"Okay." Sokka stuck his head though the solid metal door and looked down the hall on the other side. He pulled back a few moments later. "It's Big Shen and he's bringing dinner."
Zuko groaned (though that could have been hunger talking. He was checked on three times a day, but only fed once, with a bowl of watery broth.) Plus, Big Shen was not the most friendly of guards.
"This is stupid," Zuko said.
Naturally, being ravenously hungry did not put Zuko in the best mood. It was up to Sokka to keep positive.
"No, no. You got this. Remember what I told you—Shen has three kids. One is in the Navy, one in the Army." He had been talking about them over poker. Or really, grunting. Shen was not a great conversationalist. He and Zuko had a lot in common. "The third is too young to serve."
"Three children," Zuko growled like he was reciting mission parameters by route and not about to have a a friendly chat to butter up his guard.
"And be nice! Smile!"
Zuko glared at Sokka just in time for the tiny window to his cell to slide open. Then he turned his glare on Big Shen.
Big Shen, for his part, stared impassively back. He was built roughly on the scale of a mountain. Even his standard issue uniform had gaps in it that the stretched fabric couldn't quite cover.
Wordlessly, Shen pushed the bowl of broth though the window. Zuko took it, immediately bending to take a sip. Then, lowering the bowl, he stared at the guard.
Big Shen stared back.
"So," Zuko began. "You have children in the military."
"Nicer!" Sokka said, flapping his hand anxiously.
"Uh, that must be… nice?" Zuko tried. "You must be worried about them. Considering the war."
Most would have asked how in the world Prince Zuko knew any of this. Big Shen simply stared. Then he rumbled low, "Are you threatening my children?"
"No! No? I—um, just… you must be proud of them? For serving the Fire Lord so honorably?" Zuko said.
The seconds stretched on.
"You going to finish your dinner?" Shen finally rumbled.
Anger flashed over Zuko's face. Sokka had a second to think 'uh-oh' before Zuko threw the bowl to the side.
"This is ridiculous! I am sick of broth. I am a prince, I should be given parole on my honor! I demand to speak to Azula at once!"
"Oh man," Sokka groaned.
Shen, however, only eyed him. "Trust me, son. You do not want the princess's eye on you."
"You're safer in here."
That stopped Zuko short. He exchanged a quick glance with Sokka. "What has she done?"
Shen did not move, but something—disquiet, perhaps—flickered in his golden brown eyes. All he said was, "If you're done with your meal, please pass back the bowl."
Zuko glanced to the side and the upturned bowl. He grimaced as if remembering that had been his own meal for the day. But he also had his pride. He straightened. "If you would be so kind," he said through visibly grit teeth, "to pass along a message to my sister for me?"
"Sir," Shen said, as patient and sturdy as a mountain. Why this guy wasn't born into the earth kingdom, Sokka didn't know. "Don't make me come in and get that bowl." Pause. "We both don't want that."
Zuko glared a moment, but then seemed to deflate. Sullenly, his wrist and ankle shackles clinking, he grabbed the empty bowl and passed it through the tiny window. Shen slid the window shut, plunging Sokka and Zuko back into darkness.
"Well," Sokka said, "let'a call that a practice round."
Zuko sat against the wall, heavy shackles hitting the floor with a clatter. He rubbed at his forehead. "I have a headache."
Probably from hunger. It had only been a few days, but his cheeks had taken on a little bit of a hollowed look. Stubble had grown out from his bare head, too. Zuko rubbed a hand over it, grimacing at the new sensation.
"Want me to talk to him, next time?" Sokka asked.
"I can do it!" he snarled, pricklier than a prickle-snake and about as good tempered.
Sokka held up his hands. "I'm just saying maaaybe throwing a tantrum isn't the best way to get people on your side."
"I am not throwing a tantrum!" Zuko yelled with literal flames in his mouth.
Zuko made an inarticulate sound of rage and twisted to the side, blasting fire against the opposite wall.
Then he froze. The flame had been reflected in the shallow puddle of broth in the corner. "How much water has to be in a liquid to waterbend?"
Sokka did a double take. He knelt by the spilled broth, poking at it with a finger. Of course it went straight through. Old habits died hard. "Huh."
"Try." Zuko ordered. "If you can freeze the lock on the door…"
"What, stop people from coming in? How does that help?"
"If nothing else, it's a weapon. It—"
The window opened with a snap.
With a rattle of chains, Zuko was on his feet in an instant. Big Shen glared through at the other side. Then abruptly he sat a sweet bean roll on the ledge. It was so fresh it steamed in the cold room.
Zuko snatched it up. He opened his mouth to ask a question, but the window snapped shut again.
"Huh." Sokka said again, rubbing his chin. "Guess he likes you after all."
Zuko bit into the bean roll, chewing deliberately slowly to make it last. He cast one look at the puddle in the corner, and sort of grimaced. Sokka would have bet good Water tribe money that he was remembering the waterbending failures from a couple days ago and was wondering if it was worth it to try again.
Then again, the puddle of spilled broth was going nowhere, and Shen's behavior was new. If he was warming up to Zuko…
Zuko seemed to come to a decision.
"Follow Shen, and…" He hesitated. "Try to find out what else Azula has been doing."
Bet she's up to nothing good, Sokka thought.
Fifteen minutes later, Sokka phased through the bulkhead wall to the usual guard hang-out spot. It was one of the larger quarters owned by a lieutenant. (Unlike Zuko and Zhao's ship, there were a lot of empty quarters. He had a bad feeling that was because there were fewer crewmen on board now than when the ship had first set out.)
He was in time: a card table had been set up in the room and by the number of empty bottles laying around, the game had just begun.
Needless to say, the crew members drank often during dragon poker nights. And when they drank, they gossiped.
It wasn't always a fruitful conversation. In fact, for being part of an evil nation bent on taking over the world, most of the gossip was quite normal: The weather, which shift was incompetent, and other officers who were trying to suck up to the Princess. Average sailor stuff.
It took a few rounds before anyone dared to bring up their prisoner. As usual, it was chatty Kato who brought him up first. He was a mousey little firebender who always wore a helmet two sizes too large for his head.
"I heard you got babysitting duty today, Shen," he said, after throwing his cards down on the table.
Big Shen was not a talker. It usually took like four tiny cups of sake and three lost hands for him to open up. He just grunted at Kato in acknowledgment.
There was a strained silence. Several officers glanced at one another. Sensing a change in the air, Sokka sat up and paid attention.
"How's the brat holding up?" the only woman in the room, Hari asked. She had a young face but steel gray hair and usually put up with no-nonsense.
She was also, Sokka had learned, a stanch Ozai loyalist.
"Fine," Shen grunted. He laid down a card and then added, "Talks to himself."
More glances were exchanged around the table. Kato ventured, "Like the princess...?"
Hari gave him a quelling look and Kato seemed to shrink under his overlarge helmet.
"A little," Shen replied.
There were more glances exchanged around the table. Worried.
Oh, Appa turds. This wasn't what Sokka had planned. He had wanted them to like Zuko enough to consider mutiny in his name. But it was a tall order to inspire loyalty that fast. And let's face it, Zuko wasn't the warmest of people. Even for a firebender.
Then Shen spoke again. "He reminds me of one of my kids."
"Which one?" Hari asked. "That boy you have in the Army?"
"No. The youngest." Shen arranged the cards in his hand. "Doesn't know how to talk to people. Can't look most in the eye, but when he's up on stage... When he's dancing—"
"Your son is a dancer?" that was Len Zao, the highest-ranked officer in tonight's group. He practically sneered the words.
Shen looked up from his cards. His glare could have melted glass. Despite being older and of higher rank, Len Zao shut his mouth.
"When he's dancing," Shen repeated quietly, but the room was so silent every word was clear, "it's like you're seeing his soul. He can damn well break your heart. His conscription's coming up," he added, "I worry about him sometimes."
Somehow, that felt like an understatement.
"War will make a man out of him," Hari said. "It always does."
Shen grunted but didn't comment further.
Kato cleared his throat. "I heard some stories about the prince before his banishment. It was said he was a kindhearted boy."
"Well, look where that got him," Hari snapped. "We don't need kind-hearted leaders. We need strong, decisive ones."
"He participated in an Agni Kai at thirteen years old," Big Shen rumbled. "Sounds tough to me."
"He lost an Agni Kai," she replied.
"From what I heard," Len Zao said, "He didn't even fight."
Hari threw down her cards in triumph. "See?"
But Len Zao shook his head. "No, you don't understand: Prince Zuko forfeited."
More exchanged glances. Shen rumbled, "Then he got the scar from a training accident, after all?"
"It was the Agni Kai. My cousin was there," Kato said. "I remember him coming back to the house, shaken. All of the elite of the caldera attended expecting to see the Prince versus General Ling. No one liked Ling—he's a war hawk who uses battle tactics that were old in Sozin's day, and keeps expecting them to work—and they expected the Fire Lord to step in and chastise the general for daring to challenge his son and heir." The next words came out rushed. "No one expected the Fire Lord himself to take the general's place—"
"Watch your tongue," Hari said. "Your cousin doesn't know what happened."
"You can't let someone else fight for you in an Agni Kai," Shen rumbled, but his broad face looked troubled. "That's an insult to Agni."
"You can do whatever you want when you're the Fire Lord. If you're the voice of Agni, you can," Len Zao said. "I've heard the same—that the Prince had no idea he'd be facing his father, either. That was why he refused to fight."
"Cowardice," Hari sniffed.
Sokka really didn't like her. He was glad she was never the one who delivered the food.
Kato spoke up, cautiously. "Why did the prince challenge the general, anyway? I never heard."
The table was silent for several seconds. Sokka got the impression that people knew, but no one wanted to say it.
Interestingly, it was loyalist Hari who spoke up.
"You remember the tragedy of the 42nd?"
Kato started. "All those new recruits who got slaughtered, out by Omashu-way?"
She nodded and tapped her cards straight. Coming from her, it was a nervous gesture. "Sacrifices have to be made in war. We all know that. We'd all die for our nation. Well, the Prince didn't understand. He challenged the General's wisdom and battle tactics." She shook her head. "An older, honorable man who seen more battles than he'd seen years. And the Fire Lord declared that his son would have to defend his words in an Agni Kai."
There was dumb silence as the implications of that went around the table.
"But... but you can't order someone else to fight an Agni Kai. It's a duel of honor. And you can't replace—" Kato snapped his mouth shut.
Which was a good thing because Hari looked like she was about to spit fire. "Choose your next words carefully, Kato. I'll hear no treason from you." Her gaze swept around. "Any of you."
"No treason here," Shen said. "Only cards."
"The Fire Lord is the voice of Agni," Lao Zen repeated easily. "We all know his decisions are guided by the great spirit. He is Agni's voice in the mortal world."
Kata swallowed with an expression like he tasted something bitter. But he nodded, "I'm just... surprised is all. Of course, the Fire Lord knows best."
Hari relaxed, nodding once, curtly.
They got back to their game.
The first time he'd heard about Zuko's Agni Kai, he'd been firmly entrenched in camp, "Zuko is an evil dick" which to be fair, he was.
But he'd never thought through the implications of what Iroh had said. Stupid of him. Then again, he hadn't known as much about Fire Nation culture. Now, things were different.
A lot of things were different. He was different.
... But that wasn't a road he could afford to go down right now.
Most of the guards looked uneasy, but not nearly enough to let Zuko out and lock his crazy sister away, instead.
Pity was a long way away from actually doing something.
Shen hadn't mentioned to the others how Zuko knew things he shouldn't. No one thought he was special. Or even Fire Lord material. They just felt a little bad for him.
Figuring he'd heard all the useful conversation he would today, Sokka phased through the wall and headed back to the cell. His thoughts were troubled.
Did Zuko even know how much he had been screwed over in the Agni Kai? Sokka got the feeling that either he didn't, or he didn't want to admit it.
Zuko had been just thirteen years old. The same age Sokka had been when his dad had left the South Pole to go to war.
It was with that grim realization in mind that Sokka reached Zuko's cell and phased through. His greeting died on his tongue. Zuko was curled up and asleep in the darkest corner of the cell.
It would be hours before he woke up. People with bodies slept so much.
With a sigh, Sokka settled on the other side of the room. The next few hours would be empty and boring.
His thoughts, though, were soon interrupted by a low groan coming from Zuko's direction. He glanced over, seeing Zuko's fingers twitch. He was dreaming, and judging from the wrinkle between his brows and another small pained sound, it was not a good dream.
"Buddy... Zuko, wake up," Sokka tried, but there was no response.
The last time he had tried to wake Zuko from a nightmare, he had discovered accidental bodily possession. Sokka was in no hurry to try that again.
But he also didn't want to leave him suffering.
He thought back to a few days ago when this whole mess had started. He had been able to sort of rest his hand on Zuko's shoulder to allow him to see the dark spirit. It had not quite like touching, but... could he do something like that again?
Only one way to find out.
Kneeling next to him, Sokka concentrated with all his might and carefully, carefully put his hand on Zuko's shoulder, doing his very best not to fall inward.
It didn't work. He was instantly pulled in.
It was... not exactly like bodily possession. At once, Sokka found himself standing upon a hill. Hot wind whipped past his face, and his ears were assaulted by the sounds of the shouting, roiling crowd below.
Part of him was aware he was kneeling next to Zuko's sleeping body. Part of him was also here, sharing Zuko's dream. Unlike last time, he wasn't dreaming he was inside Zuko's body. He was standing right next to him on top of the hill, watching a crowd dressed in red, orange, yellow, and brown roiling like living fire.
The crowd wasn't focused on him and Zuko. Their hatred was directed to where two guards pulled a pair of bound and gagged figures toward a wooden post surrounded by firewood and loose straw. A pyre.
The condemned prisoners struggled while the Fire Nation crowd booed and spit, screaming for their blood.
The prisoners were Katara and Aang. Katara writhed, fighting every step of the way, but she could not break free.
Sokka only had a second to register what he was seeing, to feel horror hit him like a punch in the stomach. Then, someone in Sokka's own voice screamed out:
"You have to stop this!"
Sokka whipped around focus on Zuko standing right next to him. His prisoner rags were gone. Now he was dressed in fancy red silks, his dark hair grown out and tied up into a nobleman's queue with a three-pointed flame crown. And standing on the other side of him...
It was Sokka.
Only this dream Sokka was a little taller, a little broader with a slightly more defined cut to his jaw. Somehow, subtly more handsome than Sokka had been in life. His eyes were a piercing shade of blue that could not be natural.
That's me? Then with a shocked realization, Is this how Zuko sees me?
Dream Sokka gestured down to the crowd. "Are you going to stand there and let this happen?" he demanded, quite rightly Sokka thought.
Zuko looked wretched. His skin had gone paler, with a waxy sheen that made it look like he was about to throw up. "I don't have a choice."
"That's bullshit!" both Sokkas said at the same time.
Dream Sokka and Zuko paid him no attention. However, Dream Sokka stepped forward, snarling in Zuko's face. "You know that this war is wrong. This is the kind of world you want? You want him to lead your people?" He gestured again, towards another hill Sokka hadn't realized was there. It was high and grand, and sitting on top of a gilded throne was a tall figure with his own flame-pointed crown. The Fire Lord, Sokka guessed, though he was too far away to see his face clearly.
That was when he realized Zuko was standing in the midpoint between two hills—between joining his sister and father on one side, and saving Aang and Katara on the other. Below them, the audience was made up of Fire Nation people, almost maddened with blood.
For a metaphor, it was a little on the nose. But whatever. This wasn't his crappy nightmare.
Aang and Katara had nearly reached the pyre. Katara had loosened her gag enough to let out a wail. The sound nearly cleaved Sokka's heart in two. He balled his fists at his side.
This is just a dream, he reminded himself. Just a messed up dream. This isn't really happening.
"I don't know what I can do!" Zuko told Dream Sokka. "I want to help them, but I'm not a traitor to my country. Help me."
The other Sokka's face twisted. "You know what you have to do."
"No, please. The last time—"
"You have a choice. You can call this off any time you want!"
"Sokka—" Zuko reached for him, but Dream Sokka shoved him viciously back.
"You're a coward." Dream Sokka's voice dripped with contempt. Then he turned and ran down the hill. The angry crowd swallowed him up like a surging tide.
Zuko looked like someone had torn his heart from his chest. "No, Sokka!" Picking up his robe, he ran after him.
He only got a few paces before the world suddenly shifted around them.
Suddenly, Zuko was standing in the middle of an arena. The crowd was no longer the angry sea below them. Now they packed the stands, jeering. This time it wasn't for a prisoner's blood: It was for Zuko's punishment.
Sokka had seen this before, that other time he'd fallen into Zuko's dream. Sure enough, across the arena stood a man who had to be ten feet tall, his face in shadow.
The Fire Lord stepped forward and with one snap, his hand wreathed in flame.
Zuko looked too frightened to move. He simply stood there, wide-eyed—and accepting of his fate—as the Fire Lord advanced.
The other Dream Sokka was nowhere to be found. Time for real Sokka to step in.
"Screw this," Sokka said and stepped forward to grip Zuko's shoulder. This was a dream, right? Normal rules didn't exist in dreams.
He concentrated, and abruptly the world changed around them again. White, crisp, clean, and cold.
They were surrounded by snowy fields as far as the eye could see. Instead of a crowd cheering for pain, there was only the jingle of hardness, excited polar dog panting, and the shush of sled rails against snow.
Zuko looked around, confused. "What...?"
"I've had enough Fire Nation drama," Sokka said, deliberately casual as if he hadn't just waltzed into Zuko's mind and mentally transported him down to the south pole.
They were riding on the back of a sled pulled by a team of yelping polar dogs. Normally, there was only room for one person on the back of a dog sled, but in the way of dreams, they both stood on a rail, their shoulders pressed against one another.
Zuko looked around, completely bemused. Sokka expected him to ask questions—how they got there, why he was suddenly wearing a fluffy blue parka, and what Sokka was doing in his head to begin with.
Instead, he gazed forward and asked, "Do these things go any faster?"
Sokka grinned, the cold wind sharp enough to make his teeth ache. "You bet they do." He called a sharp command, and with excited yapping, the dogs sped up.
Zuko laughed into the high, endless blue sky.
Carefully, so as not to jar him awake, Sokka took his hand off Zuko's shoulder. The moment he broke contact, he was out of the dream and back in the cell.
Zuko's eyes still rolled under his lids, but the twitching and the terrible sounds were gone. His face had relaxed, and a slight smile tugged at the corners of his lips.
I did that, Sokka thought, gazing down at him. Something warm expanded in his chest.
Zuko had looked good in blue.
Something—a sound, a sixth sense of danger—made him look up.
The dark spirit stood crouched half in shadow on the other side of the cell, hungry gaze fixed on them both.