The guy they pull out from under Lake Laogai freaks Sokka out.
Not in like, a personal way. He doesn’t have anything against the guy, even if he looks scary as hell, with all those bruises and scars. It’s just—
Well. He’s living proof that people are capable of a lot of things Sokka doesn’t want to believe they are. That people can be evil, no matter what color clothes they wear.
The stories he tells his uncle are strange. Sokka didn’t think many people in the Earth Kingdom willingly travelled by boat. Spirits know Toph wants nothing to do with any mode of travel that doesn’t involve her feet placed firmly on the ground.
After he has to wrestle Jet to the ground when the guy bends their fire to life one morning, the stories make a bit more sense.
“He’s probably a war child,” Jet says, pacing by the river. “That’s—that’s not his fault. We had plenty of war children in the Freedom Fighters.”
Sokka keeps one eye on the boy’s hands, the other on his fishing line.
“Plenty of war children,” Jet repeats, eyes wild.
“But no firebenders?” Sokka asks, voice level. It’s not that it doesn’t bother him. It does. But he’s met Jeong Jeong, and Aang used to have friends in the Fire Nation, and if anybody can be evil, maybe anybody can be good, too. No matter where they’re from.
“No firebenders,” Jet agrees.
Sokka hums. “You sure? Pretty sure they wouldn’t have told you if they were, considering you tried to kill this one without warning.”
Jet puts his head between his knees.
The uncle dies. The nephew stops speaking. He collects firewood for hours.
When Sokka realizes he’s building a pyre, he starts to help. Once it’s lit, the guy lowers himself to his knees, neat and practiced, and doesn’t move until sunrise.
Sokka stays up with him, silently keeping watch.
When the guy—when Zuko finishes his story, no one speaks for a long moment.
Then Toph says: “Why’d they want to kill your dad and sister so bad, anyway?”
Zuko blinks, surprised. He says: “Because my father’s the Firelord?”
Sokka pins Jet down before his swords can get all the way out of their sheathes, then drags him to the river to pace again.
“—enemy royalty, Water Tribe, how can you—”
“Did you not listen to a word he said?”
“He’s lying,” Jet snarls. “You can’t trust anything he—”
“Then use your eyes, Jet!” Sokka nearly yells. “Just look at him. You think he did that to himself? Where do you think those lash marks on his back came from? How many times do you think he hit himself in the face, to get his lip to stay split like that?”
Jet shakes his head, brow furrowed.
“They killed his uncle,” Sokka says, quieter. “Jet, they tortured and killed his uncle.”
“Okay,” Jet snaps. Then, quieter, like he’s trying to convince himself: “Okay.”
“I thought you knew,” Zuko says from behind Sokka one day, scaring the living daylights out of him.
“Tui and La,” Sokka gasps, a hand pressed to his chest. “How are you that quiet?”
Zuko just stares at him, uncertain. The bit of tooth that always shows past the old cut on his lip glints in the sunlight. The bruises are finally mostly gone, leaving wide expanses of scarred—
Shit. Does he not have a shirt? Sokka would want a shirt, after—
“Do you want a shirt?” Sokka says, standing quickly. “I’ve got a couple extras.”
Hesitantly, the guy nods.
“Okay. Cool. Great. Let me just—” Sokka jerks a thumb towards his bag and hurries over to it, digging around for a clean shirt. “Here!”
Zuko pulls it on immediately. It fits alright, just a little tight across the shoulders.
“Thanks,” he says awkwardly, folding his arms protectively over his chest.
Sokka nods, a little breathless. “No worries. I should’ve—Sorry we didn’t give you one sooner. Wasn’t thinking.”
“S’okay,” Zuko mutters, fiddling with the hem. “Got used to not having one.”
Before Sokka can process that, the guy takes a deep breath and says: “When you hand me over, can you give me to the Water Tribe?”
“I can’t—” Zuko shakes his head jerkily. “I can’t go back to the Earth Kingdom. The Water Tribe doesn’t take benders prisoner, they’ll—”
“They’ll execute you,” Sokka breathes, staring at the teenager in front of him with wide eyes. “You want us to—”
Sokka throws up in the bushes.
“We’re not handing you over,” he says, voice firm even though his hand shakes as he wipes the back of it over his mouth, “to anyone.”
Jet pulls Sokka aside a few days later.
“We’re leaving tomorrow,” he says. “Me and Smellerbee and Longshot.”
Panic kicks to life in Sokka’s chest. “You can’t tell anyone about him,” he says sharply. “Jet, you can’t—”
“I’m not going to,” Jet says, chewing agitatedly on his piece of grass. “Have you asked him about the burn scar?”
Sokka stares. No, he hasn’t.
Jet stares back. “We won’t tell anyone. He’s been through enough.”
“You could stay,” Sokka blurts out. He doesn’t know why he says it. He thought he didn’t like Jet.
Jet shakes his head. “I can’t be here. I—” He looks away from Sokka’s face, jaw clenched tight. “They made me watch,” he says, voice low, “when they burned my mother alive.”
Sokka opens his mouth, but Jet shakes his head, eyes hard. “I won’t tell anybody,” he promises. “But I can’t be here.”
They leave at dawn.
“Is there anywhere you want to go?” Aang asks Zuko one night.
The older boy shakes his head, staring into the fire.
“You could stay with us?”
Zuko doesn’t take his eyes off the fire. He shrugs.
“Okay,” Aang says, forcing happiness into his voice, “great! Do you want to be my firebending teacher?”
At that, Zuko does look up. He stares at Aang for a long moment, then says: “What are you going to do with it?”
Sokka tenses, ready to jump in if this goes bad.
“End the war?” Aang says nervously. “Restore balance?”
“Are you planning,” Zuko says slowly, eerily still, “to kill my sister?”
“No!” Aang gasps, horrified. “Azula’s the worst, but I wouldn’t kill her!”
“Alright,” Zuko looks back at the fire. “I’ll teach you.”
“My technique is probably shit,” Zuko apologizes while Sokka watches him train with Aang one morning. “I was only starting to learn the advanced sets before…”
“It’s alright,” Aang says cheerily. “When Katara started teaching me, neither of us knew any real forms. And Toph learned from badgermoles, so she doesn’t really believe in forms. At least not like other benders.” He falters a bit. “Honestly, I… I don’t mind if I’m not a very good firebender. As long as I can block blasts—”
“You’re the Avatar,” Zuko says gently. “How can you maintain balance between the elements if the elements aren’t balanced in you?”
Aang gulps. “Jeong Jeong, this guy who tried to teach me a while back, he said that fire isn’t like other elements. That it only knows destruction. I don’t—I don’t want to destroy anything.”
Zuko sits down cross-legged on the ground, gesturing for Aang to do the same. “Fire is good at destroying things,” he says slowly, reaching up almost absent-mindedly to brush the edge of his most prominent scar.
Suddenly, Sokka feels like he’s intruding. He hadn’t meant to hide, but neither of them seemed to notice when he walked over to watch. If he gets up now, though, they’ll see him.
He doesn’t get up.
“But it’s good at other things, too,” Zuko continues, doing something small and subtle with his bending that makes light play over his hands, flickering yellow-white flames. “It keeps you warm at night and cooks your food. Without Agni’s light shining down on us, plants would wither and die. People and animals would starve.”
Aang is enraptured, watching the pale fire weave around Zuko’s hands. Wordlessly, Zuko reaches out, passing some of the flames to Aang’s hesitant palms.
“It’s—it’s like a heartbeat,” Aang says softly, watching the flame with growing wonder. “It’s like it’s alive.”
“It is.” A small, fleeting smile plays over Zuko’s lips. “Fire can be destructive, yes. But fire is life.” He clears his throat, suddenly awkward. “It’s been a friend to me,” he says softly, and Sokka’s breath catches in his throat, “when I had nothing else.”
Gold eyes rise to meet Sokka’s, unsurprised to find him. Another smile softens Zuko’s face a bit, and Sokka smiles back, feeling a little lightheaded.
It’s the middle of a moonless night when the Dai Li agent finds them.
Sokka jerks awake to a rush of heat over his head and a low, feral snarl.
Zuko’s bleeding from a cut above his good eye, but he’s winning, sweeping the earthbender’s feet out from under him and following him down.
By the time Sokka’s kicked himself free from his bedroll, it’s over.
The Dai Li’s pinned down in Katara’s ice, blood on his face glinting in the pale starlight. Zuko’s rolling to his feet from where Aang knocked him off his opponent, the younger boy standing in front of him with his hands held out in a silent plea.
Zuko folds his arms over his chest, huffing a single, flaming breath.
“Jingsheng,” he says flatly, flaming eyes pinned on the earthbender. “What do you want?”
Azula took Ba Sing Se.
She took Ba Sing Se.
“Where’s your uncle?” the Dai Li agent says, and Zuko turns around and walks away.
“He’s dead, you piece of shit,” Toph snaps.
“I’m—I’m truly sorry,” the agent says. “I never agreed with—”
“Did you know what they were doing to him?” Katara spits, furious. “Did you?”
Hesitantly, the agent nods. “But—”
“You’re a monster,” Katara snarls, and Sokka has to step in her path.
“Take a walk,” he says, voice low.
“I know,” Sokka interrupts, anger leeching into his voice. “I know . But we need his information.”
Katara scowls, but she stalks away from the camp, towards wherever Zuko went.
“I had my orders,” the agent says quietly, voice cracking a bit. “I didn’t—There was nothing I could do.”
Sokka takes a deep breath, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Did the council get out?” he asks, ignoring the agent’s excuses. “Did she get the invasion plans?”
The agent doesn’t know anything useful. He left as soon as the city fell and started tracking them down.
“I wanted to help right away,” he insists. “But I couldn’t leave my post. I have a duty to the people of—”
“Fuck off,” Toph snaps. “You never helped anyone in that city. Least of all Zuko.”
The agent swallows. “I want to help him now.”
He’s not lying.
“It’s your call,” Sokka says, voice low. “We can just take off on Appa and leave him here.”
“He might be useful,” Zuko says, sounding flat in a way that makes Sokka want to scream, or maybe cry.
“He’s a war criminal,” Sokka says harshly.
“He never hurt me outside of training,” Zuko says, slow and quiet and a little less dead-eyed than a minute before. “Some of the others, they’d knock me around or—or show up in the bedroom.”
Sokka screws his eyes shut, feeling sick. “But not Jingsheng,” he says.
“Never Jingsheng,” Zuko confirms.
“Alright,” Sokka says softly. “Alright. But if you change your mind, he’s gone, okay? No questions asked.”
“There are protections in place, during eclipses,” Zuko tells them. “Bunkers, underground. He won’t just be out in the open.”
Okay. That sucks, but it’s not the end of the world.
“The princess will have earthbenders,” Jingsheng adds. He doesn’t usually talk much, just follows Zuko around like a silent, overprotective polar bear dog. “Dai Li.”
“I can handle them,” Toph nearly growls.
“It’s been years, but I can lead you through the tunnels—”
“Hold up,” Sokka says. “You won’t be able to bend. Shouldn’t you—”
Jingsheng shifts, glancing at Zuko. “He doesn’t need to bend.”
Sokka looks at Zuko, questioning.
“Get me a pair of swords,” Zuko says quietly, “and I can handle myself.”
Yue, what an understatement.
Sokka pulls Zuko aside before they rendezvous with the fleet.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” he says, desperate for Zuko to understand, “because I do. I do trust you. But I’ve been wrong before and—”
“It’s okay,” he says quietly. “I get it. If Toph makes manacles out of metal, I won’t be able to—”
“No,” Sokka says sharply, feeling ill. “No, Zuko, I’m not—We’re not tying you up. La.”
Zuko opens his mouth, then closes it again, apparently speechless.
“I just—” Sokka swallows. “Before he left, Jet wanted to know if I’d asked about your burn scar.”
Zuko flinches, eyes wide like he’s been slapped, and Sokka immediately regrets every decision he’s ever made.
“Never mind,” he says hastily. “You don’t have to tell me any—”
“My father did it,” Zuko says, “when I was thirteen.”
Sokka’s words die in his throat. “Accident?” he says. Tui and La, please let it have been an accident.
But Zuko says: “It was an Agni Kai. A sacred fire duel. I was begging him for mercy on my—”
Sokka presses a hand over Zuko’s mouth, shaking his head desperately. “You don’t have to tell me. Fuck, you don’t have to tell me. I’m sorry. Fuck, I’m sorry, Zuko, I didn’t—”
“It’s okay,” Zuko says, pulling Sokka’s hand away gently. He doesn’t let go. “Sokka, it’s okay. I—I want you to know.”
So Sokka listens.
“I know Aang doesn’t want to kill him,” Zuko says calmly, “and that’s alright. He shouldn’t have to. He’s just a kid. But this war will never end with him alive.” Zuko looks at Sokka steadily, a sort of grim determination in his gold eyes. “I’m thinking a small team. Just me, you, and Jingsheng.”
Sokka sniffs. His eyes itch from crying.
He wants to say: you shouldn’t have to, either.
He wants to say: we’re all just kids.
He wants to say: promise me you’ll survive this.
Instead, he scrubs the tear tracks off his face and says: “I’m listening.”
“How do you know of these tunnels?” Sokka’s dad asks, leaning over the table.
“They drilled us on them as children,” Zuko says, not looking up from the map he’s drawn. To anyone else, he probably looks relaxed, but Sokka can see the small muscles around his jaw tense.
“Us?” Bato says suspiciously.
Sokka opens his mouth but closes it again after sharing a quick glance with the other boy.
Zuko looks up from the map, golden eyes meeting Sokka’s dad’s gaze steadily. “My sister and I were top-priority evacuees,” he says plainly, “being second and first in line for the Dragon Throne.”
The older man’s expression hardens. He glances at Sokka, questioning. Sokka nods, firm.
“Alright,” his dad says levelly, “continue.” And Sokka’s heart nearly bursts out of his chest at the show of trust.
“Chief Hakoda,” Colonel Shan says. “Are you sure it is wise to act on intelligence from a man who escaped Earth Kingdom custody in Ba Sing—”
Sokka’s vision goes red. “If I find out,” he hisses, eyes locked on the colonel, “that you had anything to do with Zuko’s custody , I will get my friend Toph to make some nice heavy chains,” the man is paling quickly, unable to look away from Sokka’s face, “and I will throw you in the bay myself.”
“He’s not lying,” Toph adds helpfully, grinning maliciously as she plays with the lump of gleaming metal in her hands like it’s the easiest thing in the world.
“Let’s make sure you don’t find out until after the invasion, then,” Zuko says dryly, making another note on the map. Behind him, Jingsheng is glaring daggers at Shan, but Zuko never even looks up.
Sokka exhales audibly, nostrils flaring. “I need some air.”
“Son,” Sokka hears as he pushes his way out of the tent. “Sokka, slow down.”
Sokka lets the man catch up.
“I won’t work with anyone who had anything to do with it,” Sokka swears, so angry he’s breathless with it. “I won’t, Dad. I—”
“Okay,” his dad says. “I trust you.”
Spirits, he’d missed this man.
“It’s alright,” Zuko says, and Sokka almost jumps out of his skin. How is he always so quiet? Sokka hadn’t even realized he and his shadow had followed them out of the tent. “I can handle it. We need them.”
“Them?” Sokka says and Zuko grimaces, realizing his mistake. “Who else?”
“Sokka,” Zuko says, expression pained. “Let it go.”
Sokka barely hears him, mind whirring as he thinks of who might’ve known, how he missed whatever was said that clued Zuko into—
“Do you recognize people here?” Sokka asks, horrified.
Zuko’s expression shuts down, hard. “That’s enough,” he says, voice flat. “We can’t do this. We need every fighter we can get for this plan to work. I’ll write you up a Koh-damned list after this is over, if you want, but the invasion is the priority. Okay?”
“Zuko, I can’t just stand there and—”
“You want some carry out some justice?” Zuko snaps, eyes blazing. “Then focus on this one,” he gestures sharply at the burn scar on his face, “and the rest can get the fuck in line. Okay?”
Jaw clenched tight, Sokka nods. “Okay. Invasion first.”
“Good.” Zuko deflates a little, scrubbing a hand over his face.
“But I want that list.”
“Is this,” Dad says cautiously, eyes flicking from Sokka to Zuko to Jingsheng and back, “something I should know about?”
Zuko sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Probably.”
“I’m going back to the tent,” he says sharply, crossing his arms in front of himself. “Tell him whatever he needs to know. I don’t mind.”
Sokka catches his elbow before he can move away. “Zuko.”
“I don’t mind,” he says again, softer. A rueful, painful huff of laughter. “Half the camp probably knows anyway.”
“When this is over,” Sokka swears, voice low but fierce, “I’m going to hunt down every last one of them. I swear it.”
Zuko’s shoulders slump, his chin dropping towards his chest. Sokka pulls him into a tight hug.
“Don’t go back to the tent. Check on Aang and the girls?” Sokka asks. The request is paper-thin, but Zuko nods anyway, heading towards the other side of camp.
Jingsheng lingers for a moment, locking eyes with Sokka. “I don’t know the names of the rest,” he says, “but I got the ones in the Dai Li before I left.”
Sokka stares at him, a strange mix of nausea and vicious satisfaction churning in his gut. “All of them?”
Face grim, the earthbender nods. “All of them.”
“You know, Jingsheng,” Sokka says, almost smiling, “maybe you’re not so bad.”
Jingsheng doesn’t look like he agrees. “A better man,” he says, “would’ve never let it happen in the first place.”
There’s nothing there that Sokka can argue with, so he doesn’t say anything as the man nods stiffly and sets off after Zuko.
Sokka watches him go for a long moment, and for the first time, realizes that he can’t be more than twenty or so. Was he any older than Sokka and Zuko are now, when Long Feng first brought the Fire Prince under Lake Laogai?
Sixteen years, Sokka knows, doesn’t make a man grown, no matter how old he feels most days.
Behind him, his dad shifts, clearing his throat. “What happened in Ba Sing Se?”
Colonel Shan shows up to the next meeting with a black eye.
Sokka loves his dad.
“So,” Bato drawls, leaning over Sokka’s shoulder as he watches Zuko train, “that one, huh?”
Sokka’s face heats up and he spins around, shoving as the older man laughs.
“I understand the realities of combat,” Zuko says towards the end of their last war meeting, eyes fixed on the table. “But I would ask you all to remember that my sister is fourteen years old. She is not responsible for the Fire Lord’s crimes. She’s a child obeying her father. She is a child,” Zuko stresses, finally looking up, his intense gaze finding every pair of eyes around the table. “If at all possible, she should be taken alive.”
Slowly, the men and women of their hodge-podge war council nod their agreement.
“Alright,” Hakoda says. “Final overview of the ground fighting. Once we make it to the beach, A-team, that’s Aang, Katara, and Toph, will head straight for the throne room to engage the Fire Lord. B-team is Zuko, Sokka, and Jingsheng. They’ll keep the tunnels clear for the A-team. Everyone else travels the slow way to the palace, fighting through the streets. Everyone clear?”
Toph scowls as everyone else nods and Sokka swallows, glancing at Zuko. Shit.
“What the fuck, Snoozles? Why is your dad lying about the plan?”
“The plan is need to know,” Sokka says.
“And I don’t need to know?” Toph nearly growls.
“We’re sending Aang to deal with Azula. B-team is going after my father,” Zuko says bluntly. “Aang can’t kill.”
“Then send Stoic with Twinkletoes,” Toph says, jerking her thumb at Jingsheng’s silent form, “and take me with you instead. Aang might not be able to kill, but I can. I have.”
Toph stomps a bare foot hard enough to make the ground shake and for once, Sokka isn’t struck by how powerful she is, but how small. Looking at her, standing there with her arms crossed and her face screwed up in a scowl, the emotion behind the admission only betrayed by the slight quaver in her voice, Sokka’s throat clogs up.
Luckily, Zuko’s there.
“I know you can,” Zuko says, softly. He glances at Sokka. “We know you can.”
Sokka pulls himself together and puts a hand on her shoulder. “You just shouldn’t have to,” he says. “We’ve got this one, okay?”
Toph’s fierce expression falters, unsure.
“Besides,” Zuko says. “Last time I saw Azula, she was younger than you and already mopping the floor with masters four times her age. If you think you’ve got the easier fight, you’re in for a rude awakening.”
Toph grins and cracks her knuckles, bravado firmly back in place. “Sparky, please,” she scoffs. “Your crazy sister is going down.”
The plan goes so well, Sokka forgets how terrifying of a plan it is until they step into the bunker and are suddenly face to face with the Fire Lord.
Zuko steps silently to the center of the room and stands perfectly still, swords out, as Jingsheng pins all the guards to the walls with one move and seals the door behind them with another.
“What’s wrong, Ozai?” Sokka says casually. “Not going to say hello to your son?”
“I have no son,” Ozai snarls, eyes locked on Zuko’s smaller form as he rises out of his chair.
“And I have no father,” Zuko says calmly, and then he’s a blur of motion, steel singing as his swords slice through the air.
Within minutes, the Fire Lord is on his back, Zuko’s foot on his chest and a sword at his neck.
“I, Zuko,” he says, loud enough for the guards chained to the walls to hear, “son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, heir to the throne, judge you guilty of conspiracy to kill your father, of unlawful ascension to the Dragon Throne, of dishonoring a sacred duel under the light of Agni, of child abuse, and of aiding and abetting the torture and murder of your late brother, the rightful Fire Lord Iroh. Do you deny this?”
“Don’t you want to know,” Ozai says, cruelty underlaid with something almost desperate, “what happened to your mother?”
“This isn’t about what I want,” Zuko says, softly, and then he moves, blocking the sudden plume of fire from the man at his feet and slashing with a hoarse yell, yellow-white flames dancing along his blade.
The whole chamber is still for a single moment, silent except for Zuko’s harsh breathing as he stands over the corpse. Then he wipes the blade of his bloodied sword on his pantleg and sheathes them both, the soft shink-click as they slide into place breaking the spell.
Sokka blinks, taking a breath.
“Let them go,” Zuko says without turning around.
Jingsheng releases the guards without question and Sokka tenses, expecting an attack. Instead, one of them lowers himself to his knees. “Hail Fire Lord Zuko.”
In near unison, the rest kneel, folding over so their foreheads brush the floor.
“Hail Fire Lord Zuko. Hail Fire Lord Zuko.”
Oh, Sokka thinks, reeling. I think we just won.
They walk through the palace uncontested.
Zuko, with one eye in a permanent scowl and scar tissue tugging his upper lip into an ever-present snarl, does not look like a man to be trifled with on any day. On this day, with Ozai’s lifeblood sprayed over his face, he’s downright threatening.
And yet, the residents of the palace don’t seem frightened.
Outside, horns are sounding: ceasefire, ceasefire, ceasefire.
The news of the change in leadership travels ahead of them:
The prince is alive.
Ozai is dead.
Long live Fire Lord Zuko!
Servants crawl out of the woodwork to catch a glimpse, faces cautiously hopeful. How badly must they have been treated, Sokka wonders, that this scarred, blood-splattered, hard-eyed boy beside him is an image of hope?
“I’m looking for Azula,” Zuko says loudly, and that travels ahead of them, too.
“Lord Zuko,” a servant girl calls. “This way.”
“She went down that hall.”
“Up that way!”
Finally, they find them.
“Azula,” Zuko calls. “It’s over.”
The princess’s head whips around, the lightning sparking over her fingertips dissipating as she loses concentration.
Katara moves to strike, but Sokka catches her eye and shakes his head. Aang’s staring at Zuko, face pale.
“You’re dead,” Azula accuses.
“Is that what he told you?” Zuko asks, sounding genuinely curious. He doesn’t draw his swords.
“Whose blood is all over your face, Zuzu?” she asks instead of answering.
Zuko grimaces and Azula, eyes wide, presses a manicured hand to her mouth as a giggle bursts out.
“Az,” Zuko says gently, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”
The princess just laughs harder, hysterical, until Zuko closes the distance between them and pulls her into a tight hug.
“I’m sorry,” he repeats, eyes closing as the peals of laughter shift into sobs. “I’m sorry.”
The ceasefire holds.
Zuko, Sokka realizes, has been thinking about this for a very long time. Every move he makes feels deliberate.
The coronation is quick and simple, the speech he gives rallying his people behind him perfectly. One by one, like Pai Sho tiles sliding neatly into place, Zuko moves his allies into position.
Aang, Katara, and Toph leave first, headed for Omashu with tidings of peace and good will. They take scary knife girl and scary pink girl with them, to carry Zuko’s orders to the troops occupying the city. Once Boomi is free, Toph and the Fire Nation girls will stay to oversee the withdrawal, while Aang and Katara fly up to the North Pole on Appa to speak with Yue’s father.
“I’m sorry,” Sokka overhears Zuko tell Aang before they leave. “I know you wanted to find another way.”
Aang, quiet and red-eyed like he’s been since the eclipse, says, “I just don’t understand. You said fire was life.”
“Sometimes,” Zuko says, sounding older than he has any right to, “you have to burn away poisoned flesh, to save the body.”
“I don’t understand,” Aang says miserably.
“That’s okay,” Zuko says quietly. “I didn’t understand anything, when I was your age.”
From the courtyard, Zuko watches until Appa is a speck of white in the clear blue sky.
“What kind of world do we live in,” he says finally, “that we ask so much of a twelve-year-old kid?”
“I don’t know,” Sokka replies, eyes fixed on the side of Zuko’s face as he watches the sky. The morning sun scatters strangely over the burn scar. It catches in his eyes, making them seem to glow like molten gold. He looks otherworldly. Like a spirit, dressed up in human clothes.
Sokka looks back at the blue sky, but he can’t pick out Appa’s speck of white anymore. “A desperate one, I guess,” he says quietly. Desperate, but beautiful, nonetheless.
Jingsheng and Azula leave next, for Ba Sing Se. Azula seems to be glad to have a mission, glad to be going somewhere she can boss people around. Jingsheng isn’t happy about leaving his post at Zuko’s side.
“You’re vulnerable here,” he argues. “You need loyal guards.”
“I need agents in Ba Sing Se more,” Zuko says, voice firm. “I need a trustworthy seat of power in the Earth Kingdom. You want to keep me safe? Be Kuei’s kingmaker. Make him strong. Keep Long Feng from grabbing power again.”
“Needs someone to watch her back,” Zuko says, “against the hundreds of warriors I helped train to kill her.”
The older man argues until the last minute, but he was always going to give in. For a tile like Jingsheng, there isn’t a better spot on the board than behind the walls of the Impenetrable City. It’s his home turf, after all.
Before they get on the war balloon, he pulls Sokka aside.
“Keep him safe?” he asks, expression tight.
There’s a hammock with Sokka’s name on it below the deck of his dad’s ship, docked in the harbor and already preparing to cast off, but he doesn’t hesitate. “Always,” he swears.
His dad will understand. He probably won’t even be surprised, with the way he and Bato have been teasing him.
Still looking conflicted, Jingsheng bows in thanks.
“Listen, Jingsheng,” Sokka says, glancing over his shoulder to make sure Zuko’s still busy worrying over Azula. “While you’re there, secure any evidence you can get your hands on,” his mouth sets itself in a grim, determined line, “and send me copies.”
Green gaze suddenly razor-sharp, Jingsheng nods. “Long Feng kept meticulous records.”
“Good,” Sokka says, feeling a little bit of the savageness shining in Jingsheng’s eyes rear up in his own chest. “Let’s hang him with them.”
The ceasefire holds.
The day the Southern Fleet sets sail, Sokka sees them off at the dock, then walks into Zuko’s war room after the meeting he was in lets out, an apple in his hand and a carefully casual tone. “I was thinking, if you have the troops in Omashu march northwest and cross the river instead of heading straight for the coast—”
“Sokka,” Zuko says, more of an exhale than a word as his eyes fly up from the map. His voice breaks a bit towards the end and Sokka throws casual out the window to pull the taller boy into a hug.
“You shouldn’t be alone,” he says. “I just—You shouldn’t be alone.”
“But your village—”
“The village will keep. I want to stay.”
“Okay,” Zuko breathes, tightening his grip on Sokka’s shoulders. “Okay. Thank you.”
For this tile, Sokka thinks, there’s no better spot on the board than right where he is.
The ceasefire holds.
“Your Majesty,” someone important-looking that Sokka hasn’t met yet says nervously, “I’m so relieved to see you’re alive. Where—”
“Don’t lie to me, Minister,” Zuko says, looking over a map as they plan the retreat out of the Earth Kingdom. “Long Feng showed me the letters. I know you know where I’ve been all these years.”
The minister pales. “Your Majesty, please,” he tries again. “You can’t mean to surrender to—”
Zuko looks up from the map. “War Minister Qin,” he says levelly. “You have a daughter, do you not?”
Qin nods warily.
“A daughter who has been held hostage in the Earth Kingdom for the better part of the year.”
“House arrest,” Qin says quietly, eyes flicking over Zuko’s scars. “She’s under house arrest.”
“Is that what my father told you?” Zuko asks. “It’s not true. She’s in a cell. A small one. You’ve got a clever kid, minister. She convinced them she’s not a firebender, but not before they broke most of the bones in her left hand. If they find out she’s lying, they’ll crush them both.”
Qin looks like he’s going to either vomit or pass out. “She’s ten,” he says faintly. “She’s only ten.”
“I want to bring her home,” Zuko says, low and earnest. “Are you going to stop me?”
“No,” Qin says. “No, Your Majesty.”
“Then do your job, Minister. I’ve ordered a ceasefire, not a surrender. Make sure our troops continue to hold it.”
“As you wish, Lord Zuko,” Qin says, already turning to follow the order, a determined set to his shoulders.
“How did you know that?” Sokka says once they’re alone.
“People say all sorts of things in bed,” Zuko says absently, like it doesn’t matter. He taps a long finger against the map. “What if we ford the river here, further upstream?”
Sokka takes a deep breath and, instead of screaming, leans over to see the spot Zuko picked. “It’s a longer march,” he says.
“We’ll need two or three extra days of provisions,” Zuko agrees, brow creased lightly. “It should be a safer crossing, though.”
“Do you have the supplies?”
Zuko grimaces. “Barely. But we’ll make do.”
For the first time in a hundred years, the Fire Nation Army is marching home. Zuko’s determined not to lose any of them on the way.
The ceasefire holds.
Fire Nation soldiers trickle back to the islands they were born on, integrating into the Home Guard or turning in their helmets and making their way home.
News reaches them from Azula and Toph that all the Fire Nation troops from Ba Sing Se and Omashu are safely on their way.
The war is over, and Sokka’s known it for weeks now, but the rest of the world is just starting to catch on. There are parties in the streets. Singing and dancing and fireworks, bright and colorful against the blue-black sky.
All around them, the world is exhaling in relief, uncoiling from the constant state of fear and worry most have lived in their whole lives.
Zuko doesn’t uncoil.
Zuko doesn’t know how to take a spirits-damned break.
Eventually, Sokka puts his foot down.
“You’re going to make yourself sick,” he says, staring down at the other boy with his hands on his hips. “Go to bed.”
“When was the last time you slept?”
“I have to finish reading this report. The colonies are proposing independence and—”
“Come on,” Sokka insists, tugging on his sleeve. “I’ll tell you a story.”
Grumbling, Zuko lets himself be pulled away from the desk. When they get to the hall, though, he stops.
“Can we,” he wets his lips, hesitant, “go to your room, instead?”
Sokka stops in his tracks, turning to look at the other boy. “Of course,” he says. “Yeah.”
“It’s just,” Zuko curls his arms around himself, just like he did all those weeks ago, standing in their camp in Sokka’s spare shirt, “mine’s really—”
“I’ve got you,” Sokka interrupts, turning to head in the other direction. “No need to explain. My room it is.”
Lying in bed, staring at the unburned side of Zuko’s face, Sokka whispers: “I was serious about that list, you know.”
Zuko rolls on his side so they’re nose to nose, faces only a few inches apart. “I know.”
“Jingsheng’s writing up a report. It’s very thorough.”
Lips twitching into a slow smile, Zuko says: “I know.”
“Is there anything you don’t know?” Sokka huffs lightly, but he’s smiling, too.
“A few things,” Zuko allows, careful eyes locked on Sokka’s.
Still holding his gaze, Zuko leans forward slowly until their lips brush together.
Sokka inhales, pressing deeper into the kiss for just a moment before pulling back. “Okay?” he asks, voice low.
“Yeah,” Zuko murmurs back, reaching up to run his fingers through Sokka’s hair. “Yeah, I’m good.”
In the faint moonlight, his eyes seem to glow like pale embers. Sokka cups a hand behind his head and leans in, pressing light kisses over each of his eyes, the tip of his nose, the blades of his cheekbones. “Good?”
“Good,” Zuko confirms. “Kissing is good. Just not—not my neck.”
“Got it,” Sokka says softly, leaning in again. It’s slow and gentle and a little awkward, Sokka not having very much experience at all and Zuko having too much of the wrong kind.
It doesn’t matter. Sokka can’t remember the last time he was this happy.
“I love you,” Zuko breathes when they break apart, “Agni, Sokka, I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Sokka says easily, tucking Zuko’s head under his chin and wrapping his arms around him. “Now, go to sleep.”
Zuko scoffs into Sokka’s shirt, but just nestles in closer. He’s out in minutes, exhausted, but Sokka stays awake for a while, listening to the hum of summer life outside and the warm breeze blowing through the window and the deep, steady breaths of the boy curled against his chest.
“I love you,” he says again, a promise whispered into dark hair, and then he lets his eyes slip closed.
It’s the best sleep he’s had in years.