today, consider yourself one of my special prisoners. You will be joining me at my personal prison camp, but don’t worry, you will wish you died here today after I’m done with you.”

Sokka’s throat closed, holding his breath the pounding in his chest drowned out all the noise around him. Zhao released his grip and moved away, selecting his final victim.

Sokka was still stuck in place, he watched the last prisoner tossed over the railing to their death. Sokka didn’t move when the rest of the prisoners were shuffled to their feet. The world seemed too bright, the pounding in his ears was too loud, he couldn’t breath because his throat was closed.

Someone was yelling at him, two Fire Nation soldiers approached him. He felt the pain on his arm, the searing heat must have melted his flesh where the man grabbed him, shoving him forward. Sokka fell to the ground, the pounding was growing faster and louder, closing his eyes he tried to breath.

Nose, mouth, nose, mouth, breathe, in and out, in and out…. He chanted that lie like a mantra until everything went black.

—————————————

When Sokka finally stirred, he felt the pounding in his head before his eyes were even open. Afraid to look, he felt out his other senses before opening his eyes. It smelled like burnt flesh and mildew, the air was musty and humid, the slight tilting of the floor indicated they were still on the ship.

Sokka was laying on freezing metal, his body must have instinctively curled up for warmth because he noticed his arms and knees were tucked into his core. Cold, he was so cold, his skin was littered with goosebumps and his jaw was tight from clenching it too tight when he was struggling to stay warm.

Finally, he opened his eyes. Every slow moving blink was painful as his blurry vision recognized the sinister red glow almost imminently. He was back in his cell, his wrists and ankles still chained, slowly he moved himself into a sitting position.

Sokka’s body was stiff and painful, he wondered how long he was laying on the floor struggling for warmth. It took him too long to realized that he was alone in his cell.

Panic set in, the rise and fall of his chest sending sharp pains radiating through his body, where did everyone go? Did all he men in his cell die?

The pain in his chest indicated some kind of injury, moving his hands up he pulled on the side of his tunics, moving the fabric down so he could look at his skin. He regretted looking, the large dark bruises covered his chest.

Painful purples and pinks, resembling little rain clouds, extended over the right side of his chest, slipping down onto his ribcage. Someone had beat the shit out of him, but considering the fact he was unconscious and the clustered bruising, it looked as if he had been repeatedly kicked.

That would made the most sense, if he was unconscious laying on the ground, kicking him would be the most effective way to injure him. Sokka groaned, running his shaking fingers through his greasy hair as the messy strands dangled in his vision. He felt itchy, rubbing his face, he brought his hands down, palms facing up, he saw the streaks of dirt crusted into the creases of his hands.

He wondered the last time he had a decent bath, it must have been right before the battle, he wanted to look his best in case he ran into Princess Yue. His mind skipped to the thoughts of the beautiful Princess and her crystal blue eyes, her deep eyes were always full of kindness and understanding. Her perfectly tan skin fading into a soft kissable pink color as her lips pulled into a sweet smile.

Her hair, the wonderful white color, was always so carefully done to make sure not a single hair was out of place, signifying her important position in the tribe. Most of all he missed her voice, the way she carefully spoke as if every word was being scrutinized by someone lurking in the shadows. Her timid laugh, oh... how Sokka longed to make her laugh, almost embarrassing himself in the process.

Scoffing, Sokka knew he needed to let the delusion that he would ever see Princess Yue again fade away. The look in Zhao’s eyes haunted him, imagining the angry fire consuming him as he helplessly sat on his knees.

Before his thoughts could get too dark he heard the familiar sound of hard boots marching against metal flooring. The sound sent phantom pains thumping through his bruised chest. Looking up from where he was seated on the floor in the middle of the his disgusting cell Sokka’s eyes met with cruel amber eyes.

“Good morning Avatar’s friend, we have arrived at our destination. I hope you feel well rested we have a bit of a journey before we get to your new home.” Zhao’s voice dripped with sadistic amusement. He seemed to draw excitement out of mental torture, dangling the idea of pain and suffering just out of reach. Laughing as he watched the fear flash in his victims eyes, knowing that he was the cause of that fear.

Sokka swallowed, the light trail of saliva running down his exceptionally parched throat, giving him no relief. More than anything he wanted to correct Zhao, to stand on his feet and crack a funny side burn joke and remind the fucker his name was Sokka not Avatar’s friend.

But the fear of relation kept him firmly seated where he was, that is until Zhao’s men walked into his cell grabbing him roughly on both sides of his arms and pulled his aching body to his feet. Legs trembling Sokka was forcibly dragged down the hallway his feet stumbling to find his footing.

No words were spoken as they pulled him up the stairs, his foot caught one of the steps and he was able to gathering his bearings putting weight on his trembling legs. The light from the deck was blinding again, spots danced in his vision as he forced himself to blink away the pain.

He needed to see where he was going, he had to escape before Zhao locked him away in his creepy ‘discreet prison’ which Sokka was convinced meant tying him up in his personal closet and using him as a human punching bag whenever he felt like it.

Sokka’s blue eyes focused on the shoreline, tears pricked the back of his eyes at the beautiful sight of land. The shoreline gave him hope, there was a certain security in knowing that if he was able to break free from his captors there was a direction he could run.

Shuddering, he tried not to think of the chained up Water Tribe men being plunged over the side of the railing, their bodies smacking against the freezing water before they sunk to their death.

“Where… are we?” Sokka didn’t even recognize his broken raspy voice. The words clawed their way out of his dry throat, his mouth equally as dry not able to spare anymore saliva to sooth the burning.

Zhao turned back to look at him, standing at the edge of the ramp the two Fire Nation soldiers held him tight, Sokka glanced up to see a familiar helmet.

“Denty…” he whispered. Zhao gave him a confused look, raising one of his bushy eyebrows before his face returned to its normal signature Fire Nation pissed off look.

Were Fire Nation men trained to look angry?

Was it part of their version of warrior training?

‘In order to be pat of the Fire Nation army you must always keep your face set in an angry expression. Brows furrowed like this, mouth set in a thin disapproving line, and don’t you dare EVER smile!’

Sokka let out a humors exhale of air, too dry and tired to laugh.

“We are going to be transporting you to your new home, and after you are cleaned up you and I will be having a little… chat. You are going to tell me everything you know about the Avatar and where he is headed next. If you fail to provide me with the information I require, well… lets just hope you don’t disappoint me.”

The cold feeling returned to his chest, tingling its way down his arms as he was dragged down the ship’s ramp and loaded into the back of a metal box. There was no visibility so Sokka would have no idea where he was going and he wouldn’t be able to try and track his whereabouts. There was a small eye slit in the door that allowed a sliver of light to penetrate through the box.

Curling into a painful ball, his chains ratted around his wrist and ankles, irritating the already tender flesh. He was lucky that he was wearing pants so his ankles were not rubbed raw yet, but his wrists were an entirely different story. He didn’t have to move around much in his cell so the skin was not broken yet but the flesh was irritated and stung when the cool metal rubbed too hard.

Closing his eyes he tired to push his mind into the memories of Katara’s smile, and his dad’s booming laughter, Aang’s excitement as he floated around on his air scooter and most of all he thought of Yue’s sparkling eyes and soft voice.

No matter what horrors were waiting for him at his destination, there wasn’t anything they could do to him to make him forget his family and friends. They would be with him always, and he wouldn’t stop until he returned back to them.

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 3: Home Sweet Home

Sokka came to the realization that this metal box was so much worse than the cold cell on the Fire Nation ship.

The sun’s warmth that Sokka thought he missed so much, was now actively trying to kill him. The sun’s rays were hitting the metal box and heating up the inside, making him sweat like a sheep-pig in heat. He wasn’t sure if they were in the Fire Nation or not.

Aang used to tell him and Katara stories about his little friend Kuzon from 100 years ago who was from the Fire Nation. He told tales from the times when he would visit Kuzon in the Fire Nation and how hot the climate was.

Sokka couldn’t remember any specific details about the Fire Nation homeland at the moment, but he did recall some of the random adventure stories Aang would tell about their recklessness. Those two idiots provided the kind of careless adventure stories that Sokka needed right now to help keep his mind off the trauma he had just endured, and the unknown fear he was headed toward.

Closing his eyes, Sokka tried to recall any of the quirky stories Aang would babble about. He called to his mind the daring tale of Aang and Kuzon trying to ride giant crab-fish.

Apparently a giant crab-fish looks exactly how it sounds, and they hide in the deep ocean waters off the coast of a place called…

Fire Island?

Jungle Island?

Ember Island?

Some island with a stupid Fire Nation name like that.

So the two idiots would wait on this island’s shoreline, which Aang said has the softest black sand you ever squished between your toes. If he made it out of this alive, he would make Aang fly him to that stupid island so he could see the black sand for his own eyes. He wanted so badly to stand on the shore and feel the soft sand between his toes as he watched the sun rise or set over the horizon, he didn’t have a preference.

So these two dumbasses waited for these giant crab creatures to emerge from the ocean and begin their crawl onto the beach, which they only did during mating season. Aang said the entire process lasted an entire month and that the giant crab-fish would come onto the shore every night during that time.

In order to ‘ride’ one, you had to somehow position yourself onto the thing’s back shell before the giant pinches got a hold of you and crushed you to death. Once you were on the crab-fish it would begin to move at an alarmingly fast pace and rush itself back into the ocean, crawling itself through the surf and back into the depths of the sea.

Aang said the rush was amazing, once it got too deep you would propel yourself off the top of its shell until you hit the surface. They would do this over and over until the sun came up.

Maybe it’s a Fire Nation thing to be reckless and do things without thinking them through. Zhao was completely reckless, he lead a siege on the Northern Water Tribe just to kill the fucking moon. Well… Maybe reckless wasn’t the right word for him, based on what he witnessed from Zhao – ‘Total Fucking Maniac’ would be the best title for that psycho.

Prince Zuko almost killed himself multiple times trying to capture Aang, pretty much the first time they met him he jumped off a 50 foot tower to grab Aang’s glider. Even 100 years ago the Fire Nation was reckless with Kuzon trying to get Aang to ride bone crushing creatures into the ocean, where drowning was a strong possibility.

Yeah, it was definitely a Fire Nation characteristic. All the Water Tribe did was penguin sledding, good wholesome fun with harmless otter-penguins. The most harm they would cause would be too many snuggles and whisker tickles.

Sokka sat in the middle of the metal container, avoiding contact with any of the four molten death walls that wanted to melt his skin. He didn’t want to think about how he might be in the Fire Nation right now, going to Zhao’s ‘special prison camp’ which he was still convinced was just an alias for Zhao’s ‘torture camp’.

Closing his eyes he tried to imagine the world map he was following the entire flight to the Northern Water Tribe. If Zhao wasn’t lying (which he probably wasn’t based on how twitchy he got talking about the Blue Spirit) and he did capture Aang at some point, then he should be able to guess where he was. They already had a few run-ins with the Admiral after leaving the South Pole but none of their encounters ever ended in Aang’s capture.

It would have to had been a time when both he and Katara were incapacitated it would be the only explanation for their complete unawareness of Aang’s capture.

“Oh shit, the frogs…” It dawned on Sokka like a punch in the gut. The time he and Katara were so sick they were wrapped in their bedrolls with Appa while Aang left to get ‘medicine’ and came back with disgusting frogs for them to suck on. Even if they did taste delicious and made him feel so much better, it was still disgusting. The siblings were so sick and incoherent that Aang could have been gone for days and they would have had no idea.

That meant Zhao would have set the ship’s course south west out of the Northern Water Tribe and passed the Western Air Temple, so they were either in the Fire Nation or Western Earth Kingdom.

Sokka wasn’t sure where exactly Aang had them land when they were sick, most of that whole time frame was a little fuzzy. It was after that terrible storm where Sokka almost died in the middle of the ocean on a stupid fishing boat with a crazy old fisherman.

Good times, good times.

So that means that the Pohaui Stronghold was definitely located in the Earth Kingdom, the only time they went to the Fire Nation was when they ended up in Roku’s temple. Which was a very frustrating experience because both Zhao and Zuko were there, so pretty much the worst day of his life.

Well… One of the worst days of his life. His body involuntarily shuddered at the memory of the Water Tribe men being thrown over the railing of the ship. Squeezing his eyes shut tight, he waited for the small specks of light to dance in his vision and distract him from the torturing memories. He didn’t want to see the blue tunics dropping into the ocean, or think of the prayer they said before death took their life away.

He really couldn’t allow himself to think about the man he watched die right in front of him in the cold dark cell. Every time the soldier's fist made contact with the Water Tribe man’s face, the sound it made was sure to haunt Sokka for the rest of his life.

Sokka felt the nausea twisting itself into his stomach, pushing the liquid emptiness inside towards his fragile throat. Throwing up would be the worst thing for him right now, for so many reasons.

His throat was so dry already, and the acid from his stomach would burn him something awful. He would either have to swallow it… Or sit next to his bile while the box cooked it for him.

The actual energy it would take to throw up would drain him further past the point of exhaustion he was already at. Maybe he would just pass out and then slide into one of the walls and wake up with a matching scar to Prince Zuko…

Ok… Maybe he was being a tad over dramatic at this point.

Ignoring all his thoughts, he used the ‘dumb-doesn’t-work-but-makes-him-feel-better-technique’ of breathing deep through his nose and exhaling slowly out of his mouth. After a few deep breaths he felt the thoughts retreat back to the darkest parts of his mind that he kept smothered by jokes and sarcasm. The nausea faded and he felt back to normal, well… Not about to throw up, normal.

Thinking back to his situation and trying to figure out his location, he imagined his map and what he knew already, and what remaining questions he had. Was it possible that Zhao dropped off the other prisoners in the Earth Kingdom and then backtracked west to the Fire Nation?

That wouldn’t make a lot of sense, even for the ‘Total Fucking Maniac’, so he must be in the Earth Kingdom. A huge wave of relief rushed over him knowing he was not being transported through the evil land of fire. The Fire Nation had a vast amount of colonies in the Western Earth Kingdom, so Sokka had to assume they were somewhere near those colonies. Plus, the Fire Nation colonies were located on the west coast of the Earth Kingdom, which would be where the ship docked.

No matter where he was at least he was on land, his chances of escape increased greatly without the unforgiving ocean on all sides.

The metal box stopped moving at some point while Sokka was lost in his thoughts. The small amount of light that was giving him clarity shifted slowly to a deeper orange color, the sun must be setting. The caravan of soldiers must have stopped to set up camp for the night. Sokka wasn’t sure what type of animal was pulling the wagon, he kicked himself for not thinking to look.

If he were to escape while everyone slept, he might be able to ride the animal that was pulling the bullock cart and out run the soldiers. The metal prison looked heavy, so something strong would have to pull its weight, plus the weight of any prisoner that was inside.

A komodo-rhino would be strong enough to pull something like that and they were commonly used in the Fire Nation.

He wouldn’t even know where to begin when riding one of those giant monsters, where was Aang when you needed him? Shit is Aang were here he could just Avatar State it up and bust him out no problem.

Sokka was interrupted when the sound of grinding metal broke his thoughts, the door was being opened. Unable to think clearly, Sokka waited for the guard to open his door, as soon as the orange light flooded into his cell, Sokka charged at the opening.

With all the effort it took him to launch his body at the chance of freedom, it came to a crashing halt when he was thrown backwards like a weightless piece of parchment. Sokka slid against the small amount of flooring in his tight quarters before his back slammed into the wall.

Groaning, Sokka tried to push himself to his elbows, his arms shaking as his weakened body begged for rest and food. Lifting his head slowly he saw the spine-chilling shadow of a Fire Nation soldier standing at the open door. Focusing his vision, Sokka recognized the helmet, Denty.

He heard a muffled groan rattling inside the soldier’s metal helmet, never really thinking about it, Sokka wondered how hard it was to speak clearly through the face plate. None of the Fire Nation soldiers ever spoke to him so he never wondered about their ability to speak clearly with all that metal around their face.

“Listen-“ The Fire Nation soldier was speaking.

Sokka’s heart almost stopped.

“If you try to escape again, I am going to be forced to chain you up. Do you want to be chained up?”

Sokka’s dry and itchy throat wouldn’t allow the words his mind was formulating to leave his lips. He just stared at the faceless enemy, his big blue eyes opened wide with confusion. When neither soldier nor the Water Tribe boy said anything, Sokka realized he was waiting for an answer.

Sokka shook his head, no.

“Ok kid, I am here with some water and food, if you want to eat and drink I need you to lean against the back wall and sit on your hands. Can you do that for me?”

Sokka’s eyes stayed blown open, his lip trembled but he complied to the man’s request. Pulling himself to a sitting position, Sokka sat on his hands as requested.

Denty set down a bowl of rice, an actual bowl of rice….with… was that… Meat?

Sokka’s eyes began to sting as the emotions flooded to his facial expression, his chapped lips curved into a soft smile and his eyes tried to hold back the welling tears.

He was never one to hide his emotions, he always wore his heart on his sleeve, as his mother would say. She always told him that she could read his feelings all over his face, not that he was ever trying to hide them from anyone. Sokka was an open book for the most part, he did not hold deep secrets that he was afraid to reveal, if he felt a way about something he would most definitely share it.

In this instance though, being a captive of the Fire Nation and watching such sick and cruel actions unfold around him, he was giving a substantial amount of effort to keep quiet and hide his emotions from his captors. The last few weeks of practice were crumbling as the small gesture of actual food was hard to ignore. The first tear finally broke free and marked his cheek, quickly erased by the swipe from the back of his hand.

Denty topped it off the kind gesture in a way Sokka couldn’t handle.

He slid a cup of water next to the bowl.

More tears hit Sokka’s cheek and the humiliation set in, he couldn’t believe he was crying over food. Katara would probably believe he cried over food, but to Sokka, this was so much more than a simple meal and some water – this was hope.

This was a gesture that said, ‘hey, I know we have been absolutely evil incarnate but don’t worry maybe, just maybe, we won't kill you in the most inhumane way possible.’

“Eat up kid, I’ll be back in a while to collect the dishes. Oh, and when I open the door this time, don’t try that charging at me shit again. It was embarrassing.”

Just like that, the door closed and his light was reduced to a soft glow from the setting sun. If Sokka wanted to visualize the food he was eating he needed to move quickly, soon the world would be lost to the darkness and there was no way to know if the moon would cast enough light to see in his prison.

Denty didn’t give him any chopsticks, which was fine because he was ok eating with his hands, it would not be the first time and it probably would not be his last.

Each bite was a reminder of how life was still worth living, the sweet and sour flavor of the meat was tantalizing. Sokka wasn’t sure what kind of meat he was eating, the texture was rough and lacking moisture. But he was not complaining as he took small, refreshing sips from the water cup that was left for him. His mouth celebrated as the cool liquid washed over his burning throat, reviving him from the inside.

Sokka smiled as he played the ‘eating game’ by himself, dedicating every handful of food to someone important to him.

One bite for Katara, his wonderful sister who was probably missing him terribly and worried sick.

One bite for his dad, wherever he was, he was staying safe and kicking Fire Nation butt.

Another bite for Aang, hopefully he mastered water bending already and was going to keep his sister safe until he was able to get back to them.

A delicate, polite bite for the beautiful Princess Yue, oh how he hoped to gaze upon her perfect face again.

One bite for Gran Gran, a woman who took no shit from anyone and helped shape him into the man he was today.

He smiled to himself as he took each bite, trying to eat slow was always a challenge for him. ‘Chew every bite, Sokka’ his dad would say. Sokka felt the need to inhale his food as quickly as possible, hoping to finish fast enough to go back to playing, hunting, or whatever other activity small Sokka convinced himself was so important he didn’t have time to slow down and chew his food.

So his mom (oh how he wished he could remember her smile) came up with the ‘eating game’ (thinking back he realizes now, that even though she invented the game she sure did choose the most uncreative name ever – Katara truly was her mother’s daughter). His family would all sit together while they ate a meal and someone would pick a topic and before each bite they had to say something pertaining to that topic. Usually the topics were funny, or family related, usually branching off into stories about his mom and dad’s youth or tribe traditions.

Sokka’s favorite topics were the fun ones, favorite activities, funniest moments, coolest animals, and things like that. His dad always tried to pick one topic that would get him and Katara to think about their future, or the tribe's customs… He was always trying to help prepare them for the future, while his mom was trying to keep their childhood alive and full of fun.

He admired her for that, even if he couldn’t remember all the things she did for him, or what her eyes looked like when she told him she loved him.

Playing the ‘eating game’ even if it was just with himself, made him feel like he was still in touch with his family and their traditions. It was something no one could take away from him, he could pick a topic and before every bite he could say something. Tonight, he wanted to think about the people he loved. Maybe tomorrow, if he was given food, he would talk about what he was most excited for when he finally escaped the Fire Nation soldiers.

When the bowl was empty so was the cup, his heart slowly slipped into sadness as he stared at the empty dishes. The food did wonders for his aching body, if they would only give him another cup of water, maybe he could try and get a decent night’s rest and possibly feel refreshed enough tomorrow to actually come up with a viable plan.

The sound of scraping metal indicated the door was being unlocked and opened, Sokka backed up to the back of the box and sat on his hands as requested. The night sky completely engulfed the world and the moonlight was very faint, meaning the moon must be in the beginning stages of a new cycle. If he could recall correctly, the moon was full the last time he looked up into the night sky, so either he has been traveling with Zhao for a full moon cycle or somehow the cycle was disrupted when the moon disappeared.

Both options were shitty, if it had been a full moon cycle that meant that he has been traveling a lot longer than he anticipated. If the moon cycle was disrupted then he wouldn’t be able to even begin to track time until he could see what phase the moon was currently at.

At least Denty was back, even if he was part of the evil Fire Nation army that was hell bent on making his life miserable, he spoke to him, which was more than any of the other ash-makers did.

“Looks like you ate all your food, good. I am going to reach in and grab the empty containers, don’t try anything or you’ll be sorry.”

Sokka watched him reach in and grab the empty dishes, he moved cautiously but quickly.

“Hey.”

The soldier paused, Sokka watched for any sign of aggression, the last thing he wanted was to get his head bashed into the wall. After a breath, the soldier didn’t react with malice so Sokka felt like it would be ok to ask him a question.

“Where are we?”

There was a long pause as Sokka braced himself for the potential need to dodge an attack. He wondered, in the time it took to get his answer, if Denty was a bender, would he throw flames at him? Or would he use his hands to cause pain? Maybe he carried a weapon he liked to use to enforce his will?

“The Earth Kingdom.” He finally answered.

“Ok, thanks for answering me. One more thing, can I have another glass of water, please? I am still so thirsty.”

The hesitation was displayed all over the armored man’s body language, his shoulders were stiff, his arms tense by his side, but he didn’t say no. Closing and locking the door, Sokka could hear the sound of Denty moving away from his prison, so his answer was probably a no.

Just as Sokka was going to lay down and curl himself into a ball for warmth the familiar sound of the door being unlocked made Sokka sit up straight. Denty was back, and he slid a half full cup of water to Sokka, not a drop being wasted on the floor.

Sokka took the cup in both hands, his shaking was dying down now that his body had nutrients to ingest and use for fuel. The water was just as sweet and fulfilling as the first time, Sokka felt his eyelids growing heavy now that his body felt half full for the first time in… Well, however long. Sokka set the cup on the floor and slid it towards the door where the soldier grabbed it quickly.

“Thank you, can I ask one more question? Why are you being so nice to me?”

“I am only following orders, you are Zhao’s personal prisoner now, and whatever orders he gives is what I follow. You ate what we ate tonight, tomorrow we will arrive at the prison camp. Trust me, when you arrive there I can assure you that you will miss this box very much.”

With those sweet parting words Denty slid the door shut and the heavy lock fell into place, Sokka was surrounded in darkness. He curled into himself for warmth, because the world was cruel like that and Sokka apparently never noticed that days were full of heat and nights were freezing beyond comprehension.

It made him miss the small, often looked over luxuries, like blankets. He would give anything for a thick tiger-seal pelt right now. His eyes closed slowly and without any effort as his last thoughts wondered about Katara and Aang, hoping they were ok.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“Katara…” Aang’s voice barely cut through the whirling winds that were whipping past the balconies edge. The weather had been unruly this past week, almost as if the spirits were working against Katara as she searched every inch of this frozen wasteland for her brother.

They stood on the balcony of their massive guest room that was provided for them before the siege, Sokka’s personal belongings were still untouched where he left them before the battle. His bed was still a mess, Katara wouldn’t let anyone touch where her brother laid last.

Aang was trying, he really was, now that he had his energy back and put all the horrible events from the night the moon spirit was killed behind him, he was determined to try and ‘help’ her. How could he help her? The only thing he could do for her was to go out there again, and again, and again and find her brother.

She knew Aang felt guilty, how could he not?

He fused his body with the ocean spirit and destroyed half of the Fire Nation fleet. His actions made a significant difference in the battle, allowing the Northern Water Tribe to stand a fighting chance against the Fire Nation. After the moon spirit was revived by Yue’s sacrifice, Zhao vanished, and no one was able to track his whereabouts. His men stayed and fought until the only way out alive was to retreat, and that’s what they did.

Katara didn’t care about Zhao, or the moon, or the battle, the only thing she was concerned about was Sokka. The last place he was seen was leaving one of the healing centers closest to where he was supposed to be stationed. One of the warriors in his squad explained that he was injured and left to go find healing, but never came back.

One of the men from his post had the audacity to call him a deserter. Well…. Katara made him eat his words, literally. Aang had to intervene and coax her into stopping piling snow down the man’s throat before he choked to death.

How dare he call Sokka a deserter? Even if the battle was too much for him, he wouldn’t just leave the Northern Water Tribe.

He wouldn’t leave without her.

Sokka would have found her and Aang and explained that he was scared and needed them. He wouldn’t just vanish into the ice and not leave a trace of himself anywhere. Sokka was memorable, he was cute, funny, smart and charismatic, people liked Sokka and remembered him.

That’s why it was so weird that no one recalled seeing him. Only one healer, who was too young to even be out in the battle healing injuries, remembered seeing him. She spoke about how hesitant he was to return to the fight, and how after they shared a brief conversation he left.

No one saw him after that.

But of course, the moon died, so when the world was plunged into complete darkness how could anyone have seen anything?

Sokka could have… He could have… He just… Something.

Something happened to Sokka, Katara was determined to figure it out.

Aang was trying to talk to her again…. She loved Aang, truly she did. But sometimes he was too much for her and right now was one of those times. She needed to find Sokka, she didn’t need to talk to Aang about how he was trying.

“Katara, I know you’re upse-“

“Oh you do?! You know I am upset? I am beyond upset Aang, I am devastated, my heart feels like it was ripped out of my chest and smashed into the ice. My brother, Aang, one of the last of my family is MISSING.”

Her chest felt tight, her lungs refused to take in any air and her throat was dry as she tried to make sense of her situation. She just needed Sokka back, to tell her she was being so dramatic and that everything was fine. She needed a funny joke and a goofy grin, not this empty hollow feeling that his absence left inside her.

“I know this is hard, and I will keep looking for him as long as you think we should. Where do you want me to search next? The entire city has been searched, every…. Dead body was checked, the wreckage is being sorted through, and I just got done scanning the tundra for any sign of human life. I want to help as much as I can, I just don’t know what to do now…”

Aang’s voice broke at the end, Katara knew why, he was the Avatar and things like this weren’t supposed to happen to the Avatar. He was supposed to save everyone. He was the hero of the story and no one who associated themselves with the hero was supposed to get hurt or lost.

But Sokka was gone, and he had been gone for an alarming amount of time. There was only so much more time they could spend here looking for him. Eventually the city would be repaired, the wreckage would be collected and salvaged, and the battle would be long gone, wiped away clean.

Katara refused to cry, not until she was forced to abandon hope. She cried enough for her mother, she wouldn’t cry for her brother until she was sure.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The next day Sokka was jolted awake by his body being thrown into the air as his metal container’s carrier hit a hard bump. His shoulder hit the floor and a radiating pain shot through his chest, why was the universe trying to ruin him? After everything he went though, to keep landing on the same damn shoulder, it was just his type of dumb luck.

The kind of luck that kisses you sweetly on the lips before pulling back and spitting you in the face.

The bright light was pouring through the eye opening and into his container, making him aware that the soft morning light had long passed and the afternoon sun was reeling its ugly face. The heat would be descending onto him soon enough, erasing any memory of being cold the night before.

Sokka was not fed breakfast, not that he was expecting to be fed. It's just the way Denty made it sound, he would eat when the soldiers ate, so if they ate breakfast he should have been given some.

Right? That’s how this worked, right?

Sokka groaned as he pulled himself into a seated position, letting his head rest against the back wall as he stared up into the dull metal ceiling. Depressing, this whole situation was depressing.

Time moved slowly, every moment spent in the metal box was a reminder of his impending doom. Finally, but not excitedly, he felt the caravan come to a stop. He heard voices all around him, the caravan must be surrounded by a large group of people. Mutterting voices on all sides, until Zhao’s obnoxious commanding voice powered over all of them. Sokka wished he could make out the words being said, but through the metal walls everything was muffled.

Suddenly his door was being opened, and a soldier, who was NOT Denty, grabbed his forearm and began pulling him out of his prison box. His iron grip bruised Sokka’s forearm as he was twisted uncomfortably and was dragged through the open door.

Sokka greatly miscalculated how high off the ground his metal box was on the bullock cart, as soon as his body cleared the doorway he was being thrown to the ground. Dirt and tiny rocks filled his nostrils as his face literally ate dirt. At least he didn’t fall on his shoulder again, good thing he had a face to break the fall.

Sokka felt a strong grip on his forearm again as his body was hoisted up from the ground. Spitting out the unpleasantries in his mouth his blue eyes blinked rapidly trying to decipher through the bright sunlight so he could take in his surroundings.

His long journey took a toll on his body and mind, his brain was moving at an exceptionally slow pace. Everything was blurry as his vision adjusted to the outdoor lighting, his ears were overwhelmed by all the commotion around him. He tried to listen into what people were saying but he was struggling to even stand at this point.

“- get him processed and fetch me when it's finished-“

Sokka could hear Zhao’s voice even if his eyes couldn’t see his face.

“Prepare my special prisoner and bring him to my chambers.”

Sokka swallowed, was he the ‘special prisoner’ what did that mean? He wasn’t special, fuck he wasn’t even a bender!

“Yes sir!”

Sokka could hear footsteps shuffling away from him, so maybe he wasn’t the special prisoner. Oh thank spirits, for once in his life he was so happy to not be special. After forcing his eyes to get their shit together, Sokka could finally see through the sunlight and he felt that steady lump pushing itself into his throat.

This place looked…. Awful.

The prison camp wasn’t large, but it was exactly as it sounded, a camp full of prisoners.

The prison was a medium sized dirt cleaning in the middle of a dense forest, the camp was shaped like an L, with a tall wooden fence surrounding the cleared out area. The fence was made of thick wooden logs that towered tall and the tips sharped to a point. The only openings were one metal gate leading in and another gate at the far end leading out.

There were 3 long wooden buildings in a row on each side when you first entered the camp, no windows, just a small door on the side. They appeared to be aligned in a specific order, slanted diagonally on the sidelines, leaving an open area between buildings.

Sokka looked behind him briefly to see the gate they entered through, looking for any weakness. The gate was crafted with thick metal bars that were also spiked at the top to discourage climbing.

What was with the Fire Nation’s obsession with spikes?

There were two guard towers on the inside of the camp on both sides of the gate, there were 2 men in each tower wearing complex outfits and armed with crossbows.

Was that… Face paint?

They did not look like the type of men who aimed and missed.

As Sokka was forced to start walking as he was shoved deeper into camp, the guard that pulled him from his metal box was holding his bicep tight, and two more men walked behind him.

There was a massive rectangle tent in the middle of camp that was different from the smaller tents his sister and he used to camp. This was more of a long term standing tent. The tan color had a thick texture, almost like a leather and it was supported by wooden pillars, the opening to the enclosure didn’t seem to have a way of closing off. It must be a common area, maybe a dining hall type deal, definitely not used for people to sleep in or bathe.

Sokka was led through the camp as he finally noticed all the different styles of people staring at him as he was half dragged through the dirt. The armored soldier stopped walking, his grip still tight on Sokka’s bicep as another man approached them.

He wore shiny black armor with red trimming, his shoulders were broad and his posture was that of noble birth. His hands were laced behind his back as he approached where Sokka was being held in place.

The man’s hair was pulled into a top knot with a gold ribbon around the base, the edges were pulled back smoothly, free of any bumps and not a hair out of place. His eyes were a light brown, almost amber, and his skin pale and he had exceptionally strong eyebrows.

There was something not right about him. He was in charge of something, because his armor showed he was better than the other armored men around him. As the other soldiers wore red armor, with no special trimming and no shine.

There was a sadistic glint in the man’s eyes as he looked down at Sokka. A small toothy smile appeared on his face revealing his crooked yellow teeth, Sokka could see the faint shadow of stumble on his face.

The man reached out and gripped Sokka’s chin, the gloved hand digging deep into his flesh, enough to bruise him. Sokka shifted his eyes to look his captor in the face, afraid, but not wanting to appear weak.

“A Water Tribe boy? Was Zhao taking prisoners in the Northern Water Tribe? I expected a complete annihilation.”

Sokka’s skin began crawling as his ears heard the new man’s vindictive voice as it slid through his crooked teeth like a slithering snake. His voice was high but low at the same time, his lips smacked as he challenged the fact that Sokka was supposed to be here.

“There were others, they were taken to the stronghold, this one apparently is traveling with the Avatar and Zhao wanted him to come here. He is your problem now.”

The soldier released his grip, and in that moment Sokka realized how much he was depending on the man’s strength to hold him in place. Stumbling forward Sokka tried to catch himself before he hit the ground, eating dirt once in a day was enough for him. The universe had other plans, he ate dirt for the second time that day.

“The Avatar? How interesting, I am sure he is due for a Zhao interrogation then, isn’t he?”

Sokka glanced up just in time to see the soldier shrug, “I have no clue what you people do here, I was told to deliver, he is delivered. I am going to head back to my men, just make sure this kid gets processed and Zhao wants him bathed before he sees him. The kid smells like shit.”

Sokka frowned and shifted his eyes to the floor, without thinking he mumbled, “I wouldn’t stink so bad if you people would have given me a bath at some point…”

Sokka’s words were met with a sharp kick to the stomach, the soldier that was once holding him up was not a fan of his humor. The shiny armored man smirked down at the gasping Water Tribe boy before he motioned for two other men standing behind him to come and collect him off the floor.

Sokka didn’t resist, he was a lot of things, but he wasn’t stupid. He held his tongue the entire journey here and now that he was surrounded by armed guards, who were also probably fire benders, he wasn’t going to start mouthing off until he had a better feel on the place.

The two men gripped his arms on both sides as the leader turned to lead him into camp.

“Alright Water Tribe, I am the warden here in our lovely prison camp, your new home. My name is Zah, but I would prefer if you just refer to me as warden. You were selected by Zhao to be a part of this camp, and if you value your life then you will follow the rules or you will be punished. It is a simple system here, do your work, follow the rules, don’t cause trouble, and things will go smoothly. If not, well we have many exciting variations of punishment.”

Sokka felt the lump in his throat, swallowing he listened closely.

They were moving through the camp, past the large tent there were three wooden poles in a line, and to Sokka’s horror there was a shirtless man chained to one on far right. His arms were chained above his head and his long brown hair fell over his shoulders, his skin was red and blistering from the sun exposure. The man’s eyes were squeezed shut and his breathing shallow.

“Ahhh, here is a prime example of what can happen if you do not follow the rules. This is Isa, he doesn’t like to follow rules, do you Isa?”

The man didn’t open his eyes or make any kind of movement at all.

“Very well, add another 3 hours to his punishment for insubordination.”

Sokka’s heart went out to the man tied to the pole, but he didn’t dare speak out against the cruelty. At least not yet.

The warden kept moving along, past the poles, the camp took a sharp turn to the right where at the far end was another gate. They began moving again, there were more buildings on this end of camp, all made of wood. They were all different sizes and shapes so they must all serve a separate purpose.

Sokka wondered why a Fire Nation camp would have so much wood, wouldn’t they be afraid of it burning down? There was one metal building, oddly out of place in the primitive style prison camp.

“When you walked into camp I don’t know if you saw, but those 6 buildings were the sleeping quarters and then the large tan tent we passed was what we call the ‘mess hall’ that is where meals are served and prisoners are allowed to mingle on their ‘down time.’

“Over here is the bathhouse, there is only one area to shower so men and women must share. Keep your hands to yourselves or there will be consequences. As we move along, this building here is my favorite, the coolers. I don’t know if you have ever had the pleasure of bearing witness to their power, but they stay at below freezing temperatures. A fire benders' worst nightmare, well I imagine anyone would probably hate to be put inside. You know, I have never thought to ask how it was? Hmmmm, maybe if you end up taking a trip inside you’ll let me know how it is.”

The warden chuckled to himself, and Sokka attempted to swallow the lump.

“Ahhh and over here is the healing house, it's small... I know, but to be perfectly transparent… We really aren’t concerned with healing most of you. If you die, well you die. Life goes on. Now over here is the kitchen, if you are lucky you might be assigned to kitchen duty, from what I hear it's everyone's favorite job.

“We are nearing the end of our tour, I must apologize that there isn’t much to see in our humble abode. But the building here is the guards' living quarters and this building is Admiral Zhao’s personal quarters and where he likes to do his… Interrogations. If I heard correctly you are to be interrogated later this afternoon? How fun.

“Through this back gate is the path that leads to the river where we gather water for the camp and do prisoner laundry. At the end of the path is the coal mine, the prisoners rotate jobs, but most job assignments are mining for coal. Now that the tour is over lets go ahead and get you processed.”

Being processed was exactly how it sounded, Sokka was given an assignment to bed 4 in building 3. There were only a total of 6 buildings in the entire camp and each building was a very basic design. Sokka did like the fact that the roof had skylights, providing a lot of natural light to flow in. He was disappointed there were no windows on the walls, but for escape purposes, it made sense.

The prisoner housing had four beds on each side, with a small trunk in front of the bed for storing items. Sokka was given 2 uniforms, they were a lovely shade of grey and made of the itchiest material possible, but who’s complaining? He certainly wasn’t complaining about his cloth shoes with a thin leather sole.

Along with the sorry excuse for shoes and the new clothing, he was given a bar of soap, apparently you only get one a month – weird. Besides that he received a rather used looking off white towel and a parchment with a long list of rules in two columns on the front of the page.

He swore he would read it later.

“Place your items in your storage bin and we will escort you to the washroom, after that you will wait for Admiral Zhao to summon you.”

Sokka nodded, his skin crawled at the idea of being summoned by Zhao.

The trip to the washroom was short and silent, the guards left him alone and for the first time in weeks Sokka was free to move, think, breathe all by himself. Walking into the washroom he was taken back by how open it was.

There were 3 shower heads on one wall and on the opposite wall there were hooks for your towel and clothing, other than that, everyone was just naked together. Lucky for Sokka no one was in the shower right now, probably because they were either being tortured or doing the ‘jobs’ he heard about. When he was processed they said he would receive his job after his interrogation, which Sokka saw as code for ‘let's see if you live long enough for us to assign you a job.’

Sokka was lost in thought when a beautiful girl walked into the washroom, she smiled at him as he stood under the water, naked. His hands instinctively went to cover his manhood and the girl laughed.

“Oh don’t worry sweetie, I have seen enough dick in my life. I am sure whatever you’re packing down there isn’t going to send me into shock.”

Her voice was smooth like honey, with a sharp sting to it when she cracked her joke. She was a thin girl, long black hair and pale skin. She would have looked like Fire Nation if it weren’t for her large, vividly green eyes. She was beautiful… And she was stripping, right in front of him.

She shuffled the grey prison pants past her hips as she wiggled her toned body allowing the garment to fall onto the floor. Stepping out of the legs she gently grabbed the end of her tunic and pulled her shirt over her head and…. Sokka looked away.

He felt a twitch in his hands before realizing that he needed to get it under control if he was going to ever bathe again. The water was cold, and it still wasn’t helping his situation.

“You must be new here, are you from the Northern Water Tribe? I know they were planning a siege up North but I wasn’t sure when it was supposed to happen. But seeing you here means that they must have gone through with it. I am surprised you are here, usually Zhao doesn’t bring prisoners here.”

She was looking right at him, her naked body dripping under the running water. Her hair was soaking wet, laying flat against her scalp and running down her back, her green eyes blinked, the moisture flicking off her long dark eyelashes. She obviously wanted him to respond to her.

“I uhhh… I…” Sokka closed his eyes and cleared his throat, opening them up again he forced himself to only look at her eyes.

Her beautiful pink nipples- he meant beautiful green eyes….

Green eyes.

Green. Eyes.

Green.

Eyes.

He cleared his throat again before responding in a rather uncharacteristically deep voice. Why was he determined to fuck up this first interaction so badly.

“My name is Sokka, and I am actually from the Southern Water Tribe, but I was traveling with the Avatar and he needed a water bending master and since the Fire Nation killed all our water benders we had to take him to the Northern Water Tribe which is where Zhao attacked us and now I am here.”

He said it all in one sentence, without taking a breath. Spirits he was such an idiot sometimes.

The girl just laughed, Sokka looked away as she began lathering herself with soap.

Oh yeah, soap. He needed to clean himself, washing up was so much easier when he did it alone. This really was a torture camp.

“Wow, that was a lot of words. So just to be clear, you are from the Southern Water Tribe and you were traveling with the Avatar!? That’s amazing! What’s he like? We aren’t allowed to talk about the Avatar here, it’s against the rules.”

Sokka nodded, yes the rules, he would read those later. He couldn’t forget to do that.

“Well if we aren’t supposed to talk about it shouldn’t we… Not talk about it?”

Smooth Sokka, so smooth.

Lucky for him, she giggled.

“There are no guards in here right now, plus, it's not a rule we usually break anyway. No one really cares about the Avatar. It's not like he is going to come here and break us out of prison. Even if the war ends we are so deep in the forest surrounded by Fire Nation colonies we will be lucky if we see freedom in our lifetime.”

“Oh, well… If he knew where I was he would come for me. Aang is a great guy like that, very caring and would do anything for his friends. He is with my sister right now, and possibly still in the Northern Water Tribe or maybe they moved on. I am not sure honestly, I don’t even know how long I have been away.”

His voice cracked at the end, the entire situation was still processing for him, he had been so consumed by fear that now he wasn’t even sure how to interact with someone he wasn’t afraid of. The only thing he thought about for weeks was how to live and not be noticed by the guards.

Surrounded by suffering and death really took a toll on him, but seeing this beautiful girl, and hearing her smooth voice brought a sense of comfort to his aching heart.

They both finished cleaning and rinsing at the same time, the beautiful girl grabbed her towel as she squeezed it over her inky locks. Tasseling her fingers through the damp strands she finally wrapped her town across her chest concealing her nudity and Sokka released a breath he didn’t know he was holding.

Before either of them could say anything else a guard stepped into the washroom, unlike on the Fire Nation ship, these guards didn’t wear heavy armor. They wore lighter styles of fighting armor, keeping the same red and black theme and their faces were uncovered so it would be easy to track who was friendly and who wasn’t.

The fact that this man had a whip curled at his hip was alarming though.

“Water Tribe, The Admiral is ready for you, I am here to escort you. Put your uniform on, let's go.”

Sokka heard the beautiful girl inhale a sharp breath, which made Sokka’s heart plummet into his stomach. She was scared for him.

Sokka dressed as fast-slow as he could, his eyes never leaving the floor as he slid on his new outfit, the one he would be wearing everyday… Until he escaped, that is. No matter how this interaction with Zhao went down, Sokka wasn’t going to give up. Nothing would stop him from escaping this place and reuniting with Katara.

“Will I get to put my towel and soap away?”

“I will do it for you, what building and bed are you? The Admiral is not a patient man.”

“Building 3 bed 4, umm thank you for doing that for me…”

“Do not thank me, at least not yet.” The guard cracked a small smirk, his amber eyes flashing with a hint of patronizing humor.

Sokka turned to the girl he had just bathed with, “what was your name?”

“My name is Ara, I will find you after your… Interrogation, just tell him what he wants to know… It’ll go easier….” She spoke slowly, each word filled with hesitation and laced with worry. It didn’t give Sokka a good feeling about what he was in store for, not that he ever thought that it would be a smooth process.

Well, it was better to just get it over with.

Following the guard they made their way across the dusty clearing. They approached a building with a large metal door, as it opened two guards filed out, standing at the entrance. Both equipped with whips, Sokka was starting to wonder how much whipping was done in the torture camp, because everyone in charge was wielding one.

“Stand by.” One of the guards at the door said.

The guard he was following stopped and stepped off to the side, Sokka followed suit. As they waited two men walked out the metal door holding a limp prisoner by both of his arms. He had black shaggy hair that hung in his face, his head was limp, his chin rolling across his chest. The soldiers proceeded to drag him down the steps, the prisoner’s legs smacking against every one until they were on the ground.

Sokka tried not to stare, but his wandering eyes couldn’t help but glance at the blood stained tunic the boy wore, he didn’t look much bigger than Sokka was. The soldiers dragged him along, and soon they were past Sokka and his guard, Sokka turned his attention back to the door.

Zhao smirked as he strolled to the entrance of the building, leaning against the metal doorframe. “Ahhh, Water Tribe, I have been expecting you. Please, come in. I will put on a pot of tea.”

A cold prickling feeling ran down his arms and triggered little bumps in his skin, the guard motioned for Sokka to follow him, every step made his legs feel like he was shackled to the ground. His knees felt weak as he shuffled through the dirt. Once the tip of his foot hit the bottom step he swallowed hard, trying to push the lump in his throat back into his stomach. The same stomach that was tossing and turning like a violent storm.

Somehow he made it up the 3 wooden steps and now stood at the threshold of his impending doom. Licking his chapped lips, Sokka took his final step, entering Zhao’s residents and praying to Tui and La this wouldn’t be the place he died.

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 4: Oh, Hello Pain

Sokka quickly came to the realization that he did not know what to do with his hands during an interrogation. He never really gave thought to the positioning of his hands during the day, he just came to rely on the trust that they would be there when he needed them. Sokka had never really been interrogated before, but he had an idea of how it was supposed to happen.

When his dad and Bato would drink fire water together and in their drunken stupor would forget to make young Sokka go to bed, he would stay up as late as his little eyes would keep open. He would listen eagerly to the men rant and rave about the war and what they would do if they ever got their hands on some ash-makers.

Some of the creative ways his father suggested to interrogate their imaginary soldiers were both commendable and terrifying. Bato’s methods would be considered more traditional, possibly cutting off some fingers, pulling teeth, cuts and punches, the usual.

His father on the other hand, would suggest things like pulling back fingernails, plucking out their victims eyebrows and eyelashes, he liked to imagine things that were both tedious and painful. Sokka thought it was funny at the time, imaging an evil fire bender at the mercy of his dad and Bato’s cruelty.

But now that it was Sokka sitting in the interrogation seat, it didn’t seem as funny anymore.

Even though he has never participated in an interrogation, on either side; sitting at a large wooden table while your interrogator made tea just didn’t seem right. Sokka was brought inside of Zhao’s (very tackily and overly gold decorated) cabin, where he sat at a large wooden table with gold trimming and carved dragon leg posts.

Sokka could see directly into the kitchen area from where he was seated. He was facing Zhao, his blue eyes watching as the Admiral moved without speaking, filling the tea pot and collecting cups. Even though it wasn’t a large living space, it was still more spacious than the igloos Sokka lived in back home.

Oh back home, how he missed home. He missed the howling polar-dogs, the crunching sound fresh snow made when he would step into it, his Gran-Gran’s cooking… Oh, how he would give anything to be back home in the Southern Water Tribe.

But even if he were- no, when he does escape from this prison camp, he wouldn’t be headed South. No, he would have to figure out where Katara and Aang went and hopefully find them. His father told him to keep his sister safe, and so far he was doing a terrible job, he had to get back to her as soon as possible. It would be a tough journey, and it would probably take a lot of guessing, but Sokka was confident that he could find them.

If Prince Ponytail can find the Avatar without any idea of where they were headed, then Sokka should be able to find them just as quickly, if not even faster, because he was that much smarter than stupid Zuko.

Zhao finally stopped his menacing tea making routine and sat down on the opposite side of the table, he set down the tea pot and proceeded to pour the hot liquid into two fancy cups. They were a polished shiny white color with gold trimming, it was as if everything Zhao owned had gold incorporated into it.

Zhao really had a hard on for the finer things in life.

Sokka watched as the man slid over his own cup of tea, which Sokka was extremely skeptical about. But he had nothing to eat or drink all day, and if this tea tastes half as good as it smelled, he just had to drink it. Reaching out a shaky hand, Sokka gripped the sides of the warm cup and brought it hesitantly to his lips, lingering his bottom lip just below the cup's edge.

“It’s not poisoned.” Zhao’s deep voice startled him enough to spill some of the scolding liquid onto the table. Sokka quickly took his sip before setting the cup back on the table. He had to contain the ‘ahhhhhhh’ he wanted to let slip after taking his tantalizing sip of hot tea.

“I wouldn’t waste poison on a Water Tribe savage. You could easily be killed with a weak attempt at fire bending, it wouldn’t take much effort. I made the tea to show you that I can be a reasonable and gracious captor, I am not a bad guy, you see? I am sure you are hungry after our long journey, I know all that bread you ate didn’t give you much nutrition. So you are probably feeling pretty weak right now. If you do well during this interrogation and give me the information I need, I will make sure you get a good meal when we are done. If not, well then hopefully you’ll be able to eat at all after we are through. Do you think you can answer my questions?”

Sokka’s blue eyes were fixed on the Admiral’s amber eyes. Studying him closely, he saw nothing in the man’s eyes but anger and hostility. There was still no speck of kindness, but he did see a fleck of stupidity and Sokka can work with that.

“So… if I tell you what you want to hear… I get a hot meal and you wont torture me?”

Zhao propped his elbows on the table as he laced his fingers together, nodding he smirked. “Yes.”

“Ok, well fire away, but no literal fire… Just ask questions.”

“Where is the Avatar heading?”

“I’m sure he will be heading to the Earth Kingdom at some point to get an earth bending master.” The Earth Kingdom is huge and Aang could be going anywhere, so by telling Zhao that he was headed in that direction wouldn’t put Aang or Katara in danger.

Right?

“Does he have any connections in the Earth Kingdom that he will seek out to assist him in mastering earth bending?”

Sokka took another sip of his tea, because he needed a moment to think and also the tea was amazing. Obviously, King Bumi would be the best person to teach Aang. He was crazy, they were childhood friends, he was king and a master earth bender…. But Sokka couldn’t tell Zhao this. So he would have to continue playing dumb, but that would only work for so long. He had to give Zhao something so he felt like he was getting information.

“Aang has a lot of great connections in the Earth Kingdom, he is a likable guy. If you people ever stopped hunting him and tried to get to know him, I bet you would see how great he is. But if I had to pick one of his friends that might teach him earth bending hmmmm….”

Sokka tapped his chin, how safe was Omashu? Would Aang be safe there if Zhao knew that the Avatar would be mastering an element in the city? Possibly… Anywhere he sent Zhao, someone was going to get hurt. He could give this guy a name and location and he would burn down whatever helpless village he went to and probably kill all the villagers.

Or he could say Ba Sing Se…. No one has ever penetrated the city's great walls.

“I believe he will go to Ba Sing Se, he knows uh… Wang. Yes, him and Wang go way, way back and he is a master earth bender who lives in Ba Sing Se.”

Zhao lowered his arms, his one eyebrow raised as his skepticism for Sokka’s story was displayed all over his face. The corner of his mouth twitched like he found something funny, but he was giving effort to hide his grin.

Sokka swallowed, he saw the type of humor Zhao had, and smiling was a bad sign.

“So, Wang… In Ba Sing Se?”

Sokka nodded slowly. “Yes, Wang is a good friend of Aang’s and a master earth bender.”

“Is that so?” Zhao reached for the tea put and held the base in both of his hands, slowly the liquid inside started to boil. Steam was hissing out the nozzle as Zhao held his grip. It wasn’t until Sokka glanced down at Zhao’s still very full tea cup, that he realized he was in trouble.

Before Sokka could make a move, Zhao reached out and grabbed Sokka’s wrist, because of course Sokka had both his hands resting on top of the table. Damn his stupid hand placement.

Sokka’s brain stopped following Zhao’s movements the second he saw the tea pot approach his hand and Zhao tipped it, allowing the scolding liquid to sear his sensitive flesh. The howling screams Sokka released brought a full smile to the Admiral’s face. Sokka squeezed his eyes shut as the burning tears welled up and began creeping out from the corners of his eyes. He didn’t even care that he was crying, it didn’t make him less of a man to cry when someone boils your flesh.

The pouring water finally stopped, the burning did not. Cracking one of his eyes open Sokka glanced down at his hand and saw the horrific red and white blistering skin that covered his wrist and the top half of his hand.

He could see where the hottest water touched his skin first, right at the wrist and the seering liquid fanned out from there. Sokka couldn't tear his eyes away from the irritation as the hot water drained off his skin and onto the table.

“You have until I grab a towel to clean up this water to pull yourself together.”

Zhao stood up and walked into the kitchen, Sokka kept his eyes on the man while he grabbed a rag off his countertop. His gaze only broke from his captor to look back down at his hand, the blistering was getting worse, it was going to hurt so badly whenever they popped.

As soon as Zhao turned his back to the boy, Sokka shot up from his chair, in a blind panic he made a move towards the door. He took seven steps before two sets of hands were firmly placed on his shoulders and his already weak body was wrestled back to his seat. Breathing thought his gritted teeth, Sokka glared at the two soldiers who held him still.

“Where do you think you're going?” Zhao asked, his voice dripping with condescending humor. “Do you think that this is how things work in the real world? You tell your stories and crack your jokes and you can just stand up during an interrogation and leave? I am not going to play games with you, Water Tribe savage. I will not be made a fool of or waste my time playing your stupid games, and chasing your lies. Answer my questions or those men there are going to make sure your hand is the least of your worries.”

Sokka’s brow furrowed as he glared at Zhao who sat back down across from him. He picked up the teapot he just used to assault him and reached over to refill Sokka’s tea. Zhao acted like these vicious acts of violence were normal occurrences, which they might be in Zhao’s fucked up world.

Sokka’s right leg began to bounce as his nervous habits began to take over, he swallowed the fear that was festering in his chest. This was no time to panic, he was a Water Tribe warrior, he could handle burns, he wouldn't crack.

“Ok back to business.. So who is the Avatar actually going to learn earth bending from?”

“I don’t know.”

Zhao nodded and one of the soldiers standing next to him back handed him, which was a first for Sokka. He and Katara would fight all the time growing up, it was a daily occurrence.

Usually it had to do with Sokka sparking her temper through his own intentional behavior aimed towards getting her worked up. Katara was funny when she was mad, she made faces and screamed and sometimes would throw some variation of water at him. Even when she would hit her level 10 anger, she would never actually try to hurt him, even if she threatened to do major bodily harm.

Hakoda was a stern father, but he loved his children more than life itself. Especially after mom passed, Hakoda seemed to cherish them even more than before. Even after he did the unthinkable and left them to go to war, Sokka knew he was loved by his father. Hakoda never raised a hand to his children, even when Sokka was on his worst behavior his father would never strike him.

So besides the few hits from battles, and the occasional accident that came from Sokka’s unmistakable clumsiness, he has never been seriously injured. So being backhanded by a strong adult male was first for him, and it hurt like a bitch.

“Where is the Avatar going to learn earth bending?”

“I said, I don’t know!”

Yelling probably wasn’t smart, but Sokka wasn’t thinking with his full brain because most of it was too focused on the pain in his face and the burning on his hand. Zhao nodded again and the same soldier back handed him again, this time Sokka saw stars.

“Where is the Avatar going to learn earth bending?”

“Is this what we are going to do? You are going to ask me the same question over and over and then backhand-y over here is just going to keep smacking me around? You said you don’t like to waste time so why don’t we just cut to the beating and stop asking me for information I don’t have!”

Yelling at Zhao was defiently not smart, offering himself up to be beat the fuck out of by the Fire Nation soldiers was really not smart. Zhao smirked and shrugged, “alright men, you heard him, do your worst.”

Sokka didn’t register being pulled out of the chair, he didn’t recall hitting the wooden floor, but he definitely registered when the first boot struck him in the stomach. The pain radiated through his body, again and again, as more boots struck him in his ribs and one of the men stepped down on his face. There was a throbbing in his body that was foreign to him, this must be what real pain felt like.

 

Sokka had his share of painful moments in his life, he considers the 3 fish hook crisis growing up, his most painful experience. There was also the time where he cut his hand open on the tip of Bato’s freshly sharpened spear, when he was told specifically not to touch it. He twisted his ankle in the snow one time, that hurt pretty bad.

But nothing, not even all those combined, even came close to what he was feeling right now.

Just as Sokka felt like he might pass out the beating stopped, the pulsing pain thumped in his ears, his body was screaming. Every thump his heart did was a reminder that this is what his life was now and who knows how many times he would have to endure something like this. If he couldn’t escape soon he didn’t know how long he would be able to live this type of life.

He couldn't get lost in the dark thoughts right now, he had to focus on staying conscious. He at least wanted to know if he was going to die, he didn't want to be killed while he was unconscious.

Hands were grabbing him again, he flinched trying to tuck his face into his arms as he was hoisted back into the chair. Blinking, Sokka could taste the copper tang from the blood oozing from his split lip. He could feel the pooling blood under the skin of his face, turning his tan skin into dark blues and greens.

Breathing past the pain, he focused his vision on Zhao again, who after everything, looked unamused.

“Now… I will ask one more time. Where is the Avatar going to learn earth bending?”

“Ba Sing Se… That’s where he is going… That’s all I know…”

Sokka had to keep Zhao away from Omashu, he couldn’t risk Aang’s safety. Even if he died here on the floor, his last moments were at the mercy of Fire Nation soldiers kicking him. He would not betray Katara and Aang, no matter what.

“How long can the bison fly at one time?”

Sokka wanted to say something sarcastic, like, ‘Appa can fly as long as it takes to get Aang away from you’. Or he could tell Zhao that Appa could fly for days, maybe even that he could sleep and fly! Anything to get this mad man away from his sister and Aang, but he had to tread lightly now that he knew that Zhao was not quiet as stupid as he seemed.

“It depends on if Appa has rested, and if he had a good meal, but he can fly for a really long time.”

He wasn’t lying, he just didn’t give him specifics.

“Hmmm, so if I had a map would you be able to show me the route you have taken thus far?”

Sokka cocked his head to the side, “uhh… yeah?” He wasn’t sure what Zhao would get out of their spastic flying pattern but if he could keep the man focused on where they had been and not where they were going that would be great. Plus he would get more time to look at a map and plan his escape, perfect!

“See, things go so much easier when you are cooperating. All we had to do was kick you around a bit, if only all my prisoners were this easy. Some of them like to fight, which I don’t mind, but it is simpler when I can just get to the point.”

Zhao stood up and nodded at the soldiers who took Sokka’s arms again and hoisted him off his chair. His legs wobbled, weak from the beating and disoriented from the lack of nutrients, Sokka tried to stand himself.

“Take him away from here, there should be a guard outside so they can deal with him. I will call for you tomorrow Water Tribe, you should be ready to answer my questions or today will feel like a blessing.”

The soldiers pushed Sokka out the metal doors and he stumbled before tripping down the steps until he landed in a heap in the dirt. The guard did nothing to help him, he just stared down at Sokka as he struggled to lift himself up. The sun still had a presence in the sky but it was sinking into the horizon quickly.

“Which way is the infirmary?” Sokka asked the guard who actually laughed at him.

“You don’t get to go to the infirmary, you're just fine. Now get your ass to your bunk if you know what’s good for you.” The guard placed a hand on his whip as Sokka stumbled to his feet. The walk to his bed was far, and Sokka was scared to trek his way through camp as hurt and delirious as he was. The pain was so intense his vision was blurring, but that could also be from the lack of proper nutrition that has been missing in his diet for weeks.

Stumbling slowly, Sokka moved at a slow pace. One foot in front of another, focused on breathing. In-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth, he could do this, he could make it.

No he could not.

He was not going to make it, he was falling.

His body hit the ground and the air was knocked out of his lungs, squeezing his eyes shut again. He tried to avoid the dust from scraping his retina. Tears were pushing at the back of his eyelids once more as the labored breathing fell out of rhythm as panic settled in.

I’m going to die here, in the dirt like an actual savage. Everyone will think I died in the Northern Water Tribe and no one will know that I was dragged across the ocean and brought to this torture camp to die in the dirt. Katara was right, I am an idiot.

Just thinking Katara’s name brought a small sob from his throat, he missed her so much and he couldn’t fathom the thought of never seeing her again.

“Hey you, don’t worry… I’m here, I’ll help you.”

Sokka couldn’t open his eyes, but the soft voice triggered his memory, he wasn’t sure where he heard her voice before but he knew it from somewhere. Soft hands touched his face lightly as they trailed over the sensitive skin where he knew bruises must be forming.

The soft touch launched his emotions into chaos, he was a touchy guy, he liked to hug and cuddle. It had been weeks since he felt a loving touch, lately the only touch that he received was to inflict pain. To feel a touch that was meant to comfort and show love, Sokka lost his grip. Sobbing like a small child he curled into himself shaking from his desperation accompanied by the pulsing pain.

He must have blacked out, or he was sobbing so hard that he didn’t register being moved by someone strong and being placed into his bed. His stiff, small, smelly excuse for a bed. When his eyes opened it was dark out, the faint sound of snoring could be heard and Sokka realized he was alone again.

The silence was strangling, Sokka knew he had to contain his emotions to avoid being the new guy who sobs in his sleep. Even thinking of crying made Sokka’s bottom lips quiver, it was better to ignore his thoughts and the pain in his body and go back to sleep.

It didn’t take much convincing for Sokka to slip back into a restless sleep, he woke again this time with his hand burning and two green eyes peering down at him. The soft light falling in from the sky lights indicated to him it was morning already. Startled, Sokka sat up, almost crashing his skull into the woman’s face.

“Woah there Water Tribe, Sokka right?”

Sokka nodded, he recognized the girl immediately, Ara from the shower. Oh man, don’t think about her nipples. Even in excruciating pain, he was still a teenage boy.

“I waited around for you yesterday, I remembered that you were going to be interrogated by Zhao and I know they don’t usually end well. No offense, but you’re very young to be in this camp, and when I saw you being thrown… Well… Tripping yourself down the steps, I knew you were hurt. I hope you don’t mind but Shen and I brought you back to your bed. I overheard you telling the guard you were in building 3 bed 4 so that’s where we brought you.”

Her voice was soft, she was extremely well spoken and careful as she put together her sentences. Her black hair was dry this time, and the silky strands were pulled back in a loose braid, some of the smaller hairs fell around her face delicately. Her big green eyes were still looking at him with concern and worry, like he was the helpless mouse-rat stuck in the snare and she was to decide his fate.

“It was almost dark by the time we got you to your bed, so I was unable to address any of your wounds. Women have to be in their own bunk by nightfall and if we get caught anywhere else it will result in punishment. I brought over my wraps and this salve that will help reduce the swelling in your abdomen. The burn on your hand is concerning, we will need to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t get infected. That would be really bad because I doubt Zhao has figured out if he will waste medical supplies on you. Will you remove your tunic so I can begin working on you?”

Sokka was in a daze, his eyes watched her thin pink lips move as the words were coming out; they were being directed at him but he just couldn’t seem to figure out what she was saying. He just nodded ‘yes’ because so far she seemed sincere and wanted to help him.

When he didn’t move to remove his tunic, she smiled at him.

“Do you need help?”

Sokka nodded ‘yes’, obviously he needed help. He needed help with his wounds, he needed help escaping, damn it... He probably would need help finding Katara and Aang again! He wasn’t expecting Ara to grab the bottom of his tunic and lift it slowly over his head, he tried to lift his arms to offer her some kind of assistance but the pain was too much.

Somehow they managed to get his arms up and she smiled at him again.

“You’re doing great! You should feel lucky too, they only beat you. That’s good, I know it sounds strange but there are so many worse things they could do to you then just a good ass kicking.”

Sokka frowned, “Zhao is making me come back today, he wants more information.”

“Well did you give him what he was looking for after he kicked your ass?”

“No, I am not telling him anything.”

Ara’s face shifted to a sad expression and she stopped opening the container of blue salve, she slowly set the glass bottle down in her lap before looking at Sokka. She was sitting on the edge of his bed, in the empty sleeping quarters, so it was just the two of them.

“I don’t exactly know what brought you here, or what information you think you have. But let me tell you, whatever it is you have, or whoever you are protecting… Nothing and no one will keep you safe here. If you think that withholding your information is going to protect them, you are delusional, the only thing you can do now is protect yourself. I know you mentioned the Avatar, that’s so great you think he will save you but I am sorry to be the one to tell you that no one is coming for you. It's just you.”

Sokka’s eyes began to sting again, he wanted to protest and tell her she was a bitch and she was wrong! Aang would come, Katara wouldn’t let anyone stop her when it came to the people she loved. But no one knew where he was, and he was being squashed under the thumb of the Fire Nation and it would only take so long before he would be squished.

Ara saw his swollen red eyes and quivering lip and a flash of guilt reflected in her eyes as she glanced down at the bottle in her lap, sliding her index fingers across the smooth surface.

“I will help you Sokka, I will treat your injuries, but you have to promise me that if I help you then you will also help yourself. I can’t waste my supplies on you if you will just turn around and have worse done to you because of your stubbornness. I can show you what being stubborn gets you, there are prisoners here that are stubborn and they stick to whatever pride they think they have left and guess what? They bleed like everyone else, and eventually they all die. Trust me, I have been here a long time and I have seen good men and women die because they were protecting someone or holding onto something and it is never worth it.”

Sokka watched her eyes flicker through emotions as she stared down at the smooth bottle in her hands. She said she has been here a long time, but she looked so young, how is that possible?

“I can’t promise I will help Zhao, but I will do what I can to make sure I don’t have anything worse done to me. That’s all I can do… If you want to help me then that’s great if not, I get it.”

Sokka was trying to stay calm and make it seem like he didn’t desperately need or want her help healing right now. But he couldn’t lie to her and take advantage of her kindness, he wasn’t going to do anything that might lead to Aang getting hurt. They would have to squish him first.

Ara popped the top of the bottle and began rubbing the cooling blue salve onto where the blotchy black and blue bruises coated his abdomen, trailing around his sides and across his back. The one’s on his face were not as bad, but everytime he moved his jaw the throbbing intensified.

“This will help with the swelling and reduce the size of the bruises. Hopefully it will help lessen the pain as well, but honestly there won't be much I can do for the pain. I'm sorry.”

“I can't believe you’re doing this much for me, so thank you. You said that you have been here a while but you seem so young, how old are you?”

She smiled as her soft hand rubbed the liquid in small circles across his stomach. “I have been in camp for 6 years, I am 22 now and I was brought here when I was 16.”

“Wow… 6 years? Why were you brought here?”

“Zhao stopped through my village when I was just a young girl, he was fascinated with me for some reason. He would come to my village every few years and as I got older he became… Suggestive… With the way he approached me and when I refused him, he grew angry with me. That happened when I was 13, when I turned 16 he came back to my village and didn’t speak to me once. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to deal with his disgusting advances, but if I would have known his silence was just a part of his plot to kidnap me from my home and bring me here…”

She trailed off as closed the bottle’s lid and took a handful of what looked like used and washed bandages and began wrapping his midsection. The silence between them was uncomfortable, Sokka was angry for her, to be taken from her home and forced to live here.

Forced to be subjected to violence, and possibly worse.

He felt his stomach turn, “I am so sorry that happened to you.”

Ara shrugged as she took another smaller container and began rubbing a paste like substance on his hand. He hissed in pain as her soft hands trailed over the bumpy, blistered angry skin that covered his hand and trailed up his wrist.

“Don’t be sorry, we all have our stories and mine is just as sad as other people’s. I live my life everyday like anyone else and if anything, what has happened to me has made me stronger because of it.”

She smiled at him, her green eyes soft as she stared into his blue eyes for a moment before returning her focus to his hand. “This is a weird burn. How’d it happen?”

“Yeah, he poured boiling tea on me.”

“Ouch, at least he didn’t use the fire whip.”

“Fire… Whip…?”

“Yeah, they are incredibly painful and almost impossible to stop the burns from becoming infected. Zhao likes to use them, he enjoys causing people pain. Some prisoners he favors over others, so just make sure no matter what, you keep him from smiling. If he starts enjoying the torture he might do it just for fun.”

A cold shiver worked its way down Sokka’s neck and down his spine. It reminded him when first arriving at camp, Zhao requested his ‘special prisoner’. Sokka had to make sure no matter what he did not become a special prisoner, he didn’t want to become Zhao’s special anything.

“All done!” Ara had wrapped his hand and the cooling sensation from whatever she put on the burn ebbed the pain. He inspected his wrapped hand before looking at her and smiling.

“Thank you Ara, I can’t even begin to express my gratitude.”

“Why don’t you thank me by eating breakfast with me? It’s a little late so there probably won't be much left but they shouldn’t have cleaned it up yet. I am sure you’re starving.”

Just the mere mention of the word starving reminded Sokka of how hungry he really was. His stomach grumbled as he moved his legs slowly towards the edge of the bed. To his surprise he was able to stand on his own and his legs seemed to have regained their strength.

He followed Ara as she walked across the clearing to the women’s bunks, her building was straight across from his. The camp was quiet, and no prisoners were out meandering around like they were when he arrived yesterday. Sokka waited outside while she went inside to put her things away, when she came back she smiled and took his arm in her hands gently.

Ara was taller than he was, her thin body moved whimsically when she walked, which Sokka found odd considering she has been locked in this torture camp for 6 years. He couldn't imagine how that amount of time here could change someone. But somehow it seemed like Ara found strength in her situation and was using the experience to fuel her drive to make his life easier. Sokka could take a lesson from Ara.

“Do you need any help walking?”

“No, I think I’m ok. How did you get all that healing supplies anyway? When I got here I got some soap and shoes and that was it.”

They walked together, Ara’s arms swinging by her sides as she moved slowly to follow Sokka’s pace.

“When you have been here as long as I have, you get to know the different guards and other administration and which ones are friendly and which are not. I get ‘friendly’ with a few of the guards in return for supplies and leniency. It's not a perfect situation, but it's better than being burned and dying from infection.”

Sokka wasn’t sure what ‘getting friendly’ with the guards meant, but he had an idea. Rather not push the conversation past that, he switched his attention to the tent they were walking into. Scanning the large room he saw rows of metal tables and chairs and a line of tables with food on it towards the back. There were 3 prisoners behind the tables dishing out the food. Sokka imagined this place would be busy but right now there was no one in line for food and the room was almost empty.

“Where is everyone? Isn’t it still early?”

“Everyone else is at their work duty, morning starts at dawn and it is well past dawn. I’m sure you will get a work assignment soon, they won't let you just wander around without benefiting the camp.”

They approached the table and Sokka was given a small bowl filled with a grey paste like food. He was excited when the next person dished him some komodo-rhino bacon and the final stop gave him a stale biscuit. The fact that there was edible food on his tray in front of him was enough to bring a wide grin back to his face.

There were a few scattered cups on the side of the food table with what looked like cold tea in them. Sokka grabbed two cups and set them on his tray, he was so excited for this meal he almost skipped over to where Ara sat down. There were a few prisoners sitting at other tables and a few glances were shot his way but no one said anything to them.

They ate in silence for a while, the food was reviving Sokka’s exhausted brain and he could feel the coherency returning. He was about to ask Ara a question when a really tall heavy set man with thinning hair came up to their table and slammed his fist next to where Ara was eating.

She didn’t even flinch.

“WHY AREN’T YOU AT WORK ASSIGNMENT!?”

Sokka jumped out of his skin as the man yelled right next to Ara’s ear, he glanced at Sokka for a moment and paused. Sokka felt the panic beginning to rise in his chest, the fluttering beats of his heart were stifling his breathing.

“Stop it Chang, you’re scaring him!” Ara shot the tall man a glare as he laughed. He clutched his bulging belly as his deep roaring laughter echoed through the tent.

“I’m sorry… I just… Wait – are you a kid? Is this another kid?!” Chang leaned over the table getting a good look at Sokka who was trying very hard to act like everything that was happening was totally normal.

“How old are you kid?”

“Six-sixteen…”

“Are you fucking serious?! I’m going to talk to Zhao, are we running a prison or a daycare? I already have one fucking teenager to deal with and now Zhao is bringing me another one!? This is ridiculous. What did you do kid? Why are you here?”

Sokka swallowed the muck that the kitchen was calling conge, and cleared his throat. “I was taken from the Northern Water Tribe during the siege.”

“Well I heard that was a shit show, but why did Zhao bring you here kid? Like why are you sitting here in this camp with us?”

The man had light brown eyes, they were soft, and even with his harsh tone and booming voice his eyes reflected kindness and compassion. He might act tough, but the man sitting at the table with them was a nice person, at least that was what Sokka saw in his eyes. When he took too long to respond, Ara decided to speak for him.

“He was traveling with the Avatar and you know how Zhao is about the Avatar.”

Chang groaned and rubbed his face, letting his large hands run over his wrinkle complexion. His fingers lingered on the small gote on his chin, rubbing the hair lightly as he studied Sokka.

“I am having enough problems with the one teenager he decided to lock in this hell hole, I don’t need another one. Buddy to the Avatar or not.”

Ara shot him an unamused look. “No one asked you to babysit, you took that burden all on your own. You can stop at any time.”

The man smirked before his face fell into a fake sad downward smile.

“Oh Ara, don’t be so mean. We all need someone to watch our back, even you. I know there were times when you first arrived that having me watch your back helped you out. It's nice to not feel completely alone, even if there isn’t much I can do, I can still listen when you need someone to talk to.”

Ara’s eyes playfully glared at him for a moment longer before her face relaxed as she cracked her biscuit in half, before offering a piece to the man sitting next to her.

“Oh I don’t eat that shit, those biscuits are awful.”

Ara rolled her eyes, “Chang, you are in charge of the kitchen. It's your job to make sure this stuff is edible, you’re doing a terrible job.”

Chang shrugged, “ehhh, I mean Zhao isn’t really throwing out the big coins for me to go out and buy quality ingredients and I have a lot of mouths to feed, including now TWO growing teenage boys. If I have to buy a bag of rice that is possibly too old but I can get it for half price, then you bet your asshole I am buying the old rice.”

“That’s a disgusting thing to say.”

“What? Bet your asshole? It works for everyone cause everyone’s got an asshole. Back me up kid, you got an asshole right?”

Sokka was finished with his food as he watched Ara and Chang bicker back and forth, when he was asked if he had an asshole he was caught off guard.

“Yes… I have an asshole.”

“Good, don’t tell Zhao that though, guy might try to put something in it.”

Ara reached over and playfully smacked Chang’s arm. “Stop scaring him!”

“I’m not!”

Chang slowly stood up and stretched his arms up over his head, his slightly too small shirt rode up and some of his belly poked out. Chang brought his arms down and rubbed his gut smiling down at the two prisoners.

“Alright kid, you be careful. Don’t do anything stupid and stay out of trouble, I don’t need anymore gray hairs.”

“Your hair is getting very grey lately.” Ara said with a slight smugness.

“Well it's been happening over the last 5 months, ever since Zhao brought in that kid, now I have grays popping up everywhere! Kid’s got me stressed and now look – Another one, just now. Even talking about him gives me greys! I have a question for you Water Tribe kid… If you were restrained, and you were bleeding from being whipped and you didn’t have any energy left what would you do if a guard asked you if you have had enough?”

Sokka blinked, was that his future Chang was describing, was that what Zhao was going to do to him?

“I don’t think I would say anything…”

Chang slammed his hands on the table before pointing at Sokka but looking at Ara. “SEE! That is right! Good job kid! You don’t say ANYTHING, but you know what you really don’t do… You don’t spit in the man’s face.”

Sokka’s eyes went wide, no he would definitely not be spitting in any guards faces. Especially if they were restraining and whipping him.

Ara rolled her eyes, “Just because Prince Zuko has a death wish doesn’t mean that he needs your protection.”

Sokka’s face went cold, did Prince Zuko have a twin? Another secret Prince Zuko who was sent to this prison camp to rot while the evil twin was left out to wreak havoc on the world.

“Did you say Prince Zuko?” Sokka asked and both Chang and Ara looked at him.

Chang’s eyebrow twitched like he was going to say something different then the words that left his lips.

“Yeah, but we aren’t allowed to call him a prince anymore his title has been stripped.” Chang looked over at Ara, “and I would love it if he would die alright? I honestly don’t know how he isn’t dead yet but as long as he is breathing I am going to keep an eye out for him. Just like I did for you when you first got here and you were 16 and full of angst.”

Ara ignored him and looked at Sokka. “Do you know Zuko?”

“Yeah kind of, he chased me and my friends around the world for a while. I haven’t seen him in months…” It all clicked slowly, they hadn't seen Zuko because he was locked up in here. But how? Why?

Ara scoffed. “Well he has been gracing us with his presence for months now. If I were you I would stay as far away from him as possible, he has the full attention of Zhao and you don’t want to get caught in that crossfire. So if I were you, I would keep my distance. He isn’t the most well liked person in the camp to say the least, both guards and prisoners have a problem with him and if you don’t want any problems you should stay away.”

Sokka glanced up at Chang, just in time to see anger set into Chang’s face, it left as quickly as it came, but Sokka could see there was a strong presence of anger inside of the man, under all that kindness and good humor. It was something to keep an eye on and Sokka was going to make sure he didn’t trigger the massive man’s anger.

“Zhao’s a monster.” Is all Chang said before he left their table and started barking orders at the prisoners he had dishing food.

“Chang is weird, but he is really nice. He does kind things out of the goodness of his heart and doesn’t ask for anything in return. He is in charge of the kitchen, as I am sure you figured out from our conversation. If you get the luxury of getting a work assignment in his kitchen you’ll be happy you did, but other people might be pissed at you. Just watch your back. Now that Chang knows you’re so young he will probably request you and if you get assigned to him it’ll make other prisoners mad. They don't care how old you are, they will come after you.”

Sokka swallowed. He still needed to read his rule parchment but so far he was following his own set of rules.

1. Stay away from Pri- no, no prince, just Zuko. Stay away from Zuko. That would be the easiest rule to follow, ever.

2. Keep on Chang’s good side.

3. Don’t piss Zhao off, try and tell as close to the truth as possible without giving up his friends.

 

Sokka felt a soft hand touch his shoulder, looking over at Ara she was smiling at him, it felt familiar and comforting.

“It will be ok Sokka, you just have to get used to things, just try your best to avoid drawing attention to yourself. The more you blend into the background, the less people will want to fuck with you. Would you like me to introduce you to a few of my friends later?”

Sokka nodded, he tried to keep down the lump that was nuzzling itself into his throat. He smiled at his new friend, the woman who picked him out of the dirt and helped carry him into his bed. She dressed his wounds and has done nothing but treat him with respect and kindness, was there any way to repay her? Right now, no. But Sokka vowed that when he escaped out of here he would take her with him, she deserved her freedom.

“I would love to meet your friends… Thanks for everything Ara.”

“Oh no problem sweetie, it’s my pleasure. Now let’s get you back into bed, if you have to meet up with Zhao again today you’ll want some rest.”

Sokka nodded and followed Ara’s movements as she picked up her metal tray, walking over to another table she dumped the bowls and chopsticks into a big bin and set the tray in an empty bin. Sokka followed suit, he was thankful to have someone who had camp experience or he would be hopelessly lost.

The walk back to his bunk was agonizing as the pain flared up in his hand and his body ached with every shaky step he took. Thinking to himself as they slowly made their way back to his bunk, he wondered if his body would eventually get used to the pain. Would he acclimate to the hot, dull ache that climbed around under his skin?

When he finally laid down in his bed, his body melted into the stiff mattress and his eyes fluttered close without any effort. After the harsh traveling conditions, lack of proper food and water and then suffering through an interrogation, his body was in desperate need for real rest.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka was jolted awake by the sounds of yelling outside of his bunk, there were multiple voices being thrown around. Two of the voices sounded aggressive, shouting at one another, two males from what Sokka could gather. There was another prisoner in the building with him who looked to be wrapping his arm with blood stained bandages.

They made brief eye contact, the man nodded a greeting before returning to wrapping his arm. Sokka stood up, his legs wavered from the weight of his body, but the new found strength he obtained from the food and rest came flooding in. His body felt stronger, even through the pulsing pain from his still tender injuries.

The only really noticeable pain, was from his hand, it was a hot burning sensation and the heat made Sokka’s mouth feel dry. He needed to find a place to get some water, maybe Ara would help him out?

The yelling broke out again, this time followed by a grunt and more screaming. Sokka’s curiosity outweighed his timidness as he slowly sauntered over to the door and peeked outside. He saw around 15 prisoners and a few scattered guards lingering around two men exchanging blows.

It wasn’t surprising that the guards were not breaking up the fight, Sokka assumed anyone that would work for Zhao had to be slightly manic. One of the men fighting was thrown onto his back, with a loud grunt his opponent took the opportunity to kick the fallen man in the face one, two, three times. Sokka shuddered as he watched the blood trickle out of the man’s face. Gasping for air, the sound brought a cold feeling to Sokka’s heart when the memories of the dying Water Tribe prisoner flashed through his mind.

Sokka’s eyes caught a smaller person trying to move through the crowd, doing his best to avoid all the commotion. The prisoner was much smaller than the other full grown men, and he had scruffy dark hair that was an absolute wreck. He was covered in black smears, just like half the men standing around, they must have just returned from the coal mines.

Sokka recognized the boy from the first day he was brought to camp, the brief moment when he was waiting for his interrogation. That person was Zhao’s ‘special prisoner’ at least that’s what Sokka was going to assume. He swore he recognized the wild jet black hair.

The boy was moving around the circle of prisoners who were watching the two men fight. As the boy approached a guard, his head shifted downward as if to hide his face from recognition.

It didn’t work.

The guard stopped him and gave him a hard shove and the boy’s feet slid across the sand as he was pushed into the commotion. That’s when Sokka saw the boy’s arms were chained together at the wrist, he held them in front of his body, bending his elbows upward to balance himself so he wouldn’t hit the ground from the force.

Sokka winced as the fighting men tumbled closer to the coal covered person, he ducked under one of the punches not aimed for him. He fully turned to face the attacking men, shifting into a crouched position he began to move back slowly, avoiding the guard who pushed him into the fight in the first place. Blood stained the dirt, as the two men were losing momentum.

Would the guards let them fight to the death? Would anyone stop them?

“What is happening here?” Sokka’s skin crawled as Zhao stepped into the open area. The energy was sucked from the crowd immediately as the guards pushed everyone back and kept the prisoners away from Zhao. Even though, not a single person dared approach the Admiral.

Zhao’s eyes scanned the scene and Sokka saw the moment his eyes hit the scruffy boy standing off to the side, trying his best to make himself invisible. Sokka watched Zhao pinch the bridge of his nose and close his eyes shaking his head. When he lifted his eyes again Sokka saw a sinister smile trace his lips.

“Zuko… What are you doing?”

Sokka stopped, oh shit.

“I’m not doing anything.” Zuko’s rough raspy voice hit Sokka’s ears and a warm feeling spread through his chest. He hated Zuko, but the sound of his voice brought familiar memories of his sister, Aang and the South Pole. With how lonely and torturous this entire situation has been it was nice to hear a familiar voice. Even if it was Zuko’s stupid voice.

“Why are you fighting?”

“I’m not fighting.”

Sokka was surprised by Zuko’s defiance, or maybe he wasn’t. Zuko never backed down from anything.

Zhao looked at his guards, pointing at one of them. “Speak, what happened here.” The guard’s arms began to tremble and he spoke with a wobble in his voice.

“Chan and Ze got into it and began fighting, we were letting them work out their differences and then Zuko decided to interfere and escalated the situation-”

“WHAT!?”

“-we were in the process of-“

“I’ll fucking show you escalating a situation!”

“-he is the reason the fight-“

“You cant possibly believe this fucking guy!?”

Zhao had moved his hand back to his nose, his eyes were closed and he shook his head. Zuko was fuming, Sokka could swear he saw the steam radiating off the young Prince- well, prisoner from where he was standing.

“Chan, Ze, five lashes. Zuko, cooler, and i'll deal with him later.”

“You’re not throwing me in that cooler again Zhao. Fuck you.”

Sokka’s jaw dropped, he watched Zuko shift into a fighting position, his arms still chained together in front of him. Some of the guards had already moved in, more were arriving at the scene every moment. Chan and Ze were covered in blood and Sokka was convinced the one man, he wasn’t sure which one he was, was missing his front teeth now.

Zhao didn’t even glance at the two fighters, his eyes were fixed on Zuko as he still crouched in a fighting position, his elbows bent and his arms raised to his chest. Sokka couldn’t recognize him still, if Zaho had not called him Zuko, Sokka would argue there was no way this guy was the former Prince of the Fire Nation.

Gone was the pony tail, the armor, the evil presence looming over them as he screamed about catching the Avatar and honor. He looked so small next to the other prisoners, and as Zhao began advancing towards him, Sokka could see how much smaller Zuko really was next to a full grown man. All this time Sokka was convinced that Prince Zuko- Damn it- Prisoner Zuko was an adult, but remembering what Chang said and then seeing him standing close to Zhao for comparison, Sokka was beginning to think he wasn’t much older than him.

The pony tail had given him extra height, that must have been why he always looked so tall.

“Zuko, you should watch the way you address me. You are wearing my patience thin.”

Zuko straightened himself to his full height, which was still significantly shorter than Zhao. “I’ll address you however I want and we all already know you don’t have any patience.”

Zhao’s brow furrowed as he glanced away from Zuko for the first time and nodded at the guards. “Take this brat to the cooler and leave him there until I tell you to bring him out.”

“Fuck you Zhao.”

“I will see you soon, Zuko.”

Zhao smirked and turned his back on the fire bender who glanced at the six guards that were closing in on him. The prisoners for the most part had dispersed but Sokka could see their lingering eyes wanting to watch Zuko get dragged back to the coolers.

One of the guards pulled out his whip as he struck at the boy, Zuko ducked under the crack of the leather and kicked his legs out as he spun on the floor. He took out two guards who were close enough to him to get their ankles hooked by his legs. Using the momentum from the spin Zuko jumped up and kicked another of the guards in the jaw, there was a terrible cracking sound and the man fell in a fit of screaming.

The two guards he knocked down were raising back to their feet as the other three were moving closer. Sokka was impressed with the way Zuko fought the men with both his wrists chained together, he was quick, way too fast for the guards to land a hit. But when they brought out multiple whips, Sokka saw Zuko hesitate.

A blow from a fist hurt, Sokka knew that now. But to be struck by a whip, that would be agonizing. Which is why when two of the guards pulled out their leather whips and two of the other men created their own fire whips Sokka’s heart leaped to his throat.

When the men started lashing out with their whips Zuko put his arms up to block his face, it seemed like the movement was more instinctive vs strategy, and one of the leather whips curled around his forearm. He let out a hiss of pain before pulled his arm back and releasing himself from the whip. Zuko then dropped to the ground to avoid being struck by another man’s fire whip.

Zuko balanced his body on his flattened palms and kicked his legs out, striking one of the guards in the knee, another horrifying cracking sound echoed between the buildings, followed by screaming.

Zuko jumped back to his feet, two guards down and four to go. Sokka found himself silently rooting for Zuko, even though he hated the fire bender, it was nice to see someone standing up to Zhao and his men. Even if it was his arch nemesis.

Another crack of the whip caught Zuko’s back, the boy let out a gasp and turned to face the man who struck him. The guard’s arms were unsteady under the fire bender's angry eyes. Zuko had to quickly shift to the side to avoid another whip attack coming from his right. The four men were attacking faster now, Zuko ducked under another attack and this time one of the guards whipped his fire whip out and around Zuko’s leg.

The guards were trying to break his stance, and unfortunately for Zuko it worked. He hit the ground hard, before the guard could land a mother hit he rolled out of the way. The closest guard advanced too quickly as Zuko kicked up his leg, catching the man in the chest. This time there wasn’t a cracking sound, but the man’s blood curdling scream was evidence enough that the contact had inflicted some sort of damage.

The guard fell back and then there were three. The guards seemed hesitant to approach the fire bender who laid on his back in the dirt, his chest heaving from the energy it took to fight these men while bound.

Sokka was wondering why he didn’t bend at the men, he knew from fighting- ok from watching Aang fight Zuko, that the fire bender could bend with his feet.

“ENOUGH!” Sokka’s head snapped over to the Warden, his back straight and his arm bent, hand gripping the handle of his sword while his other hand rested on the handle of his whip. “What seems to the be the problem here? Could it be that six of my guards can not handle a restrained, teenage, bending suppressed BOY!?

Zuko’s back was facing Sokka, the other boy was sitting up now, Sokka could see the tear in the prison uniform where the whip had made contact with his back. As Zuko watched the guards, Sokka kept his eyes on the warden. The situation was tense, and Sokka was extremely curious about what was going to happen next.

He wouldn’t get to see what happened next as his spectating was interrupted by a different guard.

“Water Tribe, let’s go.”

“You know, Sokka would be just fine.”

The guard looked extremely unamused, “Zhao is ready for you.”

Sokka swallowed.

Oh, great.

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 5: The Flying Lemur?

There he was again, sitting awkwardly across from Zhao, this time they were not alone. Sokka sat quietly at the familiar table, watching the Admiral have a hushed discussion with another soldier. The soldier had his Fire Nation helmet resting between his arm and torso as he leaned over the table pointing at a world map. There were various scrolls scattered around the two men as they mumbled softly between themselves.

Sokka’s curiosity was stifled by the bubbling fear festering in his stomach. Of course, he wanted to know the Fire Nation’s evil battle plans. That way, when he escaped from this torture camp, he could bring war changing information to Aang and Katara. He would find his sister, her and Aang would cry as they embraced him in a tight, loving, missed-you-so-much-hug. He would tell them about the secret war information he stole from stupid Admiral Zhao and they would be so excited.

Maybe, it would be such valuable intel they would have to find his dad and give it to the Chief personally. Then his dad would be so obviously impressed, he would ask Sokka to strategize with him and use the information he brought to bring an end to the war. Sokka would stand next to his father, tall and proud, and all the horrible memories of this entire prisoner situation would be far behind him. He would never have to think of Zhao or-

“Water Tribe savage!”

Before Sokka’s mind could finish playing out his imaginary escape with battle plans and find Katara and Aang vision of the future, Zhao’s pleasant voice broke down his daydream.

Shaking his head, Sokka focused his vision across the dark wood that separated him and Zhao. The Admiral was frowning at him with his arms crossed, the soldier who had been holding a helmet was no longer standing next to Zhao. The helmet holding soldier now stood against the side wall, three other soldiers stood proud in various positions around the room.

The Admiral stood alone and tall, the large war map still open and spread out on the table. Zhao continued to wear his grand armor, the cape was a little much for just interrogating a lowly Water Tribe savage, but he could always appreciate someone’s love for dramatics.

Oh how Zhao loved his dramatics.

Sokka’s burnt hand throbbed at the memory of Zhao pouring the scolding tea water onto his unprotected flesh, an involuntary shudder crept down his spine. Zhao’s amber eyes landed on the wrapped injury he had inflicted just yesterday.

“Who wrapped that for you?”

Sokka didn’t expect Zhao to ask him that, what was protocol for helping other prisoners?

Why didn’t he read the damn rule parchment?

Would Zhao torture him to gather information on who wrapped his hand?

The thoughts were overwhelming, there were too many questions and no one to answer them. Zhao would never tell him if he was going to torture him or not, he enjoyed the squirming of his victims too much.

But on the other hand. Zhao liked to pride himself on being a ‘merciful and fair’ Admiral.

So… Sokka could use that to his advantage. Or at least try.

“If I tell you who helped me, will they violate one of the hundreds of rules this place has and get punished?”

Sokka tried not to spit out of the words too quickly as his bottom lip trembled from the fear he was desperately trying to push away. Being afraid of Zhao wouldn’t help him escape and it definitely wouldn’t make this situation any easier, he had to swallow the fear and use this time to feel out his captor. He needed to gather intel, or something like that.

“Have you even read the rules they gave you during your processing?” Zhao’s hand was rubbing his bushy brown eyebrows, flailing the hairs everywhere. He seemed annoyed, but not hostile, as of yet. Sokka felt it was safe to continue trying to have a conversation, trending carefully.

“I am going to read it, I have just been… A little caught up.” Sokka couldn’t help but let a slight smile pull the corners of his lips when his eyes met with Zhao. It felt good to look his torturer in the eyes without trembling in uncontrollable fear, hopefully it wouldn’t backfire.

Ha, backfire. Fire benders can’t bend fire out of their back… Can they?

“I’m sorry, am I keeping you from getting acquainted with your new home? I see you don’t have an issue making friends. I am just curious which friends you decided to latch onto. You are the only Water Tribe prisoner in this prison camp, and most of these people have probably never met a Water Tribe savage. You have my word whoever wrapped your hand will not be punished, I only inquire for my own personal satisfaction.”

Zhao did a hand gesture that included one hand vertically flat and open with the other hand balled in a fist, he put both hands together to form a sign between them. Sokka guessed it was some fancy Fire Nation hand symbol for ‘I won't be as evil as I could be for just a moment’. The motion reminded him vaguely of the Water Tribe hand clasp, both motions involved another person and they both included a trust between them.

Zhao could do 100 Fire Nation hand symbols and Sokka still wouldn’t trust him. The man radiated evil, maybe this is what it was like being in the presence of the Fire Lord. If any living man would radiate evil it would have to be Fire Lord Ozai, Zhao was a close second and then the warden, because he was all sorts of messed up too.

“Ok, as long as you Fire Nation swear she won't get hurt… Ara helped me, she was the one who wrapped my hand.” Sokka felt like a traitor for letting her sweet name be tainted by being spoken in the presence of Zhao.

The man chuckled, a full smile displayed across his face. Sokka remembered Ara’s warning, ’no matter what, try to keep Zhao from smiling. If he starts to enjoy the torture he might start doing it for fun.’

Sokka tried to think of another topic, or something else he could say to shift the interrogation away from Ara. But the alternative topic of Aang didn’t seem like the best fallback plan either. His mind felt like someone was stuttering, he was trying to get his thoughts together but they kept tumbling around, making it impossible to think straight.

“Ara is a sweet girl, she tends to take pity on those who are weak. I am not surprised she took a liking to you, look at you, a weak non-bender who doesn’t even have enough useful information to keep himself alive. I should just kill you and save the energy that it would take trying to gather up the half lies you spew out of your mouth. Or I could send in my most enthusiastic guards and let them have a go at you, oh how you will wish I had killed you. Or finally, I could give you a chance to provide me with something useful, give me something that might save your pathetic life.”

Zhao slid a map in his direction, turning it so Sokka could see the details of the Western Earth Kingdom and the waters surrounding it, all the way to the Northern Water Tribe. Sokka scanned the map carefully, his eyes not daring to breakaway for a moment if this ended up being a cruel trick of some sorts.

A well thought out trick, one that tugged on the strings of his curiosity and played him like an instrument. Sokka could not resist a good map. No less, a map that was giving him detailed information of the area surrounding his incarceration location.

Dead tiger-seal pups, Katara crying, Fire Nation winning the war, ummm…. He needed to think of another sad topic so he could refrain from smiling. Sokka was struggling to contain the sheer joy that was causing his fingers to tingle in anticipation as his hands reached out and slid the map closer. Staring down at the details, he saw familiar town names, his eyes landed on Pohuai Stronghold, which was located on the coast.

Perfect.

So that means they must docked at this port, and would have either traveled North or-

“Are you going to try and memorize that map?” Zhao’s chilling tone interrupted Sokka’s joy.

“Let me guess… You are trying to figure out where we are and what different escape routes you can come up with? Are you confident enough in your strategic abilities that you will actually escape from this place? Do you want to know what I think? I think you are a stupid and confused boy. Because when I look at you, I see a prisoner, and when I see myself, I see an Admiral in the most powerful nation in the world. We are in the positions we are in for a reason, this was no mistake. You’re a weak prisoner, and I am a powerful Admiral, don’t forget your place.”

Sokka’s throat dried as he kept his gaze fixed exclusively on the map laying on the table in front of him. He could hear Zhao’s hateful monologue just like he could feel Zhao’s eyes on him. The threats and aggression in Zhao’s voice were lost on a boy who was determined to escape, he didn’t care what he had to do… He would be leaving this place.

When Sokka didn’t say anything in response to Zhao’s threatening speech, the man stood and slowly made his way around the table. His heavy footsteps echoed in the quiet room as Zhao strolled closer. Sokka interrupted his focus from the map to fix his blue eyes on Zhao’s movements, and the man moved slowly around the gold trimmed table. His index finger swirling a greasy trail along the polished surface.

Zhao settled on standing directly behind Sokka with his body leaning forward as his sharp eyes peered over Sokka’s shoulder. Sokka swallowed a couple times to clear his parched throat before addressing the situation.

“Is there something I can help you with?” Sokka tried to say it in the most non-aggressive tone he could muster up. He knew it sounded sarcastic, but it really was an honest question, what did Zhao want Sokka’s help with?

“I want you to mark up the route you and the Avatar took to the Northern Water Tribe. I want details, where you stopped and how long you were there. Be as specific as you can, I want to know exactly where you were before arriving in the North.”

Sokka knew Zhao would use this information for something, but as he sat in the, kind of comfortable (but still evil) Fire Nation chair, he contemplated what Zhao would have to gain from this information.

Was it strategy?

Aang had many redeeming qualities, but he was no master strategist, most of his travel decisions lingered between a giant koi-fish or a snuggly moose-lion cub. Sokka could give Zhao every stop they took on the way to the Northern Water Tribe and the Admiral would never learn anything from it.

Sokka saved his luck for a time when he would need it more, what Zhao was asking him to do wouldn’t help him find Aang. So Sokka nodded to Zhao and the man slipped him an unmarked world map and Sokka went to work marking up everywhere they went on their journey.

Luckily, Zhao moved back a couple paces and stood far enough away from Sokka that he finally stopped sweating from the heat the larger man emitted.

Were all fire benders this hot?

Zhao still watched over his shoulder as he dipped his brush in the fresh ink, tracing the bristles over the ocean. Sokka retold a silent story of his adventures with his sister and the Avatar.

Once he was finished, tears gathered in the corners of his eyes as Sokka relaxed against the back of the chair, exhaling slowly while he admired his markings. It was a clearly drawn map, including all the loops, backtracks, and nonsense pit stops Aang made him take. He hoped it was everything Zhao imagined it to be.

To Sokka’s surprise Zhao moved around him and took the map in his hands, lifting off the table he held it out in front of him. His amber eyes scanned the information Sokka provided, he calmly set the map on the table before he walked out of the room and down a dimly lit hallway. Sokka couldn’t see exactly where the Admiral wandered off to, but he wasn’t gone too long.

Returning with a scroll tube in hand, Zhao walked up next to Sokka and roughly pushed his map back in front of him. Sokka instinctively reached up and put both hands on the map, smoothing the edges and making sure the thick parchment stayed wrinkle free. He couldn't help but send a small glare up at the Admiral for being so rough with his masterpiece.

Zhao opened the scroll’s container with a sharp pop as the lid snapped open. Zhao retrieved another map from inside and spread it down next to the one Sokka made and the Water Tribe boy’s jaw dropped.

The map was almost identical, of course, there were small errors and the paths over the ocean were not as detailed. But still, almost all their stops and flight paths were clearly marked on Zhao’s copy of the map. Sokka’s eyes continued to scan the copy-cat map, which couldn’t really be a copy because Sokka had literally just drawn up his map only minutes ago.

“What is that?” Sokka’s curious words broke the silence.

Zhao smirked, leaning over the maps he compared the two by sliding Sokka’s map on the table in front of him, resting it just above the not-a-copy map. The man pulled himself back to his perfect postured military stance, his arms crossed comfortably over his chest.

“This… This is a map one of my other prisoners drew up for me after a long discussion. I wanted to compare and I must say, he wasn’t too far off. They are very similar.”

Zhao leaned in again, his finger tracing over one of the loops drawn in the route over the ocean between the Southern Air Temple and Kyoshi Island. It was weird that both maps would include the very out of the ordinary, loopy motion. Sokka noticed Zhao’s gaze lingering.

“Aang was scratching Appa’s head and he accidentally released the reins. Appa was enjoying the scratching so much, he was flying slightly to the right and we didn’t notice until he was all the way turned around and headed back to the South Pole! Funny right?” Sokka smiled at Zhao who didn’t give an inkling of joy in return.

The Admiral didn’t say anything as he gathered up both maps rolling them together he slid them into the scroll tube, pressing the lid closed with extra force. The silence lingered in the air as Zhao left the room again, disappearing down the same hallway, leaving Sokka to tap his fingers nervously against the table.

Zhao returned, leading himself back to his side of the interrogation table, he sat himself across from Sokka and rested his arms on the tabletop. “So, shall we begin?”

Sokka didn’t have time to register before two soldiers changed positions, their movements were calm and calculated as they moved to stand next to him. One on each side, their face plates making them invisible to him, he would never recognize a face pate. Except maybe Denty, but he hasn’t seen Denty since arriving, he doubted he would ever see that guy again.

Zhao leaned back, lacing his fingers together he gave a short nod and Sokka barely registered the fist connecting to his right cheek bone. He didn’t hear a crack, but he sure as shit felt one. The pain radiated across his face, stinging his eyes and nose before jolting down his throat. Coughing, Sokka desperately tried to catch his breath before a different fist struck him from his left. The strike landed from a downward motion, the taller men had to aim low to hit the imprisoned teenager.

What a sick place this war has brought them to.

Would these men do this to their sons? Or their village children? Is this just who they were or were they just playing a role during war? Was it ok to do something so horrid to him because he was Water Tribe and not Fire Nation?

The hits kept coming, until Sokka’s face bled and his head screamed, but to his surprise his eyes stayed open. After the strikes stopped, Sokka slid his tongue over his teeth, just to check and make sure they were all still there. The vain person inside of him worried more about his pearly smile then the fact that his skin was split and bruises were forming along the edges of his eyes and jaw.

Sokka’s breathing was ragged, the blood was sliding down his face and dripping slowly off his chin. It was a weird sensation, one that Sokka chose not to dwell on, given his present situation. His blue eyes wobbled their way off the table and onto Zhao, who was leaning back smiling.

Sokka has never wanted to be violent towards anyone more than he wants to inflict pain onto Zhao.

“You looked too comfortable there, Water Tribe, I just wanted to make sure I have your full attention. Now that it seems I have it, tell me, if I gave you a map of the Earth Kingdom do you think you could draw me a prediction of which way the Avatar would travel?”

Sokka knew that he could fake that, but he also could be walking into a trap. Zhao might expect him to make a fake map, giving him more of a reason to hurt him… But did Zhao really need a reason to hurt him? He could do whatever he wanted for whatever reason, which was a thought he would rather not think about. He decided to risk it all and try his luck with drawing a map.

“I can try-y.” Of course, his voice cracked.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka sat there too long, trying to fake imagine Aang and also kind of remember Aang, so he could make it believable enough to make Zhao follow, but not so believable that it actually worked.

Sokka finally finished the insane map, full of loops, backtracks, pit stops and sight sees. If Aang followed this route then he would still be in the massive Si Wong Desert by the time the comet hit. It was an impossibly long journey but Sokka put thought into every stop and made sure he listed out the different creatures Aang would want to ride along the way.

He was actually extremely proud of his map, he felt like it did Aang justice. All those Appa rides that Sokka had to listen to Aang ramble excitedly about the big rideable thingy, those fuzzy whats-it-called, the best place to wind surf or some other reckless air bending shenanigans really paid off when putting together his fake journey.

Sokka leaned back away from the table to give Zhao extra space when he pulled the map away from him. Even with the pain in his face, Sokka’s lips twitched when the Admiral’s facial expression turned confused. His eyes scanned the map over a few times before rolling it up and binding it with twine. Zhao set it off to the side before his gaze fixed back on Sokka, his brow was furrowed as the older man studied the Water Tribe boy.

Swallowing, Sokka’s mind didn’t wander, he stayed present in this moment; mentally preparing himself for the next attack. “So what are you to the Avatar?” Zhao’s question came out of nowhere.

“Me? I am the… Uhh… I am the non-bender, you know, the guy everyone sees but knows he isn’t that important.” Sokka says the words to cover up the idea that Zhao could use him to lure Aang and Katara into a trap. Even though the words were exaggerated for Zhao, the truth still lay behind them and they still hurt to say. Sokka knew he was the non bender, but he liked to think that his badass leadership skills and all the manly hunting and gathering he did made him play a bigger role in the group. He hoped at least.

But there was always a possibility it didn’t matter, that they would be just fine without him. Whenever he really gave that dark idea much thought he tried not to remember when Katara got herself sent to a Fire Nation prison, on purpose. She was so confident in her bending that she purposely put herself in the same position Sokka was in right now. But thankfully, she didn’t escape her prison beat down and broken, the way Sokka felt right now.

“You must play a bigger role than the flying bison?” Zhao snickered. “The girl traveling with the Avatar is a water bender, am I right? You two are related, siblings if I remember correctly, isn’t that sweet.”

Sokka’s heart sunk into his stomach... How would Zhao know that Katara was his sister. Aside from the super similar complexion, blue eyes, constant bickering… Ok, so maybe it wasn’t that hard to tell they were siblings.

“Yes, Katara is my sister, and she is a powerful water bender, the last of the Southern Water Tribe.” He felt pride when he described his sister, she would blush if she heard the admiration he carried in his tone for her. “Oh and I would be honored to be as important as Appa.”

“Isn’t that so sweet, no one cares about a teenage water bender, I only wish to gather information that will lead me to destroy the Avatar.”

“I thought you people just wanted to capture the Avatar…” Sokka let his voice trail off.

Zhao smirked. “Well with the comet coming in a couple of months, if the dead Avatar is reincarnated in one of the Water Tribes we will eliminate them the same way we did the Air Nomads. We now have enough about the mysterious Northern Water Tribe from the infiltration that just happened not even a full cycle ago. If we do a repeat of that and they don’t have their precious Avatar to save them this time combined with the power from the comet, they will all be destroyed. The Southern Tribe has already been reduced to rubble, it will take only one fleet to slaughter all the women and children that the men left behind.”

Sokka felt the burning rage simmering in the pit of his empty stomach, this man was sick, the Fire Nation is sick, this whole situation was fucked.

He felt the rage transform into blinding anger, his vision tunneled as he stood up from his chair preparing to launch himself towards Zhao. How dare him threaten to slaughter his tribe and murder his friend, the very idea of that happening pushed Sokka over the edge.

Everything that was bottled up inside of him from the murder ship, the metal box, the torture camp… Everything was pouring out into his chest. Burning his body from the inside out as his emotions pushed their way to his surface. A scream left his throat, coming out broken and desperate then the anger he felt.

Before Sokka could propel himself over the table at Zhao, the two soldiers still standing on both sides of him, pushed him onto the floor. His knees hit the ground hard, his eyes meeting the edge of the table. His obstructed vision saw a glimpse of Zhao standing up from his seat and moving out of sight.

Sokka turned his head to see where Zhao went but the soldier grasped his skull so easily inside his large hand and forcefully turned his head back to facing the edge of the table. Sokka couldn’t see Zhao but he heard him speak from somewhere behind him.

“I want you to rough him up nice and good and then bring him out to the whipping post. I think we will make an example out of this one.”

Sokka’s body went from burning with rage to freezing in fear, his limbs started to tremble while his lungs burned for air. There was no time find air before he felt the familiar pain that can only be inflicted by the tip of a Fire Nation solider’s boot. The men kicked him before grabbing him by the base of his wolf's-tail and hoisting him to his feet before delivering a painful blow to the stomach. Doubling over, he was released and allowed to hit the floor. They took turns pulling him up and then knocking him to the floor.

The next time Sokka was pulled to his feet when it came time for him to take the hit, he ducked, pulling his hair out of the second soldier's grip.

The soldier scoffed and Sokka smirked, it was a satisfying moment that only lasted briefly before the other soldier swiped his foot underneath him, hooking one of his ankles and knocking Sokka onto the floor. They stepped on him a final couple times, their heels digging into his flesh breaking and bruising his untarnished skin.

Sokka felt himself being lifted, his vision was swirling, sending his world into a slow dance. When the bright-ass-sunlight touched his eyes, Sokka squeezed them shut and tried to gain his footing knowing the steps were approaching.

He did not catch his footing, and the soldiers didn’t hesitate to drag his flailing legs over each step until he felt the hot earth on his bare feet. His stupid shoes must have fallen off when he was dragged down the steps, which wasn’t surprising. He hated those shoes.

Sokka’s eyes finally adjusted to the sunlight just in time to see a familiar set of 3 wooden poles positioned in a row behind the mess hall. Sokka was knelt in front of one of the poles, blinking at the adjustment, he looked around he saw prisoners beginning to gather. His wrists were bound around the pole, so he was forced to hug the wood, his face close enough that he could rest his cheek on the smooth surface.

But when Sokka looked at the wood closely, he could see all the different discoloration and marks around the area. It was a mixture of blood, dirt, sweat, tears and desperation. Sokka could swear there were teeth marks in the wood, indicating that someone tried to chew through their restraints or the pole itself.

He wondered how many people had died on this pole?

What kind of suffering happened right where Sokka was kneeling?

The crippling fear he felt on the ship returned, giving him tunnel vision, as the soldiers pulled up his prison tunic. Sokka could hear Zhao’s voice in the background but he didn't listen. Instead, he buried his face in between his arms, resting his cheek on his right bicep. Zhao’s voice still rang out in the background as Sokka’s world slowed down.

Everything went silent for one… two… three… breaths before the first crack of the whip.

The pain was unlike anything Sokka could have ever imagined being possible. It rivaled the burn he received defending the ice wall, even though that pain didn’t last long thanks to magic water. He wouldn't be so lucky this time, this time he would have to live with the repercussions. There would not be a sweet Water Tribe healer to come make the pain go away.

How small his problems seemed back then…

Another crack of the whip sliced across his shoulder blades, crossing over the first slash, marking his back with a painful x. The third time the whip cracked Sokka saw stars, the pain was so spread across his back he could barely recognize where the whip hit.

Sokka knew he was screaming, he could feel his throat ripping as the pain vocalized itself through his screaming sobs. The fourth time the whip cracked, Sokka couldn’t hold his head up anymore, it rolled between his arms a few times before he finally pressed his forehead against the pole’s surface.

He was bloody and broken too, just like all those before him.

The final time the whip cracked against his back and his tunnel vision began to close and the darkness took over.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

His shoulders ache, dust coats the inside walls of his throat

Finally, the pressure releases and his arms fall by his side

He can’t move them

Slumping forward, his face sliding downward against the broken-people-pole

Soft hands touch him

Strong hands pick him up

Words are spoke to him, they are muffled and deep

A smaller voice, a familiar word

Sweetie

Why does that make his chest warm?

Darkness returns

The pain wakes him

The throbbing, burning, angry pain that makes his arms and legs trash

Fight through the pain

Fight the pain

Strong hands holding him down

Green eyes

Amber eyes

Zhao

No…

Not Zhao

Pain, so much pain

Cooling creams, soft bandages

In and out, light and dark, alone and together

He finally wakes up

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka’s eyelids were heavy as he pried them open, one at a time. Once both his eyes were successfully open, the soft light of morning was just starting to spill down from the sky light. Sokka tried to sit himself up, which only resulted in heavy amounts of pain throbbing through his midsection.

Sokka noticed that when the men in his cabin began preparing for the day, no one even gave him a second glance. It was as if he didn’t exist, the strangers ignored him like he was already dead.

Maybe he was going to die and everyone already knew it... even though he didn’t exactly feel like he was going to die.

He was in tremendous amounts of pain, yes. His body felt like it belonged to someone else, yes. But he didn’t feel like he was knocking on death's door.

Sokka let his mind be distracted with ideas of how it would feel to knock on death’s door. Would it be a scary door? Would it be attached to a death house? He wondered. Would it be decorated with skulls and bones and rotten food?

Sokka could escape into his mind when life was too overwhelming, he did it frequently after his mother died. He remembered Katara crying, she cried so deep for the loss of their mom. Sokka remembered his father’s hushed sobs in the silent night, whenever Katara would stop after she finally fell asleep; his dad would start. His dad didn’t know anyone could hear him, he thought Sokka was asleep. But Sokka was awake and he could hear him.

Sokka would let his mind wander during those nights, thinking of fun new game ideas, maybe an innovative invention or funny pretend scenarios, he always succeeded in making himself laugh. It was in those moments where he withdrew into himself, that Sokka taught himself how to cope with humor. He was always a funny kid, just like his dad, but he really began using humor in his everyday life after his mom died.

He wanted to fix problems, he loved finding creative solutions and coming up with clever ways to plan out an idea. Humor was his comfort zone, and relying on that gave him an advantage, because no one ever expected his words to influence a situation. In a world raised in war, men would often only look to violence when trying to solve their problems.

But many times, Sokka was able to talk through a situation, using humor as a distraction while he executed his plan behind the scenes. So Sokka was trying to withdraw into himself to find comfort, by imagining death as a real person, with a house and maybe some pelts on his imaginary wall.

Why not.

The sun was fully shining down into his bunkhouse, which was empty now, besides himself. Sokka couldn't help but begin to get worried and restless, shuffling around his lower body to gage his different pain levels. It wasn’t until he saw Ara walk through the door that he released a long needed exhale and settled back down into his flat mattress. His chest heaving from the pain throbbing through his legs from the small movement.

Just one look at the tall girl he could see she was not happy, her brow was furrowed and her soft mouth set in a firm line. She actually looked really annoyed at him, his heart began to beat faster. She was at his bedside within a few steps, her green eyes blinking down at him and Sokka could see the worry and care hiding in her expression. She wasn’t mad at him, she cared.

“Sokka! You can not wake up and start moving around sweetie! Please!” Ara’s gentle hands were resting on top of his chest, putting slight pressure. The feeling sent light, calming waves of relaxation through his chest and into his stomach. His body slumped into the bed before his eyes closed.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When he finally opened them again, Ara was gone and a tall strong man sat on the edge of the bed next to him. Sokka focuses his eyes to really look at the man who rested his elbows on his knees while his left foot tapped softly. He had dark hair, possibly black but it was too greasy to tell for sure. His hair is pulled back in a low ponytail, the length ending just below his shoulder blades.

There is a light stubble across the bottom of his pale face and his eyes were a soft brown with speckles of gold. He looked very Fire Nation, but he wore prison clothing just like Sokka and there were signs of healing bruises on the right side of his face.

Sokka felt better this time when he tried to move his body. This time he took his movements slow and steady just until he could see the man better. The guy was definitely a man, he was tall and strong with growing facial hair (not just a small patch of four hairs growing under his nose). Sokka was still proud of his mustache, no matter what Katara said.

The man’s eyes were fixed on him as Sokka struggled to pull himself up enough to talk. His throat was so dry and painfully raw, the price to pay when you try to scream the pain away.

The man moved, reaching down he pulled a small cup out from under the bed he sat on. Handing it over to Sokka, he tried to lift his right arm to reach for the beautiful, sweet cup of water. But his arm was shaking so bad he was afraid to take the cup, he couldn’t afford to lose any of the water on the floor, he needed every drop.

Sokka did a weird, shaky arm reach towards the cup and when conflicted with the idea of spilling the water, he just let his arm linger mid air while he decided what to do.

Surprisingly, the man moved Sokka’s arm out of the way and lifted the glass to his lips and Sokka drank greedily. Slurping down every drop, he was tempted to cry when the cup was upside down and dry.

After mourning the now consumed water, Sokka looked over at the stranger. He didn’t recognize him, even though he has spent every day in this torture camp being… Tortured.

This last time didn’t even make sense, he did what Zhao wanted, even if it was slightly skewed information. Zhao didn’t even seem to care, he just wanted to break him down. He was playing games now, mental games with painful consequences. Zhao was most likely trying to wear him down until Sokka gave up and told him what he wanted.

Zhao wasn’t expecting these interrogations to go anywhere, he was just looking for excuses to hurt him and start slowly breaking him down until he gave in. Or maybe, it was all some sick game to Zhao and this was all part of his plan to get himself off on Sokka’s pain.

He fucking hated Zhao.

“My name is Shen, since you obviously aren’t going to ask.” The man spoke to Sokka, his voice was deep and smooth.

“S-sorry…” Sokka cleared his throat, wincing at the copper tang that mixed with his throat's mucus. “I’m sorry, I am just confused, where is Ara? Who are you?”

One of Shen’s eyebrows twitched when his mouth formed a thin line, he took a deep breath, as if to calm himself, before answering Sokka’s questions.

“Like I said, my name is Shen. I am a friend to Ara, the sun is almost set and she can’t risk being seen here after dark or it will be you and me taking care of her instead. I am here checking on you because she swore you would probably wake up tonight and I just had to be here to give you this very important water. I hope you enjoyed it.”

“I did… Very much, thank you. There isn’t any more water, is there?”

Shen shook his head, no. “Sorry, that was it kid, but when you get out of bed tomorrow you can eat breakfast and get all the water you want. We just can't bring food or water out of the mess hall or risk being punished, so be thankful you got that much. I am sure as you lie here in agony, you can see how important it is to follow the rules. Things can get so much worse for you than this.”

Shen’s words created a heavy mood between them, but Sokka respected the honesty. “Thank you for the water, and I will thank Ara personally tomorrow.”

“Do you want to practice getting out of bed and walking? You might need assistance the first time and none of these fuck faces you’re bunking with will do jack shit to help you out, so you’ll have to do it yourself. You were assigned to the worst sleep cabin in the camp, now come on, you gotta get up.”

Shen stood up and Sokka noticed the man was tall standing at over 6ft. His shoulders rolled back and his back was straight and he wore a similar body language to Zhao.

“Shen… Were you a soldier?”

“Yes, I was, now you have to get up.”

“How long have I been in bed?”

“3 days, that is the camp limit. You are allowed recovery for 3 days after an interrogation or extreme punishment but after those 3 days you are expected to get back to work.”

“I don’t have work-“

“That will be over tomorrow, you will be assigned a job, just like everyone else. Don’t get your hopes up, most newbies get the coal mines. Your job assignment is good for a full moon cycle, and whatever you get don’t complain or you’ll be punished.”

“Does everything around here always end with punishment?” Sokka’s voice carried a bitter tone laced in frustration. The pain ebbing away at his sanity wasn’t helping him process this information any better.

“Pretty much kid, sorry to say but this is probably the worst place in the world you could have ended up. But you’re here, just like the rest of us and you have to follow all the rules or be punished, just like the rest of us. Now get up, you’re out of days.”

Sokka slowly moved his legs to the end of the bed, his muscles were stiff from immobility. Shen was strong and his hands were comfortable as he held him steady when Sokka finally lifted his body out of the bed. There was shooting pain bouncing around under his skin, lighting up his nerves like little lightning bolts.

But with Shen’s help he was able to slowly begin to move. His body began to loosen up as his limbs relaxed and his muscles found a light rhythm. Sokka knew the pain wasn’t going to go away, especially because this was the first time he had ever experienced pain so intense. But if he was going to survive long enough to leave this place, he had to learn how to cope with it.

The man helped the boy practice walking up and down the long bunker, stopping every once in a while for Sokka to sit on the end of one of the beds. Shen would patiently wait for him, his back straight and his arms crossed over his chest.

“W-why are you helping me?” The question was burning in Sokka’s mind with every painful step he took, he couldn’t find the right time to ask so it just came fumbling out.

Shen smiled, his eyes flickering with traces of kindness under the hardened, unreadable facial expression and overall strength he carried with him. “I always help Ara when she needs me, she is my most trusted friend and when you don’t have many people to rely on, you always take care of the ones you do. So here I am, helping you get back on your feet so you don’t die to make her happy.”

His words resonated with Sokka for some reason, and by the tenth time going up and down the center of the room, Sokka was able to move on his own. Shen gave him a reassuring shoulder squeeze before leaving when the other prisoners slowly started heading to their bunks. The sun was completely set now and darkness covered the room, only the soft light of the moon and a few lit scones gave the room any clarity.

Sokka crawled into bed, his back aching from what he was sure were still open wounds from his lashings. He still couldn’t wrap his head around the fact he was restrained to a pole and whipped like an animal. He was lower than an animal, he was Zhao’s prisoner.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The next morning Sokka woke to Ara softly shaking his shoulder, the gentle touch and subtle movement didn’t jostle his wounds too much.

“Sokka you have to get up now, it's time for breakfast. Your body needs the nutrients to heal itself, so rise and shine sweetie.”

His eyes cracked open, meeting her green stare, accompanied by a small smile gracing her soft pink lips. Her smile grew when she saw Sokka waking up, taking a step back, she allowed him the room to slowly pull himself out of bed. He did his best to hide his wincing facial expressions and sharp gasps of air as he stood to his feet.

Ara gave him space to move on his own as they left the bunk together and began their walk to the mess hall. “So, I heard you met Shen?”

Sokka nodded, “yeah I did. He is really nice, it's weird he would be here being a former soldier.”

Ara’s head snapped in his direction rather quickly, her brow furrowed before she broke her stare. She continued to watch the dirt as they walked, kicking small stones with the tip of her cloth shoe.

“He told you that?” It was almost a whisper.

“Yeah, I mean it was kind of obvious from the way he stands extra straight, and his arms are always crossed when he isn’t using them. Oh, and he speaks like he isn’t about to take your shit. I don’t know, the whole thing just screamed, Fire Nation army.”

“Well aren’t you an observant one, I guess you are not as dumb as you look.” Ara giggled, shooting him a playful glance. “He doesn’t usually talk about it, he was in the navy actually, he worked on Zhao’s ship for years before he was put here…” Her voice trailed off as they walked into the tent.

Sokka has never been here when the morning was fresh and all the prisoners were gathering. The tables were full of grey tattered uniforms and broken faces. Sokka could see a clear mixture of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom, of course he was the only Water Tribe, his darker complexion contrasting against the grey.

All ages assembled together under the canopy to eat their meals and prepare for the day. The people sitting at the tables were clearly grouped together in some sort of organization but Sokka didn’t give it much thought.

The smell of food tantalized his senses and the sweet aroma of meat tickled his taste buds. His body began to move, completely out of his control, as he got in line and watched the prisoners in front of him getting their food dished.

The very end of the line there was a man dressed all white, with cups of tea and small round pills in a bowl behind him. When the different prisoners go to the end the man would ask for their name and search a list for something, before giving them a pill and watching them take it with a cup of tea.

Sokka was surprised when the prisoner had to open their mouth and lift their tongue before they were allowed to go eat their breakfast.

Some prisoners gave their name and they were sent on their way with no pill and no tea. Sokka curiosity spiked when he saw Zuko approach the table, the man didn’t ask for his name he only reached behind him and pulled 3 of the black pills out of the bowl and handed them to Zuko.

He took them quickly and washed them down with the tea before the man made him open his mouth, unlike the other prisoners the man put his gloved hand inside Zuko’s mouth to feel around for any hidden pills. Sokka snickered wondering if the ex prince had tried to conceal them before.

Sokka’s eyes were fixed on Zuko as he moved around the tables staying close to the side wall. Sokka could see why he wanted to stay out of sight, almost every person he passed gave him a look, not a friendly one. Zuko finally settled for an empty table towards the furthest exit, Sokka broke his gaze away only when he was asked for the third time what he wanted to eat.

With his food ready for consumption, Sokka arrived at the man in white and gave him his name and the man sent him on his way, with no pills. It wasn’t until Ara was at his side that he had the chance to ask her what all that was about.

“It's bending suppressant day, once a week all the benders have to take suppressants and it makes them all loopy and disoriented for most of the day, so all benders are allowed one day of no work assignment. It's not fair for everyone who isn’t a bender to have to work the extra day but Shen said he would rather work than take the suppressants.

“He said it feels like being on a raft in the open ocean and a storm is raging around you, causing the waves to push you around and try to drown you. Then he said everything feels numb, like you've finally been dragged into the ocean and you are drowning in the freezing water. Shen is a fire bender so I don’t know what it's like for the earth benders but he said it's like someone covered his inner fire. He knows it's there but he can’t feel it. It sounds awful.”

Sokka followed her until they were sitting at the far end of a table, his back facing the direction Zuko was in. It felt weird turning his back towards his enemy but the chances of Zuko doing something to him was doubtful. He was stupid, but he wasn’t that stupid. Hopefully.

A young man came and sat next to Ara, his sandy brown hair was sticking up in a similar fashion to the asshole, Jet. His eyes were hazel with a mischievous sparkle to them, his skin was tan but nowhere near Sokka’s complexion. He sat down quickly and smirked at Sokka.

“So you’re the new guy, huh? Kind of young ain’t he?” The man took a bite of his sticky rice as his eyes traveled across Sokka’s face.

“He is the same age I was when I was brought here, but yes, he is young.” Ara’s sweet smile landed on Sokka as he ate his food.

“You must have shit luck kid.”

Sokka sighed, “yeah something like that.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The day was warm, and most of the prisoners were laying in their beds or sitting outside in the dirt. The bending suppressants really did a number on them, most of them were groggy and unfocused. Sokka passed a man who was dry heaving on the side of the building, holding his head like it was going to roll off his neck.

Ara led him into the L (as they called it, where the camp’s shape took the turn creating an L shape) because apparently Sokka needed to get his work assignment before tomorrow or he could be punished for not showing up to his job. The building the guards stayed in was close to Zhao’s residence, which gave Sokka’s stomach a twist when they walked past it.

There were a few guards standing outside the guard building, their hands trailing up to their whips as Ara and Sokka approached. Ara stopped a few feet away from the men and put her hands behind her back. “He needs his work assignment before jobs resume tomorrow.”

One of the guards with dark hair rolled his eyes before nudging the other man and tilting his head towards the door. With an annoyed sigh the second guard turned and walked into the building, within a few minutes he came back with a sheet of parchment.

“Water Tribe right?”

“Well… It’s Sokka.”

“Don’t be smart with me or i'll break that pretty little jaw of yours.”

Sokka shut up. He was getting good at that.

“It looks like you’ll be in the coal mines for the last two weeks of the moon cycle. Then you might get switched to something else, don’t hold your breath. Report to the South Gate at sunrise, if you’re late then you will be punished.”

Sokka nodded, hesitating, he swallowed his fear and blurted out his request. “Can I have another pair of shoes please.” The words tumbled out like they were racing to freedom. The guard raised one eyebrow before turning back to his partner who huffed louder this time, before returning back inside.

It took a little longer this time around, but the man emerged with a pair of shoes. He threw them at Sokka’s feet. “I think they might be two different sizes but at least you won't be barefoot in the coal mines. If you lose this pair just know there won't be any more handouts. If you want new shoes then you will figure out what favors you can do for us for those shoes. Got it?”

Sokka nodded before slipping on the cloth shoes, his toes curling slightly in his right one when they hit the end. He didn’t complain though, the barrier between the dirt and his bare skin was good enough.

Ara and Sokka made their way back through camp, Sokka was still shocked by how beaten down the bending suppressants made the prisoners. Some of the men and women laid in the dirt under the shade of the buildings, others sat around with their eyes closed and head tilted towards the sun. Those ones must be the fire benders, and the earth benders would be the ones hugging the ground.

Ara left Sokka to go find Shen and make sure he was doing alright after urging him to enjoy his last day of freedom, he would experience the coal mines tomorrow. Sokka’s body still hurt from his interrogation but he knew moving around would be the best way to strengthen his body, he could rest a little later.

There was a soft breeze that made the heat from the sun almost bearable, he moved slowly through the camp, his eyes lingering on the different prisoners who didn’t seem to notice him. They were dirty, and scarred, they looked broken but alive. Sokka was terrified he was looking at his own future, he would die before he grew old in this place.

Sokka’s eyes recognized a smaller prisoner with his back resting against the last of the bunkers, his scruffy black hair hung in his eyes as his head was tilted towards the warm sun. The angry outline of his face was proof enough that this person that Sokka had been catching a glimpse of was in fact, Prince Zuko.

He must be the reason Zhao has that copy map, and the reason he knew Katara was his sister. Zuko handed over all the information he had about the Avatar to Zhao and now that crazed psycho was going to use that information to torture him and try and kill his friends.

The anger was festering inside of Sokka, and with a hasty but careful movement, he made his way over to the boy. Sokka has never been this close to Zuko before, standing right in front of the boy as his legs were stretched out in front of him. Sokka nudged his foot with his own, preparing to fall back when he unleashed fire and yelling.

But Zuko didn’t stir, so Sokka tapped his foot again, this time a little harder. “Hey, jerk-bender! Wake up!”

Sokka’s breath hitched when Zuko cracked open his good eye and the sun reflected off his gold eye. Not amber, not brown, or hazel or yellow. Just gold. They sparkled as the fire bender tried to focus his vision on the person standing in front of him, who was kicking his foot.

Sokka could see the foggy and unfocused haze in Zuko’s golden eye, his left one barely opened before he reached up an arm and used it to block out the sun. Sokka glanced at his outstretched arm when he saw they were wrapped in bandages all the way up to where the sleeve of his tunic started.

“What do you want?” His raspy voice reminded Sokka of Katara and Aang. He could have almost smiled, but Zuko was staring at him in a weird way. He wasn’t being aggressive or angry he just seemed lost and confused. The suppressants must really mess them up, and he saw Zuko take 3 of them.

“Do you even recognize me?”

Sokka watched Zuko squint and scan him over slowly, his eyes fluttering close a few times making Sokka wonder if he was just going to fall asleep again. By the third attempt, Zuko seemed to be more focused and his gaze returned to the Water Tribe boy’s face.

“Oh shit… You're the Avatar's friend. The non bender…” His voice trailed off before he set his head back against the wall. Sokka frowned, how dare he just refer to him as the non bender and then dismiss him as if he were just some unimportant no one.

Sokka kicked out his foot again, this time kicking Zuko hard in the ankle. “OW!” Zuko frowned and pulled his leg back, glaring at Sokka. His clouded over eyes fumbled around until Sokka watched him tuck his foot underneath him, leaving his other leg extended.

“Go away.” Was all he muttered before closing his eyes again.

“No! You can't just call me a non bender and then ignore me! What are you doing here? Are you still trying to capture Aang? Is this some elaborate plan that you and Zhao have put together to finally capture the Avatar?!” Sokka was trying not to yell so no attention would be drawn towards them. It was proving difficult as he was finding himself growing anger.

“Go away Water-boy.” Zuko’s raspy voice slurred from the grogginess.

“Do you even know my name?”

“Yes.”

“What is it?”

“Mo-mo.”

“WHAT!?” Sokka yelled. A few people turned their faces towards them and gave odd expressions. Sokka lowered his voice, glaring at the fire bender who still had his eyes closed.

“You think my name is Momo!?”

“Yes, the girl, the other one in blue… She said, ‘thanks Momo’ when she was released from the tree with the pirates, then she said something about apples. You like apples.”

Sokka slapped his forehead, adding more pain to his already broken body. “She was thanking the flying lemur! Not me!”

“What did the lemur do? You’re the one who got her free.”

Sokka tapped his chin, trying to recall that day, even though it was only months ago it felt like an eternity. That was the last time they saw Zuko, that day with the pirates. Sokka didn’t remember exact details, only that it was a mess and he was mad at Katara.

“I don’t remember exactly but I am confident that Momo- the LEMUR- chewed through Katara’s rope. Well your rope, the one you used to tie my little sister to a tree.”

Zuko shrugged and didn’t say anything in response to that. Sokka went to say something else when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning his head he saw the profile of the sandy brown haired man who sat with him at breakfast.

“Hey kid, why don’t we move along.” Sokka felt his body being pulled away from Zuko, not that the fire bender even noticed. Once they were far enough away the man swiveled Sokka around so he was facing him, tilting his head up to meet the man’s eyes.

“I know you are new here, kid, but if I can give you some extremely helpful advice… Stay as far away from that guy as you possibly can. He is nothing but trouble and if you associate yourself with him then you are going to put a target on your back and you’ll be alone in this place, no one will help you anymore. Especially not Ara. Do you understand?”

Sokka shook his head in agreement.

Stay away from Zuko, easy.

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 6: Butt Ass Naked

The coal mine was suffocating, the dark space reminded Sokka of what it might feel like to be buried alive. If he were buried alive at least the guards couldn't whip him anymore.

Everything around him blurred together under the earth’s darkness. The tools and people were all covered in soot, their only light source was a lantern strung up next to their station. The only other light in the coal mine were the scattered lanterns being used by other pods. It wasn’t enough light to see as clearly as Sokka would have liked, but at least they didn't leave everyone in the cavern in complete darkness.

The mine was deep and cold, it was a steep climb down a straight and narrow path that led them deep under the ground. The tunnel would have had to have been constructed by an earth bender, it's the only way something so steep and straight could exist. The prisoners were split up and worked in groups of four (people called them pods) to excavate a certain area together, but speaking to one another was against the rules.

For the past few days, Sokka has gone to his job in the coal mine alongside a group of strangers who never utter a word to one another. A month ago, this would have been torture for fun, innocent Sokka, but prison camp Sokka was used to keeping his mouth shut.

There was a smaller, second cavern at a lower level, but the prisoners hardly ever mined there. The smaller empty mine was mostly used for storage.

It wasn’t until the third day that he finally adapted to the repetition of the whole... coal mining process, it was dangerously tedious. It was a three part system and took working closely with other prisoners to accomplish their combined task. Each pod of prisoners was assigned a mining section and a guard, their particular guard was pretty calm, though he wasn't afraid to crack his whip if needed to.

In each pod, the first person would use the pickaxe to detach the coal, Sokka’s position would scoop that coal and load it into the metal cart, and the final team of two would wheel the cart up the steep climb out of the mine and unload it into a massive bucket cart being pulled by two komodo-rhinos.

The large animals were stabled just outside the south gate of the prison camp. Sokka made a mental note of their location just in case his escape plan called for the large creatures. He wasn't ruling anything out.

The coal mine was about half a mile walk from camp, they were escorted there by multiple guards who took their positions extremely seriously. The guards watched the prisoners like eagle-hawks and their mean streak intimidated people from breaking even the smallest infraction.

They warned the prisoners everyday that they would rather you be dead, than free.

It was hard to breathe at first and Sokka found himself coughing every couple of minutes from the thick layer of soot that coated his throat and tickled his lungs. It was impossible to be rid of, you can't wipe something away when it covers everything. Sokka tried, and tried, even spitting on his hand to clean it first, but nothing worked.

The soot was here to stay.

Apparently, his coughing was annoying the guard assigned to his pod because the man took out his whip and struck Sokka in the leg, the burning coil wrapped around his calf, scraping across the flesh when it was pulled away. Hissing to himself, Sokka tried not to make a scene, the guards loved to gang up on ‘rowdy prisoners’. He quietly returned to scooping up the chunks of coal and avoiding the sputtering coughs that tried to claw their way free.

Sokka realized that whipping prisoners was just part of everyday life in the worst-place-in-the-world-torture-camp. During the day, while Sokka worked, he would hear the screams of other prisoners being punished in the darkness.

When that happened Sokka usually slipped into his thoughts while his body continued following the repetitive scooping motion. He took this time to brainstorm how he was going to formulate a plan to get out of this fucking place.

The walk from the camp to the mine seemed like the perfect opportunity to attempt an escape, but the guards were on high alert as soon as the group left the confines of the prison wall. The group of prisoners was a decent size for an escape attempt, Sokka assumed at least 30 people… large enough to misplace someone. But eyes stayed on them at all times and fire bending was used to keep them docile. In the few days he traveled to and from the mine he watched 3 people get burnt by the guards.

They were not given medical treatment. Sokka wondered how often prisoners died from infections here.

Mining coal took all day, and they were only given one break to eat this lukewarm, lumpy slop the guards brought them for lunch. The only reason it was even warm was because they left the giant pot sitting out in the sun, while they worked the sun heated up the lumpy slosh inside.

The prisoners were allowed to drink two cups of water during their lunch break, they were given the cups at the same time they dished the slop out. Sokka’s stomach would start to ache during the last part of his shift, the hollow feeling would gradually grow until everyone made the long walk back to camp. The sun would already start positioning itself to descend out of the skyline by the time Sokka would arrive back at the prison camp.

He had to rush to dinner so he didn’t miss it, covered in soot and other earthly particles, he would inhale the meal of actual food (well calling it actual food was giving it too much credit, but it was better than the lumpy slop fed at the mine) and drink as much water as he could before his stomach hurt.

Sokka hasn’t made any friends in the coal mining group yet, most of the prisoners were too miserable at the end of the day to talk, so he got used to eating in silence.

All the other prisoners in camp were done eating by this time, the coal mining group were always the last prisoners around. He wanted to try and gather information from the other people to help him formulate his escape plan but it was proving to be a more difficult task then he originally thought.

It wasn’t until the fourth day that he noticed that Zuko was in his mining group. By the end of the day they were all covered in so much black soot it was impossible to distinguish between prisoners, but Sokka noticed Zuko’s messy hair and smaller form when he was standing next to some of the adult men during break.

Sokka noticed that Zuko held himself differently than the rest of the prisoners, his back was always straight, his shoulders strong and his head held high. He moved differently, like royalty. Sokka could only imagine the years of training Zuko must have endured in order to condition his body to hold itself the way it did. His movements were smooth and surprisingly calm but Sokka saw he was quick when he needed to be.

Once Sokka discovered Zuko, he found himself watching the boy more than he probably should. But in his defense… there really wasn’t anything else to do. Plus, Sokka had never been around Zuko when he wasn’t throwing fire at him and screaming about capturing the Avatar. He was very different then the person Sokka remembered with the shaved head and roaring anger. This version of Zuko was quiet, and stayed out of the way and kept to himself as much as possible.

Zuko didn’t notice Sokka, or if he did he didn’t say anything to him or acknowledge his existence… so Sokka liked to assume he just didn’t see him. The only words they exchanged were on the day, last week, when he was given bending suppressants and thought Sokka’s name was Momo. Which Sokka was still annoyed about, he deserved more credit then Momo, damn it.

It didn’t take long to figure out that Zuko might actually have worse luck then Sokka, if that was even possible.

Everyone hated Zuko.

He was harassed by both the guards and the other prisoners. Sokka watched him get whipped, pushed, punched, and tripped, all in the span of time it took the group to walk from the coal mine to the prison camp.

He always lost sight of Zuko whenever they entered the mine, but he would look for him again at break and then again when they made the walk back to camp. Zuko stayed away from everyone if he could, and Sokka remembered Ara’s warning to stay away from the ex-prince.

So that’s what he did, even if he couldn’t stop his eyes from watching him.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Almost a week has passed since the last brutal interrogation with Zhao, and every time a guard made their way towards Sokka, his heart would begin to race. His chest would heave as his lungs failed to fill with air, panic blurring his vision. He always expected the guard to tell him it was time and that Zhao was ready for him again. But each passing day resulted without a guard summoning him, but it didn’t stop Sokka from panicking anyway.

It was the day bending suppressants were distributed again, Sokka learned they were given out once a week. He could use the day to track the passing weeks. Whenever bending suppressants day came around Sokka would know it was the beginning of a new week, so no matter how messed up he got he in here, he would always have the ability to recount time.

Whenever bending suppressant day came around the benders were excused from certain job assignments deemed too dangerous or some shit. Coal mining being one of the jobs deemed too dangerous. Of course it's dangerous, everyone knows that! Rumor was, the guards did not want to keep scraping bodies off of the ground whenever one of the high prisoners fatally wounded themselves, so they banned certain jobs.

Which kind of made sense, but it was still annoying. Another wonderful advantage of being a non bender - you don't get a day off. Yippie.

So today, his mining group was much smaller as a result of all the missing benders. Sokka found himself paired up with new people in a different pod, he was just thankful to keep the same stupid scooping position. He kind of, sort of, didn't mind the coal scooping, it was significantly better than either of the other choices.

There was a young guy with them, he didn’t seem too much older than Sokka. The young man was in charge of using the pickaxe. He kept trying to start a conversation with Sokka, turning around while swinging the axe and asking questions. After a warning, the guard in charge of their pod whipped at them 3 separate times. One of the lashes hit Sokka in the shoulder, the burning sensation brought a mixture of heat and anger to his face.

Sokka leaned forward and glared at the man’s back in front of him.

“Stop talking to me!” he hissed, his shoulder burning from the new, blistering welt that was forming on his body from the whip. Most guards never aimed at anything in particular when they struck, usually they just hit the prisoner wherever the braided leather landed. Sokka created a bad habit of raising his arms to block the whip, mimicking the motion he saw other prisoners do and it was tearing up the flesh on both his forearms.

He was finding himself growing more familiar with his pain, it was a constant reminder that this was not home for him. The pain was a signal, reminding him that he needed to continue on and search for a way out of here. He could not accept that this was his future, he would die trying to escape from here before he accepted this was his life.

The whistle accompanied by the shouting guards signaled that break was finally happening. Sokka dragged himself out of the coal mine, his arms throbbing and his body was aching from his still healing injuries from Zhao.

The stupid prisoner who insisted on speaking to him and gained him a new whip mark, approached him and decided to stand besides him in line. Not behind him, or even trying to cut in front of him, he just stands right next to him - almost shoulder to shoulder.

“Hi! You’re the new Water Tribe guy right?” He was out of breath and his arms were trembling from the strain it must take to continuously swing the heavy pickaxe. Something told Sokka that this guy probably wasn't usually the pickaxe guy in his original pod, which is why he was so out of breath.

Sokka turned his head so he could fully see the stranger awkwardly standing side by side with him as they waited for their bowl of... whatever the stuff was, pretending to be food. The man next to him was thin and and only a few inches taller than Sokka, he had long sandy brown hair pulled back in a wolf tail and his eyes were a soft brown, in color and expression.

Sokka only looked at him for a moment before returning his gaze to the back of the balding man’s head who was standing in front of him. He really needed that cup of water and the food for energy, he was exhausted, but he answered the man anyway.

“Yeah that’s me apparently, I prefer to go by my name, Sokka. What can I do for you?”

“My name is Reho, I heard there was a new prisoner and that you are from the Northern Water Tribe and you know the Avatar. I have been trying to meet you for days but we keep missing each other and now look, we are at the same mining pod together! What luck.”

Sokka took his bowl from the guards hands, the water cup felt so small in his hand compared to the larger bowl. He would give anything to have a big bowl full of water instead of the slop.

Sokka knew he needed to respond to the guy who was now following him to where he usually sat for break. Sokka liked this grassy slope that was next to mine's entrance. It was far enough away from the smelly komodo-rhinos that their stink didn’t mix with the already smelly slop-food he was served.

Sokka allowed himself to look for Zuko, before he remembered he wasn’t with them today, he was back at camp all jacked up on bending suppressants. Whatever they were, they could not be good for benders. He couldn’t imagine Katara being forced to take them. She would be completely helpless, thank goodness the prison she snuck into didn’t give her something like that. She might not have gotten out…

Sokka’s mind shoved that thought far away, his focus was on his situation here and now. He is the one in prison now, he is the one who is trapped this time and no Avatar was coming to save him. Katara is safe, she is with Aang and they will continue to be ok… Sokka is the one who needs to stay focused on his escape plan.

Because Sokka might not be ok… Ignoring that thought. Turning his attention back to Reho, the nice guy sitting next to him that wants to talk.

Who knows? Maybe this guy will be able to help him out. You never know until you take the time to get to know someone you learn what kinds of things they know. Sokka turned to his sandy haired stalker and smiled.

“So…. Reho, it's nice to meet you. Thanks for uh, finding me.” Sokka cleared his throat uncomfortably. It has been far too long that has had a normal conversation with someone, he was rusty.

“Sorry, I don’t have the best conversation skills, I’m not really a people person. How long have you been here?” Reho asked, matching Sokka’s awkward with his own.

Sokka tapped his fingers on the edge of his bowl. How long has it been? “A little over a week I think, maybe two? The beginning is a little fuzzy for me.”

Reho nodded before shoving another finger full of the pretend food into his mouth, chewing on the lumps casually as he watched Sokka closely. The man’s brown eyes looked so young and sheltered, despite living in this prison camp and working tirelessly in the coal mine all day.

“Is it true you traveled with the Avatar?”

Sokka smiled, “yeah it's true. Aang is a friend of mine, we were in the Northern Water Tribe together when I was taken by Zhao and now...here I am. I’m originally from the Southern Water Tribe.”

“I’m sorry you ended up here, I know this isn’t the best place to be.”

“The best? Oh, I have a few words I’d like to use to describe this place and they don’t include the word best. Unless it's used with the other words like… ‘This is the best place to burn down because it's so awful.’ Why are you here?”

Reho cracked a big smile at Sokka, and it warmed the Water Tribe boy’s heart. He forgot what it was like to bring someone joy by being funny. He should try and do that again…

“Oh, me? I was caught sneaking onto Zhao’s ship and trying to steal... ya know, the usual. Valuable stuff - gold, coins, gems, anything that I could trade or cash in for food. I was living on the streets in a small colony town, my father went off to war for the Fire Nation and my mother got sick when he left and passed away. When Zhao caught me trying to steal from him, he locked me away and sailed off to sea, I was left with no food or water for a week. When he came to visit me for the first time, I told him to kill me and he said he had a place worse than death for me, and he brought me here. I have been here for 3 years now….”

Sokka closed his eyes trying to chase away the memories from his own voyage to this place, and the prayers his people said before their death. He wants to forget, he can't allow himself to remember what a man being beaten to death sounds like. He doesn’t want to think of all the different faces around him, locked in the prison, each of them having their own story of how they ended up here.

“That’s awful Reho, I’m sorry that happened to you.” Sokka didn’t look up when he said the words. The bowl in his hand felt smaller as his hands gripped it tightly, staring down at the sticky grey goop inside.

“I keep thinking that maybe one day something might change, but all I see everyday are more people being dragged into this place. I have watched so many people die, they get sucked in and spit out, nothing but bones. People forget them, their stories vanish and another new face replaces them. Look at you, you’re so young… How old are you?”

“I’m sixteen. Old enough in my village to go off to war and die for my people. I know I am young but I am a capable warrior, I will survive this place.” Sokka felt the words beat in his chest with his heart, they were strong and full of life. He wouldn’t let this place swallow him whole, he was more than just bones.

“I’m glad you are so strong, I was so scared at sixteen, I am 23 now, but I can still remember sixteen living on the streets. You're not the only teenager here, the Fire Prince, well ex- whatever, Zuko, he is sixteen too. I don't know if you knew, but he is locked up here with us. The youngest prisoner was 20 before you two got here.”

Sokka blinked, Zuko was his same age? That was impossible, he was deeply scarred, a captain on his own vessel, a commander of his own men, plus he was out on his own with an important mission from the Fire Lord to capture the Avatar. There was no possible reality that they shared the same age.

“Do you mean Ponytail-Prince Zuko?”

“Maybe? He doesn't have a ponytail, I don’t think. We are supposed to just call him Zuko now, but yes maybe?”

“Yeah... I have had the great honor of meeting him.” Sokka hoped his sarcasm was understood by his mining companion, and it didn’t go over his head.

Reho didn't pick up on Sokka’s humor, he just smiled at him like he did before. “Yeah, I think it's crazy there are two kids here. No offense, but I have been here 3 years and there were only adults and then suddenly, in the last 6 months you two get dropped here. Kind of crazy if you ask me.”

“That's interesting… You do know the Avatar is 12 right?”

Reho’s jaw dropped. “So he is a kid too?! What is going on out there in the world now? Are we fighting children?”

“Yeah well… Yes. If you mean we like the Fire Nation then yes, you are fighting children. So when you have a bunch of grown ass men fighting children and may I add, being BEATEN by children… They get a little desperate, I guess. Zhao must want something from me, probably information on Aang so he brought me here. I don’t know why Prin-Zuko is here, any ideas?” Sokka’s natural curiosity couldn't help but ask.

“They say he is a traitor to the Fire Nation, I am not exactly sure what he did. People say all sorts of crazy things about him in here. Some of the rumors are too wild to be true but from what I have gathered he did something traitorous like... freeing the Avatar from the Pohuai stronghold, they say he is like a one man army. That’s why they keep his wrist chained together so he can't fight.”

Sokka’s breath hitched, that wasn’t true, it couldn’t be.

“That can’t be right, the Blue Spirit did that.”

Reho leaned closer and spoke with a hushed tone, keeping his eyes on the guards.

“That’s the thing, he is the Blue Spirit.”

“But-“

“BACK TO WORK!!” The bell rang out as the prisoners hurried to their feet and lined up to be escorted back down into the mine. Sokka and Reho didn’t say anything else to each other the entire time they worked, once the final bell rang and it was time to head back to camp both boys were too tired to talk on the painstakingly slow march back to camp.

That was fine with Sokka, he was brewing a plan.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The mining group made their way back through the South Gate, the guards looked particularly annoyed with the miners today. Everyone was moving slower than usual and the guards were having a hard time getting the older, tired prisoners moving faster. Sokka used the slower than usual pace to really collect his bearings outside of the prison wall. He needed to know where everything was.

The north entrance was the main gate utilized by the camp, mostly because it was the only entrance connected to a stable path that led towards civilization. Sokka knew that he had to see a map again to figure out exactly how far into the wilderness Sokka would have to wander through before finding a town.

He couldn’t risk being out in the wilderness too long without supplies, his injuries would slow him down, not including the new ones he might acquire from trying to escape. He would need a map before he could decide if heading out the North Gate or the South Gate would be a better choice.

The weird part of his plan was the possibility of including his enemy, Zuko. If he really was some Blue Spirit guy, and he could move like a one man army, then maybe he can help Sokka escape. He could come up with the plan and Zuko would just need to follow his direction and be part of the muscle behind the escape.

Based on observing him the past couple of days, Sokka knew the guy probably wanted out of here as much as he did.

The sun was still high enough in the sky when Sokka finished dinner and the camp was covered in a heavy orange glow. It would have been beautiful if it didn’t create a memorable eerie feeling in his gut. The heavy orange glow from the setting sun triggered memories from the cell in the Fire Nation ship and the flickering red glow from the lanterns.

Sokka shuddered as he moved through the camp, once the sun was completely set he would need to be in his cabin, so he had to find Zuko quick. He just needed to confirm he was the Blue Spirit and then he could come up with a real plan. It would only take a minute.

Zuko wasn’t in any of the cabins, or the mess hall, he wasn’t leaning up against any of the buildings, Sokka was completely stumped. He moved towards the L, trying to keep out of sight by pushing himself up against buildings and crouching in the shadows. He was almost proud of himself for being so sneaky when he heard Zhao’s voice cut through the silence.

“Stop him!”

Sokka squeezed his eyes shut and froze, he was caught.

He wasn’t sure what he was caught doing, but he knew he had to be breaking some kind of prison camp rule. The sun was still in the sky, the earth was painted orange as proof. He still had time to make it back to his bunk before the sun was completely set so he knew he wasn’t breaking that rule at least.

Sokka didn’t feel any rough hands on him, no one was shoving him or restraining him… Cracking one eye open he peeked on the situation. From where Sokka was hidden in the shadows he could see Zhao standing in front of his residence. Soldiers stood off to the side while two guards were escorting the man who wore all white over to where Zhao was standing.

Sokka could see the nervousness in the man’s face as he chewed his bottom lip and his brown eyes shifted around. Now that Sokka was really looking at the strange, grey haired man, the all white uniform became clear to him; he was the prison’s healer. The all white clothing was clearly a medical uniform and the man was the one dispersing the bending suppressants.

It all made sense now.

“What is the meaning of this!?” Zhao was angry, his posture was stiff and his shoulders tight.

Zhao pulled his right arm forward and Sokka finally found Zuko.

Zhao had the fire bender by the hair and was dragging him forward while the boy stayed in a kneeling position, his knees scraping across the dirt until he was kneeling in front of the healer. His arms were still chained in front of him, just like they were every time Sokka saw him, even in the mine.

The healer stuttered, “I-I don’t know…”

Zhao scoffed, “When I saved you from the Ba Sing Se the Fire Nation gave you shelter, correct? Did we not help you hide you from the Dai Li? For all those favors, what was it that we agreed upon?”

The healer shifted his weight from one foot to the other, an obvious nervous habit. “I-I was told that I would be e-expected to continue the research I was conducting in Ba Sing Se.”

“Ahhh, I am so glad you remember! Now... I will ask you again… What is this?!”

This time Zhao shook the hand that was wrapped in Zuko’s inky hair, the boys pale face shaking as he grit his teeth.

“I still don-“

Before the healer could answer Zhao reached his other hand around and grabbed the sides of Zuko’s mouth, squeezing his cheeks roughly, the boy’s eyes glared up at the Admiral. Sokka sucked in a sharp breath, he wasn’t sure what was going on but he was frozen in place watching.

Sokka pressed himself up against the building as close as he could get, hoping the shadows gave him enough cover to not get caught. He knew he was not supposed to be here right now.

“Do it, now.” Zhao growled down at Zuko. The boy narrowed his eyes further before taking a deep breath and releasing a small puff of flame.

Sokka’s jaw dropped, if Zuko could bend too… They were definitely getting out of here.

“That’s not… It’s just not… Possible.” The healer stuttered looking between Zuko and Zhao, his eyes blown wide by shock. “It has to be his royal blood, I told you it might be difficult to suppress the bending of someone in the royal family. This is the son of Fire Lord Ozai, a direct descendent of Sozin… I can not be expected to control the power inside him!”

Zhao didn’t say anything at first, he just looked down at Zuko and Sokka saw something sinister flash in the man’s eyes. Sokka felt a cold chill climb its way down his spine, the small hairs on his arms and legs stood up at full attention. There was something not right about the way Zhao looked down at Zuko.

“How many pills did you give him?”

“Three… But-“

“Give him another one. Up his weekly to four.”

“But sir…”

“I said, up it to four.”

“Sir, the effects of giving someone so young that large a dose of a drug that we are still testing could send him into cardiac arrest, his body might shut down… Sir, he could die.”

Zhao released Zuko’s hair, throwing the young fire bender into the dirt. “He’s already dead. Just do it.”

Zhao nodded at the guards and they moved in as the Admiral sauntered off. “Bring him back to me when its done!”

Sokka used Zhao’s departure to make his own escape, the sun was completely hidden behind the distant mountain range, the orange glow faded into the beginning stages of dusk.

Sokka winced as he pushed his body to move faster through the emptied prison grounds. Everyone was retired in their bunks, Sokka could see his own building just up ahead. A guard was making his way around the buildings, conducting the nightly bed check. Sokka waited for him to turn his back and he slipped quietly into his cabin, his heavy panting caused a few of his bunk mates groan and mumble insults at him.

Sokka realized he was still covered in his daily layer of soot, sweat and overall grime. He never took his nightly shower before getting distracted by the whole Zuko situation, so now he would have to wait until tomorrow afternoon to feel clean.

Refusing to get his sheets dirty, Sokka laid on top of his thin blanket and rolled onto his side, his mind pulsating with images of what he witnessed earlier. He felt a small sting of pity, if he didn’t know any better, he might think it was directed towards Zuko. The last thing he thought about before closing his eyes was something sinister flashing in Zhao’s eyes – this time directed towards him.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Zuko wasn’t in their mining group again the next day, Sokka checked, thoroughly. Even though the rest of the benders had returned to their job assignments Zuko was missing. The day was long and the coal was extra heavy for some reason. Sokka could have swore that the sun was stuck in the same spot all morning.

Sokka was never so happy to walk out of the suffocating underground prison and feel the sun again. His thoughts were swirling in his head all morning, he felt distracted, and even the mundane task of scooping coal was proving difficult. The sun’s rays licked across his face, wiping at the heavy layer of soot with his short sleeve, he allowed some of his skin to touch the sunlight.

Reho found him again during break, even though they were no longer working side by side together with the benders returning. Well, almost all the benders.

“Sokka! Hi!” The young man sat down on the grassy slope next to Sokka, a repeat motion of yesterday.

“Hi Reho, how are you doing today?” Sokka wasn’t sure why it was so hard to have a conversation right now, but he appreciated the distraction.

“I’m good, just ready to be done working for the day, but its nice to have my old coaling crew back.”

Sokka finished his food and smiled. “Coaling crew? I’ve got to say, I’m pretty impressed with the nickname, I wish I had more time to use it. I can’t say I will miss this place, the coal mines fucking suck. It’s so exciting that next week the job assignments switch.”

Reho scoffed. “I have been stuck in the coal mines for a year straight, I don’t think they ever actually switch occupations. They just tell you that to stop people from asking for an assignment switch. Sorry to be the one to tell you… But we can always pretend we are getting a new job next week? If I could have any job... I think I would want to be in laundry detail, they get to go down to the river everyday, they do all the camp’s washing. They get to be outside in the sunshine and the water all day, with the wind and the waves… Oh man, I’d love to get laundry duty.”

Reho’s eyes sparkled with the idea of being arms deep in the fresh river, enjoying the sunlight for hours instead of being trapped in a glorified hole in the ground. Sokka wondered what it would do to a person…. To make them mine for coal from sunrise to just before sunset every single day, it might make them crazy. He was counting on being moved to a new work assignment, if he stayed in the mine all day every day, he would die from exhaustion, especially after he had to see Zhao again.

Sokka couldn’t seem to shake the mental imagine of Zhao screaming at the healer as his fingers twist into Zuko’s hair while he kneeled in the dirt. Part of Sokka smirked at the image of the arrogant Fire Prince kneeling in the dirt at the mercy of his own people.

But the more reasonable and compassionate part of him watched the situation unfold and found the entire thing uncomfortable and cruel. Zuko or no Zuko, people deserved some level of respect and so far all Sokka had witnessed here were prisoners being degraded and tortured. Almost everyone in camp carried some mark from their captivity, Sokka has seen them.

The ugly red skin that peeked out from under the washed out grey prison tunics, the cuts that run too straight across people’s faces and neck. The bruises that paint their skin to look like a sky full of storm clouds, he saw it when prisoners trembled at a guard who moved too close, or the moment a person loses the ability to make eye contact.

Oh, and the whips. They curl up and wait for the perfect moment to strike, Sokka’s arms are littered with welts and cuts from the lashing that never seemed to end. His back wore the worse of his pain, the ugly scabs scaling across his back from where the bullwhip ripped his flesh the deepest.

Sokka withdraws, his mind thumping too loudly to hear the rambling words Reho is saying besides him. Truth be told, he liked the guy even though he acts so young and naïve, but that’s probably because it’s easier to pretend it's all ok; rather than face the truth of their reality.

“I’d like to work in the kitchen…” Sokka doesn’t know if he said that in the right context, he just said it. Reho responds, something about how great that would be and something else about his favorite food.

But Sokka just imagines himself in the kitchen, not covered in dirt or trapped in endless darkness. There would be less guards in the kitchen, there would be less exhaustion after the long day, maybe he could think straight again. Oh, and the food, he would be surrounded by food and possibly never have to put this grey slop back in his mouth.

Sokka lets himself get lost in the rest of the day’s work, his body moving through the motions while he mind continued to build ideas.

Visions of climbing tall spiky walls and grasping the freedom on the other side.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka ate quickly before heading to the washroom, usually he waited until right before sunset to take a shower, when the least amount of people were there, but he didn’t want to risk missing out on taking a shower for the second day in a row.

Stepping into the freezing water cascading down from a pipe in the ceiling, Sokka began the long process of removing the heavy layers of soot from his skin. His skin tingled as the fresh water rained over him washing off the layers of grim from the past two days.

He was almost done cleaning himself when he felt a heavy hand grasp his shoulder and push him forward. Sokka had never been attacked when he was naked before and the entire endeavor was extremely uncomfortable. Instinct made his hands reactively reach down and cover his manhood, turning to face the person who pushed him Sokka was greeted by 3 taller older men.

The one in front had a burn going across his right forearm and was missing his left eye.

“You’re the new Water Tribe boy aren’t ya?” The eyeless man snarled.

Sokka nodded, “yes, is there something I can do for you… uh… gentlemen?”

Sokka was trying to be polite, but also ‘what the fuck’ at the same time, but his words just came out unsure and naked. That’s how he felt right now, very naked.

“Gentlemen? Are you such a savage you can’t tell we are a bunch of low life prisoners, not gentlemen? Look-y here boys, he thinks prisoners are gentlemen.” The man kind of, sort of, laughed/gagged at his own joke.

“I must disagree with you, I am a low life prisoner and I still consider myself a gentleman.” Sokka smiled at the men, as he continued to guard his manhood.

One of the men besides the one eyed leader spoke up, “what's wrong with yer penis boy?”

Sokka’s face flushed red, “nothing, my penis is perfectly fine.”

“Well why you holding it like that?”

“Oh…” Sokka moved his hands, there was a weird feeling of his private area being exposed in front of 3 complete strangers who felt the need to push him in the shower.

The men whooped and hollered at him when he finally revealed himself to them. The man in front took a step forward and the other two moved around him to block Sokka’s escape. There were a few other people showering around him, but when they saw the 3 men enter the washroom most of the other prisoners began to leave.

It became clear that these men were not here to make small talk, and he probably should have left his penis covered up.

“Well, it was so fun showing you guys my junk, that was a first for me... so…. I am just going to….” Sokka went to move around their leader when he shifted his position to block Sokka’s weak attempt to walk around him.

“Where do you think you’re going, Blue Eye’s? We wont hurt you, I promise… We can make you feel good.”

“I appreciate the offer but I think I have had enough uhhh… ‘good feeling’ stuff happen for a while…. I think I am just going to move around you just real quick….” Sokka went to step around the man once more, but he felt a strong hand grab his shoulder and force him back.

Sokka’s back hit the slimy shower wall, the stone was always moist and covered in various colored molds and mildews from the constant moisture. Sokka’s eyes skipped around the three men, they all carried lustful looks in their eyes with a smirk to match, they moved closer.

Panic set in, Sokka could fight them, and he would – butt ass naked or not. He would fight tooth and nail before he let these disgusting men touch him. He wasn’t sure exactly what the men were going to try to do to him, but he had a pretty good idea based on their comments.

There was no way that he was going to let that happen.

The man reached out again to grab Sokka, this time the Water Tribe boy fought back. Shoving the man’s arm away he pulled his fist back, trying to intimidate his attackers and show them he would throw some punches if needed. When he brought his fist back the two men flanking their leader moved closer, aware of the potential fight about to happen.

Sokka’s heart was hammering inside his chest at an alarming pace, he was sure the men who stood a few feet away from him could hear the pounding. If he did, he didn’t care, his eyes were fixed on Sokka’s eyes, occasionally scanning their way down to take in the full sight of him.

“Don’t make this difficult, it will be less painful if you just-“

The man stopped talking and all three of his attackers looked at the door as of fucking course, Prince Zuko walked into the washroom. Sokka all of a sudden realized how naked his was all over again and his free hand (that wasn’t in a defensively raised fist ready to strike) moved back over his exposed manhood.

“What do you want?” The leader snarled at Zuko, who glared at him in return.

Zuko didn’t say anything, but Sokka saw his golden eyes scanning the scene before him, and he obviously wasn’t stupid enough to not know what was happening here. Sokka was curious if he would help him or not, he didn’t have a reason to. Its not like any of the other prisoners that were in the shower when the three men approached Sokka did anything to help. Ara was right when she said that in order to survive this place he had to put himself first, it was clear that is what everyone else was doing.

When Zuko didn’t move or say anything, the leader stopped glaring at the fire bender and turned his attention to the man on his right.

“I thought you had Ze watching the door?!”

“I did!”

“He did.” Zuko’s raspy voice broke up the bickering and everyone turned to look at him. Sokka blinked, his eyes fixed on Zuko whose eyes were on the leader. “I mean, he was. He was there, he is still there. He just isn’t watching anymore.”

The men fully turned away from Sokka, leaving the boy to exhale quietly in an attempt to slow down his heart rate. They still blocked his escape and now Zuko was standing in front of the door, so Sokka was still stuck where he was. Naked and starting to get cold.

Which was even more of a reason to keep himself covered, because that could get embarrassing.

“Listen, you little scarred up bastard, if you don’t get the fuck out of here I will-“

“What? You’ll do… what?” Zuko’s tone was scary, his voice was dry and angry. His gold eyes flickered between all three of the men who hesitated in front of him. He didn’t look at Sokka.

“We wont do shit if you leave now, we don’t have any issues with you!” The prisoner on the right yelled at Zuko.

“I’m not leaving. You leave.” Zuko always stood so straight with his head held high. Zuko made sure his body language screamed I’m better than you. He couldn’t cross his arms with them chained in front of him, but his body language emitted enough attitude he didn't need his arms crossed.

The man standing on their leader’s left took a step forward, “I'll give you a taste of what we are going to give to your friend if you don’t shut that sharp little mouth of yours. But I won't be gentle with you, I know you like it rough.”

Zuko smirked, shifting into a fighting stance. “Then do it, old man.”

It happened so fast Sokka almost didn’t register the fight happening at all. The man on the left moved towards Zuko just as the man in the middle said something along the lines of “no don’t!”

The next thing Sokka knew, the man who lunged was on the floor, his mouth hanging open and his eyes rolling in the back of his head as he either slipped into death or unconsciousness. The man on the right let out a scream and this time, Sokka paid very close attention – careful not to even blink.

Zuko shifted slightly to the right at the man brought down a heavy fist, trying to put his full strength into hurting the young fire bender. Zuko ducked as the man’s other arm came swinging up across his left side. The amount of force the attacker put into his assault threw him off balance when both fists missed their mark. Stumbling forward, he gave Zuko the perfect opportunity to land a direct hit. The fire bender twisted around, pulling his right leg back he kicked into the stumbling man’s face, his leg smashing against the man’s jaw with impeccable force.

There was a cracking sound when Sokka saw the kick land against the older man’s jaw, he saw the bone slide unnaturally to the side. The man began to scream and Zuko swept his leg out again, snagging the man’s calf, he dropped him to the floor with no hesitation.

The leader put his hands up in surrender, “We’ll leave, just don’t. We’ll leave.”

He turned for just a fleeting second to look at Sokka, his eyes burning with anger at the naked Water Tribe boy still pressed up against the moist washroom wall. He then stepped over his broken friends on the ground and left the washroom with haste. The hopefully unconscious man laid on the floor next to his friend, who moaned quietly and covered his broken face with his hands.

“Thanks…” Sokka managed to mutter at Zuko who finally looked at him, blue meeting gold. His brow furrowed and the fire bender scoffed before turning around and leaving the washroom. Which was weird because he just made a violent stand on why he wasn’t going to leave the washroom, and then turned around and left the washroom.

Sokka threw on his clean clothing as fast as he was capable of moving before grabbing his belongings, wrapping his dirty uniform and soap into his towel. He took one last glance at the two men laying on the floor and his skin prickled with the thought of what those men had wanted to do to him.

He rushed out the door, his eyes frantically searching the area, trying to catch a glimpse of the direction Zuko went. He still needed to talk to him about the escape plan, especially after he saved him from whatever assault those men intended to do. He fought them without even trying, and Sokka saw him fire bend yesterday, he needed to find out if he would help.

Sokka caught sight of Zuko’s back, he would notice that arrogant strut and scruffy hair anywhere. Sokka picked up into a slow trot when Shen stepped into his view. “Where you headed so quick? It better be back to your bunk considering the sun is almost set. Wouldn’t want you out here past dark so you can get punished.”

Sokka slid to a stop and sighed in annoyance that the man was right, “yeah I am heading to bed. Just had a uh… situation in the washroom.”

Shen frowned, tilting his head to the side. “Situation?”

“Yeah… Uhh… There three guys they uh-“

“Did one of them have a fucked up eye and a burn on his arm? Walks around with 3 other dip shits?”

“Yeah, that was them. They cornered me in the washroom and uh… tried to… Ya know.” Sokka didn’t want to say the word, he didn’t want to admit what might have happened. Was he so weak that if Zuko didn’t show up those men would have taken advantage of him?

Was he that weak now? Or was he always this weak he was just always surrounded by strong people...

Sokka felt a strong hand grip his shoulder tight, “did they… hurt you?” Shen was trying to ask him in the most vague way possible if those men had sexually assaulted him.

“No they didn’t. Uhh.. Zuko showed up and beat the shit out of two of them and the leader left after that.”

“I would imagine so, Zuko is the reason that guy has the burn on his arm. He is - well - he was, an Earth Kingdom General in their army and he was brought here by Zhao years ago. His name is Hou, and he is a cocky son of a bitch. Some of the other Earth Kingdom loyalist stick with him and help him do his… bidding. He might come after you again kid, so just watch your back. Try not to shower alone.”

Sokka’s jaw dropped, “that burn is pretty big… How would he have gotten burned by Zuko? I thought everyone who was a bender has had their bending suppressed?”

“Zuko is a powerful bender from an even more powerful bloodline, even with his titles removed he is still the rightful blood heir to the Fire Nation. There are legends about how the Royal Family are direct descendants of the sun, and their bending is the most powerful demonstration of Agni’s power. I mean, just look what Fire Lord Sozin did to the Air Nomads, it was an extreme display of the royal bloodlines power.

“Members of the Royal Family are the only fire benders who can successfully generate lightning as well. I heard the young Princess was training with lighting at 13. While I am glad he helped you out, I am not entirely sure what his intentions were. He is surely going to get punished for fighting with other prisoners but at least you didn’t have to be subjugated to Hou and his men’s ‘welcoming party.’”

Shen escorted him back to his bunker just as the last of the sun’s light was slipping behind the mountains. That night Sokka laid in his bed, the darkness covering his vision, unable to sleep. His mind was a whirlwind of images from one of the longest days he has ever had the pleasure of living through. The coal mines were exceptionally dark and stifling today, the interaction in the washroom was haunting him, he kept thinking of Shen’s conversation with him and finally he couldn’t stop thinking about the encounter with Zuko.

Why did he help him today in the washroom?

What did he have to gain from hurting those men and preventing them from attacking him?

Would he really knowingly help him, even with the risk that he might be punished for it?

Sokka rolled onto his other side, being very careful not to let his back touch the thin mattress below him, he really didn’t want to deal with a throbbing back and head. Sokka wrapped the thin blanket around him just below his chin, tucking his head down he hid his mouth in the blankets, breathing warm air under the cover.

He was finally beginning to heal, the sharp pain that once racked his body was fading into a dull ache which he could easily push to the back of his mind. Sokka was acclimating to his environment, even though the longer he stayed in this prison, the closer he got to visiting with Zhao again. The Admiral seemed distracted with something as of late, which gave Sokka the time to heal from their last encounter.

It was too dark to see the scarred flesh that covered the top half of his hand and trailed up his wrist. He tried not to look at it during the day, the memory of the incident still made his stomach clench in anticipation. In the dark he would touch the burn, now almost completely healed, the skin was tight and ridged. His hand strained to perform the smallest motions, Sokka knew he would need to practice with his new hand to re learn how to fight properly.

He couldn’t risk not being able to raise a weapon, he might as well roll over and die if that happened. If he couldn’t bend, or wield a weapon he was useless. Closing his scarred hand into a tight fist, Sokka ignored the slight pain he felt from his still healing skin stretching with the motion. He didn’t care. Sokka finally fell asleep after a while. The lingering eye contact with Zuko was the last thing he thought about before he closed his eyes and fell asleep.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Another day, another wonderful trip to the coal mine.

The sky was grey today, as the weather was shifting into spring the rain storms were rolling onto land from the open ocean. Sokka could feel the moisture in the air as the wind whipped through group of men eating their lunch. Sokka and Reho sat together, it had become a regular thing at this point and it was an interaction Sokka found himself looking forward to.

“ – so there we were, me and my sister, and the guy looked at us and said… ‘cabbages!? I thought you said savages!?’” Reho laughed and slapped his knee. Wiggling his eyebrows up and down the way he did when he thought something he said was funny. His soft brown eyes fixed on Sokka as he waited for a reaction.

Sokka hesitated because he knew Reho was trying to be funny and relatable but honestly… telling the only Water Tribe joke you know to a Water Tribe person, when the joke is at their expense, isn’t the best idea. He should have known when the punchline included the word ‘savages.’

Sokka let out a fake laugh, accompanied by a knee slap before taking another bite of his lump-pretending-to-be-food. When he knew Reho wasn’t looking his eyes slowly and casually roamed over to where Zuko was sitting, lotus style in the sun.

His head was tilted towards the sky, probably trying to soak up all of the sun’s rays while he still could. The clouds were moving in faster now as the wind had started to pick up. The once soft, grey clouds were gathering moisture fast, their color growing into a darker grey as they swallowed more water. The trees were starting to whip around as the wind ran rampant through the land. A crack of lightning caused some of the prisoners to startle.

Half of the guards were hunched together, discussing something, as they took momentary pauses to look up at the clouds. The coal mine was built at the bottom of a small hill, the tunnel leading under the earth was a long walk down an angled path. If they made them go back into the mine they could possibly get trapped when the rain started, mud slides were a big concern.

“Breaks over! Back to work!” The guard’s voice was lost in the wind. The trees were brushing into one another as the wind pushed them over with ease. When the wind raced into a strong gust the tree branches began to break away, flying through the air at dangerous speeds. Sokka groaned knowing that at any moment the clouds were going to break open and the world would be covered in a torrential downpour.

But he learned weeks ago to just shut his mouth and follow the direction he was pointed in. He wouldn’t win this fight and he really didn’t want any more lashing for as long as he could avoid it. Reho frowned looking up at the sky one last time before entering the mine, he leaned over and whispered to Sokka.

“If we die in here today, I just wanted to say it was nice having lunch with you the past couple of days. For what its worth, you don’t deserve to be here.”

Sokka swallowed the lump in his throat and smiled at his friend, “thanks Reho, I liked having lunch with you too. Even with your poor taste in jokes.” He gave his new friend a side eye smile just before they were plunged into darkness.

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 7: Not Again

Sokka swore he could hear the rain beating against the earth above him, even though he knew it was impossible, considering how deep underground they were.

Time passed slowly after lunch.

Sokka noticed that everyone seemed to be on edge, people knew there was a strong possibility that the coal mine could flood and everyone inside would probably drown. Other than that... the day was passing by as usual.

It wasn’t until he heard people beginning to argue towards the front of the large cavern that Sokka noticed the ground was growing increasingly more wet. He could feel the moisture soak into his stupid cloth shoes. Sokka was towards the back of the coal mine, of fucking course. This meant that the water must have already accumulated into the front section as it was making its way back. They needed to get out of here.

Sokka stopped scooping coal and looked around, he watched as the other pods huddled together around their burning lanterns. The soot covered prisoners were waiting for the evacuation and turned to face the exit - the mining process had ended.

The guards weren’t cracking their whips as they met together in a circle huddled around a dimly-lit lantern in the middle of the cavern; they mumbled softly to themselves. Another guard appeared, walking down the steep path into the deep mine. The bottom half of his body was soaked, splatters of mud and soot sprayed across his normally red and black uniform.

“We got to go! Get everyone out of here!” Sokka could hear the urgency and unsureness in his voice.

Prisoners began to panic, and that’s when the whips came out. Sokka stayed back as people pushed past him and crowded towards the trail up to the exit. The guards began striking anyone they saw acting rowdy and the crowd of people quickly calmed down. The prisoners and guards together made their way carefully up the narrow path towards the outside. Sokka ended up at the back of the group

The guards moved quickly, followed by the prisoner group with a few guards at the back to make sure there was no chance to escape. Sokka couldn’t even imagine trying to escape during weather like this, he might just be safer back in the torture camp.

Sokka couldn’t recognize anyone or anything in the darkness as the group moved their way through the mine towards the exit. All the prisoners and guards were covered in layers of grime and mud, the water was rising faster than before, causing the floor to become slick and mud started to accumulate. He just followed the noises the guards made as they ushered everyone forward.

The water on the ground was getting thicker, turning the earth into a mushy, slippery mess. Prisoners were falling over each other as they tried to climb their way uphill and out of the coal mine. Water was flowing freely down the path and into the mine, if they didn’t make it out in the next hour both caverns could be filled with water and drown them all.

Sokka was crawling his way up the path on his hands and knees, keeping his mouth closed so the murky water didn’t splash inside. He heard a scream behind him, turning his head he saw a female prisoner slip, she slid back down the path into the black water below.

She screamed again and cradled her arm close to her chest, Sokka figured she must have injured it when she hit the ground. There were a lot of tools hiding in the rising water that could potentially hurt or kill someone, it was likely everyone just abandoned their equipment when they fled. She could have possibly fallen directly on the edge of a cart or worse, a pickaxe.

Sokka couldn't see exactly what she fell on from where he was stopped on his hands and knees, unless he turned all the way around. He was about to decide if he was going to have to go down there and get her... when he saw a guard slide down the incline and step into the water next to her. He tried to pull her up but she flinched away, shrinking back in fear she held her arm close, screaming something Sokka couldn’t understand.

The guard was now yelling at her, reaching down and grabbing her aggressively once again. Sokka had to look away so he could continue moving toward the exit, but he could still hear her screaming.

He was about halfway up the steep path out, even with the water pouring in which was making things more difficult the further up he crawled. He has resulted in crawling on his hands and knees and he was still struggling to hold his grip as the rushing water eroded away the earth beneath him.

Sokka couldn’t help but look back again, only to see the guard frantically shaking the girl as he tried to forcefully pull her to her feet. The aggressiveness only made her shrink further into the water, Sokka could barely see her but he could hear she was sobbing. Finally, the guard threw up his hands in frustration and turned to leave ,the woman still screaming into the darkness.

Sokka looked away, his arms trembled, feeling weak as his stupid mind wanted to focus on the girl in the black water. The girl who needed help… and Sokka couldn't even help her, he was so weak. He wondered if the guard even looked back, Sokka couldn't help it, he looked back.

He saw the guard making his way back up the path, the boots he wore gave him the proper grip he needed to fight against the rushing current of mud. As he approached Sokka, the man grabbed the back of his tunic and started pulling him along, which actually helped him a lot. The guard pulled him until they were finally out of the mine, the man dropped him to the ground and Sokka let out a quiet sob.

He was so weak and scared he couldn’t even save that girl… She was going to be left there to suffer and die alone in the darkness. The rain created a thick barrier around him, smothering the choking sounds people were making from swallowing all the muddy water. His vision was blurred as the wind drove the stinging rain droplets into his eyes.

Sokka was not surprised that water could be so painful, Katara had pelted him with enough water in his life that he was aware of just how painful the innocent looking water could be. The guards were gathering the prisoners together, using their whips as motivation to get everyone moving back towards the prison.

Sokka stumbled forward, his stupid cloth shoe slid off his foot and became lodged into thick mud, he started falling and in a last attempt to stay out of the extremely wet and muddy ground below, he reached out and grabbed on to whoever was in front of him for support.

Of course, of all people... it had to be fucking Zuko who he grabbed and both boys went tumbling down to the ground, ending up in a pile of limbs.

“What the fuck!” Zuko did not sound happy.

“S-sorry.” Sokka rubbed the back of his head, wincing.

He felt the fire bender start to kick himself away from the pile they were tangled in, shoving himself forcefully away from Sokka. They were both soaking wet and covered in the slick soot but Zuko was on his feet before Sokka even recognized he had broken free.

The fire bender shot him an angry glare before turning towards the rest of the group, a guard made his way towards them as Sokka tried to pull himself up.

“Get up prisoner! Get with the rest of the group!”

“I’m trying, I’m trying!”

“NOW!”

Lightning cracked through the sky, muffling the sound of Sokka’s pained gasp when the guard struck him in the ribcage with his boot. He slid around in the mud until he finally pulled himself to his feet. Sokka didn’t dare look back for his missing shoe, it was a lost cause. He picked up the pace until he was walking with the group again, in the corner of his eye he saw a smaller prisoner, Zuko.

Sokka moved a little closer, “sorry again, I didn’t mean to pull you down.”

Zuko didn’t say anything, he didn’t even acknowledge that Sokka was speaking to him. It was getting frustrating, the whole... being ignored by the arrogant jerk-bender. He didn’t care at this point if he saved him from the scary shower molesters or not, he couldn’t just pretend he didn’t exist whenever he tried to talk to him.

“You’re an asshole, you know that?! I am just trying to be nice and say I was sorry for pulling you down into the mud! What? Am I not good enough to speak to the all mighty Prince Zuko?! Ohhhhh buddy I think we are way past those kinds of titles, it looks to me like you and I are in the same spot!”

Zuko’s dark hair was covering the top half of his face while they walked along. Sokka couldn’t see his eyes at all. The heavy rainfall plastered his inky hair against his skin, it only moved when the wind would burst into a strong gust and push itself through the prison group.

It was extremely weird to see Zuko with hair, it humanized him in a way that Sokka couldn’t explain. At this angle, Sokka could see the bottom traces of the scar raggedly cutting across his face, just below his cheek. His scar looked a lot different then the one on Sokka’s hand. His own skin turned to a rough, stiff, leather like feel. But it only turned a few shades lighter than the original skin color, you might not notice it at first glance.

From what Sokka could see, Zuko’s scar was not like his at all, it was deep and the layers of flesh before were carved away with actual fire. The deep shades of red were a result of the extensive damage caused by the direct heat emitted from the fire when it melted the skin away from the rest of his face.

Sokka couldn’t imagine the pain that must have caused, and how hard the recovery would have been. His own hand seemed minuscule in comparison. It didn’t give him an excuse to be a jerk though, there was no excuse for that.

“Hello… ZUKO!?” Sokka yelled his name, trying to lift his voice over the wind. The rain was pouring out of the sky in heavy sheets of water, Sokka was sure he had never been so wet before and he grew up with a water bender.

Zuko must have heard his name that time because he turned his head enough to see Sokka making a rather perplexed face at him. Sokka’s face was a mix between anger and confusion. Mostly because now he thinks that Zuko couldn’t hear him over all the wind and the rain. He couldn't remember exactly... but he was pretty sure that Zuko’s scar covered his ear, so there could be some hearing loss.

Which was good - well not good like yay for hearing loss - but good because that means maybe Zuko didn’t hear his little outburst. Sokka was stressed, he just left someone to die alone in the flooding mine and he guessed that Zuko ignoring him was the last straw.

“Go away.” Zuko picked up his pace to leave Sokka behind him. But Sokka had legs too, he could also walk fast. Picking up the pace he matched his speed to Zuko’s, one shoe and all.

“I just wanted to say sorry!”

“You’re welcome.”

“I didn’t say thank you.”

“Oh, well never mind then.”

“But... thank you, also… for earlier.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“But I really appreciate-“

Zuko turned sharply so he faced Sokka full on, he approached Sokka and a familiar feeling of fear slithered down his throat and into his stomach with a swallow. He was always afraid of the idea of Zuko being Fire Nation and a bad guy, but the Prince never seemed to actually try to hurt them. He just wanted to capture Aang.

This Zuko though, standing in front of him... was different.

Zuko might be significantly smaller than the other adult prisoners and guards, but he still stood taller than Sokka. Not by much (Sokka felt proud of that) but enough that it was noticeable. Zuko was stronger, even with his hands chained together in front of him, Sokka has already seen him take down multiple guards and prisoners. He didn’t hesitate to fight and Sokka really didn’t want to fight Zuko… in the rain, or at any other time.

“I said, don’t mention it. Please, just shut up.” Zuko growled at him before turning towards the rest of the group and continuing the march back to camp.

Sokka felt the nervousness in his stomach settle when Zuko turned sharply to walk away. The guard trailing the back of the group, where Sokka was the last prisoner in line, made a noise with his throat which Sokka took as a ‘hurry up’ warning. They were almost back to the prison camp and Sokka never thought he would be so happy to be back through those gates.

The work day was cut short because of the coal mine flooding, which meant that Sokka had extra time tonight to work through his escape plan. Maybe Shen and Ara would help, he was sure they would want out of here as much as he did. He was having second thoughts about involving Zuko now, he might be too unpredictable.

The South Gate never looked so inviting, the prisoners quickly dispersed when they entered the compound. Everyone was eager to put distance between them and the stressed out guards. The entire situation was difficult for the prisoners, but Sokka knew the guards were also really stressed about the flooding, while also making sure no one escaped during the chaos of the storm.

The rain didn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon, it still beat down on the earth like an angry water spirit. The rainwater soaked the camp’s dirt, mixing together to make a slippery, messy mud pit. Sokka’s one shoe didn’t give him any protection against the splattering mud and the deep puddles.

He just wanted a nice hot shower, well… a nice cold shower, any kind of shower really. Just something that would get the layers of whatever-the-fuck was all over him, off. Sokka was fantasizing about his shower when he felt a strong hand grab his shoulder and a different hand grip his arm.

“What the…” Sokka turned to see two guards holding his arms, his eyes darted between them frantically, “I didn’t… I didn’t do anything!” His voice felt like it didn’t belong to him, fear gripped his throat while he cried out in desperation.

Struggling against their grip, he was too tired and weak from his journey back to camp to even attempt to do any physical damage. If anything, he would just make the guards more irritated then actually escape their grip, and if he did escape, where would he run to?

Nowhere... because he was trapped.

Sokka let his head fall as the guards brought him to Zhao’s cabin, keeping his eyes locked on the muddy ground he didn’t dare look up. He didn’t want to see the evil man right now, he could barely get the image of the woman holding her injured arm in the dark water out of his head. He couldn’t face Zhao right now, he could admit he was too weak.

Instead of being led up those three steps, he was forced to kneel outside the residence, in the rain and mud, facing the covered porch. Lifting his head up, there were 5 other people kneeling in line with him. Sokka’s eyes went wide when he recognized the 3 shower molesters, plus one other.

And next to him was one disgraced Fire Nation Prince.

If they were all here then that means that they were probably here for… Oh fuck...

Punishment.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“I heard about an incident in the washroom, we are here to get the facts and determine the correct punishments for the people deserving. Now…. Who wants to start. Hou? Water Tribe? Any takers?”

The warden circled the prisoners, his hands gripping and twisting the coiled up whip he held behind his back. It was still raining, but the wind was calmer and the rain was more of a steady pour then an angry waterfall. The thunder still rumbled in the sky hidden behind the clouds, the lightning had stopped for now. Sokka wished lightning would come back and strike the warden then ricochet off his body and strike Zhao too.

Sokka saw the frayed and knotted tip of the whip wiggle as the warden twisted his hands around the coil, his fingers digging into the braided leather. The warden was the one in charge of the washroom situation because he was the one in charge of the prison camp.

Apparently this was strictly a prison incident – or so he said. He probably just wanted to get off on his own twisted games, just like Zhao.

Stupid Zhao and his mind games, even now the Admiral stood on the porch, his arms crossed. The man stood close to the railing as he watched the prisoners.

No… As he watched one prisoner – Zuko.

Sokka saw Zhao continuously stare at the fire bender to his left. Zuko’s unscarred side was facing Sokka as he kneeled with his chained together wrists resting on his lap, staring at the ground. His facial expression was blank, but if Sokka had to give him an emotion he would have to say it would be – unamused.

“I’ll start.” Hou was the first to speak, “I think I can speak for my three friends and I when I tell you what really happened… We were headed into the washroom and when we went inside it was just the Water Tribe boy in there. He was almost done and we were waiting for him to finish, when all of a sudden that scarred up ex prince came in and beat the shit out of these two –“ he pointed at the two injured men sitting next to him.

Hou was not a tall man, but he was sturdy. His face was older, even though he was around the age of Hakoda, he wore a more seasoned face. His left eye was missing and there was a nasty scar running parallel with that eyebrow. He had long grey hair that he wore pulled back in a braid. Sokka came to the conclusion he was definitely a scary looking man.

The other man, whose jaw was surely broken, had the most makeshift head bandage Sokka has ever seen. Even Katara’s most beginning, primitive, healing-botch-jobs, she had never put something together quite like this. Sokka might put something together like that, the idea of combining inventing and healing together to see what kind of fucked up shit popped out. Because that’s what was wrapped around this guy’s head – fucked up shit.

The other man (who Sokka assumed died, but hoped he didn’t die… for some weird reason, maybe because he was a good person) didn’t have any bandages on his face but looked like he needed… a bunch of something.

The man’s nose was black and blue, literally, dark splotches of black colored skin overlapped with deep purple spots. The bruising spread out, trailing the same deep discoloration under the man’s eyes. The entire left side of his head looked swollen and there was dried blood on his neck from a gash that had been closed with a shaky hand stitch job.

“He came at us with his fucking flexibility and shit, he kicked this guy’s jaw clear off his face! Then he kicked Rito’s nose into his skull, look at it - it's all sorts of fucked up. Just ‘cause we were talking to his little Water Tribe friend.”

Sokka saw Zhao glance away from Zuko for the first time and much to his own disparity his eyes landed on him. Sokka hated the way Zhao’s amber eyes traced over his face and down his body before he took his chilling stare somewhere else. Sokka didn’t dare let his eyes wander over to Zuko, he didn’t want to give Zhao anything more to look into.

The warden looked at Sokka just as Zhao looked away, their eyes met and Sokka swallowed the lump that was wiggling its way into his throat. He has never encountered the warden before, besides the first day he was processed, hedidn’t know what to expect from the man.

“Either of you two have anything to add?” The warden looked over at the two defeated looking prisoners. The warden’s eyes grazed over the two injured men one last time before turning his attention to the last prisoner who was apparently also with the shower molesters that afternoon. “What about you? What were you doing while your friends were being assaulted in the shower?”

Zhao chuckled.

The lanky framed prisoner had a bump on his head, but other than that, he looked like a normal, older, Earth Kingdom man. All four of the men had to be in their 40s, their hair tattered with grey and they all carried scars from a life of fighting.

Sokka frowned at the thought because they all carried scars, and it was no excuse for becoming a monster.

“I was the look- I was looking for my soap. I -uhh, dropped it and was just going to go in when that kid over there shoved my head into a wall and knocked me out. When I woke up my friends had been attacked.”

The warden moved over to where Sokka and Zuko kneeled next to one another, the man’s devious eyes sparkled with humor as he enjoyed the chase for the truth. Even though the display in front of him had to be pathetic and easy to see through, still the warden was enjoying himself and Zhao was watching. Sokka glanced over at Zuko again and the boy was glaring at the warden, his lip twitched, probably trying to hold back a snarl.

“Ahhhh Zuko… Now, you and I… we have had our issues in the past but I like to believe we have moved past that… So please, fill me in on what happened in the washroom yesterday?”

Sokka turned his head so he could clearly see Zuko’s unscarred side of his face, his eye was so gold as they searched the warden’s eyes for something. Sokka saw when Zuko made his decision of what he wanted to say, his shoulders relaxed just a hair and the corner or his mouth twitched like he wanted to smirk. Other than those small details, his face was unreadable.

“Like they said, I was just itching for some violence so I decided to fuck these guys up for no reason.” Zuko’s raspy voice sounded threatening even though there were no threats being shared.

The warden’s brow furrowed and his mouth shifted to an unamused line, both his lips sucked in just slightly as he stared down at Zuko.

“You may be a traitor to your nation and a disgrace to your name, but you are not one for senseless violence, it's not your style. So what were these men doing that angered you enough to attack them…. Hmmm. Water Tribe, you have been awfully quiet, in your own words what happened?”

Sokka’s face paled as the warden moved to stand in front of him, his arms still resting behind his back while his hands twisted his whip. Sokka’s skin itched from nervousness, but mostly it itched from the smeared mud and splattered soot that coated almost his entire body. The rain wasn’t washing it all away, which was really bumming Sokka out.

He stared at the warden, Sokka was finding it hard to maintain eye contact when he could feel Zuko glaring at him. Zuko was always glaring at people, Sokka included.

But in this moment Sokka wasn’t sure if this glare was a don’t you dare fucking tell them the truth and just agree with me right now glare or if it was more of a I fucking hate your face, you peasant glare and Zuko didn’t even give a shit what Sokka said.

But what if it did matter, and what if Sokka fucked it all up?

“Well you see, I had soap in my eyes…. So I didn’t really see what happened. You know, the prison should look into some better quality soap… When this stuff gets in your eyes it really stings. It took me so much extra time under the water, where I couldn’t hear or see anything, trying to wash this stuff out of my eyes. They still sting!”

The warden just blinked, and Zuko turned his head back to the ground and continued his intense staring contest with the mud. Sokka rubbed his eyes with the back of one of his hands, hoping to use the gesture to validate his ‘soap-in-eye’ story.

It was unfortunate that all these weeks of being too-scared-to-talk made him rusty, or maybe Katara was right and he just was an idiot. But when he went to wipe his eyes with the back of his hand, he ended up smearing the thick collection of disgusting substances that coated his hands, directly into his eyes.

He imminently felt the scraping sensation of the tiny particles rubbing against his retina. With a sharp hiss, Sokka wiggled his wrists limply in the air before bringing his arms down and clenching his hands into fists. His eyes involuntarily started to water, pushing the sand and other scratchy particles out and they dripped down his face as they quickly washed away in the rain.

The warden made a scoffing sound accompanied with a deep undertone of disgust. Sokka tried blinking rapidly to speed up the process of his eyes clearing up so he could see what was happening. The warden took a few steps, the noise sounded further away than before.

“Alright, well since this is the story you all wish to stick with, then that is what we will go with. Zuko, 10 lashes tomorrow morning for the use of excessive violence. Water Tribe, 5 lashes for being the most annoying person I have ever had to be around. We would do it tonight but this just isn’t good whipping weather, we want everyone to be able to come enjoy the show! So you have tonight to enjoy yourselves and tomorrow morning we will carry out the punishment. Dismissed.”

Sokka’s stomach was too tight to stand, his legs felt like his Gran-Gran’s boiled lion-seal blubber, they wouldn’t be able to support his stomach full of rocks. He was going to be whipped… again, in front of everyone while he was restrained to that pole-of-sadness.

He feared for himself and now part of him felt a small amount of guilt for Zuko too. Sokka felt like he might be the main reason why Zuko was getting double his lashes.

Which in Sokka’s opinion, he shouldn’t be getting any lashes, his story was completely believable and it was supposed to keep him out of the entire situation. It’s the classic, soap-in-my-eyes excuse! The warden was just being a fuck face.

The rain was still spilling across the world when the wind picked up again. The relentless wind pelted the rain droplets horizontally, stinging Sokka’s cheek as he tucked his head and moved towards the mess hall. He heard the shower molesters saying something, possibly directed at him but he was too hungry to listen.

He was getting whipped tomorrow, because of them... because he didn’t want them to do disgusting things to him against his will. Because Zuko stepped in and helped him out when he didn’t have to… and now he was getting hurt because of it. Sokka felt the rocks in his stomach shift when the seed of guilt sprouted a I feel like shit about this situation plant.

Sokka saw Zuko walking ahead of him, Sokka wanted to rush forward and tell him thank you and apologize for being such a jerk back at the mine. Even if the fire bender didn’t hear him being a jerk over the wind. Or because Sokka was talking into his bad ear, but did he have a bad ear?

His burn was large, and it must affect the vision in his left eye, somehow, but not enough to notice during the multiple fights they have had. Sokka never looked at Zuko’s burnt ear when his head was shaved. (Which made sense because that would be extremely creepy for past Sokka to stare at bald Zuko’s ear).

Sokka watched Zuko disappear into the middle cabin, and Sokka dipped into the mess hall, hoping there was still food left from dinner. The time he wasted spending time with the warden, which only earned him more lashings, took up the precious time he needed to get to dinner before all the food was gone.

When Sokka stumbled into the tent he was startled to see no one was there, except a few people playing cards at the empty tables. What was most notable to him was the fact that there was no food was set out. He must have been standing there like an idiot for a while because one of the prisoner’s playing cards called out at him.

“Kid! You ok?”

Sokka blinked and looked over at the middle aged woman, her grey and auburn hair was spiraling wildly around her face, trailing down her back. She held cards in her hands but her green eyes were fixed on him. The man who sat across from her was also holding cards, did not seem happy about her distraction. He shot Sokka with some intentionally annoyed looks.

“Yeah, sorry… I must have missed dinner…” It was painful for Sokka to say those words, he needed every meal he could get so his body would have the strength to recover from the whipping and be strong enough to escape. His plan might be set back a few days now that he is getting whipped tomorrow. The stupid bright side was at least he knew what to expect.

“Are you on bending suppressants? It's early afternoon and dinner isn’t for hours. Now go wash up, this might be a prison but we don’t need to roll around in the dirt and walk around. Now get out of here, you’re so dirty, this is where we eat.” The woman literally shooed him with her hand of cards.

Sokka couldn’t help but smile at her feisty tone, it reminded him of Gran-Gran and her constant struggle to keep the village's greatest warrior and last water bender, under control.

“Yes ma’am.” Was all Sokka could muster up before pivoting his way out of there. The rain continued and Sokka ran to his cabin and gathered what he needed for the shower. His cabin had two men he didn’t recognize chatting as they sat leaned up against the back wall. They must have also gotten off their work assignment early, they looked freshly cleaned and like they were enjoying their time off.

Sokka couldn’t wait to be clean, he almost skipped his way across the deserted mud pit that was once their prison camp. Sokka approached the L, his eyes focused on the washroom in front of him. Skidding through the front door, he almost slipped and fell onto the slick stone beneath his feet. The washroom was a disgusting mess of filth that everyone rid their bodies of and left scattered across the floors and walls.

Sokka found a clean spot to set his towel and fresh outfit before stepping under the freezing pipe, his eyes closed and for just a moment he was back home.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Ara was waiting for him at his bunk when he returned. It was impossible to not get at least a little dirty on the walk back to his cabin. The whole, one shoe thing, was really going to get annoying fast. He might as well ditch the abandoned shoe and just embrace the whole savage-shoeless-look he had going.

“Sokka!” Her voice always brought a pink tint to his cheeks and made his heart smile. She looked so beautiful laying there in his bed, her black hair was tied back in a loose braid, just like the last time he saw her.

She always tucked in the front of her prison tunic to show off her tiny waist, she smiled at him as he got close. “Hey Ara! What are you doing here?” He put away his toiletries and shoved his dirty uniform in his laundry bag setting it on top of his trunk.

“Oh sweetie... I heard the miners and laundry workers got the afternoon off, and I haven’t seen you in days so I wanted to come find you! Shen and a few of our other friends are hanging out in my cabin around my bunk, I wanted to come get you so you could join.”

Her smile was inviting, even though all Sokka wanted to do was curl into bed and wait for dinner, he knew that turning down Ara’s invitation would be rude after everything she did for him already. Plus… He wouldn’t mind sitting on her bed.

“Of course, lead the way.”

Through the rain and across the mud, Ara led him into the first cabin in the row of female bunks. Sokka could see right away the difference in the woman’s cabin and his own. Their cabin was clean, and the women seemed to have decorated, in a sense. There were various objects scattered across the walls and next to people’s beds, he assumed they must signify something. Ara had a collection of healing supplies, and other various items Sokka didn’t look at too long, stacked in the space between her bed and the floor.

Shen’s eyes reflected something sweet when Ara came into his view, Sokka couldn’t help but feel a tang of jealousy. Even though he knew that he was a 16 year old boy, who never had a chance with a beautiful adult woman like Ara, it didn’t mean he couldn’t pretend that he was the one who Ara wanted to spend all her time with.

The raindrops made a soft clinking clatter as they bounced off the cabin’s metal roof, the skylight was clouded over by the storming sky outside. Sokka found it the perfect background noise as he stood next to Ara.

Sokka recognized Shen, of course. He also remembered the guy from lunch the other day, the one who had hair like Jet. There was a female that Sokka had never seen before, she was slender but her breasts were very full and her hair was a deep red color, cut short like Suki, but the woman’s hair was crazy curly. The woman resembled Suki, actually, but her age was far past Suki’s age and the scars of her time in battle were viable across her arms and neck.

Sokka wondered if that was how people would see him now? When their wandering eyes landed on his lashing scars, or the flinch he had at sudden movement... Would they roll their eyes, or assume the worst? Sokka wasn’t prepared for what life after prison would be like, all he knew was it would be better than being trapped here where death was imminent.

“Guys, this is Sokka, the Water Tribe boy I told you about. He was caught traveling with the Avatar and now Zhao has him here with us. Sokka, this is everyone.”

Sokka smiled and waved before cocking his head to the side as he rubbed his hand against the back of his neck. “Hello everyone.” Thank spirits his voice didn’t crack, and even though he missed Katara, he was sure glad she wasn’t here to make comments about his obviously nervous voice.

Ara sat down on her bed, patting the seat next to her, which Sokka happily sat down. He was close enough to her to possibly brush against her on accident, but far enough away that he was strictly the ‘kid at the adults table’. For the first time in over a month, Sokka felt completely relaxed, he was actually comfortable.

“So, Sokka, what's the Avatar like?” The other female sat on the floor, her back resting against the bunk beside them, she had her legs spread out in front of her. The woman had grey eyes, similar to Aang, and there was a sweet innocence in them. The innocence was similar to what he saw in Ara’s eyes, it wasn’t a surprise they were friends.

“Aang, that’s his name, the Avatar; his name is Aang. He is a great, nice, funny, all around good guy. Last air bender, which is sad because air bending is extremely useful. If you ever get out of here and get to travel with an air bender you will wonder how you ever survived without one. I know I am…” Sokka laughed nervously before clearing his throat and continuing. “Aang wants to save the world, the entire world, every little tick-roach sitting on a leaf. I believe he can do it too, he just needs people’s support. He is our last hope.”

There was bitterness in his tone, but it was smothered by the hope he had in the little vegetable eating monk. He did believe in Aang, and he knew he was the world's last hope, but after experiencing some of the people in the world… Sokka wasn’t sure there was much of a chance to save it.

“I support the Avatar, even if he doesn’t come to save me directly, if he can actually create peace in this world, well… then I will die supporting his cause.” Ara looked so determined, she nudged him in his arm with her elbow and gave him a wink.

The busty female rolled her eyes, running her fingers through her curly hair, one finger getting trapped in the knotted end. “Ok Ara, we get it, you believe in the Avatar but what I believe is that the Fire Nation is going to win the war and eventually we will all be set free because prison camps will be eliminated after the fighting finally stops.”

Shen scoffed and the red head shot him a glare.

“Do you honestly believe that, Opal? Or do you just enjoy hearing yourself spew nonsense?” His voice was unforgiving as he sat on the edge of the bed next to Ara. Their knees were touching. It was cool… Totally cool.

“The Fire Nation has already won the war, all they need to do now, is defeat the Earth Kingdom cities and Fire Lord Ozai is king of the world. I’m sorry you don’t like that idea, but that is the truth, there aren't enough 12 year old boys in the world that can take him down.” Opal ended her little speech with a smug smile.

The entire group nodded, even Ara. There seemed to be an invisible tether attaching people who grew up in the Fire Nation or the colonies to the idea that the Fire Lord was all powerful and the rest of the world was weak. Sokka didn’t want to share too much about Aang, but it was good to know people were going to be completely shocked when Aang kicked Fire Lord Ozai’s ass.

“If the Fire Nation is so powerful then why is the heir to the Dragon Throne being strung up against a whipping post alongside some common thief? Doesn’t seem to be the strongest family lineage, does it?” The sandy brown haired boy cut in this time, he sat on the floor next to the busty girl, his smirk reminded Sokka too much of Jet and he had to look away. Opal (he was going to use her name now and stop referring to her as the busty girl) elbowed the Jet-look-alike and he made a fake hurt face and whined.

“One weak link doesn’t affect the chain if it's removed in time.” Opal crossed her arms, pushing her bust up higher and making Sokka look away. Was he so unaccustomed to being around people that he couldn’t handle some boobs?! He was a mess.

“Wow, if that isn’t some Fire Nation propaganda at its finest. Did you have to memorize that for brainwashing school back home, Opal? Are you a good little Fire Nation citizen?”

“Fuck you Shen, says the Fire Nation soldier. Don’t give me shit when you're covered in it.”

“All I am saying, Opal, is that you sound pretty unoriginal over there with your chain-link bullshit. But what should I expect from a halfbreed-“

“SHEN!” Ara sat up suddenly. She was leisurely leaning back on her elbows and watching everyone talk until Shen and Opal’s conversation took a heated turn. “That is absolutely enough of that, if you two can’t talk about this like civilized people then drop it and let's talk about something else.” She turned to Sokka and whispered. “-and they call your people savages.” She made an exasperated sound before turning her attention back on the group.

“All I am saying, Ara -“

“No Shen. All your saying is nothing more about the topic. You can’t be nice to Opal, calling her a half breed... what a mean thing to say.”

Sokka looked at Opal, and now that he really looked at her (and stopped looking at her breasts) he could see the mixture of nations in her features. She had pale skin like the Fire Nation, but red hair and grey eyes like the Earth Kingdom and Air Nomads. It was common in the Earth Kingdom colonies for people to be mixed, the entire village was essentially a mixture of Fire Nation citizens on Earth Kingdom soil anyway.

“If she is a half breed, well... what am I? Aren’t here and I the same? Is it because I look, Fire Nation? With my dark hair, and my pale skin?” Ara’s voice was growing more desperate as she spoke. “It’s a very hurtful thing to say and you know it, I’m sorry we aren’t all pure bred fire benders like you and the precious ex prince.”

“Ara I’m sorry.” Shen really did sound sorry. He didn’t seem to realize the way his insult to Opal was almost the same as insulting Ara. Sokka watched Ara pull her leg back so their knees were no longer touching, Sokka smiled.

“Any-way let's change topics! How about we talk about the new guard, whats is name again?” The Jet-look-alike actually did something useful and took the conversation in a more positive direction.

Ara slowly let her leg back out and before the end of the conversation her and Shen’s knees touched once more.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Dinner was amazing. There was no other way to describe it, there was meat, a vegetable that was still green, and the bread didn’t have mold on it. Plus, the tea was almost warm, which was exciting.

Sokka felt relaxed after the afternoon of lounging around and hanging out with Ara and the rest of her friends. They loved to gossip, no one was safe from their brutal opinions. Sokka heard them rant for way too long about a guard named Zen Se, they both seemed to have an issue with him and they really ripped apart the man’s physical appearance.

Sokka was now on the lookout for a short, potato shaped, unibrow, cross eyed guard who really rubbed Ara and Opal the wrong way. Opal grew on Sokka after her outburst about being a total and complete Fire Nation loyalist. Apparently, generations of her family on her father’s side served in the Fire Nation army, and usually rose through the ranks, having life long military careers. Opal’s father was apparently some general in the army, but yet she was here in Zhao’s torture camp, something did add up.

Ara didn’t share much about herself, she mostly just talked about the guards and other prisoners. Sokka tried to steer the conversation to talk about Zuko but every time the ex prince was brought up Ara would change the subject or just scoff and roll her eyes and ignore it completely.

Ara really had a problem with Zuko and it was tickling at Sokka’s curiosity and he desperately needed to scratch it.

Speaking of stupid, (ahhh don’t say that he is taking 10 lashes because of you) Zuko, he saw the familiar fire bender still covered in mud and soot, sitting at one of the very back tables with a tray of food. Sokka was able to clearly see him without turning his head, which was extremely convenient considering if Ara saw him staring at Zuko she would surely say something about it. Plus, Sokka still needed to tell her about the whipping he was going to get tomorrow morning.

“Did you hear about the whipping tomorrow morning?” Jet-look-alike sat down at the table with his tray of half eaten food. He apparently ate half his meal with other people before he decided to join them.

Sokka’s face paled, how did people already know?

Jet-look-alike smirked at Sokka, spinning his utensils around his vegetables, the little green pieces shifted around the swirling motion. “Sokka… Do you have something you want to tell us?”

This was it, time to face the reality of what was going to happen to him tomorrow. “Yeah… I uh, I am being punished tomorrow morning. 5 lashes.” He kept his eyes fixed on his try the entire time, his own vegetables were half gone and he hesitantly picked up another one and popped it into his mouth. It actually crunched, which was a huge step up from the normal disintegrating vegetables they were usually served.

“What did you do?!” Ara looked so concerned when he finally looked at her. He couldn’t stand Jet-look-alike he decided, and no... it wasn’t just because he looked like grass mouth, fuck face, Jet. Or that he had the same ‘please someone punch me’ personality. He just hated him, ok?

Sokka explained the entire story of the washroom and the shower molesters and Zuko’s weird way of not saving him, but saving him, and how they were both being whipped because of it.

“Isa too, he is getting whipped with you guys.” Stupid Jet-look-alike added.

Ara shook her head and didn’t say anything, her hands cupped her face as she stared down at the table. “What did I tell you Sokka? I told you to stay away from him, he is nothing but trouble.”

“But it wasn’t his-“ Sokka was cut off by Ara, her green eyes were slanted while she frowned at him.

“I don’t care if it wasn’t, or isn’t, or he didn’t, or I didn’t know - none of that. I have been here for enough time to know how this place works. He is bad news, even if he didn’t do anything, if he is around... then someone is getting hurt. I need you to understand that Sokka, if you get yourself in trouble on purpose by not following the rules I won’t waste my time or supplies on you. Remember when I told you that? Well this is one of those moments where I see you being reckless with your safety.”

Sokka frowned this time, “what did you expect me to do? Let those men… do whatever to me!?” Sokka didn’t mean to get loud at the end of that, but he did. A few prisoners looked over in his direction but they’re eyes didn’t linger and they looked away as fast as they came.

“No Sokka, but handle your own business or come to myself or Shen and we will try to help you. If Hou and his gang of thugs are bothering you, just tell us and we will take care of it. Don’t ever look to Zuko for anything, it's my last time telling you.”

Sokka just nodded, he didn’t feel like arguing with her about it. The whole thing was stupid. It was stupid that he was washing in a room with other people, it was stupid that men his father’s age wanted to fuck him, it was stupid that he was locked in this place with fucking Prince Zuko, and it was really stupid he couldn’t escape the guy.

As if on cue, he looked over to where Zuko was eating just minutes ago.

But he was gone.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Dawn was stupid.

Fuck dawn.

He was really using the word fuck a lot more now that he was prison Sokka. No more watching his mouth in front of little Aang, he was going to say fuck all the time now. Just to show how much of a bad-ass hardened criminal he had become.

Well…he was as badass as someone could be as they were being chained to a pole that was covered in other people’s blood and snot. Sokka was at a new pole this time, he was in the middle of the three poles instead of at the end . To his right was Zuko, and to his left was a man who looked familiar, but Sokka wasn’t sure from where.

All 3 of them were chained with their arms around their poles, and prisoners were slowly filling in as they prepared for the day. Sokka saw the warden standing in front of them, talking to Zhao as they both glanced at the restrained prisoners for a breath before returning back to their conversation.

Sokka looked over at Zuko, he was on his knees just like Sokka and was resting his head against his arms. All Sokka could see was the scraggly pieces of black hair draped over his arm, while his face was hidden from view. His arms were still wrapped in bandages from his wrist up to somewhere under his prison tunic sleeve.

“Alright, let's get this over with so you people can start your day. Just an update, the coal mine is still flooded, so those who usually work the mine will be helping get that shit show cleaned up. Now, I will go over each of their infractions before we begin. Isa, 10 lashes and 5 hours chained to the pole for tampering with the coolers. Water Tribe, 5 lashes for insubordination. Zuko, 10 lashed and 3 hours in the cooler for excessive violence against another prisoner. Guards, prepare your whips.”

Sokka squeezed his eyes shut, the quiet calm before the first strike was always the worse. The anticipation itself was almost as painful as the actual lashing, his heart felt like it was beating too fast and too slow at the same time.

He heard the whip snap, the cold feeling that spread through the skin on his back was only a preparation for the burning that followed. It was such a cruel trick, the soothing cold feeling reminded him of lying on his back in the snow with Katara as they watched the clouds together.

Snap, the second strike chased the memory of Katara far away, ripping her small fingers out of his grip as he ran after her, chasing the cool feeling she had with her. All he could feel was the burn, the never ending burn that he would always feel the longer he was a prisoner of the Fire Nation.

Sokka was sure he didn’t start screaming until the third whip strike made contact with his back, but apparently he was screaming the moment the whip hit his flesh the first time.

The sobbing started by the fourth strike. This particular hit must have ripped open one of his older wounds because it felt like lightning was coursing down his back as his flesh was ripped open once again. He could feel the tickling blood trickling down his back, that didn’t happen last time.. great.

The last strike was lost to Sokka’s screaming, crying mess of a person who clung to the pole he was chained to for dear life. His snot and tears happily mixed onto the pole where they belonged, leaving his own mark from this horrible experience.

Sokka stopped his loud, whimpering sobs when he heard the whip crack again, but he felt no pain. It was then when he realized that Zuko and the stranger next to him still had 5 more lashes, and then the Zuko had the cooler, which was apparently actual torture to fire benders.

Sokka blinked, tears poured out of his eyes in heavy streams, his vision was blurry from all the liquids strewed across his face. He tried to use his sleeve to wipe his face and his eyes caught Zuko. The boy he shook from the pain but he didn’t make a sound. Sokka watched the guard bring down the whip and he saw the leather rip across the Prince’s back, but yet he didn’t make a single sound. His face was buried in his arms so Sokka couldn’t see his expression.

Sokka slowly looked over to the other man, Isa, and saw him gasping for breath and trying to hide his moaning. Sokka then realized where he recognized that man, he was the guy who was tied to the pole in the sun with all the blisters the day he arrived. Isa was his name and apparently... he was tampering with the coolers – Sokka needed to try to talk to this guy.

The final crack of the whip got Sokka’s attention again, he looked back over at Zuko whose back was a bloody mess. Sokka couldn’t see too much at his angle but he could definitely see the heavy bruising that covered Zuko’s ribcage, and the blood that was freely dripping down his back. The fire bender's arms trembled, but not too noticeably, which was extremely impressive for someone who just took 10 lashes.

Sokka could see Zhao approaching the place where Sokka was kneeling at the pole, his own intense shaking increased as the fear of the Admiral approaching pushed the pain aside. Sokka’s stinging eyes looked up, long enough to see Zhao not even look at him and go over to Zuko.

Of course.

“You know I hate it when you don’t scream for me…” Zhao’s voice was deep and dripping with amusement as he stood over the broken boy. He crouched down on his knees to say something he thought only Zuko could hear, but Sokka heard.

“Don’t worry… I know exactly how to make you scream the way I like. I will see you after your trip to the coolers, try to stay conscious this time.” With a light touch across the top of Zuko’s hair, Zhao lifted back to his feet. The Admiral’s eyes shifted over to Sokka and he smiled one of his sinister, malicious intended lifts of the corner of his lips.

“I'll see you soon, Water Tribe.”

Sokka was starting to feel light headed as the pain came back in throbbing, stinging waves. He could feel his mind being overwhelmed by the intensity of Zhao’s words, accompanied with the pain. The faint darkness in the corner of his eyes signaled him that he wasn’t going to be conscious much longer. The last thing he remembered was the sound of Zuko’s body hitting the ground when he was released from his bonds.

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 8: Prince Dishwasher

When Sokka opened his eyes, he was laying on his stomach in his uncomfortable prison bed. He could feel the tight pressure from the bandages that wrapped around his torso and chest. Shifting his weight, Sokka lifted his head to try and take in his surroundings. The rain had started again, or it was continuing to rain? (He really wasn’t sure what day it was) The pitter-pattering of the raindrops on the metal roof of the cabin was soothing. His blue eyes caught the sight of Shen sitting on the edge of the bed next to him, his arms were propped up on his knees, exactly like he had the first day they met.

“Good morning, Water Tribe.” Shen’s deep voice rattled around inside Sokka’s head. It wasn’t until he stopped listening to the rain and started to listen to Shen’s voice that Sokka realized he had an excruciating headache. The pounding in his head rivaled the burning in his back, the sharp intensity of the pain made Sokka’s stomach turn. Sokka’s empty stomach - oh shit, he was also starving.

“How long… was I out?” His voice didn’t sound like his own, it was gritty and dry.

“A day and a half, it’s almost lunch time on the day following your punishment. Ara wrapped you up and put some salve on the areas that needed it. Hopefully, it will keep your cuts from getting infected. If you don’t want horrific scarring you might want to lay low for a while. I don’t think your back can take another lashing, at least not in the condition you are in now.”

Sokka watched Shen as the man spoke to him, he could see the concern in his eyes and the subtle hint of compassion. Shen truly was a good guy. The guy just had to look full blooded Fire Nation, with his amber eyes, pale skin and long dark hair. The stubble on his face was growing darker and fuller so less stubble, more hair-like? Maybe he was going to try growing a beard? Hmmmm… Shen would look weird with a beard, he was such a clean-cut-soldier type.

“Thanks for taking care of me, uh again…” Sokka’s words scratched against the inside of his dry throat.

“Thank Ara, I am just here while she is at her job assignment. Which she actually went to today, surprisingly, I honestly think she only went there to clean her bandages for you. You bled through an entire wrap before we got the cuts on your back to stop bleeding. The new lash marks opened up your old lash marks and it's just a mess back there. Most of it won’t scar too bad as long as you take care of it, but you are going to have some unavoidable scarring, sorry kid.”

Sokka shrugged, what did it matter anyway? Scars were inevitable in here, his body would be proof that this entire part of his life had been real. This horrific nightmare he was living in was not just a bad dream, it was his reality. In a way, he was glad some of it would scar, he had earned those scars - the hard way.

“I am not planning on getting whipped again… ever, I mean it. I just don’t know what I did to get punished this time, I can't figure out what their game is or how to play. I’m just so lost and I keep having to deal with this never-ending feeling of fear that something else horrible is going to happen to me or someone around me. I saw a woman die, Shen… and I could have helped her, if I had tried. But I didn’t. I just kept crawling my way out of the flooding coal mine… I feel like I am turning into a bad person. I don’t know how to stop the fear, I just want to get the fuck out of here.”

His shaking body didn’t help ease the pain in Sokka’s back as he unloaded his thoughts onto Shen. He wasn’t sure what hurt worse, the pounding in his head or the throbbing in his back. It did start to ease his mind a little to share the burden of knowing he left that woman screaming, alone, in the black water to die. He didn’t know if he could ever unsee that image, her screams will forever play as a soundtrack in his mind.

“Sokka.” Shen stood up and walked over to sit next to him on the bed resting his head against the wall behind the pillow. Sokka turned his head so he could see him better, he was still laying on his stomach. The position was a little awkward for Sokka, as he craned his neck to see Shen’s face better.

Now that Shen was closer, Sokka could see the various small white scars on his face, likely obtained from his life before being locked away. His amber eyes were strong, there were golden flecks hiding under the light brown. Sokka could see them when they reflected off the soft light pouring down from the skylight, breaking through the rain clouds outside. Sokka has never been this close to a fire bender before and even though he knows Shen is a friend, it still puts his nerves on edge.

“Listen to me, this happens to every new soldier when they experience their first real taste of war. I am going to give you the same advice that I gave them – suck it up. I know, it’s harsh and this is not going to make you feel any better about the entire situation… because guess what? It’s fucked, it’s so fucked that you had to see a woman die, it’s fucked you’re a teenager and you have the scars of a grown soldier, it’s fucked that you’re here and not back home with your family. The whole thing is... fucked. But you can’t do anything about it, so you might as well suck it up and get over it. You’re going to see more awful things here than anyone could ever imagine, but you are young and you will adapt and you will get over it. Don’t let it get to you, because once it does it's hard to get it out.”

Sokka stared at Shen, the man’s eye color was different from his dad’s own blue eyes, but something was oddly the same. Sokka liked to think his dad would like Shen and his ‘doesn’t-give-a-shit’ way of looking at things. Maybe it’s how the Fire Nation has done so many terrible things? They train their people to block out all emotion and just say fuck it.

But Shen was a soldier, and now he was a prisoner, how did that happen? Sokka’s curiosity and new found confidence prompted a question he has asked himself since the first day he met Shen.

“Shen, how did you end up here?”

Shen looked away, his amber eyes closed suddenly and his hands traveled to his face as he rubbed his forehead, a small bead of sweat was forming on his hairline. He exhaled slowly, leaning back, his head hit the wall and he didn’t down at Sokka when he started speaking.

“I was a naval soldier under Admiral Zhao, actually, back when he was a Captain. I started as a new recruit on his ship when he was only a lieutenant, we sailed under Captain Ogodei. Ogodei was a great captain, he followed the rules of the sea and treated people, enemy or not, with respect. Unfortunately, Zhao was promoted to captain just before Captain Ogodei retired – the guy was really old, I can’t believe he was still allowed to serve as captain. But that’s the Fire Nation for you, fight until you can’t fight anymore, and that’s exactly what Captain Ogodei did. Captain Zhao took over the ship after that. His methods were… different than the way things were done before, but who was I to question my captain?”

Shen scoffed and went silent. Sokka looked at Shen and then up towards the skylight, his eyes had to adjust to the soft brightness, the extra light wasn't helping his headache. Blinking and looking away from the light spots, Sokka waited for the man to continue if he was comfortable. To Sokka’s surprise after another long exhale, Shen did continue.

“Under, at the time, Captain Zhao, I was promoted to petty officer which was more responsibility for me. After a few years and a few more promotions, I was a command master. I really enjoyed leading people, and I liked serving under Captain Zhao, as crazy as that seems, he was a damn good leader to his men. He always rewarded hard work and loyalty when you served under him. But if you were not loyal to him, or if you said something or did something to question his leadership, well… you were in for a world of twisted games and manipulation until he broke you or you were transferred, or worse... Of course, I saw it happening, but it was just who Captain Zhao was and he never did it to me.”

Shen glanced down at Sokka, something in his eyes was relatable and Sokka could feel the man’s shame mirror his own. Shen carried a deep pit of regret and shame hidden behind his confidence and strength.

“I have seen a lot of things Sokka and I have allowed a lot of things to happen that were not ok. I did nothing, I stayed quiet and I held my position. My career was always more important than people’s lives, and I accepted that about myself a long time ago. When Captain Zhao stepped across that line, the one I didn’t even know I had, that's when I finally stepped in, resulting in severe consequences. By disrespecting my superior office and refusing to follow a direct order I was considered a traitor to the Fire Nation and was to be executed. Captain Zhao saved me, in a sense, and sent me here instead.

“He told me that he sent a personal message to my family telling them I went mad and jumped into the ocean off shore of the Western Earth Kingdom. I think he did it to give them hope that I was still alive, or it could be another one of his twisted mind games, but like I said before – Captain Zhao never played those games with me.”

Sokka nodded, “Can I ask… What did Zhao do to cross your line?”

Shen closed his eyes again. Sokka could see Shen’s own ‘crease of frustration’ in the same spot his dad had his. Sokka named the line on his own dad’s forehead years ago, the one that etched itself directly between his eyebrows. It was most noticeable when he was contemplating something, or frustrated at something. Shen was probably deciding if he was going to tell Sokka about what Zhao did, or if he wasn’t. Sokka just sat in silence and waited.

“We were in a small village…” Shen chuckled, “we weren’t even doing anything there except staying overnight on our journey back to the ship. We had to assist another squad inland eliminate a small rebellion happening in a new colony and we stopped at an inn for the night. It was a cold night despite the summer weather, I always remembered that. The innkeepers had a daughter, she was young, maybe 14? Anyway, Captain Zhao took her with us when we left, and threatened to burn down the inn if her parents followed us. I’ll never forget her parents crying and begging for us to leave her and every soldier ignored them, including me.”

Shen sighed, a long defeated breath. The breath signified his knowledge that he was already this far into the story, and he might as well finish. Sokka really needed him to finish the story, he was literally so tense, it was hard to breathe.

Sokka decided to pull his strength together and move himself into a sitting position, it hurt like a bitch, but it was worth it to sit up. Shen watched him struggle the entire time and didn’t offer any assistance. Once Sokka was clearly situated, Shen continued his story.

“He brought her back to the ship and he was going to keep her locked in his chambers and do… spirits-know-what to that girl. She was so young… Too young to be taken from her life and forced to bed an old man for no financial or political gain. It’s slavery and it’s wrong, I couldn’t let him do that to her. So in the middle of the night, the first night she was on the ship, before we left port. I created a diversion in the boiler room just big enough to irritate Captain Zhao out of his bedroom and I picked the lock. Don’t ask me how I know how to pick locks because it's another story for another day. But I got her out, I couldn’t stop him from… hurting her already but I saved her from years of assault and she probably would have just ended up here anyway, until she withered away and died.”

Sokka frowned, “how did Zhao know it was you?”

“Zhao always knows… He is observant. Years and years and years of practice, probably from when he was a small boy, until today. He watches and listens before he slithers like a rat-snake around his victim, until he is close enough to sink his teeth into their neck. He has crawled his way through the military rankings enough to have an entire fucking prison camp to himself, where he can stash the people he wants to torture. I mean for fucks sake he has the Agni-fucking Prince of the Fire Nation in here, it’s seriously fucking crazy…”

Sokka saw an opening, and he went for it.

“What does Zhao have against Zuko anyway?”

Shen frowned, his eyes flashed with an emotion that Sokka couldn't place. He was afraid Shen might not answer his question, but Shen must have woke up in a sharing mood today and Sokka was going for it.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t call it hate, I don’t know what I would call it. Envy? Obsession? Zuko was born to be everything Zhao was not, and could never be, no matter how much he slithers and strikes - he will never be royalty. I think it drives him slightly insane to know there is a position in life he can never reach, he will never be royalty. Zuko was born a prince and is now heir to the throne of the most powerful nation in the world, he is the direct bloodline of ‘The Great Fire Lord Sozin’, rich, powerful, all the things that get Zhao’s dick hard.”

Sokka frowned, “so he hates Zuko, because he was born a prince?” Sokka’s tone was confused, it didn’t seem to add up. Shen groaned and let his head lightly bounce against the wall behind his head. Sokka watched him try to collect himself and contemplate what to say next.

“Hang on, I’m trying to figure out where this stupid-waste-of-time-story is going to go next.”

Sokka crossed his arms, the motion pulled painfully at his back, but he hid the wince because he needed the attitude to be there.

“It was around three years ago when Captain Zhao was called to the capital for a week of war meetings, which don’t usually involve captains, but Captain Zhao has a way of working his way into those kinds of situations. I was extremely excited because I’m from Capital City and I loved going home and seeing my family and my sweet- my good friend. While Captain Zhao was in meetings all day with his right hand, the rest of the crew got to take it easy. There isn’t much to do on a ship that’s docked.

“While we were in the capital Prince Zuko did something to piss off the Fire Lord or something happened where he said something he wasn’t supposed to… I honestly don’t know the whole story, but he was challenged to an Agni Kai – uh, a public fire duel. Rumors spread after the Agni Kai, but I didn’t pay any attention to them. When it was time to leave I said my goodbyes and returned to the ship to prepare for cast off.

“When Captain Zhao came back to the ship he was… different… He told us about the Agni Kai he was invited to watch between the coward Prince and the Fire Lord who showed him mercy. All I heard was a story of a father who took his power too far and purposely injured his own son or possibly killed him, as he begged for his life. I had a weird feeling in my gut and I didn’t like when I saw a twinkle in Captain Zhao’s eyes when he repeated the story over and over. It wasn’t until 6 months after leaving the capital that I realized Captain Zhao’s obsession had grown past the story he told us.

“He purposely trailed the banished prince’s ship completely off our course and made us send him a messenger hawk requesting permission to board. In all formalities, of course he accepted the request and I was one of the soldiers asked to escort Captain Zhao to Zuko’s ship. The boy was young, honestly, younger than I have ever seen someone out at sea, especially the captain of his own vessel. The boy had fire in his eyes and a painfully fresh burn scar across his face, my ignorance to the story vanished, I knew everything Captain Zhao said was true.

“General Iroh humored Captain Zhao for the majority of the visit, entertaining him with his old war stories. He was nice, he even offered us tea which was very informal, but I accepted and the tea was very good. Prince Zuko was forced to stay with us, him being the actual captain of the ship at.. I don’t know… 12? I swear Captain Zhao never took his eyes off the boy, he would ask Zuko questions every now and then to try to keep the boy involved. Zuko didn’t like Captain Zhao, and he didn’t waste any time humoring the man. In fact, he was the only person I have ever seen that has outright disrespected Captain Zhao with no hesitation. Zuko hated Captain Zhao as much as the man was infatuated with him.

“It went on for years after that I suppose… If Captain Zhao knew Zuko was nearby he would go to extensive lengths to end up at the same port as the boy, or request permission to board his ship whenever he saw an opportunity. Zuko grew to hate, now Admiral Zhao, and I know that they had some heated discussions in the past but Captain Zhao has always been a patient man and he somehow found a way to get Zuko here so I guess in the end… Zhao won.”

Sokka frowned, his arms still crossed. “I’m confused, Prince Zuko said something wrong or upset the Fire Lord and was challenged to a fire duel, where he was allowed to get his face burnt off? ”

Shen nodded, his head still resting on the wall. “Yeah, he said something against a battle plan and he wasn’t even supposed to be in the meeting, so I heard. He was young, 12 or 13, something like that. He was challenged to an Agni Kai and accepted and the Fire Lord himself is the one who burnt his face off. I don’t know much about the rules and regulations of the Royal Family and how they’re supposed to do things, but in normal-people-land we don’t mutilate our children.

“Now he is here because The Fire Lord disowned him and stripped away his birthrights and told Capt- just Zhao to do whatever he wanted to do, but make sure he received a traitor's death. Kind of a sick thing to do to someone, especially your own teenage son. But I guess that's why I am not the Fire Lord.”

Sokka’s mouth was as dry as his throat. The pounding headache was barely noticeable over the way his brain twitched as it tried to work through the information Shen just handed him.

Zuko was 12 or 13 when he was burned by his own father. Sokka couldn’t imagine his own father doing anything harmful to him, he barely even raised his voice at his children. Zuko’s father had burned him, banished him, and then gave him to Zhao…

Empty bile tickled in the back of his scratchy throat, a heavy feeling of pity was settling in his stomach. Yep, full on pity - he pitied Zuko. The guy was an asshole, he wasn’t questioning that, but maybe it wasn’t entirely his fault. Maybe, just maybe… He has a little excuse.

Sokka uncrossed his arms to push his index finger and thumb into his eyes, circling the index finger he rubbed and rubbed until he saw the swirling specks of white light.

Opening his eyes again the world was too bright, but after a few blinks his eyes adjusted back. The onslaught of information Shen just gave him was everything Sokka asked for, but too much for his brain to handle right now. But still… Sokka always wanted more.

“So… If Zuko’s supposed to get a traitors death why is he still alive?”

Shen shrugged, “Zhao isn’t done with him I guess.”

“Done doing… what?”

“Zhao likes to refer to himself as ‘Zhao that Conquer’ so I believe that is what he is doing to the ex-prince. He trying to conquer him, and he wont stop until he does.”

Sokka shuddered, for some reason the words Zhao said to Zuko just before Sokka passed out drifted through his mind. The sickening way he spoke softly to the injured fire bender as if to try and draw him into a false sense of security.

“Don’t worry… I know exactly how to make you scream the way I like.”

“That’s… weird. What does it mean? To conquer him?”

Shen stood up from the bed, stretching his arms over his head and started shaking them around to loosen up. The man leaned over and touched his toes, making Sokka wonder if he could touch his own toes? Shen continued to do some type of stretching routine and Sokka just watched him, thinking about how he should probably get out of bed and stretch too.

Much to Sokka’s surprise, Shen continued talking.

“Zhao will keep Zuko around until he breaks him, which he will, eventually. Zhao breaks all his toys. Zuko is lasting a lot longer than I originally thought he would. It’s been 5 months now and the fucking kid still bites back whenever Zhao tries to play with him. I’ll give it to the kid, I haven’t met anyone who is fueled by sheer spite but he has to be. You could do whatever to that kid and he won't back down until he literally loses consciousness, it’s crazy. I don’t know if you noticed, but when you and Isa were screaming and crying while being whipped, Zuko didn’t say a word. It’s fucking freaky.”

Sokka remembered the silent fire bender who didn’t look up or make a sound the entire time he was being struck. It was freaky that someone could experience that much pain and not cry out, but honestly what are a few lashes compared to having half your face burnt off?

“Can I ask you a question?”

Shen laughed, his arms poised behind his back, his hands together, fingers laced. “Why not? You’ve already asked me 10 questions, what's one more?” Shen was being sarcastic but Sokka has gotten this far in their casual conversation so he was going to keep it going if he could.

“Why does Ara hate Zuko so much?”

Shen frowned, his shoulders went stiff and Sokka could see the uncomfortable way his muscles tightened. His funny one footed-half bent-stretch ended and he went back to standing straight, like a soldier.

“It's not my story to tell, let's just say they haven’t gotten along since day one. Ara doesn’t talk much about her feelings, or her past, she just tends to stay wrapped up in this prison world and she will do what she has to do to survive. Including… her not helping you anymore if you don’t stop messing around with the damn Fire Prince.

“I’ve caught you staring at him more times than I can count and I keep catching you following him. I’m hoping that by me telling you all this stuff about him it will stop all this curiosity you seem to have for him. If you want to buddy up with him that’s your choice, but Ara will stop speaking to you and then so will I… We will leave you to deal with all the pain that comes with being around that walking disaster.”

Sokka swallowed, his throat was still dry and his tongue had a weird taste on it, almost like a rock. Yes, Sokka has licked a rock before because it was necessary to see if rocks tasted different then dirt. It was for science.

“I’ll stay away from him… I just knew him from outside of here and it’s weird for me to see him and not remember all the people I left behind. My sister, Aang, Gran-Gran, my dad… It just hurts sometimes when I see him, I can’t help but remember.”

“I understand, but there isn’t anything you can do to change what happened. I get it, I see people I used to know and I remember my old life, but that’s not my life right now. All I am telling you is Ara has a problem with the guy and your standing dangerously close to the line with him. So back up or she will pretend like you don’t exist.”

“But why? Are her and I not friends?”

Shen groaned, Sokka could hear the annoyance in his tone. Katara often did that, her ‘annoyed groan’ when she was done talking to him but we probably going to answer him anyway. He assumed Shen would be the same way.

“Yes, you two are prison friends. Prison friends are there for you until they aren’t, I’m sure Ara has already shared with you that at the end of the day everyone was going to look out for themselves. It’s the truth. Ara has been here for 6 years, from when she was a young girl.

“She practically grew into her female adulthood away from her family in a mad man’s prison. She adapted, and now she survives here without looking over her shoulder or fearing for her next beating. She just lives and she spreads kindness where she can, she is a good person Sokka. But she has her issues just like the rest of us, and Zuko is one of her issues. Take it or leave it.”

Sokka nodded, looking down at his scarred hand, the skin wasn’t as tight as it was when he first woke up, all the scooping in the coal mine helped him regain his movement and strength, but it still felt… off. Sometimes he imagined it was someone else’s hand and he was just borrowing it, counting down the days until his old hand returned. But scars were forever.

“I think you’re a good person Shen… I don’t know where I would be without you and Ara and everything you guys have done for me. The last two times I woke up from being whipped, you were here and I appreciate it. I will listen to your advice, for real, I promise.”

Shen smiled, “thanks Water Tribe, I’m glad cause I’m kind of starting to like you. I mean, I just talked more here with you then I think I have in the entire last few months combined. Now I bet you’re hungry, lunch should be ready, can you walk on your own?”

Sokka shrugged. When he tried to walk on his own, much to his surprise, he could.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka and Shen ate lunch together, they didn’t say much, but Sokka enjoyed the company through the silence. Sokka had never really been around strong men since his father and the other men in his tribe left for war, right after his mom died. He was 12, too young to know how to be a man, so being around Shen who was in his early 30s was nice. Not as old as his dad, but older than anyone else he has ever spent a long period of time with.

After lunch, Sokka and Shen sat outside as the sun finally peeked out from the clouds, it had been overcast and raining all day, but Sokka didn’t care. The mix of cool weather and pops of the sun’s warmth was better than it being blazing hot all day, or the torrential downpours. Shen was a fire bender, so he must love being in the sun, it was their energy or something.

Sokka closed his eyes and listened to the soft gusts wind rustle the trees just behind the wall, there was a singing owl-finch somewhere close by. Aang taught him that whenever he heard a song that can only be described as a dying bird, that an owl-finch was close by and they gave off such a call to lure predators close before it struck them down with their massive talons.

Aang knew so much about animals, Sokka is realizing this more and more as he recalls tales about Aang’s ‘fun animal facts’ on Appa’s back.

“How far away is bending suppressant day? I can feel my inner fire flickering under the sun.” Shen’s eyes were closed, his back flat against the side of the last man’s sleeping cabin. Sokka sat next to him with his eyes closed as well. They both sat in the muddy puddles that littered the vacant space between sleep cabins.

“I think we have 5 days until the next time you guys have to take your pills.”

“Pills?”

“Yeah, aren’t the suppressants little black pills?”

“Yeah, but we all only take one.”

“Oh, I heard the healer talking about giving Zuko four of them.”

Shen’s eyes opened wider then they were before, but his gaze didn’t leave the sky.

“Four? They’ll kill him. One of those damn things makes me feel like someone stuck me in a laundry basket and took me down to the river to clean me.”

“Sounds kind of nice actually.”

“Oh it’s not, it’s fucking awful. You feel like you’re in a long empty tunnel and when someone says something to you it takes so long for you to hear what they said and when you do it's like an echo bouncing off the inside of your eardrum.”

“Oh damn, that does sound awful…”

“Yeah, it’s not good. At least my fire comes back after one, I don’t know what they’re doing to that kid by giving him four. Zhao must finally be done with him and they plan on killing him.”

Sokka almost felt sad, not that he cared if Zuko lived or not, which was a terrible thought, for the terrible person he was becoming. But Zuko wasn’t a good person either, proof of that was in all the encounters that they have had outside of this horrible place. Zuko chased them, threw fire at them, tied his sister to a tree, burned down villages – yeah, fuck Zuko.

“So you can’t produce any fire?”

Shen shook his head no, his eyes were closed again and the back of his head was resting against the wooden wall.

“Nope, not even smoke. It feels like the fire is there but it doesn’t want to move and I can’t summon it. The pill makes it feel like the chi stops just before I am able to pull on my fire, like there’s a block. It’s frustrating as fuck.”

“That’s interesting, I heard the healer say that they were drugs from Ba Sing Se, and the Dai Li or something. They must be new because my sister was in a Fire Nation prison and she wasn’t given any suppressants and she was a water bender, in a prison, in the middle of the ocean. Which I guess thinking back, they didn’t know she was a water bender, they thought she was an earth bender… So I guess they just took away the earth? I don’t know where I am going with this anymore…”

Shen laughed, Sokka grinned.

“You’re funny kid, did the Avatar keep you around to tell him jokes?”

“No… actually I was kind of the leader, I guess.” Shen snorted and Sokka glared at him. “I was! I read the maps, I told them when and where we needed to stop - I was the one who made my sister angry enough to even crack open the iceberg the Avatar was hiding in!”

“I believe you, jeez. Don’t get all upset.”

Sokka rolled his eyes and crossed his arms, his back was stinging from being in a seated position, but he was having too much fun to go back and lay in his bed alone. He was being extra careful not to lean against the wall like Shen, even if it did look super comfortable.

“I was… I am an important part of Team Avatar, and I will get back to them as soon as I escape this awful place.”

“Good luck with that, don’t let them catch you trying to escape. You’ll end up like Isa.”

“That’s the guy I was whipped with, right?”

“Yeah, that guy has lost his mind. He talks to himself and is always tampering with things around the camp. He has tried to escape over 100 times and I think Zhao only keeps him here because he thinks it’s funny. I think Zhao uses Isa as an example of why people shouldn’t try to escape, the guy’s all fucked up from all his punishments.

“One time, they chained him to a pole during a thunderstorm and stuck a metal sword in the top of the pole and it was struck by lightning. After that, Isa started talking to himself. Another time, they flogged him for so long he caught a sickness only derived from excessive water inhalation and he was going to die but then he didn’t. Now, he has a horrid cough, but yet he still tries to escape.”

Sokka sighed, so the guy who he thought was a genius innovator, who could help him come up with an escape plan, was really just a crazy person. It was disappointing, but expected.

Sokka could get used to not having to go to the horrible coal mine, it would be easy to heal if he was allowed to rest all day. Sokka was enjoying the break in the rain when a guard began to approach him and Shen. He noticed Shen’s posture shifted from relaxed, to on edge, his eyes narrowed just slightly but as the guard moved closer Shen began to relax. The guard stopped a few feet in front of them and smiled.

“Afternoon fellas, Water Tribe, this is for you.” He handed Sokka a wrinkled piece of parchment.

“What’s this?” Sokka flinched, expecting to be hit because he completely forgot to not talk to the guard directly. Damn it Shen, for making everything so relaxing.

The guard didn’t strike, he didn’t even move to strike, he actually…. leaned against the wall next to Shen.

“It’s a work assignment change, you must have someone watching your back because you were pulled from the coal mine and put in the kitchen. Some jobs are supposed to switch next week, but your assignment starts tomorrow at sunrise.”

Sokka’s mouth gaped, his hand trembled as he reached out and shifted forward to grab the parchment, his vision was blurry when he tried to read what it said. Blinking, he saw small water droplets begin hitting the top part of the page.

Oh, he was crying.

“Oh man, Zen Se, you made him cry!”

“What?! Awww I’m sorry kid. I’d probably cry too if I didn’t have to go back to that fucking shit show coal mine. It’s going to take them weeks to get that shit cleaned out, even with pulling in more prisoners. Plus…” Zen Se leaned in closer to Shen and Sokka, lowering his voice. “I heard that female prisoner, you know the one with light hair and the broken front tooth, Nizi. I heard she drowned down there during the storm, Yiron couldn’t get her out of the mud, she just wouldn’t stop screaming. He was getting stuck in the mud himself and he had to make a call, him or her. So he left her, he said he helped some other prisoner get out, but he left Nizi behind. They haven’t found her body yet but they know she’s in there… They said you can smell her.”

Sokka shuddered, pulling his legs up his chest he leaned into himself, even with the strain it put on his back. He needed to feel some kind of comfort, thinking of her… and now she had a name…. Nizi. She was left there, to die alone and he did nothing. Now she was buried deep and the other prisoners would have to work to find her, only to probably just throw her body away.

Sokka rest his head on his knees watching Shen and the guard (which was really weird) talk. Both of them seemed relaxed, like old buddies.

“How do you two know each other?” Sokka finally asked, he assumed at this point the guard wasn't going to try to beat the shit out of him.

“Oh, me and Shen?! We sailed together under Captain Zhao for I don’t know… 3 years? 4 years? Something like that. Shen was sent here and a year later I decided I was sick of the sea and wanted to put my feet back on the earth and I put in a request to come here. I knew my good pal Shen was here and I figured eh, why not? I was granted the transfer and here I am. It’s a pretty sweet gig besides all the torture shit, other than that it’s fun.”

Sokka wanted to scream, rip his hair out, slam his face into the dirt and cry because this guy, Zen Se, just described the living nightmare that was Sokka’s life - ‘fun’. It was all just another day for these people, they whipped two teenage boys into unconsciousness and he says ‘other than that it’s fun’. Sokka didn’t say anything, fearing the words that would come out, so he just continued to listen.

“Yeah, Zen Se and I have had some crazy adventures…” Shen and Zen Se began to babble. Sokka tuned them out because frankly, he didn’t like Zen Se. He did like Shen, but when they were together it was like two Fire Nation soldiers reminiscing, and Sokka could do without all that. As soon as Zen Se’s story started with, ‘so we were colonizing this village you see… and Shen here thinks it would be a good idea to…’ Sokka had to tune them out.

So casual, and what did he call it? Oh, colonizing. Not pillaging, not raping, not killing, but sweet, innocent colonizing. Everything about the Fire Nation made him sick, and Shen… Shen was so great and he was punished for doing the right thing and being a decent person. The rest of them were awful, especially Zhao, he was the worst.

Sokka half listened to their stories for the rest of the afternoon.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Dawn still sucked, but a little less now that he was walking towards the kitchen rather than the coal mine. The sun was barely present in the sky as Sokka strolled past the mess hall. The kitchen was up against the back wall behind the mess hall. The kitchen was on the small side for a kitchen supposed to feed some many prisoners, but Sokka has never been inside so maybe it was bigger inside.

It was not bigger inside.

The kitchen was shaped like a rectangle across the back wall of the prison, the entrance faced the back entrance of the mess hall so they could easily bring the food and supplies in for meals. There was an emergency exit on the far side left, facing the back gate of the prison, there was also a pantry and freezer. In the middle of the building was the actual kitchen area where the food prep and cooking happened.

Sokka stepped through the main entrance and a fun mixture of breakfast smells hit his nose instantly. There were already people working in the kitchen, they worked in chaotic harmony as they talked over one another and rushed around preparing the next round of food to go out.

Breakfast was served right before dawn to give people a chance to eat before their work assignment. Sokka wondered how early these prisoners had to get here to get the breakfast done in time to be served at dawn. He was suddenly extremely thankful he didn’t have to get here in the middle of the night, dawn was looking a lot better.

“There you are! Shit, I thought I was going to have to send someone to get you!” Chang’s voice boomed over the hustle and bustle of the kitchen. No one even flinched when his voice rang out over the clanging pots, rattling dishes, and of course the shouting kitchen workers.

“Sorry, I just-“ Sokka felt the nervousness in his stomach stuttering his voice.

“I don’t really care, get your ass over here with the other new people!” Chang waved Sokka over to where he was standing with 3 other prisoners, 2 male and 1 female.

“Alright shit heads, I’m going to first off, welcome you to the kitchen. This is my kitchen, so whatever shit you do out there –“ he pointed towards the emergency exit door. “That’s your business, but in here there will be none of that nonsense. I am a pretty decent guy to work with as long as you shit heads act like decent human beings – if you can even still remember what that is. Now, I will be splitting you up into your own jobs, you will keep this job the entire time you are here. So get good at it, and fall in love with it, because it’s all you!”

Sokka glanced quickly at the other people standing with him around Chang. There were two men and a woman, the two men were around Shen’s age and they seemed acquainted with one another. The woman was in her 40’s and she looked really tired, her sandy brown hair was long and tied in two braids wrapped together down her back.

Sokka’s focus went back to Chang when he heard the larger man start laughing.

“His Highness! Your loyal dish subjects missed you in your absence!”

Sokka groaned internally, because without turning around he knew the only person who Chang would call ‘His Highness’ would have to be Zuko. Sure enough, the boy came into Sokka’s view as he walked over to Chang, and the man happily reached behind him and grabbed an apron off the wall, tossing it playfully at Zuko.

Zuko glared at Chang, but Sokka couldn’t see the fire in his eyes like the way he burned when he looked at Zhao.

“Your kingdom awaits….” Chang bowed playfully, leaving one arm out extended towards a system of sinks up against the very back wall of the kitchen. They were secluded enough that you could still hear the yelling in the food area, but it wouldn’t sound like they were screaming directly in your ear. The spot Zuko stood at had his back to the front entrance and the kitchen line. Sokka watched him flip on the water and pour some liquid in the basin, like he had done it 100 times.

“Alright, now that that’s over. Quick tour, so this here is the apron wall, obviously. You have to wash your own apron out back before you hang it back up. You put back a dirty apron, well… I’m going to punch you in the face or something.”

Sokka blinked, Chang moved on. Walking passed the sinks and moving towards the open area just before the emergency exit. There was a metal door on one wall and on the opposite wall there were two double doors.

“Here is the freezer” Chang’s larger hand smacked the metal door with a slamming thump, “or just a bigger cooler, for those of you that might have taken a trip to it’s mini me down the road for punishment. That- there is the pantry, and then down this whole area is the food prep and kitchen itself.” The entire front half of the kitchen was all stoves, burners, prep work space, it was a pretty large kitchen for the size of the building.

“Things are HOT, things are on FIRE, things are BOILING, so just be fucking careful. I don’t have a lot of salve and I don’t really like using it on morons who don’t know how to be careful.” Chang motioned for them to follow him and the group went behind the cooking area and passed behind Zuko and the dish washing area again. Chang stopped, rather abruptly.

“This is the dish washing area, Water Tribe, you will replace the last guy and be our dish dryer. Once this rack here is full of dry dishes you will run them and put them back where they come from. I know you don’t know where anything goes, but ‘Friendly Pants’ over there will help you out, as will the rest of the kitchen. You’ll figure it out fast.”

Chang moved on and Sokka followed, his eyes still watching the back of Zuko’s head as the fire bender didn’t take his eyes off the bubbles that decorated the top of the rising water.

“Well, we are back where we started, that’s my office, stay the fuck out of there. I set up tea for you asshole on that table right there, next to my door. Why do I give you dirty prisoners tea you ask? Well because I’m not a monster, I don’t even know where my whip is, but bet your ass I will find it real quick if you step out of line. Like I said before, if you leave that shit out there, we will be two cool cucumber-radishes. Now you two – “ Chang pointed at the two men who were standing with Sokka.

“You two will go into the pantry and find Lyn, she will walk you through your assignments, cause I have to be honest – I can’t remember what the fuck I told you two to do. You, ‘Sad Eyes’, you will go to the chop station to find Riza. She'll show you what to do. Now get away from me.”

With a wave of his hand the three other prisoners fled to go find Lyn and Riza, Sokka stayed, standing in place waiting for his direction. Chang watched the other prisoners vanish into the chaos of the kitchen and he turned his head, staring down at Sokka. Chang’s eyes were still soft like he remembered, he could see the twinkling amusement dancing through his face as the man chuckled at Sokka and shook his head.

“Come with me, idiot child.”

Sokka followed Chang until they arrived at the sink, Zuko took his hands out of the water and Sokka could see they were still chained together. But his wrappings were gone, though right now his arms were covered in a thick layer of bubbles, Sokka stopped when Chang did.

“This is former Prince Zuko.”

“Yeah I know.”

“We know each other.” Zuko’s voice sounded raspier than usual and now that Sokka was looking at him, he realized that Zuko looked like absolute shit. His hair was still completely unkept and wildly sticking up in places it shouldn’t, but that wasn’t the worst of it by far. There was a strong ring of bruises around his neck that looked like someone tried to choke him to death. His golden eyes looked tired and there was a healing bruise covering up the side of his good eye. Sokka couldn’t even see Zuko’s scarred eye under his hair.

“Well fucking fantastic, I forgot all the children of the world knew each other. So just to be clear, you two will be working side by side all day, everyday. So no fighting, no conspiring, no antics of any kind. Got it?”

Both Sokka and Zuko nodded.

Chang shifted his gaze to Zuko. “Can I trust you to help him out?”

Zuko nodded, and Chang rolled his eyes before looking at Sokka.

“And you, Water Tribe, you look like a guy who might be up to some antics. You’re not going to do any of that shit in here, right?”

“No sir.”

“Ok good, now it’s not fucking hard brain work, he washes the dishes and rinses them, you dry them and fill this cart, right here. Once the cart is full, you run the dishes back to their spots. If my kitchen gets backed up because you can't remember where things go then i'll have to find a simpler job for you and I promise you this drying-putting-away shit will look like freedom. Now get to work!”

Even though Chang’s words were full of hostility and his tone was rough but playful, Sokka could hear the kindness that Chang had for people just based on the way he ran his kitchen. No whipping, actual human work, and tea… Sokka could see the tea from where he was standing awkwardly behind Zuko, but decided to wait until later to go and take a cup.

Sokka stepped up to what he assumed was his spot on Zuko’s right and saw the glistening damp dishes in the big basin in between him and Zuko.

“So… These are the rinsed off dishes I’ve been hearing so much about?”

Zuko nodded.

“Got it. Ok… So I just use this towel - oh ew - this towel is disgusting! Where do I get fresh towels?”

Zuko stopped moving his arms around in the soapy water, he tilted his head toward the ceiling and mumbled to himself. “Please, Agni kill me now.”

Sokka frowned and crossed his arms. “I’m soooooo sorry you find my disgust for this dirty dish towel, death worthy.”

Zuko shot him a glare, when he turned his head Sokka could see some of the left side of his face, the scar almost looked different now that Sokka knew more about it. A small feeling of sadness blossomed in his chest, quickly stomped on when Zuko decided to speak back to him, finally.

“Why are you following me?”

Sokka frowned, “what!? I’m not following you.”

Zuko kept glaring at him. “Yes, you are.”

“Whatever man, I don’t have time to argue with you about this. This towel is disgusting and I’m going to ask Chang for a new one.”

Zuko shrugged and turned his attention back to the soapy water. “Go for it.”

Sokka, with the towel still gripped tightly in his hand, walked over to where Chang’s office was, he knocked on the door a few times before hearing the irritated man’s muffled voice.

“- WHAT!?”

Sokka cracked open the door and peeked his head in, he didn’t look around at all, he strictly kept his vision on Chang’s face. Even though Chang was nice, he was still a guard? Or whatever he was - he still had authority over Sokka and could inflict any kind of punishment he wanted.

“I… Uh… I need a new towel, this one is dirty…”

“Do you have brain damage? Is something really fucking wrong with you?”

“Uh, no sir…”

“Then why the fuck are you standing in my doorway with a dirty dish towel asking me stupid fucking questions when you should be asking ‘Prince Dishwasher’ for help. Now get the fuck away from me and shut the door. Thank you.”

Sokka nodded and shut the door, quickly he made his way back over to where Zuko was, still in the exact same spot. Sokka could see the small smirk dancing on his lips.

“You did that on purpose.”

“No, you made all your own decisions, I’m just washing dishes.”

“Where are the clean rags, Zuko?”

“In the crate over there.” Zuko pointed at the big crate of towels next to the sink that was labeled ‘clean’ there was another basket next to it labeled ‘dirty’.

“You could have just told me that before.”

“You wanted to ask Chang.”

“Well Chang told me to ask you!”

“I know.”

“UGH!” Sokka stormed over to the stupid rags and threw the dirty one in the basket, and of course, in his frustration, he completely missed the basket and the rag fell on the floor. Sokka mumbled any curse word he could remember as he picked up the rag once again and placed it gently in the dirty basket. Grabbing a new not-so-clean rag he took his position next to Zuko, once again.

They were silent for a long time. Sokka didn’t mind drying dishes, it reminded him of being back home. The chores were mostly done by the woman in the house, so his mom and Katara, but his mom always made him dry the dishes. She said that when men know how to take care of themselves, women are more attracted to them. So Sokka never minded drying the dishes for them, he always imagined his future wife complimenting him on what a great dish dryer he was.

Sokka blinked away his day dream when he tried to find a spot for his now-dry bowl and noticed his drying cart was completely full.

“My carts full.” He looked over at Zuko.

“Then put the dishes away.”

“Where?”

Zuko groaned and turned his head to look at him, like looking at Sokka was the biggest fucking deal in the entire world. Zuko washing dishes was so important to him that he couldn’t even stand being broken away from it to help Sokka do his own super fucking important task.

Zuko pulled his arms out of the water and flicked them a few times to shake off the bubbles before taking the whole five steps over to where Sokka was staring at the cart.

Sokka’s eyes went wide when he saw Zuko’s arms.

They were covered in bruises, deep cuts, patches of skin that looked like burns. Both of his arms were covered in marks, some of them were scars and others were fresh. Sokka wondered how long Zuko had been here and if everyday he got hurt? How long could a person hold out before they broke? Would he give in, and like Shen said, let Zhao conquer him – whatever the fuck that even meant?

Sokka’s eyes trailed across Zuko’s arms until he got to the boy’s wrists, which were chained together with a single medium sized chain. It looked like someone just wrapped a small stretch of chain around his wrists a few times and put a deadbolt on it. Sokka wondered when the last time Zuko had the chains off was? He had been wearing them the entire time Sokka had been here. The skin around his wrists where the chain rubbed against his pale skin, was red and irritated. Zuko’s blistering wrists looked really worn down, so the chains must have been rubbing him for a while.

Zuko frowned at Sokka (well he was always frowning) but there was a small flicker of an emotion in Zuko’s face, a faint hint of shame. Why would Zuko feel shame? It’s not his fault everyone in the camp hated him and wanted to beat on him. Well… Maybe it is kind of his fault, he wasn’t very friendly.

“If you are done gawking at my arms, can we look at the disaster of a cart you stacked? Did you really balance the bowls on top of the cups?”

“What’s wrong with that? I thought it was clever! Fits more dishes.”

“But if someone knocks into your cart, even a little, they will be on the floor and could break.”

“Well…. I will avoid people with my amazing cart maneuvering abilities.”

Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, which Sokka found funny because he had to use both hands to do. But also not funny, because he got another eye full of Zuko’s mangled arm skin, the pain in Sokka’s back ached at the sight. He couldn't imagine what it felt like, the small pool of pity swirled in the pit of Sokka’s stomach.

“That’s…. you’re… fucking stupid. Do whatever you want.” Zuko turned back around and stuck his arms back in the sink.

Punching that feeling of pity in the face - Sokka stomped his foot. “You are… NO HELP!” Sokka shot Zuko one last glare before he moved his cart towards the pantry area to go find this Lyn lady who would help him put his dishes away.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It took so long to put the dishes away. Zuko was right (though Sokka will never ever admit it out-loud) he had to stack the dishes less-like-an-idiot and more like a person who understands how gravity worked.

By the time Sokka got back, Zuko had filled the middle basin almost completely full again with rinsed dishes. If he heard the crash of the dishes falling off the cart earlier, he didn’t say anything about it. So Sokka continued to mess with him because he knew Zuko wasn’t going to whip him or burn him and it felt good to act like his normal self for once.

“Oh man! So many dishes… Why are there so many dishes!?” Sokka groaned but slid Zuko a side eye, hoping to gage his reaction.

Zuko didn’t answer him, he might have been pretending that he couldn’t hear him – but he can’t fool Sokka this time. He knows the burnt ear is the one he probably can’t hear out of, this perfectly normal ear should be able to hear just fine.

“Zhao’s in the courtyard right now shoving pickles up his nose and singing a song about a rabbit-owl.”

Zuko’s head shot up. “What?”

“AHHH HA! You can hear me!”

Zuko rolled his eyes and returned his glaring gaze back to the sink. They were silent again but Sokka was determined to talk to Zuko, because no one could get mad at him for asking Zuko questions about their work assignment, right? It was necessary for his survival in the prison, Ara and Shen would understand.

“How’d you end up in the kitchen with me? Seem’s like we were a couple of coal-buddies just a few days ago.”

Zuko didn’t say anything again, he just kept his golden eyes fixed on the soapy water, he was weirdly washing the dishes under the water. Which was a kind of annoying way to wash dishes… but Sokka didn’t want to get into anything like that right now.

“It wont kill you to talk to me, you know.”

Zuko stayed silent.

“Whatever, Zuko, my fellow prisoner. I’m sure you’ll talk to me eventually, while I wait, I’m going to sing you that song I lied about Zhao singing, it’s a song about a lonely rabbit-owl and how he made some friends, you’re going to love it – try to listen to the words maybe you’ll learn something.”

So Sokka proceeded to sing the song about the rabbit-owl and how she had no friends because all the other animals were awake during the day and she was only one awake at night. As the song goes, the rabbit-owl decides to only stay up half the night and spends the other half sleeping. So now she has more energy to stay awake during the day and she gets to meet all the other woodland creatures and make some friends.

The woodland creatures like the rabbit-owl so much that they too, sleep half their day like she does, so they can spend half the night with her. They all become best friends and the children listening to the song get to learn about compromise and how people need to make compromises in their lives for others.

It was a sweet song Gran-Gran used to sing to Katara when she would complain about not having any friends. She always had such a strong personality, it was hard for her to make friends, mostly because the only other kid her age in the village was Sokka... but it still bothered Katara. Gran-Gran would pull Katara on her knee and sing her that song and Katara would smile, while Sokka listened from his secret hiding spot. It was a children’s song and he wasn’t a child (or so he thought at the time).

Looking back at small Sokka, prison Sokka envied the lack of fear and anguish small Sokka had back then. He was headstrong and didn’t fear death, he didn’t even know what death was, he just knew what people told him about death. Well, Sokka feared death now, he had seen death all around him and watched the light from a man’s eyes slip away into the darkness. Sokka wished he could go back to that simpler time and this time he wanted to leave the hiding spot and sit on Gran-Gran’s knee and have her sing him the song.

Zuko’s voice snapped him away from his quickly darkening thoughts.

“That’s a stupid song.”

“Of course you find flaw in a children’s song. It’s a song about making friends, how can you poke holes in a sweet story about a rabbit-owl?” Sokka continued to dry the small stone bowl in his hand.

“I just don't get why the only option for the rabbit-owl was to make friends with the day time animals? Why couldn't they rabbit-owl find some night time animals to talk to? Where are all they?”

Sokka stopped drying his dish and looked over at the ex-Fire-Prince who frowned into his water, his shaggy black hair brushing across the top of his eyelids. His mouth was still pulled into a tight line but his top teeth just barely gripped the tip of his bottom lip. He was obviously annoyed, but not to a level of hostility. Sokka made a mental note that Zuko was capable of communicating with slightly less hostility.

Sokka smiled, it felt refreshingly normal to bicker with someone about nonsense.

“Maybe the rabbit-owl lives far away and she has to make friends with the day time animals because no other night time animals live there?”

“That's not possible. There has to be other uh… night-time-animals. There isn’t only one rabbit-owl in any forest, what would she eat?”

“Well I’m sure she isn’t chatting up the cricket-squirrels she intends to eat.”

Zuko groaned, clearly growing more annoyed. His frustration made Sokka’s small grin grow.

“Oh, why are you getting so upset? Is it that hard to believe?”

“It’s a stupid song. That’s all I was saying.”

“I think you said a lot more than that, Prison Pal. I heard the passion you had against the night and day animals mingling, typical Fire Nation.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Ahhh - that’s what you choose to dwell on, but isn't that what we are? Prison Pals?”

“No.”

“Didn’t you call me your stalker just moments ago?”

“You are stalking me, I have started to see you everywhere and you are always looking at me. It’s fucking creepy.”

“Wow, such a foul mouth for royalty.”

“I’m not a prince anymore.”

“No… Zuko, no you are not. Prison Pal.”

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 9: Well... Fuck.

The kitchen was a fucking dream come true.

A few days had passed since Sokka’s work assignment was changed and he was given the pleasure of working in Chang’s kitchen. He half expected it to be some sick form of torture and one day he would walk into the kitchen and Zhao would be there, smirking the way he did just before dragging him back to his quarters, kicking and screaming.

But that hasn’t happened yet, and Sokka is starting to suspect it actually might not ever happen.

He didn’t mind the drying dishes part and now that he finally had an idea of where things went in the complicated, slightly disorganized kitchen, he was able to take less time putting everything away.

Now, if only he could get Zuko to loosen up around him. Sokka had successfully avoided Zuko at every turn outside of their work assignment. Ara seemed happy with him and he fell into a habit of eating dinner with her, Shen, Jet-look-alike (he really needed to learn the guy’s name) and Opal. He was learning more about each of their personalities as they fell into a nightly rhythm.

They were eating dinner together again tonight and Sokka watched out for Zuko (like he always did for some stupid reason) who would spend an entire 6 minutes in the mess hall. He never stayed over 6 minutes but sometimes he would make it under, that is, if he didn’t draw any attention to himself.

Sokka would watch Zuko stand in line to get his food, usually another prisoner in line would either make a comment or shove him. But Zuko never engaged with anyone in the line, he seemed to expect the harassment and dealt with it.

Sokka watched as Zuko always sat at the table closest to the exit and he would eat quickly, but weirdly polite, with his princely manners. He never ate the pathetic cracker-cookie or dried-up-cake-thing they made for dessert. He must not like sweets or he was too stuck up for the prison dessert.

Either way – it didn’t really matter – he just never ate it.

Zuko would dump his tray, usually timing it during a lapse of people headed to the trash bins, before quickly slipping out the exit. Tonight, Sokka watched Zuko finish his food quickly and slip out almost undetected, once Zuko was gone he turned his attention back to the conversation the group was having.

Sokka looked around at his friends and made mental notes on each of them. If he was going to successfully build his escape plan, he would need some help. This place was too big and too guarded for just him, he needed other people’s assistance.

Especially people who have lived here so much longer than him and would know more about the prison’s inner workings. The conversation they were having was not interesting to Sokka so he retreated into his mind to go over what he knew about each of his new friends.

To start, there was Shen. Sokka really liked Shen and he was easy to talk with. Shen was opening up to Sokka more and more each time they spoke. He was a fucking ex-Fire Nation soldier which sucked, but Sokka thought he could look past that because it seemed to have lead to him having a few friends who were guards.

Now Shen is loyal to Ara and the man had a huge crush on the girl, he basically worshiped the ground she walked on. It was painfully obvious even though no one ever mentioned it. Sokka sighed because they honestly did make more sense together than Sokka and Ara ever would, even if it did sting a little. She was just so damn beautiful and amazing…

Sokka’s eyes drifted over to the beautiful bright eyed girl sitting next to him. Of course she was giving her opinion on something Opal said based on the sour face she was making.

Ara was clearly the leader of her friends and what she said was final. Ara had been in the prison camp the longest and she somehow danced around all the rules. Sokka doesn’t know too much about her past, but from being around her, he knows she is strong and clever; she is good with her words and she lives by her own set of rules.

Ara somehow obtains a variety of items ranging from food to medical supplies, Sokka has no idea how she acquires the items, or why the guards allow her to keep it all stacked under her bed. But Ara never gets in trouble, she seems to talk to a majority of the guards and prisoners, everyone seems to generally like her.

Except Zuko – Sokka circles that one in his mind, there is a mystery there he would like to get to the bottom of.

Then there was Opal, who was rough around the edges and had die hard Fire Nation loyalty. It seemed to have been cultivated into her subconscious from when she was a small child because it bleeds from her pores now. Though… some of her stories don’t add up, Sokka noticed that right away. He wasn’t sure if it was because she was a liar and wanted to fit in, or if she was hiding something about herself. Either way, she was a prisoner, locked in here like the rest of them - but it was something to keep an eye on.

Jet-look-alike didn’t hangout too much or stay around too long, he was shifty. Sokka didn’t like him, and Jet-look-alike didn’t seem to care for him either. Good, fuck that guy. Sokka wasn’t going to let him anywhere near his escape plan.

Then there was good ol Zuko. Who, impressively, for the last 3 days has only spoken a handful of words to Sokka, no matter how much Sokka pressed him with conversation.

Oh, and Sokka has conversed, even if it was just by himself. He talked about anything from his childhood, to the weather back home, he told stories from his tribe’s history and loved to talk about his favorite foods. Sokka babbled about anything and everything, only pausing to put away dishes.

Once in a while, Zuko would make a comment, like he couldn’t help but say something, even though he still wanted to pretend he wasn’t listening. Sokka knew he was listening because Zuko is the focus of the new game Sokka made up the first day into dish-duty when he realized that Zuko’s stubbornness knows no bounds and he actually will stay quiet all fucking day.

So now, Sokka plays the ‘How Far Can You Move Zuko’s Mouth’ game. He will pick his best stories, and tell them to Zuko, and watch to see if his mouth twitches, and how far upward.

Sokka swears, once, he almost pulled his lip into the beginning of a small, half smile - but Sokka couldn’t be sure. Usually, Zuko was stone cold and just did his job and left.

Once a day, Zuko would get two cups of tea off the table and knock on Chang’s office door and Chang would let him in every time. Zuko would stay in the office for a short period of time and then come out without the tea cups and go right back to washing dishes, without a word.

Today would be different though, because today was bending suppressant day. If Sokka remembered correctly, the first time he ever spoke to Zuko he was all fuzzy from the pills and he was a little friendlier then he was being currently. So Sokka was excited to see if Zuko would be nicer today, he had a mental list of questions to ask him if he was.

Dawn came and went while Sokka waited at the dishwashing table. The familiar sound of someone pushing a full cart of dirty dishes from the mess hall rattled it’s way around the back of the building towards their station. The girl pushing the cart frowned, looking at Sokka and then back at the empty dish washing spot - as if she was so stupid she couldn’t understand what was happening.

Just like lighting a lantern, Sokka watched the girl's expression change, her once confused face reconstructed and she looked surprised. One of her arms went up and gave a weak point to the empty spot by Sokka “Oh! The other guy isn’t here.”

Sokka nodded slowly, watching the strange girl’s behavior was like watching someone live their life in slow motion.

“… he isn’t here.” She repeated again.

“No… No he is not, he must be late.” Sokka finally responded, one of his eyebrows raised slowly as he spoke.

“Ohhhhhh nooooooo… He will get in trouble…” The girl's words slurred at the end of her sentence and it finally clicked for Sokka – she had taken bending suppressants. That’s why she was acting this way, she was all loopy and disoriented.

“Why don’t you just put the dirty dishes in the sink and I’ll run his water and get it ready for him, he is excused from being late today, so you don’t need to worry, no one is getting in trouble. Here, let me help you.”

Sokka smiled at her, he watched the woman’s pale cheeks flush a pink color. He moved over to her cart and helped her load the dirty dishes into the sink, her hands were shaking as she helped him move over everything into the empty basin. Sokka turned the handle and freezing water came pouring out, he put the amount of soap he saw Zuko add and let the basin begin to fill.

The girl finished moving the last of the dishes over and smiled at Sokka, her hazel eyes hiding behind her greasy dark brown bangs as she tilted her head forward. “Thanks…” she mumbled, her teeth chewing lightly on her bottom lip.

Sokka smiled at her, “no problem at all, glad I could help.”

The woman left, and then came with more dishes. She left again, only to come back with more dirty dishes. At this point there wasn’t anywhere for her to put the 3rd round of dirty dishes. Sokka had started to wash the piling dishes himself after she brought the second cart of dirties, but now he was falling really behind and the rinsing bin was starting to fill. This was a two person job and his second wasn’t here.

“Just… uh, stay here.” Sokka held out his hands towards the girl, trying to make her understand the word ‘stay’. He wasn’t entirely sure why he was treating her like a polar-dog, but he wasn’t going to put too much thought into it now because it was working. The girl cocked her head to the side and nodded slowly.

Sokka walked to Chang’s office and knocked on the door.

“ - WHAT!? Open the door!”

Sokka cracked the door open, looking inside he saw Chang reading a scroll and a few other open scrolls lay scattered and an ink set was out on his desk.

“Can I fucking help you Water Tribe?”

“Uh… Yeah, my dish washing partner isn’t here.”

“What do you mean, he’s not here? Well, where is he?”

“I don’t know, sir. I just wanted to tell you because the dishes are piling up and-“

Chang stood up abruptly. His stomach popping out of the bottom of his stained red shirt, pulling it down with force, Sokka could see the shirt’s collar was loosely crumpled from constantly being yanked at. Chang pushed the desk out of his way with his body, moving it easily, he made his way around the tight space.

Chang was a big guy to have such a small office. He pointed at Sokka and made a hand motion pointing back in the direction of the sink. “You, go wash until I find your partner.”

Sokka nodded as Chang walked past him and out the office door. Sokka turned and looked at the scrolls laid out on Chang’s desk, the temptation to dig through the man’s stuff was strong. He could look through his office while he was off looking for Zuko and maybe Sokka could find something useful.

Or… Chang could find out, and he could get sent back to the coal mine and die alone in the dark. Sokka sighed and shut the door behind him as he walked out, his head hung down loosely as he stepped back into the open space outside the office.

“Good choice, kid.”

The hairs on the back of Sokka’s neck stood up while his heart seized in his chest from the surprise. He was also sure his body startled all the way off the ground, at least a few inches. Whipping around, Sokka met Chang's eyes. The man stood just outside the door, moving around Sokka, he locked the door shut.

“I may be a nice guy, but I am not an idiot. I know we are in a prison and at the end of the day… you want to escape and I don’t blame you. But, I won’t help you, so I wouldn’t get too comfortable with me if I were you.”

His voice was steady, like a strong undertow, tearing just below the surface of the calm sea. It was capable of dragging you down to the ocean floor before it hauled you out to the open sea to drown. Sokka knew they were dangerous, even if you couldn’t see them on the surface. He liked Chang, but he made a big mental note not to underestimate him, because just under the surface was something dangerous.

“Yes sir.” Sokka scurried back to the sink and dunked his arms into the freezing water. The girl with the cart was gone, but the full cart remained. Sokka hoped she didn’t wander off and get into trouble, but he took a piece of advice from Ara and minded his own business

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It was forever before Chang came back, and for some weird relief to Sokka, he had Zuko with him. Chang walked behind the fire bender with both his hands tightly gripping the boy’s shoulders as he led him to the sink. Sokka moved over quickly, happy to go back to his dish drying spot. He hated washing dishes, the water was fucking freezing and gross.

“Stay here. Don’t move. Wash the dishes.” It was nice to hear Chang talk to Zuko like he was a polar-dog too, it didn’t make Sokka feel as guilty for the way he treated cart-girl.

Zuko’s good eye went wide when he saw the mess of dishes everywhere and the disgusting sink that Sokka had slopped water all over. The soggy food, that Sokka didn’t know to scrape off into the trash can first, was stuck to the metal and floated all throughout the water, making it look almost like a thin soup.

“There are so many dishes…” Zuko muttered up at Chang. The large man cracked a smile and ruffled Zuko’s hair, like he was an innocent child, instead of the fucking fire prince who burned down Kyoshi Island.

“You’ll survive, you have some help too. Water Tribe here will help you.”

Zuko turned around sharply, his eyes were foggy and his pupils were blown so wide that only a small halo of gold remained. Sokka’s suspicion was vilified, Zuko was definitely fucked up. His foggy eyes narrowed slightly at Sokka.

“I don’t like him.” He moaned to Chang.

Chang groaned in response before spinning Zuko around to face the sink, the giant man made Zuko look… really small. Zuko was always so big in Sokka’s mind, he was supposedly this older Prince of the Fire Nation in his layers of armor, with that intense hair-thing going on.

But now that Zuko was in prison with him, his hair all grown out and shaggy with his slightly too big prison uniform on. Sokka knew that Zuko was around his own age, which made him look even smaller and standing next to Chang he looked like a straight up child.

“I don’t like you either.” Sokka cut in, trying to help… maybe. “But we are a dishwashing team, so just help me with the dishes and you can hate me the whole time.”

Zuko didn’t say anything but he slowly started to clean up the area around the sink. Chang stayed and watched for a few minutes as Zuko’s shaky arms and hands tried to hold various items, but he would shake so badly after too long he would drop whatever he was trying to hold.

Sokka watched him out of the corner of his eye as he grew more frustrated trying to pick up the soapy dishes out of the water. Sokka looked back at Chang, the man noticed his stare and met his eyes, Sokka could see the worry hidden in his gaze.

“I can help him Chang… I’ll keep him out of trouble.” Sokka cracked a small smile to try and reassure the man. The cook frowned just as someone in the kitchen yelled his name, there was a sound of dishes hitting the floor and someone screamed out FUCK. Chang rubbed his eyes with one hand, his fingers were probably pushing down a little too hard on his eyeballs, but Sokka didn't say anything.

“Fine.” He turned away from them and moved his way towards the sound of people yelling over each other. “What the fuck!?” Chang yelled into the chaos before he vanished out of sight.

Turning his attention back to Zuko, Sokka watched the fucked up fire bender trying to pick off a dried piece of soggy bread from the tip of the faucet.

“Hi Zuko… We have a lot of dishes to wash... so maybe you should start washing some.”

“Oh, ok, yeah good idea.”

Sokka blinked, and blinked again, stunned as he watched Zuko start fumbling with the dishes and attempt to start the washing process. Sokka was completely taken back that not only did Zuko not ignore him, or argue with him but he just did what Sokka requested.

Oh yeah. He was going to like bending suppressant day.

Sokka started taking the dishes he had placed in the rinsing bin and began drying them and loading his cart. He noticed that when Zuko’s dishes started arriving in the rinsing bin they were all still pretty dirty… But Sokka didn’t think it mattered. If they wanted to give people pills that fucked them up so bad they can’t wash a dish, well then they will just have to suffer with dirty dishes.

After enough silence Sokka started feeling out the potential for conversation.

“So… Where were you all morning?”

Zuko didn’t answer right away, perhaps he was thinking over if he was going to engage with Sokka or not, or maybe his brain was just moving that slow. Who knows? But as another surprise to Sokka, he eventually answered.

“I uh… I was sick. I threw up… a lot.”

Now that he mentioned it, Zuko did appear a lot paler than he usually did and the dark circle under and around his good eye looked deep and heavy. Sokka watched closely as the fire bender took shallow, almost gasps of breath quickly while he tried his best to focus on washing the dishes.

“Oh, sorry you were sick.”

“It’s fine. I always get sick on bending suppressant day.” His raspy voice was slow, he was crawling over every word.

“Well that’s not good, how many did they make you take today?”

“… four.”

“Oh shit. Shen said they all only take one.”

“Lucky them...” Zuko slurred the m in the word them. His body swayed to the left just before his hands grabbed the edge of the sink and collected himself. He quickly pulled his body back into his usual tense stance.

Zuko’s good eye was always facing Sokka, he watched as the other boy’s eyelids struggled to stay open. The drugs were trying so hard to get Zuko to close his eyes. Just watching Zuko struggle to stay awake made Sokka suddenly exhausted.

“Why do they give you so many?”

Zuko brought his chained arms up out of the water, one of his arms was wrapped halfway, but not the other. Sokka could see the soaked bandages on his left arm were spotted with fresh blood. Zuko was injured recently and someone had wrapped his arm. There was no way he could have wrapped his arms himself, not restrained the way he was.

Zuko waved his arms in a circle before letting them drop back into the water, bubbles and water splashing everywhere because of his dramatics.

“Agni.” Was all he said after all that ‘flare’.

“The Sun Spirit? That Agni?”

“Yes.”

“What does Agni have anything to do with more pills? Please, tell me it’s not because of that stupid rumor that the royal family are direct descendants of Agni? I hope you know that’s a lie, you're no more special than the rest of us, sorry to be the one to tell you.”

Zuko nodded, “oh, I know. Agni hates me.”

“Why does Agni hate you?”

Zuko scoffed. “… cause everyone hates me.”

“Chang doesn’t seem to hate you.”

“Yeah, maybe…”

“I don’t hate you...” Sokka wasn’t sure why he said that.

It wasn’t technically a lie, but it wasn’t also completely true either. Sokka didn’t hate Zuko, he didn’t like the fucking guy, but he didn’t hate him. When he saw how beaten down his arms were for the first time, there was a sting of sadness in his chest, he didn’t like to see Zuko injured like that, so he must not hate him.

He would love to see Zhao injured worse than anyone, but that was because he was absolutely sure he hated Zhao.

Zuko was as surprised as Sokka was by the declaration of his not-hate. The fire bender just stared at him for a few long breaths, his blown out pupils staring directly at Sokka’s face – which was a little uncomfortable.

Eventually, Zuko slowly relaxed his shoulders enough to turn his head back to the sink. They were silent for a while, Zuko kept sliding dishes into the rising bin that looked like they had only been swished around in the dirty water before he dumped it over the edge.

“You should hate me.” He finally mumbled.

Sokka glanced over at Zuko while he tried to rub away a speck of food that was still clinging to the tray with his drying towel. It was all he could do at this point and he honestly didn’t know why he was taking it so damn seriously.

Who fucking cared if this dumbass tray had some dried jook from who-knows-when glued in the corner. Sokka tossed the still-dirty tray into the bin on his clean dish cart and moved on to the next one of the dish victims of Zuko’s travesty wash job.

“Why should I hate you Zuko? Because you chased me, my little sister and the Avatar all over the world? Or because you tied my little sister to a tree? Maybe it was all the fire on Kyoshi Island? Or maybe it was you trying to capture the last hope for the world so the evil Fire Nation can win the war? I could actually continue with more reasons if you’d like me to.”

Zuko didn’t look over at him but Sokka saw his only eyebrow narrow slightly, there was a strain in his face that was unfamiliar to Sokka from the few days working next to each other.

“Yeah… Uh, no, that was enough reasons, I think.”

Sokka rolled his eyes as he picked up another dirty dish, this one was too disgusting to try and dry the food particles away, so Sokka just slipped it back into Zuko’s water. That’s when Sokka paused. He slowly reached back towards Zuko’s water and slipped the tip of his fingers into the grey sludge.

It was fucking warm.

Sokka retracted his hand so fast it would appear as the water burned him. Sokka’s eyes went wide and his mouth gaped open at the fire bender who was making the water warm. The fire bender who wasn’t supposed to be able to fire bend right now, but the evidence was conclusive; Zuko could still fire bend on a small level on four bending suppressants.

“You…”

Zuko blinked and his eye brow was still narrowed from earlier, but his eyes were fixed on Sokka. Their interaction in the last hour was the most Zuko has ever made eye contact with Sokka and probably ever spoke to him at one time, usually he avoided looking and speaking to him at all.

“… are fire bending?”

Zuko shook his head. “No I’m not.”

Sokka leaned over again, Zuko instinctively moved back the opposite direction of Sokka’s forward lean. He slipped his two fingers in the water again, feeling the warmth he narrowed his eyes and moved back, crossing his arms in Zuko’s direction.

“Move over.” Sokka moved towards Zuko and the boy scooted out of his way with a slightly defensive posture that Sokka chose to ignore. Zuko watched him as Sokka cleaned up the disgusting sink. Mostly, because it was kind of Sokka’s fault that the soggy food was everywhere and the water was growing thicker by the minute.

Zuko didn’t move from where he stood just off to the side, his eyes watching Sokka drain the water out of the basin before dry-heaving his way to the trash with handfuls of soggy-dead-smelly-food. It was probably one of the top 3 most disgusting things he has ever had to do, and gutting an elk-moose was a pretty gruesome task.

Finally, the skin crawling experience of cleaning out the sink was complete and Sokka was filling the basin with a fresh pot of freezing water and soap. He handed Zuko a clean drying towel and motioned for him to come to where Sokka usually stood.

To Sokka’s continued amazement, Zuko followed his direction, his body still moved with the subconscious grace that princes must have bred into them, or trained into them. Though he also moved as if he were unsure and confused, hesitating slightly before standing in place.

“Listen Prison Pal… you are doing a fucking terrible job of washing these dishes and people have to eat off this stuff. I think it’s best that I wash and you dry. You can’t really mess up drying, and I’ll help you load them onto the cart. Sound good?”

Zuko scowled, “don’t call me that.”

“Prison Pal? What? Drugged up Zuko still doesn’t like his Prison Pal nickname? I thought you’d find it charming.”

“No, it’s a stupid name and I don’t like it.”

“A stupid name, for a stupid situation.”

Zuko mumbled just loud enough for Sokka to hear, “a really fucking stupid situation…”

Sokka eye’d the fire bender until the water reached Sokka’s pre-determined spot of appropriate fullness. He tapped Zuko’s shoulder to get his attention and directed him towards the water.

“Warm it up, please.”

Zuko looked mortified, his eyes shifted around before landing, not very gracefully, on the water.

“No way.”

“Yes way.”

“But-“

“Listen, no one will know, just do it quickly and I’ll leave you alone.”

“Forever?”

Sokka frowned, annoyed, but holding his composure. “Sure, forever.”

“…ok.”

Zuko reached his hands into the water and they stood together in silence as slow, steady rising wisps of steam began dancing out of the soapy water. Sokka couldn’t pretend to be annoyed at Zuko right now when the joy and anticipation of feeling warm water was thumping through his veins. Zuko finally pulled away and Sokka greedily shoved his arms elbow deep into the toasty, clean water.

Sokka spent an embarrassingly long time with his arms in the water, letting his fingers comb through the pleasant warmth. It was soothing in a way that was hard to put into words, it was comparable to the feeling of crawling into a warm bed full of furs at the end of a long, cold day.

Sokka glanced at Zuko who was standing in place with his eyes closed, of course. The dish towel lay unmoved on the cart next to him. Even with his eyes closed, Sokka could tell he was glaring.

“Pst, Zuko.”

“Hmmm.”

“You should probably open your eyes and start drying.”

“You should probably stop playing in the water and start washing.”

“… ok. Good point.”

Sokka pulled his arms out of the now only half-warm water and began actually washing the dishes, this time scraping the old food into the bin under the sink before placing the dish in the water. It made the water a lot less soup-like.

Zuko was moving slower than before(if that was even possible) the pills must have begun to really weigh him down because the severe shaking in his arms was growing more consistent, rather than in spurts like earlier.

“So….” Sokka trailed off.

Zuko didn’t say anything in response.

“Are you really the Blue Spirit?”

Zuko paused, just long enough for Sokka to get the answer he needed. Zuko was definitely the Blue Spirit and he was not a very good liar, his sudden pause accompanied with his tensed shoulders said everything his words didn’t. He would have to test Zuko’s lying skills when he wasn’t fumbling around, very unlike himself.

“Why did you save Aang?”

“Who?”

Groaning and rolling his head around, Sokka shot Zuko an annoyed face. “You know the Avatar’s name, don’t you?”

“Oh. Yeah. Yeah, I knew that.”

“Hey - did you really think my name was Momo?”

Zuko just shrugged and set a dry cup onto the cart, in a very unorganized way. Sokka would have to fix it later.

“Ok, so I am going to just say that you did know my name was Sokka, just another reminder, it’s Sokka. And you were just saying my name was Momo to be mean, right?”

Zuko shrugged again and moved another cup over, his trembling arm knocking down the last 3 cups he had just dried and placed on the cart. The clattering sound they made when they hit the floor startled Zuko enough for him to flinch.

“I’ll get them.” Sokka sighed and took his arms out of the water and moved over to where the cups laid scattered on the floor. At the same time Sokka went to bend down, Zuko decided to completely not listen to Sokka at all and also moved to bend down and gather the cups.

Resulting in a painful clash of skulls when the two boys collided. With a hiss, Zuko shot back up, stumbling backwards from the momentum, his hands reached out to grab the rim of the sink instinctively. His slick fingers missed the edge barely as he fell back and hit the ground. Sokka rubbed his throbbing forehead and smiled at Zuko who just left himself laying with his back on the ground, staring up at the ceiling.

Sokka laughed, because for the first time since left the Northern Water Tribe, he wasn’t the most miserable person he knew. He was looking down at the only person who outmatched him in every category when looking at their overall level of pathetic.

Zuko slowly sat up and Sokka could see his eyelids fluttering again, the fire bender reached up a hand and rubbed his forehead under his hair. Sokka could only imagine the intense headache Zuko must have from the pills, he could almost feel the throbbing from here.

Sokka decided to be a decent person and reached down to help the guy off the ground. He knew that sober Zuko would probably have snarled at him and possibly made an attempt to bite him at the gesture of kindness, but foggy Zuko didn’t seem to notice and accepted the help.

Back in their positions once again, Sokka resumed washing the dishes while Zuko slowly dried another cup. Sokka knew soon he would have to pause his dish washing to help Zuko dry in a minute, the rinse bin was almost overflowing. Zuko’s one-at-a-time-turtle-frog-speed was just not going to cut it. Sokka wasn’t going to miss dinner because the fire bender was too messed up to dry at a decent speed.

But for all of Sokka’s extra effort to help Zuko get through the day, he was going to get some answers.

“Why did you free Aang?”

“So Zhao didn’t have him.”

“How did you get him out?”

“I went in, found him and we broke out.”

“By yourself?”

“Yeah.”

“How?”

Zuko shrugged, “skills?”

“That has to be some crazy intense skills, pal.”

Zuko smirked, “yep, they are.”

“So why haven’t you escaped from here yet?”

“I have tried.”

“How many times have you tried?”

“A lot…”

“So... is there any way out?”

“No, I don’t think so, at least I haven’t found it yet.”

“Hmmm…. So you can fire bend?”

“Shhhhhhh… No.”

“Ok, ok. No. But kind of?”

“.... maybe, kind-of-sort-of, I don’t know.”

“Ok, we can come back to that one, any other useful skills you have?”

“Swords.”

“Swords?”

“I’m good with swords.”

“Well… that’s good to know too. Like multiple swords?”

Zuko nodded, yes.

They fell into a silence again, Sokka stared at Zuko for a lot longer than he probably should have, but he needed to study the guy for a second. Zuko was on the opposite side he usually stood on when they washed together so Sokka was getting a full view of Zuko’s scar, which was making it hard to read him.

He needed to decide if he would use Zuko to help him come up with an escape plan, if the guy did try to escape all those times then they could bounce ideas off each other. But would Zuko even want to bounce ideas about escaping with him? Tomorrow, would Zuko even remember talking to Sokka at all?

It was a risk, but Sokka wouldn’t know for sure until he talked to sober Zuko. So Sokka filled the silence by asking Zuko some stuff about himself that would be useful in the future… possibly.

What was his favorite food: Fire Flakes, whatever the fuck that was.

Favorite color: Red, duh.

Favorite animal: Turtle-duck – surprising, and he stuck with that answer too, even after Sokka gave him the chance to pick dragon, for a one time, no penalty, switch.

Sokka learned Zuko liked to read, he enjoyed reading plays mostly – again, surprising. He didn’t know any of Sokka’s favorite games, so he must not have played games as a child.

He confirmed – he did not play many games as a child.

When Sokka tried to pry into his childhood at all, Zuko shut down like a snuffed out flame. It took Sokka a long time to coax Zuko back out of his reclusive silence. Sokka stayed around the safe topics and once Zuko was too out-of-it to answer, Sokka went back to telling him his own life stories. Sokka found himself some-what… sort-of… kind-of… enjoying his morning.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The day was slipping into the second half when Zuko’s shaking began to increase to the point where his fingers couldn’t curl around the dish towel anymore. Sokka looked over to see Zuko’s entire body was trembling as the fire bender’s chest began to rise and fall rapidly.

His skin was losing color by the second as the veins in his neck were turning a deep blue/purple color, matching the ring of bruising around his neck. The trembling was only getting worse as the shakes were becoming more violent. The darkness in his veins was traveling down his neck as it began to spread out. Some of the small veins on the side of his face were starting to tint grey.

“Zuko?” Sokka’s voice was laced with concern, his own arms trembling at the sight of Zuko’s condition.

“I-I-I…” Zuko’s legs buckled and the boy came crashing down, with a sharp cry, Sokka’s suspicions of Zuko’s body also being in bad shape were confirmed. He laid on his side, his body curled into itself as he trembled and jerked.

Sokka dropped to his knees next to Zuko, he made sure not to touch the boy who was withering on the floor in pain. “Zuko!? What’s wrong? Can you hear me?”

Zuko didn’t respond verbally, his jaw was tight and his teeth were grinding together as he puffed short, rapid breaths out of his nose. Sokka didn’t know what to do, this had to be some kind of reaction to the pills. Pulling himself back to his feet, Sokka looked towards Chang’s office, maybe he should go get help.

Would Chang help though?

Of course, Chang would help, he liked Zuko.

“S-stay here!” Sokka stood and fast-walked to Chang’s office, his scarred hand trembling as he knocked on the office door once again. There was no answer and Sokka knocked a little harder, his brow furrowed as he glanced over his shoulder to make sure Zuko was still laying on the floor. He was.

“I swear to Agni, Water Tribe if that’s you – “

“I need your help!” Sokka yelled through the door, suddenly too fearful to open it, just in case Chang really would lash out at him.

“What do you want!?”

“Zuko’s sick!”

There was silence followed by a rustling sound and the scraping of the desk against the floor, not even a minute later Chang swung the door open.

“Sick?” Was all he said.

Sokka nodded and they made their way over to where Zuko was shivering on the floor, his skin too pale and his veins too dark. The fire bender had his eyes squeezed shut and the unscarred side of his face was pressed firmly against the metal floor. Sokka got a close up view of the scar and the back of his throat began to tickle as he tried to swallow away the newly forming lump.

Zuko’s scar was unmistakably in the shape of a hand. The center of the palm, where the fire was the hottest, must have hit right above his eye. The effect of the blast was intense, the scar spread out from the spot of impact, covering half his forehead and most of his cheek before spreading out into his hairline. Zuko’s forehead was covered in sweat and his inky colored bangs were stuck tightly to his skin, staying in place from the sweat, even with the jerking movements.

Sokka felt sick looking at Zuko’s scar and had to avert his eyes away and try to think of something else. He needed the mental vision of his own father coming towards him with a want to cause him intentional harm.

Sokka pushed the thought away, he wanted to keep his father’s image pure. Hakoda was nothing like Zuko’s evil father. The Fire Lord was a sick fucking man for so many reasons, and burning Zuko’s face and leaving him here to die was actually low on the list.

“How long has he been like this?” Chang was on the ground next to Zuko, pushing the hair off his forehead and placing the back of his hand against Zuko’s sweaty skin. Sokka watched Zuko flinch away from the touch and try to pry himself away from the human contact. Chang placed his free hand on Zuko’s chest and held him down almost effortlessly, Zuko was too weak to fight back at the moment.

“Fucker is burning up, I gotta go get the medic… ahh… fuck….” Chang rubbed his chin as he stood back to his feet. Looking down at Zuko, the cook was contemplating what to do next. Sokka knew they needed the healer, they needed him a while ago, but there had to be a reason that Chang was hesitating so much.

“Ok, I have a plan. I’ll make him throw up and maybe it’ll purge some of the shit out of his stomach.”

Sokka frowned, “are you sure that will work? He said he already threw up today.”

“I don’t know, I am not a medic! He might need to throw up more.”

“Well… shouldn’t we go get the medic? Just to know for sure.”

“No… I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“Just, trust me. I’ll go get you someone to help you with the dishes. I’m going to take him into my office to uh... rest.”

Without another word Chang scooped Zuko up into his arms like he was a small, sick child and turned his back on Sokka, carrying the struggling fire bender into his office.

Sokka saw Chang emerge once more, (without Zuko) he locked the door and hustled himself towards the food prep area. He vanished from Sokka’s sight and the Water Tribe boy let his eyes trail back to Chang’s office door. Lingering his sight for a breath, he turned his attention back to the unorganized mess in the sink area.

It didn’t take long for an older woman to join him at the sink and Sokka moved back to his drying position without a word. They worked in silence for the rest of the day, the other prisoner didn’t even glance at him the entire time she worked. Which was fine, because Sokka couldn’t stop looking across the room at Chang’s office door anyway.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The end of the day routine after each shift took longer than usual because of the multiple messes that Zuko created. Sokka might have helped create some of the mess too, but it was mostly Zuko.

Speaking of Zuko, Sokka couldn’t get what happened today out of his head. He was trying to distract himself with other thoughts, carefully skipping over the unpleasant dark areas he liked to avoid. Leaving only… Well honestly, leaving nothing really behind, because everything he thought of linked back to something unpleasant.

Food, for example, is one of his favorite things. Food reminded him of his favorite food - stewed sea prunes, which caused his mind to remember that they were also his dad’s favorite food. When he thought about his dad, he found himself consumed with a cold sense of dread and the prickling idea of never seeing him again. Or, his dad’s reaction to finding out Sokka was dead, thought to be lost in the battle of the Northern Water Tribe; just another casualty to war.

Instead, he was trapped in this fucking living nightmare, watching ex-Prince Zuko convulse on the ground because psycho maniac Zhao was slowly torturing him to death. Some crazy conquer complex, too weird for Sokka to spend any time thinking about it. He just slid that thought back into the dark place of his mind he was constantly ignoring.

Shaking his head, Sokka wrung out his apron, dirty water trickling out after he scrubbed it in the outdoor wash station and hung it up carefully to dry. His temporary dish washing partner still didn’t say a word as Sokka gave her a friendly wave goodbye. She gave him a confused head-nod-acknowledgment-motion before she left. Sokka followed close behind… until he started to pass Chang’s office door.

The cook went inside hours ago and hadn’t been out since.

Sokka lingered… slowly, before hesitating to approach the door. It really wasn’t any of his business… They were only acquainted because of the mutual task of dish washing. It’s not like Zuko and him had developed any kind of relationship over the last few days, Zuko made damn sure of that. But still, Sokka always had a bad habit of being overly curious.

Gulping a deep breath of air, he knocked on the door, this time there was no screaming as Chang opened the door and moved sideways for Sokka to enter.

“I was wondering when you would stop by.” Chang didn’t seem surprised to see him.

Sokka entered the man’s office and was surprised to see the room had very limited décor. The office was standard, four off white walls, no windows, but a small skylight. There was a wooden desk against the back wall, the same desk Sokka heard scraping across the metal floor every time Chang stood up.

On the desk there was a lantern and a few scattered scrolls, some were even lying on the floor. A Fire Nation banner hung proudly on the back wall, looking awkward next to the tall green potted plant in the corner.

Sokka’s eyes were trailing down the wall when he saw Zuko. He was curled up, laying on his side facing the door where Sokka now stood. He was on the floor squeezed between the side of the desk and the side wall, close to the corner plant.

Sokka saw Zuko and wondered for a split second if he was dead, but after watching him for a minute Sokka saw the soft rise and fall of his chest. He was still terribly pale and his eyes were closed but his veins were no longer stained black.

“Is he… alright?”

Chang huffed and crossed his arms, staring down at Zuko who laid there, so still. Sokka looked at Chang and then paused, the man had a split lip and the beginning of a black eye. Glancing around the room Sokka’s eyes saw (what was first assumed to be just a messy office) was actually the scene of a struggle.

“What… uh, happened?” Sokka tried to hide the humor bubbling in his chest. “Did you have a little scuffle?”

“Yes, actually – we did! I don’t know how to get a person to throw up except… ya know, punch them in the gut. So that’s what I did, and he did not like that. Fucker hit me back, and then we fought it out.” Chang rubbed his jaw and his pudgy finger lightly grazed over the split in his lip. “Not that it was a contest… But I won. He threw up a bunch of black shit in my poor plant before he passed out. He has said some weird things in his sleep, but he stopped shaking and the weird changing color thing stopped, so I think he will be alright.”

“Ok, well good. I just wanted to check on everything… just making sure it was all ok, which it looks like it is… so I am just going to go.” Sokka couldn’t have made that sound more awkward, even if he tried.

Chang’s eyes watched Sokka in a way that made him feel vulnerable, like Chang was seeing the part of him that he was trying desperately to bury away. The man didn’t say anything, he just smiled and watched Sokka shift uncomfortably before deciding to turn and leave.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka met up with Ara, Shen and their friends and enjoyed a rather normal dinner to end his very unusual day. He participated in some of the conversation they were having about the weirdest food dishes they have ever come across. Sokka was sure he had the weirdest with his cougar-eel-noodle-surprise he ate at one of the small villages Aang made them stop in, but then Shen took it home with his giant-bugs-on-a-stick.

Sokka’s stomach turned at the thought of eating a massive, winged, bug-eyed creature as a meal. When Sokka asked where the fuck Shen was served a giant-bug-on-a-stick, Shen said somewhere close to the Foggy Bottom Swamp.

When he asked why a Fire Nation naval crew was so far inland, in all places, a disgusting swamp for fucks sake. Shen just shrugged and said that apparently the swamp is spiritual and Zhao was always visiting spiritual places, even though the man didn’t have any spiritual beliefs.

Sokka just lumped it together with Zhao's need to ‘conquer’ things. Of course the man was probably itching to do something seriously fucked up to a spirit. He did after-all, try to murder the moon spirit. Maybe he was originally trying to kidnap the poor fish and bring it here to torture with all his other helpless victims. Sokka sometimes wondered whatever happened with that entire situation.

Dinner was over just as quickly as it started and Sokka felt the day’s exhaustion take over his jumbling mind and lead him straight to bed. Sokka decided to skip his shower and just crawl under his scratchy blanket and let the sleep win this round.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Zuko was at the sink already when Sokka arrived the next day, approaching slowly – Sokka peeked over his shoulder to get a good look at the dying-yesterday-alive-today fire bender. His color was back to being his normal pale color, and his good eye seemed to have a more human-like black to gold ratio. Sokka decided to test the water, one toe at a time.

“Uh, good morning.”

Zuko paused before actually answering. “Morning.”

Sokka was surprised, he has said ‘good morning’ to Zuko almost everyday the last 3 days and he has never once said it back. So this was a very interesting turn of events, Sokka wondered if it might have something to do with the events from yesterday. Maybe the pills melted the part of his brain that was an asshole all the time and replaced it with a new friendlier outlook on life.

“Someone is in a good mood.” Sokka tried to make his tone playful, careful not to scare off the newly speaking fire bender.

“I uh…. Chang, uh… told me about yesterday and how you helped me. So, uh… thank you.”

Sokka’s jaw dropped, the slack muscle wouldn’t respond when his brain sent the signal to shut it before Zuko thought he actually was an idiot, standing there with his mouth wide open, unable to blink.

Finally composing himself, Sokka grabbed an actually clean dish from the rising bin and cleared his throat, making sure to keep his voice manly.

“Yeah, no problem. You were kind of a mess…”

“... I’m sure. I have never taken 4 pills before. I don’t remember much about yesterday, just that I woke up under Chang’s desk.”

Sokka laughed, and he saw Zuko’s mouth form a line, which was a pretty big movement in Sokka’s game. So maybe, just maybe, Zuko’s complete breakdown yesterday opened up a possible door to him not ignoring Sokka anymore.

“Yeah, you turned really white and your veins did this gross blue, black color thing which was really kind of scary. That was right before you hit the ground.”

Sokka continued drying dishes and stacking them on the cart, he kept his eyes to himself as he waited for Zuko to say something else. He felt as if he were trying to coax snow-mongoose out of a snuggly laundry pile in an elder’s igloo. Snarling and hissing, the animal would bury itself in the warm clothing and the goal was to calm the animal down and usher it out safely. If you made any sudden movements, especially if it was a male snow-mongoose, they would charge at you or bury themselves further and you would have to end up killing it.

Zuko was like that, he always stayed far enough back and either buried himself in silence or snarled and attacked.

“That sounds… intense, but I am glad you went to Chang.”

Sokka nodded, “yeah, he seemed to handle it well and I know you and him get along, so I figured he was the best option.”

Zuko paused, if only for a moment before continuing his washing. The bandages were off of his arms completely and Sokka could see the new burn mark that was wrapped yesterday, it was clearly in the shape of a large hand. The sight of the blistering flesh popping in and out of the water as Zuko washed his dishes made Sokka’s own burnt hand ache.

“It was the best option.”

“Yeah you… don’t seem very popular here. No offense.”

“It’s fine, no, people don’t seem to like the idea of sharing their prison with a traitor.”

“I mean… I don’t really mind that you are a traitor.” Sokka attempted a weak laugh to try and lighten the mood, but it fell on deaf ears.

“Oh great, the Water Tribe peasant is the one person who doesn’t hate me. Thank you so much.”

“Hey! First of all, I kind of still hate you because you called me a peasant which is very uncalled for. But like I said, I don’t mind if you are a traitor. As far as I am concerned, anything you do to help the Fire Nation lose the war, I am completely cool with. So you saved the Avatar from being tortured by Zhao? You should be proud of that!”

Sokka made a determined motion with his fist, lifting the cup he was drying in a victorious stance before grinning over at Zuko. The fire bender glanced at his stupid pose for a second before rolling his eyes and looking back into the sink. But Sokka was sure the corner of his mouth twitched up from his firm pressed line.

“Second of all, everyone here calls me Water Tribe this, Water Tribe that, the least you can do is call my by my name. If you think you owe me anything for my help yesterday, or however your honor code works, you could use my name. It’s Sokka, just in case you forgot.”

“Ok, fine, for your assistance with my weakness yesterday… I will refer to you as Sokka, instead of the appropriate Water Tribe label you should be referred to.”

Sokka wasn’t sure what instigated his arm to move on it’s own, and he really wasn't sure what possessed it to whip the drying towel he was holding across the rinsing bin and smack Zuko on the shoulder with it. But he did it, and Zuko just stared at him with his eyes wide.

For a moment, Sokka thought that he might have just really fucked up and the guy who never-really-actually-burned-him during any of their fights was going to attack him and probably severely injure him.

Instead, Zuko surprised him again and splashed him.

The soapy water splashed across the clean dishes resting in the rinse bin, though a majority of the water landed successfully on Sokka’s face. There was a brief silence between them and Sokka decided it was better to not instigate the ex-prince of the Fire Nation and just leave things where they lay. (No matter how annoyed it made Sokka)

“Ok.. now that we are done with that-“

Sokka was a little surprised when the water hit his face the second time, this time the disgusting liquid landed in his open mouth. Shooting his blue eyes to his left, he shot Zuko a glare, the boy ignored him and continued to wash his dishes like nothing happened.

Sokka had not expected that either, so he added that to his mental notes about Zuko.

“ANYWAY –“ Sokka wiped his face with his sleeve before snapping the towel with as much attitude as he could muster and continued drying the now soapy dishes. “I know you don’t remember yesterday, but we did have some nice conversation and I learned a lot about you.”

He watched another surprise appear when Zuko flushed at the statement. Sokka smirked and dried his bowl a little faster, it was fun having the upper hand again. He waited and when Zuko was clearly not going to comment on it, Sokka threw more bait.

“Yep… you were like an open book. You know, I might not hate drugged Zuko because he was so much friendlier than not drugged Zuko. I mean, the Blue Spirit Zuko, really…”

Peeking over, he saw Zuko’s flush deepen as his brow furrowed. Sokka was sure that by mentioning the Blue Spirit, Zuko would react, and it seemed like he was almost there.

“Also, who knew that you would rescue the Avatar of all people, while you were out doing your midnight vigilantly activities. But hey – I am not complaining. All I am saying is someone who breaks into prisons would probably be really good at breaking out of prisons. So imagine here I am, wondering why you are still here?”

Zuko stopped washing and looked over at Sokka. He was frowning, like usual, but this was a frown accompanied by the unfamiliar look that Sokka noticed earlier. His raspy voice was low when he spoke, making sure his words were only for Sokka.

“My hands are chained together, they are giving me four of those awful pills now and I basically get punished every other day for some kind of infraction. I can’t get out because this is Zhao’s personal prison, not a standard Fire Nation prison. This place is Zhao’s design and all the guards are ass-face-Zhao’s men and they expect me to try something so they watch me so they can punish me.”

Sokka shuddered at the very brief thought of what kind of punishment would be inflicted for getting caught trying to break out of the prison. The dark thought was interrupted by a half-snort-half-laugh and Sokka didn’t even realize he was laughing until the sound was coming out of his throat.

“Ass-face-Zhao? Is that what you called him, seriously?” He asked once he finally got his laughter dialed back. It was astonishing to feel his body…laugh.

Was it so strange for him to laugh that he couldn't even remember the last time he really laughed? Sokka was laughing and it felt good, like a strange dark cloth was lifted off his shoulders and things felt a little lighter. Of all people to make him laugh like he did with Katara and Aang, was grumpy Zuko, staring at him like he was an idiot.

Zuko watched him laugh, and when Sokka stopped and looked at the fire bender, Zuko quickly turned his attention back to the sink and started scrubbing dishes again. He responded with all the seriousness Sokka expected.

“I fucking hate Zhao, he is an ass-face.”

“You’re not wrong, but damn Zuko, you have quite a mouth for someone who refers to people as peasants. I don’t remember you being so vulgar when we ran into each other before.”

Zuko snorted, Sokka watched his mouth, maybe – maybe - nope. Zuko’s mouth stayed turned downward and Sokka signed in defeat, returning to filling his cart.

“I’m not a prince anymore, I don’t have to be dignified.”

“Ahhh, all the new luxuries of ex-royalty.”

“I guess.”

“So, back to our little chat yesterday, and a bit today… if I told you I had a few ideas would the Blue Spirit want to add ‘Zhao’s torture camp’ to his list of prisons he broke out of?”

Zuko paused, he seemed to need to look at Sokka when he was going to talk to him about something important. Sokka wasn’t intimidated by the fierce eye contact, it was just… different, the molten gold eyes were so exotically different than anything Sokka has seen all his life.

Zuko was also extremely difficult to read, which was frustrating to Sokka. Zuko never seemed to be sure what he wanted to say, but when he was sure he got very determined. His eyes didn’t give away any hints to how he was feeling, or maybe Zuko didn't feel any emotions besides anger..

“Do -” Zuko paused and Sokka saw a flash of something appear in Zuko’s eyes. “Do you really think you can come up with a plan to escape out of here?”

“You’ve never caught us have you?”

Zuko seemed to take that as a serious answer and he looked back down at the soapy water. Silence fell between them and Sokka decided this was a good time to break away and unload his cart.

“Well, think about it.” Sokka left him with his parting words hoping it was enough to sway Zuko to help him.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka took his time unloading the dishes in the kitchen, gaining himself many glaring eyes as he stood in multiple people’s way and caused them to make all sorts of annoyed sounds. Sokka strolled his way back over to where Zuko was still standing in place, straight back and arms deep in (probably warm) soapy water.

Sokka pulled his cart back to position and turned to see Zuko staring at him.

“Are you sure you can get us out of here?”

“I’m sure I can give it everything I have and see how far we get.”

“…ok, I’ll help.”

Sokka grinned, one step closer to escaping.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

The next few days taught Sokka things about Zuko that made him contemplate everything he knew about the guy.

Sokka was actually having a difficult time adding everything to the mental notes he was keeping on the guy. Plus, he was getting whiplash from all the surprising things that kept catching him off guard.

To start, Zuko was actually kind of intelligent, but not overly clever. When going over how he tried to escape previously, Sokka was impressed at the intelligence behind the ideas, but clearly saw flaws in the follow through. Zuko had only ever been focused on getting out not really what he was going to do when he got out, or what he would do if he was discovered before getting out. Nope, his plans mostly started with the goal to escape and ended with him being caught.

Sokka was going to make sure they had a full plan when it came time for them to escape.

The next important fun-fact he learned about Zuko was that he was part man, part some kind of animal, because the things he described himself doing during his escape attempts were not humanly possible. Zuko claimed he ‘scaled the spiked wall and balanced on the tip before being spotted’. It wasn’t possible. He also claimed he crawled through one of the sky lights in the middle of the sleeping cabin, which is also impossible he could not have jumped up there.. it’s just too high.

Sokka also learned Zuko was completely reckless and had absolutely no regard for his own safety. (also confirming his idea that all Fire Nation people were reckless) Zuko apparently spent over a week getting himself thrown into the cooler so he could try and loosen the bolts with his bare hands and crawl through the back and escape. He claimed he almost removed all the bolts before he was caught.

Sokka never asked what his punishments were for all the attempts, the scars littering both his arms and the ring of bruises around his neck were enough to guess. Zuko was extremely determined, he knew this from his nonstop hunt for Aang from the day he emerged from the ice and waved ‘hello’ to Sokka. His determination and full forced attacks were scary and intimidating to be the victim of, but when it was on your side, it was empowering.

Zuko tried to escape 5 decent times, Sokka decided, but none of them were that well thought out. If Zuko did actually escape, he might have died in the forest before ever knowing what he was going to do next. But Sokka didn’t need Zuko to be good at planning, he just needed his determination, knowledge of the prison, and crazy ninja skills.

Which was another crazy thing, apparently Zuko was a ninja, and a spy. He listened to all the guards talk without them knowing and somehow snuck around enough to know the blueprints to some of the buildings. He also took everything extremely seriously, or not serious at all. There was only those two extremes.

“Damn it Zuko, I wish you could draw me up an inside map of some of these buildings. I am really curious about the generator room and how the pipes connect to the coal burner! These are important details I need!

Zuko groaned and rolled his eyes, like he always did when Sokka went off on a tangent about needing the details Zuko didn’t have.

“How was I supposed to know two months ago that I should look at how the fucking steam pipes connect to the generator because the Avatar’s Water Tribe friend is going to get thrown in the same secret prison camp as me and he will want to know?”

Zuko’s dry humor was sometimes hilarious, mostly because it always caught Sokka off guard, but other times it was exhausting and today Sokka just wanted the information that Zuko didn’t have.

“Well… could you look?”

“No fucking way.”

“Why not? Sneak, or whatever.”

“I can’t sneak or whatever, if I get caught they will probably chain me to the whipping post forever.”

Sokka felt a small chill when Zuko said that, mostly because there was a grain of truth to the words he spoke, Zhao would very possibly chain Zuko to the whipping post, indefinitely.

“What if you try, really, really hard not to get caught.”

“…I can try.”

“Thanks, Prison Pal!”

“Please... stop calling me that.”

“If you get the information about the generator and the pipes, i’ll never say it again.”

“Deal.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka waited for Zuko the next morning, eager to see if he was able to pull off sneaking around the generator area and finding out how the pipes connect. Sokka really hoped he took detailed notes about how many pipers there were and the different sizes. One thing he learned from the Machinist was that the Fire Nation used a lot of firepower to create electricity, and when it came to their technology they were far more advanced than the other nations.

Sokka spent enough time in the Northern Air Temple tinkering with the Machinist’s inventions that he had a pretty good idea how to possibly manipulate their power source to help them escape. It wasn’t guaranteed to work and wasn’t even an option at the moment, but it was a damn good place to start.

The kitchen shift changed and Sokka tied his apron string around his waist, he hated that one of the strings was shorter than the other, it was annoying in a way that bothered only Sokka. The two different length strings always made an awkward knot that always sat too far to the right.

Sokka heard the familiar rattle from the guard’s metal arm-plates when they shifted against the chest piece of their armor. Turning his head towards the kitchen door, Sokka saw two guards making their way through the kitchen and directly towards the back wall.

Either the men were just cutting through the kitchen and were going to walk out the back door, or they were coming to the sink area, those were their only options. The two men stopped in front of Sokka, one of the men narrowed his eyes and set his hand on the curled up whip at his side.

“Come with us, Water Tribe.”

Sokka tried to give them a sweet smile, “what did I do?”

“It doesn't matter, get your ass moving!” The guard who had his hand on the whip reached his free hand out and grabbed Sokka by the shoulder, pulling him forward he pushed Sokka between them so he was forced to walk in front of them.

“I don’t know where I’m going…”

Sokka felt a sharp pain in the back of his leg before he heard the crack of the whip, he hissed and stumbled forward, only causing his legs more pain.

“Get up!” The guard yelled, this time only cracking the whip next to him, sending Sokka flinching to the side.

The flinching huddle earned him a snicker from both guards as he stumbled to his feet and began moving forward, he knew to get out of the kitchen at least. When they did finally hit the morning light, Sokka slowly turned and looked toward Zhao’s cabin.

“Yep, that’s where we are headed, keep it moving savage.”

Sokka’s stomach dropped, he instantly felt like he might actually crap his pants. Seeing Zhao again had always been in the back of his mind, but it didn’t seem as likely considering how decently things had been going lately. His nightmare life was fading into a bad dream with all the talk about escapes when the fantasies about leaving this fucking place behind danced in his head all day.

Now, he was slowly making his way towards the place where his nightmares always ended up, climbing the steps into Zhao’s evil lair where the man would torture and kill him. Sokka’s stomach squirmed as he thanked the spirits who hated him that he didn’t eat that second helping of breakfast. If he threw up in Zhao’s cabin the man might just murder him on the spot.

Sokka’s feet felt like heavy stones as he pulled his shaking legs up the steps and onto Zhao’s cabin's porch. One of the guards grabbed his arm to hold him steady as the other moved in front and knocked on the door.

A Fire Nation soldier opened the door and moved to the side, allowing the guards to pull Sokka through the door. There was probably more pulling than there should have been, but Sokka was fucking terrified and didn’t want to go in the scary fucking building.

When Sokka entered the front room, his world bottomed out. The fear he felt for himself doubled when his eyes landed on two, undeniably gold eyes, kneeling on the floor restrained between two soldiers.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 10: From Tortured to Torturer

Sokka’s tongue felt fuzzy as he rolled it across the roof of his mouth, he was trying to generate some kind of moisture so that he could finally swallow something wet to keep his throat from drying up and sticking together. He knew, sooner or later, he would have to speak and he wanted to make sure his voice didn’t crack under the heavy blanket of fear he was feeling smothered by.

Zhao stood near the middle of the room but close to the wall, Sokka almost didn’t notice him when he first entered the cabin, his eyes immediately went to Zuko. The boy was kneeling on the floor in between two armored soldiers who were wearing their gut-twisting face plates. It looked like Zuko’s arms were restrained behind his back now, but what Sokka found most disturbing was the muzzle-type-contraption they had secured around his head, covering his mouth.

The muzzle (Sokka decided it had to be some type of muzzle) was mostly made of leather, with a few pieces of metal sewn in. The thick leather strap almost covered the entire bottom half of his face, only the very tip on his chin was visible.

There were a few pieces of metal around the mouth area, but it was covered with a thick layer of rough leather which buckled together with metal clasp on the scarred side of Zuko’s face. Sokka felt that was intentional, he could see how tightly the muzzle pulled against Zuko’s skin where it pinched together and buckled shut.

Zuko’s eyes were blazing with anger, Sokka swore he could see actual fire burning in his gold iris’s. The fire bender’s gaze was fixed on Zhao, but Sokka only let his blue eyes linger on him for a second, before turning his attention to the admiral as well.

Zhao, after all, liked to be recognized as the leader of his shit-show-circus and Sokka didn’t want to draw any unwanted attention to him and Zuko’s.. uh, relationship. Zhao wanted, and probably needed, to be reminded he was in charge. He would inflict any type of physical or mental torture to ensure he received the recognition and fear he craved so badly.

Sokka was not afraid to admit that he was truly terrified of Zhao. He was especially afraid of the kind of games the admiral liked to play with his prisoners, and how much he enjoyedinflicting pain on people. Zuko looked uncomfortable where he was kneeling, Sokka could only imagine what they had already done to him before he arrived.

“Welcome Water Tribe, it has been some time. I hope you didn’t think I forgot about you.”

Zhao’s voice brought involuntary goosebumps to his skin, instantly dropping his core temperature a couple of degrees, bringing on a shiver. Sokka was scared to look into Zhao’s amber eyes, the maliciousness in them was frightening and brought back memories of Water Tribe men kneeling on deck and the way their bodies sounded when they hit the ocean –

No. Stay out of the dark thoughts. Keep your attention focused on the present situation and keep your mind sharp. Now respond to Zhao in a way that isn’t embarrassing.

“I didn’t think you forgot about me, Admiral Zhao. I just figured you found more important things to fill your time with.” Sokka was surprised how smoothly the words flowed off his lips. The small amount of bantering he did with Zuko, and the constant talking Sokka had been doing in the kitchen, must have really helped him regain some of his smooth-talking ability.

He wasn’t going to push anything too far... yet. At least until he knew more about what Zhao’s angle was, because based on the entire situation… There was definitely an angle somewhere. There wouldn’t be 2 guards, 2 soldiers and Zhao, all here together if he wasn’t planning something. He also had Zuko, who was supposed to be collecting information for Sokka last night, so this whole thing just... wasn’t good.

“Anything in the world is more important than you, Water Tribe, but I am forced to have this conversation with you after I found out you were teaming up with the ex-banished prince of the Fire Nation. I thought you had made better friends than this?”

Zhao’s voice was steady and confident, he had a calm but smug look on his face with his arms crossed. He moved from where he was standing and stopped directly in front of Sokka, blocking his view of Zuko.

“Friends?” Sokka asked.

“Maybe friends is a little too strong of a word. Perhaps, allies? Partners? Either of those words getting through to you?”

Sokka had put in extra effort to stop himself from glaring at Zhao, he was so accustomed to freely glaring at Zuko all day, he needed to remember that this was not the same situation. This situation would end in severe pain if he didn’t keep control of himself.

“Zuko and I are not friends.”

Zhao raised an eyebrow the stupid smirk was still planted across his smug face. His side burns were looking extra groomed today, he must have prepared for this, he probably wanted to look his best for his sick morning torture games.

“Oh really? That’s not what I hear. I hear you two have been rather chummy during work assignment lately. Plus, poor Zuko here thinks you guys are friends, he told me all about it.”

Zhao smirked and turned to the side to look behind him at Zuko, who sat motionless on his knees between the two soldiers. The fire bender gave Zhao the angriest eyes Sokka had ever seen, before he shot Sokka a look that was intense but calm. It actually really freaked him out.

Zhao moved and he was, once again, blocking Zuko from his view. The man’s pointy Fire Nation boots slid across the floor as he shifted his stance into something more rooted. Sokka was still standing, which was new – usually Zhao had him sitting at the table, where he usually liked to play his games.

Today must be a different game.

Sokka glanced around the room, there was an audience, Zuko was muzzled, Zhao seemed excited and Sokka wasn’t being restrained. All these things meant something and worked together in some way, Sokka just needed a little time to put them all together so he could try to play the game without getting himself and possibly Zuko, hurt.

Sokka decided his best bet right now was to play along with what he started already and not admit to anything, especially when he wasn’t sure what… exactly, Zhao thought he knew. Sokka forced his blue eyes to meet with Zhao’s amber eyes and the Water Tribe boy stood tall and crossed his arms, a posture dripping with defiance. If he was going to perform, he was going to perform well.

“I don’t know why Zuko would say we are friends when we are most definitely, enemies. You do know this guy chased my little sister and I across the world, right? He invaded my home, manhandled my Gran-Gran and burned down my girl-friend’s island. Well… might be my girlfriend... we didn’t actually talk about that – “

“Shut up.” Zhao cut him off and Sokka realized foolishly that he had rambled on just now. Last time the warden gave him 5 lashings just for being annoying… Sokka held his breath and went silent.

The admiral closed his eyes and rubbed his eyebrows, which seemed to be a habit for him when he was annoyed. With both him and Zhao standing closer to each other than ever before, Sokka realized what a large man he was. He was tall and broadly built, with a rather large head, even if he did shave off the sideburn-beard-thing he was growing, which he needed to do...desperately.

“Listen Water Tribe, you are just making your situation more difficult. You see, I already spoke to Zuko when we caught him sneaking out last night after dark and when he was interrogated he told us all about you and your little escape plan. So why don’t you stop with the little act you have going on and worry about saving your skin.”

Sokka’s heart plummeted into his stomach, his urge to poop vanished, along with all the other feelings lower than his waistline. Why… Why the fuck would Zuko do that!?

Why would he tell Zhao that!?

Wait… Why was a really good question.

Sokka frowned (mentally) because it would make no sense for Zuko to tell Zhao about their secret escape plans. There wasn’t even enough of a plan to tell. So what Zhao was saying was that he caught Zuko last night and then Zuko just told him all about their scheming… just like that.

No fucking way.

Zuko didn’t seem like the kind of guy who spilled secrets... In fact, Zuko seemed more like the kind of guy who would die protecting secrets. So Sokka decided to tread very gently through Zhao’s torture circus by pretending like he hated Zuko and had no idea about any escape plan.

If Sokka has learned anything about Zuko, the last week or so, it was that he was extremely determined to escape. He took the planning very seriously, sometimes to an obnoxious level. He also hated Zhao with a burning passion that Sokka could only compare to his same level of passion for meat. Knowing this made it very difficult to believe Zuko would tell Zhao any information at all, not even useless stuff, like his favorite food (fire flakes).

So no, that had to be a lie and Sokka could exploit the fact he knew Zhao was lying. Squaring his shoulders the young Water Tribe boy cleared his throat and did his best to muster up some of that smooth talk he was apparently so good at.

“Do you have His Highness taking too many pills? Because he must be delusional if he thinks I would ever come up with any ‘escape plan’ with him. If I was, which I am not formulating an escape plan, why would I break out the guy who has been threatening me for months? No way, it doesn’t make any sense.”

Sokka tilted his head up and away in an act of disgust, his arms still crossed tightly across his chest, it helped hide the light trembling happening in his arms. Zhao seemed to find Sokka’s answer amusing, which made his stomach do a weird hollow-feeling-thing, accompanied with the feeling of wanting to throw up.

“Is that so? I just want to make sure I am getting the story right, you hate Zuko and there is no way you would ever plot an escape with him because you hate him so much. Am I gathering the right information from you?”

Sokka nodded slowly, Zhao’s eagerness to accept his answer didn’t feel like a press for information... but more like a stranger guiding a small child away from their parents. There was an uneasy feeling in Sokka’s stomach that was screaming at him, telling him not to fall for the trick - don’t follow the stranger… but he was too far away from his parents at this point.

“Yes, I –“ Sokka swallowed, keeping his voice steady. “I hate Zuko and I would never help him escape.”

Zhao’s smirk morphed into an evil grin, “I am still feeling skeptical about the whole situation, but hopefully you can help put my mind at ease. Especially, now that I know you hate Zuko so much. I am sure you would be eager to gather your revenge, wouldn’t you?”

Sokka swallowed, his breathing began to quicken when Zhao moved towards the familiar, dimly lit hallway. Sokka took the opportunity of Zhao’s departure to look at Zuko. The boy must have been staring through Zhao’s back the entire time he was talking, because they made eye contact quick.

He didn’t know Zuko that well, or at all really, but in that brief moment of eye contact Sokka felt like he had known the fire bender forever. Zuko’s gold eyes were surprisingly calm and his steady gaze helped Sokka catch his breath and return his breathing back to a normal speed. They held steady, calming eye contact until Zhao came back into the room. Sokka’s eyes instantly went to the man, only to see him holding a long skinny wooden cane.

Zhao struck the pole out in front of him a couple of times with a striking motion, the sound the skinny weapon made as it sliced through air, sent a wave of cold chills down his spine. Zhao smirked and admired the simple weapon, holding it up to look at it against the soft morning light that was streaming down from the sky light. The sadistic man’s eyes sparkled with excitement, his attention turned to Sokka as he held out the weapon and pointed the tip at him directly.

“The cane is such a simple tool, but it delivers a rather effective punishment. Now, I am giving this to you because you shared with me that you hate Zuko here, and would never conspire with him. So in order for me to believe you, I will need to see you deliver his punishment for trying to leave his bunk after dark. After all, you assured me there was no way he was leaving his bunk to assist you in any plans. You don’t have a problem with that… do you?”

Zhao didn’t even try to hide his eagerness when he revealed his intentions to Sokka, the idea of striking someone with the cane that made such an awful noise when it sliced through the air, made Sokka want to turn and run out the door.

But there was no option of turning and running out that door, he couldn’t even turn his body around if he wanted to, much less make his legs corporate. Even with his best efforts, the chilling bumps dotting his skin and the trembling in his arm were visible to Zhao. Sokka saw the man basking in his discomfort.

It was just more games, and Sokka had tried playing the game, and this was his prize.

“Men, fetch the triangle and prepare the prisoner.”

Sokka watched with chest-tightening anticipation, as the two guards moved away from him and dragged out a wooden fixture from the hallway-of-doom. The fixture was around the height of a tall man, it opened up in the shape of an a-frame, both sides separated from the top to stand on their own, it looked like a ladder with no steps.

Both sides had a single horizontal bar running across the middle, Sokka watched, speechless, as the soldiers dragged Zuko over to the fixture and unlocked the chain wrapped around his wrists.

The fire bender’s shoulders slumped forward when the restraints were removed, it was probably a brief relief from how painful it must be to have your arms pulled behind your back for so long.

Sokka watched as Zuko’s relief was short-lived when one of the soldiers pulled his arms up over his head and turned his body so that his chest was facing the side of the structure, they securely fastened his arms together above his head.

After they were finished securing the top half, each soldier took one of Zuko’s ankles to lock them in on the ends. When they lifted his pant legs to secure the restraints, Sokka could see the raw flesh wrapped around his ankle, which indicated this was not the first time Zuko was probably restrained to this thing.

Once complete, Zuko was tightly stretched across the one side of the fixture; he didn’t make a sound or resist at all when the men were pulling him. A sick cold feeling in Sokka’s stomach knew this was going to end very, very badly.

After the soldiers moved away from the wooden frame, they took their stiff positions on each side and waited for their next order. Zhao didn’t say a word when he turned around and walked towards the kitchen, the only sound in the room was the heavy footsteps clanging against the metal floor. The man had the thin wooden cane in one hand as he lightly slapped the tip in the opposite hand’s open palm.

Sokka couldn’t see Zhao after he moved into the kitchen, Sokka was stuck facing Zuko, while the kitchen was behind him. He did hear water running and a sharp snapping sound before Zhao returned with the, now wet, cane in his hands.

The man stood in front of Sokka once again, this time he reached out to actually hand him the weapon. Sokka’s heart was pounding in his ears as a trembling hand (that he swore couldn’t be his own hand) reached out and took the thickest end of the cane.

He has never seen a weapon like this before, Water Tribe punishment didn’t usually include such aggressive acts of physical punishment. Even holding the skinny cane felt weird in Sokka’s hands, the smooth cold surface was tinted a light brown color from the water it had been soaked in.

Sokka looked at Zhao and saw the man’s eyes twinkling with delight as he took a step back, leaving Sokka alone with the cane.

“I am going to assume you have never participated in a caning, have you?”

Zhao’s voice was heavy in his ears, breaking through the muffled sound his slightly-beating-too-fast heart was making. Sokka’s eyes stayed on the cane in his hand, shaking his head no, he was afraid to speak any words. Just in case, his voice sounded the way he felt. He still needed Zhao to believe he was going to enjoy this, which maybe a few months ago, Sokka would have.

Nothing would have thrilled Sokka more than the idea of Prince Zuko being strung up by his own nation and them giving Sokka the weapon to beat him with. The very idea would have brought a huge smile to his face – he was sure of it. But now, after everything, it just felt… wrong.

Zuko didn’t deserve this, and Sokka didn’t want to be the one to do it, but sacrifices had to be made. Just like when the Northern Water Tribe men made their sacrifices on Zhao’s murder boat when they offered themselves up to be sacrificed, in order to save the younger men. Sokka had to look at it that way, Zuko was sacrificing himself to keep Sokka’s mouth shut, so they could still plan an escape.

“Well, Water Tribe, it’s simple really. The harder you swing, the more damage it does, the areas to aim for would be the buttocks and the lower thighs. If you want to venture further up, the shoulder blades would be the best area to strike. Anywhere in the middle section, you risk damaging internal organs and anything directly across the back, you risk injuring his spine. I’m not going to tell you how to deliver your punishment, but that is the overall idea of caning. I will tell you when to stop, you are free to start whenever.”

Sokka nodded, instinctively, because he couldn’t remember asking his mind to move his head. He hated when his body did that, but maybe his brain was just looking out for him, because his brain was at least smart enough to know that he couldn’t have a freak out right now. If he didn’t do this, then everything would be for nothing and fuck, Sokka would probably be the one strung up there after they beat the fuck out of Zuko anyway.

Sokka gripped the cane tighter, twisting his fingers across the smooth surface as he mentally grounded himself. He didn’t remember his first swing of the cane, only the horrible sound it made cutting through the air before it sliced across Zuko’s body. Sokka managed to hit him mostly on the thighs, he thought, it was kind of hard to tell with the baggy prison pants on.

Sokka was extremely happy that Zhao kept Zuko’s pants on, Sokka wasn’t sure if he could handle seeing the marks the cane left on Zuko’s bare skin. Sokka aimed to stay down towards the second half of Zuko’s body, that is where he felt the safest, he really didn’t want to cause the boy any internal injuries or damage his spine. The thought of doing that to anyone made Sokka feel even more nauseous then he already was.

Zuko didn’t make a sound, Sokka saw his shoulders flinch when he accidentally struck the same area twice, or the lashes crossed over each other in some way, but other than that he didn’t react. Sokka could see the muzzle’s strap wrapped around the back of Zuko’s head, most of his dark hair was trapped underneath the large leather strap, but some of the top pieces stuck out and fell over it. Sokka was sure that the muzzle was not the reason Zuko was silent, he remembered the fire bender refusing to make any sound when he was whipped just the other week.

After 25 hits from the cane, Zhao held up his hand, signaling Sokka to halt. A fluttering feeling of relief tickled under Sokka’s ribcage and the corner of his lips tugged at a smile. It was finally over, every strike of the cane made Sokka cringe and the pressure of having to do this horrible act to another person was finally over.

“Why did you look so unhappy, Water Tribe? I thought you would enjoy inflicting punishment on someone who you were so passionately sharing about how much you hate them?”

Sokka held in the cringe when he heard Zhao’s voice and the taunting tone the man used as he lured Sokka further and further away from sanity to try and trap him in his sick world of insanity. Sokka was resisting as much as he could, but he was trapped in between what he had already done... and what Zhao would want him to do next.

He already beat Zuko with a cane, what more could Zhao want him to do? If he didn’t do it… then would everything have been for nothing?

Would Zhao still get his way and figure out that they actually were planning an escape plan? Then Zuko’s suffering would have been for nothing and Sokka was sure-as-shit that Zhao would be stringing his ass up against that wood fixture next. He probably wouldn’t be watching out for the safety of his internal organs or spine either.

Sokka cleared his throat quietly and used the type of voice he might use when he saw his dad again… if he saw his dad again.

“Sorry, after being whipped myself, stuff like this bothers me. So, if it looks like I am not enjoying it… Well, uh, it’s because of the whole… being whipped myself thing, it just makes me cringe, kind of.”

Zhao frowned, his heavy brows narrowed closer and closer until Sokka was sure they would touch. His eyes searched Sokka’s own blue eyes for hints of a lie, which Sokka was confident he wouldn’t find. There was truth to what he said, though it was only a small part of the reason Sokka didn’t want to continue to strike Zuko with the cane.

Zhao’s face began to relax, his eyebrows lifted as a slow, steady smile crept across his face. The man had positioned himself near the wall between Sokka and Zuko, watching as the Water Tribe boy as he struck the fire bender, over and over.

“Well I don’t know why you wouldn’t just have said that. We can change the form of punishment. Guards, bring the prisoner down and position him on his knees.”

The guards nodded in compliance as they began to unstrap and pull Zuko down, the boy was limper than when he was when they first strapped him up, but he was still conscious. The guards hoisted Zuko to his feet before slamming the boy’s knees down onto the metal floors, hard. Zuko hissed under the muzzle, his breathing was stifled from the thick leather pushing against the bottom of his nose, but somehow he still managed to suck in enough air to not pass out.

Zuko’s head tipped forward and the guard standing on his left side reached down and grabbed a fistful of Zuko’s hair and yanked his head up so he was looking at Zhao. The other guard moved quickly as he brought Zuko’s arms back together in the front and wrapped the chain around his chafed wrists a few times before locking it in place.

Sokka was convinced that if pure anger alone could fuel fire bending, then Zuko would have been able to burn this whole building to the ground, metal and all. Sokka was almost scared himself by the glowing anger coursing through Zuko’s bright gold eyes, his one eyebrow was narrowed tightly, though the only sound he made was the short puffs of air moving through his nose.

“Oh don’t look at me like Zuko, this is all your own doing. I am just here to facilitate the punishment. You apparently lied to me about working with him on an escape plan and you were caught sneaking out. What would you do if you were in my position?”

There was a short pause before Zhao chuckled and moved his eyes away from Zuko and back to Sokka.

“Don’t worry about answering that Zuko – oh, wait.” Zhao laughed a little louder at his own joke. One of the soldiers shifted uncomfortably, but no one else joined in Zhao’s not-so-funny moment. The admiral cleared his throat, before he continued with his little speech. “Water Tribe, I will change the style of punishment for you, I was not aware you would be so upset by the caning. We could have always started with the burning, guards, remove the prisoner’s shirt.”

Sokka swallowed, both his hands twisted the cane tightly within his grip, he felt the light tremors rippling under his skin when the guards began to tear Zuko’s shirt off his body. Just as Sokka’s fear was rolling into something stronger, he remembered to breathe, in-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth…

In-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth, slow and steady, Sokka gained control over the fear. Shoving it way, way down, just like he had to do every day of his life. The tremors slowed down, before stopping completely as the cold feeling of fear dissipated, leaving an empty feeling in his chest.

Sokka’s eyes opened up wide when he saw the front of Zuko’s broken body, he couldn’t hide the utter shock he felt when he saw the amount of physical damage the other boy’s body had sustained. Bruises littered his sides and around his chest as well as the ring of bruises wrapped around his neck. Systematic and intentional gashes ran across the top of his chest and across his stomach. There were burns all over him, hand prints, finger prints, places where he was grabbed and places where it looked like just random burning.

Sokka felt sick, he had to swallow back the bile that was pulsing in the bottom of his throat, threatening to choke him if he didn’t release it. Sokka had to stay in control of himself and not let the weird feelings he was getting from seeing Zuko hurt so badly. It was really bothering Sokka the way Zuko’s eyes were slanted down towards the floor… like he was embarrassed.

Sokka felt a sudden unfamiliar surge of anger that Zuko would be embarrassed of his injuries, it wasn’t entirely his fault he was in here with Zhao. Well.. It was kind of his fault, sort of, but he still didn’t deserve that kind of abuse... Never mind, Sokka needed to stay focused on what was happening now.

Though part of him couldn’t stop himself from noticing how muscular and strong Zuko looked despite all his injuries. Zuko had much more muscle mass than Sokka, by kind of a lot… Though he was extremely lean, his abs looked like they were cut sharply into his stomach. It was annoying… Sokka was going to work out or… something.

Sokka’s eyes only cut up when he noticed the movement in the room.

Zhao was on the move, he was on his way towards the hallway, this time Sokka listened closely to try and gather some intel. His ears picked up what sounded like a hinge scraping and a door locking, he wondered how many rooms were in that hallway, the building itself didn’t look that big from the outside.

Zhao returned with a long metal rod with a couple inch flank end anda black rubber handle. The man smirked as he tossed the rod back and forth between his hands, in an almost playful gesture. It was sick how much enjoyment Zhao was receiving from the entire situation, the man seemed almost giddy, in a controlled Fire Nation sort of way.

“Alright, Water Tribe, no excuses now. You said you were his enemy, and you hate him, so therefore you should enjoy seeing him punished. I want to see some real enjoyment on your face this time, or I might just believe that you two are working together, and this is just a way to make sure I don’t find out about your little conspiracies.”

Sokka nodded in understanding, the cane was still in his hands and he was beginning to panic on what to do with it now.

Should he set it on the floor? Or maybe just keep... holding it? Maybe he should try and hand it to one of the guards?

Sokka thought about the last time he interacted with a guard during his interrogation and he received a sharp backhand to the face, so for now… he was going to just continue holding the cane.

“Good, I am glad we understand one another, so what is going to happen now is that I am going to heat up this metal rod until it becomes nice and hot and then you are going to stick it wherever you want. I will warn you, he is a little sensitive about his face... which I am sure you can understand why.” Zhao chuckled again. This time two of the other men in the room snorted along with him.

Sokka schooled his face to hide any reaction, he was surprised to still feel the anger from before festering inside him. The jab about Zuko’s scar made the anger feeling flare up for a moment, which Sokka thought was odd.

Sokka watched as Zhao held a flame in his open palm, the fire danced in it’s new found freedom, so happy to be out in the world. Too bad that little happy flame was being used to heat up a metal rod that Sokka was going to have to use to brand the guy, his own fucking age, kneeling on the floor in front of him.

The rod didn’t do anything at first as Zhao twirled the flat end slowly, inside the fire. Sokka watched as the metal gradually began to increase in temperature and the once smooth, grey color faded into a bright orange, accompanied by a faint red and deep yellow.

When Zhao snapped his hand shut, the flame vanished. The entire flat part of the iron rod was a bright orange color. Zhao took a few steps closer to Sokka before handing him the hot weapon.

Sokka’s hand accidentally brushed against Zhao’s own hand in the transfer and Sokka had to work really hard to hold it together and not drop the hot metal and jump back, as far away from the man as he could get.

“The next part is easy, you just stick it anywhere, just remember… fire benders are hard to burn, so you’ll need to hold it there for a while. Now hurry up, before the metal cools too much.”

Sokka moved towards Zuko, his pace was slow until he heard Zhao huff and Sokka moved through the next few steps a little faster. When he moved towards Zuko he could clearly see the gold eyes watching the hot metal as Sokka moved it closer to his skin.

The fire bender tried to move his head to watch Sokka, but the guard still held tightly to his hair, forcing his head up and making him stay still. Zuko closed his eyes, his breathing started coming out in short rapid puffs as Sokka decided to lay the metal across the left side of Zuko’s chest. In his mind, the burning lasted for hours, Sokka could hardly stomach the smell that came from the scorched flesh.

At first the metal made a strong hissing sound when he placed it against Zuko’s bruised chest, but the skin itself didn’t react. After a few stupidly long seconds that made Sokka contemplate if Zuko was fireproof. (Before remembering the burn scars all over his body and of course, the massive one that covered his face.) Slowly his pale skin began to boil and blister into a soft pink before bleeding into a deep red color as the skin completely melted away.

When Sokka saw the raw bloody patch, he pulled the metal back quickly, his eyes transfixed on the rapid rise and fall of Zuko’s chest and the raw burn that Sokka had just inflicted, resting just under his collar bone. Sokka took a few steps backwards as his blue eyes stared intently at the burn, his mind echoed the hissing sound that came from that first contact. He couldn’t seem to shake the smell of burning flesh.

Zuko’s eyes were now fixed on Zhao, as the man smirked right back at the fire bender struggling to breath, the large muzzle firmly in place. Before Sokka could say or do anything, Zhao ripped the weapon out of Sokka’s hands and began to heat it up again. While the man was heating up the metal again, his amber eyes stayed locked on Zuko as the boy gave him murderous glares.

Sokka remembered the threat that Zhao made about him ‘enjoying it’ so Sokka inhaled deeply before exhaling a smile onto his face. He crossed his arms in defiance and smirked at Zuko. “I hope that hurts, your highness.”

Zuko’s gold eyes moved over to Sokka and he shot him an angry glare, though the heat he had for Zhao made the glare he gave Sokka seem weak and lifeless. Sokka stuck out his tongue (because he was an adult and in times of stress and panic you don’t revert to acting like a child) before returning his expression to a fake smirk.

When Zhao was satisfied with the metal’s temperature he handed the rod back to Sokka, which was interesting that Zhao wasn’t afraid that Sokka wouldn’t turn around and use the hot rod against him. He wondered how long the rod would actually stay hot enough to burn someone, and if he could use something like it to escape?

Sokka tried to sneakily glance around the room as he approached Zuko. After taking in the entire room, Sokka decided that trying anything right now would be extremely foolish and probably end in his death, but it was a nice random thought.

Sokka pushed the hot metal up against Zuko’s chest once again, a few fingers length under the original burn, which looked angry and hot. The next burn he did was on Zuko’s arm, Sokka only burned the front of his body. He was too scared to see what Zuko’s back might look like, and he just couldn’t handle anymore suffering right now.

Zhao continued to heat up the metal rod and Sokka had to continue to hold it against Zuko’s skin… again… and again… and again… until Sokka was sure that he would never be able to smell anything ever again, except burning flesh.

Finally, Zuko looked as if he were going to pass out, his neck and top of his heaving chest were flushed and his eyes were struggling to stay open. The 6 new burns across his body looked bloody and puffy, Sokka was sure they had to hurt to the point where they throbbed. Sokka’s own hand was throbbing with phantom pains from the time Zhao boiled his own flesh.

Zuko’s eyes were doing the rolling thing they did when he was going to pass out, Sokka had watched it happen once already. Zhao approached Zuko and Sokka held his breath when the man reached out and grabbed a fist full of Zuko’s hair, ripping it away from the guard and hoisted the fire bender’s face uncomfortably close to Zhao’s own face.

Speaking just above a whisper, Sokka could hear the threat clear as day.

“Don’t let me catch you again, Zuko, or this will seem like a pleasant memory.”

With a rough snap of his wrist, Zhao ripped his hand out of Zuko’s hair, letting the boy’s head drop forward. Sokka slowly released the stress-induced-death-grip he had on the handle of the metal rod. Zhao stared down at Zuko, for what Sokka felt like was an uncomfortably long amount of time, before the man turned towards him and nodded.

“You’re dismissed, Water Tribe, but let me want you - if I find out you even breathe the word ‘escape’, I will string you up in front of the entire prison camp and let each guard on duty take a turn whipping you. Ara doesn’t have enough salve in her possession to help you after something like that. Now get back to your work assignment before I decide you’re in need of punishment as well.”

Sokka didn’t mean to drop the thing, but the weakness he felt in his arms made his fingers numb... which caused the metal rod to roll right out of his grip. Not even waiting to see if there would be any repercussions for that, Sokka turned and moved as calmly but as quickly as he possibly could out of Zhao’s cabin. Sokka kept his head down and his eyes on the ground the entire time he hustled his way down those three stupid steps and headed in the direction of the kitchen.

His heart rate had been out of control almost the entire time he was in Zhao’s presence, the stress had taken its toll on his chest, causing a deep ache. Sokka’s body slowed, his heart rate was running rampid again and he couldn’t seem to get control over the ache that carved it’s home deep inside his ribs.

Slowing down even further, Sokka began to feel dizzy, the colors of the world swirled together as his vision began to blur. Sokka saw a bleary image in front of him, someone rushing towards him, his knees hit the dirt.

Hands were on his shoulders, soft, delicate fingers and big green eyes blinked down at him, right before Sokka felt the darkness creep over his world.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“Sokka.”

What?

“Sokka, you have to get up.”

I don’t wanna…

“Sokka.”

There was a shaking that began rattling his unconscious world until it broke open and the light of reality shone brightly in his eyes. Sokka sat up slowly, there was a small, sharp pain in the back of his head from where his skull connected with the ground.

Other than that, the ache in his chest had lifted and the beating of his heart had slowed back down to what he considered an appropriate pace.

Opening his eyes further he realized the sun was brighter than blinding, blinking his eyes, Sokka lifted an arm to block the light from his sensitive vision. Peering through the pain, he saw Ara sitting on her knees next to him, her beautiful pale face was twisted into a concerned expression.

“Come on Sokka, you can’t just lay here, if one of the guards sees you outside of your work assignment they are going to punish you. Now get up!” She pushed his shoulders with some force, urging him to stand to his feet.

Sokka complied with her request and slowly staggered to his feet, swaying from the light headedness he felt.

“Sorry... I don’t know what happened…”

In all honesty, Sokka really didn’t know what happened. One minute he was free from Zhao, and the next moment his chest felt like it was collapsing into itself and then he must have passed out.

“I looked you over and didn’t see any new injuries, what happened? Why aren’t you at your work assignment? Did you just come from Zhao’s cabin?”

Ara’s tone was different than usual, her soft voice carried a certain edge, coating her words in a very ‘not-at-all-like-Ara’ vibe. She was always so steadfast with her approach to things and the slightly frantic tone in her voice didn’t sit well with Sokka. Her dark hair was loose today, the silky strands fell over her shoulder as she tucked them back behind her ear. Her big green eyes were as beautiful as always, her long eyelashes dusting her cheeks with every blink.

Once on his feet again, Ara offered him her arm (which he more than happily accepted) and locked herself in next to Sokka, allowing him to lean some of his weight on her for the first few steps towards the kitchen.

They walked in silence for a few strides before Ara broke into it with another, more unexpected question.

“So... How do you like working in the kitchen? I know we talked about you switching jobs but I don’t remember us talking about how you were enjoying the transition. How do you like working with Chang?”

Her voice was back to her usual tone, soft, sweet and full of kindness. Her smile was radiating good feelings into Sokka’s chest, his heart always fluttering at the sight of her thin, soft lips pulled back in her signature side smile.

“I love it.” He answered. “But honestly, I would probably like scooping komodo-rhino poop more than I liked being down in the coal mine.” Sokka gave a short half laugh and felt his cheeks crimson with embarrassment when he heard his joke fall flat. He attempted to correct himself.

“So.. uh, yeah Chang is the best, I like him a lot. It’s going great for the most part.”

Ara nodded as she listened to him talk, her eyes facing forward as the kitchen came into view. It wasn’t too far from Zhao’s cabin, just across the L and behind the mess hall. Ara seemed to slow down slightly.

“That’s so good Sokka… but I have to know... what were you doing coming out of Zhao’s cabin? I mean, you don’t look like you were interrogated, so I am just a little, curious.”

Her voice did a weird thing at the end of her sentence, almost like a stumble. Sokka knew there was more to Ara’s question, but he also knew better than to ask. Ara was a gentle and sweet girl, like Katara, but also like his sister, she carried a wicked temper and did not like to be questioned.

Sokka knew he had to answer Ara carefully, because as soon as Zuko’s name came into their air she would get all huffy, like she always did, and say nasty things about him until she changed the subject and everyone dropped whatever it was they were discussing. So Sokka knew better than to poke the polar-leopard, it’s a great way to get your finger bit off.

“Yeah, he actually just wanted to talk about my work assignment, and how everything was going.”

Lie, lie, lie, lie, lie.

No! Not a complete lie, a partial lie, there was some truth to it.

Ara’s brow creased a single line in between her eyebrows, her chest heaved upward as she took a deep breath and let out a long exhale.

“Well, that’s odd. Do you know why he would ask you that? What are you doing... exactly, in the kitchen?”

“I’m just drying dishes, it's no big deal, really. I don’t know why he wanted to know, but as you can see, I am injury free.” Sokka smiled at the rhyme.

Ara seemed to trust his answer, which made Sokka feel a sharp sting of guilt. She liked him, and she looked out for him… she only asked a few simple things from him and here he was lying to her. The girl who picked him up out of the dirt the first day he arrived and treated his injuries without knowing anything about him except that he was a skinny kid who needed help.

She didn’t deserve to be lied to, and if he wanted her help escaping, it was time she knew that he was getting close to coming up with an actual plan and he wanted her to come with him. Sokka glanced over at Ara, he could see her mind working while her green eyes stayed planted firmly in front of them.

The kitchen was getting close and the guilt Sokka felt from intentionally hiding things from Ara was beginning to gnaw at his already tender stomach. The knots he was carrying around in his gut from today’s events made him wonder if he would ever be able to eat again.

Now, with Ara right here, he felt like he needed to tell her the truth to try and alleviate some of the guilt he was carrying.

To Sokka’s surprise, Ara led him towards the back of the kitchen, even though it was against the rules for prisoners to enter their work assignment through the back. All entries and exits must be made through the front door. The only time the back door was used was when they went outside to clean their apron before hanging them to dry.

Sokka stopped and turned to look at Ara, he decided to come clean about everything.

“Uh, I um… Ara I just wanted –“

He was interrupted by a very-loud and very-familiar voice. “WATER FUCKING TRIBE! WHERE THE FUCK HAVE YOU BEEN?!”

Both Ara and Sokka snapped their head sharply to see Chang wiping his hands off on his apron, which was the first red flag. Chang had an apron on, which meant he might actually be doing some kind of work.

Sokka watched the man cross his arms over his gut, his eyes fixed on the two prisoners standing a few meters away. Ara broke away from Sokka and stepped towards Chang, she pulled her smile bigger and gave the man a happy wave.

“Hi, Chang!”

“Shut up, Ara!” Chang held up one hand at the same time he shook his head in annoyance. “That is my dishwasher you are keeping from me! He is hours late to his shift and when I finally decide to try and figure out what happened to him, I find him out back with you! You need to go somewhere girl, before I find somewhere for you to go. You, Water Tribe, you better have a good fucking reason, get your ass inside – NOW!”

Sokka shrugged at Ara before quickly moving himself through the back door, his arm hairs standing on edge as he slid past Chang. The cook seemed extra annoyed today and Sokka was sure that he and Zuko not coming to work was probably a big reason for that.

As soon as Sokka was through the back door, a heavy hand landed on his shoulder and stopped him short. Chang managed to single-handedly-spin Sokka around to face him. The man looked down at him and he looked very… worried?

Where Sokka expected anger and frustration, he only saw worry and compassion, Chang’s eyes trailing over him slowly, probably looking for injuries.

“I’m not hurt.”

“Well that’s fucking good. Come with me, to my office.”

Sokka looked over at the sink line to see two prisoners he didn’t recognize standing where he and Zuko usually stood. Sokka followed Chang to his office door and waited for the man to unlock it. Once the door was unlocked Chang held it open for Sokka to enter first.

If Sokka was a wiser man, he wouldn’t have shown any weakness, he would have walked into that situation and looked for a way to exploit the enemy.

But Sokka wasn’t a man, he clearly recognized that now, after everything that has happened to him, he knew he was still a scared boy... he was so fucking scared. Sokka’s eyes welled with tears and the salty streams began running down his face before Chang even got the door shut.

Collapsing on the floor, Sokka wrapped his arms around himself and sobbed, his fingers gripping the prison tunic’s rough fabric until his knuckles turned white. It was all too much, he couldn’t handle this anymore, this couldn’t be his life. He couldn’t do this forever, his insides felt like jelly after everything he had to do to Zuko today.

Fuck… Zuko. Sokka’s sobs carried added weight when he thought about the wide gold eyes watching him approach with that fucking hot metal... he couldnt shake the amount of pressure and time it took to melt his skin... and the fucking awful smell that he couldn’t rid his nostrils of.

Sokka wasn’t sure how long he sobbed on Chang’s floor, or when he fell asleep. But when Sokka finally opened his eyes, the office was dimly lit, the only real light was from the flickering lantern resting on Chang’s desk. Sitting up slowly, Sokka tried to blink the sleepy coating of haze out of his eyes. Standing up, he saw Chang working over an open scroll on his desk.

The man looked up when Sokka’s standing form came into view, he looked the boy over and snorted a deep laugh.

“You look like fucking shit, kid. How do you feel?”

Sokka rubbed his eyes, his vision finally clearing as he stretched his arms up above his head. “I feel like I cried for hours and then fell asleep on the cold, hard, metal office floor and just woke up.”

Chang chuckled, “funny, I forgot that’s why the Avatar kept you around, the jokes.”

Sokka decided not to argue that point, he was too delirious from his long-ass-nap to get involved in any witty banter.

“Yeah, yeah.” Was the only response he gave Chang. There was a lapse of silence before Chang spoke again.

“Whatever happened kid... I don’t want to hear about it. I gave you a safe place to deal with it, but in return I want you to leave whatever it is outside of here and come to work tomorrow and do your fucking job. Do you understand?”

Sokka just nodded that he understood and Chang gave him a single head nod in response. The man then gave him a ‘go away’ hand motion and Sokka took his leave. The sun was low enough in the sky for him to have to rush into his cabin, suffering another day with no shower and now no food - though for the first time in his life, he really wasn’t hungry.

Even with the long-ass-nap he took earlier, his body surprisingly accepted sleep with very little fight.

The last thing to float through Sokka’s mind was surprisingly his sister. He usually tried not to think about her, pushing any thought of her out of his head as quickly as he could. But here in the darkness, with his mind wrapped thick in a layer of emotional vulnerability, he let her face slip into his mind.

Sokka felt the silent tears run down from the corners of his eyes, the darkness hiding his weakness from the other prisoners.

Wherever you are Katara, I hope you are safe and you never have to endure anything like this. I love you, I miss you.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka was at the sink surprisingly early, at first light he went to the bathhouse and was very pleased with how empty it was. Perhaps before the butt-crack-of-dawn would be his new shower time, he was done and changed with food in his belly all before the sun was completely up and over the horizon.

Sokka wasn’t sure if he should fill Zuko’s sink (or the replacement prisoner Chang selected to work today’s sink) with warm, fuck - scratch that, with cold soapy water. Sokka was focused on fidgeting with the impossibly fucked up knot on his apron, when someone slid into the dishwashing spot next to him. Sokka looked up and his jaw dropped.

Zuko stood in front of the empty basin, tying the apron string around his waist a few times before pulling the ends together in a half-assed knot. After he was satisfied with the knot, Zuko turned and looked at Sokka and gave a small, awkward wave.

“Uh, hi.”

Sokka blinked himself back into the present moment, his mind was desperately trying to pull him back into the darkness... where he was watching Zuko’s skin boil under the burning rod he held against him. Shaking his head vigorously, Sokka snapped his jaw shut, only to open it once again. The words just started tumbling out of his mouth and before he knew it the sorrys were crashing into Zuko in one massive wave of emotion.

“I‘m so sorry Zuko, I’m so fucking sorry man… I would never have done that stuff to you… fuck. Fuck, I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry Zuko… Are you ok? I just can’t believe I did that to you… I am so so so sorry…”

Sokka realized his breathing had increased, and his heart was starting to beat too fast again, he tried to follow his breathing exercise and took a few deep breaths to try to regain his control. He stared at Zuko, waiting for the other boy’s blank expression to reveal some kind of truth to how he was feeling about everything.

Out of all the things Sokka might have been expecting, he did not expect the fire bender to furrow his brow and glare at him. Ok... so maybe he expected that, but he didn’t expect him to say -

“Sorry, for what?”

Sokka’s jaw dropped again, this time he let the slack bottom jaw hang there like an idiot, because what the fuck was wrong with Zuko? Did he not remember everything that happened yesterday? Was there another Zuko running around that was caned and burned less than a full day ago?!

“Zuko… Prison- uh… I mean, pal. I mean… I just can’t believe what happened yesterday. I honestly didn’t expect to see you here today, you kind of went through a lot yesterday, don’t you need some rest?”

Sokka wished that Zuko was easier to read, he thought even his mom would have a hard time getting a read on the expressionless ex-prince. His eyes stayed neutral and cold, with only small flashes of other emotions that appeared every now and then, usually too fast for Sokka to catch.

Zuko shifted his weight from one foot to another, in a nervous kind of way. “Sorry… I uh, worried you?”

Worried? Sokka almost scoffed, but something stopped him, because yeah – he was fucking worried. Even though Zuko wasn’t his ‘friend’... but fuck it, he was helping him try to escape and he wasn’t that awful… all the time.

“Yeah, I was worried. Ok? It was my first time torturing someone and it was very traumatizing leaving you there and not knowing if you were ok or not.”

Zuko seemed to find whatever part of what Sokka said funny because a small smirk appeared on his lips, he quickly corrected it and turned his attention back to the water that was pouring into the large basin.

“Well… you did really fucking good Wat- Sokka. You did everything exactly right, I was surprised. Uh.. no offense.”

Sokka smiled, even though it was an awful scenario, at least Sokka didn’t fuck it up worse than it was already fucked. Plus Zuko just stopped himself from calling him Water Tribe and called him Sokka instead - win.

“So… you’re not mad at me for all that, uh, torture stuff I did to you?”

Zuko shut off the water and frowned at Sokka, dunking his once again chained together arms into the water as he sighed, in an annoyed kind of way.

“No, I’m not fucking mad at you. Zhao was just trying to play games, like he always is, who the fuck knows if he actually knows anything. There isn’t even a plan so he can’t know about something that doesn’t exist. Fuck Zhao.”

Sokka smiled again, staring at Zuko, the other boy finally looked over at him before stepping away from the sink and motioning his head towards the water for Sokka to ‘check it out’.

Sokka knew what was happening and his body instantly stepped to where Zuko had been standing and dunked his arms into the sink almost shoulder length as he tried to fully immerse himself in the watery-warmth-goodness.

“When fire bending is used for good instead of evil it is soooo much better, please Zuko... create warmth, not war.”

Zuko scoffed, but Sokka pretended it was a laugh, maybe a full body one with shaking shoulders and a wide grin. He couldn’t imagine a full body laugh and Zuko in the same room, both ideas were too opposite.

“Alright, enough. Move” Zuko’s words alone moved Sokka back to his spot, soaking up the final warmth from the water that was rapidly cooling against his dark skin. Using the clean towel, Sokka dried off his arms and looked over at Zuko who had begun to wash the first of the dishes.

“Thanks, Zuko.”

Zuko made some kind of grunt noise in response and for the first half of the day Sokka and Zuko worked in silence. It probably stemmed from the looming fear that someone was watching them and reporting their movements back to Zhao.

Sokka decided that after hours of looking around at every inch of where they were stationed, accompanied by the fact that they were in a pretty small space between the kitchen area and the back wall. There was no place for anyone to hide. It just didn’t seem possible that someone was spying on them.

Zhao had to have been lying, it was the only logical choice.

After the morning turned into afternoon, which then turned into late afternoon, Sokka finally finished analyzing the room and all the possibilities of how someone could be listening in on them and deemed it safe to discuss things with Zuko.

“I think Zhao was bluffing, I have spent all day looking around this entire place to see if there was a place for someone to hide and spy on us and I just can’t find anything, I seriously think he was lying about knowing anything.”

“Probably was.”

“So we need to talk about our next move.”

“I agree, first I have something for you.”

Sokka wasn’t sure if he heard Zuko correctly, but the other boy looked around, very sneakily, before pulling out a rolled up piece of parchment he had hiding in his waistband and handing it to Sokka.

The first thing that Sokka noticed was the roll of parchment was warm and it was amazing. It took a level of will-power Sokka didn’t even know he had to not rub the little warm bundle against his face.

But that would be really fucking weird.

“What is this?” He finally asked after he chased away the weird thoughts he had about the warm pants parchment.

“Uh, it’s what you asked for, plus a few other blueprints of different buildings, to help with uh, whatever.”

Sokka’s eyes went wide as he scrambled to unroll the small bundle, which was actually smaller pieces of parchment rolled together. The top piece was a complete drawing of the coal burning generator set up, including the smaller details Sokka might have asked about. It was much more effective than having a casual conversation about it. Sokka flipped through a few other of the parchment pieces to see simple, but specific drawings of the guards cabin, Zhao’s cabin and the infirmary.

“How… what… um, Zuko. How did you get these?”

“I drew them?”

“How?”

“With coal?”

“How do you have coal?”

“How do you not have coal? Didn’t you work in the mine?”

Sokka rubbed his eyes, what was this conversation?

“Ok, so you drew these, I will admit that is impressive, but how did you get the schematics for the generator? I thought you got caught?”

Zuko frowned, “I didn’t get caught they were waiting for me to leave my cabin. I didn’t even make it out the door before they were on me.”

Sokka smirked, “I dunno, it still sounds like you got caught.”

“It’s not caught, it was ambushed.”

“Ambushed... and then caught.”

“Whatever…”

“Ok, ok, I’m sorry, you don’t deserve for me to nag you because seriously, you did a nice job.”

Sokka was surprised to see Zuko flush and scrub his dish a little harder, Sokka wondered the last time the other boy received an actual compliment. He certainly didn’t get any in here, unless it was in a weird way that was probably for unpleasant reasons.

The thought hit Sokka like a heavy boulder dropped directly on his head. “Wait…. Did you sneak out last night?”

“Well, yeah, I thought we just established that.”

“What the actual fuck Zuko!? What if you had been caught?! They would have killed you!”

“But... I didn’t get caught.”

“That doesn’t matter!”

“Apparently it does, because you claim I was caught, even though I was ambushed, but if people aren’t sitting there waiting for me, then I wont get caught.”

The seriousness in Zuko’s voice made Sokka realize that though he was poking fun at Zuko for getting caught, Zuko actually took it very seriously. He was proud of his secret Blue Spirit abilities and didn’t want to be discredited for what he felt like was an ‘ambush’. Sokka decided to just leave it alone for now, maybe come back to it later if Zuko got too quiet, or too grumpy.

“Ok, sorry! You weren’t caught, you were ambushed. So, what? You go out… literally the next night and risk your life to get me the information? I have to say... I am angry at your reckless behavior, but I am also impressed by the information you gathered. You did all this in one night?”

“No, I only went to the generator last night, these other ones I did a while ago, I just saved them.”

Sokka flipped one of Zuko’s parchment pieces over in his hand, he saw the faint numbers followed by words clearly written on the back. Sokka stared closely at the words, reading them silently to himself he burst out in a hearty laugh, immediately bringing his voice down, trying to hush his laughter.

“Oh shit, Zuko, did you use the back of the list of rules?!”

“Yeah. It was the only parchment I had at the time.”

“Clever, just… if you got caught with this… damn, you would get in so much trouble.”

“Well yeah, that’s why I waited until the end of the day to give it to you. Hide it somewhere in the kitchen and that way neither of us will get caught with it.”

Sokka’s brain skidded to a stop and demanded to go back over what Zuko just said... ”That’s why I waited until the end of the day to give it to you.”

So what Zuko was saying, if Sokka was understanding it correctly… was that he acknowledged the risk and took precautions to try and keep Sokka from getting caught with the contraband drawings. He was surprised, but also… he wasn’t. Zuko had crazy intense loyalties, Sokka knew this from all the wonderful time they had to bond before they were washing dishes next to each other in a prison camp.

Now, that loyalty was directed at him and Zuko was using all the qualities that Sokka always found aggravating and exhausting, to completely back him up. Seeing those qualities in a new light brought Sokka relief knowing that Zuko was fighting on his side… for now at least. He could appreciate Zuko’s headstrong recklessness when it was being used for good, instead of capturing Aang.

He still didn’t trust him completely, and who knows how things could change in the future. But for now, Zuko was helping him try to escape and he had some crazy cool Blue Spirit skills that would help tremendously with that.

“Damn Zuko, with all your Blue Spirit-ness, how come you haven’t successfully broken out of here yet?”

Sokka saw out of the corner of his eye, Zuko stopped washing his dish and exhaled loudly... but also could have been a groan, Sokka wasn’t sure.

“I can do all the things needed done to make a plan happen… but I am not good at coming up with the plan itself. All my plans don’t end… uh… well, as I am sure you have noticed in our time spent together, uh - before we were here.”

Sokka snickered, because he could think on multiple occasions that the ex-fire prince was being thrown through the air by Aang and one of his classic air bending blasts. But this was no time for thoughts of innocent, happy, wonderful Aang (who he found himself missing a lot more than he thought he would). This was a time for escape plans.

“Yeah, you lost... a lot.”

“That’s because I am not good at plans.” Zuko managed to mutter through his grit teeth. Sokka got the impression Zuko spent a lot of his life defending himself, he seemed resistant to criticism, even in a joking manner.

“Alright, well… how about this? I will come up with the plan and I will exploit all of your secret skills and implement them into my idea and all you will have to worry about is following the instructions. Sounds easy enough?”

Zuko looked over at Sokka, they caught eyes before Sokka could turn away fast enough. There was a hint of something in Zuko’s eyes, something that was softer, but it was gone as quickly as it appeared.

“That, uh, sounds good. As long as we get out of here, I don’t care what it takes.”

Sokka felt another sting of guilt, this time because of what he did to Zuko and how he might be suffering because of the choices that Sokka made yesterday morning.

Yeah, Zuko was happy with how things turned out, but it didn’t change the fact that Sokka had beat and burned the boy standing next to him. The worst part was the lack of acknowledgement that Zuko gave the whole situation.

But that might just be the way Zuko coped with everything, so Sokka decided to leave the topic alone and if Zuko decided to bring it up, he would gladly keep apologizing.

“Oh, we are going to get out of here. I can feel it.” Looking down at the drawing of the generator, Sokka felt a strong burst of confidence for the first time in all these weeks.

“Well good, but feel it faster... because now that Zhao found a new game, he will want to play it a few more times. So I’d rather get out of here before our next round.”

Sokka shuddered at the thought of what would happen the next time he, Zuko and Zhao were all in a room together. He would like to live the rest of his life and never get the answer to that question. Sokka knew he would have to come up with something fast, but it also had to be an extremely well thought out plan that would guarantee they’re escape. If not, he could end up leading everyone straight to their death.

Sokka could feel the pressure, but he always performed well under pressure.

It was game time and Sokka was finally playing.

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 11: Moving On

The day the Fire Nation raided Katara’s village and took her mother from her, was the first time she ever felt a piece of her heart die.

The second time, was when her and her brother stood on the highest ledge at the edge of their village and watched their father’s fleet disappear into the horizon, too soon after their mothers death.

She will never forget the way Sokka’s smeared warrior paint stained her favorite parka after he buried his face deep into the polar-dog fur lining her hood. She never teased him about the sobs that racked his tiny chest as they watched their only remaining parent sail away from them.

The third time a piece of her heart died, was the day she left the Northern Water Tribe, delivering the final blow to her already crumbling emotional state. Katara would never forget the way it felt when the deep familiar agony returned after she turned away from the search for her missing brother.

She had spent the last 2 moon cycles searching every possible place that Sokka might have been trapped, or where his… body… might have fallen. Katara and every other able bodied water bender helped her scour the waters surrounding the Fire Nation wreckage.

Every evening, when the sun began to slowly descend behind the ice mountains, off in the distant tundra, and the wind chill would dip below freezing, Katara’s heart would crack a little further when they came up empty handed.

In her soul, she knew her brother was alive, she could feel him, in an unexplainable way… Aang said he understood, he said he felt that way about the Air Nomads, which was not the right thing to say. The Air Nomads were all dead, killed by the Fire Nation… her brother was… he was…. alive. Somewhere.

Poor Aang, he was relentless in his efforts to be there for her in any way that he could. His once sparkling grey eyes dimmed, the dark circles from the sleepless nights nestled underneath them. The guilt she knew he felt was overwhelming him at night, he would wake up several times, accompanied by panting breaths and cold sweats.

Katara always pretended like she didn’t hear him.

She was battling her own nightmares. The kind of where she stood out on an empty field of ice, the snowy wind whipping around her like an angry spirit, howling and cursing her name. Her hair was loose, the long brown strands twirled behind her as she used her arm to shield her eyes in an effort to peer through the pelting sleet.

She could see the faint outline of a figure in the distance.

Katara would take a step forward, her boots felt too heavy as they dragged across the ice, creating a small path in the snow that was slowly rising to her ankles. Her body felt stiff, as if she were slowly freezing.

Through it all, she pushed on, ignoring the numbing cold as she tried to take a second step. At this point, it was a struggle to even move her legs, the snow had now risen to her knees.

Katara would remember squinting her eyes, trying her best to see out in the distance at the figure in blue. The outline of a man – no, a boy… He was about her brother’s height, thin…

“Sokka!” She would call out to him.

“Sokka!”

“Sokka!”

She would scream his name, her shrill voice filled with desperation, lost in the turmoil of the skies. The boy never moved from where he stood... off in the distance. He never answers her calls, no matter how much she pleads and cries… she never even finds out if it’s reallyhim. Every time she has the dream she wakes up whispering his name and feeling a little bit more hollow than before.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Master Pakku approached her in the early morning of the day after the newest moon cycle began. Katara had honestly lost count of the days at this point, her mind only left the search for her brother to bathe, eat and sleep. If it wasn’t one of those 3 things, then Katara was out searching, completely consumed by the need to know what happened to Sokka. Her desperation could be compared to the way a mother would search for her missing child.

When Katara saw Master Pakku gesture for her to sit with him, she knew what type of conversation he wanted to have. Everyone had been walking on eggshells around her, mostly because her temper was hard to control these days. But Katara knew the day was coming when someone, would say something to her about it.

Master Pakku was not a man of many kind words, he preferred his method of delivery to be upfront and honest, saving his compliments for truly deserving moments. His eyes were always cold, like his frozen element, the wrinkles of time etched into his forehead and around his eyes.

Surprisingly, in the morning light, Katara thought he looked warm and inviting – maybe it was because she was the cold one now.

Katara hesitated, she didn’t want to have a late start today, searching for Sokka, but ultimately she respected her master’s invitation to sit with him. So with an exhausted huff she sat, her body language withdrew as her arms crossed tightly over her chest in a defensive gesture.

Pakku started into the conversation slowly, she was surprised at the gentleness he was using with her, but as the conversation moved into more uneasy waters, Katara could see his cold, serious demeanor return.

They were at war he said, and people die during times of war... he made sure to clarify that he wasn’t implying that Sokka was dead, but that there were people, right now, dying because of the war. The world’s last hope was here, in the North, almost having completely mastered water bending, waiting for her. It was well past time for Aang to move on with his journey and begin mastering earth bending. In order to do that he would need to head to the Earth Kingdom.

Pakku made an attempt to place a hand on her shoulder, meant to be a gesture of comfort, but his unfamiliarity to gestures as such, made the experience awkward and cold. Never-the-less, he made sure his words were clear and that she understood.

The Avatar was to leave the Northern Water Tribe and head straight to Omashu to learn earth bending from King Bumi. There would be no more time to waste in the search for Sokka, if Katara wished to continue her search then she was more than welcome to stay. But Aang would be leaving, with or without her.

He informed her about his communications with General Fong and his eagerness to assist them in their efforts to use the Avatar to end the war. He was originally supposed to escort Aang and his group to Omashu, but because of the extra time Aang insisted they spend in the city, searching for Sokka, the General was forced to move his troops further into the Earth Kingdom after hearing about Fire Nation troop movement towards Omashu. The General was planning to meet them outside the city and would provide escort from there.

Katara didn’t feel any guilt for messing up the general’s plans, she would have made the same decisions over and over again if given the chance….

If given the chance to do it over… She would never let Sokka out of her sight.

Her eyes began to well with heavy tears, she reached up her hand and delicately pulled the droplets from her eyes before throwing them to the icy floor. Master Pakku seemed to think her tears were a result of what he shared about Aang leaving. When the reality was that her tears were for her brother and how she failed to protect him and now she was having to decide if she would abandon hope or not.

“I know this is a difficult situation, Katara, but these are the types of sacrifices that have to be made during war. It’s the type of sacrifice that your brother made after he received Chief Arnook’s mark, he made his choice, now it’s time you made yours.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Katara did make her choice, as much as it broke her inside, she made the choice to leave with Aang and continue their journey to end the war. There was a relentless drive inside of her to help put an end to the suffering, to keep anyone else from feeling the utter hopelessness that she felt after experiencing so much loss. The only way to do that would be to defeat Fire Lord Ozai and end the war.

The day before their departure they were called into a council meeting with the elders, who insisted they needed someone older to accompany them on their journey. Someone who was skilled with reading maps and would be an experienced hunter, so they would not risk starvation while traveling.

But Katara refused, she would not allow these men, these strangers put some other Water Tribe boy in their group to replace Sokka. She assured them that she was more than capable of reading a map and with her water bending she could catch fish, anywhere and Aang didn’t even eat meat.

With Aang’s support, Katara was successful in derailing the idea of someone replacing Sokka. Though Aang did express he liked the idea of having another person to help them out on their journey… but Katara insisted they would be in Omashu within the week, so it would be alright with just the two of them.

Aang agreed and they were packed and ready to leave bright and early the next morning. Some of the members of the Northern Water Tribe had already left for the Southern Water Tribe to help them rebuild. Pakku decided to stay behind to make sure that Aang and Katara made it on their way alright. He prepared his own vessel as they all bid their farewells, Katara was happy that she was able to keep her tears away this time.

When he gave her the spirit water as a farewell gift, she gave him a hug with a muffled thank you into his parka.

It wasn’t until she was sitting in Appa’s saddle that the tears erupted and her shoulders shook violently from the heavy sobs heaving through her chest. Aang took Appa into the air, letting the wind drown out Katara’s crying, giving her the privacy she needed to let go.

Her blurry eyes watched the ice kingdom fade away as they soared higher through the clouds. She said a silent prayer to Tui & La, begging them to keep Sokka safe, wherever he was. She prayed he was thinking about her as much as she thought about him, she wanted him to know that she would never give up on him.

She would never stop thinking about him, she would never stop looking for him, and after Aang defeated the Fire Lord she was going back to the city and continuing her search.

She would never give up on her brother.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“What... is that?”

“It’s Appa!”

“What’s Appa?”

“The bison? You know, the one we fly on?”

“It has a name?”

It is a HE, and yes, HE does have a name, his name is Appa.”

“Well… This, Appa, doesn’t look anything like the real Appa. Where is his head?”

“It’s right here, duh.”

“Oh… then what are these things?”

“Legs…”

“Hm.”

Sokka frowned, holding the small piece of parchment out in front of him, he studied the crude drawing he did of his buddy, Appa. Zuko was kind enough to give him some parchment and a small piece of coal that he had heated into charcoal a few days ago.

At first, Sokka was using the small bits of parchment for strictly-escape-plan-business-only, but then he was lonely one afternoon, and he was feeling especially reminiscent of his days flying free on Appa. So after dinner, he laid in bed and decided to sketch his good pal Appa and show Zuko.

… who instantly destroyed any excitement Sokka once had for his Appa-sketch.

“You’re an asshole, you know that?”

He earned himself a way too familiar Zuko-grunt in response, right before he dumped another dish, a bowl to be exact, into the rinse bin. Sokka stuck out his tongue in Zuko’s direction, before adding the small drawing to their secret roll of parchment.

The boys had been rolling together all the information they gathered for the escape plan together and hiding it in the kitchen. Sokka found a useless dry pipe under the rinsing bin that connected to the outside, so he had been hiding the parchment roll in there for safe keeping.

Four days had passed since the last time he was in the same room as Zhao and as the days carried on, Sokka noticed that Zuko would grow more fidgety and irritated. Well… more irritated than he usually was. The more time that went by, the closer they were to having another round with Zhao, and neither boy was looking forward to that.

Sokka was slowly learning more about his fire bender ally, and not in the normal-person-way of having a conversation with someone and learning things, but in the sense that he was becoming more acquainted with Zuko’s body language and facial expressions and they were becoming easier to read.

The smile game was getting more interesting now that Zuko was growing more familiar with him too. The guy had a weird way of deciding how much he was going to trust Sokka. But Zuko did start to trust him more after the bending suppressants incident. Sokka was there for Zuko when he was vulnerable, so logically, he earned him a little of the boy’s trust.

Then there was the torture. (Which was currently haunting Sokka’s nightmares, to the point where he felt like he was seeing burning skin whenever he closed his eyes… which was great.) After that terrible fucking incident, the next day Zuko seemed even more trusting than he did before.

They were small, tiny, itty-bitty pieces of a much larger trust that they would need during the escape and… after. But in ‘Zuko world’ his tiny pieces of trust were monumental deals to the fire bender, who still barely spoke about himself or shared anything about his life. Which was fine for now, they needed to stay focused on the escape plan anyway, it was imperative that nothing went wrong.

Sokka was determined now, more than ever, to escape from Zhao’s torture camp, all his free time was spent brainstorming and calculating. Sokka had to make sure he went over every single detail and what possible outcomes every scenario could have. He couldn’t risk all the lives he was carrying on his shoulders, if something went wrong it was his fault… the consequences would be dire.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Afternoon rolled around and Zuko returned from his secret tea in Chang’s office.

“What do you guys do in that office everyday? Make out?”

Zuko scrunched up his face in a disgusted expression that Sokka had never seen before and was oh-so-happy he had discovered it. Zuko’s neck also turned a little red too, which Sokka found even more entertaining. Zuko was easy to embarrass, he hated being the bunt of a joke or the center of any attention, even if it was just coming from Sokka.

“That’s disgusting, you pervert. No, I do not go into Chang’s office and make out with him, if you must know.”

Sokka smirked, “well if you aren’t making out, what are you doing?”

“Drinking tea.”

“Why do you drink tea in Chang’s office… alone? Seems rather suspicious if you ask me.”

Zuko stopped washing dishes and turned to face Sokka, startling the Water Tribe boy, Zuko had never done something like that before. Blue eyes met gold and there was a sternness in the fire bender’s eyes as he struck his gaze deep into Sokka’s confused expression.

“Do you not trust me?” His raspy voice didn’t waver.

Sokka swallowed, licking his lips slowly as he contemplated the question. Of course, he trusted Zuko, after everything they had been through in here, there wouldn’t be a single reason he wouldn’t trust Zuko right now. But he trusted this Zuko, he didn’t know how to trust the Zuko he knew before.

The angry (well more outwardly angry), shouting, Avatar chasing, ponytail swinging, Fire Prince Zuko. He didn’t know how to trust that guy, but this Zuko – the quiet, sneaky, helpful, map drawing, kind-of-a-decent-artist Zuko... he liked.

They were just two very different people, apparently living in one body.

“I do trust you Zuko. I was just curious is all. Do you trust me?”

Zuko seemed caught off guard by Sokka’s reverse of the ‘do you trust me’ question, Sokka smirked even bigger because sometimes... Zuko was intelligent and sometimes... he was straight-up-dumb.

How he hadn’t been expecting Sokka to ask him the same thing, was baffling.

Zuko seemed to be taking his time answering the question, his gold eyes trailed over Sokka’s face in a way that made him feel uncomfortable, like Zuko was trying to look for cracks.

“Yeah, I suppose I trust you.” Zuko finally answered. “So... since I trust you I will tell you that I go into Chang’s office once a day and he helps me with my injuries, so they don’t get infected. I hope you are satisfied… and it was everything you hoped it would be, but obviously don’t tell anyone.”

Sokka caught Zuko’s golden eyes just before he looked back into the sink, he made sure to flash the fire bender a genuine smile to thank him for his honesty. Even though it didn’t seem like a big deal to share that about Chang, Sokka knew better than to discredit the effort it took Zuko to share the information with him.

Sokka’s smirk morphed into an actual smile as he loaded up the last of his cart and headed off to put away his dishes.

Who would have thought, Prince Zuko and Peasant Sokka, trusting each other and practicing honesty.

Sokka laughed to himself, how much crazier could his life possibly get at this point?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The end of the day came quickly and tomorrow was the dreaded bending suppressant day, but the day after would be… the escape.

Sokka was nervous, but not because of the escape plan, he felt really good about the plan. He was nervous because he was going to tell Ara and Shen about his plans for escaping. He had yet to decide if he would include Opal yet, she was still giving him weird vibes and usually he wasn’t a big ‘vibe-listening’ kind of guy, but in this fucking place he would take a heads up from anywhere he could get it.

He also… may or may not have told Zuko about involving Ara and Shen in the escape plan.

In his own defense, Shen had guard connections and Sokka needed information about their system of shift changes and who would be on guard that night. He figured Shen, being an ex-soldier, would have information like that, for some reason. Shen was also a trained Fire Nation soldier, so he would know how to fight if needed, and he would be familiar with Zhao’s strategies, which might give them an edge while they are on the run.

Who was he kidding? It wasn’t Shen he was worried about telling Zuko about, it was Ara. Their weird don’t talk about why we hate each other thing was eating away at his curiosity like a hungry locusts-beetle on a honey-flower. He almost couldn’t stand it anymore and was thinking of just demanding an explanation.

Zuko was wiping down his sink, Sokka winced when he saw the raw, chaffed skin around where the chains were rubbing against his pale skin. Sokka was excited to finally get the chains off Zuko, he was sure it would be a huge relief to no longer carry that heavy thing around. Not including the freedom it would finally give him to move.

Sokka cleared his throat in an awkward breaking-the-silence kind of way. “So.”

Zuko paused and glanced over at him, his one eyebrow raised a small amount.

“…so.”

“Tomorrow is bending suppressant day.”

“I guess... Chang said when I get in tomorrow he was going to help me throw up. Hopefully that will make it so I’m not so… uh… loopy.”

Sokka smiled and whined, “but I like loopy Zuko, he is so friendly!”

He wasn’t surprised when that comment earned him a light flush, Zuko had no idea what to do when someone complimented him. Even if it was a smart-ass compliment.

“I need to tell you something.” Zuko’s slightly rushed and elevated voice startled Sokka as much as the words did.

Sokka paused, because he needed to tell Zuko something, not the other way around. His chest was feeling a little fluttery from the nervousness that was creeping its way into his mind.

“Oh-kay… what do you need to tell me?”

Zuko seemed… kind of nervous too, which was feeding Sokka’s anxiety about the entire situation. Zuko tossed the dirty dish rag in the bin and turned to face him again, his weight shifting very lightly from the back of his heels to the ball of his foot. Sokka was about to explode with anticipation as Zuko took his sweet-ass-time answering him.

“So… back before, I was here, when I was still chasing you guys… I heard about a prison break, involving incredible bending, some claimed it was air bending. So naturally I thought it was the Avatar. It was, because when I arrived at the prison rig, the entire place was practically destroyed. The prisoners had all escaped on stolen ships and apparently two Water Tribe kids escaped on a giant flying bison-”

Sokka nodded with a bit of annoyance because he clearly remembered the stupid Save-Haru-Prison-Break-Plan Katara had insisted on. It’s where she lost her mother’s necklace... she was completely devastated… Sokka found himself a little upset as well, it was all they had left from their mom after she died. His mind wandered, for only a second, to his sister… and the stupidly brave, stupidly selfless way she lived her life… He hoped she was being safe.

“- so when I got caught by Zhao I had the necklace on me and he took it. He likes trophies, so he has it in his study, I think- in one of the drawers of his desk... unless he moved it already.”

Sokka paused, he must have missed an entire part of Zuko’s story because he was talking about Zhao’s desk. Which again… how Zuko knew so much about Zhao’s cabin gave Sokka the cold wet feeling he got when he thought about Zhao and Zuko, so he just went ahead and pushed that thought right along.

Damn it, the one fucking time the guy tells a story and he lets his mind drift to Katara and Zhao, so stupid.

“Wait… what necklace?”

Zuko shot him an angry-er look, “were you even listening?!”

“YES!” (NO)

“I found your sister’s betrothal necklace and Zhao took it.”

“You could have just said that… wait, was it blue with a little stone pendant?”

“Sounds right.”

“That…. That’s my mom’s necklace. She was killed in a Fire Nation raid, and that’s all we have left of her… Katara lost it when she helped a bunch of earth benders who were being imprisoned by the Fire Nation.”

Zuko had a weird flash of guilt in his golden irises, clear as day, Sokka wondered what the ex Fire Nation Prince was planning on doing with the necklace that he felt so guilty about. Or… what had he already done? Most likely something to do with capturing Aang, but with how long Zuko has been locked up in here, the plan must not have worked.

“I uh, I didn’t know it was your mom’s necklace… and I didn’t know she was killed by the Fire Nation. I’m sorry.”

Sokka just blinked, Zuko was continuing to surprise him. He didn’t think the other boy had any compassion, but based on the shake in his voice and his hushed words, Zuko felt some type of compassion for Sokka’s situation.

His mother’s death was a sadness he was accustomed to, he barely even registered the constant ache anymore. It was all the newaches and pains he had endured recently that was threatening to send him into a mental breakdown.

“It’s alright… I mean… At least you didn’t do anything horrible with it, so that’s a good thing. Too bad the most evil person in the world has it now... wait, scratch that Zhao is the second most evil person in the world, sorry, but your dad still holds the title for number one most evil person in the world… but now fucking Zhao has it… Fuck.”

Sokka rubbed his face with his hands, before picking up the towel he was using to dry his cart before throwing it towards the dirty towel bin. And just because the universe hated him, he missed the bin and the stupid floppy towel fell into a pathetic heap onto the floor.

Sokka groaned before dragging his feet over to where the towel had landed, he picked up the annoying little fucker off the ground and shoved it angrily into the dirty pile. He began untying his apron, stealing a glance over at Zuko, he saw the boy was standing awkwardly next to the sink with his apron in his hand, his fingers fiddled with the tie.

“I… might have done something horrible with it.”

Sokka exhaled long and slow, his face shifted into an unamused expression.

“What… Zuko, what did you do with it?”

“Remember when… with the pirates?”

“Yes, I remember the time you tied my little sister to a tree and then threatened her with a group of dirty pirates. Yes, I remember that fun night very clearly.”

“Yeah so… I might have um, dangled the necklace in front of her. But that was it, nothing else, just a little um… dangling, and some light taunting.. a couple threats. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m sure there were probably some threats.”

Sokka’s jaw dropped, but at the same time, he wasn’t surprised. Zuko did awful things, he was an awful person… or he wasn’t really an awful person – or he was?

He was fucking confusing, that’s what he was.

“I don’t have time for this Zuko, thanks for telling me, but I don’t think I can get it back in two days. So, maybe after the war, or something…. I’ll come back for it.”

His eyes finally met Zuko’s, he had been trying to avoid the other boy’s stare through the entire conversation, only meeting his eyes once or twice. But as they stared at each other Zuko did something, again, surprising – he made his fist into a ball with one hand and straightened the palm out flat with the other. Connecting them together he pulled the gesture closer to his stomach and gave a half bow, almost completely hiding a wince.

“I apologize for taking your dead mother’s necklace and threatening your little sister with it. It probably… uh, wasn’t the best thing to do. Though, it did seem like a fool-proof plan at the time.”

Sokka smirked, “it wasn’t that fool-proof if you still managed to fuck it up.” He laughed at his own joke and as Zuko raised back into his uncomfortable looking posture, Sokka saw a faint lip-twitch that he counted as the closest thing to a smile he has ever seen.

“Anyway pal, I appreciate the honesty and now I have to tell you something.”

Zuko’s expression instantly went back to his unreadable, stoic, kind-of-pissed-off-who-knows-is-he-glaring? Facial expression.

“What?” Venom shot through his words, trying to poison Sokka where he stood.

“Jeez, one minute we are bowing and the next we are demanding, you are giving me emotional whiplash.” Sokka started rubbing his neck and smirked when that got a reaction from Zuko. “Anyway, so I know we talked about me possibly involving other people into the plan… remember me telling you that?”

Zuko grunted, and Sokka knew he remembered because that particular conversation hadn’t gone very well and Zuko got really frustrated and shut down the rest of the day and wouldn’t talk to him no matter what he did.

He even threatened to find turtle-ducks out in the wild and give them awful names before he ate them. Then Sokka spent the next hour coming up with truly terrible names for these poor innocent turtle-ducks. Doing THAT… didn’t even get a rise out of the fire bender.

Even when he came up with some creative one’s that he was sure Zuko would protest to.

Ozai’s Fart Duck

Poop Deck Duckie.

Pony-Tail Freak Duck (Zuko almost protested to that, but he kept his mouth shut)

Zuko had an amazing ability to ignore someone, it absolutely blew Sokka out of the water with how good he was at completely shutting down. It was kind of scary though, Sokka would watch him sometimes as his eyes would glaze over and his motions became very robotic. It was a concerning thing for someone to do, but what did Sokka expect? He did the same thing in the coal mines, anyone who lived in this awful place would probably disconnect from their lives sometimes.

Sokka understood, even though it was annoying sometimes.

“I recall.” Was all Zuko said in response. Sokka took the response as an opportunity to tread forward, lightly.

“So… tonight, I am going to talk to Ara and Shen about the plan, alright?”

Sokka waited for some snide comment about Ara, or something to trigger Sokka to ask him WHY he just wanted to know why they hated each other. But much to his discontent there was no snide comment, or rude statement, Zuko just got quiet and stared at the ground.

Both boys were standing where they usually would for their work assignments but they were facing each other, awkwardly. They both held their dirty aprons tightly in their hands, as if it were a lifeline, keeping them from drifting away.

“Does Ara know you have been planning this… with me?”

“No, no one knows anything, except me and you… and possibly Zhao. Though... I think we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t possible for him to know anything, so maybe not.”

Zuko’s mouth twisted to the side, his top teeth gently sliding against his bottom lip in a weird, nervous habit. Sokka found himself staring at Zuko’s mouth until it started to move and words began coming out, breaking Sokka’s daze.

“Ok, well, good luck with that.”

Opportunity.

“Why does Ara hate you so much?”

Zuko frowned, rolling his shoulders, his mouth formed a tight thin line, he looked a lot more like himself now. Sokka stopped staring at his mouth.

“She’s fucking crazy, that’s why.”

Zuko turned sharply and moved hastily to the back door to finish his nightly duties, with Sokka right behind him. Sokka hated washing his apron, the water was so cold, not like the warm water Zuko had. Plus, the outdoor sink was not as much of a sink as it was a broken-down, rusty, metal bin that had been welded together so many times it didn’t even have an exact shape anymore.

The water came out of a long pipe protruding from the ground, the water shot out so fast it was as if the water were trying to wash the skin right off your bone. Of course, the water pressure was so great that when you did put your hands and apron under the water flow you would inadvertently soak yourself. Every time.

Zuko turned on the water, the roaring sound made it hard for Sokka to talk over it, which was most likely Zuko’s petty way of trying to get him to shut up.

But Sokka could hold a conversation on top of a fucking sky bison with all the wind and shit whipping around, so take that Zuko.

Sokka raised his voice over the roaring water, turning his head so the water ricocheting off Zuko’s hands wouldn’t pelt him in the eyes, possibly blinding him.

“So… why is she crazy?” Sokka yelled over the water.

Zuko pulled his apron back and Sokka took the opportunity to dunk his own apron in the water, half-assing the scrubbing while he half-watched Zuko walk over and hang his own apron on the drying line.

“She just is.” He mumbled, just loud enough for Sokka to hear.

He turned to leave, retreating from the conversation like a coward. Zuko was moving faster than usual, Sokka hurried himself along and threw his apron over the clothes line for the next person to hang. He knew they would be pissed, but once Zuko left the kitchen they wouldn’t speak anymore and tomorrow he wouldn’t even be himself.

“Zuko!”

The fire bender twirled around, very inelegant-like, his brow was furrowed and his teeth grit, the usual. He responded with the most vicious whisper Sokka has ever heard. He didn’t even know it was possible to speak with a jaw clenched so tight.

“What!?”

“I just wanted to make sure you knew I was telling them today. Ok? After dinner. I just wanted you to know.”

“Wanted me to know what? Do whatever you want.”

Sokka wasn’t sure where all the frustration was coming from, but whatever, Zuko knew and that’s all he cared about.

“Alright, see ya tomorrow.”

Zuko nodded as Sokka moved past him towards the door.

“- wait.”

Sokka stopped and turned to see Zuko still standing there, the look on his face made Sokka’s stomach tighten. He looked confused, or conflicted, like he wanted to say something... he just didn’t know how. Zuko was such a bad communicator.

“…yes?” Sokka tapped his foot, not intentionally, just nervousness finding an outlet.

“Just… be selective… uh, who you tell. Also be careful what you share. You just… never know. Alright?”

Sokka was surprised by the warning, but he took it seriously, especially coming from Zuko.

“I will, I won’t risk something happening, we’re getting out of here. I promise.”

Zuko nodded once in response and Sokka turned back around and headed out the door, he inhaled deeply, taking in the smell of the late afternoon.

The Earth Kingdom had a nutty, pine smell that took Sokka some time to get used to when he first came to the new land. Being from the South Pole, there weren’t many smells unless it was an animal being gutted, or a collection of waste needing to be disposed of. Ice didn’t carry a scent, not like the Earth Kingdom at least.

Sokka looked around at the other prisoners making their way into the mess hall, each of them looked beaten down and broken. He was thankful that he wasn’t looking at his possible future anymore when he looked at them. Sokka inhaled deeply, hoping this would be the second to last dinner he would ever again have in this horrible place.

He lingered outside the mess hall long enough to see Zuko walk by, Sokka averted his eyes which was unnecessary because Zuko didn’t even glance his way. He moved quickly, avoiding the other prisoners until he slipped into his cabin and away from Sokka’s wandering eyes.

Sokka was lingering outside of the mess hall and he wasn’t sure if it was just nervousness, or what, but he was extremely fidgety and his heart felt like it was beating a little too fast. In-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth he followed the simple instructions until he felt himself collect himself, he hated how his body reacted to his fear now. He had to figure out how to get better control of his emotions, he couldn’t keep freaking out every time he felt a little fear.

Puffing out his chest, Sokka was the son of Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe, he received the mark of the wise during his ice dodging with Bato and he could do anything he put his mind to. Standing tall, Sokka walked into the large tent, immediately making eye contact with Shen who waved him over as Ara smiled beside him.

They were his friends, it would be ok.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“This… This could work.”

Shen rubbed his (fuzzy) chin, obviously going over the details of Sokka’s plan in his head again, his head tilted towards the sky with a small smile on his lips. Sokka sat between Ara and Shen, using a stick to draw out some of the details of the plan in the sand, Sokka wiped the evidence away with his foot. The only foot that had a shoe, damn it... he really needed another fucking shoe.

Ara had been quiet, ever since he muttered the words, escape plan Ara had not spoken a word, and usually she was a woman of many words and opinions. Sokka turned to look at her, he could see something in her big green eyes as she stared at the spot Sokka had just finished dusting over.

“Are you ok, Ara?” Sokka asked, trying to be gentle. He respected Ara, but he knew that after spending 6 years trapped in a prison for no reason, it might be difficult to imagine yourself… free. Sokka struggled thinking about it sometimes and he has only been here for 2 moon cycles.

The three of them sat together with their backs against the last cabin on the boy’s side, Shen said it would be the safest place to talk about something this punishable. The guards didn’t usually go back there much and it was a blind spot for the guard tower. It was the exact kind of information Sokka was looking for, which is exactly why Sokka wanted to involve Shen.

This was the type of stuff an ex-soldier would know, it’s just how they operated. Shen seemed genuinely interested in the idea of an escape, and he seemed excited about Sokka's plan; he felt like it could possibly work. The compliment made Sokka’s chest swell with pride, it was a pretty-fucking-awesome plan.

New plan name: Super-Fucking-Awesome-Plan. It was the perfect name for the perfect plan.

“I just don’t really know what to say right now, it’s a lot to take in.”

Ara’s voice broke up Sokka’s stupid thoughts and he smiled softly at the girl sitting next to him, even though she was older than Sokka, in this moment with all her hesitation and the way she sat with her knees pulled up against her chest, she seemed so young and scared.

“I know it’s a lot, and the last 6 years have been hard, but with your help we can stand a chance when we get out of here. You have medical supplies and so much experience healing, we could use skills like that to survive in the forest until we found the next village. You have saved so many people during your time here, isn’t it time you saved yourself?”

Sokka impressed himself, and he knew his words resonated with Ara, she looked up at him slowly. Her green eyes blinked a few times as she held his gaze, she leaned forward and looked past Sokka and over at Shen.

“What do you think about the plan, Shen? Do you think it will work.. because if we get caught...”

Shen nodded quickly, “we can’t get caught… this either works or we die. Zhao will kill us if he catches us, or worse.”

Ara’s face seemed to pale when faced with the reality of the severity of the consequences if they were caught. She swallowed, her smooth, thin neck muscles flexing from the movement. Sokka tore his eyes away from Ara to look over at Shen, he figured it was time to discuss his role in the plan, and what questions he might have.

“You’re right, we can’t get caught, which is why I wanted to ask you for your help. Both of you, and in return, we can all escape together and finally be free of this place. Do you have any questions so far, Shen?”

The man nodded, “a few. First off, how are you going to make the generator overheat and explode? You won’t make it through the door and after that you’ll never generate enough heat to get the temperature high enough, plus someone will have to remove the water source as well.”

Sokka knew this was it, the moment. The one he was nervous about. It was time to tell them about Zuko being… involved.

“Zuko is going to take care of that.”

Ara’s brow furrowed immediately. “Zuko? Like… ex prince Zuko?”

Sokka nodded, “the same.”

Shen sighed loudly, “come on Ara, this is something serious. Can we not have an argument about fucking Zuko right now? Please.”

Sokka often wondered about Shen and Ara’s relationship, and how it worked, or if it was even considered a ‘relationship’ or more of a heavy friendship. Usually, Shen followed Ara’s orders like a well trained polar-dog… but it seemed like with the idea of escaping, Shen suddenly found his backbone.

They all sat in an awkwardly thick silence and when Ara didn’t say anything, Shen finally broke the silence.

“Alright, how will Zuko generate that much heat? This is the biggest part of the plan, without this little stunt, you won't have the opportunity to follow through with the rest.”

“He can fire bend.”

Shen laughed, “of fucking course he can. Alright, well that’s a big advantage for us. My next question, once the power is gone, how will you move the gate?”

“We won’t move the gate, we will only make them think we moved the gate.”

Shen nodded, “ok, ok, hmm… So let’s say, yes, we get out. Then what? Leaving through the south entrance is really risky, the closest village is over 2 days walk through thick forests, not to mention the fact that we will be hunted by the most powerful nation’s most powerful admiral. You are clever, I will admit that, but no amount of cleverness will help us when we are out in that forest with the Fire Nation hot on our ass.”

“I understand that, and that’s why Ara, you have a good supply of healing supplies and I know you probably have some other useful things that we could use until we find a village. You also know a lot about different herbs and you have extensive healing practice, you could make a huge difference out there.”

Ara spoke up. “What happens when we find this village? Do we all just walk up, in our prison attire, and fucking Zuko’s wrists in chains and say, ‘hi do you have any food we can buy? Oh, wait we have no money and yes, we are wearing prison uniforms. How nice of you to notice! Oh, yes sir, you are correct, that is the banished prince who is supposed to be dead, please don’t call the soldiers over here I swear we are really good people.’ How long do you think it will take us to get caught?”

Sokka huffed, she was right… but that was a bridge that Sokka wasn’t at yet, and he really didn’t have enough time to plan out that bridge when he wasn’t sure how successfully he was going to get across the first one.

“I haven’t gotten that far yet, I have a two day walk until I have to figure out what to do at the far away village. Right now, I just need to know if I can count on you both, please, you both have done so much for me, let me help you escape.”

Shen and Ara exchanged looks across Sokka, he glanced between them, hoping to pick up on their unspoken conversation.

“Fine.” Ara spat out reluctantly. Sokka smiled, if she said it then she meant it. “I’ll come along with you guys, but I don’t want to talk to Zuko at all. Keep him away from me.”

Sokka nodded eagerly, “I can pinky-promise you that Zuko will not speak to you and I guarantee that he will stay far away from you.” (Sokka knew Zuko would avoid her completely without having to be told, but she didn't need to know that.)

“Ok, well… I guess I will go and organize my stuff and get ready.” She stood slowly, brushing off her wrinkled prison pants. She looked back down at Sokka and Shen and smiled, it wasn’t her usual, bubbly smile but it was honest. She turned and walked across the open area back to the women’s side of the barracks.

Shen relaxed his shoulders as soon as Ara was out of sight, “I can’t believe she is going to come…” his voice was more of a whisper.

Sokka nodded, both boys stared up at the sky as the afternoon slipped into dusk. The dark traces of night licked at the ends of the blue sky that refused to give up it’s spot in the day. The night would have to be patient, they still had daylight left to enjoy.

“I’m glad she is coming, she doesn’t deserve to be here, neither of you do. But now that it’s just us I do have some questions about some of the guards and how the shift rotations work, do you know anything about that? Also… if I needed some specific information on the guards working that night in certain areas, can you ask some of your guard friends… discreetly?”

Shen nodded, “I should be able to do that, I can tell you what I know now and then tomorrow after dinner I can give you the rest. It’ll give me a day to gather the info, the closer to the shift the better just in case they switch it up or something, it happens sometimes.”

Sokka smiled. “Perfect, so… tell me everything you know.”

They sat there together until the darkness of night finally pushed the last of the blue sky out of it’s way. They went over everything Shen knew about how the prison camp operated and the different guards he knew and their weaknesses. Sokka was hoping it wouldn’t come to having to kill anyone, but he wouldn’t let anyone stand in his way of escaping, even if it had to result in someone’s death.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

That night, Sokka dreamed of running through a never ending forest, only to run into Zhao’s main room in his cabin. There he saw Ara, Shen and Zuko on their knees. Zhao would repeat, “it’s all your fault” as he slit each of their throats one by one. Saving Zuko for last, his gold eyes glazed over like he wasn’t even there as Zhao brought the thin blade to the boy’s neck and dug it deep into the flesh.

Sokka woke up panting, earning himself a dissatisfied groan from the guy in the bunk next to him. After a few deep breaths, he setted back down, Sokka closed his eyes once again. He wasn’t sure when sleep took him, but he was sure that the last thing he saw were Zuko’s golden eyes staring into nothing.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It wasn’t until mid afternoon the next when Sokka finally saw Zuko again. Chang already had a temporary dishwasher set up in Zuko’s spot when Sokka made it to the kitchen the next morning. He had almost overslept and made himself late, with a deep yawn and a heavy rubbing of his eyes, Sokka ran his way to the kitchen. Unfortunately, he had to skip breakfast and his shower, he even forgot one of his shoes.

His stomach was aching when it was finally time for lunch, he happily ate one of the small pre-made meals Chang left out for the prisoners. Some of the prisoners would sit in the open area outside of the pantry/freezer area to eat and chat, but Sokka liked to sit out back and enjoy the sunshine and some silence.

When he returned to the sink, he saw that his pal Zuko had finally returned. Sokka found himself rushed with relief and even smiling at the sight of his shaggy haired fire bender… friend? Maybe… in a broody, kind of an asshole, friend-ish way.

“Zuko!”

Zuko flinched, but he turned enough to see Sokka step into his usual spot next to him. Sokka stared at the other boy, he could see the larger than usual pupils smothering the vibrant gold color of his eyes, the eyes that Sokka found himself growing more accustomed to as the days went on. Zuko looked extra pale, the dark circles under his eyes looked heavy, overall he looked like shit.

Sokka furrowed his brow, he could see the new bruises on the fire bender's neck, mostly hidden by the prison tunic, but he could still see some of the dark spots trailing down the left side of his neck before slipping under the scratchy grey fabric.

They were darker than the fading yellows and greens that still surrounded his neck. Sokka found himself filled with concern and for some reason that faint tingling feeling of anger seemed to roar up under his skin, sending his arm hairs to stand up in recognition.

“You ok, Zuko?”

The fire bender just nodded, his expression was lifeless, like someone had scooped Zuko out of his body and put him somewhere else. He was at least washing the dishes this time, not just dipping them in the water before sliding them into the rinsing bin.

Sokka didn’t like this, he knew Zuko was on drugs but something else was off about him, he wondered if he was interrogated last night without Sokka there. That would explain the new injuries and the broken down feeling Zuko was carrying around.

“Did you get interrogated by Zhao last night?”

Zuko paused, his arms shaking, he nodded yes and didn’t say another word. Sokka felt the feeling of guilt wash over him again, Zhao must have done something horrible to Zuko if he was this distraught about it.

“I’m sorry, can I help you somehow?” Sokka made the terrible mistake of reaching out to touch Zuko, it was meant to be a comforting, friendly gesture. Zuko must have trusted Sokka enough to not watch him constantly, or maybe he was so drugged he didn’t have any awareness right now. Either way, he felt Sokka’s touch before he saw the touch coming and Zuko reacted hard.

He flinched and threw himself back, away from Sokka, losing his balance, Zuko hit the ground and Sokka heard the low groan come out of the crumpled person on the floor. Zuko twitched one, probably from pain, before he went limp and made another weird agonizing sound.

Sokka sighed and squatted down next to the boy.

“That was a bit dramatic, don't you think? Now, come on, you’re obviously hurt, I’m sorry for touching you without permission, but in my defense… I didn’t know you’d do all this.”

Sokka tried to throw out the joke, but it fell flat. Zuko struggled to push himself up and Sokka cursed, hoping the fall didn’t actually hurt him too badly. Sokka didn’t try to help Zuko to his feet, he knew it was better to just keep his hands to himself at this point.

Sokka couldn’t keep his eyes to himself though, he couldn’t help but notice the neckline of the boy’s too-big-tunic was handling loosely around his neck, giving him a full view of the bruises trailing down the ex prince’s neck.

Sokka’s stomach turned when he saw the small welts that had been sucked into the left side of the fire bender’s neck, they looked painful, trailing down the side of his neck before stopping at his collar bone. Sokka quickly averted his eyes so he was no longer staring at the other boy's exposed neck, he felt like he was invading his personal business by staring at the… unique marks.

Swallowing down the bile that tried to make a quick escape, Sokka coughed a few times to try and alleviate the burning in his throat. He ignored every dark thought that tried to cross his mind. He pushed and shoved all the dark, sick things pulsating in his mind far away - where he would deal with them… never.

Tomorrow was the escape, everything went great with Shen and Ara… and Zuko would be fine, he always was. They would all escape from this horrible place and all their horrible experiences would become memories that would fade with time and maybe one day slip from their mind completely. One could only hope.

Zuko was finally on his feet and Sokka watched to make sure the boy wasn’t limping, if he sustained an injury that bad, the plan would be in serious jeopardy. Sokka needed ‘Blue Spirit Zuko’ and a limping Zuko would be very bad news.

To Sokka’s relief, Zuko walked just fine, well… except for the drug induced sway he carried with him. After what seemed like forever, they finally returned to a simple rhythm of washing and drying. Sokka felt… odd… he wasn’t sure why, but he had a cold tickling feeling in the pit of his stomach. The feeling could be compared to a bunch of tiny, swirling balls of icy anxious feelings, bouncing around inside his stomach.

Sokka felt the best way to deal with anxious feelings was to work through the nerves. Talking over the plan with Zuko again, even if the boy was drugged and incoherent, would be better than nothing.

“Do you want to go over the plan again?”

“If you want to.”

“Ok, so... what are you going to do tomorrow night?”

“Sneak around.”

“Where are you going to go?”

“The generator.”

“What happens when you get there?”

“Kill the guards.”

“Um… actually you don’t need to kill them. I spoke to Shen and he said that both guards they put on the generator aren’t strong fighters and simply knocking them out and gagging them will work.”

“…so… don’t kill them?”

“If you can avoid it.”

“I wasn’t going to, but I will now. Anything else.. change?”

Sokka could hear the hint of bitterness in his voice, Zuko didn’t like that he wasn’t in the loop and now that he was under the influence, he wasn’t that good at hiding it. Sokka found it kind of humorous.

“A few things changed, if I tell you, do you think you can remember? Or should I wait until tomorrow?”

Zuko grunted, which in this instance, Sokka considered it a Zuko version of a laugh, maybe – he wasn’t entirely sure yet. He was still working on learning Zuko’s wordless communication.

“Tomorrow… Tell me tomorrow, I don’t know… talk about the South Pole or something, and the ice-otters-umm… the ones you ride.”

Sokka smiled, stealing a glance at the fire bender who was extremely focused on holding the soapy tray in his trembling hands.

“You mean penguin sledding?”

“Sure.”

“But I thought you didn’t like my stories.”

“Just shut up and tell me your stupid stories.”

“I can’t shut up and tell the story at the same time, Zuko.”

Zuko groaned and shook his head side to side, his dark hair tasseling back and forth before hanging loosely in his eyes. His head tilted up and he groaned a long (very purposely annoyed sounding) groan while mumbling something that Sokka just knew he should be offended by.

“I don’t know what you said, but I will let you know that my Gran-Gran is a sweet old lady!”

Zuko frowned and gave Sokka an extremely confused face. “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing, never mind. So, you want to hear about the crafty art of Southern Water Tribe penguin sledding, do you?”

Zuko groaned again, but with less angst this time. “Sure…”

Sokka smiled and spent the next hour sharing… slightly exaggerated stories of heroic rescues on the backs of penguins and village races that got so heated they were banned. (No, they were not banned because no one was old enough to penguin sled, or they were too old to penguin sled. They were banned because of the vicious brutality that went along with the penguin sledding races.)

Zuko listened quietly, like he always did. Sokka did catch his eyelids fluttering shut for a pause before snapping back open in a startled ‘I’m awake’ kind of motion. Sokka watched him do that a couple times before he thought it might be time for the guy to go lay down in Chang’s office.

“Zuko… You should probably go lay down.”

“You’re right.”

And that was how Zuko ended up curled up on the floor next to Sokka’s cart in a drug induced sleep. Sokka went to let Chang know, but all the man did was laugh and send Sokka away.

Shortly after his talk with Chang, the random dishwashing woman came back and picked up where Zuko left off. She didn’t even spare Zuko a glance, Sokka was baffled how she still never spoke, even after all the times they worked together and all the small efforts Sokka had given to be friendly. Whatever, he would be out of here in a day anyway, fuck this place.

Sokka was extra careful when he pulled his cart away from the drying table, he didn’t want to accidentally bump Zuko’s back and hurt him. Of course, being fucking Zuko, he had to lay inconveniently in Sokka’s way. He was on his side and Sokka liked to think he faced his back towards him because he trusted the Water Tribe boy to watch his back and not because he just passed out randomly.

Sokka kept an eye on Zuko as he twitched in his sleep and curled into himself a little tighter at times. There were other times he laid so perfectly still Sokka had to check to make sure he was breathing.

He was happy when the day was finally over and Chang emerged from his office to deal with Zuko. Not that Sokka didn’t want to deal with Zuko anymore, but he was starving and he needed to eat as much as possible from now until tomorrow afternoon, so he wouldn’t be as hungry at first, while they made their way towards the nearest village.

He gave Zuko’s pale face one last glance before Chang scooped him up and sent Sokka on his way.

“Oh, by the way, Water Tribe.”

Sokka turned and looked at Chang, it was always really weird to see him hold Zuko like a baby. The man was just so large, and he made Zuko look so small.

“Zin, the night dish dryer, said if you ever throw your apron on the clothesline like that again, he was going to come into your barracks at night and cut off one of your ears. Don’t fuck with him Water Tribe, he is fucking nuts! Put your apron away correctly you fucking dumbass.”

Sokka cringed and nodded.

“Sorry.”

“Get the fuck out of here.”

Sokka took off out the door. Sometimes he wished he could bring Chang with them, in a weird way he would miss being told to fuck off all the time.

Zuko would probably fill a bit of that void at certain times, he was sure.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka stared down at his naked feet as they moved across the dusty ground while he made his way towards the mess hall. His stomach rumbled in anticipation of the meal he had smelled cooking all afternoon. Starving was an understatement, Sokka felt famished.

As he walked closer to the mess hall, Sokka could hear a commotion coming from near the north entrance. Prisoners were stealing glances, but no one stopped to watch. Sokka paused, his eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets when he saw three kimono-rhinos lined up, saddled and ready for departure standing between the barracks. Each one was equipped with weapons, saddlebags and a rider.

Sokka spotted Zhao at the front right away.

Of course, his mount was the largest and the rhino wore pieces of armor, trimmed in gold. Zhao sat tall and proud dressed in his Fire Nation armor, his stupid red cape fluttering in the wind like a jack-ass.

Zhao’s face made Sokka want to scream and punch things, but he held it together and quickly slipped into the shadow that cast off the mess hall from the setting sun. His blue eyes stayed fixed on Zhao, this was really strange and has never happened before…

A group of soldiers came marching up the L on the opposite side of the mess hall that Sokka was currently pressed up against, in hiding. There had to be at least 30 men that Zhao was bringing with him, Sokka tried not to get his hopes up, but perhaps the man was actually leaving and headed back out to sea.

It would be a fucking mind-blowing-miracle if Zhao was actually leaving the prison camp, maybe he could push off the escape plan until after they were gone for a couple of days. Just to make sure Zhao and all his men were as far away from camp as they could possibly get.

Sokka couldn’t hear what anyone was saying from how far away he was, and there was no way he would risk getting caught by moving closer. Instead he watched the men move into formation as the front gate opened wide and the freaky little brainwashed Fire Nation soldiers followed their ‘fearless leader’ to whatever he was headed.

Maybe Ara or Shen knew what was going on. Sokka slapped his forehead with an open palm. DUH!

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“… supply run?”

“That’s what Zen Se said, Zhao wanted to lead the men into the village himself. They are supposed to be back in a few days, it’s a short trip I guess.”

Sokka frowned, Shen’s amber eyes stared at him, his brow was also strained, both of them could feel the tension in the situation.

“Does Zhao do this often?”

Shen leaned back a little, his hands still gripping the table’s edge tightly. “Sometimes, but usually it would be for a longer trip, usually involving a larger purchase or maybe a pleasure trip… Not a routine supply run to the nearby village. It is odd, but would we really ask ourselves why Zhao is leaving? It’s great news that Zhao and 30 of his men are leaving.”

Sokka nodded and agreed, he knew Shen was a little loopy from the bending suppressant, but he was only a less intact version of himself, not completely rendered useless like Zuko was. Sokka understood the hint he was trying to pass him in front of Opal. Stupid Jet-look-alike wasn’t here, thank spirits.

“I just find it… odd, you know?”

Both Shen and Ara nodded in agreement, Opal looked between them like they were all crazy. “Zhao leaves all the time, I don’t understand how this would be any stranger? He is a strange man.”

Sokka scoffed. “Strange is an understatement don’t you think?”

Opal shrugged, “I don’t know, it’s hard to say what someone would do with that much power.”

Sokka frowned. “I know for a fact I wouldn’t start my own prison torture camp.”

Opal shrugged, “All I am saying is, you never know.”

Sokka’s frown was slowly turning into a glare. (He was spending too much time around Zuko, now he was glaring at people.) “No, like I said, I know.”

Opal shrugged and smiled before taking another bite of her food. She ended up asking Ara if she heard about one unimportant prisoner and what they said about some drama with another stupid prisoner that didn’t matter. Sokka was glad he didn't involve Opal, there was just something off about her.

Shen and him made eye contact a few times before Sokka excused himself and exited the mess hall. He went to where he, Shen and Ara spoke yesterday and waited for Shen to meet him.

It wasn’t long before Shen’s shadow briefly gave Sokka a heart attack as the man made his way to where Sokka was sitting. He sat down and the two of them filled the rest of the daylight with finalizing the small details of the plan. Sokka felt proud when he saw Shen smiling as they wrapped up their conversation. He remembered Ara’s hesitant eyes as she gave him her trust, and Zuko’s eyes when they flashed with hope the first time Sokka mentioned escaping.

They were all counting on him, and as we watched Shen walk away he realized he had everything he needed, now all he had to do was put it into action. The next 24 hours were going to be stressful to say the least.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka laid his head on his pillow for what he was sure would be the last time, at this time tomorrow he would be running through the forest, driving himself deeper into the Earth Kingdom, and as far away from this place as possible.

Closing his eyes he couldn’t help the smile that tickled it’s way to his lips and the happy tears that rolled down his cheeks. The silence laid still as the Water Tribe boy smiled through the fear that was crawling through his chest, the slow and steady stream of tears soaking his pillow.

He must have fallen asleep that way, he wasn’t sure, but his mind continued to remind him that tomorrow… everything would be different.

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 12: (Not) According to Plan

Sokka couldn’t remember what exactly caused him to stir from his slumber... but if he had to try to put it into words... he would have to say it was sort-of-like the moonlight was purposely trying to blind him through his closed eyelids. He finally became annoyed enough to open his eyes and look around the completely pitch-black cabin. The only indication of life were the soft snores coming from the men sleeping around him. There was the tiniest amount of moonlight sneaking in through the skylight, but it was hardly a shred of light against the depth of the darkness.

The moon was only a little over a quarter full anyway, so naturally it wouldn’t cast enough light to illuminate an entire cabin, much less wake Sokka up. With an annoyed but sleepy groan, he pulled his thin, scratchy, but oh-so-wonderful blanket closer to his face. Sokka had taken his parka for granted back in the north, focusing only on the loose thread, rather than the luxury of having such an amazing bundle of warmth at his disposal. He would not make the same mistake with his prison blanket, the thin parchment-like barrier was the only thing between him and the cold that consumed the Earth Kingdom at night.

The nights here were terribly cold, so cold that Sokka sometimes wasn’t sure if he was asleep or just temporarily frozen, only to be thawed by the morning sun that always brought back the blistering heat. Some folks might find it odd for a group of people to choose to live in the south pole, with the harsh climate and freezing temperatures… But guess what? At least the weather there was consistent. It was always cold, all the time and the temperature only fluctuated between more-cold and less-cold from night to day. Not like the bi-polar weather he was dealing with in the fucking Earth Kingdom.

Of course... the nights in the south pole would get so cold it would kill someone if they were caught outside of their toasty igloo too long without a heat source. Sometimes, the nights would be filled with raging blizzards. The wind gusts would pick up and tear through the village like an angry pack of polar-dogs, it was stupidly easy to get yourself turned around during a storm. The wind carried thick layers of snow and ice, swirling and pelting any exposed skin unforgivingly, the lingering fear of frostbite was always present.

Sokka only remembered one elder man, while he was growing up, that was taken by the wind one night after he left his home and got caught in a storm. He became disoriented by the wind, it twisted and turned him around until he collapsed far from his home, exhausted.

His wife, in her devastation, assumed he must have sat down to catch his breath and was unable to rise… and as the night went on, the wind stayed relentless, dumping piles of snow on top of him until he froze to death. No one was able to even begin to look for him until the winds stopped and the sun returned.

Sokka felt like it had happened so fast… To be alive one day, and dead the next. He remembered keeping a closer eye on Katara after that incident. He was constantly terrified that the cold, snowy winds would pull her away from him and bury her in a pile of snow where she would freeze to death before he could save her.

So whenever the winds would pick up and the heavy storm clouds would block out the sunlight, Sokka would take her tiny hand and wrap it up tight within his own. Sometimes, she would protest and tell him ‘it’s just a little wind’ but Sokka knew better, he would pull her inside their igloo, ignoring any reluctance Katara had about the situation.

Lucky for him, the wind never came for her and she was never pulled away in the dead of night. Instead, every night she would snuggle up under the furs covering her bedroll and they would whisper to each other until she fell asleep. It was funny to think about now, because Katara grew up to become a master water bender. The type of master that could now bend the snow and icy wind, her abilities would allow her to protect everyone around her, including herself.

It was great… for her… Sokka was not a master water bender… he could not manipulate the ice and snow, he couldn’t do anything even close to that. He wasn’t any kind of master... his only skills were the ones he was taught by the Kyoshi Warriors and the small amounts his dad taught him while growing up. The rest of his skills were completely, and hopelessly… self taught.

It wasn’t until now that he realized... maybe… the winds were never after Katara… maybe the winds always wanted him. It was him that the winds howled for in the night as they tore through the village, frightening small Sokka until he hid for cover under his warm pile of furs.

It seemed as though the winds had him now, and even though he was disoriented and scared, he wasn’t going to allow himself to be buried alive.

Sokka sighed, he was tired… so he decided to force his eyes closed and just hold them there until he fell back asleep. Once his eyes were closed, he came to the realization that it was just as dark behind his closed eyelids as it was in the cabin, he peeked one eye open just to check. He wondered how had he been woken up by a blinding light in his eyes?

Turning his body over to his side, Sokka tucked the corner of his blanket under his chin as he tried to achieve the ultimate snuggle. Closing his eyes once again, he attempted to return his breathing back to a sleepy rhythm, hoping he could go back to what was hopefully… his last night in this fucking horrible torture camp.

Just after he thought he had finally achieved a comfortable position, combined with a perfect breathing rhythm, Sokka saw the flash and twinkle of the moonlight irritating his closed eyes once again. They began twitching and rolling behind his eyelids, just like the first time, and with a frustrated huff he lifted himself into a sitting position.

Glaring around the room, he used the heel of his palm to rub at one of his eyes, trying to remove the sleepy goo that was trapped in the cranny of his right eye. Quickly, he realized it was more of a pinky finger situation and with a quick jab-and-twist he removed the chunk of sleep-goo. Sokka pawed at it for a second, wishing he had enough light to see what it looked like because it felt… huge. Satisfied with the direction, he flicked it away into the darkness and looked around again, trying to figure out what could possibly be waking him up in the middle of the night.

Sokka waited patiently in the dark, his eyes staying on the steady stream of silver moonlight floating down from the skylight. The light seemed to have a wispy-beckoning-type-sheen to it… in a weird way that Sokka couldn’t explain, it was almost… familiar.

After a few minutes of sitting in the dark, when no crazy flashes or bright explosions of light happened and none of the other men in the cabin stirred, Sokka decided it was probably time to go back to sleep… and maybe put his back towards the trickster moonlight this time.

Just as Sokka was going to lie down, there was a rumble off in the distance, that he could have sworn, made their cabin wall creek. Which was odd, because there wasn’t a cloud in the sky today and the air didn’t feel moist like it usually did before a rain. His attention was seized again, when another similar rumble could be heard, this time the entire cabin shifted as the floorboards reacted to the earth underneath them rolling.

Sokka was immediately on his feet, the other men in the cabin were just starting to stir and mumble to themselves in incoherent sentences while Sokka stumbled in the dark towards the door. He knew that if he could just crack the door open and look outside, maybe he could see what was making the commotion. It had to be a storm, or something because if Sokka thought about it too hard... he might think the earth rolling could have been caused by earth benders …. which he couldn’t decide if that would be a good thing or a bad thing.

Stumbling through the dark with his arms in front, Sokka stubbed his pinky toe on the metal leg of one of the bunks and with a rather vocal “FUCK” he stumbled to the floor. Maybe he did make his own misfortune, like Aunt Wu said, he couldn’t help but think as he huddled on the floor and held his possibly broken and not just stubbed pinky toe.

Just as Sokka was going to think about standing back up, he witnessed the world explode and for just a moment… he knew what it felt like to be an air bender.

Wow... Aang was lucky, because the weightlessness you felt when your body was flying through the air was actually very beautiful. It was the landing part that Sokka was going to need to discuss with Aang… because Sokka hit the ground… hard.

His body tumbled across the dirt in a very ungraceful and rather painful manner. The first time his body hit the ground, the air was knocked from his lungs. The second time, his body bounced and he felt his shoulder pop, most likely dislocated. The third time, well… he hit the ground and his body just continued to slide across the coarse dirt. All the tiny rocks scraped and burned his exposed skin until his body finally came to a stop. The ringing in his ears took over as his vision blurred from the pounding feeling that was kicking around inside his skull.

There was a moment when Sokka thought he might not be able to psychically take another breath, his body felt too weak and broken as he laid, face first, in the dirt. His mind swirled and there was a sharp pain in his side, he thought he might have cracked a rib and he could feel where his torn skin had started to bleed. Sokka knew that in order to take a much needed breath, he would have to try and roll onto his side, preferably not the one with the dislocated shoulder.

The pain was starting to register as the ringing in his ears began to die down. Through his disorientation, Sokka managed to flip onto his good side and release some of the pressure on his lungs, giving them the freedom to finally allow that sweet, smokey? air into his lungs.

Sokka halted his thinking and focused when he sniffed the air again. He could smell the smoke as clearly as he could smell when dinner was almost done cooking in the kitchen. It took Sokka a little too long to register what had just happened… He had been sleeping and then somehow he was woken up by the… (moon? Or some of the moon’s moonlight? Same thing? Not the same thing? Never mind, it didn’t matter…) and before he knew what happened he was… airborne?

He was thrown from his cabin and now he was laying at the bottom of the small slope that dipped just behind the row of men’s barracks all the way to the prison wall. Sokka looked up the slope at his cabin, barely visible in the dark, he realized that the bottom half was all that was left of his cabin. There were huge pillars of stone with spiked tips that had jaggedly torn through the walls and annihilated the top half of the building where Sokka had just been sleeping.

Sitting up slowly, Sokka saw three bodies scattered around him, they looked to be some of the men that had been thrown from his same cabin. But because Sokka had woken up and moved towards the door... and then stubbed his toe... and then bent down to tend to the wound… he had missed the blunt of the attack.

It seemed to have spared his life…

HA, fuck you, Aunt Wu! Misfortune saved his life!

Sokka quickly regained his composure, and the reality of the situation sunk in, the prison was under attack. The Earth Kingdom was attacking? Or… something was happening with earth benders and Sokka needed to get the fuck up or whoever was attacking was going to come and crush him like a bug.

Scrambling shakily to his feet, Sokka winced as his arm jostled painfully at his side, his shoulder was clearly dislocated but he didn’t have time to worry about that right now. He had to get himself to some kind of cover and not stand in the open space between his broken down cabin and the prison wall. He was trapping himself like a buffalo-yak, separated from his pack and selected for the hunt.

Sokka moved quickly, he did not want to be hunted like a stupid buffalo-yak right now. His bare feet slid against the rough terrain as he slowly hiked his way up the small hill, once at the top his blue eyes bulged wide with shock.

The entire prison camp had broken out into complete chaos, prisoners were scrambling for cover, the buildings were burning, and from the looks of it... earth benders were definitely attacking. There were huge chunks of the ground twisted and pulled into crazy shapes and barrier walls were pulled up throughout the open patch of dirt between the male and female barracks.

Sokka pressed his back against one of the still-kind-of-standing walls of his cabin, which was the last cabin in the row. Sokka slid himself into the shadows surrounding the side wall, his big blue eyes trying to comprehend the scene unfolding in front of him.

It appeared that all three of the male cabins were mostly destroyed, torn down with earth bending. The attacks seemed to have been ambush style and they were directed to inflict the most amount of damage possible to the people sleeping inside.

(Which was a kind of shitty way to attack a person, in Sokka’s opinion.)

The woman’s cabins seemed mostly untouched, though a few small fires littered the roofs of the last two cabins and Sokka quickly saw why. Two of the prison guards were fighting one earth bender close by, the attacks were uncoordinated and sloppy, the guards were simply shooting fire wildly into the night as they tried to land a hit.

Sokka studied the earth bender’s uniform from where he was hiding.

Or… lack of uniform, that was.

The man wasn’t wearing the traditional Earth Kingdom armor, in fact… he wasn’t wearing any armor at all. The man was older, possibly his dad’s age and he wore just a simple long sleeve Earth Kingdom green and gold tunic with tan pants and brown shoes. He didn’t look like he belonged to the army, so if he wasn’t part of the army and this wasn’t a war related attack then what the fuck was going on?

…. When he heard a different earth bender call out her name, he knew what was happening.

“NIZI!! WHERE ARE YOU!?”

Sokka’s heart sank deep down into the pit of his stomach, swallowed whole by the realization that this entire thing… was a rescue attempt. All these men… they were here to save someone. They must have been waiting nearby, who knows how long they have been camped out, waiting for their opportunity. Oh, and they got a good one when they saw Zhao and nearly all his soldiers leave yesterday afternoon. They must be seizing that opportunity right now…

Sokka’s legs felt weak and he let his back slowly slide down what was left of the wall he was hiding behind, unable to brace himself against it any longer, he crumpled to the floor. He knew that name… he knew who they were here to rescue.

…. and they were too late. She was dead. She died that night when the coal mine flooded, when that guard tried to pull her to her feet by yanking and tugging on her, as if she were simply an object that could be moved with brute force alone.

But that’s what this entire place was all about, right? Using brute force to get what you want? Zhao did it to anyone and everyone, the guards did it to the prisoners, fuck – the prisoners did it to other prisoners. It was a vicious, ugly cycle of abuse that had its consequences knocking down their gate and stomping all over everything.

Sokka’s brain twitched with a thought, while his eyes moved across the situation… his brain began to process the opportunity that was presenting itself right now. The universe (just one more time, fuck you Aunt Wu) was giving him a clean, effortless, open opportunity to escape. No complicated plans, not putting people at risk with his ideas, just a bunch of earth benders... fucking up the place and Sokka and a few others slipping through the cracks.

But Sokka had to actually slip through the cracks and avoid being impaled by any earth bending on his way there. Based on the bodies scattered across the ground, the earth benders were not feeling very merciful and they were not sparing prisoner lives. The worst of it was the people the attacks didn’t kill, their whimpers and sobs of pain were hard to handle.

Sokka could still remember when he first arrived in the Earth Kingdom, he had been intrigued by the idea of earth bending and his first few times he was actually able to see the bending in person, he found himself impressed. It was solid and strong, they used their powerful stance to move such an impossibly difficult element.

But now… Sokka felt a twist of disgust for that style of bending as he moved through the shadows, stepping over another body that had fallen to the earth bender’s attacks. Most of the dead were probably killed in their sleep, never even knowing the horrors their bodies left behind. Broken faces crushed beyond recognition, their bodies twisted in a way that the human body wasn’t capable of bending if it were intact.

Fire bending attacks burned, the boiled and twisted flesh left behind when it scarred were horrible reminders... but earth bending… it inflicted a brutal attack of its own. He had wondered once, how earth bending would be used to kill their opponent, he must have imagined everyone in the battlefield being buried or something because he would have never been able to imagine the kind of horrors the attacksactually inflicted.

He knew most of the death was instantaneous, which was a nice thought... kind-of.

Sokka had crept and crawled his way to the back of the first cabin on the men’s side, or at least what was left of the cabin. He had to crouch low, his chest almost touching the ground in order to stay hidden in the shadow of the half standing wall he was hiding behind. He knew Ara’s bunk was in the first cabin on the girls side, maybe she was still inside. He hoped she was alive and unhurt.

The prison area was growing more intense and hostile by the minute, the guards were fighting back with their full fire bending power. They gave very little fucks about where they fired their blasts, not giving even the slightest consideration for the prisoners they might inadvertently hit. Sokka wasn’t surprised though, they would probably rather the prisoners died, than escape.

With the attacks coming from the earth benders and the ferocity behind them, the guards were extremely preoccupied with the assaults. Sokka counted 4 earth benders so far, but who knows how many others were spread out inside the prison camp. The idea of more earth benders made his ‘escaping now’ plan and getting everyone out unharmed more difficult; they would still need to escape through the south entrance in order for the second half of his plan to work. It was their only option, especially knowing that Zhao and 30 soldiers were on a supply run to the village just up the road though the North Gate.

Sokka smirked to himself, just imagining Zhao’s face when he received word that his precious prison camp was under attack, he hoped the man became so enraged his accidently set his stupid-fucking-face-beard on fire.

It wouldn’t matter what Zhao decided to do when he received word, because no matter what he did, he would get here too late. At the rate the earth benders were attacking… everyone would have either been killed, or they would have escaped and hid in the forest.

When Zhao did arrive, he would probably round up whoever was left alive in the prison camp before sending out every able soldier and guard to catch the escaped prisoners. That would work in Sokka’s favor, in the original escape plan they were expecting the entire search party to be solely focused on finding them.

Now, they would be searching for multiple escaped prisoners, along with being down on man-power, because Sokka had seen the familiar red and grey guard uniforms splattered with blood, dead, just like the grey prison tunics. It was funny how everyone became on the same level when they laid in the dirt, dead.

Sokka stifled a cough, the dust was accumulating with the smoke from the fires and forming a thick haze that was spreading throughout the camp. Sokka was thankful for the cover it provided, giving him a little more freedom to move than before, but he cursed at the fact that it was becoming increasingly more difficult to spot anyone he knew… and breathe.

Sokka could see the fight between the guards and earth benders was moving deeper into the prison camp, and further away from him. To his left, there was an earth bender standing close to the North Gate, which was still securely closed. By keeping the gates closed, they were most likely trying to keep Zhao and his men from riding the kymodo-rhino’s back into camp. Considering they only left one bender guarding the gate, the admiral must be far off, because they didn’t seem to expect that to happen.

Sokka just needed to slip past the one guard and he would be at Ara’s cabin, which was directly across the open area... he was so close. Sokka could see the side wall of her cabin from where he was crouched, the cabin was dimly lit from the fire that had started on the prison wall behind it.

Gathering up his courage, Sokka began to prepare himself to bolt across the clearing, hoping to use the broken pieces of earth and scattered fires to try and stay hidden. He was about to boldly run across when another earth bender, also dressed in casual greens and golds, came into view. Cursing silently to himself, Sokka stayed down as the man jogged to the lone bender guarding the gate and they began to talk softly.

Sokka couldn’t hear what they were saying over the intense cluster of sounds happening around him. Between the screaming people and the crashing pieces of earth, it would be impossible to hear them, they were too far away. Sokka’s stomach churned with bubbling nervousness when he decided to crawl around the cabin to get closer to the men. If he were close enough, maybe he could hear what they were saying.

Sokka moved around to the side of the cabin that faced the slope leading down to the prison wall, the fires in the middle area made it so that side was still covered by the darkness. Sokka had to crouch low because that particular section of the cabin was completely ripped from the foundation, huge pieces of earth were spiked through the side. The absolute worst fucking part of the whole thing was that a prisoner’s body had been torn apart when one of the spiked attacks penetrated through their stomach and essentially ripped their body open spilling the prisoner’s insides all over the ground.

Sokka couldn’t see exactly where the human remains had been thrown, but as soon as he slid a hand forward, it accidentally touched the smooth, slimy surface of some piece-of-the-dead-guy, possibly an organ. There was instantly hot bile from Sokka’s stomach that tore out of his throat, Sokka’s eyes watered as he desperately tried to control his noise level while his stomach convulsed and purged the food that was still digesting inside. Sokka made a silent gag mixed with a sob before he crawled forward, his eyes squeezed shut as his hands slid through something wet and uncomfortably… still warm.

He continued to push himself to crawl forward, until he felt the long awaited return of the rough, dry dirt under his hands. Sokka hesitantly opened his foggy eyes, his blurred eyesight only had a minute to register his bloody fingers when his ears picked up the earth bender’s conversation.

“- the intel was good. She is here.”

“Then why haven’t we found her yet? This was supposed to be an in and out. We are risking more of our men’s lives now.”

“We aren’t leaving without Nizi. This whole process has taken over a year. I am not watching my brother go through that again, his daughter has to be here, we will find her… even if we have to tear through every fucking building and rip apart every ash-maker here, we will find Nizi.”

Sokka felt dizzy… They would not find Nizi… because she was dead. Their intel was either wrong or it was out of date, which was the most likely of the two. Only one moon cycle had passed since the monsoon flooded the coal mine and killed Nizi. It was a terrible thing that happened, but it was too late to save her and Sokka wondered how long they had until someone realized she wasn’t here.

He had to get everyone out of here before that happened, he could only imagine what they would do to the prison camp when they found out all their efforts were for nothing… because the person they came to save, the person they loved enough to do all this for… was gone.

Sokka pushed his back up against the cabin’s foundation, hidden from sight by the pillars of stone. He could feel his body trembling from a mixture of fear and sadness, he pulled his knees tightly to his chest in a weak attempt to smother the shaking. Controlling his breathing, in-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth, he mustered up the courage to peek around the corner at the earth benders.

There were scattered fires everywhere, the burning cast an eerie red-orange glow across the broken battlefield, reminding Sokka of a memory hidden deep within his dark thoughts. Once dawn arrived, they wouldn’t have anymore darkness to help conceal their movements, they needed to escape while they still had the cover of night.

Sokka’s thoughts were interrupted when he saw something move in the distant dark void to the left of the earth benders, on the other side of the clearing. Two figures slipped out the door of the first cabin on the woman’s side before disappearing into the shadows behind them. The two earth benders didn’t seem to notice the movement, their eyes still scanning the area for anyone alive none-the-less. Sokka knew if he were spotted they wouldn’t hesitate to crush him, so he stayed tucked tightly in the shadows.

His blue eyes squinted as he tried to see through the haze of rubble and smoke, he searched frantically as he tried to locate the two figures he knew he saw. Sokka hoped to see them resurface closer to the middle area, where the light would allow him to catch a glimpse. He hoped they wouldn’t stay hidden in the dark, even though it would be the smarter decision.

When Sokka spotted Ara’s face, his heart fluttered so high into his throat he thought he might throw up again. The happiness rushed over him in a crashing wave of warmth, followed up with a cold sensation of uncertainty. She was alive, that was great, and she was with….

Sokka squinted and caught the top part of an unmistakable fire-red curl that could only belong to Opal’s mess of hair. Both girls had moved around to the back of their cabin, they both sat next to each other with their backs pressed against the cabin’s back wall, leaving the building between them and the earth benders at the gate. Ara sat closest to Sokka’s view with Opal tucked tightly in her side, he couldn’t see the other girl very well.

It would have been a good position to be in if the two earth benders stationed at the North Gate were the only ones they needed to worry about, but there was an entire group of them further into camp. The crashing sounds from their bending and screams from the wounded and scared filled the night air. The fire was in a relentless pursuit of the prison, their flames licking up at the night sky. The smoke had billowed so high and thick that the stars were swallowed up by it’s cloudy cover, the moon’s faint outline barely visible through the haze.

Ara’s black hair was loose, the shorter strands that usually framed her face in a way that was soft and flirtatious, were now plastered to her porcelain skin in a disheveled sweaty mess. He could see the matted blood that splotched the sleeve of her right arm, there was a thin line of blood that trailed down to her elbow.

Sokka knew the two girls were scared, they were speaking softly to each other and looking around at the damage surrounding them. Opal leaned her head across Ara to try to see around the corner of the building but Ara used her uninjured left shoulder to push the girl back. Sokka was sure he recognized her facial expression from being scolded by Katara, so he knew Opal was getting a hushed earful.

Sokka needed to get across to them somehow, or at least get their attention so they could come up with a plan. Sokka was on the side of the first boy’s cabin, watching them from around the corner, he just needed to crawl back around, and they would be straight across from each other. They were so close, he just needed to get a little closer to grab their attention without alerting the two Earth Kingdom men... which was going to be difficult.

Sokka was racking his brain (unsuccessfully) when he saw Shen’s tall figure making his way up the L. He was not hiding in the shadows or cowering away like a scared little baby… not like Sokka was. He walked proud, a sword grasped tightly in his hands, but Sokka noticed he didn’t hold the weapon very well. Both earth benders spotted him at the same time and instantly attacked, thankfully Shen was expecting that.

Sokka was surprised by the way the broader man moved. He was quick to dodge the attacks, but his fighting style depended on a strong stance, just like his opponent. Sokka noticed how stiff Shen was right away, and without his bending he didn’t have his viscous fire to use while fighting, his motions continued to mimic fire bending moves that Sokka recognized, just without the heat.

Without his fire, Shen was left with only a sword (he very obviously has never trained with it) and two angry earth benders who wanted to spill Fire Nation blood. Shen looked to fit that mold perfectly, the fucking guy was their perfect target.

The earth benders were attacking from where they stood, ripping chunks of earth from the open area and launching them at the approaching prisoner. Shen blocked two boulders, swinging the sword like a blunt object instead of a crafted weapon. He was focused on using the blade to break apart the rocks hurdling at his head, spreading more dust and rubble into the air with every failed attack.

Shen kept pushing forward, his stance was rooted and Sokka wished more than anything that he had his fire bending right now. He would stand a way better chance if he had his element on his side. Both earth benders had not even tried to break Shen’s stance and if this had been a fair fight, they would have already lost. But this wasn’t a fair fight, because they were prisoners under Zhao, and nothing Zhao did to anyone was ever fair.

Shen took a powerful hit to the stomach that pushed him backwards, his back foot slid in the dirt before he twisted his ankle to the side and halted the backwards slide. Shen grit his teeth and pushed forward once again.

It had to be a fire bender trait, the one that gave them unrelenting power that fueled their stubborn push to accomplish a goal. Sokka knew that Shen was coming to save Ara, and nothing was going to stand in his way if he could help it.

Sokka glanced over and could see Ara watching Shen, her big green eyes filled with fear, her pupils blown out in complete terror as she mouthed silent prayers. Sokka could see how visibly tense she was, her body was half pushed out of the dirt, as if she were planning to run to his side. Opal had her hand firmly planted on Ara’s uninjured arm, she appeared to be begging the girl to stay.

When Shen was hit again, it was on his shoulder, the strike knocked the man out of his stance and his knee hit the ground... It went downhill quickly after that. Another strike from the earth bender quickly followed the one that knocked Shen to his knees, this time a pillar of earth shot up from the ground and smashed into Shen's chest, throwing him onto his back.

Sokka’s heart was pounding, he could hardly suck air into his lungs with how hard they were being strangled from the anxiety in his chest. His knees trembled and knocked together as he pushed himself up, gripping the splintered fragments of the corner he had been watching the fight unfold behind.

He couldn’t sit there like a coward, wallowing in fear like he did when his fellow Water Tribe men were cast into the sea... Swallowed up by the ocean without a second thought. He didn’t do anything to save those men that day and even though he had yet to process any of those feelings, he always knew he was already making excuses why he stayed quiet, why he did nothing.

He was scared, and even now, the fear coursing through his veins was trying to drag him back into the shadows to hide from the danger. Looking around, Sokka saw the fires continuing to spread, he could hear the mixture of screams and sobs coming from the people left alive in the prison camp, the ground was rumbling off in the distance… Sokka almost started hysterical laughter at the situation.

The earth benders were trying to destroy their enemy… who wasn’t even their enemy. They were all victims of a man who wasn’t even here to take the repercussions of his actions, no… instead Shen was on the ground, with two murderous earth benders preparing to deliver their final blows.

Sokka could see Ara was on her feet as well, and for some reason the moonlight was just a little brighter for a moment and miraculously, Ara looked over and they both locked eyes. Ara shot him a pleading look, her terrified eyes were trembling under the pressure of wanting to help Shen, but at the same time realizing there was absolutely nothing they could do. Both Ara and Sokka were helpless, unless Sokka decided to serve as some sort of… distraction.

Both their eyes snapped over to Shen as he groaned and started the painful process of pulling himself to his feet again. Sokka could see the pained look on his face as he strained himself to rise, his long dark hair falling out of his usual low ponytail and spilling over his shoulders. The earth benders had stopped their attacks and were admiring their handy work as they slowly moved forward. Shen was practically defeated, but his damn Fire Nation pride wouldn’t let him stay down.

“What’s wrong with you fire bender? Are you so useless without your bending? We didn’t believe the rumors at first you know… there was no way that you could eat a pill and it could take away a person’s bending. But look how great it is, only the guards have their fire and all you pathetic little fire bending prisoners are powerless. Now, my brother is looking for someone your admiral took from him and we aren’t leaving until we find her.”

The taller earth bender was smirking down at Shen, taunting him with his words. It made Sokka sick because the Fire Nation was supposed to be the bad guys, not the Earth Kingdom… they were supposed to be on the good side. They weren’t supposed to do things like this to people… Why was the world so fucking, fucked?!

Shen was on his knees now, he had managed to grab the handle of his sword again, he gripped it with white knuckles as the blade trembled in his hands. Shen was as ready as he could be to defend himself from the next attack. His breathing was coming in short and ragged, a thin stream of blood trickled down his face from a cut he sustained on his head.

The slightly shorter Earth Kingdom man stood a few paces behind his friend, he had a satisfied smirk on his face, as the taller man stepped closer and closer to Shen. Movement on the girls side grabbed Sokka’s attention for a breath and he saw women evacuating their cabins now that the benders were distracted and the fires were beginning to spread to the rest of the women’s barracks.

The earth began to move again and a small pillar of stone pushed out of the ground behind Shen and gripped the man by the back of the neck, locking him in place on his knees. Sokka began to panic, he had to do something right now or Shen was going to get murdered right here in front of him…

… he would be completely powerless… again.

The earth bender was practically on top of Shen and without thinking Sokka took a step forward a scream tore itself from his chest as he called out to the earth bender.

“Please, don’t!”

The taller man only turned his head to look at Sokka, his stance stayed rooted where he stood with his arm ready to move if provoked. The corner of the man’s mouth twitched as a small smirk split his lips, he seemed amused by Sokka’s outburst.

“Ah, I wonder how many other prisoners are hiding in the shadows?”

The ground began to tremble around them, Sokka found himself becoming unstable as he stumbled to find his balance. Sokka wasn’t the most coordinated person to begin with, so he had no luck staying on his feet and he found himself on the ground in no time. The worst part of his completely not thought out plan... was the fact that he drew attention to not only himself, but the second earth bender pushed Opal and Ara out from where they were hiding with a simple roll of the earth.

Both girls were dragged across the ground, Opal cried out in pain as her leg scraped across a jagged rock sticking out of the dirt. The earth bender didn’t seem to care as he continued to drag them forward with his bending, until they were within a few feet of him. Shen’s eyes were wide with horror and he struggled against his restraint, he watched Ara stumble forward in the dirt.

Opal and Ara both had tears streaming down their faces, mixed with dirt and ash. They looked so helpless, cowering in fear as the shorter earth bender smiled down at them.

“Looks like we had two pretty girls hiding in the dark over here. Hello ladies, how is your night going?” He smiled and chuckled to himself, his eyes tracing between the two of them with amusement.

Sokka had a weird feeling in his stomach, he didn’t like the way the one man looked at the girls. He didn’t like the way they looked at Shen either, the situation was getting out of hand quickly.

“Don’t hurt them!” Shen called out, pulling the taller earth bender’s attention back to him. Sokka cursed under his breath, he had to think of something fast or they were all going to die… or worse. How had his not-plan gone so wrong so fast?

“Are they friends of yours? Your little Fire Nation whores?”

“They are not Fire Nation, they are Earth Kingdom girls, please do not hurt them, they didn’t do anything to you.”

“Even worse! Earth Kingdom whores who lay with Fire Nation scum like you-“

“She doesn’t lay with me! You don’t even know what you’re talking about!”

The earth bender was growing impatient, Sokka could see it in his eyes as the man watched Shen and Ara react to the pressure he was applying to their situation. Shen was desperately trying to save Ara, who seemed too scared to speak for herself, Opal held her tight as she sobbed quietly at her side. The taller earth bender let out a low laugh as he moved his arm into a familiar stance, he was getting ready to strike.

“I think it would just be better if-“

He was cut short when the shorter earth bender screamed out, “LOOK OUT-“

But it was too late. Out of the flickering shadows dancing along the buildings, Zuko was in between the tall earth bender and Shen in a flash. The smaller fire bender was under the earth bender’s chin before the man could exhale, with a twist of his body, Zuko kicked up one of his legs, catching the man in the chin.

There was a terrible cracking sound when Zuko’s boot connected with the lower part of the man’s jaw, smashing his teeth together with such force, they were sure to have shattered. The transfer of kinetic energy from Zuko to the earth bender sent the man flying backwards, there was a deep thud when he hit the ground the first time before his body rolled across the earth like a rag doll.

The shorter Earth Kingdom man rooted himself into the dirt and pulled back his arms, he gripped the earth and pushed forward sending projectiles towards Zuko and Shen.

Shen was still trapped on his knees, locked in place by the stone that gripped him by the back of the neck. His movements were limited, but he fought against his restraint anyway. Sokka was taken by surprise when Zuko stepped in between Shen and the projectiles, he had taken Shen’s flimsy sword in his hands. (Sokka found himself frustrated to see the fire bender's hands were still chained together - how was he even alive still? Stubborn fucking fire benders, thank spirits.)

The way Zuko held the sword was completely different from the way Shen had held the weapon. Shen had been stiff and tried to use force and power to wield the weapon to his will. While Zuko was fluid and the way he held the handle was light but in control, he twirled the blade in front of him before moving with incredible speed as the attacks began to land.

Sokka had never seen Zuko fight this way before, his movements were controlled, but not in the usual restrained type of way. He was free to move and bend his body the way he needed in order to protect himself and Shen, the blade also transformed in Zuko’s hand. What Sokka once thought was a useless sword, was suddenly a force to be reckoned with. The sword cut through the rock like it was a soft piece of bread, that wasn’t stale… Sokka couldn’t even remember what not stale bread tasted like.

Zuko slid one foot back, bracing himself for the next round of attacks, but the earth bender was panting and his arms were trembling. The shorter man continued to position himself in front of Ara and Opal, but his eyes kept shifting over to where his friend laid in the dirt, incapacitated at the moment, as a small pool of blood leaked out from his crooked jaw. Sokka smirked, it was the second jaw he had seen Zuko break on a man, and both of them had deserved it.

Zuko stood with his stance strong but his footing was light, Sokka watched as the fire bender's golden eyes watched the earth bender like an eagle-hawk, patiently waiting for the man to make his move. Zuko’s scarred side faced Sokka, so his expression was unreadable but his mouth was set in a firm, thin line, so he was definitely agitated.

With the scar facing Sokka, the fire bender just looked angry and ready to fight, his left side expression was always twisted in a scowl. Sokka’s attention went to the man on the ground when he let out a sputtered set of coughs before his arms began to bend, he was stirring and the lone bender would soon have back up.

Zuko must have noticed the movement because he took a few steps back (keeping his eyes locked on the earth benders in front of him) until he was behind Shen. Zuko took the opportunity of a lapse in attacks to break Shen free. He swung his leg up and brought down his heel with incredible force, breaking the earth bender’s stone hold on Shen’s neck.

Shen’s legs were shaking as he lifted himself to his feet, Sokka could see the blood spotted on Shen’s tunic in the center of his chest where he was struck. The man gave Zuko a nod and then said something to him that Sokka couldn’t hear. Shen’s amber eyes were fixed on the short earth bender standing between him and Ara. Sokka had been watching the entire fight from the sidelines, he took another few steps forward and into more of the light until Zuko’s head snapped around and they made eye contact.

Zuko’s gold eyes were burning with the reflection of fire flickering in his gold irises, his expression softened a hair when he saw Sokka. The Water Tribe boy could have sworn that Zuko almost looked relieved to see him, his eyes breaking away quickly whenever the taller earth bender began to pull himself up.

Zuko’s expression turned to Shen and he made a movement with his arms, the older man nodded and started quickly scanning the ground, bending down he grabbed a sharp piece of rock that must have splintered off one of the attacks. Zuko laid his wrists on top of the stone base that was still in place from where he had broken Shen free. They worked quickly, while the shorter earth bender began yelling out at the man on the ground.

“Are you alright?!”

The man groaned in response, his lower hand rubbing his bottom jaw, it must not have broken… unfortunately and now the man was rising to his feet once again. Sokka knew they were running out of time, so they had to move quickly. Sokka took a desperate chance and took off in a sprint to where Zuko and Shen were standing in the center of the clearing.

“- fuck watch out.”

“Stop moving.”

“I’m staying still!”

“I’m trying to focus!”

Sokka made it over to them just as Shen brought down the jagged rock with his full force and smashed the chain between Zuko’s wrist between the two rocks, and for once, luck was on their side because when Shen pulled back, the chain had snapped. Thank spirits for Shen and his incredible upper body strength and Zuko and his incredible lower body strength. Fuck - Sokka needed to work out.

Zuko seemed very pleased, he pulled his arms back and stretched them, bringing them back across the front of his body with another long pull. He was loosening the (what Sokka could only assume) were extremely stiff muscles. Sokka watched the fire bender roll his shoulders a few times and shake his arms before turning his attention back to Sokka.

Zuko’s eyes trailed over Sokka and he realized that his pants were smeared with blood, and his hands were also stained red from where he crawled through human remains. Sokka could see there was a hint of concern as Zuko’s one eyebrow scrunched just a hair.

“I’m fine, it’s not my blood.”

Zuko nodded slowly, he seemed to accept that answer and moved on from that situation and onto the next.

“These two fucking earth bending scum are going to attack us again, and there are more of them deeper in the prison towards South Gate. I took 2 out earlier, but they are all earth benders and they are looking for a girl, Nizi or something. I don’t know where she is, but they have been here for longer than they anticipated, I heard some of the men talking about it.”

His eyes were intense and focused, he must have snooped around already, because he seemed to have inside information somehow… fucking Blue Spirit. Oh how he loved and hated Zuko for his sneaky skills.

Shen’s brow furrowed and he kept his voice low, “we need to get the fuck out of here, every moment we waste with these fucking guys, the closer Zhao gets to coming back. Someone is definitely going to hear all of this commotion, it's not like earth bending is quiet and the fires are a dead giveaway. We need to make a break for the South Gate and if any of us get separated we will just meet at the rendezvous we already agreed on from the original plan. We just have to get rid of these guys…”

Sokka nodded and he and Zuko exchanged a glance. “How do you suppose we distract them?” Sokka asked.

As if on cue, the taller earth bender was on his feet and his eyes were fuming in anger, his gaze was fixed on Zuko, who of course, gave a stupid smirk in return. Fucking asshole, Sokka thought with a smile.

Shen smirked, “I think we already have a distraction.”

“I’m going to break your fucking legs…” The taller earth bender slurred his words through his broken teeth, spitting out the broken shards onto the ground in a bloody mess. He slammed his foot into the ground to attack, sending pillars of earth hurdling from underneath Zuko, the force from the attack threw Shen and Sokka off to the side.

Sokka gasped out in pain when his dislocated shoulder hit the ground. Zuko’s light footed stance made it easy for him to rise with the earth, stepping onto the top like a platform. Sokka’s jaw dropped when he saw one of Zuko’s fists engulfed in flame before he pushed himself off the rising pillar, propelling himself down towards the earth bender. They collided in an explosion of fire and rock and Sokka had to tear his gaze away when Shen grabbed his bicep and began pulling him to his feet.

The second earth bender had his attention focused on them. Shen and Sokka decided to run separate directions, hoping to confuse their attacker. Sokka’s heart was pounding in his chest as he scanned the ground for any kind of weapon. The sword Shen had been using was lodged in the rumble too far away. Sokka’s feet hurt as his bare feet skated over the jagged terrain, he would never take shoes for granted ever again.

A wall sprung up from the ground, only a few feet in front of Sokka, he had to throw himself into the dirt and roll off to the side to avoid smashing into it. For a split second, it sounded like the world was quiet, there was no distant screaming, the earth wasn’t smashing and exploding around him and the only thing he could hear was the static sound in his mind.

His lungs burned as the air quality was starting to decline as the surrounding fires started closing in, almost all the cabins were completely consumed at this point. The women who were left in the cabins were trickling out in nervous, panicked sprints, hoping to avoid being caught in the crossfire.

Sokka didn’t blame them, they were so terrified… fuck, Sokka was fucking terrified. But he wasn’t going to run. No… not this time, he was going to stand up and fight for his freedom and not run like a coward. His mind began to clear as his arms pushed himself to his feet.

Sokka’s eyes instinctively found Zuko and the taller earth bender dodging and weaving between attacks. Sokka could see that Zuko was taking it easy and luring the man away from where the rest of the group was and pulling the man closer to the row of fire that was once the men’s barracks.

Shen was moving closer to the man who was standing between them and the girls, his stance was still too stiff as he tried to weave… but Shen just wasn’t built to weave, he was built to stand strong and shoot fire. Shen let out a frustrated growl just before an unexpected attack from the ground shot up and hit him in the stomach, sending him stumbling backwards with a heavy moan.

Sokka met eyes with the earth bender as he went to throw another attack in Sokka’s direction. The world seemed to slow when Ara stood to her feet, her bloody arm hanging loosely at her side... but her other arm was raised and in her tiny pale hand she held a rock. With a high-pitched yelp, she slammed down the rock as hard as she could to the back of the attacker’s head. There was an awful, hollow, cracking sound when Ara’s rock connected with the man’s skull. His hazel eyes went wide, one of his eyelids twitched and his eyes retreated to the back of his head, just before his body crumbled to the floor.

Blood oozed from the wound, Sokka could see it trickling down the back of the man’s head and mixing in with the dirt below. Ara stared down in shock, her big green eyes wide as her bottom lip trembled. She sniffled a few times before wiping at her nose, smearing a little blood with the dirt and ash all over her face. Shen ran up and took Ara in a tight hold that lasted only a heartbeat before he grabbed her good arm and tugged.

“Run, we have to run! Let’s go!”

That’s how Sokka ended up running with Shen, Ara and Opal through the camp and towards the South Gate. Sokka wasn’t worried about leaving Zuko, they all had agreed that if they were to get separated during the escape, they would meet at the rendezvous. Sokka tried to ignore the screams for help as their group moved in the shadows, he had no idea how much longer they would have the cover of darkness, so they had to move fast.

The group rounded the corner of the L, they noticed right away there was a group of earth benders near the coolers, towards the back wall. Sokka and his friends slowed down, careful to stay as low and unseen as possible. The earth benders had 3 guards kneeling on the ground in the middle of them.

Using their earth bending, they had them secured to the ground, just like they did to Shen. They were circling the restrained guards and one really tall man seemed to be leading the conversation, Sokka looked away, his curiosity had to keep to itself today.

He couldn’t afford any distractions.

The fires had spread to the back of the prison at this point, where it looked like a huge battle had gone down. The ground was ripped apart and most, if not all, of the buildings were burning, slowly disintegrating under the immense heat. Sokka’s eyes went to Zhao’s cabin, the evil building was still standing, only a small fire on one side seemed to be making its way through the roof.

Sokka remembered his mom’s necklace… This would be his only chance to get it. Still crouching, Sokka sped up until he was next to Shen and tapped his arm, the man startled and he and Ara stopped.

“I’ll be right back, keep going! I’ll meet you at the place, ok?”

Shen nodded and he pulled Ara along with him, her eyes gave him a deeply concerned look, one that Sokka had grown accustomed to. She didn’t say anything though, her, Opal and Shen continued their way towards the exit and Sokka turned to his left and with a deep breath he moved until he was making his way up the steps of Zhao’s cabin.

The last time he was here he did those horrible things to Zuko… shaking his head he had to banish the dark thoughts. The door was broken, the hinges had been ripped from the wood and Sokka easily pushed the wooden door to the side and made his way inside. He moved quickly but carefully, there could be guards in the cabin and the fire was making its way through the wood and metal building.

Sokka found it hard to breathe as he moved his way through the room he was tortured in, and then was turned into a torturer in… but there was no desk. Then there was the hallway, smoke was billowing out of it like a chimney and Sokka knew if he went back there, he would have to be fast. If he inhaled too much smoke it could kill him, his father taught him that about fire benders… not just their fire could kill you.

Inhaling a deep breath, Sokka plunged into the hallway, pushing himself through the wall of smoke. There was a door on his right, grabbing the handle he pushed the door open. The room was small and it was filled with weapons and what looked like torture equipment. Sokka quickly moved past the room, making a mental note to stop back by after he got his sister’s necklace. There was a second door, this time on his left. Sokka opened the door and was annoyed to only find a large bathroom with a big shower and a large tub.

Sokka shuddered with the pleasurable thought of being clean and soaking in a big tub of warm water, but maybe somewhere that wasn't covered in a thick layer of smoke. Shutting the door, Sokka saw one last door to his right, grabbing the handle he hissed and jumped back. It was so hot, he needed something to act as a barrier between him and the door.

Running back to the bathroom it didn’t take long to find a towel folded next to the sink, the stupid fucking towel had a gold threaded trim – the bastard.

Sokka grabbed the fancy towel and ran back to the hot door, using the towel he grabbed the door handle. The slippery towel twisted until he heard the click as the handle released and swung open.

Entering the room, Sokka knew it had to be Zhao’s quarters because it looked like it was decorated by a huge fucking jack-ass. Sokka saw the desk up against the wall, facing a huge bed. Sokka’s eyes went to the giant bed, lingering only long enough to see manacles attached to all four of the tall bed posts.

Sokka’s stomach flipped with disgust and the cold wet feeling he always ignored crawled it’s way up his skin. He quickly turned his attention back to the desk and began pulling out the drawers. One by one, Sokka dug through the contents before throwing them onto the floor. He got to the last drawer on the bottom right and with a heave the drawer didn’t budge, with further inspection Sokka discovered the drawer was locked – bingo.

Sokka’s only good arm fumbled through the contents of the desk, pushing aside anything that didn’t look like it would open a drawer. His fingers found a sharp gold pick, the handle was an elaborate mold of a dragon encrusted with rubies. It looked expensive and probably cherished by Zhao… it was perfect.

Sokka grabbed the gold-poker-thing and shoved it in the small space where the drawer connected to the desk, he began jabbing and wiggling the gold-poker-thing until the wood began to splinter. Sokka thrusted with all of his one-good-arm-might and wedged the poker deep enough that he was able to break the lock away from the wood.

The gold-poker-thing was bent and all fucked up so Sokka felt satisfied at his small, petty victory over Zhao, by destroying his fancy poker. With a couple extra unnecessary swats to the side of the desk, Sokka cast it aside and quickly dug through the drawer.

His heart was pounding in his chest, the anxious energy was making his finger tips fuzzy as he thumbed through the limited contents of the drawer. There was a bottle of nice alcohol, which Sokka picked up and threw against the wall. There was a long hunting knife, which Sokka grabbed and put in his waistband, a bag of coins which Sokka also grabbed… But no necklace.

Sokka stood and let out a gut-wrenching scream, his frustration was bubbling over the top, so in a fit of rage, Sokka kicked the open draw one, two, three times… and that’s when the false bottom shifted. Sokka dropped back to his knees and with his one good hand he pulled the false bottom up and saw a stack of papers tied together with a red ribbon and nestled next to it was his mother’s necklace.

Why did Zhao put his mother’s necklace in his false drawer? Sokka had no idea, but when his fingers reached out and touched the soft silky material of the ribbon the tears swarmed his vision. The blue reminded him of home, of Katara, dad, Gran-Gran… he missed blue, he missed home… he missed his family.

Sokka saw the spots where his tears hit the wood, a heavy cough racked his chest and Sokka knew his time was up. He held tightly to the necklace, his fingers weaving through the ribbon in an unbreakable grip. He also grabbed the stack of papers, because if they were important enough to hide in a false drawer, then they were worth reading.

Sokka took off towards the door, his brain was starting to feel smothered by the smoke clouding his lungs, he wouldn’t have time to stop at the weapons closet – good thing he grabbed the dagger. Sokka ran and threw himself from the hallway, sputtering and gasping at the clean-er air the open torture room provided.

“I knew someone would be stupid enough to come and try to loot the admiral.”

Sokka’s eyes trailed up and met the warden’s sinister grin, fuck.

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 13: Escape

The warden’s voice sent cold chills shooting down Sokka’s spine, the man’s voice carried a certain nag to it that made a person want to punch him directly in his stupid-fucking-pointy-nose. But ever since Sokka had been whipped on the warden’s order, the man’s voice also triggered a special pocket of fear dedicated just to him.

Sokka’s eyes lifted slowly to meet the warden's sneering expression, the smoke was beginning to accumulate in the room around them as the fire continued to spread through the burning cabin. Their eyes locked together, the malice and excitement in the warden’s twisted expression made Sokka’s chills surface into small bumps scattered across his arms and the beck of his neck.

“You stupid Water Tribe savage, I knew it was a waste of time to keep you here. Admiral Zhao should have killed you the first day you proved to be useless.”

The warden flicked his wrist in a swirling motion, bending a long fire whip, he cracked the air before pulling the stream of flames back to his side. The man's crooked teeth poked through his smirking lips, he licked the front of his discolored smile. (A disgusting habit, for a disgusting man.) Sokka watched as the fire bender slid his foot back, the same way he watched Zuko do earlier, his brain registered the motion - the warden was preparing to strike.

Sokka scrambled to his feet as quickly as his disoriented body would let him, still clutching the necklace in his hand, the ribbon twisted tightly between his fingers. He could feel the concealed bundle of parchment scraping lighting against the skin of his torso where it was tucked in his waistband, next to the knife.

Sokka stumbled backwards when the tip of the fire whip struck way too close to his face, the heat from the attack left a first degree burn on the tip of his nose. The warden seemed pleased by what Sokka was sure was the pure terror flashing in his wide blue eyes. Sokka felt trapped when his back pressed firmly against the wall, there were only two options, stay and fight or bail into the suffocatingly, smokey hallway.

Both options fucking sucked and Sokka was sick and tired of being helpless… he wanted to be brave and fight back, but the fear wouldn’t allow him to move his body, all he could do was stare at the warden. The world faded into just him and the fire whip, his eyes followed the blistering whip as it danced at the warden’s side. The man pulled the whip back once more and with a quick motion of his wrist, he thrust the flaming attack forward.

Sokka closed his eyes and made the usual mistake of lifting his arms to block the attack from striking his face, it was the same mistake that had earned him most of the scars on his arms. The scattered straight lined scars were a testament on Sokka’s forearms of all the times a guard struck him; they were ugly, painful reminders of the type of treatment he had suffered the last two months.

Holding his breath... Sokka waited for what he was sure would be the burning pain accompanied with the smell of smoldering flesh when the whip aimed to strike him in the chest, landed it’s blow.

Instead, he heard a muffled curse and a loud crash.

Sokka cracked one eye open and his mind buzzed when he saw Zuko standing in front of him and the warden crumpled on the ground. Zuko turned his head, enough so Sokka could see the good side of his face and that he was glaring at him, one of his actually-angry glares.

His face was coated in a healthy layer of dirt, mixed with ash, stuck to dried blood and sweat. Sokka was surprised to see his golden eyes flashing with anger through the filth. Zuko’s dark hair was sticking up in random places and it almost looked a light brown color from all the dust that was caked through it. Sokka could also see that he had developing bruises on his face and neck, but at least he was alive.

“I fucking knew you would come here! How did I know you would come here!?” His raspy voice was hoarse, probably from inhaling all the dust and smoke when he was fighting the earth bender.

Sokka gave him an innocent smile in response. “Well if you knew I would come here, then you obviously knew how important it was for me to get it… Now, more importantly, we have to get the fuck out of here.”

Zuko shook his head. “No, I need something from here too…”

The other boy’s golden eyes shot over to the hallway and then back to the warden who was on his feet again, whip twirling over his head. The warden cackled when he sent the stream of fire back around, Zuko held up an arm and somehow blocked the quick whip of fire before it made contact with them. The warden continued his assaults with swift angry attacks. Sokka watched in amazement as Zuko blocked every single one of them, his stance rooted in the ground in front of Sokka, keeping the Water Tribe boy from being burned.

Sokka felt a desperate, almost primal need to help in some way. He moved closer to Zuko so the other boy could hear him, while he continued doing the amazing job of blocking the incoming fire whip attacks.

“What do you need? I'll go get it!”

“You won’t know what it is.”

“I can try to figure it out at least, because I already know can’t block fire! What is it?”

“Dual broadswords, in the weapons room – brown and gold sheath, first door on the right… It should be in the back corner against the wall.”

Sokka nodded, not entirely sure what broadswords were or why they were important to Zuko, but if he remembered correctly, the boy seemed comfortable and almost natural holding a sword earlier and Sokka was willing to get anything that would help Zuko fight better. The better Zuko could fight, the easier it would be for them to get the fuck out of here.

Sokka dipped into the hallway, pulling his tunic over his nose in a feeble attempt to filter the heavy clouds of smoke from entering his lungs. The metal floor was beginning to heat up, Sokka’s could feel his bare feet starting to sting as he hopped from one foot to another in front of the door, using the same fancy-towel to grab the now scorching handle.

The door swung open and a rush of heat from the inferno inside blasted Sokka in the face, the fire was consuming the building quickly, they didn’t have much time before the entire cabin would be gone… Sokka entered the room and hastily began rummaged through the weapons, his mind kept wondering what the fuck broadswords were…

His eyes landed on the long, brown and gold sheath with a strap, leaning against the wall in the back right corner, just where Zuko said it would be. Sokka flinched back when a piece of the ceiling crumbled and his face was hit with a rush of heat. He reached up with his only working arm and frantically touched both of his eyebrows, exhaling a sigh of relief when he found they were both still there.

Another cracking sound from above sent Sokka lunging forward towards the weapon, his feet were burning so badly his brain wouldn’t let him forget about the throbbing agony. As soon as the sheath was tightly within his grasp, he turned and ran from the room not even bothering to close the door behind him.

When Sokka threw himself back into the main room once again, the tunic fell from his face and he inhaled a deep breath, coughing harshly as he sputtered and choked on the smoke. Sokka abruptly noticed the large amount of damage that had been inflicted to the room in the short period of time he was gone.

The warden and Zuko were locked in an up close battle, Zuko was quick with his jabs and kicks, but the warden seemed to be equally matched in his hand to hand combat skills. The warden was also wielding fire, while Zuko was not. Sokka stood just outside of the hallway and watched, his heart pounding against his ribs, as the warden landed a fiery blow to Zuko’s ribs and the bender hissed from the pain, earning a snide comment from the man.

“Aww, are you not feeling very well, your highness?”

Zuko growled in response, the look in his eyes made Sokka’s mouth feel dry, there was a burning rage behind Zuko’s focused glare. Zuko ducked under another blow the warden brought down, he just barely missed a face full of fire. Dropping to the ground, Zuko spun and kicked out one of his legs, successfully hooking the warden by the ankle. The warden seemed to have been expecting an attack to his stance, but the speed of Zuko’s movement caught him off guard and he fell to the ground with a heavy thud, not having enough time to catch himself.

Zuko went to push himself back to his feet when the warden kicked out one of his own legs and caught Zuko on the left side of his face. Sokka winced when Zuko’s smaller body lost it’s balance and he fell back to the floor, he could see the heavy blow to his face had Zuko disoriented. Sokka’s eyes widened as he watched Zuko roll over onto his stomach, his eyes were unfocused and he swayed to the side when tried to lift himself up again. Sokka could see Zuko’s exhaustion in every breath he took and the way his trembling arms struggled to push his body off the floor.

The warden rose to his feet with ease, once standing again, he spit out a mixture of blood and saliva next to Zuko’s face. Sokka’s heart began to clamber around his throat when he saw the man open his hand.. Sokka could see the heat beginning to form in his palm as he stood over Zuko - he was going to kill him, he was going to kill Zuko.

“The Admiral should have killed you a long time ago, rather than keep you alive to be his play thing. Well, it looks like he isn’t here to save you this time, I will make sure to finish what the Fire Lord started you worthless, pathetic, disappointment, only good for-“

Things started to happen in slow motion for Sokka after the word ‘disappointment’, he could feel when his legs started to move on their own, his eyes narrowed in on the warden and his vision tunneled. Sokka felt himself lose control as the sound of the crackling fire burning around him consumed his every thought, he felt himself begin to run.

Sokka lunged at the warden, his primal instincts to protect Zuko took over, the anger he felt deep inside him as an always steady presence, began to surface. His only goal was to make sure the warden didn’t have a chance to unleash his fire onto Zuko; he wasn’t allowed to kill Zuko.

The warden was completely caught off guard when he and Sokka fell to the ground in a heavy heap of limbs. Sokka fumbled with the dagger in his hands, his arms shaking violently from the fear mixed together with anger, fueled by his adrenaline. It wasn’t until he could feel the heat from the warden’s fire that he screamed out, he could feel when the flames started to lick open his flesh.

The warden had a burning hand pressed against Sokka’s side, the pain was absolutely unbearable, he couldn’t have imagined a burn hurting as bad as this one did. The fire seemed to enter his body and flow through his veins, pushing the shooting pain through his core. He had to do something to stop it, or the warden was going to kill him, he could feel the burn, burning as it spread out from the point of contact.

His only good hand still held the necklace, pressing the ribbon against the handle of the dagger. Sokka didn’t remember when he began to thrust the blade in a downward motion; he couldn’t see where the sharp tip entered first, but he could hear the howls of pain coming from the man he was tangled with. He knew the blade had made contact somewhere when he felt the warmth blossom underneath his hand.

Even as the man struggled to pull himself away and the fire in his hands died down to nothing, Sokka continued to thrust the blade into him, over and over, as hard and fast as he could. He couldn’t let this man get back up, he couldn’t let him burn him… he couldn’t let him burn Zuko…

He could feel the warmth from the warden's blood traveling across his body, soaking into the fibers of his prison pants, it was the type of sensation you could never forget. Blood was a thick, moving liquid that was alive and almost hot to the touch, maybe that was a fire bending thing? He would have to ask Zuko if his blood was hot, he wondered if Zuko would know the answer to that?

Sokka was lost in his mindless stabbing motions and babbling half-put-together thoughts when he felt strong arms wrap around his chest and heave his body back... away from the liquid warmth, away from the stabbing motion… his mind felt fuzzy and confused by the sudden loss. The arms vanished and two hands gripped his shoulders with iron-like force, they were wet and warm, he glanced down to see blood soaked, pale fingers gripping the grey and red fabric covering his shoulder.

Was his prison uniform always grey and red?

Sokka’s eyes trailed up one of the arms that was filled with bruises and scars, some of them looked years too old. When he got to the bruised neck, the smaller scarred ear and angry red skin, he knew he was looking at Zuko. His eyes finally trailed up his face and found those strong, determined gold eyes staring straight at him.

His one eyebrow was narrowed and he gave Sokka a light shake and for some stupid reason Sokka couldn’t pull himself out of the fog that clouded his mind... he felt lost, scared and alone. He did begin to notice when Zuko started yelling at him, his broken voice sounded weaker than usual, he must be so tired… Sokka felt tired too.

“SNAP. THE. FUCK. OUT. OF. IT!!”

... maybe he wasn’t that tired.

Zuko shook Sokka harder this time, so hard that his neck cracked from the intensity of the shake – he would expect nothing less from an annoyed Zuko. This time the fog lifted and Sokka started to choke on the smoke that was smothering him from the inside out. He noticed Zuko had started making small movements with his arms, he was trying to bend the heat back and keep the flames from getting too close to them.

“Get up!” With one arm, Zuko pushed back the fire that was trying to jump from the wall onto the floor, and with the other arm he began to pull on Sokka. Zuko’s tug sent a jolt of pain shooting through Sokka’s body, he yelled out in a cracked, pained, yelp. Zuko stopped and bent down to meet Sokka’s eyes again.

“You’re hurt, where? Arm?”

Zuko started poking him with a finger on the one hand that he had apparently dedicated to Sokka, and when his fucking finger landed on Sokka’s dislocated shoulder, he yelled out in pain. Zuko’s brow furrowed deeper and he used both hands to gently touched his injury and the surrounding area on his arm and back. Sokka felt himself lean into Zuko’s warm touch, it had been so long since he had felt a friendly touch, even if it was just to assess his injuries, it was better than nothing.

“It’s dislocated, hold still... I’ll push it back in. It’s going to hurt.”

His touch may have been gentle, but his words were as serious and straightforward, as always.

Sokka winced when Zuko stood and pulled Sokka’s arm out straight in front of him, Zuko moved quickly, but still, very gently. He seemed to be taking great care in treating Sokka’s injury, but the fire around them was becoming more of a life threatening situation, than just an annoying inconvenience. So they had to move fast or risk getting trapped inside the burning building.

“C-can you please c-count to three?” Sokka felt like a baby, but he was sure he was covered in blood (he refused to look at it) and his side was burning because… well because he was fucking burned, and now Zuko was looking at him all concerned and trying to be helpful, and it was all just… too much.

“Ugh, Fine. One -“

Sokka’s arm made a fucking horrible popping sound and then there was a rush of sweet, comfortable relief. Sokka tested out his arm and smiled when he found he had a full range of motion, there was only a small discomfort now and he could happily deal with that.

“Much bet-“

Before Sokka could finish his sentence Zuko grabbed the front of his tunic and hoisted Sokka to his feet again, demonstrating his annoyingly powerful strength.

“WE HAVE TO GO!”

Sokka nodded, and both boys took off towards the door. Sokka still held the bloody dagger, intertwined with his mother’s necklace… both were coated in a dried layer of blood. Sokka couldn’t resist looking back, his eyes caught a glimpse of the crumpled corpse, fallen in the middle of the burning room…

The dead man’s blood pooled around the body and his crumpled corpse cast a dancing shadow against the flames, moving across the floor in a way that made Sokka’s skin crawl. He was dead, the man who just a moment ago was trying to kill him and Zuko. If he wouldn’t have done something… he might have killed them.

Sokka turned to look at Zuko again, only to receive a flying boot thrown in his face, hitting him smack-dab in the jaw.

“What the fuck, Zuko?!”

“Put them on, you need shoes.”

Sokka looked down at his bare feet, he didn’t notice before, but there was dried blood in between his toes and splattered over the skin of his feet and ankles. Why was his life such a mess? Sokka stumbled around, sliding the brown boots onto his feet, glancing over at Zuko, he saw the boy’s own baggy prison pants were bunched up above his own identical pair of brown boots.

“They are guard uniform issued boots, they’ll be good for walking through the forest and they’ll give you some protection from the heat, but lace them tight, I am sure they will be too big.”

Zuko was out the door with Sokka trailing behind him, taking the boy’s advice, he pulled the laces as tight as he could, but he was right, the boots were still two sizes too big. But anything was better than barefoot.

“T-thanks.” Sokka managed to mutter. He stepped down the dreaded three steps of Zhao’s porch and realized that this was going to be the last time he ever had to step foot in that cabin again. One, was because the cabin was going to burn down to the ground tonight. The second, was because they were fucking escaping.

He and Zuko turned to head towards the south entrance, if they stayed close enough to the prison wall it would hopefully stay dark enough that they could slip through the rest of the camp undetected. The group of earth benders that were dealing with the guards earlier were gone, all that remained were three bodies left to lay in the blood stained dirt.

There was a loud rumble from under the earth followed by a huge explosion, both boys instinctively turned and saw what remained of a fiery blast that went off in the middle of the kitchen. The fire had moved its way through the mess hall and was attempting to consume the kitchen next, there were a lot of things in the kitchen that had the potential to blow up…

Zuko’s eyes were wide and Sokka realized what he was thinking… Chang.

Before either of them could overthink anything, they were sprinting towards the kitchen. Zuko was much faster than Sokka, he consistently stayed a few paces ahead, his feet never really touched the dirt as he sprinted towards the back of the kitchen. They rounded the corner and slowed down before they slipped back into the shadows. Sokka tried to follow Zuko’s step for step as he silently moved through the darkness, only visible to Sokka’s eye.

The back door was locked, Zuko shook the handle angrily before he took a few steps back and shifted into a rooted stance. Sokka watched the other boy kick out his leg followed by a stream of fire. As Zuko kicked the door, he blasted a shot of fire at the place where the door connected to the wall and locked.

The metal lock melted from the heat and Zuko kicked it once more, this time the impact from the kick busted the lock without any hesitation, the door opened and both boys ran in.

Once inside, Sokka had to take a step back, his arm lifted in an attempt to shelter his face from the intense heat that was still cooped up inside from the explosion. Slowly, the inferno seemed to push back and Sokka lowered his arm to see Zuko bending a path through the fire’s heat to Chang’s office.

That’s where they found the fallen support beam that was blocking the entrance to Chang’s office door. The adrenaline that fueled the short walk through fire doubled when Sokka saw that Chang might probably be trapped in his office; they would have to move the fallen beam if they hoped to get him out.

Without a word, both boys took a section of the metal at opposite ends and pulled, the massive structure shifted but didn’t move like they needed it to. They tried again, but the results were similar. It would take much more strength than Zuko and Sokka had to move something that big.

“It’s not fucking working.” Zuko mumbled through his grit teeth.

“No, it’s too heavy.” Sokka could feel the sweat pouring down his face, the tiny droplets tickling his cheeks as they fell from his eyelashes. “If we can't move it, then we can’t get the door open… is Chang even inside?”

Zuko shrugged, the stupid fire bender wasn’t even sweating. Thankfully, the flames were pushed back enough that they weren’t tickling at his calves anymore, but the entire kitchen was on fire and it was hotter than an oven. He watched as Zuko jumped onto the support beam, pressing his face up to the door he yelled.

“Chang!?”

There was only the sound of melting metals and crackling wood for a minute until…

“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!”

Zuko winced dramatically and his eyes met with Sokka’s. “Yeah, he’s in there.”

For the first time that night, Sokka smiled, because even in an earth bending prison attack, where everything was on fire, Chang was still… Chang. Sokka never realized how much he depended on the man’s consistency in his day to day routine, he was a bright spot in his rather depressing life.

Zuko turned his face back to the door and yelled again. “Hang on Chang, we are going to get you out!”

He turned and jumped down from the beam, he tried very hard to hide the pained expression that flashed across his face from landing, but Sokka didn’t give him grief for it. He needed to think very quickly about how to get Chang out of his office, if not… the fire would reach him soon and he would burn alive in that tiny space. He didn’t let his mind wander to the thought of Chang, as large as he was, being trapped in that office as the fire -

Sokka chased back the thoughts as he moved closer, inspecting the door, his eyes trailed over every inch as tried to spot a weakness. His blue eyes rested on the door’s hinges, the door opened outward, which is why the support beam was keeping it from opening. But the hinges could be removed by popping the pins out of place, without the hinges they could remove the door all together and Chang could just walk out and over the fallen support beam.

“Zuko, I have a plan.”

The fire bender threw his head back and groaned into the air dramatically, “finally! I was beginning to think you actually thought we would be able to lift this thing.”

Sokka shot him a fake glare, but his smile stayed, so his face probably just looked stupid but Zuko didn’t seem to notice. “Go over to the door, and check the door’s hinges, do they have a metal pin in the middle?”

Teo and his dad loved Fire Nation technology, just not the Fire Nation itself. The Mechanist taught Sokka all about the Fire Nation’s metal work and the way some of their simplest designs were so incredibly effective. He used to tell Sokka and Teo that the Fire Nation wasn’t winning the war because of their bending, they were winning the war because of their engineering.

“I… guess? Yeah, I think I see the pin.”

“Okay we need to tap that pin out of place, try to push it up from the bottom, just be careful those hinges could be hot from all the heat in the air.”

Zuko nodded and tentatively he reached out and began to successfully push the pin out through the top of the hinge, understanding what he was doing now, Zuko made quick work of the rest of them. Once all the pins were out, all they needed to do was knock the door down, easy right?

No, not easy at all. Zuko told Chang to take cover and he tried kicking the door down, over and over and over… Until Sokka’s leg was sore from watching him.

“It's!”

Kick.

“Not!”

Kick.

“Working!”

Kick.

Zuko seemed out of breath at this point and Sokka noticed the slightest grey tint in the veins of his neck… now that he was looking more closely, he could see just how pale Zuko was under the light from the surrounding fires.

“Alright Zuko, new plan… we need to try to find something to shove under the door and hoist it up, it might be stuck, we just need to dislodge it.”

Zuko nodded and he and Sokka began shuffling through the different crates and along the (not actively burning) walls, looking for something that might work as a wedge for the door. Sokka saw the open back door and realized there was a whole mess of metal stacked behind the kitchen.

He took off running, stopping suddenly when he got to the open back door, a sudden surge of fear gripped his throat. Peeking his head out, he looked out into the darkness, it was as if the moon saw his struggle to see because the moonlight broke through the smoke and shed a little light for Sokka. The brief blessing of light made it so Sokka could see the area was clear of earth benders and guards.

It didn’t take long to find what he needed in the pile of scrap metal and soon enough, he and Zuko were back to standing in front of the door, this time they had a long metal bar sticking out of the bottom of the impossible door.

“On the count of three, and a real three, not your fake ‘get ready one – pop’ shit you pulled earlier with my arm.”

Sokka wasn’t looking back at Zuko but he could feel the other boy smirking behind his back. Sokka counted down and both boys used their weight to move the pry and thank-the-fucking-spirits, the door made an awful scraping metal sound (that almost gave Sokka flashbacks to when he was locked in the metal box) and the door fell out of their way. Zuko made sure the door was no longer a problem with a few frustrated stomps before they entered the room.

When they walked into the office, Sokka’s heart fell... hard and fast… The ceiling had collapsed inside and Chang was trapped under a maze of derbies, along with another support beam mixed into the mess. One the walls of his office had been impacted by an earth bending attack, causing the entire thing to basically implode. One of Chang’s legs was clearly broken, it was obvious from the way it was bent under a large boulder that must have been used in the attack.

He could have been working late in his office, which meant that it might not have been that late when the attacks started…. Chang never saw it coming. Sokka glanced at Zuko and the boy’s eyes were wide, his pupils were shifting around to all the different obstacles in front of him. Sokka knew the loyal fire bender was deciding what to do, but it would be impossible to unbury Chang and of course Sokka knew this... but…

Maybe if the massive man was his own size or even Shen’s size… but Chang was huge and his leg was broken and he was trapped. Sokka just couldn’t see how they would be able to get him out of there…

“Why… the fuck are you two here?!” Chang’s voice sounded strong, which meant maybe he wasn’t fatally injured. It at least gave Sokka hope to hear the clarity and strength in Chang’s voice, even if he did sound seriously annoyed.

Sokka noticed Zuko moving towards Chang, the fire bender grabbed a twisted piece of rusted metal and moved it out of his way, his brow was deeply furrowed and his mouth was set in one of his irritated, tightly jaw clenched frowns. Sokka moved forward, he gently set a hand on Zuko’s shoulder, hoping that it would be enough for him to understand.

“We are getting you out… obviously.” Zuko muttered, he shrugged his shoulders to remove Sokka’s hand. The Water Tribe boy let it fall, Sokka didn’t know how to help in a situation that was so helpless.

Chang’s eyes left Zuko and moved to Sokka, the man’s eyes were tired, he needed to rest and save his strength. Even if by the strongest stroke of luck and they were able to remove all the derbies covering the large man, Chang wouldn’t have the energy to pull himself out or assist them in any way. It would be impossible to remove him from where he was, Zuko had to let it go.

“Zuko…”

“Shut up, Sokka and help me.”

Chang looked at Zuko again, Sokka saw his eyes soften for the fire bender who was stubbornly pulling at chunks of wood that were lodged in the mountain of rubble. For the first time, Sokka saw the deep care Chang had for Zuko, it twinkled in the man’s soft eyes. He really cared about him, it made Sokka’s heart warm to see something other than fear and hatred in someone’s eyes again.

“Listen to your friend Zuko… Don’t be fucking stupid. I am a fat, old man who got trapped in his office by a bunch of dirt-eating-earth-benders. The only reason I am still alive is cause those fuck-faced-mud-munchers didn’t hear me in here, but of course you fuck-tards had to come find me. What the fuck are you even doing here!? Get the fuck out of here, are you stupid!?”

Chang was hiding behind his mix of humor and anger, he was trying to push Sokka and Zuko away from him in an attempt to lead them to safety. They both knew they couldn’t waste anymore time on him, Chang knew it and Sokka knew it… Zuko was the one having a hard time figuring it out.

“You’re fucking stupid.” Zuko mumbled as he grabbed another chunk of rubble and moved it out of his way, behind that was a mess of twisted metal and leaking pipes. Zuko hesitated, not knowing what to grab next, Sokka could see the trembling in the tips of his fingers. The Water Tribe boy stepped forward and placed his hand very gently on Zuko’s shoulder again, he wouldn’t even call it touching this time, it was more of a slight hover over his shoulder.

“… he is right, Zuko.”

The boy went tense, Sokka couldn’t see his face but his shoulder line went rigid and his arms balled into tight fists by his side. Chang was staring at Zuko, and Sokka assumed Zuko was staring back.

“You two need to get the fuck out of here… right now. I appreciate the open door, really, but if you guys would have stopped to listen to me instead of wasting your time, you could have been out of here already. You need to leave, now.”

“But-“

“PRINCE ZUKO!” Chang’s voice was louder and deeper than Sokka has ever heard it, the man’s face was red and his eyes narrowed as he stared directly at Zuko. “Leave me, I will be fine. If I am meant to live, I will live, but the fire is here to cleanse the camp, and Agni is angry. You need to take the opportunity and leave, you and the Water Tribe boy, you must go, now.”

Zuko hesitated, Sokka could feel the air shift and when the boy let out a long exhale and his shoulders went limp, he took a couple of steps back until he was standing next to Sokka. Sokka didn’t look over at him, but he could feel the anger vibrating off of him in heavy, dark waves.

“Listen, you little shit stains. You two need to watch each other’s back, you both can trust each other, and from the bits of interaction I have seen, you two work well together. Water Tribe, you are smart, i'll give you that – but you are traveling with a hot-headed-dumbass so you will need to be much smarter. Prince Zuko, you are traveling with someone who is essentially only good for his brain, the rest of him is basically a wet noodle. Look out for him, and make sure you teach him to fight. Head to Ba Sing Se, it is the safest place from the Fire Nation. They will be after you, as long as you are alive, you will be in danger.”

Chang’s eyes were drilling into Zuko, who returned the eye contact with stern expression and intensely glaring at the man. Sokka nodded at Chang, they exchanged eye contact as they said their silent goodbyes. Sokka then turned to leave, taking a few slow steps to give Zuko and Chang a moment, but also make Zuko aware it was time to leave.

“Thank you... for everything.” Zuko’s voice was quiet, but loud enough that Chang would hear him. Sokka wasn’t facing them, but he was sure that Chang was smiling…

“Your life isn’t too far gone to be saved, you can be reborn from the fire, now go. Please.

Sokka could have swore he heard Chang’s voice crack.

Sokka turned, just in time to see Zuko nod and Chang make a waving away motion with his only free hand. Sokka stepped aside to let Zuko lead the way, he used his bending to extinguish some of the smaller flames that had fallen from the ceiling which had recently started to burn above them. Sokka crouched behind Zuko as the bender pushed away the wild flames that jumped from the walls out at them as they passed. The fire had gotten exceptionally worse in the short time they spent with Chang, Sokka wondered how long it would take for the flames to reach the cook...

The smoke was making it difficult to see and even more difficult to breathe. Without thinking, Sokka reached out and grabbed the back of Zuko’s tunic, so he wouldn't get lost in the chaos. Zuko paused, only for a beat before he continued to push forward again, allowing Sokka to follow close behind and keep his hand curled in the fabric.

Once they were out the back door of the kitchen, Sokka threw himself onto the ground in a muffled, coughing fit. He was trying his best to keep the sound hushed as his chest made violent noises while his lungs tried to expel the toxic smoke. Sokka buried his face into his elbow as he laid out on his stomach, stretched flat against the ground.

Sokka closed his eyes, just for a second, and pretended that he was back home in his warm bedroll, covered in furs and maybe about to eat a big bowl of stewed –

Sokka felt a soft jab against his side, then another one when Sokka didn’t respond like… immediately. Impatient asshole.

“UGH!” He whisper-groaned as he pulled himself to his feet.

It wasn’t until Sokka went to lift himself fully that he felt the intense throbbing which was radiating from his side. The pain was worse than anything he had ever experienced before and he had been really sure his hand had been the worst pain of his life. Sokka couldn’t resist the need to double over and try to touch the wound, Zuko was at his side in a second, smacking his hand away from the injury.

The fire bender immediately semi-shoved Sokka back onto the ground, this time on his back. There wasn’t a lot of light but Zuko did this neat trick where this tiny little flame danced at the end of his index finger. It was cute, but for some reason the sight of the dancing flame and the way the oranges and yellows bled together into a deep red… red like the blood on his pants, and on his hands… and probably other places but Sokka was still too scared to look. He had to pull his eyes away from the flame as the panic tried to rile up in his chest.

Sokka felt Zuko’s not-on-fire hand grab the end of his tunic and lift it up, there was a hole where the fabric had been burned but Zuko still insisted on lifting the thing almost entirely up. Sokka felt the rush of cold air and a sudden heat in his cheeks, why he was so embarrassed at Zuko looking under his shirt, was completely and utterly beyond him. Best not to think about thoughts like that when Zuko’s surprisingly warm fingers touched a few places on his side, when his warm-jabbing-fingers landed on one spot in particular, it sent hot waves of pain though his skin.

A cold chill followed the hot pain, which was probably a bad sign. Zuko pulled down the tunic’s fabric and Sokka was thankful to have the thin layer back between his bare skin and the cold… and Zuko’s prying eyes.

Sokka finally looked at Zuko, he had put out the finger-fire and all Sokka could only see was the part of his face that was lit up by the burning kitchen behind them, the other part hid in the shadow from his hair. His gold eyes met Sokka’s own and he saw that the other boy had the same strong look of determination that Sokka used to hate, now he found himself living for it.

“It’s a bad burn, I won't lie to you, it's not small either. You need to put some kind of salve on it or it will get infected and it could kill you.”

Sokka swallowed, their eyes held the contact and Sokka wasn’t sure if he was waiting for Zuko to say something else, like maybe a solution... or if the fire bender was just stating a fact.

“We don’t have time to get any medication, Ara was supposed to bring the medical supplies but I doubt she grabbed anything with all the fire and the fighting. We need to keep moving, maybe we can find something in the village, we are two days away. I will live for two days, right?”

Zuko’s expression shifted into a frown, he lifted himself to his feet and extended his hand to offer Sokka some assistance in his own standing process. Sokka happily accepted the help. Once on his feet, the burning pain seemed to die down and Sokka looked at Zuko and gave him a firm nod, signaling that he was good to go. The stubborn fire bender stood in place, Sokka wanted to rip the, still growing, sides of his hair out with his hands.

“If your burn gets infected, you will get a fever, and then you will get really sick and have intense fever dreams and yes, in two days, you could be very dead.”

Sokka did pull his hair this time, letting his bloody fingers rub bits of dried blood into his own dark hair, he didn’t really care at this point. Zuko was infuriating, with his stubborn need to talk about Sokka’s injury, but Sokka didn’t want to deal with the injury right now. He didn’t want to think about how it happened, and what he did to make it stop…

“Come on.” Zuko turned and moved in the direction of the prison wall; if they followed the back wall they could hide in it’s shadow all the way to the South Gate. Sokka followed behind Zuko, ignoring the pain that jolted over his ribcage every time his left leg made contact with the ground. Zuko moved so quietly, and Sokka tried to mimic his footsteps, he found himself less successful in being as quiet.

They had luck for the second time that night as they slipped through the prison camp without running into any earth benders or prison guards. The camp was quieter now, the attacks had stopped mostly, there must not be anyone left alive to fight. Everyone alive must have fled into the forest, as they got closer to their exit, Sokka could see the gate had been twisted and broken by what looked like a series of earth bending attacks.

The gate was open, it was their third stroke of luck. Sokka felt his heart begin to race as the adrenaline began to pump through his chest, his heart happily picked up on it and began thumping wildly. Sokka’s hand tightened on the necklace he still had twisted in between his fingers, he could feel the small stone’s carving rubbing softly against the inside of his palm.

The feeling was grounding for him, to feel a piece of home in his hand, it meant so much to feel the silky ribbon that had once rubbed softly against his sister’s neck. It was a piece of his family he held in his hand, and he was never letting it go.

Sokka didn’t notice when Zuko stopped walking, so naturally Sokka had to be his always-graceful-self and stumble-stop into the back of Zuko, earning him a justified angry-glare and frustrated hiss.

“Why are you stopping?” Sokka hush-asked.

“The medical building is right there, we can get you something for your burns.”

Sokka looked to his left and saw the small building Zuko was referring to, it wasn’t on fire, which was surprising. The building was close enough to the wall that they could slip in and out in no time, as long as they didn’t run into anymore… obstacles.

“Come on.” Zuko nudged him with his shoulder to get Sokka to move off of him and Sokka realized he had been standing way too close to Zuko’s back. They made their way to the back of the building, Sokka found himself holding his breath as they began moving around the building with their backs pressed up against the wooden wall.

There was only one entrance to the small building, in the front, which unfortunately faced the inside area of the prison camp. The healer’s building almost directly faced Zhao’s cabin, which the fire had almost completely destroyed… and everything inside.

Zuko leaned his head to peer around the corner, there didn’t seem to be any earth benders around, so they took the opportunity and moved towards the door. The door was locked… of-fucking-course, so Sokka had to patiently wait for Zuko to heat up the lock with a small flame that was flickering in and out.

Sokka saw that Zuko’s arms were shaking and the veins in his pale wrists were dark against the painfully raw skin that wrapped around his wrists. The veins were dark up until about the middle of his forearms, Sokka swallowed the lump that was wiggling in his throat and pushed his eyes back onto the door. Maybe there was something in there that Sokka could grab for Zuko, something that could fight back against the bending suppressants that were obviously still coursing through his bloodstream.

The lock on the door bent and snapped when Zuko shoved his shoulder into the door’s seal and thankfully the metal door swung open inwards. Sokka and Zuko moved quickly, the small building was only a single room with a bathroom, so it was easy to grab what they needed quickly.

There were four walls with no windows, there was a bed against the back wall and a small wooden desk next to it covered in stacks of papers and a weird set up of flasks and pipes… it looked like a place a scientist would work, not a healer. Both side walls were layered with shelves, each one holding a variety of different medicines, herbs and other… interesting stuff. Sokka started piling in anything he could find that was familiar into his tunic, he carried the supplies with him in his tunic-sack.

Zuko was looking for something specific, which was great because Sokka was confident that if anyone would know what to get to help heal a burn, it would be Zuko. No offense to Zuko, Sokka thought innocently. Zuko grabbed a few things off the wall next to Sokka and threw them into his tunic-sack.

“Find something to put this stuff in, I can’t carry it through the forest like this.” Sokka made a motion with both of his arms which wiggled the collection of supplies.

Zuko huffed as a response, but he did shift his focus to looking for something to put the supplies in, he moved over to the baskets on the floor against the front wall. Zuko’s hands grabbed the open door and he moved to close it, so he could get to the basket behind it. Sokka saw a flash of silver in the corner of his eyes, and he heard a soft thud. Before he was even fully turned around, Zuko had his swords (plural) up against someone’s neck.

Sokka had barely even taken a breath in the time it took for Zuko to have the intruder pressed up against the closed door, wild eyed and crazy… wait.

“Reho?”

A smile spread across the skinny man’s dusty lips. “Sokka!” His nervous smile didn’t hide the fear that was pooling in Reho’s hazel eyes.

Zuko didn’t move his swords from Reho’s neck, even with the obvious reunion Sokka was having with the guy. Sokka moved towards the situation and was going to put a hand on Zuko’s shoulder, but with him holding the bottom of his tunic for his tunic-sack, he could only stand there awkwardly. He could see how tight Zuko’s muscles were, he was ready to strike the other prisoner down at any moment.

“Zuko it’s ok. I know him from the coal mines, please… let go of his throat.”

Zuko gave Sokka an annoyed, angry but… trusting look before he lowered his weapons, with a swift twirl he met the blades together and sheathed them against his back. Once Zuko had released Reho’s throat, Sokka moved forward to make sure the sandy haired man was alright. Zuko walked away from them without a word and resumed his search for a bag of some sort, but Sokka could feel his eyes on them.

“Are you ok, Reho? What are you doing here?”

The young man coughed a couple times, Sokka could see the bruises on his neck and shoulder from where he was probably struck. His skin was coated in ash and dust just like Sokka and Zuko were, Reho’s green eyes went from Sokka to Zuko a couple of times before he answered.

“I-I was hiding, and I saw you two come out of the kitchen… I followed you here. I don’t know what else to do… I’m sorry! I have been hiding for hours after our bunk blew up… I saw you two together and I thought maybe I could come with you.”

Sokka signed and rubbed his face, Zuko approached them again with a leather bag that looked expensive, it was a light brown leather with the Fire Nation insignia on the buckle that snapped the bag closed. Zuko tossed the open bag on the floor in front of Sokka who tipped the end of his tunic-sack and dumped the supplies into it. He also put the roll of parchment hiding in his waistband, the bag of coins, and the bloody dagger inside the bag as well.

Sokka slung the back over his shoulder and looked at Zuko who had his golden eyes fixed on Reho. It was awkward, for some reason, maybe because Sokka had never interacted with Zuko in front of anyone else before, except Chang. (Don’t think about Chang) Or maybe it was just Zuko, who was radiating the awkward energy.

“Reho is going to come with us, I vouch for him.” Sokka kept his voice firm, hoping this wasn’t going to lead to an argument with the fire bender, they had been working so fucking well together so far.

Zuko’s golden eyes stayed fixed on Reho, and Sokka was sure there was a bead of nervous sweat forming on Reho’s forehead under the intense gaze. Zuko let his eyes leave the other prisoner and he looked directly at Sokka.

“If you keep vouching for all these people, you are bound to get your trust broken.”

Zuko looked Reho over in a very threatening way that almost made Sokka a little nervous, but then Zuko turned his back to them and moved towards the door, he opened it slowly, stopping halfway to look outside. Deeming it clear, Zuko made a hand motion to Sokka and Reho and they all slipped out of the building and into the darkness once again. They returned to the prison camp wall, moving quickly with their shoulders pressed against tall wooden sides.

Sokka was practically vibrating with nervous energy when they were close enough to the gate to see the extent of the damage they had briefly seen from afar. It appeared that a large battle went down, there was enough evidence in the scorch marks and broken earth that reshaped the ground. Zuko stopped, Sokka could see that there were no more shadows for them to hide in.

The wall took a sharp left turn and continued until it stopped where the gate connected, the brightly burning fires made it so there was no place to hide. If there were any archers left, or guards on the walls, they would spot them in no time. Not to mention any earth benders or fire benders who might be hidden behind one of the many piles of broken earth scattered around them. The three of them waited, they pressed their backs against the wall and tried to take quiet breaths against the unfamiliar silence.

It was too quiet… They would have to make a break for it and split up if they hoped to make it through.

“We just have to run for it. Once we get into the forest just keep running, take the path to the coal mine and once you get to the rhino stalls take a sharp left into the forest. You have to keep running as long as you can, it's about a half a day's walk to the rendezvous. If you keep heading east, you should get to an abandoned supply station, that’s where we will meet up. The plan was to stay in that spot for one full day from the point of escape if we got separated. So we have until nightfall tomorrow to get there before they leave us, understand?”

Reho looked really confused but he and Zuko both nodded. There was complete silence in Sokka’s mind when his eyes focused on the target in front of him. The broken and twisted metal was bent back, leaving a large enough opening for them to walk right through. Sokka could only hear the quick thumping of his heart and the sound his nose made as the air exhaled out of his lungs slowly.

His left nostril always made soft whistling sounds, ever since he was 6 and Katara hit him in the nose with her magic water. It had hurt so bad, and he will never forget the feeling his insides made when he looked down and saw his own bright red blood spotting the white snow under his feet. Small Sokka was in shock for the first time in his life, his chest was tight and he had a cold squishy feeling twirling around in his tummy.

Katara had screamed first, followed by her tiny shrill voice calling out for their mom. Of course, she came running with a terrified look on her face… but Sokka couldn’t remember exactly what it looked like… He just remembered her eyes, and the way they softened when she saw it was only a nose bleed. The rest of the memory was a blur, and his mother’s face always remained just out of his memory's reach.

Sokka felt the world slow down just before his foot left the safety of the shadows and he was out, exposed by the heavy orange glow. Sokka’s heart was pounding in his ears, his mouth was dry as his legs moved faster than he had ever moved before. He didn’t see either of the other boy’s running, which didn’t matter – they were all on their own right now.

Sokka heard the earth explode behind him, but he didn’t pay attention to it, his body continued to push itself towards the gate. There was only the sound of the wind hissing past his ears and the sound his heavy boots made when they crunched against the rough, rocky dirt. Sokka was extra glad he tied the boots so tight, it was the only thing keeping them attached to his feet.

The gate was in front of him now and he slipped between the opening with ease, his heart was beating so wildly in his chest he was sure that he was going to choke on it. The tears were welling in his eyes as the wind continued to brush against his face, he ran down the same path he walked everyday to the dreaded coal mine.

He remembered the despair and the way his mind was slipping away from him more and more each day. Now he was free, running down the path with a wild abandon, the air burning in his lungs.

Sokka could feel when the tears leaked out the corner of his eyes, the wind pushed them across the top of his cheeks and onto the tip of his ears. He didn’t give a fuck about the tears, or the burning in his lungs, or the raw flesh that was blistering on his ankles from the rubbing leather boots.

He was fucking free.

He was out of that fucking place.

He wouldn’t stop running until he could not take another step.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

By the time Sokka stopped running his legs were burning worse than his side was, but nothing could compare to the deep burn festering inside his lungs with every shaky breath he took. He was true to his word and found himself collapsing from his broken body's complete protest to him taking even one more step. Like the pathetic person he felt like, Sokka dragged himself to a spot where two giant trees had grown exceptionally close to one another.

Sokka wondered if they struggled to survive like that?

Were they constantly fighting for nutrients and at a war with one another for survival? Or was it more of a harmonious situation where they grew up together, and therefore they trust and rely on one another to live and share all they had together.

Sokka didn’t really care either way, honestly. He crawled over to where the trees had dropped him a nice pile of leaves that looked almost like a bed. Usually he would clear the brush away and give himself a patch of clear ground to sleep on, but Sokka couldn’t even keep his eyes open at this point and once his body was hidden under the darkness he let his eyes finally close and he was out cold instantly.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“Get up.”

“….mmm.”

“Sokka, get up.”

“… Mmmm, Katara stop.”

“I am not your water bending sister. Get up, Sokka.”

Sokka heard Zuko’s annoying voice kicking down his dream world and trying to drag him back to the harsh, cold, reality that was his life. Sokka felt something tap his leg softly and a different voice joined in the annoying effort to stir him.

“Sokka, we need to get moving.”

Sokka appreciated Reho’s attempt at being nice and trying to get him up with a gentle voice and just a dash of urgency, but when Sokka didn’t stir, Zuko’s much more direct approach resumed.

“Get up!” This time Zuko’s tone was angrier and he accompanied it with a sharp kick to his thigh.

“OW! FINE!” Sokka rolled over too fast and his side erupted in a burning rush of heat. “Fuck!”

Zuko paused and bent down, grabbing the leather bag that was tucked in next to Sokka, he opened it with what Sokka felt was too much unnecessary aggression. He began digging through the disheveled contents, Sokka’s stomach squirmed when his sleepy eyes caught sight of the bloody dagger just before it disappeared under the surface once again. Sokka watched Zuko as the fire bender’s focus was set on finding whatever it was that Sokka assumed, and hoped, would help the pain in his side.

The fire bender looked so tired, his good eye had dark circles underneath, one layered right under another, and there were a few places where Sokka saw he had been struck.

Patches of blood spotted his tunic, there was a spot on his forehead where he had begun to bleed, but not enough for the blood to run down his face, leaving a weird dried up blood spot that had claimed some of the hair around it. Zuko’s veins weren’t looking good either, the spots of his neck where he had the spotted bruising were the same color as the veins running down his neck. The dark color wasn’t nearly as bad as the first time Sokka saw it, but he didn’t have to be a healer to know a person’s veins changing colors probably wasn’t a good sign.

Zuko fire bending was most likely causing all sorts of problems for the guy internally, he needed to stop bending if he didn’t want to get sick. Sokka watched Zuko’s hands tremble as he tried to open the container of salve. Sokka saw Reho approach Zuko from his left, it didn’t register to Sokka until he saw the man reach out to offer his hand in assistance…

Which… in a normal person’s world it would have been a completely appropriate thing to do. Zuko was struggling, Reho just wanted to help because he is such a nice guy… but this wasn’t a normal people’s world. This was fucking Zuko world, and of course, in Zuko world you had to know the rules of you might get kicked into a tree.

Which is what happened to Reho.

Rule number one, always. Don’t touch Zuko.

Sokka winced as the man’s back collided with a half-rotted cherry oak tree that was missing it’s top half. Reho looked small next to the impressive tree trunk, even though the tall Earth Kingdom man stood way above Zuko and Sokka. The poor guy groaned a low, pained moan as he clutched his stomach and gasped for air.

Zuko stood tall, the salve still in his hand, he didn’t look at Reho long and he didn’t say anything either, which Sokka found kind-of-rude. If you punch-push someone into a tree when they were just trying to help you, then you should probably say sorry.

But… in Zuko’s defense, when you have been trapped in a torture prison camp for who-knows-how-long you probably just shouldn’t fuck with people. Sokka decided to just stay out of it, Reho wouldn't retaliate and Zuko didn’t seem to care about it anymore, so Sokka was just going to let it go. Not his problem.

Zuko crouched next to Sokka again, and the Water Tribe boy tensed when the fire bender reached out and grabbed the bottom of his blood-soaked tunic again. He was gentle, which was nice, even if it was in a forceful-kind-of-way. Sokka wondered what would happen if he pulled Zuko’s prison tunic up without any warning? He’d bet that he too would be slammed up against the nearest tree in no time. It was funny that Zuko didn’t feel the need to ask permission to invade Sokka’s personal space.

It must be all that prince stuff that was ingrained into him from birth. He was probably raised in an environment where he could do what he wanted, when he wanted, because he was Prince Zuko, damn it. So if he wanted to reach out and grab Sokka’s tunic without permission, then he was going to do it, but don’t you dare touch him, ohhh no.

Zuko’s warm fingers returned, they were a little hotter than Sokka recalled from the last poke-and-inspect Zuko did, but they brought a cool sensation to an area Sokka had not realized was in such agonizing pain. Zuko spread the cooling salve all over the burned area, he turned back to the bag and pulled out a roll of bandages.

Zuko completely invaded Sokka’s personal space when he wrapped his arms around him and began wrapping the roll of bandages around his ribcage. The soft touch from Zuko’s hand when he grazed across Sokka’s skin made the boy shudder. Not in an intimate way, because… it was Zuko… but more in a way that the touch reminded Sokka of a gesture Katara would do for him, or his Gran-Gran.

But instead of Katara, or Gran-Gran, it was bloodied and bruised Zuko who was tending to his wounds. He might have been doing it out of guilt, in the sense that he felt guilty that Sokka was hurt because he stepped in to save Zuko’s life.

But something inside Sokka said that Zuko wasn’t doing this out of guilt, it was more like he generally didn’t want to see Sokka hurt. Or at least, that was the vibe Sokka thought he was getting, but who knows… Sokka was so out of it, he didn’t even realize when Zuko had stopped wrapping him and had put away all the healing supplies.

“Should… uh, should you see if Reho needs any healing supplies?” Sokka whispered to Zuko before the other boy stood up.

Zuko looked over his shoulder at the man who was rubbing the back of his head with an embarrassed flush across his face. Or at least Sokka thought he was flushing, the only light they had was the scattered patches of moonlight slipping in between the canopy. Zuko didn’t acknowledge the question, he didn’t seem to care at all about Reho, or if he was alright.

“Let’s go.” Zuko extended his arm to Sokka, who realized he was still sitting on the forest floor like an idiot. He happily took it and let the stronger boy pull him to his feet. This time, his side didn’t explode into throbbing pain, it was only a dull throb that happened with movement, what a nice change.

“Are you ok, Reho?” Sokka asked when the man rejoined them.

Zuko pulled the pack over his shoulder and when Sokka went to reach for it, the fire bender shot him a glare, his golden eyes almost glowed in the moonlight.

“You’re hurt, don’t be stupid. I’m not going to run off with the supplies.”

Sokka frowned, because… that is not at all what Sokka was thinking. In fact, Sokka had been thinking that Zuko was most likely more injured than Sokka was, even though he was better at hiding it. Zuko had also done a lot of fighting and didn’t seem to have gotten any rest like Sokka had. So Sokka was going to carry the bag to give the other boy a break, but it was a shame to see him resort to a mindset that Sokka simply wanted to ‘keep Zuko away from the supplies.’

“That’s not what I was going to say. I was just going to help you out, I know the bag is heavy.”

“I’m fine.”

Sokka rolled his eyes as the three of them began moving east, towards the rendezvous. Sokka wasn’t sure exactly how far they would need to walk, but Shen said the building was abandoned because they changed the supply route when they constructed an easier path between villages. He said it would be visible as long as they kept moving east and kept to the creek whenever they found it. They would be able to use the stars to keep heading in the right direction until they found the creek, Shen warned them about getting turned around in the forest, especially at night.

“So… Reho, you didn’t answer me, are you ok?”

The man nodded, he slapped on a fake smile, but Sokka could see the strain in his face. “It’s my fault really... I shouldn’t be sneaking up on people. Sorry Prin- Zuko. Sorry.”

Zuko didn’t say anything or even acknowledge the guy’s existence, which Sokka found irritating, but this was not the time to pick a fight with a tired and cranky Zuko. Reho was quiet for a while before he opened his mouth again.

“Thanks for saving me back there, Zuko.”

Sokka glanced at Zuko, who was walking in front of him, so Sokka could only see the back of his dark hair and dirty prison outfit. The three of them walked in a line, it made it easier to navigate the thick forest foliage. The trees were old, their branches stretched out over the smaller shrubs that seemed to thrive in the lower lit area. The worst thing in the forest were the vines that crawled over the underbrush and stretched up into the trees, smothering anything caught in their clutches.

The vines were covered in tiny, razor sharp thorns and Sokka just seemed to attract them in the masses. They grabbed his shirt, and the legs of his pants, pulling and ripping as he continued to push through. He wondered how Zuko seemed to get through without a single scratch - Blue Spirit shit, no doubt.

Since Zuko decided to continue with his decision to completely ignore Reho, Sokka decided that he would fill in the awkward silence and keep the other man company. He was taller than Sokka and Zuko, and his tall awkward upper body kept knocking into branches and low hanging vines, so every couple of minutes they would hear Reho make a hiss or an ‘ouch’ sound. He seemed downright miserable and Sokka couldn’t help but feel bad that Zuko was ignoring him on top of everything… and punched him into a tree.

“How did Zuko save your life?”

Reho’s voice perked up when Sokka acknowledged him, “when we took off across the clearing towards the gate, there were two earth benders coming out of the guard’s barracks and one of them spotted me. They attacked me so fast… I didn’t even know they were there until I was being thrown in the air. When I landed, I had the air knocked out of me and I couldn’t stand, lucky for me… Zuko must have seen the attack because he turned around and grabbed my arm and pulled me along. Without his help I don’t know if I would have been able to catch my breath and get back on my feet before the earth benders found where I landed and came to finish me off.”

Sokka nodded at the man’s words as he walked in front of him… it was just so strange that Zuko would risk his own life to turn around and save a man he wouldn’t even have a conversation with. It was the same strange behavior earlier in the night when Zuko put himself in between Shen and the earth bender to save him from the attacks. He didn’t seem to care about these people, but at the same time… Zuko seemed unable to willingly allow someone defenseless to get hurt.

It was a new side to Zuko that Sokka never knew existed until tonight, there was a heroic side to Zuko, a side of him that drove him to run straight forward into burning kitchens to save a man who was kind to him. Zuko seemed to have a… kindness inside of him that came out in moments where a person’s character was brought into question, and Zuko always seemed to do the right thing.

At the same time… Zuko also didn’t hesitate to take a life either. Sokka saw him fight to kill tonight. It was different from the style of fighting he saw back when Zuko had chased them and tried to capture Aang. This was very different, this was a war between Zuko and the people who were trying to keep them trapped, and he would kill anyone who wanted to prevent their escape.

When he was chasing Aang... that was more like a game of tag.

And Zuko was always it.

There were no games anymore, there were no funny chases and daring last minute escapes, there was only struggling and fighting your way to what you wanted, and right now, Sokka wanted freedom. Sokka also found himself having a strong desire to make sure Zuko was also free, he knew that without the fire bender helping him tonight, he would have been dead by now.

Zuko was willing to kill for their freedom, and Sokka… he was willing to kill for it too. Sokka felt his mind pulling him into the darkness where he had the images of the warden’s wide eyes and blood splattered face, drilled into his vision. He didn’t even remember seeing the body, but for some reason the images were there, burning into his memory like a sickness.

“Sokka?” Reho’s voice broke him out of his trance.

Zuko had stopped walking and turned to look at Sokka, with both boys staring at him Sokka felt a heat rise to his face. He hated that his mind had such a control of its own it was able to steer his thinking and drive him deeper and deeper until he was sure to break down and lose himself in the dark thoughts forever.

“Sorry, I was just thinking. That was really nice of Zuko to save your life.”

Sokka smiled at Zuko and welcomed the annoyed huff and exasperated eye roll that went along with it, he turned his head and continued onward. Sokka followed close behind and for a while it was nice, to just walk in silence, every now and then Reho would speak up.

It didn’t take long to realize how much… Reho liked to talk….

Then it became obvious that Reho was just.. not going to stop talking…

“What time do you think it is?”

“Do you think the abandoned supply place will have food?”

If I could eat anything right now it would probably be roast duck and maybe a moon peach!

“Can you remember the last thing you ate? I think I had Komodo-chicken squares and rice… Wait, Sokka you work in the kitchen, what was the last thing they served for dinner?”

“These prison shoes really don't help against all the roots and mud do they?”

“Do you guys know the song ‘Omashu-I love you’?”

Yes… Yes Reho did try to sing the entire song he insisted they would recognize if he just kept singing.

“How far from camp do you think we have walked? I feel like the sun is about to rise.”

“Ohhh look! The sun!”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When they finally reached the creek, the sun was just coming up over the horizon, it was a sight Sokka had not truly appreciated since being imprisoned. The sun was so much more beautiful against the fading blue sky as the sun stretched out her rays and began the day. Sokka knew better than to bask in the freedom too much, they were still close enough to camp to be caught rather easily.

At least they found the creek, that was a good sign they were headed in the right direction.

They were all tired, hungry, dirty, injured, and Sokka was almost positive Zuko was going to attack Reho and possibly drown him in the creek. Sokka watched as Reho thought about going and sitting next to Zuko (who had sat down next to the water) but quickly changed his mind, probably replaying what happened early in his head. Reho made the smart decision and went to a different section of the creek’s edge and dunked his head into the cool water.

Sokka thought about trying to catch a fish, but by the time he found the materials and made anything even halfway decent enough to possibly even catch a fish, they would need to leave. Also, if there were any of Zhao’s men around here (which was extremely likely considering everyone fled out of the camp through the South Gate) then they might smell the cooking fish. It was too risky, he had to ignore his grumbling stomach.

Sokka sat next to the creek, a safe distance from Zuko and close enough to Reho that he was being nice, but not too close that the man would feel compelled to talk to him.

The three of them sat in silence, Zuko had taken off his boots and Sokka could see his bloody and blistered feet as he dipped them into the water and laid back on his back so only his feet were submerged. He closed his eyes for a moment and Sokka felt a small smile tug at the corners of his mouth, because for just in the one moment... he saw Zuko relax.

Well… relaxed, while still tense and ready to fight, so Zuko-relaxed.

Reho started to hum something annoyed and Sokka could feel the tension building up around Zuko as the other man’s voice was probably driving him to want to murder him more than he already did.

“Hey Reho… I know it might seem like we are free and safe from danger, but we could still run into guards, or soldiers… I mean, there could even be earth benders out here. So maybe… we should be quiet and just enjoy this small break. Shen said once we hit the creek we were halfway. Now that the sun is getting up, we need to move quickly because we no longer have the cover of darkness. We have to make it there before nightfall or the rest of them will leave us. So… let’s just enjoy the relaxing water, and the silence for now. Ok?”

“You’re right Sokka, sorry.”

“It’s alright, just shhh.”

“Ok.. Shhhh.”

Sokka hummed in response, there was silence for about 15 seconds.

“Sorry Zuko.”

“Reho… Zuko is going to murder you if you don’t shut up. Ok?”

“Oh… sorry. Sorry Zuk-“

“REHO.”

Sokka hesitated, waiting for the man to say one more stupid thing and Sokka would have to step in between either a fire attack or a sword attack. But thank the spirits the man shut up and the sounds of the waking forest filled his ears instead. It was the kind of soundtrack that made him want to close his eyes and imagine he was laying in a camp with Katara and Aang, he would have his feet in the water and they were practicing their stupid water tricks in front of him.

Reho wasn’t there, in his imaginary place… because he was annoying him too much right now.

Zuko could be there, he surprisingly wasn’t annoying, well… he was annoying in his own way, not in the same Reho kind of annoying way. Zuko’s kind of annoying was tolerable because Sokka was learning how to deal with it.

So it would just be Katara, Aang, him and Zuko. Sokka closed his eyes and smiled, for some reason the thought didn’t make him feel weird.

It kind of seemed right.

Oh shit, Zuko was becoming one of his friends.

He looked over at the fire bender, who somehow could tell Sokka was looking at him as he lifted his head just a finger length off the ground and opened his eyes. They looked at each other for a minute and Zuko shot him a small smirk.

“Thanks for getting Reho to shut up, you were right, I was going to murder him.” His raspy voice was hushed, so the man next to Sokka couldn’t hear him.

Sokka smiled back. “I know.”

Zuko let his head rest back on the grass and turned his head so his face was tilted towards the sky. The morning sunlight was just breaking through the trees and the specks of light were cascading down onto the ground in fragmented shards. The flecks of light danced across Zuko’s pale skin and Sokka found himself staring at the gentle rise and fall of the other boy's chest.

Something inside Sokka’s chest flared up, it was warm and alive, it crawled around his insides, leaving little chills with every move it made. It was the type of feeling he felt when he was around Katara, and at moments he had felt it with Aang too, it was a feeling of loyalty and a deeper care for someone.

Zuko was definitely his friend, that was apparent and no matter what, he was going to make sure he and Zuko both stayed free. Sokka was going to make sure he got them as far away from Zhao as he possibly could so they never fell into his clutches again.

He would make sure of that.

Sokka ignored the prickling cold feeling of doubt he felt at the bottom of his stomach, it felt like he didn’t believe his own words. With a heavy swallow and a shuddered breath, Sokka closed his eyes and tried to relax for the remaining minutes they had left of their break. They were half-way to the rest of his friends, half-way to back up, half-way to freedom.

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 14: Going the Distance

It took every ounce of strength Sokka had left inside of him to drag his aching body back to his feet and away from the edge of the blissfully refreshing creek. He could have laid there for the rest of his life, with his boots off and his bare feet submerged into the cold rushing water up to his ankles. There was something so calming about being near the water, perhaps it was the link the element had to his tribe, his family, his sister...

Once his thoughts started to go down that path, trying to lead him down the spiral staircase in his mind, plunging straight into the dark thoughts below; he knew had to desperately pull himself back to the present. This was much too sensitive of a time for him to be drifting into his own internalized issues, he had enough outward issues to deal with that he couldn’t even begin to count them all.

Reho looked exhausted, the young man’s face was starting to bruise up just under his cheekbone, the already dark splotches that spotted his neck and exposed shoulder indicated that his face was hit after whatever struck his left shoulder. Reho’s tunic was ripped at the neckline, exposing the bruised skin that stretched over his bony frame. He looked like a mess, but Sokka knew that no matter how bad he thought Reho looked, he knew he looked worse.

Zuko started to move into the forest again with Sokka close behind and Reho trailing up the back, thankfully, they were able to enjoy a solid few hours of silence. Well… silence from Reho’s insistent babbling, the world around them was wide awake at this point. The flocks of pigeon-squirrels squawked and hollered above them as they jumped and glided from branch to branch, the jostling leaves dropped fresh dew droplets onto their heads. Sokka enjoyed the refreshing drops of moisture, they helped cool his rapidly heating skin. The sun was moving higher in the sky the further they walked and with the rising sun came the agonizing rising heat.

Sokka could hear Reho’s heavy breathing behind him as he struggled to keep up with Zuko’s relentless pace, Sokka thought he might be doing it on purpose. If Reho was winded then he didn’t speak as much, so it seemed as though Zuko was purposely running the poor guy ragged. Sokka smirked to himself because it was that type of passive-aggressive shit he lived for, well he used to live for. He lived for freedom now, and he wouldn’t begin to truly feel free until he was far away from the western Earth Kingdom, clean, maybe if he had a full belly and a change of clothes… then he might feel free.

Sokka wasn’t sure how much he had changed from his experiences, or what those changes meant for his future... But before he got ahead of himself (like he usually did) Sokka decided to stay focused on the situation in front of him. Seriously though…. The situation was actually walking a couple of feet in front of him.

Zuko.

What would happen now that they were out of the prison camp? Sokka had never really thought about the next part except that he would go find Katara and Aang, but that was back in the beginning, before everything he and Zuko went through to get out.

Even now, they were so depending on each other to survive, even though they didn't get to stick with the original elegant plan of ingenious proportions, instead they got a half-assed-slapped-together-take-some-random-guy-you-only-spoke-to-a-couple-times-with-you-plan. It had worked though… they were out. Now all they had to do was keep themselves from getting thrown back in.

But what to do about Zuko? The guy had grown on him, he had to admit it to himself, honestly. Zuko went from being this angry-yelling-guy, to skeptical prisoner, to someone who kind of made Sokka laugh, to fighting half to death for him, to putting salve on his burns with such tender care… Sokka wasn’t sure when it had happened, but he cared about Zuko... the way he might care about Aang.

Aang proved himself from the very beginning that he was loyal to Sokka and Katara and would do whatever it took to keep them safe. (As long as he didn’t have to eat an animal) Zuko had done the same thing in the prison camp, far before they started concocting prison escape plans together, he had shown his loyalty to Sokka. Aang also made Sokka laugh and feel safe... well... When he wasn’t insistent on riding giant wild animals and putting himself in danger, or air bending around so fast it made Sokka too dizzy to watch the spinning air ball float around in circles.

… or following his sister around making googly eyes.

But Sokka loved Aang, he was his friend - no… Aang was family. Katara and Sokka were all Aang had left….

…. Well, he was all Aang had left before… before Sokka died. As far as Katara and Aang were aware, Sokka had died in the battle at the Northern Water Tribe. They wouldn’t have any reason to think otherwise, he didn’t leave anything behind except his boomerang, but what would that show them? That he was missing and disarmed? Even more of a reason to think he was killed in battle…

But Sokka would find them.. He wouldn’t rest until he found his family.

Now comes the confusing part, what was he going to do about Zuko? He cared about Zuko like Aang, but wouldn’t consider Zuko his family. Was Zuko still trying to capture Aang and restore his honor? It wouldn’t make sense to try and capture Aang now… not after everything. Sokka frowned to himself, his eyes fixed on the back of the jerk’s prison tunic walking in front of him, he tried to ignore the spots where the obvious bleeding wounds were spotting patches of blood into the dirty fabric.

Why the fuck was Zuko even trying to capture Aang in the first place? He was banished for speaking and burned for whatever it was he said to the Fire Lord, his fucking dad. So why the fuck would Zuko everwant to return to a place that held so much pain? Did Zuko even know what to do besides be the Prince of the Fire Nation? What did Zuko plan to do next?

These were all questions Sokka heard echoing in his head for the next hour, until the sun was high enough in the sky that the dew was dry… and so was Sokka’s mouth. They had been following the creek for miles, the heavy green foliage was starting to shift into scattered patches of shrubbery and juvenile trees the further they walked. The sudden change in the terrain indicated that this area had once been cleared for campsites along this creek, which meant that they were getting closer to an area people frequently visited and would set up camp.

The supply station would be close to a once traveled area, and now Sokka just needed to keep an eye out for a wooden bridge extending across the creek. Shen explained the bridge was nothing fancy, but it would be wide enough for a wagon to travel across, once that was spotted they were almost there.

“I think we should stop for a break, I don’t know about you two but I am parched.” Sokka’s voice was scratchy against his dry vocal cords. He was more than relieved to finally stop walking, he couldn't remember a time in his life when he wasn’t trekking through this horrible forest. Sokka allowed himself to dramatically fall into the dirt on his stomach, close enough to the water that he could cup the beautiful liquid in his hands and take small refreshing sips. After he was done drinking, he splashed the water over his face and neck, the cooling sensation gave him chilly-bumps.

It was Reho’s turn to carry the supply bag and Sokka heard the leather sack hit the dirt when Reho dropped it from his good shoulder. The Earth Kingdom man followed Sokka’s position, almost exactly, a few feet away and drank his water the same way. Sokka peered over at him and laughed internally, Reho was a really weird guy.

Zuko didn’t copy them, instead he sat lotus style a decent ways away in a patch of sunlight. Sokka laughed out loud this time, because Zuko was even weirder than Reho.

“What's so funny?” Reho asked, innocently.

“Just… my life I guess.”

“You find this… funny?” Zuko’s raspy voice made Sokka look over at the other boy sitting lotus style with his good eye cracked open staring at him. The sunlight he sat under reflected in his gold eye, there was always a burning fire crackling behind his molten iris. Sokka felt a moment of weakness under the other boy's gaze, but he quickly composed himself and snorted in a response.

“I guess I do, because if I looked at the situation for what it actually is, I think I would just let myself die right here in this grass... because the really funny part of my life is that this grass and this creek… Well, they are the best things to happen to me for a long time, so excuse me if I would rather think of my situation as funny instead of depressing.”

Neither one of them said anything in response, Sokka’s outburst seemed to have successfully shut down the conversation and they spent the last bit of their break enjoying the refreshing water and the fact that they were no longer dragging their exhausted feet through the fucking forest. Sokka let the silence calm his hungry, irritated nerves, his eyes habitually went over to where Zuko was sitting and Sokka remembered the spotted blood on the back of his tunic.

“Zuko, want me to look at the wounds on your back?”

Zuko didn’t open his eyes, his response was flat. “No.”

Sokka didn’t push the subject, if Zuko wanted to suffer alone then Sokka would let him, at least for now. Maybe when Reho wasn’t watching them Sokka would have a more stern conversation with the stubborn fire bender about treating his wounds.

The fucking guy thought he was invincible and he had a really bad habit of throwing himself in front of danger, which was great for Sokka’s health, but terrible for Zukos. At least he was resting right now… maybe, he was just sitting there quietly, so that was a good start.

Too bad the break didn’t last long and the glaring heat returned when the walking started again, the blistering sun beat down on the back of Sokka’s neck as his head hung low from exhaustion. The grumbling in his stomach was becoming unbearable, it was almost to the point of being nauseating, it hurt so bad. He would be nearing a full day of not eating by the time they made it to the supplies station, he hadn’t gone that long without eating since the… murder ship.

Sokka was mentally kicking himself when he felt strong hands grip his shoulders and his body being shoved backwards, he went to open his mouth to protest but a warm hand slid over his open lips. Sokka’s eyes went wide when he saw that Zuko was pulling him off to the side, away from the creek and into the dense part of the forest. Sokka felt the branches bending against his body as he was dragged backwards, the heels of his boots scraped faint lines in the dirt. Reho scrambled to follow them as Zuko crouched low, pulling Sokka down with him.

Sokka finally managed to push Zuko off of him and shot him an annoyed glare, he went to whisper-yell something angry at him but he was interrupted by deep voices cutting through the sound of the babbling creek and singing birds.

“I swear, I heard something up here, I thought it was someone talking.”

“Well did you hear what they were saying? It could be those crazy earth benders, you saw what they did to Joza and Resu! Those men crushed their skulls like they were made of... I don’t know…something soft- like bread!”

“Will you shut up… if it is earth benders out here, you yelling is going to be what they hear and then your head will become bread.”

Sokka could hear the crunching sound from the men’s boots as they disrupted the forest floor, the sound of the shuffling dried leaves and snapping twigs singled out their movements. There were two men not too far in the distance and from the sounds of the men moving through the underbrush, they seemed to be walking closer to where their group was hiding. Sokka’s heart rate started to pick up the closer the crunching footsteps came, he felt like he was going to explode from all the antsy, nervous energy he was feeling. Has he always had the loudest breathing in the world?

Sokka could feel Reho’s skinny shoulder trembling next to him, the three of them laid flat against the ground side by side with just a small gap between them. They were half-under a smaller tree that was taken over by a whole mess of vines, creating a shady canopy for them to attempt to conceal themselves under. Sokka could feel the warmth from Zuko’s body radiating off of him, he tried not to focus on how nice it felt to be so close to something with such warmth. Instead, he attempted to try and get a visual of something that would let him know if their visitors were prisoners of guards.

Oh fucking spirits, hopefully it wasn’t soldiers. Anywhere there were soldiers there would be Zhao and the last thing their exhausted and beaten down group needed was to run into the admiral right now. Sokka’s eyes caught a glimpse of red and his heart sank, they were guards, he could see the faded red pant leg and the identical boot to the pair he was wearing.

Sokka could hear the men talking as clear as day, they were discussing the prison attack, Sokka tried to keep his breathing light and his ears open. Reho’s seemed to have stilled suddenly, Sokka glanced over and saw the sandy haired man staring at the guard’s legs, his face had drained of all color. Zuko was also tense, Sokka could feel him reaching slowly to his back and putting one hand on the handles of his swords.

“The admiral is going to be really pissed when he sees what those mud-munchers did to his prison...”

The other man must have made a head gesture because Sokka didn’t hear a response, he held his breath when he saw the legs stop moving. The birds were singing their suddenly really-fucking-annoying songs extremely loud in what Sokka felt was right next to his ears, it was making it hard to concentrate. He could feel the slow sliver of panic slinking around his body like a tiger-dillo circling it’s prey. His limbs began to feel heavy and his heart started to race his breathing, which was now coming in as small gasps, rather than an actual breathing.

Sokka could hear his breathing over the birds now, his heart and breathing were strumming together to make an almost oceanic noise in his mind… Sokka felt the urge to run. It was a hard push of adrenaline that his heart was begging to pump into his body, he could feel himself start shaking from the surge of energy.

He could see in his peripheral vision when Reho looked over at him, the watching eyes brought a new more shameful feeling to curl around his heart. This new feeling made him want to cry, he could feel the tears burning behind his eyes, he was losing all control over himself.

Sokka felt himself slipping over the edge and he squeezed his eyes shut, begging himself to just stop please… just stop freaking out. His body went rigid when he felt a warm, heavy mass push up against his side and a heavy hand set down on the center of his shoulders, there was a burst of warmth and for however-long, Sokka just laid there with his eyes closed. The force didn’t remove the pressure, usually he would think it was weird to be so close to another guy. But right now, that pressure and warmth were the only thing holding him back from slipping off the edge of his mental cliff and into the pit of desperate panic.

After another minute, Sokka opened his eyes, he looked over to the side Zuko was against, where the pressure and warmth were coming from. He obviously knew it was Zuko the second the warmth hand touched the back of his tunic and soothed his nerves. The golden eyes grabbed his own blue ones and sucked them in, his brow was furrowed and he looked deeply concerned, another new Zuko look.

“Calm. Down.” He whispered so softly, Sokka almost didn’t hear him.

But he did hear him, and Zuko was right, having a full blown panic attack in the middle of the forest in front of some guards of the prison camp they just escaped from, it was fucking ridiculous. He was embarrassed, not only because he lost control of himself, but because Zuko had to do the whole, heated-pressure-thing and bail him out of his own selfish mind.

Sokka nodded and he felt the sounds in his ears return to normal as the singing birds finally sounded like they were back in the trees where they belonged. The banging in his chest returned to a semi-normal speed, because of course, there were still guards standing almost directly in front of them. Sokka felt the pressure remove itself and the lingering heat slowly faded away when Zuko pulled away from him, both of their eyes went to the guards feet that were only standing a few yards away.

“I don’t know Choja, it doesn’t seem like anyone is out here…”

“Well what else are we supposed to do besides look for escaped prisoners?”

“We aren’t looking for prisoners we are looking for one single prisoner.”

“I know, I know… but he doesn’t seem to be out here so let’s keep looking.”

“Well isn’t he some secret vigilantly spiritual person? So doesn’t that mean that he could be sneaking around because… he is good at hiding and sneaking around?”

The other guard made an annoyed sound and kicked at the ground a few times, the sliding leather boot scuffing against the dry earth threw up a mess of dust and other forest floor derbies. Sokka ducked his head into his arm to hide his face from the incoming dust cloud, his heart stopped when he heard a sneeze erupt out of Reho.

There was a silent moment before there was a glint of silver in the corner of his eye and a light brush of heat over the top of his head, Sokka felt Zuko leave his side and then there was screaming. He could hear the crackling of the flames when they latched onto the nearby foliage, the flames danced happily as they began to spread up the vines, racing up towards the trees.

Sokka began to panic, if they weren’t careful the entire forest could go up in flames. Sokka’s eyes glanced over to Reho at his side, he was curled up in a ball hiding his face from the heat of the attacks. The entire situation only lasted a few seconds, even though time made it feel like hours, it returned to normal when Sokka saw Zuko walk up to where they were still hiding.

“It’s clear, get up.”

Sokka blinked and raised himself to his feet, almost tripping on a stupid fucking vine that had somehow wrapped itself around his ankle in the couple minutes he was laying on the ground. With a heave and a sharp hiss from the thorns snagging the tender flesh under his prison pants, Sokka pulled himself free and decided to be a decent guy and offer to help Reho to his feet.

Sokka knew that Zuko wasn’t going to offer him any assistance, but in his defense, he did put out the fire that might have burned down the forest they were hiding in and of course, he did deal with the whole… guard situation.

Deal with, was a strong statement, he knew what Zuko had done and Sokka couldn’t stomach the sight of any more dead bodies. When Sokka stood to his feet he saw that Zuko didn’t have any more blood on him, so it must have been quick, and at least he didn’t get hurt. Ignoring his burning curiosity to look, he kept his eyes on the forest floor below his slow moving feet.

His eyes scanned every abandoned leaf and lone blade of grass as he made sure his curious eyes stayed on the ground until he was past the two dead bodies. Reho did not follow the same pattern as Sokka, instead the guy looked right at what Zuko had done and then did the very Reho thing to do… he wanted to talk about it.

He didn’t start right away, they continued walking a few minutes before Reho broke the silence.

“Did you have to kill them?”

Sokka knew the question wasn’t directed at him and it was probably kind-of out of line for Sokka to answer for Zuko, but he was doing the guy a favor and he would probably give a better, non-argument-causing answer than Zuko anyway.

“Well Reho, if we let them live then they would have had to become our prisoners and let me tell you… I have no idea how to be a guard, I’m too good at being a prisoner!” Sokka wiggled his eyebrows with a fun smile, but no one laughed, so with an abrupt clearing of his throat, Sokka continued. “Well… besides the whole ‘we can’t take prisoners’ thing, we also couldn’t leave them tied up in the middle of the forest for two pretty good reasons. The first one would be that if no one found them, it would be a pretty awful way to kill someone, and we didn’t have rope. So you can’t tie up people without rope, it's just not possible.

“The second, rather large point, would be that if we did find some way to tie them up and someone were to find them, they would definitely tell them we were here and what direction we were going. Even if they didn’t tell them the direction, the simple fact that we were seen in this area at all will give Zhao a place to start looking. Right now, we could be anywhere, that’s our biggest advantage, if that is blown… well… let's just say that the chances of getting captured again increase dramatically.”

Reho didn’t speak for a while, Sokka assumed he was giving a lot of thought to what Sokka said, Reho was a really nice guy but he wasn’t that smart. He also couldn’t control his sneezing, which was the entire reason Zuko had to step in in the first place. So… Reho was actually the only reason that the two men had to be killed, there was no way of knowing if they would have seen them hiding if he wouldn’t have sneezed. Even though all of this was true, Sokka didn’t feel it was necessary to throw all of that in the other man’s face.

“Well… we could have given them a proper burial at least, to show our respect.”

Sokka opened his mouth to respond, but Zuko beat him to it this time. With a loud scoff and a sharp turn of his head, his words spat out at Reho with all the aggression the fire bender intended.

“They don’t deserve any respect. Drop it.”

Reho wanted to say something else, Sokka could hear the man starting to form the words a couple of times before stopping himself. Sokka understood the man’s hesitation, Sokka had been on that side of Zuko’s anger and aggression so many times when traveling with Aang, he knew exactly what it felt like, and it could get much worse… so he decided to keep to himself on this one. If Reho wanted to poke the angry fire bender who just killed two fire bending guards in less than 5 minutes, more power to him.

Sokka was going to keep his mouth shut and let Zuko keep protecting him. He wasn’t going to complain about a couple of dead guards, which was actually a worrying thought on its own. Sokka had taken a life now, he knew what it felt like to have another man’s blood soak into his clothing, making him wear the evidence of his kill like a trophy. Even though he had spent no time dealing with his trauma, or even thought about the things he had seen and experienced himself in these last few moon cycles… he could still feel the change inside him.

He thought about the innocent Sokka, who packed his canoe with a mediocre pack of supplies and the hopes of chasing down a giant metal Fire Nation ship to save some strange boy who his sister was convinced was the Avatar. Sokka mentally laughed, Zuko’s ship is the one that Sokka was going to come at with all the power his wooden canoe (he slaved over and built for almost a year, all by himself) would give him. Thank spirits for Appa, sarcasm, and Zuko not being Zhao and turning around to burn down his village after Aang escaped and buried Zuko’s ship and crew in the ice.

Sokka knew Zuko didn’t go back and hurt his people because for one, the guy was always a day behind them, so he couldn’t have possibly gone back to the village. The second reason was more of a recent development in his ‘getting to know Zuko’ adventure, and that was that Zuko was a good person, and he wouldn’t hurt innocent people. He wouldn’t have gone back, Sokka knew for sure, but maybe in the future he will ask him... just to be completely sure.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka’s mood perked up when he saw the creek narrow and directly in front of him was a moss covered, vine infested, but very clearly a wooden bridge crossing over the creek. Just past that, there was an area that opened up, allowing the sunlight to shine down into the clearing. Sokka’s pace increased as his excitement to see the landmark that Shen described really sank into his subconscious.

The afternoon was now slipping into the later half but the sun was still high enough to have clear visibility through the brush. There were clear signs of a once inhabited area, old campfire pits, broken benches and the faint outline of a building that was crawling with thorny vines. Sokka’s face split into a smile when he realized he was looking at the side wall to the supply station, it had been abandoned for so long it was hardly recognizable as a Fire Nation building.

The supply station was exactly how Shen had described it, a run-down, old, wooden building with enough space in it for a couple of people and a room of supplies, well once full supplies, mostly full of broken crates and empty bins now. He neglected to say just howrun-down and overgrown the area was, but at least it would provide some kind of cover from any wandering eyes and it was the only landmark in the middle of the woods they were going to get. It was never part of the original plan for them to get split up.

When they decided to pick a rendezvous, just in case, Shen had explained how the Fire Nation used these types of stations throughout the colonies to help keep troops moving deeper into the Earth Kingdom when they were pillaging.. oh wait, excuse him, conquering. They were meant to have the basic supplies stocked at all times and usually had 2-5 men stationed inside; depending on where the station was located. Some supply stations saw a lot of foot traffic and would move through supplies faster, so those supply stops tended to have more men stationed there to do runs when the supplies began to dwindle.

Shen explained that this particular station was considered close to Pohuai Stronghold and therefore didn’t see much traffic because most of the troops would have been freshly stocked after stopping off at the stronghold before setting out into the Earth Kingdom; so it would be on the smaller side. This station’s location sat in between two villages, at least from what Sokka saw from the copy of the map Zuko traced for him. (Sokka stopped asking Zuko how he obtained such unobtainable things after he didn’t answer for the 100th time)

Zuko saw the building and stopped walking, it was Sokka’s turn to step forward and lead, this was his part of the plan. Both boys ended up standing next to each other, they kept their eyes on the building in front of them and there was a surreal feeling in the air, almost as if none of them ever expected to make it here. Sokka half thought it wasn’t even a real place, they had been walking along the creek for so long he could finally admit to himself he had been getting worried.

It’s not that he didn’t trust Shen’s intel, he was just worried. The words Zuko had spoken when he convinced him to let Reho tag along, were ringing through his mind. They were Zuko’s words, but for some reason his annoying brain wanted to put Katara’s voice to the nagging words that kept kicking him in the side of his mind.

”If you keep vouching for all these people, you are bound to get your trust broken.”

He was never worried about Shen, it was just that something inside of him was becoming more skeptical the more dire the situation became. He trusted Shen, Ara, Zuko and Reho wasn’t a bad guy… and Opal was sweet too… just kind of an odd girl...

Sokka silently groaned to himself, he was too trusting… he had spent too much time with Katara and Aang. Where were his warrior instincts!?

Pfff, warrior instincts… he wasn’t a fucking warrior…

Just as Sokka was beginning to let self-doubt sit on his chest like a stubborn otter-walrus, his eye caught a glimpse of some movement near the front of the supply cabin. Sokka’s other eye saw Zuko shift his stance, Sokka reached out his hand and caught the boy by his arm. He already had his sword drawn…. The fucking guy was too fast sometimes.

“Zuko wait!” Sokka held the boy’s arm with a tighter grip.

Zuko paused, and Sokka saw one of Opal’s fiery red curls pop up over the edge of some undergrowth near a cluster of trees; she disappeared into the greenery just as fast as she appeared. Sokka smiled and took a step forward, realizing he was still holding Zuko’s arm he released his grip and apologized. Zuko grunted, of course, but kept his swords in his hands still, only lowering them slightly by Sokka’s request.

It had to be Opal, only Suki and Opal had that type of hair color, even though Suki’s was closer to a brownish red, where Opal’s hair was red like hot coals. Sokka stepped forward, his feet moving in the direction he saw Opal go, he was so close to the building he could reach out and touch it, he turned to say something to Zuko and instead he got an eyeful of Opal squatting behind a bush, pants down, peeing her little heart out.

Sokka yelled, Opal yelled… Reho yelled… Shen slammed the rickety wooden door open so hard the wooden planks clacked together. Shen was holding an axe… a rusty, dull axe but still... Sokka had to admit the larger man looked really intimidating holding it above his head ready to smash someone’s head open.

That someone was Sokka… Shen came running at him with incredible force, his eyes wide when he recognized the Water Tribe boy standing there, frozen with surprise. Shen didn’t get far before Zuko was in between them, he didn’t put much effort into disabling Shen. With a swipe of his leg, much like a hunting predator would trip it’s prey before sinking it’s teeth into their victims neck, Zuko caught Shen’s ankle and sent the unexpecting man tumbling down.

The axe flew from his hands and away from Shen’s person, the weapon wasn’t even sharp enough to cut through the compacted dirt on the forest floor, much less cut Sokka… but it didn’t stop Zuko from putting Shen down. Sokka smirked, because Zuko didn’t even give much effort into the defensive move and still Shen was on the floor, sitting up slowly and rubbing the back of his neck.

Sokka really needed to get Zuko to teach him how to fight, he had to admit the guy was a talented fighter, on multiple levels.

“Damn… Sokka… Fuck!” Shen coughed out his words.

Sokka frowned, “I didn’t do anything! You’re the one that came out with an axe like a crazy person!”

Shen glared at him and Sokka watched his amber eyes flicker over to Zuko, Sokka saw them widen just slightly when he must have recognized the ex-prince standing there staring down at him. He had moved further back after Shen hit the ground, but they caught eyes rather quickly anyway.

“Nice to see you again, Zuko, I see you are as friendly as ever.”

Zuko scoffed and mumbled something that might have been a hello, he returned his blades into their sheath, a good sign that he didn’t feel the need to have a deadly attack ready, which was a start. But still.. Sokka’s eyes searched the compound until…

Ara’s beautiful figure stepped out from the open doorway, her hair no longer a disheveled story of a bloody battle and a daring prison escape. Now, her raven hair flowed freely down her slender back, it looked clean, she looked clean. It was much better than when she was pressed up against the back of the burning cabin, her hair plastered to her face… eyes full of fear…

“SOKKA!” Her wonderful voice struck a chord in his heart that made it sing a happy tune, sending good vibrations through his body. She ran to him, but slowed when she saw Zuko, her eyes locked onto him and didn’t move.

Sokka paused, everything.

This was it… this was the interaction he has been waiting for, but forgot he had been waiting for it! Ara and Zuko… the two who disliked each other so much, were going to be forced to interact in front of Sokka. He wished he had snacks to eat while he watched the show…. Oh man, was he hungry.

“I’m so glad you’re ok… even though you brought him.” Her eyes narrowed as they lingered on Zuko, who had his arms defensively crossed across his chest. His gaze was focused on Shen who had pulled himself off the ground and was retrieving the axe that had slid across the dirt and into a grassy patch before it snagged to a stop on a large tree root that had breached the earth.

Zuko didn’t look at Ara as her green eyes scanned over him, they lingered on his face and neck a little longer than the rest before she turned her attention back to Sokka, they met eyes and she plastered on a smile.

Ara’s weird attitude was perturbing but he was way too tired to put much thought into it tonight, they had a long journey ahead of them and Sokka would be there to scrutinize every moment of it. When Sokka’s eyes glanced over at Zuko, he did a quick sweep over the other boy’s body language, the fire bender couldn’t have possibly been more tense.

Ara’s eyes left Sokka and went to Reho, who for some really weird reason, was quiet for once.

“Reho?” Ara asked, her head cocked to the side in a cute way that only she could pull off. Her cheeks flushed a light pink, mimicking the shade of red Reho returned her way. Sokka’s eyebrows raised, there was something odd there.

Shen was standing a few feet behind Ara now and he nodded at Reho who gave a respectful nod in response, so it seemed everyone knew each other which was good, this was good, everything was good. There was a lapse of conversation and thank-the-spirits Opal broke the awkward tension and cracked a very awkward Opal-like-joke.

“So… Sokka you are just going to completely erase the mental image you have of me peeing behind a bush… right?”

Sokka laughed and cracked a smile at Opal, “I might be able to forget…. With a food bribe.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Turned out Opal did not have a food bribe, in fact… they didn’t have any supplies at all; they were actually way worse off than Sokka, Zuko and Reho had been. Well… beside the fact that they also didn’t have any food to eat, everyone seemed pretty fucked when it came to that.

There were soft rumbling sounds coming from each of their stomachs as they prepared to bunker down for the night. The group agreed to stay overnight and camp around the abandoned supply station, everyone was so exhausted, there wasn’t enough energy or daylight to continue marching through the woods. Sokka’s arms and legs were still buzzing from the tiny-stinging-slashes he received from the thorny vines, he was not looking forward to more hiking through the fucking woods.

But he would eat those thorny vines for breakfast if it meant he would stay far away from Zhao and whatever was left of the torture camp. It was clear from the guards' conversation that Zhao would indeed be looking for them… well for him, Sokka snuck a glance at Zuko before returning his attention to the group.

The afternoon quickly slipped into the heavier side of dusk, it took time to recap their different, but similar journeys. First of all, they had to fill Opal and Reho in on their whole ‘original escape plan’ so they had an idea of what the four of them were referring to. (Well the three of them, Zuko was not eager to participate in the recap)

When Shen told the story of how they finally found the rendezvous, Sokka was surprised to find they had only arrived earlier today, only a few hours before Sokka‘s group. Apparently, they had gotten lost after getting separated when fleeing out South Gate. It took time for them to regroup with one another and even longer for them to find the creek.

Sokka half-listened to the story, he was more focused on the weird way Ara was acting around Zuko and the normally-weird-way Zuko was acting around… well... everyone. She kept looking over at Zuko and Sokka was starting to feel a rush of defensive energy, which was odd. He wasn’t sure if the feeling was more directed towards Ara or Zuko at this point.

Ara didn’t seem nervous around Zuko, but she couldn’t keep her big green eyes off him. Zuko had not looked at her once, or acknowledged she existed in anyway... the whole thing was so fucking strange and detective Sokka was too fucking tired to deal with ANY of it.

…. But yet… he couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was safe to say, it was officially driving him crazy.

When Sokka had agreed they would stay the night at the supply station, he knew Zuko didn’t want to stay there with them, he could tell by the way the fire bender reached a new level of tension. Sokka was sure that if Zuko’s body got any more tense, Sokka would be sore tomorrow from the strain on his own muscles from just watching the guy sit there with his stiff posture and tight shoulder line.

The night took over quickly and agreeing not to have a fire was really smart in their whole ‘trying-not-to-be-found’ plan, but it left them dreadfully cold and dark. Shen wanted the girls to sleep inside, where they would have some kind of protection from the elements, which Opal and Ara happily agreed to. The state of the supply station was hardly big enough for two adult women, the damage done to the walls and ceiling from the undergrowth taking over was overwhelming and didn’t leave a lot of covered area to sleep.

There was a small space in the front left where the ceiling had held and the walls stayed sturdy. Shen agreed it was safe enough for the girls to sleep without the fear of being crushed, which Ara was sarcastically thankful for. The point was that it would give them some form of protection from the freezing Earth Kingdom nights.

Everyone stood awkwardly around each other as the darkness rolled over them in a thick, dark blanket, tucking them in for the night. This would be the part where in Team Avatar (it was their name, both Aang and Katara had agreed to it and actually they loved it) would hug and say goodnight to one another. But this was not Team Avatar, and it didn’t seem like saying ‘goodnight’ and giving everyone hugs was going to happen.

“So tomorrow, we head for Ha Lang village, right Sokka?” Of course, soldier Shen wanted to confirm the plans for tomorrow.

Everyone in the group turned and looked at Sokka… this was the moment he had been dreading, he knew the rest of his friends were going to be angry with him for lying about this small detail of the plan, but Sokka owed it to himself and to Zuko… to not allow anyone to betray them. Just like Zuko said, he needed to be selective with who he placed his trust into.

“Actually..” Sokka began, his voice cracked when the words dragged themselves from his suddenly parched throat. “There is a slight change of plans for the next location… When I was originally planning out our escape, my plan was for us to head east, obviously to put as much distance between us and Zhao. I am not overly familiar with the Earth Kingdom, but I did save a village from being annihilated by a grass-chewing-psycho, so maybe I can get them to help us. But… I did lie to all of you about where we were going next…”

Ara’s brow furrowed and Shen rolled his weight around from the unexpected news even though his expression stayed blank. Ara’s voice broke the silence.

“What do you mean you lied to us?”

Sokka winced, he hated to see Ara look at him with mistrust, especially after everything she had done for him... But he had made a promise to himself and to Zuko, who worked really hard and went through a lot of pain to help Sokka get this information for him. He couldn’t risk any of them being two-faced, so he concealed just the smallest bit of information that would play a rather large part in the journey.

“Instead of going to Ha Lang village, we are going to head towards the fishing village on the river that we can follow all the way east to Gaipan. I’m sorry if you are mad I didn’t tell you, but I wanted to make sure I protected everyone, just in case someone wasn’t honest.”

Sokka searched Ara’s eyes for any flicker of an emotional reaction, something that would hint to him if she had committed any betrayal, but all he saw was sadness and that could be interpreted in so many ways. Shen didn’t seem to even care that Sokka changed villages, he shrugged and stood to his feet from where they were seated just outside the front door. It was the clearest area with the most grass so it's where the boys were planning on spending the night. (Also, Sokka knew Shen wanted to be close to Ara to keep an eye on her)

Ara and Shen sat together, across from Sokka, Zuko was seated next to him while Reho and Opal sat to their left. Sokka looked over at Zuko in an attempt to read his reaction to the news, because he hadn’t even told the fire bender the truth. He lied and said that he spent all that time memorizing the route to Ha Lang village, when instead, he was taking them to a completely different village and using the river to head east instead of the mountains.

Zuko had just the smallest smirk on his lips, almost as if Sokka’s announcement pleasedhim. Sokka knew he could trust Zuko, he knew that the first time he saw Zuko’s eyes burn with the intensity of an unspoken understanding. The understanding that Sokka had to do whatever it took to protect the plan. So Sokka did, he beat and burned Zuko to protect the escape plan and after that day, he knew that the other boy could be trusted. Sokka had never worried about Zuko, but he had to keep it fair… just in case.

Shen slapped his knees and stood to his feet with a loud huff, “I don’t care where we go, just as long as you know how to get us there because I am not going to die in this fucking forest. Now, unless there is any more news for tonight, I think it’s time to discuss who will take first watch.”

Zuko stood. “I will.” He said it so quickly, that no one even had a second to put their own name into the drawing for the glorious position of night watch.

The next statement out of Sokka’s mouth came out without his consent or knowledge, it just appeared in the air like he had spoken this statement to Zuko a hundred times. “Absolutely not.”

Every single person looked at him, the cold wind that had been slithering outside of their circle of body heat somehow slipped through right at that moment and sent cold chills through the group. Sokka sighed and turned to look at Zuko, who had his eyebrow raised high and his good eye was a little wider than usual. Sokka felt the sudden, desperate need to clarify what he had meant by his little outburst.

“Ha, w-what I meant was that you, Zuko. Uh, you have been fire bending, sword bending, fuck... even shadow bending, it’s a thing I saw you do it, and you haven’t slept, not even for a second. I took a short snooze in the woods before you found me, you need rest I’ll take the first watch.”

Reho chimed in with a small wave of his hand. “I can take the second watch.”

Shen nodded, “I will take third, that should carry us over until just before dawn. I would strongly urge us to leave before first light so we can get more ground covered under the darkness. Agreed?”

Everyone nodded. Zuko grumbled something and glared at Sokka, who responded with a strong finger pointed down towards the ground and a set ‘Sokka’s-not-playing-around’ look he had practiced with Katara growing up. Katara was a… uh, sensitive girl growing up. She was headstrong, clever, cunning and cute so she got away with murder-and-a-half, meaning she could murder someone and be halfway through murdering the next person before anyone caught on.

When their mom died, Katara became even more sensitive, she became prone to outbursts, which would push Sokka into a corner that was impossible to maneuver out of. Katara was strong and a gifted water bender, she would stand up for something she believed in and pretty much single-handedly discovered the Avatar after 100 years. It was just that growing up with Katara was difficult when he had to help essentially raise a strong young woman with only Gran-Gran to help.

Sokka used to yell at Katara all the time, he didn’t know any better, she was just so frustrating sometimes. She didn’t respond well to that, usually she would cry or get angry and lash out with her tiny fists tightened in a little fit of rage. Sokka learned quickly that women were sensitive and yelling wouldn’t work, but as Sokka spent time with Zuko he learned so quickly that it wasn’t women that were sensitive… it was just different types of people.

It took meeting Suki to teach him that women and men might be more similar than he thought, and now Zuko, who was so similar to Katara in the same way that he didn’t respond well with forceful words or a raised voice. He did well when he was included and treated like an equal member of the decision, he liked to understand and he liked to help when he was able to, almost to a fault. Just like Katara, who continuously pushed herself past her own limitations, the same way Sokka was seeing Zuko do.

But Sokka mastered living with Katara, even though she did get her way a lot… but that was because she was his baby sister. Zuko was not his baby sister, but he could use the same methods that worked with Katara and they might work with Zuko.

One of those was his famous ‘stern-faced-Sokka’ which was a look that would strike fear into Katara when they were younger. She would see the look and immediately follow his orders, whatever they were… (he didn’t like to think about it too much because in some of the memories he swears he might have heard Katara giggling at him, the kind of giggle she made when she was treating him like an idiot)

“I don’t care how much you protest, you are resting. I don’t care if you sleep, just lay down.”

The group was dispersing at this point, Ara and Opal were retreating inside the building, Shen closed the door behind them. He and Reho took the right side of the small clearing, the opposite side from where Zuko and Sokka were standing.

Zuko took Sokka’s words very… literally as he unbuckled the sheath that was strapped across his chest and released the swords from his back. With a heavy clatter, he set the weapons down in the dirt with Zuko following close behind, laying on the ground in the exact spot he had been standing.

Sokka rolled his eyes and had to stifle a chuckle because sometimes Zuko was just so fucking dramatic. Sokka ended up sliding down next to him, resting his back against a juvenile tree that was lucky enough to grow past those climbing death-vines and large enough to grant Sokka’s tired body some relief.

Zuko laid with the scarred side of his face planted firmly on the ground and his back facing Sokka. Even from where he was sitting and the limited moonlight, Sokka could see the tightness in the fire bender’s body language. He knew it must be hard for Zuko, honestly, to be alone with no one for so long in the prison camp and then to be thrust in the middle of a group of people he knew, but never interacted with. The whole Ara being a bitch to him probably wasn’t helping either.

Sokka shifted until he was about a person’s width beside Zuko, Sokka watched the boy for a few more minutes, waiting to see if he would relax and when he didn’t... Sokka decided to look at other things. He used the light from the moon to watch Shen and Reho attempt to get comfortable, Shen finally sat upright, he copied Sokka’s decision to use a tree to prop his back against, his eyes stayed closed and he finally sat still.

Reho was a few person lengths away from Shen, he laid on his back with his arms thrown across his stomach, he shifted every few minutes in an attempt to find comfort on the unforgivingly rocky Earth Kingdom ground. Sokka smiled as he watched both men drift into sleep, their breathing went from scattered breaths to evenly consistent breathing.

Sokka looked over at Zuko again, the boy had curled into himself just a little and Sokka felt the urge to reach out and touch his shoulder. He felt a need to give him comfort, it was a feeling that was like the push of the ocean against a rocky shore, crashing onto the unforgiving shoreline with incredible force before it pulled back into the ocean. Sokka felt like the rocky shore and the feeling was crashing into his core like the rushing waves. It was unnerving and gave him a deep, unsettling feeling that tossed and turned like the waves.

Blinking, Sokka stared out into the darkness or the night as he racked his brain with the specific list of instructions he needed to follow to navigate the team from this point to their next stop… they were now one step closer to freedom. Sokka was starting to feel the warmth in his heart from the hope that was brewing in his soul, hope was always such a distant idea and that now it was so close he could almost reach out and touch it.

Sokka glanced at Zuko’s back again, with his eyes adjusted to the darkness, the wisping streams of moonlight gave him enough light to see the back of the boy’s blood soaked prison tunic. The spots of blood had grown bigger and some places had soaked through enough to touch other blood spots. There was a cold feeling rippling underneath the hope, like a tiger-shark circling its prey, it was dark and fueled by the thoughts he refused to acknowledge. It was the kind of feeling that made a man want to kill someone… kill them in order to protect the people he cared about.

Sokka tore his gaze away and shoved the dark thoughts to the side before letting his crystal blue eyes work their way up to the sky, always finding his way to the moon. Sokka stared at the almost half full moon, her beauty cast a radiance that graced the world with the gift of seeing in the dark. Man was not deserving of such gifts, and they showed it through raging war and violence under her moonlight.

Sokka’s eyes were pulled to her light, he smiled knowing she was the life of his tribe, the pull to La’s push, but tonight something was different. It was surreal and the moon's beauty seemed to smile down at him… and for the first time in a long time, his mind thought of Yue. He hoped she was doing well, he hoped she was safe…

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The freezing Earth Kingdom nights were really kicking Sokka’s ass lately, he couldn’t seem to find warmth anywhere. After Reho finally woke up and Sokka was able to peel himself away from the tree trunk he had been attached to for the last couple of hours, he finally laid himself down into dirt and sighed. It was almost relaxing to lay down on his back, with the future of sleep right in front of him.

Too bad the universe seemed to be out to get him… Sometimes… (Aunt Wu…)

The icy winds carried down from the mountains swept through the forest, taking special interest in their campsite, it tickled through the group as it slipped under tunics and tried to find its way up the leg of Sokka’s pants. He tried to get comfortable and let his body find the much needed sleep his brain and muscles craved, but with the freezing wind chilling him to the bone, he couldn’t find anything but shivers.

The air was filled with the sound of rustling leaves and cracking branches as the wind fluttered through the earth, Sokka was finding himself growing more frustrated as he found less and less comfort. He was lying on right side while he stared aimlessly into the dense forest beside him, he was avoiding turning and facing Zuko, who lay unmoving beside him.

Sokka felt weird facing Zuko’s back, they were so close it would be considered weird to do anything but act completely aloof by the closeness. When his body was racked with another deep and uncontrollable shiver, he curled closer into himself, hugging his knees close to his chest as he puffed hot air into his lap.

“Sokka.”

Sokka froze, he could hear Zuko’s raspy voice whisper so softly over the sound of his jaw smacking together in a reaching effort to keep his body warm. Sokka felt caught, for some stupid reason, and he started holding his breath in an futile effort to keep quiet.

“… don’t be weird.” Zuko whispered.

Sokka paused, and before he could process the words spoken he felt a solid force move underneath his tunic, a hand pressed firmly against his back and Sokka felt a rush of heat seep through his skin and enter his body. The warmth flooded through him like a wildfire, eating away at the ache in his shoulders and back from time spent shivering and holding himself like a baby. It didn’t long for the Zuko’s warmth to flood into every inch of Sokka’s body, even his pinky toes were toasty.

The comfortable feeling the warmth brought reminded him of home, back when he was tucked in a pile of furs in his toasty igloo with the crackling fire feeding life into their home. But this was so different from that, this was so much closer, this was Zuko’s bare hand pressed against his freezing back, feeding him the warmth from his own body. Sokka furrowed his brow when he felt the sting of sadness in his eyes, the tears pricking the whites of his eyes as they prodded for weakness.

Physical comfort was so foreign to him that he was emotionally overwhelmed at the simple care Zuko showed him. Sokka let his eyes close and he remembered wiggling just a little closer before the depth of sleep took his body into a much needed rest. It took far too much energy to whisper the words that made his heart ache.

“….thank you.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The next morning was a horrible mix of exhausted fumbling through a darkness encumbered camp and the faintest memory of a map he had memorized. Sokka and the group hiked for miles and miles, until the sun was high in the sky, beating down on their back and imprinting red, irritated marks on their skin under the heat. When the large glistening river came into view just under the ledge they had been traveling across, Sokka’s heart leaped into his throat.

This was it, just a few more miles and they would be at the village... it didn’t seem real. Even as their group moved closer and the evidence of human life became more visible in the terrain, it was still hard to believe. Sokka had the group stop to rest on the ridge overlooking the sloping valley harboring a small but thriving fishing village. He figured everyone could use a break, it had been a long morning and Reho had made that morning just a little longer with all his mindless chatter.

Sokka was surprised and thankful that both Zuko and Shen didn’t take him deep into the woods and bury him in a ditch. Both fire benders had looks that could kill, gold and amber eyes narrowed in Reho’s direction. Opal seemed to love the chatter, egging him on by indulging in his stupid questions and asinine statements.

They found a portion of the ledge that had fallen victim to some kind of earth bending many years ago and the area had crazy mounds of rock pulled out all around. The taller formations cast pools of shade which gave them a place to hide from the blazing sun. This spot seemed like a good place to camp out and decide who would go down into town to gather the supplies they desperately needed. They wouldn’t be able to all go down together, with the whole ‘escaped prisoner’ look they all had going for them… with all the blood too.

“I’ll go.” Ara said rather confidently, she began pulling at her tunic which was tucked into her waistband. Sokka watched as she ripped the center in a straight line and tied the pieces together, showing off her slender hip bones and narrow waist.

“Come on Opal, I’ll fix you up and we can go down with one other person. I will get new clothes for you guys and food, once we don’t look like we just escaped prison… or killed a bunch of people… we can all go down together. Sounds good?”

“Who do you want to go with you?” Zuko’s voice cut the air dry and his golden eyes glared into Ara as she crumbled under his intimidating gaze.

“S-Sokka. I was going to have Sokka come. Is that ok?” Her tone cut the tension Zuko brought like a knife, their eyes were locked in a silent screaming match. Her words stumbled over Sokka’s name, but she was strong and sharp with the rest of her statement, her green eyes challenged his gold.

“I’ll allow it.” His snarky tone was enough to make the inside of Sokka’s hand reactively reach up and smack into the center of his forehead. Luckily, no one seemed to notice, well... except Reho, who snorted in amusement.

Zuko was infuriating sometimes. Sokka half-expected Ara to have a snarky comment to snap back with, but instead she just scrunched up her face, narrowed her eyes, and turned around sharply to help Opal put herself together. With a semi-decent spit shine bath, Ara inspected her work as she looked Opal over, and Sokka had to admit, it was an improvement.

But it was the kind of improvement that was comparable to when his dad would get ‘new boots’ and would insist they didn’t smell as bad as his ‘old boots’… but a stank smell is still a stank smell, new or old. That’s how he felt about Opal and Ara’s attempt to gussy themselves up, because under all the ash and blood they wiped from their porcelain skin, they couldn’t wipe away the fear and exhaustion that racked their bodies.

The girls turned towards him and Sokka realized it was his turn for a spit-shine, he held still as their fingers jabbed against his skin and rubbed at his dried patches of grime in an attempt to help clean him. Ara ran her fingers through his growing hair, which was doing this weird thing where the top was down to his shoulders but the sides were barely long enough to tuck behind his ears. He tried to keep all his hair tied back in a wolf’s-tail with the stretchy band Ara gave him when he first arrived, but maybe if he was lucky they could find a razor in the village.

Shaving the sides of his hair would help tremendously in the Earth Kingdom heat. He would have to keep the razor away from Zuko though… no one needed him shaving off all his hair again like it was when they first met. Mission keep Zuko away from the razor was a strong go.

Sokka couldn’t understand how the fire bending ex-prince was gentler with him then Ara and Opal, whose circular rubbing motions were starting to bruise.

“Am I done?”

“Almost, hold still.”

Another couple tortuous minutes passed before Sokka felt Ara ripping his pants just below the knee, he didn’t look down, but he knew she was trying to remove the large blood stains. After that, Sokka was done, he stood still while the girls looked him over. Ara’s eyes stayed on his arms, he knew his burned hand and the scars from his weak attempts to block the whips stood out against his tan skin, the little pinkish-white stripes across his body would always label him as a victim.

“Do you have any bandages we can borrow to wrap your arms? We can return them back to the pack when we get back, I just wouldn’t want to draw extra attention to our already suspicious attire.”

Ara wrapped his arms quickly, her green eyes only gave him a few pity glances during the tedious process. Sokka wasn’t sure how he looked after his mini-makeover but he had to admit that he felt a little better, he ignored the fluttering feeling in his stomach when he thought about going into the village.

He loved shopping, and never got nervous about going into public or talking to people, in fact he really enjoyed it. It was weird and a conflict of character for him to be nervous about going down to the village and being around people... but he couldn’t think about that right now, they were too close to getting something to eat.

“Ready?” Ara smiled and offered Sokka her arm, he took it happily. Glancing behind him he saw Shen leaning against a large boulder and Zuko was sitting lotus style on top, Reho stood awkwardly off to the side. Poor Reho, he had been unintentionally annoying on the journey here, but… in a weird way, he also seemed kind of nervous. He looked over at the fire benders and smiled, “what do you guys want to do while they are gone?”

Shen’s amber eyes bulged, his mind was probably processing the idea of Reho being here with them alone... in camp… talking.

“He should go with you!” Shen practically screamed. Zuko flinched back at the outburst, but when he heard what Shen said the boy’s head practically flew off his shoulders when he started nodding in agreement.

“Yes, good idea.”

Reho looked confused, but shrugged and his expression turned to sheer joy at the thought of going down to the village with them. Ara frowned at Shen who gave her a stern look, it wasn’t a mean look, but it was very urging. Ara rolled her eyes and gave in, she helped clean Reho up and finally they were on their way.

Sokka looked back at Shen and Zuko who had not moved from their spot, both fire benders looked very pleased with themselves. Sokka looked at Zuko and then at Shen, “make sure he rests.”

Shen gave Zuko a mocking smile, “I’ll make sure the widdle-baby takes his widdle-nap.”

Sokka wasn’t surprised when Zuko’s leg appeared from underneath him and kicked Shen in the back of the head, not hard enough to break the guy’s neck or anything, but enough to prove a point. Shen glared at him and rubbed the back of his head, the smirk stayed on his lips, he still found himself funny.

Sokka couldn’t help but smile and think about how things were finally starting to look up, he found himself smiling more, laughing often and even receiving comfort from people he would have never expected to find comfort in.

Things were going to be ok, he just had to keep ignoring the worry that stayed constantly gnawing at the pit of his stomach.

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 15: Traitor

Sokka was not prepared for just how weird he would feel being back in civilization, the casualness of the entire situation was deeply unnerving. He felt out of place walking through the village looking at the different options for fresh produce, like everything was normal. There was a brief moment where he might have forgotten all about being locked away and tortured in a prison camp for the last… however-long... but Sokka was brought back to his reality quickly when the local villagers passing by gave their group mistrusting looks, some of the women would even shift their baskets away from them as they passed by.

It probably wasn’t a great idea to come down with such a large group, even with the altered prison uniforms and their ‘cleaned up’ appearances… their group still looked… rough. Ara hung onto Sokka’s arm (even though she was taller than him) followed by Opal and Reho, who strolled casually together, chatting and giggling. They could almost appear to be a group of young traveling couples, dusty and disheveled from their time on the road.

Everything faded away when Sokka’s eyes landed on a hot noodle cart, the smell alone made his stomach practically claw its way out from inside him to go and order a bowl. He was able to keep himself some-what-under-control, until as they walked past a stand of moon-peaches, the devious little fruits taunted him with their fuzzy outer-skin, which looked so soft and juicy. The flesh colored orbs mocked him as he passed without indulging, it was a hard hit to his ego, he had never been mocked by a fruit before. Reho also had his eyes fixed on the same sweet sight, Sokka was sure he could hear the fruit mock the other man as well.

“Damn, those moon-peaches look so good…” The sandy-haired-too-skinny man muttered under his breath.

Sokka mindlessly nodded in agreement as he rubbed his thumb in soft, tight circles across the three waves etched into the stone of his sister’s necklace. He kept the necklace safe in his hand with the blood stained, frayed ribbon laced between his fingers. He liked to feel the stone gently bounce against the inside of his palm, it was a constant reminder of his family that was spread out across the earth and in the spirits around him. Sokka vowed, as he rubbed the smooth stone, that he would never give up until he was reunited with his family, he would never give up.

Their group took their time as they meandered through the market until they stumbled upon where the tailors and seamstresses set up their different goods and services. Ara’s face lit up and she released Sokka’s arm as she and Opal were drawn to a larger shop that had their exquisite clothing selections hanging up out front for the girls to enjoy. They giggled and whispered to each other as they ran their fingers through the different materials.

Sokka felt phantom-feelings full of smiles and laughter when his calloused fingers touched the soft fabrics hanging in front of him, the different textures reminded him of when he was traveling with Katara and Aang and they would stop at the different villages to re-supply and explore. There was a careless and free way that Aang always drew in a crowd, it was truly amazing how happy people were to see him and how accepting they were of Katara and Sokka because they traveled with the Avatar. It was such a different world than the one he lived in now… he was convinced that his old life had only been a pleasant dream and he couldn’t let himself dwell on it, his living nightmare was still nipping at his heels.

Sokka and Reho followed behind Ara and Opal when they left that shop and headed towards a one with a more affordable selection in the back loop of the market. The shop wasn’t too big, it had a front counter which lead into a big open area with clothing hung everywhere. There didn’t seem to be any organization to the hanging mess of options, some of the different pieces had fallen and there were scattered piles of fabric pooled on the floor, but the prices were cheap and thats all that was important.

The biggest downfall was the shopkeeper eye’d them suspiciously for the first few minutes they were there, but with Ara’s bright eyes and gentle lips she soon had the man eating out of her palm. Her and Opal indulged his interest with light touches and soft flushes, they used their sexual leverage to exploit him for their own gain. (classic Ara)

The girls did end up getting a great deal on the clothing and the shopkeeper was just happy that the pretty girls tried everything on for him. Sokka let the girls work their magic and left Reho to chat to himself as he fiddled through the different options. He was not surprised to see only earth tones and spots of red in the shop’s selections, not even a hint of blue anywhere in the shop and it was probably the same throughout the rest of the market. With a soft sigh, Sokka knew it was safer to blend in anyway, now was not the time to represent his tribe... plus, thinking of his tribe brought a squirmy-sick feeling to his stomach.

He could feel the sick feeling curling around his stomach’s empty contents and squeezing the bubbling acid until he ached from the burning. He didn’t deserve to wear blue, he had let his tribe down and allowed himself to be captured and even when he had the chance to stand up for his tribesmen... he stayed quiet like a coward. His dark thoughts began to cloud his vision, blurring the earth toned fabrics together in a swirling mix of emotions.

Reho’s voice snapped him back, “that one looks nice!”

Sokka’s head shot up and his eyes blinked his vision back into clarity before he turned to see the skinny man smiling at him, the bruises on his face had set into their final shades of blues and purples. He continued to smile at Sokka and his eyes went between the fabric Sokka held in his hand and up to Sokka’s blue eyes.

The tunic he held was a light green color with lighter green trimming around the collar and down the front, the short sleeves fit baggy and there was a fitted long sleeve layer underneath. The simple design and long coverage was perfect for Sokka, that way he could save the bandages that were currently being used to hide his scarred arms. He would probably need to use them for what he was sure was the absolute disaster on Zuko’s back. He really wanted to take a look at it and help treat his injuries, the same way the other boy had treated Sokka’s own injuries, the way he had been so gentle and careful to make sure he didn’t hurt him.

Sokka felt the hairs on his arm rise up and he shook the image of Zuko’s focused gold eyes out of his head as he gripped the tunic in his hands just a little tighter, with a low exhale he looked for the pants that matched before he turned away from the clothing selection.

Reho looked at him confused, Sokka raised one of his eyebrows in response.

“What?”

“You need to get something for Zuko.”

“Oh… did you want to pick it out?”

Reho snorted, “if I gave him something I picked out, I think he would light it on fire.”

Sokka cracked a smile as a mental image of Zuko standing there as Reho handed him the clothing and Zuko doing that annoying smirk he did when he knew he was going to be mean, just before he would light the fabric on fire… then Ara would freak out and yell at him, maybe he would yell back… Shen would get mad, they would fight, Shen would lose, Zuko would kill everyone, well maybe not Sokka…

Sokka shook his head, what the fuck was wrong with him today.

“Good point, ok, I will get him something and meet you at the front.”

Reho shrugged and walked away.

It didn’t take Sokka long to find something for Zuko, he didn’t think the other boy cared much about what he wore, Sokka tried to keep the colors as neutral as possible for obvious reasons. He ended up picking up a brown tunic with long sleeves, accented with olive threading and a sash for around his waist to keep the baggy tunic better fitting. He found a simple pair of dark brown, almost black, pants that bunched at the ankle to finish off the outfit. Sokka felt satisfied that he made a good choice and he realized had only ever seen Zuko in Fire Nation armor and prison clothing.

It would be weird to see him in tan and green. When Sokka found Opal and Ara again they had a few pieces up at the counter and were chatting with the merchant happily. Sokka could hear them talking about the baby gopher-squirrels that would start popping up in a nearby field soon, the awwwws coming from Opal and Ara were enough to make Sokka want to gag. Maybe he could hunt the stupid little baby gopher-squirrels and finally have some meat to eat.

“Oh good! There you guys are, we were wondering if you two decided to ditch us!” Ara’s tone carried a lot more peppiness than he had heard from her all day. Her and Opal had changed into their new clothing, they both looked…. so different. Opal looked like a lady, instead of a frizzy-haired-foul-mouthed-prison-girl. She wore a long red tunic that cut open at the sides and a baggy pair of tan ankle pants that cut off mid calf, her once bare feet now had homes in a flat pair of black shoes.

Ara looked…. Stunning. She had picked out an emerald green crop-top with gold trimming, the sleeveless top stopped just above her belly button and she wore a similar pair of baggy ankle pants with flat shoes. Her dark hair was wavy and loose, framing her figure in such a way that made Sokka’s mouth feel soft and warm.

Ara was in her element here, being the center of attention and receiving the adoration from the people around her. Reho also looked at her as if she were the purest image of beauty, his mouth gaped open at the sight of her. He snapped his jaw shut when he realized it was hanging open, with a sharp click of his teeth.

The merchant was laughing at their conversation when Sokka handed him their selections. Ara watched the clothing carefully as it was passed to the man behind the counter. The shopkeeper shifted through the pieces and then handed them back to Sokka and Reho. “Go change around back, there is a storage area around the corner where you can have a little privacy. Don’t be too long though, I better not have to come find you.”

Sokka nodded and handed Ara the pouch of coins he had been holding, there wasn’t much there, but he trusted her with the funds they had to make last. But new clothing was a necessity, without it they wouldn’t be able to blend into the background and travel within the crowds. Ara smiled at him, grabbing his shoulder softly, she gave it a small squeeze. “Opal and I are going to go take a look at the produce stands we passed earlier, meet us there ok?”

“Of course.”

She smiled at him one last time before her and Opal giggled together and wandered away, the merchant looked at Sokka and smiled. “Nothing is sweeter to the ears than the sound of two beautiful women laughing, don’t you agree?”

Sokka smiled, enjoying the simplicity of the moment. “Yeah, nothing sweeter, except maybe a moon-peach.”

The merchant gave him a strange look when his stomach gurgled awkwardly.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

He never realized that the prison uniforms were not cut from actual fabric, instead they must have been made out of tiny wood shavings, possibly tiny shards glass or sharp rocks… because whatever he just took off was torture compared to the soft fabrics he slid over his bruised and battered body. He was careful when he slid the sleeve onto his left arm, the fresh burn on that side of his ribcage was still wrapped from when Zuko had taken care of him, but it was tender and the bandages really needed to be changed.

The clean clothing and soft long sleeves comforted him in a way that made his voice wobble when he spoke. “R-ready Reho?”

Reho looked different with his similar browns and greens, his green eyes reflected off the green strips of fabric running across the collar and down the arms. He smiled and rubbed the soft material against his skin, “ohhhhh, it feels so good to be out of that itchy stuff! Now let’s go get a moon-peach!”

It was the greatest thing Reho had ever said.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It didn’t take long to spot Opal, she was semi-arguing with one of the merchants about the price of a cabbage, one of her hands was placed firmly on her hip as she jabbed her other finger into the leafy vegetable the man was holding. Sokka’s eyes scanned the open area looking for Ara, the vegetable market wasn’t that big, but it was big enough that it took Sokka a few minutes to walk past each stand looking for where Ara might have wandered off to. He started to get nervous when he didn’t see her anywhere, he felt the fear beginning to form in his chest, fuck he hated the way his body reacted without his control.

Reho was inspecting the moon-peaches as Sokka stormed past him and walked up to Opal, she was sliding the cabbage into the cloth bag the clothing merchant had given her. She smiled at Sokka and her face fell when she saw his frazzled state, “have you seen Ara?” He didn’t mean for his voice to snap at the end.

Opal smiled, “yeah? Calm down, jeez. She went back to the fabric shop to see if she could use his bathroom, she will be right back. Come on, let's find some rice.”

Opal and Sokka took their time in selecting a few other fresh vegetable options along with a sack of lentils, rice, and a bag of lychee nuts. When they were done and Ara wasn’t back yet, Opal’s expression slipped into a bit more of a worried one, her top teeth gnawed on her plump bottom lip nervously. Reho had joined them as well, finally selecting 3 moon-peaches that they agreed to bring back to camp for an after dinner treat.

When Ara appeared in the distance, walking towards them from the opposite side of the market from where the fabric merchant’s shop had been, Sokka didn’t think too much into it. He was just happy to see her back safe even though she looked distracted, but when her green eyes found her friends, she smiled and waved.

The sun was beginning to slip into the western sky as the afternoon started to get late. They didn’t have a long walk in front of them, but it was still a walk none-the-less and they were carrying more than they had been on their journey down to the village. The absolute worst part was the walk was all up-hill, they would need to leave soon in order to get to camp before dark and Sokka was starving.

“Sorry it took me so long! That merchant sure does like to talk, plus look – I found us a pot to cook our food in.” She giggled and offered to carry one of the sacks Opal was holding, who handed it over happily. “Oh! Did we end up getting a few moon-peaches? I’d love to tear into one of them, I am starving!”

Reho smiled excitedly, “yes please! Let’s eat one on the way back, if not... I think I might just die from hunger.”

Sokka smiled, his mind only focused on the plump, juicy, perfectly fuzzy peach Reho held in his hand as if it were the most precious thing in the world. They all smiled at one another before passing the peach back and forth, the juicy flavor exploded from the core when Sokka’s teeth tore through the flesh. The sticky insides dripped off his chin and onto his brand new clothing, usually it would annoy Sokka to have possibly stained his new outfit, but nothing was going to take away any of the joy he felt slurping up the flavors the moon peach provided.

He could get used to this.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When their rag-tag group made it all the way up the mountain and back to where they had hidden their fire benders, the sun was getting lower in the sky. Sokka felt his heartbeat pick up as they got closer to the circle of boulders, he wasn’t sure why he felt so nervous maybe it was because so far, everything was going pretty alright? Maybe he was being paranoid as he expected something bad to happen, like it always did.

Sokka spotted Zuko and Shen in almost the exact spot they had left them in earlier, this time Zuko was sitting on the ground with his legs stretched out in front of him and his back resting against the rock. Shen sat a few feet away, building what looked like a really deep fire pit… Sokka wasn’t sure if Shen had ever built a fire pit before, but something that deep would never hold a flame.

“You might want to make that hole a little shallower or the flame won't get enough air and it’ll go out.” Sokka thought his advice was helpful, but Shen shot him a glare and snorted rather rudely.

“In the Water Tribe maybe, but fire benders just need enough tinder to keep the flame going, we can fuel the fire with bending as long as there is air around.” Shen made an annoying hand motion in the air. “Yep, seems like a good enough amount of air, but thanks for the advice genius Water Tribe guy.”

Sokka rolled his eyes at Shen’s sarcasm, he was supposed to be the sarcastic one, not the grumpy old fire bender. “I was just trying to help!”

“If you must know, the reason I did it like this was to keep the light from the fire as low as possible, just in case there are Fire Nation scouts in the area, we don’t want to be seen.”

Zuko snorted in amusement this time and Sokka shot him a glare. It made sense, what Shen had said, but he wasn’t going let Zuko give him shit. Sokka did notice that the fire bender looked like he might have gotten some rest, even though he still looked too pale. The vines in his neck had dropped in color, which was a good sign, but he hasn’t been fire bending… so that was probably why. Sokka reached into their leather bag of supplies and rummaged around until he found Zuko’s new clothing and threw it at the sitting boy.

He caught it in the air and frowned, scrutinizing Sokka’s choice. “If you don’t like it, tough. It’s what I picked.” Zuko frowned in response but his gold eyes stayed fixed on the fabric he held hands and Sokka realized he might not be unhappy with the choice of clothing, he might just be going through the same rush of emotions Sokka did when he was finally free of the prison uniform. The only thing that remained now were their scars, but they would never be rid of those.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Ara and Opal cooked dinner, Zuko lit the fire (even when Sokka tried to whisper-shout him into taking it easy) Shen gathered wood and cleared out a small area for them to sleep. Reho organized their supplies and took count of everything they had, it wasn’t a lot, but it was so much better than nothing. They worked in silence until the food was finished cooking, it wasn’t until they went to eat that everyone realized they didn’t have any utensils or plates.

Of course, the boys had to venture into the forest and find whatever they could that would hold some rice and cabbage, Sokka was so excited to eat that his teeth were grinding together in anticipation. The first bite of real food in two days hit his stomach like a weight dropped in the water, sending ripples of nausea throughout him. He had to eat slowly, to give his stomach time to stretch, or it could fill too fast and he would risk throwing up, that was the absolute last thing he wanted to do.

Sokka was sitting next to Zuko, he had brought the fire bender over his food, giving him a break from interacting with Ara and the look he gave him was what Sokka considered a silent, Zuko-level ‘thank you.’

They sat next to each other with their backs pressed up against the large boulder, the stone felt cool against the warmth radiating from the skin on the back of Sokka’s sun-kissed neck. Zuko ate really slowly, he chewed with his mouth closed and took time between bites… he was probably trained how to eat like royalty.

Sokka felt a little foolish with the bits of rice sticking to his hands and he could feel where some of the rice stuck to spots around his mouth and on his chin. He flushed at the thought of looking like the kind of uncivilized savage the Fire Nation already thought he was, but when he snuck another glance at Zuko, the other boy didn’t seem to give a flying-fuck how Sokka ate. He stared down at his food, lost in thought, Sokka could see the glazed over look in his eyes when he went away.

It always made Sokka want to shake him in hopes of pulling him back and ask what he was doing inside his mind like that? What could he be thinking about right now that would make him glaze over and disconnect from the world around him? But Sokka never asked, he didn’t think Zuko would appreciate it very much and Sokka wouldn’t even know what to say anyway.

Sokka could feel when the weather took a turn and started to dip into the frigid temperatures of the night, and because they were camped on higher elevation the wind seemed to have extra freedom and carelessly ripped between the boulders, nipping harshly at Sokka’s exposed skin. Everyone seemed extra exhausted from all the energy they had been burning since escaping, so with food finally in their bellies they had the comfort they needed to get some decent sleep.

The fire was small, but still they huddled around its warmth, Ara and Shen snuggled close on the opposite side of the fire from Zuko and Sokka, which wasn’t at all surprising. Sokka was spying on Opal and Reho who seemed close enough just off to the side, they had been a little flirty since returning from the village.

They really needed to see if they could afford a bedroll or two… or at least some blankets, they had been lucky so far by escaping the dangerous game the cold liked to play. One overnight freeze could cause some serious problems for their health and no amount of Zuko’s fire bending would help them if they got too cold. There were a lot of different things that could happen to the human body if it got too cold, and they really couldn’t afford to have anyone get sick and slow them down.

Sokka was still nervous that being re-captured was a strong possibility, even with the change of clothing and food in their bellies, they were still at a huge disadvantage. Only one of them could properly fight and he was half dead, no one else had any weapons or much strength to hold their own against a well rested opponent.

No… they would need a lot of genuine luck if they were going to get out of this thing alive. The better prepared they were against things like the weather, or food, maybe they would have luck to do the rest.

The boys agreed to the same watch order as the previous night and Zuko said he would keep a small fire going – and just like that, the camp settled into a chilly slumber. The cold was tickling the tips of Sokka’s ears so he scooted closer to the fire to try and grab some of its warmth. Zuko was lying on his side next to Sokka, they were both still in the same spot by the boulder, the only time either of them had left was to use the bathroom.

Zuko laid with his good side up and his scarred side rested against his arm, Sokka wasn’t sure if he was sleeping yet because he could only see the other boy’s back. The new clothing concealed the memory of a blood soaked prison tunic that Zuko wore only hours ago, Sokka was still concerned about the other boy’s injuries but so far there was no blood soaking through his new tunic, so that was at least a good sign.

The night continued on and so did the dropping temperature, Sokka felt his body stiffen against the cold just before it began to tremble for warmth. Sokka knew he didn’t eat enough calories over the last two days to fuel his body enough to keep warm, he didn’t have any fat either… damn he missed his fucking parka.

Sokka’s mind was consumed by thoughts of snow, ice, cold drinks, winter, anything and everything that would make him even more cold than he already was. Until the fire caught his eye, the tip of the dancing flame twitched in an odd way, Sokka blinked and rubbed his eyes, assuming he was just officially going crazy... It wouldn’t be surprising... It has been a long time coming.

Would anyone really blame him for going crazy? After what he had been through, it would be hard not to expect him to go crazy.

Just as Sokka’s mind was going to go back through all the cold things he could think of and then maybe a little more about how he might be crazy... when he most-definitely saw the fire flicker in a weird, erratic way. Then it did it again, shrinking smaller just before popping up and moving around wildly. Sokka leaned it to get a closer look when the small flame shot high into the air, filling the entire pit. The flames continued to move around erratically before shrinking again… Sokka’s brow furrowed as he watched the bizarre activity, until his mind clicked.

Zuko.

Sokka pulled back from the fire and scooted a little closer to the sleeping fire bender. With closer inspection Sokka could see the small jerky movements Zuko’s body was making with his good eye squeezed shut and a heavy line of discomfort across his brow. He must be having a nightmare, Sokka wasn’t sure if waking him would be the best decision…

Zuko jerked again and gasped the smallest sound, his movement caused the flames to glow bright enough for Sokka to see everyone’s sleeping faces through the darkness, an orange glow painted their faces heavy with shadows just before the darkness returned. Sokka decided this was the kind of thing that would make someone notice their campsite, so he probably needed to wake up the dreaming fire bender.

Sokka reached out and touched Zuko’s shoulder gently, but firm enough to try and wake him… It worked, Zuko’s eyes sprang open and his body tensed like a wound up a rat-viper about to strike, Sokka whispered so quietly that only Zuko could hear him.

“You were having a nightmare and the fire was going crazy, I’m sorry, I had to wake you up.”

Zuko blinked and then nodded, letting his head rest back on his arm. He let out a long exhale and closed his eyes again.

“Thank you.” He whispered. Sokka smiled and leaned back against the freezing boulder, watching the small fire return to burning normally. For just a little while, Sokka’s mind relaxed and he thought about nothing until it was time to switch watches, thank goodness he was fucking exhausted.

Sokka woke Reho and it never failed that the guy always woke up like he had no idea what life was, where he was, or who the fuck he was. It was so weird. He would sit up super fast and look around panicked before asking what time it was, where they were, how long they had been here, why he was awake and so-on. Sokka would briefly fill him in with one word answers before returning to where he would be sleeping for the night.

Sokka dragged himself back to his spot beside Zuko and laid down, he began the same ritual he performed the night before where he curled into himself and tossed from side to side in an attempt to get warm. The teeth chattering was new, the rhythmic clicking was hard to stop as his jaw spasmed in an effort to try and generate heat. Sokka scooted closed to Zuko, he could feel the heat coming off the bender’s back, if he could just get a little closer-

Oh fuck he touched him on accident.

Sokka scooted a little too close to Zuko and ended up nudging the sleeping boy, with a soft groan Zuko lifted his head off of the ground and turned so Sokka could see only the good side of his face.

“Sokka?”

“Yes?”

“What are you doing?”

“… I’m cold…”

There was only the sound of the howling wind until, “.... ugh, come here then.”

Sokka tilted his head, he didn’t understand what Zuko meant by come here. Zuko patiently waited and when Sokka didn’t move, his one eyebrow narrowed and he growled softly in frustration.

“Come on this side, I mean.”

Oh! Sokka stood and walked around as quietly as he could and laid down on Zuko’s other side and for some odd reason he laid facing the other boy. Zuko had head back down against his arm and was looking at Sokka… and it kind-of took his breath away.

The moon was almost half full in the clear sky and the extra light cast the world in a soft silver glow, but even with the silver hue Zuko’s eyes were still gold. It was like he was caught in them, drowning in the molten pools of burning gold, they were almost eerie to look at… Sokka wondered if this is what it would be like to stare into the eyes of a dragon?

“What?” Zuko’s voice was annoyed and he frowned at Sokka, snapping the boy out of his dragon-thoughts and back to the fact that this was not a dragon, this was crabby Zuko, who had woken up twice tonight.

“Nothing, sorry.” Sokka felt stupid, and weird, and now he just wanted to go to sleep and stop saying and doing stupid shit. He quickly rolled over and closed his eyes, forgetting why he even came over here in the first place. It wasn’t until he felt Zuko’s rough fingers gently skate up the bare skin of his back and rested flat against the center of his back, that’s when the heat began to roll in.

The warmth flooded through him and sleep grabbed his mind instantly.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Everyone slept-in the next morning, well… everyone except Shen and Zuko. They were up stupid early and left the camp for a while, but when Sokka could hear bits of Shen talking loudly off in the distance he knew it was time to get up. Rolling lazily onto his stomach Sokka dragged his tired body to his knees and then slowly pushed himself to his feet. The smell that hit him was disturbing, he didn’t know it was possible for a person to stink this bad. He began to think and found he wasn’t sure the last time he cleaned himself was, but fuck, he smelled like polar-dog shit.

They would need to back-track at some point today to bathe in the river, he needed to get all the dried… whatever off of him. Don’t think about what it is, just that it needs to come off.

Ara and Opal were almost done cooking and they seemed ecstatic over the idea of a bath and the distant thought of what it might feel like to be clean. Sokka knew they would be excited, who didn’t like to bathe?

“Where are Shen and Zuko?” He finally asked when he didn’t see the fire benders anywhere.

Ara scoffed and Opal elbowed her before smiling at Sokka and answering the question like an adult. (cough, cough, Ara) “They were meditating on the ledge earlier and now I think Zuko is showing Shen how to use a sword, you know… just in case his bending doesn’t come back for a while.”

Sokka’s mouth gaped open. “Wait, they are having sword lessons and didn’t invite me?!”

It hurt, it hurt so deep.

Ara rolled her eyes and Opal giggled, “from what I saw, it was more like Shen was yelling at Zuko who was just knocking him over.”

Ara cleared her throat, “well why don’t you two stop jabbing and get something to eat while the food is still warm. I told Shen to be back before early afternoon, so they should be back soon, now go eat.”

She wasn’t wrong, just as Sokka sat down to eat his interesting meal containing a few leechy nuts over left-over rice (Sokka needed to find some meat soon or he was going to still starve to death eating this kind of stuff) Shen and Zuko came around one of the boulders… Shen looked like Opal was correct when she said that Shen was knocked down in the dirt quite a bit. Zuko seemed pleased with himself with his cocky strut that Sokka couldn’t stop watching.

Shen looked different in his normal-person outfit Ara had picked out for him, Sokka always thought he looked like a Fire Nation soldier and the red and black outfit accentuated those features. Shen’s beard was the only thing throwing off his Fire Nation look, the beard had grown now to where it completely covered his chin and even extended down some. Sokka insecurely rubbed his own chin, disappointed when he found it smooth.

Sokka was glad to see that Zuko’s veins were no longer tinted grey, he was back to being pale, well… except for the bruising on his neck and face, the swelling had gone down but he was still marked black and blue. Shen smiled when he saw Ara, she returned his eager smile with her own. It made Sokka’s heart warm to see them together and free. He wondered if they would start a life together, maybe build a home somewhere far away from the terrible memories that were sure to haunt all of them forever.

Sokka’s thoughts were interrupted when Zuko plopped down next to him, almost silent except for the soft thud his knees made when bounced off the ground. Sokka shot him a glare, “did you have fun with your… sword bending?”

Zuko held a piece of wood that held his scoop of overcooked rice and leechy nuts, he set it on the ground in front of him and glared back at Sokka.

“First of all, don’t say stupid shit like that. Secondly, if you are insinuating that you are mad because you did not come with us, well that is your own fault. I invited you, and you growled at me, so I left.”

Sokka frowned and tried to think back to a soft pink light and a few birds singing their good morning songs as they woke to the sunlight peeking over the distant rocky mountain line… he might remember Zuko poking him in the head… the rest was a blur.

“I don’t remember you trying to wake me.” Sokka pushed the last bite of food into his mouth and chewed a couple of times before swallowing. Zuko just grunted in response and picked at his food, the stupid fire bender never seemed interested in eating, it was just another thing weird thing about Zuko. The guy was pure muscle, Sokka was very aware of that from watching him fight and being in such close quarters with him, but he was also too lean.

Sokka thought he could use some weight, but Zuko could do whatever he wanted with his food, it wasn’t Sokka’s problem.

Eat. Don’t eat. Whatever.

Sokka still couldn’t help but watch him until all the food was gone and he felt a weight lift off his chest in relief… whatever. Sokka decided to figure out what time they were planning on going back to the village, he needed a blanket or a bedroll or something because fuck it was cold at night and Sokka didn’t want to have to keep begging Zuko to keep him warm. He had been nice enough to do it so far, but knowing Zuko, eventually he was going to tell him to fuck off and Sokka needed to be prepared for when that happened.

“Ara, when do you want to go down to the village? I was thinking maybe after we all get back we can go bathe in the river and refill our canteens, I know mine is running low. Oh, maybe we can find some soap in the village too!”

Reho and Opal sighed at the same time before saying in unison, “ahhhh, soap.”

They said it in an adoring way that could only be understood by someone who had been through what they had in the last 2 days, soap was an exciting and soothing thought. Ara didn’t answer right away, her fingers were pulling at her rice, almost the same way that Zuko did. She looked up and smiled, but Sokka felt like there was a hesitation before she answered.

“I was thinking, now that we all have fresh clothing… Maybe we can all go to the village together? I would like to show Shen a few things I saw yesterday and I’m sure it’ll be ok if we all go down as a group now that we aren’t dressed like prisoners and covered in blood. What do you think?”

Sokka didn’t think he saw a problem with all of them going down as a group, especially now that they looked like regular Earth Kingdom people… well, besides the hollow look in their eyes and the scars that couldn’t be hidden. Other than that, it was totally fine.

“Yeah that sounds fine.” Sokka looked over at Zuko, he lowered his voice so only he could hear. “You ok with that?”

Zuko frowned when he realized Sokka was whispering to him, but he quickly schooled his face and nodded. “Yeah. It’s fine.”

See, everything was fine.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

That’s how the entire group of escaped prisoners ended up casually strolling through the fishing village, laughing and shopping without a care in the world. Well, almost all of them acted without care, Zuko stayed close to Sokka and kept his head down. As they moved through the village Sokka had to keep reaching up and touching his nose to check for a booger, or something else disgusting on his face, because people kept… staring at him and then quickly looking away.

It wasn’t until Sokka began to really pay attention that he noticed the people weren’t staring at him they were staring at Zuko and then looking away embarrassed. It clicked for Sokka, like the way a well-made door snapped into place, they were looking at Zuko’s scar and then they were looking away quickly, not to get caught.

Sokka glanced at Zuko, the slightly taller boy was around height with his head bent down towards the ground, allowing his shaggy black hair to hang over the top part of his eyes, but the scar was too big to hide with his hair and it would be noticeable no matter what he did.

A surge of familiar anger rushed through him, he wanted to shove the next person that stared at Zuko right in the face and push their leering, judgmental eyes away. He felt the anger building with every step they took, he couldn’t explain it… but he hated the idea of people judging Zuko for that when it was so clearly a horrible thing to have gone through. People needed to mind their own fucking business –

“You ok?”

Sokka blinked and looked over at Zuko who had his eyebrow raised, staring directly at him.

“Yeah… why?”

“No reason… just… if you don’t stop squeezing that moon-peach to death, I think the merchant is going to pass out.”

Sokka looked down and realized while lost in his inner rantings, he had walked up to the moon-peach stand and gripped one of the fruits so tightly he could feel it’s juices squirming under the fuzzy skin. He dropped the fruit like it burned, the peach rolled off the stand and onto the floor…

The moon-peach falling in the dirt must have been the final straw for the merchant because he moved towards Sokka quickly, his hands in the air in a gesture of frustration.

But Zuko didn’t understand gestures of frustration, or the harmlessness of fruit merchants in fishing towns, because when the merchant moved towards them just a little too fast Sokka felt himself jerk back and Zuko stepped in front of him. He reached back and grabbed the handle of his sword. His gold eyes were locked on the merchant who stopped moving as soon as Zuko went on the defense, the man must have seen the scar or maybe it was the burning in Zuko’s eyes but he put his hands out in surrender and insisted they take the moon-peach on the house and anything else they wanted.

“- I don’t want any trouble.” The merchant practically begged.

Those words stuck with Sokka as he held the bruised and dirty fruit in his hands while they walked away.

Did they just… rob the fruit merchant? Zuko held his own free fruit, he too seemed to be mulling the situation over, but neither of them said anything about it. Sokka inhaled his moon-peach without chewing and then groaned when the decadent treat was gone, he could have fainted from excitement when Zuko handed him his own fruit.

“I don’t like them, they are too sweet.”

Ahhhhh, so he didn’t eat his dessert because it was too sweet. He doesn’t like sweets. Another Zuko mystery solved, no secrets were safe from detective Sokka.

“Well thank you, I will gladly eat your moon-peach. Has anyone ever told you how great you are? Because you are the absolute best Zuko.” Sokka didn’t really think through his words, he took the first bite into the juicy fruit and stole a glance at Zuko, whose neck and face were almost as red as his scar.

Sokka paused, and replayed his words back to himself and realized that the simplist compliment about a dumb moon-peach was enough to make the fie bender flush that crazy red color. Sokka smiled internally, he would make sure to compliment Zuko more… Oh - New game! See how red he could make Zuko flush, perfect.

He munched happily on the peach, thinking of all the ways he might be able to compliment his new buddy. They walked in silence to the edge of town, Sokka held his only purchase of a new blanket under one of his arms. He had been disappointed that he couldn’t afford a bedroll but only had a few copper pieces left from the small bag of coins he snagged from Zhao’s desk and the bedroll was a silver piece. Way out of his price range.

When he found this dingy, brown, frayed on one side blanket for only two copper pieces he was more than thrilled to make the exchange. The blanket may have its flaws, just like his parka had, but it was his blanket and it was going to keep him warm at night. What was even more exciting, was that wrapped inside the blanket was a perfect bar of soap just waiting to clean him.

Sokka had just slammed down the last bite of Zuko’s moon-peach and was licking his fingers when he spotted Shen and Ara at the edge of the village. Opal and Reho were coming around the corner and Reho waved happily at Sokka, who waved back. (Sometimes he had to admit that the guys positivity was contagious)

“Everyone got what they need?” Shen asked.

Everyone nodded as they stood together at the edge of the village, Sokka felt a rush of excitement knowing that the next thing they were all going to do was bathe! The sun was moving lower in the sky, indicating the beginning of late afternoon. When her light broke through the trees it painted the ground with fun patterns, Sokka felt a soft breeze tickle the back of his neck.

It was a beautiful day, even though the Earth Kingdom was freezing at night and usually too hot during the day, sometimes there was a perfect mixture of sun, wind, and shade and the Earth Kingdom became one of the most beautiful places in the world. Sokka reached his arms up over his head, ignoring the musty stank that wafted through the air, he stretched and smiled before addressing the group.

“Ready to head to the river? It’s not too far from our camp we can just-“

Ara cut him off, “ - I spoke to a few people in the village and they said that there was an amazing spring up ahead that we can bathe in, there is even a waterfall. Imagine, it would be like taking a shower and a bath.” Her voice moved quickly through the words, Sokka noticed her eyes shift to her feet when she spoke, letting her foot slide in and out of her flat shoe.

Shen watched Ara, when she finally looked up she was smiling. She glanced at Shen and then looked at Sokka, he paused, something wasn’t right with her… she was off, nervous and uneasy. There was a heavy feeling in his chest when he latched onto her nervous energy, he began to feel anxious as the group shrugged and followed Ara’s lead.

They were walking through the dense forest for a while before the trees started to space and the lower shrubbery began to vanish. The vines had less foliage to attack so they dwindled down to almost nonexistent, the dirt forest floor was replaced with soft grass and rocks. The further down they hiked, the more the terrain opened up and Sokka wasn’t able to push away the nervous feeling. He almost said something when the sound of rushing water entered his eardrums.

Sokka let out a loud exhale of bone-numbing relief… his fingers felt numb from how tightly he was gripping his fists. The water was just as Ara described, crystal clear with a bed full of colored pebbles that had been smoothed from the years under the rushing water. It was a decent size pool of water and Sokka could almost taste the crisp refreshing liquid rushing down his throat, he glanced over at Zuko who looked… unreadable.

Opal squealed and did an excited-jumping-jig and Reho had a huge grin on his face but when Sokka looked back at Ara he felt the slow crawl of anxiousness return when he saw her staring out over the water in a sad, thoughtful way. Her green eyes looked lost, and the glossy gleam of tears were welling in her eyes, Sokka watched as one of them slipped free and danced down her cheek.

The words left his lips along with the moisture in his mouth, “Ara….”

She turned slowly to look at him. Her eyes locked with his and she let the damn break as the tears streamed down her face, the utter devastation was plastered across her face. Sokka was confused, what was happening with Ara that would make her act like this… he couldn’t think about the doubt and anxiety that was kicking his brain and begging him to ask her… just ask.

“…. Ara what-“

Her green eyes snapped away from him and looked directly past him, the sadness in her eyes flickered through a few emotions before settling on a look Sokka couldn’t read. It didn’t matter though… he knew what had happened, the sickness in his stomach started to bubble when the voice he begged the spirits to take him far… far… away from chuckled behind him.

“Well, well well…. What do we have here?”

Sokka closed his eyes, his hands shook with the fear and anger that was mixing together in a whirlwind of emotions that Sokka couldn’t understand. He took one last look at Ara and the peaceful scene of the rushing water behind them. Closing his eyes he turned to face the man who haunted the back of his mind.. every-single-day….

Zhao

When Sokka opened his eyes he saw they were surrounded, at least 20 soldiers had moved in through the forest… where they had been waiting for them. The soldiers wrapped around them in a C formation, the lake was to their backs so the only option would be to fight or swim. The soldiers were dressed in their shiny red armor, topped off with their spiked helmets and faceless faceplates, the sight of the white mask and lifeless eye holes made Sokka’s stomach weak. It was something out of his nightmares, wanting to grab him and throw him into the freezing ocean below.

Sokka looked over at Zuko who had slowly made his way next to Sokka and had one of his hands firmly grasping the handle of his swords. The boy’s eyes were fixed on Zhao, Sokka felt a strange feeling of intimidation when he looked at Zuko’s expression, the boy’s face was twisted in a snarling glare.

Zuko’s narrowed brow didn’t hide the darkness that coated his golden eyes, it was frightening for Sokka to look at, it was so much like the old Zuko… just…. different. Sokka watched Zhao’s amber eyes sweep over the group, stopping when he saw Zuko. Sokka had a sudden strong urge to hide Zuko behind him so Zhao couldn’t see him. The look in the man’s eyes made the cold chills rush down Sokka’s arms, all his hairs startled into standing.

Sokka swallowed the hot bile that ripped up his windpipe, not allowing himself to make a sound when Zhao stepped forward. He wore a sadistic smirk and was clad in his black and gold armor, but no cape today. Sokka saw the opening to make a joke… like maybe something about the lack of cape and how it had to do with Zhao lacking something…

…. but he couldn’t think of humor right now. Not when Zhao stood directly in front of him, with an army at his back. They were completely and hopelessly fucked, even if he were to throw himself into the water the fire benders would just boil the lake… Sokka shuddered at the idea of being boiled alive. The painful memories and phantom pains from his scarred hand reminded him of the danger of boiling water.

“I see you took the attack on the prison as an open invitation to leave. Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you are in fact still prisoners and the punishment for escaping is death. Now I am surprised to see such an odd group working together, but when Ara told me about the little escape plan I must say… I was intrigued. The attack on our prison was an added surprise, but this is war after-all... so surprises happen, just like I am sure you all are surprised to see me here.”

Zhao paused, smirking, he placed his arms behind his back and titled his chin upward in an arrogant display of power. Slowly, he began to pace in front of the group, the tension was so thick Sokka thought he might choke on it.

“Ara?” Shen’s voice sounded weak and his usual strong, playful demeanor was broken down, exposing the scared man on the other side. “What is he talking about?”

Ara squeezed her eyes shut and took a step away from Shen, her arms wrapped around her stomach and a soft sob squeezed past her lips. Sokka could see her trembling, her skin looked washed of color as she tried to control her soft sobbing.

“I’m sorry…” was all she whispered, her head stayed facing down towards the ground.

Zhao smirked. “Don’t apologize dear, now come away from the prisoners. We have to deal with this situation so we can head back to camp.”

Zhao was enjoying this too much, it made Sokka sick, he had hoped to never see the man again and here he was standing in front of them, shattering the world of lies Sokka had surrounded himself with.

Ara was a traitor.

She was a liar.

Things were not looking good for them.

Ara complied with Zhao’s request and her legs moved slowly as she dragged herself over to Zhao’s side of the fight, the side she had been standing on the entire time. The thought alone made Sokka’s anger flare up, how could she do this to them!? Why would she do this!? Didn’t she want to be free?!

“Ara told me all about your little ‘escape plan’ the day you shared your plan with her. Ara has always been loyal to me, for all 6 years she has been by my side, it was never going to work out for you. I will admit though, Water Tribe, switching villages at the last minute really threw us off your trail. Lucky for me, Ara is as smart as she is beautiful and she sent me a messenger hawk with the correct village and where we would meet and lucky for you we were close.”

Shen stepped forward and the faceless soldiers shifted to a defensive stance, ready to defend their leader if needed. Sokka couldn’t take his eyes off Ara, she had not lifted her eyes off the ground and Sokka silently begged her to look at him. He just wanted to know why!?

“Why Ara?” Shen’s voice was even weaker than before, seeing Ara standing next to Zhao must have hurt him in a way that Sokka wouldn’t understand. The hurt he felt in his heart mixed with the inner turmoil that was brewing inside of Sokka, the toxic mixture of emotions was smothering his thoughts. Yet, his expression stayed calm, he didn’t have a weapon and he could tell by the twinkle in Zhao’s eyes that he was up to no good.

He glanced at Ara again, who refused to look up from the dirt, when she ignored Shen’s plea for an answer, Zhao moved on. The admiral nodded at one of the men and a group of soldier’s stepped forward, there were four men that stood in a line with straight backs and blank faceplates. Sokka wouldn’t even be able to look into the eyes of the men that planned to kill him, Zhao didn’t even need to say anything… Sokka knew what he planned to do.

He had won, he had always known about their plan to escape, he had always had Ara with them to sabotage them from the inside out, like a vicious poison slowly tearing it’s host to death. His dad always warned him about which plants were unsafe to eat and the dangers of eating an animal that they didn’t kill themselves. His dad was a strong hunter and survivalist. He taught Sokka to beware of things that can make you sick, because sometimes it’s the smallest thing that will take down the biggest man.

Ara was a poison that coursed through their group’s veins, tainting their bloodstream and slowly killing them from the inside. Now there was a promised death in front of them, in the form of Zhao, coming to finish the job. Sokka watched in a mixture of cold horror and warm acceptance that this was it…. There was no more escaping.

Sokka glanced at Zuko next to him, the boy no longer had a hand on his swords, instead he had both his hands out in front him in a fire bending stance. Zhao seemed amused by Zuko’s change of demeanor, he displayed a mocking smile, his eyes fixed on Zuko and Zuko alone.

“Take your position.” The admiral commanded.

The four soldiers held identical stances and moved together in complete unison as they prepared to unleash their attack. To Sokka’s horror, he realized they were going to burn them alive. The world seemed to slow down and there was an almost euphoric stillness just before the muffled sound of a man yelling fire and a woman screaming out for him to stop.

The heat was the first thing Sokka felt, his eyes were frozen wide as the twirling pillars of fire moved towards them in slow motion. There was no sound in Sokka’s ears anymore, only the sight of the deadly attack coming towards them to finish what the universe started, he was going to die this time.

Sokka saw Zuko step forward, he moved so he was standing in front of Sokka and the rest of the group, the next part felt like a dream. Zuko rooted himself to the ground and ripped out his own counter wall of fire. Zuko moved his arms in a strong circular motion and created a shield of fire around them, causing the attacking fire to deflect to the side. The attacks dispersed in an explosion of angry fire and heat, and both soldiers and prisoners fell back.

Sokka hit the ground with such accelerated force that head smashed against the ground, there was a ringing in his ears and the distant sound of clashing metal and screaming. Sokka reached out his hands to grab hold of the earth beneath him and tried to push himself to his feet, his trembling arms ached as they wobbled underneath him. Sokka felt a set of hands grab his shoulders and pull him back, he stumbled backwards haphazardly eventually losing his balance and his butt hit the earth, the hands were suddenly gone.

Sokka shook his head and blinked. He looked up to just in time to see a metal boot coming down towards his face and there was a sharp pain and heavy pressure before everything went black.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When Sokka woke up, things were distorted and his brain felt like Appa had licked it… Oh, that’s right, there is no Appa. Sokka’s brain flinched and throbbed when his mind tried to pull Appa’s face from his memory, he could hardly remember what the fuzzy beast looked like… if only he had that picture he drew.

His head throbbed and there was a heavy roll in his stomach with a slight feeling of falling in a dream… that was before all the emotions and memories came flooding back…

FUCK

Zhao ambushed them, Ara’s betrayal… The capture. Sokka began to panic, he could feel the rope cutting into the tender skin on his wrists from where his arms were restrained behind his back. He was tied to a pole in the center of a tent, a red tent…. A fucking, fucking red, fucking tent.

A scream tore itself from Sokka’s lungs and ripped out his throat like an angry tiger-dillo, but instead it came out sounding like a strangled otter-seal, one that was caught in a net left by a careless fisherman. But at least he would have been caught in the net on accident… this was no accidental capturing, this was a hunt. He was hunted like an animal and when he was set to be killed, fucking Zuko saved them… again.

Zuko

His heart began to pound into his chest, stomping its way down into his already churning stomach, together he was sure he was going to throw up or faint. Did Zhao get Zuko? Oh spirits… Was Sokka the only one left alive? What happened to Reho, Opal and Shen? Why was he alone? Were they going to interrogate him?

The phantom-burning under the boiled flesh of his hand returned when he thought about the times he sat at the wooden table, staring Zhao in the face… this time Sokka did throw up. He couldn’t help it, he was so scared and alone… he didn’t want to go through it again… he didn’t want to be alone again.

With every beat of his heart the blood pumped through his body, flowing so freely he could swear he heard the soft swishing as the thick, warm liquid moved through his veins. He knew about blood now, he knew what it smelled like, what it felt like… and how when it was released from the body, it spread out like a fire… consuming anything it touched, engulfing it in the warmth. Sokka could feel his mind feeding the darkness, cultivating it into enough strength it could finally consume him.

He felt weak… weaker than he had in all the time spend traveling on the murder ship, left to rot alone in the metal box, tortured, ripped from his own sanity, scarred, and when he was finally free and he had saved them… he had saved her….

She turned on them, no….. NO...She was never facing them, she had always been two faced. From the moment her sparkling green eyes broke through the fog in his mind and she healed the damage his body had endured… she was lying... She had saved him she had nurtured him she was his fucking friend and she stabbed them all in the back.

He expected to feel anger, he had become so accustomed to the burning rage that hid just below the surface of his outward appearance, he was expecting it to thrust its ugly head and make him scream out. But the fear had died down into almost nothing and only the empty feeling of hopelessness was left in its place. The hopeless made a home living in the deep hole the anger had burned inside of him. Sokka had been so close… and yet… so far. With Ara along, they were always doomed to fail.

Even though he knew of her betrayal now, thinking back he knew there wasn’t a scenario where he wouldn’t have taken her… He had always wanted to save her.

Sokka let his head drop, his back was flat against the pole and his legs stretched out in front of him. In a childish effort to comfort himself he pulled his knees towards him, the position was a little awkward with his arms restrained behind him, but it felt good to feel small and curled into himself. Sokka tried to ignore the sweet smell of his vomit that was splattered down the front of his tunic... he only had the moon-peach since breakfast, so the vomit smelled like a rotten-moon-peach.

So it wasn’t… horrible.

Sokka sat like that for a long time, unable to tell what time of day it was, or how long he had been out, but when he heard Zhao yelling he closed his eyes and concentrated his ears on the man’s voice. He sounded really really angry and he was yelling.

“- How have you not found ANY OF THEM!?”

“Sir… we - “

“I don’t want to hear, we captain, I want to hear how you are going to get results. The longer we go without apprehending one of them, the farther away they get. Do you understand? If we do not capture Zuko I will make sure every man under my command goes down with me, do I make myself clear?”

There was the sound of clinking metal from an obvious hand gesture the captain made and the sound of him moving away in a different direction. Sokka listened closely until he could no longer hear the man’s armor, there was silence until Zhao’s voice broke in exceptionally loud and close.

He must be standing directly in front of the tent Sokka was in.

“Where do you think you are going?”

Sokka’s heart skipped a beat out of habit when he heard Ara’s voice respond, “I am going to see if he is awake.” Her voice sounded horse, like it had been broken into pieces and put back together in the wrong order, she didn’t sound like Ara… but who the fuck was Ara anyway? He surely didn’t know. He noticed when she sniffled as she waited for Zhao to answer her.

“If he is awake, you come and get me right away. I plan on talking with him about his little escape plan when he comes to. You are already on thin ice girl, you better tread lightly.”

There was silence, and Sokka held his breath when the tent’s opening moved and Ara peeled back the flap. If Sokka were all-there, he might have pretended like he was sleeping, or at least tried to prepare himself to look directly into the eyes of the woman who ripped out his heart and squeezed it with her cold cruel fingers until he bled. Her green eyes went wide as his blue one tore into her pretend strength, it only took a few breaths between them for her to crumble.

She fell to her knees and buried her head into her open hands, her sobs were ugly and deep as she wheezed and whimpered between breaths. Sokka watched her cry for a few minutes, he didn’t know what to say... because she deserved to cry… she deserved to feel the pain she caused each and everyone of them when she tore away their only chance of freedom.

With all the thoughts tumbling around his mind, biting and clawing their way forward, wanting to rip through Ara like a wild animal. Instead, he only managed to speak one word.

“Why?”

His voice was dry and the word croaked in his throat, but it came out none-the-less. Sokka watched as it took Ara a minute to clean herself up, she rubbed her eyes with her sleeve and carefully pretended to not scrub away the snot running down her face. Finally, she looked at him again, her eyes red-rimmed and lip quivering, but she was looking at him.

“I-I… It wasn’t supposed to be… to be like this. You guys weren’t supposed to get hurt…”

Sokka furrowed his brow, his eyes never leaving her, even as she shifted her vision around the tent… even though there was nothing in there but him, the pole and the dirt on the ground. She sat on her butt in front of him with her knees pulled up to her chest the same way Sokka had his, but she was able to wrap her arms around her knees and hold them close.

“…. Who got hurt?” Sokka’s heart started to race, what had happened to everyone else?

Ara’s eyes filled with hot tears again, they didn’t even hesitate to spill over her bottom eyelid and slide down her face. The sobs came back, uglier and heavier than before – something bad had happened, something really bad.

“Ara… please.”

“O-Opal… they… T-they killed Opal… She… they burned her… alive... I heard her scream...”

Sokka felt the drop of his stomach when he thought back to the last time he saw Opal.. the silly jig she did when her and Reho saw the beautiful lake… The lake that Ara promised would comfort them and allow them to wash off the last of the filth that remained from their time in prison. Yet… she knew that she was leading them to a lie.. and she was a fool for trusting a mad-man to keep his word.

Sokka’s eyes trailed down Ara’s face and caught a glimpse of her wrist when she raised her arm to push her hair behind her ear, there was a bruise in the very beginning stages and the lightest pink color on her skin, like someone had grabbed his wrist and burned. She saw Sokka’s eyes on her wrist and she quickly pulled her arm down and hid the evidence of his abuse in her lap.

“He… was mad.”

“I can only imagine, his plan didn’t really go as he expected.” Sokka snorted in amusement. “Ha, that makes two of us.”

Ara started to cry again, Sokka closed his eyes and ignored the woman while she cried into her knees, wallowing in self pity. There was a small spark of the anger he remembered, like a tiny flame flickering at his patience, melting away the small amount that was left.

“If you are just going to sit here and cry about what happened, then you should just leave. Tell Zhao I am awake and let him come here and finish what he started, I would rather just do that then sit here and see you fucking cry about something you did this is all your fault you have no one to blame but yourself for Opal’s death. Why… just… WHY ARA!? WHY!? We were FREE! He would have never found us! B-but you… you just… you fucking bitch Ara… for what!? What do you get out of this!?”

Ara’s green eyes switched from pity to anger, she glared into him and violently began wiping away at her tears again. “I just wanted things to go back to normal! How things were before fucking… ZUKO came and ruined everything!”

Sokka felt the flame of his anger grow, how dare she right now…

“Zuko!? You are going to blame this on Zuko!? You owe me a fucking explanation now, what the fuck is wrong with you!?”

Ara blinked, like the words meant something to her… like they resonated with her in a way that only she would understand. Taking a few deep breaths she closed her eyes and started talking.

“Zhao came to my village when I was 16 and took me away from my family and my friends… he promised to take me around the world and that maybe one day, I would get to be his wife. I was from a small village, Sokka… even though I knew it was wrong, I embraced my new life with Zhao. He took me with him a few times... when he would head out to sea, it was the most amazing thing I ever experienced… We would eat together in his cabin or on deck, he would read me old scrolls from a secret Fire Nation library and I would lie next to him and listen to him talk…”

She signed, her eyes were somewhere off in the distance, lost in a memory that Sokka wouldn’t understand. A memory that made Sokka’s skin crawl and anger flare.

“I lived as a prisoner… yes, but I didn’t feel like a prisoner… I would spend the night in Zhao’s bed, eat the food he would eat, I had things in his cabin and I was happy. I loved… I love Zhao… I love him so much, Sokka, he is all I know and…. When… Zuko arrived... everything changed… Suddenly I no longer existed, I would go to Zhao and he would turn me away. I tried to spend time with him and he would send me away, or tell me he wasn’t available, everything slowly changed after that. I never saw Zhao, he never touched me, he barely even registered my existence. I wanted to know what was going on and why he didn’t want me anymore… So I convinced a guard that Zhao wanted me to be in his cabin when he got there and....”

Ara’s brow furrowed and she glared into her knees, scratching lightly at the material covering her skin. “That’s when I saw him… Zuko... he was in Zhao’s bed...”

Sokka blinked, what?

Ara frowned, “Zhao was finding his entertainment in other places and I was no longer welcome, Zuko took him from me and he didn’t even fucking care! I confronted him… after I saw... and he just looked at me! He didn’t even say anything, he just stared at me with his stupid… scarred face! After that…. I just see him and I feel an overwhelming anger, I can’t even control it sometimes. He was the Prince of The Fire Nation, he is fucking Fire Lord Ozai’s first born son…. He could have had anything! Anyone! Why did he have to come into my life and ruin it…”

Sokka just stared at her, because it was at this moment that he realized Zuko was not exaggerating when he said that Ara was crazy… she was. She was crazy in a way that made Sokka so sad… she had been taken from her home at such a young age and forced to live with Zhao, he had used her and manipulated her into thinking that he was providing her with a stable environment, just to drop her after all those years when someone better came along.

Sokka had that familiar cold feeling when he thought about what Ara said about Zuko being in Zhao’s bed... but he wouldn’t let his mind dwell on that.

“So…. Why all this? Why come with us? Why pretend to care about us - “

“ - I do care about you Sokka - “

“NO!” Sokka was caught in just as much surprise as Ara was when he screamed at her, she let her head fall in shame.

“… I do.”

“NO! You aren’t allowed to say that, you aren’t allowed to say anything that says you care about any of us… we were free Ara… we could have escaped! If you wouldn’t have…” Sokka lets his words trail off into silence. The tension in the tent was choking him, there was a numbness in his hands from having his arms restrained behind his back the way they were. In an attempt to bring feeling back to his appendages he wiggled his fingers, there was a missing tension that was usually wrapped between the fingers on his left hand, his sister’s necklace.

“Where is the necklace I had!?” He didn’t mean for his voice to crack when he said neck-lace, but this was just another thing thrown onto his ever-growing-pile-of-shit that was piling up all over his life. Not only was he back in Zhao’s possession, but he had lost the one thing he had to connect him back to his family… but what did it matter anyway? He was never going to see any of them ever again…

“I-I didn’t see a necklace… everything happened so fast…”

“What happened, Ara?”

Ara’s puffy face dipped back into a dejected expression, her eyes oozed with more tears as her shaking voice retold the events of his capture.

“Zhao was waiting… and when he went to…” she paused, a small snob left her trembling lips and after a few sniffles, she continued. “When he went to carry out your execution, Zuko stepped up and I don’t know what he did... but his fire met with their fire and the collision sent everyone flying backwards. Things were chaotic after that, I saw Shen try to come for me, but the soldiers tried to stop him… Opal…” A couple sobs racked her chest followed by soft whimpering, “Opal tried to… S-she tried to run… and they… she burned. After that, things got fuzzy… I remembered seeing Zhao go for Zuko, he was trying to get you off the ground, he was pulling you backwards and Zhao attacked… They fought, Zuko got away and took off into the woods. The soldiers had you unconscious and restrained, I don’t know what happened to Reho or Shen… but they got away.”

Sokka felt his own tears return when he thought of Opal’s smiling face and fuzzy red hair; she didn’t deserve to die like that. Sokka slowly looked back at Ara again, “then what happened?”

“Well… Zhao has most of his men out in the woods looking for Zuko.”

Sokka frowned, “Why Zuko? Why is it always Zuko?!”

“He is the Prince of the Fire Nation, Sokka… and Zhao was supposed to execute him…”

“What do you mean? Supposed to execute him?”

Ara sighed, “that’s why he is so.. uh, frantic? About getting Zuko back. The Fire Lord thinks Zhao executed Zuko as a traitor, the entire Fire Nation all think Prince Zuko was executed as a traitor to his nation. It was a huge honor for Zhao to be allowed to carry out the order, only royals are supposed to execute members of the royal family – “

“- So if Zuko is seen out in the world, alive Zhao would be in trouble.”

Ara snorted, it wasn’t a good look for her with her already stuffed up voice and tear stained cheeks. “No, Zhao would be more than in trouble, he would be dead. The Fire Lord would have him executed for treason and conspiracy against the crown. His life would be over, so… you see why I had to help him, I couldn’t let him die, Sokka.” Her voice died down into a whisper.

Sokka frowned, his face scrunched into a twisted scowl of anger when he thought of Zuko falling to the ground after taking too many bending suppressants, he thought about the way Zuko’s chest and arms looked from the countless times he had been tortured, he thought of the whippings, the marks on his neck… and she wanted to sit here and tell him she needed to help Zhao with his sick, sadistic fantasy of conquering a member of the fucking dumbass Fire Nation royal family.

“No, Ara.. I don’t see it. I will never see things the way you do because you are so fucked up I could never relate to you. Zhao is a monster, he deserves to die and if you help him… well then you deserve to die too.”

Sokka had never said something so horrible to someone before, even when Jet destroyed Gaipan and tried to kill all those innocent people, he held back his tongue. But now… when he was so close to death that he could see the end of life journey in front of him... fuck holding back.

Fuck, Ara.

Fuck, Zhao.

Fuck, the war.

Fuck, the Fire Lord.

Fuck, everything

He turned his head in a gesture to dismiss Ara, he refused to look at her traitorous face anymore. She made him sick, the curdling in his stomach was threatening to spill out again, but he didn’t care… he didn’t care about anything anymore. His body relaxed in defeat, his shoulders slumped forward and his eyes closing slowly. He heard the tent flap move, and he assumed Ara had taken the hint and left.

Instead he heard an all-too-familiar voice that ushered cold chills down his arms and legs, a voice that was sure to haunt him until his last breath, Zhao.

“Good, you are awake. It’s time we had a chat.”

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 16: Don’t Look Up

The only noise that Sokka’s mind could register was the faint plopping sound he heard whenever another drop of his blood hit the puddle of red pooling on the floor beneath him. He wasn’t sure how long he had been strung up like this, with both of his arms pulled out from his sides and chained to the two metal stakes the lovely Fire Nation soldiers brought into his torture tent and dug into the compacted dirt.

Sokka mentally chuckled as his mind slowly began to cave to his own insanity, he thought about all the different places he had been tortured so far… There was of course the murder ship, then he was in the metal box (which was it’s own kind of torture) there was the torture prison camp and now... now... he got to add torture tent to his list.

Awesome.

Sokka was on his knees, he couldn’t feel the lower half of his body anymore and he was starting to fear that he was injured so badly that his legs no longer worked and he was fucking paralyzed… or that he had just been kneeling too long. It was most likely the latter but the thought of not having the ability to move his own legs again was torturous in itself. He admired Teo for the strength he had to overcome his own disability, but at this point... Sokka knew he didn't have even a speck of Teo’s strength and the news of being paralyzed might just kill him.

The Fire Nation soldiers had found the freshly wrapped burn on his side and proceeded to spend their time opening that back up and making sure every punch, kick and cut was as painful as possible. They pulled apart the bandage job that Zuko had done for him just a few days ago, the blood soaked bandages were discarded as the men slammed their fists into his side and kicked him in the stomach and chest.

When Zhao had entered the tent the first time he had said he wanted to talk, but instead of using words he told the soldiers to ‘welcome back the Water Tribe savage properly’ and then he took Ara away. That’s when the soldiers started to pound at his flesh, they seemed to enjoy the sounds Sokka made everytime they landed a blow that left him winded or made him cry out in pain. He tried to stay quiet, he didn’t want to give his sick captors any more enjoyment but he found it nearly impossible to contain the sounds that his body threw out with every strike.

When the soldiers were finally finished with their assaults, they left him alone in his dark tent, the only light was a small lantern on a chair in the corner and all that did was accentuate the red of the tent. While he was alone, Sokka started to assess the damages that had been inflicted to his already tender body. He had a split lip, along with a deep chunk of flesh missing from the inside wall of his cheek, where his teeth had gnawed so hard they actually removed skin, the open wound had pervaded his mouth with the copper tang of fresh blood.

Sokka could feel the bruising on his face, but the worst damage was done to his stomach and chest where the fists and kicks had broken his skin in a few spots and blood was collecting in large contusions scattered across his body. Sokka felt his chest ache with every breath he took, his arms were trembling as his body tried to use whatever strength he had left to hold himself up.

The strain on the metal manacles were rubbing the skin on his wrist raw, it was starting to chafe into open blisters which left a constant, sharp, burning pain. Sokka continued to focus on his breathing, it was the only thing he could do right now, he was once again completely helpless and at the mercy of the Fire Nation.

In-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth Sokka practiced this until he heard the thick fabric of the tent’s only entrance scratch together, Sokka silently begged it wasn’t more soldiers. He could feel his body begin to tremble from the fear and anticipation, he squeezed his eyes shut, Sokka didn’t want anymore pain… he wished it would just end.

“I see you have been welcomed properly, Water Tribe. Now, we can do this one of two ways... You can choose the easy way and answer my questions, provide me with the information I seek… Or, we can do this the hard way and I can call in more soldiers who are eager and waiting to take their turn to teach the punk-kid who thought they could outsmart the Fire Nation a lesson in real pain. Do I make myself clear?”

Sokka opened his eyes, it took effort to lift them gradually until they found the face of the man behind the threatening voice. Zhao stood in front of him with his black and gold armor and his scowling face. The man looked… unhinged, he was not as pressed and primed like he usually presented himself, he was usually a man without a hair out of place.

But right now... Well, right now… he looked… off.

Maybe it was the stress of the prison camp being attacked by earth benders? But Sokka’s mind couldn’t stop drifting back to the conversation that he and Ara had about Zhao and Zuko… and the fact that Zuko was a living, breathing testament to Zhao’s lies and corruption. Zuko was also the living, breathing heir to the Fire Nation and from what Sokka had learned about the Fire Nation (from being in the lovely prison) was that people from the Fire Nation cared a lot about the lineage of the Royal Family and the fact that blood was thicker than water.

There would be people out there that would support Zuko off his bloodline alone, and there were those that would want to hurt him for it. Zhao being the number one on that list and from what Sokka had learned, Zhao wasn’t any closer to getting the ex-prince back.

Zhao must have been really thrown off when the prison was attacked and everyone escaped, but Sokka could bet… even with all the random factors thrown into the mix, if they peeled all that away and poked at what was lying underneath, they would find that Zhao was angry for being tricked. Zhao was not the type of man to enjoy being made a fool of, which is probably what fueled a lot of his disdain for Zuko, but Zhao was waiting at the wrong village, which gave their group extra time to travel further away.

There was probably a moment when he was reading Ara’s message that he realized he had been tricked and he was at the wrong village like an idiot. Maybe he even thought for just a second that he wouldn’t be able to catch them… even if this was Sokka’s last train of thought, he would pride himself on being clever enough to get under Zhao’s skin and rattle him, even if it was just for a fleeting moment.

… fucking Zhao, the man who was a tightly wound control freak with serious inferiority complex. The man had the darkest amber eyes, even though they were a light brown with the Fire Nation’s famous gold accents… Zhao’s eyes were dark and heavy with viciousness and malice.

Sokka thought of his own darkness and what type of person he would be if he let that part of his mind control who he was… when he looked at Zhao, he saw a man who had allowed his darkness to consume him and turn him into someone full of hate. Zhao must have let his darkness consume him a long time ago, Sokka wondered if he had ever been a nice person?

Was he ever a sweet child? Was he ever a boy who cried for his mother when he fell down and hurt his knee? Did he have friends growing up that counted on him for their schemes and trusted him to have their back? Did Zhao ever love someone?

But not the fucked up manipulation type of love that he seemed to thrive on... but real genuine love… the type of love that when you saw that person you felt a jolt of energy strike you from your heart to your toes. It was the kind of love that made a person’s mouth dry and itchy at even a mere thought of the person they loved…

No… He suspected that Zhao had never had a love like that.

When Sokka thought of Yue and the way her soft brown skin glistened from the light that reflected off the snow and how her deep blue eyes twinkled like the stars when she giggled behind her mittens. It was such an innocent, easy love and he knew she was special to him the moment he saw her. The more time he spent with Yue… well, the more he was completely drowning in her everything.

He had felt things for Yue, it was a pounding in his chest and a cold feeling in his stomach. When Yue would look at him there was a soft, calming feeling of tranquility and peace, she had his entire attention whenever she was around. But… Yue wasn’t his and never would be... Yue would be married to Hahn possibly the worst person in the entire Water Tribe, both north and south. Well, if he had survived the battle… Sokka was sick to his stomach to admit that he kind of hoped Hahn had died during the siege.

He shoud have been disgusted with himself for wishing death on another person, but who the fuck cared anymore? He was going to die here and Zhao was going to be the last person he saw before life left his body and he would get to see his mom again. Sokka almost let out the laugh that was desperately clawing at the back of his throat, the creepy laugh wanted to erupt from his body and probably further enrage his psychopathic captor. There was a heavy dose of fear strangling him to stay silent while his mind didn’t know what else to do but keep throwing random laughter into his chest, because... well… why the fuck not?

“I see the welcoming party did a number on you, so let’s start with the easy way, shall we?”

Zhao took a few steps to the right before turning and looking at Sokka again, the man’s face was growing more impatient, which was worrying Sokka considering he hadn’t even asked him anything yet. Sokka’s nervous blue eyes watched the man as he began to pace again, the clinking of his armor made Sokka’s skin crawl from the memories associated with the noise.

“Where were you and your little friends planning on going next?”

Sokka glared at Zhao, he couldn’t control the way his eyelids narrowed at the sadistic man who had stopped pacing when he saw the small amount of fight Sokka still had. Sokka knew his dad would want him to go down swinging and fuck Zhao and all of the polar-dog-shit he put people through, he could eat shit before Sokka would tell him anything.

If Zuko could get whipped without screaming and look Sokka dead in the eye when he took that burning metal rod and shoved it against the fire bender’s skin… well, then Sokka could show just a quarter of that strength right now and tell Zhao to fuck off.

“Fuck you Zhao.”

Sokka knew his words would result in pain, but he hadn’t expected it to come so quickly and the heavy strike across his face exploded his world with color and sent a wave of dizziness to wash over his mind. The slapping sound echoed in the empty tent, with nothing in it but the lantern it’s chair to muffle the sound. Sokka almost laughed again, the cracks in his demeanor grew as his insanity tried to slip through and show itself to Zhao.

“Where. Were. You. Headed?” Zhao carried a tone, he was desperate.

Sokka smirked, Ara must not have told him about Gaipan, or she didn’t remember that part of the plan. Perhaps she did but she didn’t tell Zhao - but that was a very unlikely; traitorous bitch. It could be that Zhao did know but he didn’t think Sokka was truthful about his plans to head towards Gaipan… anything could be going through the admiral’s head, but Sokka wasn’t going to indulge in any of it.

Fuck Zhao.

When Sokka didn’t answer, Zhao made an uncomfortable growling sound as his fist balled up into tightly-wound-angry-fists and Sokka saw the flames begin to dance around his fingers. Sokka was terrified that this was when the man would begin burning him… he knew being burned was a strong probability, but when the soldiers earlier refrained from burning him he thought maybe he wouldn't get burnt this time.

The burned flesh on his side throbbed where the raw and blistered skin was bleeding from the force of the soldier’s kicks and punches. Sokka couldn’t really feel the rest of his body at this point, the position he was forced to endure had made his lower half numb and the rest of him just felt like a massive bruise.

The sharp pain and mind-numbing-throbbing from his burn and various cuts had all balled together in one massive layer of hurt that Sokka’s mind had apparently just accepted. The side of his face where Zhao’s hand had made contact was the only sure-pain Sokka felt. His cheek was stinging and Sokka couldn’t help but slide his tongue across the side of his teeth to make sure they were all still intact.

“I am sick of your games, Water Tribe, I need you to tell me what I want to know or I will end your life... right here, right now.”

Zhao glared down at Sokka, just the smallest of hairs had come loose from his top knot and dangled in his face, adding extra evidence of the man’s unraveling. The admiral was enraged, Sokka could see the angry fire burning in his dark eyes. Sokka’s eyes must have revealed something to the admiral because he quickly concealed the burning rage in his eyes and attempted to pull himself together. Sokka felt a prickle of fear when Zhao slid his hand over the top of his head to smooth the tiny hairs back in their place. He straightened his back and took a few steps back, away from Sokka.

“This is your last chance to tell me what I want to know.”

Sokka didn’t know if his vocal cords would work even if his mind commanded them to spill his secrets.. the very secrets that would keep Shen, Reho and Zuko safe… was he willing to give them up to save himself?

No… no he was not, he was too tired and too broken to fight anymore, it would be better for him to just let fate's cruel jaws take their final bite out of whatever he had left, before swallowing him whole.

When he didn’t say anything once again, Sokka could barely register the various stages of anger flash through Zhao’s face before he threw a couple fire blasts at various spots in the tent, much to Sokka’s surprise, none of them were aimed at him. Zhao moved closer and grabbed Sokka’s face with one of his still-warm hands, squeezing his cheeks with his strong fingers.The other hand grabbed his extended bicep and began to burn.

“When I find your little friends…. Which I will find them, I am going to kill each and everyone of them in front of you. I will make you watch them die, and then I will kill you.”

Zhao released Sokka’s face with a rough shove-off, he left his hand on his arm for a moment longer, the smell of charred flesh was intoxicating and adding to Sokka’s growing nauseas. Zhao released Sokka’s arm finally and with one last viotial look the admiral pivoted around and disappeared out of the tent, leaving Sokka alone with the darkness that was crawling in the shadows as he replayed the images of Shen, Reho and Zuko all laying in the dirt lifeless… and it would be all Sokka’s fault…

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

He must have passed out at some point, his mind was a fumbling mess of incoherent thoughts and self-pity, steaming all the way from the day he invited Katara to join him on that damn fishing trip… Oh, how that stupid fishing trip would ruin his life and eventually lead to his death. Sokka knew there were a lot more factors at play then the simple discovery of the Avatar, there were a lot of choices that he had made that lead him to this particular spot in the end of his life.

Fuck, Aunt Wu was right, he did create his own misfortune… he really couldn’t blame Katara and Aang, even if it felt good to try to blame someone.

That was about the time the two soldiers came into his tent to remove him from his restraints and apparently move him.. which was awesome because his legs were numb. But it was also not awesome because his legs were numb and when the soldiers finally removed the manacles from his wrists his body fell forward like a heavy-sack-of-rice.

The men snickered behind their face-plates and kicked him in the ribs, in a very Fire Nation attempt to coax Sokka to his feet. After the third swift kick to his unburnt side, Sokka was able to convince his shaky arms to lift himself off the floor... at least… until one of the soldiers decided to push him back into the dirt again and both men laughed.

“Stupid savage.” The insult earned the man another round of laughter before a strong grip grabbed the back of his hair and twisted it tight. Sokka yelled out from the pain radiating from the death-grip against his tender scalp. The force pulled him upward and shoved him forward, even without his legs, Sokka was ‘walking’ in the direction the soldiers half-dragged him.

When Sokka’s delirious eyes landed on that fucking-metal-death-box, he felt the panic starting to rise in his chest. His body’s reaction to the panic made his heart want to beat out of control and send his mind whirling… but he just didn’t have the strength. The panic was faint, snuffed out by the broken feeling that had overtaken his body, he didn’t have the strength or energy to panic anymore, as much as his mind wanted to force it to happen.

His body was limp when the soldiers unlocked the heavy lock and opened the door. The sound of scraping metal brought back flashing memories of being trapped in the box, suffocating in the heat as he tried to keep from burning himself on the metal walls. The soldiers threw him into the box with enough force to send his limp body sliding into the back wall, the impact caused him to gasp out in pain, earning him yet another laugh.

“Sweet dreams Water Tribe, I’m sure the admiral will call for you in the morning… that is… if he doesn’t send someone to come and ‘interrogate you’ tonight. Sleep with one eye open, Water Tribe!”

The men laughed and made suggestive sexual movements with their mouths before they pushed the door shut and with a heavy clunking-sound the metal bolt slid into place, locking him in for the night... leaving Sokka alone in the dark. His mind kept repeating the words over and over again in his mind….


“ – If he doesn’t send someone to interrogate you tonight.”

 

“ – If he doesn’t send someone to interrogate you tonight.”

 

“ – If he doesn’t send someone to interrogate you tonight.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The cold crept into the metal box exactly the same way he remembered, his body painfully shook from the shivering as the freezing cold practically iced over the metal floor and walls, leaving Sokka completely exposed to the frigid temperatures.

Sokka could feel his body becoming weaker, the more energy it put into trying to keep his body temperature up… it would only be a matter of time before all his energy was spent and his body would begin shutting down to conserve energy. His injuries were a big factor to consider when looking at his overall situation, the cold would kill him, yes... but the injuries were also requiring energy from his already depleted body.

Sokka managed to drift in and out of sleep, his eyes saw no difference from when they were open or closed, the darkness coated him in an impossibly thick presence. Sokka wasn’t sure if he had been prepared for the reality of what it might feel like to die. He already thought it might be peaceful, possibly calming… he couldn't help but think of death as he laid on the cold, hard floor while his body desperately tried to kindle him a fire of warmth - even if it came from grinding his bones together.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka woke suddenly, not even realizing he had been asleep, when he heard the click of the metal lock… Sokka sat up so fast, he thought his throat was going to let out another roaring scream. He refused to make a sound, sliding backwards slowly until he found some sort of stability in the darkness… he pressed his back into one of the corner’s crevices as far from the direction of the door as he could get. His body was shaking out of fear at this point, the cold had been forgotten and the person lingering outside of the metal box was all he could focus on.

The lock clicked again, not fully turning, it appeared someone was either trying to be very quiet… (which could be a really bad sign) or they were picking the lock (which could be way worse) Sokka could barely take a breath, he was scared the sound of his lungs intaking the air would make him miss another click of the lock… signaling another step closer to the door opening.

The tears were starting to sting as they gathered in the corners of his eyes, resting delicately against his bottom eyelids as they waited for the fear to finally push them over the edge and accept the reality that was tapping at his door. The door clicked again and then again… until Sokka heard the lock turn all the way over.

Sokka’s hands were trembling but he could barely register the movement in the darkness around him, he was blind to the world, he could only focus on his body’s reaction and wait for the door to open. His heart was beating faster than humanly possible, he was smothered by the sound of it pounding down his ear drums and wrapping itself around his brain. It was almost comfortable, listening to his own rapidly beating heart as it demanded his focus and offered him a distraction.

The distraction didn’t last long, Sokka heard the metal door scraping as the handle turned and a sliver of moonlight slid into his enclosure. Sokka felt like a frightened animal, a really weak one… maybe this was how that mouse-hare felt, the first kill he ever committed… trapped and helpless as it stared up at him, probably begging him to spare his little fragile life. If Sokka only knew how that kind of fear made a person’s mind and body react… he would have let that mouse-hare go without a second thought.

Sokka felt the moonlight hit his face, it sent a glaring flash of light into his left eye as the skinny strip of light cut a moonlight scar down his face and down the left side of his body. Sokka curled into himself, keeping his head up, his eyes never left the crack in the door as he waited for his intruder. He would face this head on and if it was going to happen the way he thought it might happen, he would ask the man to end it for him after, perhaps he would show him mercy and fulfill his request.

The door opened a little more and Sokka’s eyes adjusted to see a small figure poke it’s head up from underneath the metal box. The box was off the ground in a wagon, the same way it had been the first time. The wagon was unattached from the komodo-rhinos that grazed next to the large campsite, Sokka frowned at the strange figure peeking up from underneath.

It wasn’t until he saw the flash of gold and a pale finger slide up and make a hush symbol that Sokka almost lost it… a rush – NO – a WAVE of so many emotions drowned Sokka up to his neck in feelings… The cold and warm feelings crashed together in a way that made him want to throw up all over again. But Zuko was telling him to shut-the-fuck-up in a very silent and sneaky way… Ohhhhhh Sokka thought, this was that Blue Spirit shit he had been waiting for.

Sokka watched in amazement as Zuko crawled out without a single sound, he wore the same earth kingdom clothing they had bought him at the market, but he had a hooded cloak on over it… somehow he obtained it and Sokka wasn’t even slightly worried about how. Zuko was standing in front of the door, it was only open enough for Sokka to see part of his body, he made a motion with his hand for Sokka to move towards him.

Sokka slid slowly, his body throbbed with every move he made, he knew that if they were caught that this was it... they were both worse off than death. Sokka barely made it to the door before the tears spilled over the sides of his eyes when Zuko’s strong, warm hands gripped him tight but so gently and started to assist him out of the box.

Sokka strangled on a gasp, he refused to be the reason they got caught, and he would not be the reason that Zhao kept good on his word and murdered Zuko right in front of him. NO Sokka’s mind was fierce and quick with a response.. NO, he would not be the person that got Zuko murdered. He would swallow every scream if it meant they got out of this fucking camp alive.

Sokka’s vision finally adjusted fully to his moonlit surroundings, the camp was silent, Sokka looked down and saw two guards slumped together just in front of the door. They must have been his guards Sokka wasn’t sure if they were unconscious or if they were dead, he couldn’t care either way. Zuko helped him the rest of the way down and Sokka basically crumbled onto the floor in a pained mess of silent sobs and shaking limbs. Zuko lowered himself slowly with Sokka and into his trembling fetal position, Sokka’s hot tears flowing down his cheeks in a free-for-all.

Zuko’s warm hands never left him, Sokka could feel them shifting around to support him as he descended dramatically from his prison. Zuko held him gently but he tugged softly and Sokka knew he had to get it the fuck together, right now. He was weak, he knew this, he figured it the fuck out the first day he was on the murder boat. He was a coward and he was weak and now he was going to get Zuko killed and everything –

Sokka his thoughts halted when he felt two hands grab the sides of his face and hold him still, his eyes found their way up to the two mismatched gold eyes in front of him, the golden irises grabbed him and held tight. Zuko stared right at him and Sokka stared back, they didn’t say anything and the look might have only lasted for a couple of seconds, but it was the most grounding thing that had ever happened to him. Zuko took his fear and lack of control and wiped it clean, it was as if he silently asked for Sokka’s trust and he had handed it over willingly.

Zuko moved so quietly after that, tearing his warm eyes away from Sokka’s cold panic, he silently pulled the trembling Water Tribe boy to his feet. He turned quickly and crouched down, pushing his warm back against Sokka’s chest. Zuko turned his head, his unscarred side facing Sokka, “hold on” he whispered.

Sokka did as he was told, he decided it would be easier to comply with anything and everything Zuko said because the other boy obviously had some idea what he was doing. Sokka flung his exhausted, quivering arms around Zuko’s neck, consciously thinking about the once-visible-bruises that wrapped around the fire bender’s neck, he made sure to keep his grip loose.

Zuko hoisted the rest of Sokka’s body weight onto his back, his muscles tightened and shifted underneath when Zuko began to adjust them as a pair, just before they fell into a silent harmony. Sokka kept his head down as Zuko stepped carefully through the compound, he seemed to have memorized his exit route and every step was intentional.

Sokka eventually had to close his eyes because he was too terrified to watch their silent movement through the quiet camp, it seemed as if there had been guards posted, they had been disposed of. Every silent step Zuko took caused Sokka to flinch, the thought of each step being the final step that would snap a stick, or rustle a leaf, or grab a rhino’s attention and alert the entire camp to their movements.

Sokka buried his head into the crook of Zuko’s neck, his senses heightened by the lack of sight, he caught a whiff of the other boy’s smokey smell. He didn’t smell clean by any means, he had a strong musk which was intoxicating in a not-so-pleasant-way, but Sokka’s brain seemed to tune everything out except the smokey smell the fire bender carried with him.

It reminded Sokka of a late night under the stars with his dad, Katara and… his mom. And for just a moment... he saw her face clearly in his memory as she held him close. His dad and Katara told an epic story of water benders past and a fleet of water-ships they used to cruise the waters and battle winter sea monsters. Katara squealed and his dad growled and made a ‘vicious’ face just before tackling her gently in a tickle-fight. Little Katara laughed and he howled as she pounded into him with her tiny mitted hands.

The fire crackled and the smokey smell wafted through his nostrils just before he looked up at his mom, her eyes looked like his own and her tan skin smiled at him as her gentle fingers traced across his cheeK and her thumb grazed his jaw-line. Her hair was thick, like Katara’s and it hung in her face while the rest of it she always carried in a long braid… just like Katara… He remembered how she smiled and took him into a huge hug…

…. Just before she tackled him in their own tickle-fight. He remembered laughing until his face was bright red and his mom and him collapsed in a panting, giggling heap. The cold snow was refreshing against their flushed skin, his mom and him laughed together as they laid close and stared up at the stars. She ran her fingers through his hair and turned to look at him, “I love you polar-bear.” She said in the adoring tone he could almost hear...

Sokka was snapped back to reality when a rogue branch smacked him in the side of his face. He wanted to yell something annoyed, until he remembered the memory he was just allowed to relive. The memory was full of sweet and tender moments and he was finally able to remember his mother’s face. It had been years since the last time he had clearly remembered.... It was all because he was face-deep in Zuko’s smokey-smelling neck and it was the most comfortable thing in the world, he felt and smelled just like home.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka’s eyes sprung open when he felt the falling sensation that often startled him awake at night. Sometimes the falling sensation would wake him from his nightmares, just before something awful was about to happen… or it came a little too late.

Zuko was letting Sokka’s body slowly slide into the ground, he always surprised Sokka with the tenderness he showed when he put his hands on him… It was like his hands had only been used for violence for so long that he had to really concentrate on being tender with them. Sokka couldn’t blame him, he didn’t feel any tenderness inside of him anymore, in fact… he only felt anger inside him now, growing stronger and more ruthless after every situation he encountered that only led to pain, death and betrayal.

Sokka blinked when Zuko squatted in front of him, pulling down his hood he slid the sleeves down his body and balled up the cloak in his hands before handing it to Sokka with a little more Zuko-like-force.

“Here.. hold this. We have to climb.”

Sokka blinked… even though his eyes were well adjusted to the moonlit world, he just was not understanding what Zuko was saying. Climb?

Zuko pointed up and Sokka finally registered the fact that they were standing underneath a giant tree and Zuko was actually saying what he meant, the literal fucker. He wanted Sokka to climb the tree, Sokka’s body felt like… well… fuck… wet noodles damn it (Chang). Zuko must have used his stupid, but very-fucking-real, Blue Spirit senses to feel Sokka’s weakness and hesitation when he had uttered the word climb. The other boy rolled his eyes and groaned before he moved back over to Sokka and crouched in front of him again.

“You better hold on… really tight.” Zuko whispered through grit teeth and tense shoulders. Perhaps his mood was coming from the anticipation of the climb ahead of him with Sokka’s full body weight slung across his back or the fact that they were still so close to Zhao’s camp...

Sokka looked up and squinted in an attempt to see through the thick canopy and get a glimpse of the moon’s position in the sky, when he caught a glimpse, he found himself disappointed that it was still late in the night, which meant they were not able to travel very far. Sokka’s mind flickered back to a blood-soaked prison tunic just before the boy, who he owed his life to, began to climb up the huge tree.

Sokka was always impressed by the strength and focus that Zuko had, the fire bender was able to remove all obstacles in his mind and focus only on what he needed to accomplish. The boy was so strong and so blinded by his own abilities that Sokka worried that eventually… he would push himself too far and when he really needed that strength and focus he would be too weak.

Sokka didn’t want to be the reason Zuko broke down and Sokka’s mind began thinking of letting the darkness that lurked in the corners of his mind consume him. He could allow himself to give in to the dark thoughts of his weakness and remove his burden from Zuko’s back… all he had to do was let go... Sokka stopped thinking when the fire bender stopped climbing.

Sokka was too scared to look down but Zuko shifted his left shoulder downward, a signal for Sokka to grab hold of the large branch that extended out in front of them. Sokka’s grip was weak as his stiff fingers tried to grab hold of the rough bark that covered the tree, he felt so useless as the tears began to cloud his vision when he realized he was so fucking weak he couldn’t even climb a tree…

Children could climb trees… at least… that’s what he had heard in the Earth Kingdom, they didn’t have trees in the south, at least not trees you would climb. Sokka felt Zuko’s movement as the other boy wrapped one of his strong arms around Sokka’s waist and the fire bender pushed them off the trunk of the tree, giving them enough momentum for Zuko to grab the branch with his free hand and hoist them both over the side.

For a moment, both boys laid slung over the branch, the thick center that connected to the trunk was large enough to hold their combined weight. The width was barely thick enough that they could sit comfortably, but it was there. The forest was old and the trees had been growing here a long, long time. Sokka once thought he hated the massive trees, back when they were hiking through the woods on their way to the rendezvous. He hated how they reached up into the sky and heaved up the underbrush along with it, resulting in heavy walls of thorny death traps just waiting for a sucker like Sokka to wander into…. scraping himself to shreds.

But now… that same tree was providing them comfort and protection, at least from the soldiers who would surely be looking for them below. Just as Sokka was going to open his mouth to speak to Zuko, the sky rumbled and a strong gust of wind picked up through the branches, rustling everything around them. They’re was an eerie snapping sound the branches made when the weaker limbs were broken away as the wind tore through the tree’s branches… Sokka couldn’t help but laugh, his voice was caught in the wind, but Zuko heard him nonetheless.

The laughter stung, it burned a sadness in his chest that brought more tears to his eyes… he was just a fucking cry-baby tonight, wasn’t he?

Sokka felt himself shift and he looked up to see Zuko grabbing the back of his tunic in a strong, death grip as he pulled the boy up and slid him back towards the trunk where the branch was the thickest. Sokka hoped this trusty branch stayed strong enough to hold both their combined body weight. Sokka straddled the branch, both legs draped across each side, his fingers buried in the thick black cloak Zuko had asked him to hold. Sokka felt wobbly when Zuko poked him in the shoulder gently, his hot breath whispered in his ear and it sent stupid-fucking-chills down his back… because of course, it was freezing at night and the icy winds whipping around combined with all the other nature-shit was making him have chills.

…NOTHING MORE.

“Give me your hair-thing.”

“My what-?”

Sokka didn’t get to finish when he felt a hand reach up and grab the base of his wolf’s tail and slide the hair-band away from his head and the tension left his scalp as his longer-than-usual hair fell down and touched the top of his shoulders. He still had not had the ability to shave the sides of his hair (which he was going to do as soon as he knew he wasn’t going to die) so it was a weird sensation to have the weight from the extra hair tug at his scalp. Sokka’s hair was at his shoulders but the top section was awkwardly longer in the front and on the sides, not by much, but definitely noticeable.

Zuko pulled himself up, keeping his legs pushed up against Sokka as if to make sure the other boy didn’t fall off the branch. Which Sokka would never - would actually totally do… if anyone would fall off the branch it would be Sokka. He did, after-all, create his own misfortune… Did he not?

Zuko used Sokka’s hair band to bind together a few limbs from a branch that extended above them, this created a light barrier between them and the rain… which happened almost imminently following Zuko’s preparation for the participation. Sokka felt the freezing rain surrounding them as the warm but damp fire bender slid behind him, Sokka felt himself sway as he tried to find a comfortable position without putting his weight on Zuko…

Sokka gasped when Zuko’s arms wrapped around his trembling body and pulled him close, Sokka settled in between the other boy’s legs, resting his back against Zuko’s chest. Zuko kept one arm wrapped securely around Sokka’s waist and used the other to rip the cloak out of Sokka’s relentless grip and spread it out over them. He brought his arm back under the cloak and put it back around the other boy again.

Sokka squeezed his eyes shut when the fire bender held him close and the rush of warmth entered his body, slowly… his trembling slowed and Sokka felt his body slowly begin to unwind… he could feel Zuko’s breath rustle the hair that hung around his face and neck, freely. The other boy had his head resting against the back of the tree’s trunk and Sokka found himself leaning back until his entire body rested against the warmth of Zuko’s body.

Sokka felt the tears once again build in his eyes, he realized that even with the freezing rain and his injuries… he would be ok… with Zuko’s warmth and protection... he was going to live…

… but he didn’t understand…why.

Sokka’s broken voice was barely audible over the steady stream of rain that was falling over the earth, a few small drops broke through Zuko’s make-shift-leafy-branch-umbrella and hit Sokka in the face but it was petty to think about, especially knowing there was a down-pour that waited for them just outside their home-made-tree-fort.

“…why…”

Zuko hummed in response, obviously not understanding what Sokka was trying to ask. Sokka felt the odd sensation of Zuko’s voice vibrating in his chest against Sokka’s back.

“Why... didn’t you leave me behind?” Sokka was sure he looked as broken as he sounded, the tears dripped from his chin and rolled down the cloak, joining the rest of the moisture that was building around them. Some of the rain was pooling in small puddles inside the dips of the cloak’s fabric.

Zuko didn’t answer and Sokka’s thumping anticipation throbbed to the surface and he asked again, more assertively and a little louder…

“Why didn’t you leave me – “

Zuko’s calloused hand covered his mouth… It was an aggressive action, but it was carried out with care. Sokka found himself silenced by the motion and he waited patiently for the other boy to remove his hand, when he did, he slid it back around the Water Tribe boy, where it was before. The sound of the rain dropping around them coated their world in a static silence, and finally Zuko said something.

“I wouldn’t leave you behind… you didn’t leave me behind.”

Sokka frowned, he couldn’t recall a situation where he would have had the opportunity to leave Zuko behind somewhere, so of course he had to keep babbling… just a lot quieter this time.

“… I don’t understand.”

Zuko inhaled a deep breath and Sokka could feel the expansion of the other boy’s lungs as they pushed out his chest and moved Sokka’s body forward. Sokka felt a certain comfort in listening to the other boy breathe, he waited for him to answer him as another crack of thunder shot through the sky.

Sokka couldn’t help but notice Zuko flinching at the sound.

“You didn’t have to help me... back in the prison. You could have escaped without me, you are smart enough, you would have figured it out… but… you, uh… you brought me along. You didn’t have any reason to trust me... but you did and I owe you for that.”

Sokka nodded slowly, realizing this was about a debt to be paid, not because Zuko… cared.

Both boys rested against one another, listening to the rain and their rhythmic breathing. Sokka knew he was getting tired, his eyes began to droop and his limbs felt heavy as his arms went limp in his lap and he let legs dangle weightlessly. He only relied on Zuko to hold him still, the other boy noticed the Water Tribe boy relaxing and he shifted slightly.

“Get some sleep.”

Sokka frowned, “you need sleep too… I’ll take the first watch.” Sokka didn’t mean for the end of that to come out with a low yawn, he involuntarily snuggled closer to Zuko and closed his eyes.

“You are not taking first watch, get some sleep.”

Sokka frowned without opening his eyes, his face tilted towards the canopy above them and he relaxed his full weight on Zuko, who felt so secure around him.

“I’m great at keeping watch, I had a watch tower.” Sokka managed to mutter.

“Oh, I remember.”

A jolt of memory flashed through his mind and without raising his voice he whisper-yelled, “OH MY GOSH, YOU BROKE IT!”

Zuko snorted and he was probably smirking the way he did when he knew he was being mean. “Technically… my helmsman broke it, he was the one steering the ship.”

“Yeah… well I still blame you.”

“Well, I was the captain, so I did give the order to ram your village.”

“See! Jerk-face-watch-tower-killer….” His voice trailed off into a slur of half-put together insults before he felt the overwhelming exhaustion take his consciousness from him.

- - - - - - -

Dawn was still stupid… even though dawn and Sokka had become acquainted, he still wouldn’t consider them friends… and when the morning light sprinkled through the leaves Sokka felt the light dance in front of his closed eyelids. He turned his head with an irritated snap of his neck and he felt the side of his face press against something firm and warm.

… Zuko, the boy was still holding him close, but he too had fallen asleep and the soft rise and fall of his chest was soothing, so soothing that Sokka found himself leaning his head back and just enjoying the sound of Zuko’s breathing. When the sun broke through the sky, signaling the start of the day Zuko stirred beneath him as he shifted slowly, his face unknowingly twisted in an expression of pain. Sokka knew Zuko was injured and he felt a sting of guilt hit him when he realized that Zuko could be hurt just as badly as he was and he was still taking on the extra effort.

“Are you ok back there?” Sokka smiled, even though Zuko couldn’t see it, he knew the fire bender would know he was trying to be nice.

“Yeah..”

“When should we move?”

“We can’t move yet… we need to wait until Zhao and his men fan out further… we are still too close to their camp.”

Sokka’s smile morphed into a concerned crease in his brow accompanied by a tiny frown, “you want to just wait… in this tree?”

Sokka felt Zuko wiggled angrily under him, obviously wishing he had the freedom to move around in what was obviously a ‘pout’ because Sokka insulted his plan. But in his defense, could hiding in a tree really be considered a plan? Zuko was right when he told Sokka he had the skills to put a plan into action but he was not the person to come up with any earth-shattering-ideas. Which was painfully obvious from their ‘stuck-in-a-tree’ situation.

Sokka smiled… and then started to laugh.. he covered his mouth in an attempt to stifle the giggles that were wiggling out from inside him. Zuko sighed and Sokka sunk into the other boy, who still had a warm hold around him, Sokka decided fuck-it and leaned his head into Zuko rubbing his head against the other boys neck in an effort to get comfortable.

He was so… warm.

“I told you, I wasn’t good at plans… I figured out how to get you out and how to hide… that was it…” Zuko pretty much whispered his response but Sokka was close enough he could hear.

There was still a burning question that wouldn't stop nipping at his mind.

“Why a tree?”

“People don’t usually look up, so up is usually the best place to hide.”

Sokka nodded in agreement, because it made sense. He never looked up and until he met Aang, he didn’t even realize that UP was an option. Sokka could feel the moisture coating the morning air, the nightly rain brought a small humidity to the forest and Sokka could feel the sweat beginning to build on his neck. He was embarrassed at the idea of sweating all over Zuko, so hopefully they could begin moving soon.

“Well we can’t stay in this tree.”

“Yes we can.”

“Wait –“

“- Yes, it's too dangerous right now, so today we stay here and you think of a plan, once we agree on a course of action, we leave the tree. But for now, we stay here. Are you hungry?”

Sokka’s jaw dropped, gathering it quickly as he watched Zuko reach up and pull himself slightly away from Sokka, leaving a sudden emptiness he could hardly face. The fire bender was almost standing on the branch at this point and Sokka heard the snapping twig-limbs as Zuko revealed the burned and muddied leather bag. From inside, Zuko pulled out some lychee nuts and a few of the small pieces of produce that looked a little battered and dirty, but still delicious.

“That's all that was left… Oh!... uh… I’m sorry Sokka….”

Zuko’s hand extended out and Sokka looked down and saw his sister’s necklace laying in the middle up the upward facing palm and for a second a happy feeling of hope filled his cheeks and spread his smile wide. Though… At a closer look, he could see that his mother’s stone had been broken… cracked in half, the left side still holding onto the clasp that enabled it to hold onto a ribbon.

Sokka felt the broken feeling rise up when his fingers ran down the clean edges where the stone had snapped almost perfectly in half. There was a rumbling mixture of emotions inside of him when his thumb ran across the waves that had once been connected across the smooth surface of the pendant. Sokka wanted to scream and cry and have another breakdown about something else that was going horribly wrong in his life… but instead he turned his head so he could see Zuko and smiled.

“Thanks for getting it for me Zuko.. and the supplies. How did you manage to get all this?”

Zuko shrugged, Sokka had turned around already so he could only feel the boy’s shoulders rise and fall behind him. “I tried to get you, but everything happened so fast and you were knocked out and restrained surrounded by soldiers and I left you. I found Shen in the forest and I tried to get him to come help me get you back, but he said I would get caught and I should just make a break for it.” Zuko snorted, the sound gave his next words a very condescending ring to them.

“Shen’s a fucking coward, so I left and came back to the place they ambushed us because you just had to trust that slut Ara – “

Sokka stiffened and he knew Zuko probably didn’t mean it, especially with the way he cut himself off after the hard words tumbled out of his mouth. They both knew that Sokka would have had no way of knowing that Ara was a traitor… and if Zuko had an idea that she wasn’t trustworthy then he should have fucking said something.

“Did you know? About her and Zhao?”

Sokka tried not to think about how tense Zuko got behind Sokka and the words Ara shared with him when they were alone in the tent started floating through his mind, grabbing his full attention. His own traitorous mind flashed with images of the strange bruises on Zuko’s neck and the gentle touch Zhao gave him after he was whipped…

Sokka shook his head. “It doesn't matter…” He mumbled because didn’t want to know, he didn’t want to know anything more about the situation, if anything… he wanted to forget it ever happened and get as far away from the western Earth Kingdom as possible.

Zuko didn’t speak for a while, and Sokka might have forgotten he was there except for the movement he made every time he had to take a breath. Sokka was completely convinced that if Zuko could find a way to survive without breathing he would have used it right now.

Sokka had slipped the necklace in a hidden pocket inside his tunic, it had probably been sewn in for a coin purse but instead, Sokka wrapped the two pieces together in the ribbon and hid it in the pocket for safe keeping. He kind of kicked himself for not letting Zuko finish the story before he asked his stupid question, inadvertently making the other boy pissy. Sokka had removed the cloak as the sun began to lift into the morning sky, the moisture was evaporating at an alarming rate and Sokka found himself trying to pull his body up to shake the branch above them to drink whatever rain water was left on the leaves.

His body burned from the bruises and the open wound on his side and arm, the raw flesh was stinging and he knew there were all sorts of dirt and other derbies caked inside the tender spots. He knew the movement he was doing right now was really stupid and kind of unnecessary, but he had already half-way hoisted himself out of Zuko’s lap, so there was no going back now.

The water drops from the leaves fell on the boys and Zuko hissed as Sokka held open his mouth to accept the moisture. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even enough to wash the metallic taste out of his mouth. It was disappointing and Sokka felt stupid for getting the fire bender wet, but maybe it would wake him up and make him stop sulking.

“Why did you do that?”

“I am thirsty!”

“Shhh… I swear… you are the loudest person I have ever met…”

“You haven’t spent time with Katara, she is so loud she discovered the Avatar. Plus, you have no room to talk… you didn’t stop yelling about your honor and the Avatar the first 3 times we saw each other.”

Zuko snorted but didn’t verbally respond, obviously he was dismissing the conversation… The morning was in full swing now, Sokka knew this because a certain family of howler-squirrels were eyeing him suspiciously. They were probably wondering why two people (who very obviously did not belong in a tree) were sitting there like a bunch of idiots... or they wanted the food Zuko had in the bag.

Oh shit, food.

The ache in Sokka’s stomach appeared when he thought of food, he knew he needed nutrients, especially after throwing up the moon-peach and not eating any real food in three days. Sokka could tell that Zuko was slowly letting go of.. whatever-it-was that was bothering him so damn bad because he could feel the other boy’s body slowly relaxing.

Sokka hadn’t really realized it before, but they were kind of in a… uh… intimate position. with Sokka pressed up against Zuko’s entire body and the other boy’s arms wrapped around his waist. Sokka knew they were only sitting like this because it was the safest way to sleep in the tree and Zuko was only holding him because he didn’t wasn’t Sokka to fall out of the tree… but still, it didn’t change the fact that they were both pressed up against each other pretty close. Sokka felt his face flush when he thought about how he had cuddled into Zuko’s neck and gone to sleep last night… he knew the shame was showing itself on his face and neck.

Katara was right when she told him that when he was sick or hurt he turned into a huge baby… and he had babyed all over Zuko last night. Oh it was so embarrassing but he was sure Zuko wouldn’t say anything about it, so as long as Sokka didn’t bring it up, it would be cool. Sokka waited a few minutes until he was sure the shame was gone from his face and he cleared his throat awkwardly.

“So, remember when you said we had some food? How about we get a little of that.”

Zuko silently shifted behind him and Sokka tried to ignore the way the other boy’s thighs rubbed against him when he pushed himself up half-way and grabbed the leather bag on the branch above. Now that the light was shimmering in and Sokka was turned towards Zuko he could see just how tired the other boy looked, he had dark circles under his good eye and his skin looked pale and malnourished.

He watched as Zuko pulled out a long green vegetable that Sokka recognized from something Katara had cooked before, but had no idea what it was called or what it tasted like. Zuko pulled out a battered two-and-a-half potatoes because it sadly looked like Zuko had eaten half of a raw potato… which was sad in itself, eating it must have been a pretty awful experience. Sokka was surprised he even tried to eat something, which means he must not have been feeling well, or he was low on energy… either way… Sokka needed to be able to pull his own weight and couldn’t count on Zuko to do everything for him.

So whatever they had to eat was what they were going to eat… Zuko pulled out the dirty lychee nuts, he must have picked them out of the dirt because they were pretty heavily coated. Sokka was given 2 and offered the green stalk or a potato and Sokka asked Zuko how the raw potato tasted?

”Like dirt.”

That is exactly how he would expect a raw potato to taste, they did grow in the dirt after all. Sokka took the green stalk and pulled the top pieces down and ripped the vegetable into pieces. He handed half of it to Zuko along with the potato. He looked at Sokka extremely confused.

“We can split it, I’ll eat one half of the potato and you eat the other half, we can split the rest of them the same way, ok?”

Zuko nodded and took his half of the green stalk from Sokka, along with the potato, and combined them in the hand with his lychee nuts, while his other arm stayed firmly around Sokka. Sokka sighed, people were not meant to live in fucking trees… but Sokka would spend the rest of his life as a tree-person, becoming one with the howler-squirrels and the raccoon-cats, before allowed himself to go back to Zhao.

“Here, Zuko put your food uhh-“

Sokka used his free hands to pull out his tattered tunic, the material had been brand new not even a day ago, now it was stained with blood and there was dirt embedded so deep in it’s fibers it would probably never wash out… Sokka wasn’t even sure how the damn thing was still holding on, it was so tattered he couldn’t tell where the shreds connected and where there were just open tears. No wonder he was freezing last night… Well, no... he wasn’t freezing because he had Zuko and the cloak, but without those two things, he would have frozen.

Sokka laid the tunic’s bottom section out in his lap, he built a little wall with the extra fabric on both sides next to his legs that spread out across the branch. Every once-in-a-while he could feel his free-falling foot bump against Zuko, the sole of their boots bouncing off each other effortlessly. Sokka watched as Zuko’s other arm moved from around his waist and set his two lychee nuts in the center of the fabric along with his half of the green-stalk-thing.

Zuko still wore his Earth Kingdom clothing, it wasn’t nearly as battered as Sokka's outfit was… but Zuko didn’t get the shit beat out of him for the better part of an afternoon. Sokka and Zuko were quiet as they sat together and there was a soft breeze from last night’s rain storm bringing sweet relief to Sokka’s hot and sweaty body. The cooling comfort from the wind against his skin gave Sokka a giddy surge of energy.

“Do you want to play a game?”

Zuko took a second to answer, “what kind of game?”

“It’s called the eating game. We each have 2 lychee nuts and we both have this… uh… vegetable and our half of the potato. So, how it works is that before you take a bite you have to say something relating to the topic we pick. Make sense?”

“What’s the topic?”

“I don’t know… something not-depressing… How about things we would do if there was no war. So no war, OH! How about no nations either, just people… what would we do if there were no nations and no war.”

“Is everything else the same?”

“Yeah, just no separation, so we don’t have to talk about any of that crap.”

Zuko nodded, Sokka could feel the motion from Zuko’s hair behind him, the fire bender was so much quieter then he remembered the angry-jerk being. “Ok, I’ll start…If there was no war, I would… go penguin-sledding with my sister for old-times-sake!”

Sokka peeled the lychee nut and sucked out the middle into his mouth and only cringed a little when the odd texture slid down the back of his throat. He didn’t like lychee nuts very much... but he needed energy from anywhere he could get it so he was going to eat the fucking things, and not complain.

Sokka watched Zuko’s scarred fingers (even the fucking guys fingers were scarred) grab one of his nuts, Sokka found himself thankful that the boy was still wearing his long sleeves because if his memory served correct, Zuko’s arms were littered with burn scars and whip slashes.

Sokka felt the flare of anger rage in his stomach, he gripped the thought texture of the lychee nut when he felt the familiar feeling. Lately, his anger had a mind of its own, rearing its ugly head up whenever it felt the urge. He was finding it harder and harder to control his emotions, he felt the anger growing inside him the more shit that happened to him, the easier it was to lose control. The mere thought of the amount of pain and suffering Zuko had endured even before arriving at Zhao’s prison camp made the anger inside him flare up and hiss its fangs just under his ribcage, threatening to tear it’s way out and lash out at whoever wanted to bring him or Zuko harm.

Sokka realized how protective he felt of Zuko, the warm body behind him, holding him so gently and yet Sokka knew that an army of earth benders couldn’t knock him out of Zuko’s grip. They were a fucking team now, after everything that had happened to their group, the treachery, the death, the abandonment (though Sokka couldn’t blame them for that… he might have done the same)…

But not Zuko….

No. Zuko was loyal to Sokka and he would stand by him, he proved that over and over and over again. He had no doubts that he could trust Zuko with anything, fuck, he would probably even leave Aang alone with Zuko at this point… Sokka heisted because maybe they would need to work up to that. They still needed to talk about that whole situation when the time was right... but right now was not that time.

“So.. I just say what I would do, and then I eat the nut?”

Sokka laughed, he kept the chuckle hushed so he didn’t get yelled at and nodded. “Yes Zuko, it’s that easy.”

“Ok… so if there was no war and no Fire Nation then I would want to go to Ember Island and visit some of the theaters my mom used to take my sister and I when we were kids.”

Sokka’s brain just about fell out of the tree because that sentence was the most Zuko had EVER revealed about himself in the entire time he has been getting to know him. Sokka’s eyes went a little wide for a moment because he realized that has been trying to get to know Zuko for a while now… almost two full moon-cycles. Sokka was impressed at the fire bender's ability to refrain from speaking about himself, on the opposite side Sokka was sure Zuko knew the names of all his relatives and his favorite foods, and his… well...a lot about Sokka.

“You have a sister?” It was the only question Sokka’s fumbling mind could ask because of course Zuko had a mother, so it would be dumb to ask him that. He was born after all, royal whatever or not.

Zuko’s breath hitched, Sokka could feel the sharp intake when his chest heaved forward, it probably wasn’t wise to pry into his life right now… with it being the first time he ever shared anything.

Smooth Sokka.

“Yeah.”

Ok, well that confirms it. Mental note added. Zuko has a sister, that was kind of interesting. Sokka wondered if she was older or younger, if she was the nice one and Zuko was the grouchy brother, he had so many questions and no possible way of getting answers to them right now.

“Alright, my turn.” Sokka rolled the lychee nut in his hand, his fingertips investigated the bumpy surface as he held the nut in between his thumb and index finger. “Ok, so if I could do anything… go anywhere... I think I would want to go to a huge library, somewhere that holds so much information you could read forever and never even finish half of it. I don’t know where they have a library like that... but I would find out and go.”

“You want to go to a library?”

“Yeah, why not? If you want to go see old theaters, why is it weird if I want to go see an old library?”

Zuko paused, “they have a big library like that in the Fire Nation palace, but I don’t know if it has anything in it but books and information on the Fire Nation.”

Sokka grunted and then blew the air out of his lips, spitting a little on Zuko’s sleeve, but he ignored it. “That’s just like the Fire Nation, getting rid of all the other nations, even in a library... so no I wouldn’t go there, but maybe Ba Sing Se? I heard they haven’t been touched by the Fire Nation yet. I bet they have a huge library.”

“They probably do.”

Sokka chewed the nut slowly this time, exploring the bitter-sweet flavor while thinking about all the amazing things he would learn from having access to all the information. That had to be the most difficult thing about growing up in the Southern Water Tribe (besides the raids) even though they were the largest village in the south, they still didn’t have anything that could even compare to a library. Most of their information was passed down through folklore and the sharing of tales around the warm fire, passed down from generation to generation, verbally.

The Southern Water Tribe, and Northern Water Tribe were known for their deep connection to the spirits, everything they did in their village incorporated some kind of blessing or tradition to give thanks and offer prayers to the spirits. Sokka remembered his mother was always telling Katara wild stories of La and her blessing to their people with the gift of the tide and how Katara was special to carry Tui and La’s gift.

Stupid magic... Sokka was more of a facts and logic kind of guy, he never found it necessary to fill his mind with La – la-blah-blah stories about things that weren’t going to help him grow into a big strong warrior and chief like his dad. He always wished that there was a place he could go that had scrolls, books… anything that he could read and expand his mind. After his dad left the village and sailed off to war, he was suddenly the oldest warrior and all his learning after that was self taught. If he ever had a chance, he would love to step foot in a real library.

“Alright Zuko, my friend, it is your turn.”

Sokka could feel Zuko shift and Sokka tried to think of an excuse really fast that would make sense so he could turn around and look at Zuko’s level of redness… but he couldn’t think of anything quick enough without coming off as really fucking creepy. Zuko grabbed his last nut and Sokka waited to see where else Zuko would go...

“If I could do anything… Hm, I would probably go visit my old swords master, he was a good man and a great master.”

Sokka nodded, so Zuko had formal training with swords, which was an interesting fact to learn because Sokka had never seen a fire bender wield a weapon. He had seen lots and lots of soldiers with flames and soldiers with weapons and no flames, but never a mixture of both. Sokka was more surprised that the Prince of the Fire Nation was allowed to train with weapons, somewhere in that whole thing was a story Sokka would love to hear… at a later date. He had to be extra touchy with the moody fire bender or he would retreat back into the pile of laundry like the snow-weasel he was.

Sokka cursed to himself when he thought about all the cool stories and awesome shit Zuko could tell him if he could just get the guy to loosen up. Sokka kept the game light and they went back and forth a few more times and both gagged and stopped playing when it came time to eat the green-thing.

They ate the entire stalk though… it had an extremely bitter taste but there was a decent amount of moisture inside and it crunched, which gave it some texture, but if he were offered it outside of a sitting-in-a-tree-trying-not-to-starve-station, he would decline. The potato was…. Not bad, earthy, dirty, and hard but it was moist inside as well and it hit a spot in Sokka’s stomach the other two options didn’t.

Sokka felt Zuko rummaging through the bag behind him and he wondered what else he could possibly have in there. They saved the rest of the potato for dinner so perhaps he was just putting it away?

“Take your top off.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your tunic, or what’s left of it, I need you to take it off so I can put salve on your burns.”

Sokka hesitated and then slowly pulled the ratted tunic up over his head, the simple movement sending sharp waves of pain crashing through his body. The throbbing on his side from the irritated burn was the worst, Sokka was sure it would get infected if it wasn’t already. He felt Zuko’s warm fingers lightly touch a few spots on his back, he surprised Sokka when he put his palm flat on the center of his back and the warmth began flowing into Sokka’s body. The warmth from Zuko surprisingly felt good, even though the temperature around them was steadily rising. Sokka could feel his muscles relax and Zuko removed his hand, the touch was missed the moment it left.

Zuko’s hands returned, but this time there was something on his fingers and Sokka could feel him dabbing a freezing-cold-something on his back in a few spots.

“Ohhhhh… Zuko, that is too cold!”

“Shhhh. Stop being a baby, this will help with your bruises.”

Sokka couldn’t argue with the logical fire bender. Sokka actually really appreciated that about Zuko, there was never any hidden message or ulterior motive, he said what he meant and he did what he said. Sokka flinched when Zuko pushed his body upwards just enough that their cozy position was disturbed. Sokka did what he could to stay out of the fire bender's way, but when he removed his protective arms that had not left Sokka’s waist since they settled into their branch, he felt uneasy.

There was an emptiness and a panicked need to grab Zuko’s arms and put them back where he had them before, but Sokka was able to hold back long enough for Zuko to return. He slid back into his spot and the comfort of feeling Zuko’s body pressed up behind him returned and his arms returned to their spot around him. Sokka couldn’t even begin to understand what kind of insane feelings were vibrating through him from the clingy-emotional-insane-mental-outburst he just went through.

Sokka went ahead and pushed those thoughts off to the side and turned his attention back to Zuko, whose raspy voice spoke out to him. “I need you to turn so you are uh… kind of facing me but still facing forward. Does that make any sense? Twist, if you can, but if you feel any sharp pains from the burn on your side then stop.”

Sokka nodded, he gently and slowly shifted his body so that his waist turned enough to half face Zuko, the fire bender halted his movements when he was in the right position. The awkward angle made it so Zuko had clear access to the large burn on his side, Zuko looked at him and Sokka just stared at the other boy's golden eyes, so bright and alive in the morning sunlight.

“I am going to clean out your burn the best I can and then wrap it up, I’ll do the one on your arm too.”

Sokka didn’t know what to say, he just wanted the hurt to stop and the comfort that Zuko was offering was too good to pass up. They spent the better half of the afternoon fixing up Sokka’s injuries, Zuko ended up taking off his long sleeve tunic and giving it to Sokka to wear, leaving him in only the thin brown under-tunic which he tied tight with the blood-stained waist sash.

The good news was that both boys were clothed and Sokka felt much better with the salve soothing some of the deep ache and burning pains. Now that his injuries were wrapped up they would be safe from nature's elements, well for the most part. He just silently hoped none of them were already infected, if so… they would have to find a healer.

Sokka closed his eyes and leaned against Zuko, he could feel the other boy relax and his breathing slowed enough to possibly be asleep, but Sokka didn’t want to check and risk disturbing him.

Sokka wanted to fix Zuko’s hurt too… he knew the other boy was in pain, Sokka could see it on his face and sometimes the way Sokka would move would cause Zuko wince or flinch. But there was no way they could safely switch spots, so once again… Zuko would have to wait. Sokka frowned, it was annoying that Zuko always had to wait… even though he was the one doing most of the work.

Sokka opened his eyes and looked up at the light flickering between the branches that stretched out far and wide above them. He wondered how high the tree went… if they wanted to escape perhaps they could continue to climb up rather than down?

Sokka could feel the gears turning and he spent the rest of the afternoon listening to Zuko breath and the steady pumping of the other boy’s heart against his back while he brain-stormed how to get them the fuck out of this tree and away from Zhao.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When Zuko woke up, Sokka had a list of questions ready for him and even though he acted annoyed he still answered them.

“Can you Blue Spirit throw me to another tree safely?”

“No.”

“Ok, so can you, Blue Spirit from tree to tree and go see where the furthest village is?”

“And leave you here alone? You’ll fall out of the tree before I get back.”

“I will not! Plus, we can use the waist sash to tie me to the branch if you are worried about it.”

“I don’t like the idea, what else do you have?”

“Ok, how about if we Blue Spirit through the trees all quiet and crawl from branch to branch? It will be a slow journey but we will stay off the ground at least.”

“Sokka… you can’t just say Blue Spirit in front of things and that makes me magically have that skill.”

“So you are telling me, you can single handed break Aang out of a secret Fire Nation prison, and then battle your way through attacking earth benders, fire bend a fucking fire shield, break me out of Zhao’s again... but you can’t Blue Spirit yourself through some trees?”

Zuko groaned, Sokka knew he was being annoying but he didn’t have any ideas… and without ideas there was no plan and without a plan then they might as well go find that family of howler-squirrels and see if they will adopt them. Zuko’s voice was quiet when he spoke next and it made a cool chill of worry crawl down Sokka’s spine.

“I think I’m too weak to do any of that… so no, I can’t really Blue Spirit anything much. I can probably get us down from here and even that will be a struggle.”

Sokka nodded because he knew that things were dire if Zuko was saying he was too weak, that meant they needed to be really careful with what they decided to do next.

“That’s alright buddy, you have done so much already. I’ll figure out something….”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

No… No he would not.

Sokka came up with nothing, if anything… Zuko made it worse by informing Sokka that there could be a group of fucking people called the Yuyan Archers that were so good at their fucking jobs they were able to pin down Aang…

AANG?! No one could pin down the Avatar, he was zippy and zoomy and generally all over the place, not to mention he could bend the air. But Zuko assured him that they were the ones who caught Aang and brought him to Zhao and they were stationed at the Pohuai Stronghold… so there was a good chance the admiral would have already requested their assistance. If that was the case then they would be in deep trouble if they were discovered.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Without any new ideas from Sokka or Zuko, it was decided that they would leave that night, when the moon was at the highest point in the sky so they would have the most light possible along with the cover of darkness. They shared the rest of the potato, taking small bites and passing it back and forth until the piece quickly vanished.

Sokka pulled the cloak up over them as the sun slipped out of sight. The chilly night air wasn’t even a bother to them under their cloak-igloo-of-warmth, Zuko was still wrapped around him and Sokka found himself leaning heavily against his friend.

Sokka couldn’t help but wiggle around and try to find some kind of relief to his aching tail-bone, he finally accepted that his butt was in a permanent-ache until he got out of this fucking tree. But Sokka didn’t hate the tree, in fact he kind of liked their hidden-tree-hideaway... but it was time to go and even though the nervous energy twisted his raw-potato-filled tummy in a knot… Zuko’s warmth and steady beating heart keep him calm.

Without even thinking, Sokka snuggled his head back into the crook of Zuko’s neck and closed his eyes. “Night Zuko, see you in a bit.”

Sokka was surprised when Zuko leaned into him just a little and whispered back.

“Night.”

Chapter Text

Leaving It All Behind

Chapter 17: If You Touch Him, I’ll Kill You

Their climb down the tree was completely silent as Zuko descended onto the forest floor with Sokka and their leather bag hanging loosely against his back. Once they were safely out of the tree, Sokka let go of Zuko and of-fucking-course his first foot down snapped a stick which echoed the taunting sound out into the darkness. Sokka was sure that his clumsy footing and lack of ninja training would snap every twig and crunch every leaf he came across, but there was a small gift rumbling above them.

While they were sleeping the spring time rain clouds had rolled over the earth and covered them with a clouded blanket. They were lucky to still have a small amount of moonlight filtering through the canopy, so it wasn’t impossible to see and the low light helped conceal their movements as they crept through the thicket. The rumbling thunder helped muffle the noises that Sokka couldn’t seem to avoid making.

Zuko was silent in front of him and Sokka watched the other boy move effortlessly through the forest as he followed close behind. Sokka tried his best to copy each and every footstep Zuko took and every time the other boy shifted in an effort to avoid a branch or thorny vine. Each time Sokka ducked under something, he was thankful that he remembered to get his stretchy band back so that he could pull his hair into a wolf’s-tail to keep it out of his face.

Sokka loathed hair in his face and the annoying way it interfered with his vision. He also hated the way it always tickled weird places and made him think there were prickle-spiders crawling on him… yeah, no thanks. He wasn’t sure how Zuko could stand all that thick hair falling in his face all the time, but it didn’t seem to bother the fire bender one bit.

Sokka couldn’t help but think about all the events that had happened to them since their escape… so many emotions and confusing thoughts swirled around in his mind when he even attempted to try and think about it. His chest felt warm when he thought about the care that Zuko had shown him in the tree, and how comfortable it was to be in the other boy’s presence, he really did look at Zuko as a friend…

Who would have ever guessed?

Sokka smiled to himself and stuck close to the fire bender walking in front of him, he didn’t want to miss a step as they weaved through the foliage. They seemed to be making good time and Zuko kept a steady pace... one that Sokka struggled to maintain, but there was no fucking way he would ask Zuko to slow down. He would push through any pain or exhaustion to keep up their pace, every single step they took led them away from Zhao.

Sokka couldn’t help but let in a little ray of hope at the idea of finally being rid of that monster-of-a-man, he wished he could have seen the look on his face when the soldiers told him that Sokka was gone.

Sokka sighed, he had to admit though… never seeing Zhao’s face again was better than being there to see what was sure to have been, an explosion of rage and fire. Sokka involuntarily shuddered at the thought of Zhao’s anger and how he had barely escaped what was sure to have resulted in Sokka’s dead body burned to a crisp. He quickly shoved away the thoughts of Zhao, death and overall depressing shit… they were ok right now.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Zuko had lied when he said that the Yuyan Archers were fast

No, the Yuyan Archers were invisible and their arrows moved like the wind.

Sokka felt the first arrow whizz past his face and hit Zuko in front of him. Sokka didn’t even have time to yell out before another arrow caught Sokka’s own body, but to his surprise he didn’t feel a sharp stinging pain like he expected. In fact, he only felt the arrow’s sharp tip catch the loose fabric hanging from his sleeve, but the power behind the arrow was strong enough to send Sokka hurtling to the ground.

His vision swam when he hit the ground, searing pain radiating from the wound on his side, but there was no time to think about any of that... Sokka knew he had to move fast and avoid getting pegged to the ground. He could hear the sound of Zuko’s swords clanging against the arrowheads, he must have been fighting off the attacks and Sokka needed to help him. With all his body’s strength he yanked his arm and there was the beautiful sound of cheap fabric tearing and just-like-that, Sokka was free.

He jumped to his feet, he saw Zuko in a crouched fighting position with his back against the trunk of a massive tree. There wasn’t a single arrow lodged in the tree around Zuko and to Sokka’s horror; he realized it was because the archers weren’t missing.

Zuko’s movements were fluid, but Sokka could see the strained expression his face carried every time he swung his swords through the motions to cut down the incoming arrows. The archers didn’t seem to be trying to kill them which sent an extremely uncomfortable feeling tingling under Sokka’s skin and raising the tiny hairs on the back of his neck.

They needed to get the fuck out of here…

Sokka took a few steps back, his movements must have drawn attention to himself because he heard Zuko’s raspy voice call out and Sokka felt the arrows catch his clothing once again, this time they sent more than just one.

The first arrow caught him in his arm, near the same spot the original arrow struck, but this time they aimed much higher and still managed to miss hitting his flesh. Damn, they were really fucking good. The next arrow hit him in the pant leg and the third grabbed him around his waist, not one of them punctured his skin. The power the arrows carried with them when they struck, was strong enough to pull down a kymodo-rhino, for-fucks-sake.

Sokka hit the ground so hard the air knocked from his lungs in a mixture between a gasp and a coughing exhale, so the air just ended up sitting in his throat and choking him. Sokka’s heart beat increased steadily until air finally started to slip back into his lungs, his breaths coming in and out in short wheezes. Fighting through the disorientation, Sokka forced his eyes open and looked back to where he had seen Zuko last.

He spotted the boy in the same spot with his back against the tree, the ground around him was littered with broken arrow fragments. The archers weren’t overwhelming him with arrows, but they were sending in steady attacks, their aim seemed to be focused on getting through Zuko’s quick defenses. Both the Yuyan Archers and Zuko seemed to be equally matched, but Sokka could tell that Zuko was tired and distracted.

Sokka’s eyes caught Zuko’s gold for just a moment before his focus was torn back to the incoming arrows, the other boy needed to stay focused and Sokka needed to pull himself free of the arrows holding him to the ground. The Water Tribe boy pulled and kicked with all his strength, focusing his efforts on tearing the brittle fabric instead of snapping the shaft of the arrow, which was buried almost halfway into the compacted dirt.

Sokka shuddered thinking about how if their attacks had been aimed at his internal organs he would be dead right now. He heard a ripping sound come from his pant leg and he used the new-found-freedom to use his legs to try and push himself up and rip himself free from the remaining arrows. Sokka heard another tear and a smile spread across his lips, this time he wasn’t going to just jump up... he would try to crawl into the woods and take the archers out front the back or –

A strong grip twisted tightly to his wolf's-tail, Sokka felt his neck snap back with enough force that he heard a popping sound and a sharp pain started to throb from the back of his head. Sokka’s tired body was pulled back with violent force as whoever-had-his-hair yanked him with incredible strength. Sokka yelped when his body slid backwards.

He was pulled to his knees and the cold feeling of fear dropped into his stomach like he had swallowed a chunk of ice straight out of the ocean, the salty water drying out his mouth and everything, like when he was young. Needless to say, he learned not to eat the floating ice in the ocean at a young age, but the feeling in his stomach and the dryness of his tongue reminded him of a time when he did eat that floating ice.

Sokka knew who liked to hold people on their knees, but he couldn’t move his head to see anything… His eyes were fixed forward at Zuko. The other boy stood in front of him, his gold eyes burning with the kind of anger that made Sokka remember how truly terrifying Zuko could be.

There were no longer arrows flying through the air and the cold wind blew quietly as the world around them stilled. Sokka was on his knees facing Zuko, who stood only a few yards away. The foliage was lighter in the spot the Yuyan Archers chose to attack them, who knows how long they were being stalked through the forest before they decided to strike. The small clearing put some distance between trees, causing a break in the heavy canopy above. This allowed a little of the clouded moonlight to set their world in a silver-grey tint, giving their dark world a small glow.

Zuko had his swords lifted in a position that Sokka recognized from when he fought the earth benders, his stance was light and Sokka could tell he was contemplating what to do. It wasn’t until a cold blade put pressure against the side of Sokka’s throat that he realized exactly the position he was in… he was at the mercy of Zhao.

“Put down the swords, Zuko.”

Even though Sokka’s eyes couldn’t see Zhao’s face, he could hear the throbbing anger lacing the man’s words with frustration, they were almost sticky leaving his lips. The sick-fuck must have really wanted Zuko to lower his weapons… but if Zuko did that, then they would capture him… and Sokka couldn’t let that happen.

Zuko was avoiding making eye contact with Sokka, the other boy’s back was still close enough to the tree that he was able to protect himself from anyone potentially sneaking up behind him. Sokka knew if Zuko wanted to... he could escape… he just had to run, he could Blue Spirit himself away to safety.

… but when Zuko didn’t move or react to Zhao’s command, the man pressed the pointed tip of the sharp blade into Sokka’s skin, tearing through the top layers of flesh just deep enough to draw blood. Sokka could feel the rapidly cooling liquid run down his skin and into the neck of his tunic as it flowed down his chest.

“If you do not lower your weapons and release yourself to me, I will cut this boy’s throat, right here in front of you… Do not test me boy… lower your weapons, Zuko.”

Zuko’s eyes finally flickered over to Sokka... he seemed so unsure of what to do… he looked lost and Sokka could see the fragments of fear showing through his burning gold eyes. If Zuko was afraid, then this situation was a lot worse than it looked… which meant that if Zhao was behind him he must have a small army with him, along with the Yuyan Archers, they were so fucked.

But Zuko could escape, he was fast and quiet.. he just had to leave Sokka behind. The next words came flying out of his mouth before Sokka could even process what was happening. His mind decided for him, his heart was warm as it began to beat wildly in his chest, he needed Zuko to run.

RUN ZUKO! Your debt is repaid, you don’t have to do this! PLEASE GO!

The drought in his mouth had traveled down his throat and the words ripped out with a painfully weak but powerful plea for the other boy to run. He didn’t want Zuko to leave him... but it was an impossible situation and it would be better for at least one of them to live. Sokka had been prepared to die before Zuko rescued him… the other boy had tried to save him, and that was all Sokka could have ever even hoped for. Maybe he would tell Katara and his dad what had happened to him, to them.

Zhao’s voice broke into his mind and interrupted his thoughts… “Is this about a debt, Zuko? Or, is it more than that? Do you care about this Water Tribe boy? Come on now Zuko, we all know you have a strong compassion for peasants. It shows through the scar on your face… but one would have hoped you would have learned by now, especially when your father burned the lesson into your face. But here we are, watching you once again, face another lesson… so what will it be, Zuko? The Water Tribe boy’s life for yours? Or his spilled blood and your freedom? You can take up to a minute to decide.”

Sokka couldn’t tear his eyes away from Zuko, the boy was hardly visible under the shadows from the tree distorting his silhouette, but Sokka could see him clear enough to tell he was torn on what to do. His stance was shifting uncomfortably as his swords swayed with his movements and his golden eyes finally stopped trying to burn Zhao down and finally looked at Sokka again.

Sokka could see the hesitation and the fear… The boy was trying to decide what to do. Sokka did his best to strongly urge Zuko to leave, with his brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed he silently screamed at Zuko. When nothing was working he finally tried to nudge his head but Zhao must have felt his muscles shift and the man tightened his grip on Sokka’s hair.

The blade dug down a little further and Sokka could feel a tiny burst of warmth as the cut in his flesh expanded and released another slow trickle of blood. The world slowed down when Zuko stopped shifting, his face slated back to the neutral expression he had carried with him everyday in the prison; it had only recently gone away when he and Sokka had been alone together.

Zuko’s arms were trembling and Sokka could swear he felt the warmth from the boy’s anger from where he was kneeling, but the horror really settled in when Zuko pulled his body back into a neutral stance and slowly lowered his weapons. His head dipped forward so the tops of his eyes were covered by his thick black hair that was slick with dirt and sweat, when his shoulders released part of his tension the swords lowered to where the curve of the blade almost touched the dirt.

Zhao’s grip in Sokka’s hair twitched and loosened by just the smallest amount, the only reason Sokka noticed it was because he was hyper fixated on Zhao and Zuko, silently hoping some miracle would happen. Maybe something amazing like Appa landing at this exact moment with Aang and Katara and maybe a bad-ass, buff, earth bender (because Aang would have had to have found an earth bending master by now) and they would fuck up Zhao and his soldiers and crush the archers into the trees they hid silently behind.

But they were not in the universe’s good-graces, in fact, the universe might have forgotten they even existed because it seemed pretty damn determined to let them suffer as much as possible before the sweet release of death carried them away.

The familiar cold feeling crept over Sokka when he heard the clanking of the soldier’s armor, he knew they had been standing behind him and Zhao. With slow and calculated movements, four face-plated, spiked helmet-wearing soldiers marched towards Zuko. The men seemed to slow and almost hesitate when they were close enough that the boy could strike out at them.

Sokka watched his world begin to slow into a static blur of panic when the soldiers knocked the swords out of Zuko’s hands and he watched as they pulled his arms behind his back and immediately cuffed his wrists together. One of the soldiers kicked the back of Zuko’s legs at the joint, forcing his body to fall to its knees.

Both boys were kneeled across from one another, Zuko’s head was down with his disheveled hair hanging in his eyes. Sokka mentally begged Zuko to look up at him, please look up… he just wanted to know… why

Zhao pulled the knife back and removed his grip from Sokka’s hair, the boy swayed as he searched for balance after the stabilizing force left him. Zhao’s grip was replaced by two soldiers taking him by the shoulders and pulling his arms back the same way they did Zuko, snapping his wrists into metal manacles behind his back. The nauseating feeling returned, mixing together with the fear that was already threatening to expel his stomach’s contents.

Zhao walked toward the middle of their situation with slow and calculated steps, he made sure not to block their view of one another. Sokka could tell how pleased Zhao was about the way the situation had turned out, even though Sokka could see the man still hiding himself behind a facade.

He moved closer to Zuko and the sound of his approaching footsteps caused the boy to lift his head so that Sokka could see his eyes. His heart froze in his chest when he saw the layer of fear reflecting in the ex-prince’s light eyes, he had never seen real fear there before.

Zhao was standing almost in front of Zuko but he was careful to position himself in a way that Sokka could still watch them interact. Sokka flinched when Zhao suddenly backhanded Zuko across the face, the impact landed on the boy’s scarred side and his head snapped to the side from the force.

There seemed to be another wave of anger rushing through Zhao because he grabbed Zuko by the hair to pull his head back up to face him. Sokka screamed internally when the fucking idiot fire bender spit out a stream of blood-spit into Zhao’s unsuspecting face, Zuko’s famous smirk slid across his lips in a mocking victory.

Zhao growled and a crash of lightning flashed through the sky, gracing the land with a moment of clarity before it vanished behind the clouds once again. The lightning was followed up by loud vibrations of thunder which muffled the sound of Zhao’s fist slamming into Zuko’s face one, two, three –

“Stop!”

Sokka screamed out, his shoulders twisted as he tried to pull away from the death grip holding him in place. He couldn’t kneel there and watch Zhao beat Zuko, no… not again. If this was the end then Sokka was going to fight with every last breath, maybe he could at least save Zuko from some of the pain that Zhao was sure to reign down on the boy.

To Sokka’s surprise, Zhao did stop... he took a few retreating steps and rolled his shoulders back into place. The admiral wiped his bruised and bleeding knuckles onto the fabric of his pant leg. Zhao took his newly clean hand and pushed back the stray hairs that seemed to be a staple feature in the man’s new unhinged appearance. He turned to face Sokka, the look on Zhao’s face made Sokka’s stomach roll as the man’s amber eyes flashed with the familiar humor he had seen during their past torture sessions.

“You are right, Water Tribe, we can handle this better.” Zhao gave one of the soldiers standing behind Sokka a nod of his head and the forest around them began to move as soldiers revealed their positions in the shadows. Sokka waited to see the sneaky archers appear, but they never did.

Sokka looked at Zuko, who looked disoriented from taking so many heavy blows to the face, especially against his scarred side. From being so close to the damaged skin on Zuko’s face, Sokka could tell it was similar to the scarred skin left on his hand from the boiling water burn he sustained during his ’interrogation’. He couldn’t imagine having that type of pain etched into his face.

Sokka winced when the soldiers pulled him to his feet and turned him away from Zuko. Sokka wanted to desperately turn around and make sure Zuko was alright… but when the soldiers started to shove him forward and the sky erupted into another flash of lightning... Sokka’s fate began to dawn on him. The soldiers were moving into a formation, one that would march them back to their camp… where Sokka was sure that there was no one left to save him…

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The walk back to Zhao’s camp was quiet, the only sounds were the