"I can't believe this is how I die," Zuko complained loudly. "Death from too many love proverbs. I swear, if you tell me one more piece of nonsense about birds loving fish, I am diving into this ocean right now and drowning myself."
"I just thought that one was especially relevant for you. Would you like me to explain it again?"
"No, Uncle. No!" There was actually nothing Zuko wanted to hear less at this exact moment.
"You see, they think their love is impossible because one lives in the sky and the other lives in the water..."
Damn it, there's no stopping him, Zuko thought as he abruptly stood up and took two long steps towards the edge of the raft. The raft rocked wildly from this sudden movement.
"No, Zuko, don't!" Uncle yelled in dismay.
"Will you stop with the bird-fish marriage story?" Zuko asked, still standing on the edge.
"Okay, I'll stop. I am sorry."
Zuko went to sit back down in the centre of the raft more gently so he didn't jostle the older man.
"I am just a little excited to hear you had a lady friend," Uncle said after a few moments. "You know, if you wanted to tell me anything or if you had any questions about ... err … intimate relations, I have so much advice."
Damn it, walking away from the edge had been a mistake!
"Ocean, just kill me. Please." Zuko held out his hands in supplication towards the sky. Death by ocean would be preferable than these awkward conversations with his Uncle.
"If the ocean chose to spare you in the North, I hardly feel it will oblige you now. You have been very blessed by the spirits."
"This doesn't feel like a blessing, Uncle! We are floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean with vultures flying above us waiting to peck out our livers, and now you keep trying to give me wisdom. This situation is hopeless."
"It is not hopeless, Zuko. You are already the wisest you have ever been. You will learn more wisdom I am sure."
It was weird between Pakku and Katara on the boat. It was like they were fighting, but not with words. Katara fought with glares and awkward silences and by ignoring him. Pakku kept trying to talk to her and she kept pretending he didn't exist. Aang tried asking Katara what was wrong, but then she got weird with him too. She was distant. She said she couldn't tell him, and he wouldn't understand. Aang insisted he would understand. He was the most understanding person in the world. Katara ignored that. Instead, she smiled and said she wanted to show him some waterbending moves now that she was his teacher. Aang was glad she was smiling again, and their conversation moved on.
But the tension between Pakku and Katara lingered. Then Pakku finally told Aang why he was on the boat in the first place.
"I have realised that I need to change how I treat the women around me," Pakku said sadly. "I was so wedded to my beliefs, so blinded by the ideals I was raised with. I never questioned them until Katara. She made me understand how I was hurting the women around me. So I am going to see the first woman my attitude really hurt."
Pakku told Aang that he was going south to help his long lost love, Katara's Gran Gran. He said ruefully that Kanna might not forgive him either, but he owed it to her to try help her rebuild the Southern Water Tribe.
Aang wanted to fix whatever it was that had caused the tension. Aang didn't like seeing Katara cross. She was never cross, so Pakku must have done something terrible, like kicking a seal pup. Pakku just sighed and said that Katara was making it clear that he still needed to make it up to her.
When they departed for Omashu, Pakku handed Aang some waterbending scrolls. He said he had something for Katara too, but she only frowned at him. Evidently, not even a present was going to make Katara any less cross at him. Pakku said it was actually a gift from Yugoda, and Katara seemed a little brighter. She held out her hand and was given some spirit water to be used for super special healing.
But there was nothing for Sokka.
Sokka was a bit saddened by this. Pakku picked up on his disappointment and awkwardly shook his hand. That struck Aang as a little unfair. Sokka didn't get anything just because he was a non-bender.
"Here. How about you take Momo for the day," Aang offered, holding the lemur out and trying to make it better.
Sokka seemed a little mollified by this, until Momo climbed up on Sokka's shoulder and started chirruping and making sad eyes at him. "I'm not falling for that face, buddy, not like …" Sokka paused and glanced at his sister before turning back to Momo and chiding the lemur. "You'll have to wait until lunch like the rest of us."
"What were you thinking when the Ocean Spirit looked in your eyes?"
"I was mostly just worried about Aang. I thought it had eaten him," Zuko said, shuffling a little bit behind him.
They were sitting back to back to hold each other up and keep each other warm. Iroh couldn't see his face. That seemed to make it easier for Zuko to talk about these things.
"No. It wouldn't have eaten him," Iroh said, wanting to reassure his nephew. "Rest easy on that. I'm sure the Avatar is fine. They simply would have fused their spiritual essence and the Ocean Spirit would have seized control of …"
"Uncle, I know you are really trying to make me understand this spiritual stuff. I know it floats your boat and the Flower Friends—"
"White Lotus, Zuko. We prefer being called the White Lotus."
"Ah, yes! The Flower Friends! That huge, secretive and potentially really helpful international organisation that you are in charge of but kept secret from me for three Agni-damned years while I chased a ghost…"
He was sassing Iroh, but he sounded annoyed too. If they continued down this path, they'd end up in another awkward conversation about the White Lotus. Iroh didn't want to fight with Zuko on this tiny raft, not after they had just found each other again.
"Point taken," Iroh said, and encouraged Zuko to continue what he had been saying before the interruption.
"So I know that you and the Flower Friends are all super into the spirits. But I'm not. I do not get this spiritual mumbo-jumbo and I'm not sure I want to," Zuko said firmly.
"For someone who has had a spiritual encounter, you are very adamant against learning any more about them."
On the Wani, Zuko had never really expressed any strong feelings towards the spirits either way except to occasionally grumble about being cursed by them. Now he'd been given a great blessing and he seemed more determined than ever to turn away from them.
"I know all that I want to, Uncle. Messing with the spirits just seems to invite a whole heap of trouble. I'm just hoping if I leave them alone, they'll leave me alone."
"But they did leave you alone. The Ocean Spirit spared you," Iroh pointed out. "The ocean never does that. Aren't you curious why?"
There was a long silence.
"Yes, but I don't see how knowing why will help with anything," Zuko said eventually.
"I think the ocean is helping us now. We have been moving steadily in the right direction every day. It seems the current is taking us to the neutral area of the Earth Kingdom. There are always fish under our raft when we are hungry. It rains frequently enough that we have fresh water. I think the ocean likes you."
They were making bizarrely good time, considering they were just drifting on the currents. Zuko had been navigating by the stars. They were only a few days off the Earth Kingdom coast.
Zuko had listened to Iroh's theory, but he snorted loudly in disbelief at Iroh's conclusion. "I doubt that. You told me it doesn't like anyone and never differentiates between people."
"I think if you just try telling me what you saw when you looked in its eyes, we might be able to figure it out."
Zuko sighed expansively in resignation. Iroh could feel the enormity of the sigh through his back. Iroh knew Zuko was going to tell him eventually, and had been waiting him out. This had always been the best way of dealing with his nephew, Iroh had found. He always came around eventually. Iroh just had to be patient with him.
"I dunno how to describe it. I saw everything, Uncle. The entire ocean, but everywhere. I think I even saw home, just for a flash. Ember Island. It was beautiful." There was such a longing in Zuko's voice.
Iroh reached up over his shoulder to pat the boy behind him awkwardly. They'd probably never go home again, and they both knew it. Iroh wasn't sure how to make this better for his nephew. They hadn't spoken about it. It was a conversation that both of them had avoided.
"I think it was trying to tell me something," Zuko said, after a long silence, "but I'm not sure what. It was trying to force some wisdom on me, like someone else on this boat. But it just made my head hurt."
"Interesting. Did you ever encounter the Ocean Spirit in its mortal form prior to the night of the siege?"
Zuko mumbled something in response, but Iroh couldn't make it out again.
"I'm sorry, Zuko. I did not catch that."
There was further mumbling.
"Could you tell me without mumbling?" Iroh asked gently.
"I saw it nearly every night while I was in the Northern Water Tribe, okay!" Zuko snapped. "It was living in a pond in the garden that Katara and I used to sneak up to for …" His voice abruptly faltered here.
"Yes?" Iroh said maybe a little too eagerly. "Please tell me more about this garden you went to every single night with Katara, your girlfriend."
"Fucking hell. You are worse than Yugoda sometimes, do you know that?"
"I am just curious."
Iroh wasn't trying to pry or be intrusive—really, he wasn't. But he had missed so much. He didn't know much about what had happened to his nephew in the Northern Water Tribe. Zuko was very different from the boy Iroh had met in the forest. He was quieter, more thoughtful and much less explosively angry. He was still angry, but it was more of a simmering anger. There were other changes too, so subtle Iroh couldn't put his finger on it. Iroh hoped that these changes were the result of pleasant experiences for once. He found his heart was gladdened by the thought of good and joyous things happening to his nephew, who had been perpetually beset by misfortune for much of his life.
"I care about you and your happiness," Iroh continued. "Yugoda said you two seemed happy together and I—"
"We broke up, okay! Or I think we did. We had a fight, and she doesn't want me any more! The last thing she ever said to me was that she never wanted to see me again."
Iroh felt chastised and was quiet.
"Sorry, Uncle. I didn't mean to shout at you," Zuko apologised after a few moments. "I just ... a lot of bad shit happened to me when you weren't around, and I just don't want to talk about any of it, so can you please just drop it? Can you just let me be angry and depressed on this side of the raft?"
Iroh could do that for him. "Yes. We can sit and mope in silence. Whatever makes you happy."
"Being angry and depressed doesn't make me happy, Uncle!"
"I have an idea. We don't have to talk about anything. But we could sing instead. Music is good for the soul, no matter what you're feeling. It'll pass the time at least. How about the mountain song?" Iroh suggested. Zuko had liked that song.
He waited for a grumpy refusal, but instead his nephew surprised him.
"You have done a great thing, Avatar Aang, in striking such a decisive blow against the Fire Nation, but we need you to do it one more time," General Fong said. "The Fire Nation has just suffered their greatest naval defeat ever. Their casualties were significant. Almost the entire western fleet was sunk during the Siege of the North Pole. Our spies say the scale of the defeat has made the populace nervous and rowdy."
Great. Just great, Sokka thought to himself. No sentence heralded more disaster than the phrase "nervous and rowdy firebenders". Sokka looked around for an escape from this conversation. He didn't want this General Fong to strongarm Aang into going into the Avatar State again. Trying to control the Parade of Lies was stressful enough as it was without mega-destructive-cosmic-mojo added to the mix.
Trying to hide the fact that Aang had decimated an entire naval fleet and murdered their friend was giving Sokka an endless series of brain explosions. He felt constantly on edge, like a cliff-dwelling yet uncoordinated llama-goat. Someone was going to let something slip to Aang, and it was only a matter of time.
Sokka had spent most of the morning trying to stop the Earth Kingdom soldiers making Hahn's stupid Fire Nation joke in Aang's presence. Sokka hated that joke, but he heard it everywhere now. What do you call one firebender at the bottom of the ocean? A good start. What do you call the entire western fleet at the bottom of the ocean? Even better.
It wasn't even funny!
Sokka was bitterly regretting going along with the Parade of Lies. He didn't know how many more tragic deaths he could conceivably conceal from his cheerful, occasionally all-powerful friend. Sokka felt like they were disrespecting Zuko's memory with the Parade of Lies, and that didn't sit well with him.
Now General Fong was just blurting it all out. But, oddly, Aang didn't seem to click about what it all meant. Aang didn't connect the phrase "significant casualties" with his time as a giant, glowing koi-shaped blob of doom. To be honest, Aang didn't seem to remember much from his time as a giant, glowing koi-shaped blob of doom, and for this Sokka was grateful. Sokka breathed a sigh of relief.
"Firelord Ozai is trying to shift all blame for the defeat to the navy and an admiral Zhao in particular, but he has lost face. He is deeply unpopular in the outer islands. Our spies suggest that the Fire Nation only needs to suffer one more decisive defeat to spark an internal struggle," Fong continued, sounding excited.
"What do you mean?" Aang asked.
"Firebenders are naturally very violent people—"
"My friend, Kuzon, wasn't violent!" Aang protested. "My friend, Zuko ... I mean, he could be a little violent, but only to people like Hahn who weren't very nice and kinda deserved it. He was actually very honourable."
Fong blinked twice at Aang's outburst, looking unimpressed. He didn't say "whatever", but Sokka felt sure he was thinking it.
"In Avatar Yang Chens's time, the Fire Nation was engulfed in a terrible civil war," Fong explained, choosing a different tact. "They kept arguing, 'Oh, my island is bigger!'" He put on an accent here that he obviously thought was Fire Nation, then shifted to the right as if to become another person. "'Well, screw you! My island has more coconut trees!'" He dropped the accent. "One of Yang Chen's feats was getting all the islands to make peace and unite under a single ruler. We just have to undo her hard work and get them to start fighting each other again. Then they will leave the rest of the world alone.
"But we must move fast, before Fire Lord Ozai quashes the dissent and achieves another victory. A victory against us now would effectively silence his opposition. Fire Lord Ozai has a stranglehold on what they call the Home Islands, but he is despised outside the capital. If you could control the Avatar State, then crush one of their large coastal bases, the nation would turn inwards. It would end the war without you having to face the Fire Lord," Fong concluded.
It was a sound plan, Sokka had to admit. The biggest drawback was that it would need Aang to master the Avatar State and would result in a lot of dead people. Making dead people something that Aang was generally against (glowing, destructo-koi-blob moment aside). However Aang would also do anything to get out of having to directly fight Zuko's psychopathic dad.
Sokka knew Aang was tempted. Sokka knew Aang probably didn't consider what causing a civil war in the Fire Nation would mean. For starters, it would mean an even more elaborate Parade of Lies for Sokka, and Sokka couldn't be having that! His instincts told him this was a mistake.
"Okay. I'll try," Aang said cheerfully.
Frozen hell, here we go!
No one ever listened to Sokka's instincts, and it always went badly.
It was their seventh day floating on the raft. After their conversation about the Ocean Spirit, a truce had formed. It was like they had both decided not to bring up sensitive topics to avoid rocking their tiny and barely sea-worthy boat.
Iroh had started swapping stories with Zuko instead of nagging him to talk about things he didn't want to discuss. Zuko, for his part, had stopped asking questions about the White Lotus. Their situation had not improved, but conversation was much easier at least.
"I honestly thought I was going to die," Zuko said, sounding amused.
"It really alarms me how many of your stories start this way. Or end this way. Or feature this sentence more," Iroh couldn't help but interrupt.
"Sorry, Uncle. I honestly thought I was going to be very sick the next day, but I was so hungry from blood loss and recovering from ... just regular, ordinary, not at all nearly fatal injuries … so I ate it. But I was the only one. Katara flat out refused to eat it. Even Aang barely touched it, and he only had to eat the vegetables."
"It can't have been that bad. I have heard interesting things about Water Tribe cuisine."
"This wasn't Water Tribe cuisine. This was dinner Sokka-style." Zuko put on a voice that seemed like it was meant to be an impression of the Water Tribe youth. "I don't know how he did it, but the fish was both too soggy and burned at the same time." His voice grew more affectionate. "Fucking Sokka. He's such a genius, but he can't do any of those basic life skills like boil water and make some rice for himself." His smile was very fond.
"Do you miss him?" Iroh asked gently.
"You think I would miss someone making sarcastic remarks and terrible jokes all day? Do you think I want to hang around with some jerk who's always squabbling with me and flopping around like a giant octopus while secretly planning to attack people with pineapples?"
"Yes," Iroh said. That much was obvious.
"Fine, maybe I do. But his cooking was still dreadful. I don't miss that." There was a moment of silence. "What was the worst thing you ever ate, Uncle?"
"Well, when I was a younger man on campaign in the Earth Kingdom..."
Aang knew Katara and Sokka didn't like him trying to go into the Avatar State with Fong. Katara had refused to even watch him and had hated the idea from the start. She got very angry about it. Aang avoided her until she calmed down. He waited a few hours until she was sitting on the wall of the base, looking out gloomily at the sunset, then tried talking to her.
Katara declared she wasn't going to watch him try at all, because she hated seeing him in pain and rage. She couldn't bear to see him in the Avatar State again, not after what nearly happened. Aang asked her what she meant by that. What had nearly happened?
Katara said nothing for a long moment. "It's horrible, nearly losing someone you care about because of the Avatar State."
Aang felt his heart gladden. She was talking about him! She didn't want to lose him to the pain and rage of the Avatar State.
Maybe she liked him back the same way he liked her!
Sokka had said that his instincts told him that it was better for Aang to learn the elements and master control the old-fashioned way rather than unleashing the beast now.
"You shouldn't be playing around with this," Sokka had chided, even though he still came along with Aang. "Don't use the Avatar State if you don't know how to control it."
That was Aang's point!
Fong seemed so sure he could help Aang control it, and Aang hoped that was true. He wouldn't have to be afraid of the Avatar State if someone could show him how to control it. He just needed some instructions.
After two whole days of nonsense, Aang only felt frustrated and a little sticky from the paste they'd rubbed on him. He fell into an exhausted sleep.
He was surrounded by glowing blue. He was the entire raging ocean. His arms were strong enough to crush the metal hulls of the ships like they were toys. They sank, bubbles streaming out of the holes Aang's huge, glowing arms had torn in them. There was screaming. There were so many people in the water, but Aang pushed them down into the deep.
It was horrible and scary and so cold. Aang wanted it to stop.
But he couldn't stop.
The ocean was angry. The ocean was looking for one firebender in particular, but it drowned everyone it came across anyway. No special treatment. They would all suffer the same fate.
Aang was trying to escape the belly of the beast, but he couldn't move. He was surrounded by spirit energy, and the spirit said no – this had to happen. The ocean wouldn't let him go. It wasn't finished yet.
"Aang, wake up!" he heard from below him.
Zuko was on a bridge and shouting up at Aang. He sounded so worried.
"Aang, can you hear me? Wake the fuck up!"
Aang wanted to tell him to run.
Didn't Zuko know? The Ocean Spirit wasn't finished yet.
"Wake up, Aang." Katara's voice came from above him. He'd been thrashing and yelling in his sleep and she'd shaken him awake. "You're fine. You're safe. It was just a nightmare." She soothingly rubbed his head.
"No, it wasn't," Aang said, dread settling in his belly.
He knew what dreams like that meant. They were just part of the "fun" that was being the Avatar. There was a lesson in them or something he needed to know. Aang opened his eyes and looked at Katara in the low light. She was leaning over him, her brow furrowed in concern. He doubted Katara for the first time. He knew she sometimes lied to him and hid things from him because she thought that was protecting him. Katara had told him what had happened in the North Pole, but Aang was wondering if that had been the truth.
"Katara, what really happened to Zuko?"
Zuko could have kissed the sand in relief when they finally reached the Earth Kingdom shore. For eight days they had been drifting aimlessly while his uncle wanted to talk about spirits and said shit like, "The ocean likes you."
The ocean didn't like anyone. It was the ocean.
Zuko had briefly entertained the idea of benevolent spirits, but he knew now he had been wrong. The spirits just liked to fuck with people, especially him.
Yes, they had made much better time than Zuko would have expected, but Zuko wasn't one of life's optimistic people. He'd been half expecting that they were going to drown horribly at sea or starve to death, so arriving at all was already much better than he expected.
They had fortuitously landed near a spa resort. Uncle made a comment about how kind it was of the ocean to deliver them to such a place, knowing they would need to relax after their ordeal. Zuko rolled his eyes extremely dramatically and expressed no desire to relax. Relaxation was still going to happen anyway, but Zuko though he should offer at least a petulant token protest so it felt like old times.
Uncle had been making lots of concerned faces in his direction and giving him lots of side-eye. Zuko was trying to act like his old self to stop the old man worrying. It was hard, though. His heart just wasn't in it. Zuko didn't feel like he'd ever be his old self again.
All the rage he'd had on the Wani had subsided, but it hadn't been replaced by any other feeling. Zuko just felt empty and sad.
Before Zuko knew it, he was in a hot spring with his uncle and eating some spicy snacks. They went back to the springs the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. Zuko liked just watching cherry blossoms fall and feeling the water and the heat of the volcanic spring. His element and Katara's working together.
Katara had never seen cherry blossom season. Or even a cherry tree. They didn't grow around the poles. When she'd told him that, Zuko had day-dreamed about showing her one day. He'd take her to Cherry Island as a surprise. It was a beautiful place. She'd like it there. He smiled at the thought of watching her delighted face as the petals fell around them like pink snow.
That had always been impossible though. He could never take Katara anywhere in the Fire Nation. And now she never wanted to see him again anyway. He dumped ashes all over that wistful notion, turned away from the sight of the petals falling, and started scowling at the water.
"Something wrong, Nephew?" Uncle asked gently.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"If the hot spring is not to your liking, we could get massages again."
"No, thank you."
Zuko liked the feeling of the hot water relaxing all of his muscles. After so long in the freezing cold, it was nice to feel properly warm again.
"Is it because today is the anniversary?" Uncle said a bit hesitantly.
"It has been three years today since you were banished …"
Zuko had left the Fire Nation during cherry blossom season. Cherry Island had been his last glimpses of home.
"I'm never going home again, am I?" Zuko murmured.
It wasn't a question, though. He already knew the answer.
His father never wanted to see him again. It wouldn't have mattered if Zuko had caught one Avatar or a thousand Avatars, his father was still going to think he was worthless. His task had always been impossible, and he knew now that there had been a reason for that. Uncle looked alarmed at his defeated tone.
"Don't say that, Zuko! You must still have hope."
What good did hope do anyone?
When you hoped for things, it only made disappointment cut deeper. Uncle had known Zuko's task was foolish and impossible from the beginning, but he had stuck by Zuko's side and encouraged him because he thought hope was important.
It would have been kinder for the old man to sit him down and explain that Zuko was a terrible, miserable, worthless failure whose father hated him. Then Zuko wouldn't have wasted three years fruitlessly searching and trying. Uncle wanted Zuko to believe there was hope, but hope was just one of the many lies in the Sea of Deception his uncle had been spinning him.
"There's no hope, Uncle," Zuko snapped. "I was a child when you thought I needed hope, but I'm too old to think that if I complete an impossible task my psychotic father will love me."
His father was a fucking psychopath. Sokka had gotten that right.
"I'm sure the Fire lord..." Uncle started to say. He was probably going to say some bullshit about his father caring for Zuko, really, just very deep down.
"I read his reply to Arnook. He thinks I'm weak and worthless. He wanted them to KILL ME! He hates me, Uncle!"
Uncle's eyes were wide and shocked. Zuko hadn't told him about reading the letter. There was no lie the old man could say that would make the horrible reality any less true. Father didn't want him home. Father wanted him dead.
"Why does he hate me so much?" Zuko asked, cursing the way his voice broke when he spoke. "What did I do wrong?"
Zuko didn't understand. His whole life he had done nothing but try to please his father. He'd done everything ever asked of him, and still Ozai denied him any scrap of affection. Uncle loved Lu Ten. Arnook loved Yue. Hakoda loved Sokka and Katara. Monk Gyatso loved Aang. Apparently, Hahn's father had loved even him, and that kid was such a dickhead. Why was Zuko the unlovable exception?
Uncle pulled him into a strong hug then and held him close. "You did nothing wrong, my boy." His voice sounded thick with an emotion Zuko couldn't pinpoint.
Zuko nodded, unable to speak, and feeling the traitorous prick in the back of his eyes and a sour lemon in the back of his throat. He knew Uncle loved him, even though Iroh had lied to him. Zuko was trying his best to let that go and not be angry at his uncle. He didn't have anyone else.
Uncle gave him a huge squeeze and held him at arm's length. "If we cannot go home to the Fire Nation together, then I propose we make a new home for ourselves here." He said it like it was a fun, jovial suggestion instead of their only option. "What do you say to finding a nice, safe place to settle down while we make a new plan?"
Zuko didn't think any nice, safe places existed any more, but it wouldn't help to point that out.
He remembered Aang's words from so long ago, when they'd been locked in together.
"The people you choose to travel with are your home. You can be anywhere in the world and still feel at home if they are around."
The Fire Nation was lost to him, but he could still make a home with Uncle. His uncle was choosing to stick with him despite everything. Uncle could have had a very nice life as a retired general back in the Fire Nation, but he'd come with Zuko, even when all hope was lost.
"Okay," Zuko agreed. He still felt empty, but it was a lighter sort of empty.
It felt like he had let go of something huge, horrible and heavy. His heart still ached, but he didn't feel the weight of his father's expectations or his own guilt and shame pressing down on him anymore. That had weighed on him for three years. It was a relief to put it aside. Zuko didn't have to follow the path that Ozai had set out for him.
Uncle looked at him with something like delighted surprise on his face. Zuko tried to smile back weakly.
"I think we should celebrate," Uncle said with a huge smile. "This will be the start of a new life for us. Wait here. I'll go get us some sake."
Zuko did as he was told. He'd let Uncle take the lead now. Zuko's path had twisted and turned so much lately that he had lost all sense of direction. Uncle seemed to have an idea of where they should be heading and what they should be doing. That was enough for Zuko.
Aang had woken them all up with his screaming, but Katara had gotten there first to shake him. Sokka half hoped she'd be able to soothe Aang back to sleep and Sokka would also be allowed to return to his blissful slumber. But then Aang asked her what had really happened to Zuko, and she made a gasping noise and recoiled like the airbender had slapped her across the face. Sokka groaned inwardly. He'd always known the Parade of Lies would implode, but he had hoped it would have waited until the morning to do so.
Sokka said they should talk about it in the kitchens. If he had to get up, he was having some snacks! Perhaps snacks would take the edge off what he was sure was going to be an awkward conversation.
Aang told them about his dream. It sounded like Aang was remembering the Avatar State, Sokka realised with horror. No amount of bullshit would protect him from that. Katara, who had been quite good at the bullshit back in the Northern Water Tribe, was just sitting there and clutching the knife that Yugoda had given her with her knuckles and her face going pale.
Damnit! She was going to be no help on the bullshit front tonight.
Sokka eyed the knife warily. Yugoda had given it to her and told her it was from Zuko, but the old woman had also inferred Katara would never be able to find him again.
Yugoda was very useful on the bullshit front.
Katara had clung to the knife like a talisman. It had given her hope and taken that empty, forlorn look out of her eyes. That was precisely why Yugoda had given it to her, Sokka reckoned. Yugoda did to Katara what Katara was trying to do to Aang. Yugoda was just better at it because she was old and wily and used props to support her lies.
Sokka hadn't had the heart to ruin it for his sister, but he had also rummaged through Zuko's bag thoroughly. Zuko had hated it. "Stop going through my stuff, you Agni-damned klepto!" he'd always said every time Sokka "borrowed" something else from him.
Sokka had never seen that knife before. It said Made in Earth Kingdom. It obviously didn't belong to Zuko, no matter what Katara said. She was just lying to herself at this point.
"When you told me Zuko got away, was that the truth?" Aang asked her directly now, and Katara said yes. She spun the same story that Yugoda had told her.
"Do you think that's what happened, Sokka?" Aang asked, rounding on him directly.
Sokka felt very put on the spot. He should end the bullshit now. This war had taken people from him. His mother had been murdered when he was only a kid. Yue was gone. Zuko was gone. They'd both been sixteen when they had died. They had been his age and now they'd never get any older. Sokka was trying his best not to think about them, but he still felt their absence. He felt like he had let them both down.
He looked at Aang's innocent face. Katara, too, was looking at him, pleading with her eyes. He had to take care of these two hopeful idiots.
What good would it do to crush both their hopes so thoroughly? What point would it serve? Zuko wasn't coming back either way, but it made Katara seem more alive when she thought he was alive too, even if she'd never find him again. Sokka understood perfectly why Yugoda had done what she did, and he understood why Katara had spun the Parade of Lies. Sokka didn't want to lie, but he didn't want to tell the truth either.
"I don't know what happened," Sokka said eventually, which was a terrible, cowardly non-answer, but it was the best Sokka had.
Aang looked down in disappointment. Katara was cross. She got up abruptly and gave him a huge shove, called him some names and declared she was going back to bed.
"You said in the forest that she sugar-coats things for me," Aang stated as Katara left.
"Is she sugar-coating this?" Aang asked quietly.
"I know she really believes Zuko got away," Sokka replied firmly. That much at least was true.
Aang absorbed this. He was quiet for a long time, looking at his hands. "I need to know what really happened." His voice sounded so small, guilty and hopeless, and Sokka couldn't bear it. Even Sokka backed down to flat-out lies.
"Zuko's pretty tough. If anyone could have made it out of there, it's him," Sokka offered.
Aang nodded and put his arms around his knees, looking forlorn. "I think you were right, Sokka. It's a mistake to try and cheat the Avatar State. It's too powerful. I'll do it the old fashioned way. We can leave for Omashu tomorrow. I'll tell Fong in the morning."
"Whatever you think is best," Sokka said, feeling vindicated and relieved. He hadn't liked Aang playing around with destructo-koi-monster-friend-killing energy.
Iroh made sure Azula had definitely gone back to her ship before he returned to the springs. He would not lead her to Zuko, especially not in his current mood. Zuko seemed defeated. It was so unlike him. Zuko always had so much fight in him. A little too much fight most of the time.
His nephew looked up at his return and grumbled that Iroh had been gone for ages and hadn't even returned with any drinks. Then he saw Iroh's face.
"What's wrong, Uncle?" Zuko asked, sitting up abruptly.
Iroh explained that he had found Azula waiting in their cabin. He was billing their stay here to his estate in the Fire Nation and that had been how she found them. Iroh relayed their conversation and his own polite refusal. He waited while Zuko absorbed what he had said.
"She thinks I'm dead?" was Zuko's first question, his expression perturbed.
"Yes. It is assumed you died in the Siege of the North or you got eaten by cannibals near Pohuai."
Zuko made an aghast face and muttered darkly about everyone thinking he got eaten.
"This can be a good thing," Iroh said.
"How can everyone thinking I'm dead by being eaten be a good thing?"
"It means no one is looking for you."
Zuko nodded in understanding.
Iroh wanted to talk strategy with him. Their situation just got a lot more difficult if Azula had an interest in Iroh returning home. If Zuko was going to learn to navigate the difficult path ahead of him, he would need to learn to strategize and not react instantaneously. Iroh was not a famed general for nothing. He had earned that role through his tactical genius. He would try imparting as much as he could to his belligerent nephew now that Zuko was finally in a place where he would be willing to listen.
"We need to think," Iroh said. "What motivates Azula?"
Iroh suppressed a smile. It was no doubt true, but there would have been other motivations at play. He encouraged his nephew to think what she would get out of Iroh returning home. She had been working her damnedest to convince him, after all.
"Well, no offence, Uncle, but she doesn't want you home to have tea parties."
"She is acting for Ozai. She mentioned unrest at home. What would Ozai gain from me being back in the Fire Nation if there is rebellion?" Iroh asked, gently steering the conversation.
Zuko looked towards the falling blossoms for a moment, lost in thought. "The defeat in the Northern Water Tribe would go bad for him. We've never been defeated at sea ... not like that. Defeats aren't popular." Zuko paused and looked at Iroh, concern on his face.
They were both thinking about Ba Sing Se. Iroh realised that Zuko was worried that just obliquely mentioning it had upset Iroh. He was looking for his uncle's reaction. Iroh nodded encouragingly at him. Zuko was on the right track.
"I remember there were rumours," Zuko said quietly. "After Ba Sing Se. Lots of people wanted you to be Fire Lord instead."
It wasn't an accusation, but there was something unsettling in his voice. How different would Zuko's life be if Iroh had become the Fire Lord instead of Ozai? Iroh wondered how much Zuko remembered from that frantic time. He would have just been a child. Surely his mother would have protected him from the political machinations of ... oh dear. It was around that time that she disappeared, wasn't it? The defeat at Ba Sing Se had upended both their lives, hadn't it?
"Yes," Iroh said in answer to Zuko's unspoken question of why he hadn't contested. "I chose to stand aside for Ozai because I did not wish to engulf our country in a civil war, but my support is still strong."
The throne would have been rightfully his, but Iroh knew his history. He knew of the terrible war in Yang Chen's time. He would not wish that on his homeland again.
"Then Ozai needs to show that he is stronger than you," Zuko said, deliberately referring to the Fire Lord by his first name. (He didn't even say "my father" or use his title.) It was petty, childish and churlish and Iroh loved him for it. "The defeat has made him look weak. He can't have anyone saying, 'This would have never happened under Fire Lord Iroh.'"
"Exactly. And how do you think he would display strength if I were to return home?"
"He needs to shift the blame, and you were there on Zhao's boat. He could say the defeat was your fault. He'd need to denounce you as incompetent or as a traitor and then ... put you in jail?" Zuko said hesitantly.
Zuko looked down and smiled shyly.
It had only taken a little prompting on his part for Zuko to come to the most likely scenario. There was hope for his hot-headed nephew yet.
"How should we respond?" Iroh asked.
"Azula says she's coming back to visit you tomorrow morning, so we should get the hell out of here before then."
Aang had lost control completely. Fong had tried to drown Katara just to prompt the Avatar State. Bastard. Sokka was kinda glad his base was getting wrecked. Even Katara being unearthed hadn't helped Aang out of the Avatar State this time.
While all the earthbenders were legging it out of the danger zone, Sokka stayed even though the giant ring things were flying everywhere. Someone had to try bringing Aang back to earth, and Sokka was unfortunately well-positioned to be that someone. How to do it? Abruptly, Sokka remembered a whispered conversation in the Spirit Oasis.
"The Avatar State is when he is closest to the spirits. The spirits can help guide him. If the spirits will it, everything will be fine."
"Well, I'm sure that will make Aang feel all better when he loses control and accidentally kills us all with his powers. Just tell him it was the will of the spirits."
Sokka missed those two.
He felt like they were guiding him now, even if one of them had been very sarcastic.
Aang was the bridge to the Spirit World and the spirits guided him in the Avatar State, but those spirity-bastards weren't the boss of him, not if Aang didn't let them be.
Sokka grabbed Aang's foot and started pulling him down. Aang turned his raging Avatar eyes on him, and it was scary as all frozen hell, but Sokka held his ground. He told himself that glowing eyes and swirling tornado of death aside, this was still Aang, his friend.
Sokka started trying to remind Aang of who he was—who he really was. Aang wasn't this destructo-tornado. Maybe the spirits wanted him to wreck the base, but Sokka knew Aang didn't want to hurt anyone. The glowing of Aang's eyes stuttered for a second.
Then Katara was there with him, and she had a hold of Aang's other foot. She was telling the younger boy that he was safe and loved, and they weren't leaving him. Between then two of them, they managed to calm Aang down until his tattoos stopped glowing. He was now slumped against Katara, looking wan and exhausted while Sokka steered Appa away.
"I did it again," Aang said softly as he stared back at the ruined base.
Zuko had gone looking for whatever food he could forage from the forest and had left his uncle back at the camp site making tea. He was just rounding a corner when he abruptly ran into Ty Lee. Or, more accurately, Ty Lee careened into him.
"Zuko?" her ridiculously cheerful voice called out, and before he'd even had a chance to turn around properly, she'd launched herself at him.
She'd always been an overly enthusiastic hugger. She was a lot like Aang in that way. Zuko patted her once on the shoulder awkwardly and tried to extricate himself from her squidshark-like grasp as she babbled, "Oh my god, you're alive. We all thought you'd been eaten in some horrible, cannibalistic Water Tribe feast."
That pulled Zuko up abruptly and he jerked out of her arms. "No! Agni-damnit, Ty Lee, why does everybody think I got eaten?"
"Well, when we heard that you were taken prisoner by the Water Tribes, we feared the worst. We all know what they do to their prisoners," Ty Lee replied, sounding like she actually had been worried.
"Well, I clearly haven't been eaten. Nobody even came close to eating me. The Water Tribe doesn't eat people."
"Yes, really. They're not cannibals. Everything we were taught about them was lies!"
"Okay, Mr Grumpy," she said brightly.
"What are you doing here?" Zuko asked, still trying to get over his shock at seeing her. "I thought you had joined a circus."
They really should have been talking about what she was doing here from the very beginning, but Zuko had gotten side-tracked over the cannibalism thing. He really hated that everyone in the Fire Nation was going to assume that Sokka and Katara were cannibals. Also, being eaten was such an undignified way to go. He wasn't going to die by being eaten.
Ty Lee had written to him sporadically when he had been at sea. Those three letters had been the only correspondence from home he'd gotten on the Wani. Two letters had been for his birthday. They'd both been about four months late, but it was still the thought that counted. The last one had been to tell him that she was leaving the capital because she was, quite literally, running away to join the circus. She seemed happy. Even though she hadn't said as much, Zuko read between the lines and realised she had probably joined because it would get her away from Azula.
"Azula made me an offer I couldn't refuse," Ty Lee replied to his question, her smile definitely faltering for a fraction of a second.
Zuko had already figured as much. Azula, who had always been able to manipulate Ty Lee and who was currently after his uncle, would be in the area. Zuko joined the dots pretty quickly and started glancing around for his escape route.
There was movement just beyond the tree-line. He heard his sister's shrill and demanding voice. It made his stomach drop in apprehension, but he couldn't afford to be distracted. Azula's voice had caught Ty Lee's attention and she looked towards the sound anxiously.
Zuko took his chance and disappeared. He needed to get to his uncle before his sister did. He needed to think up a way out of this. There had to be some crazy solution to the problem of being tracked by Azula. A solution so weird that Azula would never see it coming.
What would Sokka do?
"Ty Lee! Head up the western rise," Azula ordered from her mongoose lizard, Sunflower. "I have spotted the old windbag's location. We can corner him together."
"Azula, I saw—"
"Whatever interesting cloud shape it is can wait," the princess said firmly. "We have our quarry in our sights."
The princess bounded off and Ty Lee breathed a sigh of relief. She was still getting used to being around Azula all the time again. Azula had "invited" Ty Lee along to help protect her. After all the trouble the Fire Nation had been having recently in the Earth Kingdom, her father had insisted that Azula travel with protection. Azula had chosen Ty Lee. It was meant to be a great honour. Ty Lee hoped they'd see Mai again soon. Mai was so good at hiding her emotions. Ty Lee needed to get better at that. Azula had promised that they would see the other girl after they picked up her uncle.
Ty Lee glanced around for Zuko, but he'd vanished. She couldn't believe she'd actually seen him. Everyone thought he was dead. But he'd survived and gotten a lot cuter. She finally got why Mai had always been blushing around him.
She'd have to tell Azula. They'd probably have to take Zuko back home too now. But that would have to wait until after they had caught Azula's uncle. Azula had given her an order and Ty Lee was smart enough to obey immediately. Ty Lee was her only back-up, as Azula wanted to be able to sneak up on her uncle and a large party would have given them away.
Ty Lee came down the western side of the hill and saw Azula standing in front of her uncle. They were both in bending poses. That was bad. General Iroh was meant to be one of the best firebenders alive, better than Azula even (though Azula would thank no one for pointing this out). Ty Lee couldn't let it come to that. Any harm to the princess would be taken out on her.
General Iroh's back was to her and Ty Lee moved silently. Four quick jabs were all it took. The general made a strange noise as he dropped to the ground and looked up at her with shocked, dismayed eyes. Ty Lee looked back at him apologetically. He'd been a funny and kind old man. She hoped that neutralising him as a threat would prevent Azula from hurting him too much. Azula smiled at her and beckoned her over. Ty Lee went to go stand near her friend.
"Well done, Ty Lee," Azula said, giving Ty Lee some rare praise.
Perhaps it was the praise that distracted her.
Or perhaps it was Zuko suddenly dropping to the ground behind them and saying, "Hey, Azula, is that our dad wearing a sequinned tutu over there?"
Ty Lee looked. Of course she did. Who wouldn't? Even Azula looked, though she denied this fiercely after the fact. Azula preferred to blame Ty Lee completely for what happened next.
"Zuzu?" the princess exclaimed, turning around in great astonishment. She stared at him like he was a ghost. Her brother's sudden appearance had clearly thrown her.
Zuko used their distraction against them and deftly clicked something metal around their wrists. It was the clicking sound that brought Azula up. She looked down at the cuffs. They were the imperial steel ones she'd had specially made for General Iroh. They were resistant to all firebending. One side was around Ty Lee's wrist and the other was around Azula's. They were joined together, but facing in opposite directions.
Azula looked back up at Zuko, then back down to the cuffs, then back to her brother. She then made the most enraged face Ty Lee had ever seen. It was only for a second, but it still scared Ty Lee.
"How wonderful to see you, brother," Azula said, recovering her composure quickly. "I'm so glad you're alive. We all thought you had gotten eaten," she added with a smile, but it was the sort of smile that was kind of insincere. It was the smile that said Azula had much preferred thinking her brother had become someone's marinated, casserole dinner.
"Fucking hell! I wasn't eaten!"
Jeez, he was so touchy about everyone thinking he got eaten.
"Such language, Zuzu," Azula chided with false dismay. "Have you become so uncivilised so quickly? What would our mother think?"
"Don't talk about Mum!" Zuko yelled back at her.
Yikes. This was the first time they had seen each other in three years, and this was how it was going down. It was typical, but still. If Ty Lee hadn't been handcuffed to Azula, she would have tactfully made her exit about now.
A groaning noise came from the old general, and Zuko quickly darted around them to check on his uncle. "What did you do to him?" he said, looking at Ty Lee with accusing eyes.
"It's just chi-blocking," she answered. "It'll wear off in twenty minutes."
"Enough pleasantries," Azula cut in, sounding calm yet firm. "Zuko, Uncle is fine. We're going to take him back to the Fire Nation so he can be safe. There are enemies all around us here. You can come with us. Father sincerely regrets your banishment. As soon as I tell him you're alive, I am sure he will want you home. Just hand me the key and we can all be on our way," she practically crooned, holding her hand out to her brother.
Zuko looked between the general and his sister.
"Hand me the key, Zuzu," Azula said sharply after a moment, a twinge of impatience in her tone.
"This key?" Zuko held his hand out just a little out of Azula's reach. The silver key glinted in the sunlight.
"Yes. I knew you'd do the smart thing, brother," Azula said, reaching for it.
Zuko closed his fist and swiftly pulled the key out of her reach again. "I wonder if I'm still a faster runner than you."
"Zuzu, don't be foolish..."
But he didn't let her finish. He darted away through the trees. Azula stared at his retreating back with a comically offended look on her face. No one ever walked away from her while she was still speaking, so this was a rare experience for her. She seemed at a loss for how to react to this rudeness.
To add further insult to the injury of being cut off mid-sentence, Zuko had brought up the fact that he was a faster runner. Zuko had been better than Azula at very few things, but running had been one of them. It clearly infuriated Azula to be reminded of it. She wanted to be better than her brother at everything. She lurched after Zuko, dragging Ty Lee with her, but he was much quicker. Soon, they couldn't see a trace of Zuko ahead of them or hear him in the underbrush. They listened for a few moments. Azula made a thoughtful face.
"He's doubled back to get Uncle!" she declared suddenly.
She turned to run in the opposite direction, dragging Ty Lee along again. When they had gotten back to the campsite, they found Zuko had somehow manhandled his uncle onto the back of their mongoose lizard and was getting ready to ride away.
"Azula, I should probably tell you now that I threw the key in the river behind those trees," Zuko said. "Sorry, it's going to be tricky to find. You'll want to start looking for it right away."
"It really is such a shame you did something that stupid, brother," Azula said in the same mild tone that other people used to comment on the weather. "There will be consequences now when I get you home. Father will be displeased. He may have to disembowel you with a spoon and wave your head on a stick on front of our weeping uncle."
Zuko looked a little taken aback. Ty Lee knew he'd become used to Azula verbalising her murder fantasies for him when they were kids, but that one was super violent, even for her. The General was clearly unused to these kinds of remarks from Azula. He made a horrified face.
"Goodness gracious!" he said in dismay.
"Sorry, Ty Lee." Zuko threw over his shoulder with an apologetic glance her way. He actually sounded sorry that time. He clicked his tongue and Sunflower started running.
Zuko and his uncle bounded off on Sunflower, leaving Ty Lee in a predicament. She was handcuffed to Azula in the middle of a forest clearing a long hike away from their ship. They no longer had a mongoose lizard and the key to their handcuffs was in the nearby river. She very clearly understood why Zuko had said sorry.
The rest of her day was not going to be fun.
Super-mega, massive and incredible thanks to the gorgeous Boogum for being the best beta buddy in the world and agreeing to beta this behemoth.
Welcome to Worst Prisoner: Book 2 – the re-prisoning! Sorry, terrible joke. Anyway I decided to call this one 'The illusion of separation' after what swamp guy Huu said. The gaang start out as separate, but this is an illusion. Their stories will intertwine, even if they don't meet for a little bit. The things they learned from each other in book 1, they'll be able to put into action and use here.
So Zuko and the ocean. The ocean spirit gave Zuko some wisdom that he wasn't ready to receive, so it's still there sloshing around his brain. But he'll figure it out one of these days (wink, wink). Right now he's going to be dreaming of the ocean, as that is the subconsciousness's way of ordering information.
Katara gets associated with the moon a lot, and I wanted to complete the metaphor and align Zuko with the ocean. It's the masculine energy of the Tui and La dynamic. They ocean suits Zuko. The guy is such a strong swimmer and that indicates years of splashing about in the sea. He spent three formative teenage years staring out at the ocean. He comes from a nation that would actually be heavily reliant on the ocean.
The Fire Nation as an island archipelago and naval power actually would have been immensely reliant on the ocean for everything. I'm a bit surprised La is not at least a little revered there. Maybe in the olden days there were ocean spirit shrines, but Sozin would has smashed them because FIRE IS SUPERIOR -rah rah rah.
So the Fire Nation is a huge naval power. Their navy and their command of the seas is what has made their conquests possible. The navy had just had a massive defeat. The entire western fleet. That would be at least 1/3 of their capabilities. People would notice that! That would make people nervous. Ozai would try and blame shift to Zhao, now that he is dead. But Zhao was such an arse kissing lickspittle, that he never would have done this without Ozai's okay – and everyone knows it. The invade the North plan may as well have been Ozai's and he has lost face.
The Fire Nation is on a bit of a losing streak atm. Their last two really big campaigns, to claim new more heavily fortified targets, rather than just picking off coastal villages (Ba Sing Se, Seige of the North) have both ended in crushing defeats and enormous causalities. I think 'enthusiasm' for the war would be hitting a very low point, especially because Ozai is not known as a good military strategist. But it's a dictatorship and he's a psychopath and everyone remembers what he did to the last person to tell him no - his thirteen year old son, no less!
So the war rumbles on. But Fong is spot on the money in that a bit of a tinderbox is brewing. People are unhappy with the way things are going.
Zuko and Iroh. - I love these two together, I really do. They have such a lovely, layered relationship in the show. Zuko is a snappy, sullen teenager and Iroh is the eternally patient wise figure. A few secrets have been exposed and we are going to explore how that would impact on their relationship. They love each other, but they are only just starting to really see each other. We all know that Zuko wasn't always appreciative of his Uncle, but I always wondered how much Iroh 'saw' Zuko. His expectations, his guilt over not protecting that boy from the agni kai, white lotus/world saving duties, the shadow of lu ten – all of it plays a role in Iroh interacts with his nephew.
He would have gotten back this kid who is so different from the boy who slipped out of the ship at Pouhai and just been thinking to himself 'Who is this person?'
Iroh tries to figure it out by prying into what went on when they were separated, but naturally Zuko is very resistant. Also Zuko is SAD. SAD in capital letters. Sad and with no hope of things ever getting better. He has now officially lost everything, with no impossible quest to fulfil to get it back. He's lost the love of his teenage life, his friends, his dreams – gah, just everything. So Iroh worries. Zuko picks up on the fact that his Uncle is super worried about him, and he tries to 'act like his old self' – but he has changed to much at this point to ever be that boy again.
Zuko finally tells Iroh that he knows his dad hates him. Iroh's been subtly working this kid towards that understanding for years, and this is the culmination of that goal, but still what a gut-punch when it finally happens. Then Azula shows up, cause that's exactly what this kid needed in his day.
I like the idea of Iroh really patiently and deliberately starting to teach Zuko about strategy now that Zuko is in a place to really hear his Uncle and respond. I like that he puts Zuko on the right track and lets him puzzle it out himself. I also think Zuko really needed to learn how to just take a moment and assess the situation rather than instantaneously reacting.
There's a little moment where Aang notices that Sokka gets treated differently and unfairly because he's a non-bender. It's only brief, but I think it's important that Aang starts noticing these things. You go Aang! So Aang also realises that everything is not as it seems with Katara's version of events. But Sokka won't clarify either way, and Aang would trust Sokka a little bit more at this point. The uncertainty is going to eat Aang up, and you bet that kid is going to be working his arse off to uncover his avatar memories of what really happened, even though it's going to be really hard and he's going to see some unpleasant truths.
I'm not sure if this is an unpopular opinion or not, but I think when push comes to shove – Sokka was the real leader of the Gaang. He's goal-orientated, comes up with all their plans, strategies, schedules and gets them to where they needed to be (the desert notwithstanding). Zuko often gets put in the team dad camp, and that is true. He is the emotional dad. But Sokka's the leader.
While Zuko will be his ride-or-die co-pilot and go along with whatever scheme Sokka cooks up, I can't see Sokka always doing that for him (mostly because some of Zuko's ideas are going to suffer from being crap). Then I can see Sokka putting on his responsible hat, being all 'so ride-or-die is great and all, but how about we...not die. I have a better plan.' Anyway I think Zuko would always defer to Sokka, but not vice-versa. But they wouldn't be competing for leadership points, if that makes sense.
Royaltealovingkookiness at tumblr says:
And I love how this dynamic carries over once they return back to the group. Despite being the two oldest males, we never once see them competing for leadership - they take turns in leading (Sokka with devising the group strategy to take down Ozai, Zuko in the search for Aang) and they support and trust each other and value each other's contributions. Zuko puts up with Sokka's antics and Sokka tries to include Zuko into the group's "fun" side.
Anyway, I think that Sokka in this fic has kind of morphed fully into group dad/leader. And he's had a huge-blow to his dadness. He's lost two people he felt responsible for, and that hurts his little heart. He's trying to do his best for Katara and Aang, but he's not sure what that is. He fence sits when Aang asks him, because he knows how much weight his words have with these two. He is not a believer in the tale that Katara is spinning, because he is a pragmatic, pessimistic guy who is assuming the worst, because he thinks the knife isn't Zuko's and life isn't fair. I think Katara's version of Yugoda's story would have sounded 'too convenient' for Sokka to really believe.
Next Chapter: Aang will meditate on the Avatar state, the group will be on the way to Omashu and Zuko will meet a pretty girl and make a prat of himself.
Til then lovelies.