Chapter Thirteen: And Nothing Else Matters
If and what he dreamed, he couldn't remember. He was sure, though, that it wasn't unpleasant and it wasn't snow filled or desolate. As the dim glow of an orange morning spread through the singe glass paned hatch he was aware of the body next to him - the other boy he was nearly sprawled over and, whose breathing was low and rhythmic. The steady pulse under his fingertips beat on and Sokka stretched his hand out, past the body's wrist, in order to splay his fingers over the prince's open hand. Heat was welling in Zuko's palm and fingers and Sokka was beginning to remember just whom he was lying against.
His eyes were open but the full extent of the situation wasn't registering in his mind. Sokka wasn't bothered by the fact he was lying, his top opened and chest exposed, against Zuko. It bothered him that the intimacy of the situation was easily passed over and, almost, dismissed into normality. He had changed.
Sokka closed his eyes, opened them, and rolled on his back so that he was merely touching the prince at the shoulder. Light was beginning reflect from the wave crests to the ceiling causing hypnotic designs to crawl over the dark metal. Sokka watched them and felt the ship sway ever so slightly. It was one of those crucial times in his life, just as he had grasped Appa's reigns in an effort to save Aang. He was again plunging himself into a outlandish situation.
In retrospect, he had never anticipated his life changing so significantly. He was destined, as his father had been, to be a warrior. He would marry within his element, if he lived long enough, that was.
Death had been something glorious - ominous and unwanted, but when combined with courage and honor it was something he desired. A warrior's death. Now, he speculated life was worth more that a single blaze of glory. It wasn't cowardice. He was far from a coward - he knew that. There were instances when he knew he was perceived as one and perhaps, like any sane human, he had streaks. He didn't fear death, though; he simply wanted to avoid it.
The image of Zuko, pale, weak, shivering from a nonexistent chill, was still vivid in his mind. He knew he couldn't loose the other teen to the poison, to death. Zuko had told him previously that he cared for Sokka, enough so, as it was proven, to risk his own well being for the tribesman. Sokka was worried an itchy guilt would spread through his being, but he also knew, given the situation, he would have done the same thing. And, perhaps, that was why he kissed Zuko back.
Falling into an intimate relationship with a firebender, let alone a prince - a boy - was something Sokka had never anticipated either. His life had always seemed to be mundane until the fated fishing trip. This change was most problematic. He, of course, had not thought of any of that when attempting to kiss and undress the firebender. Only now, when he was aware enough to comprehend the entire situation did any of the future dilemmas come to mind.
It was, or would be, rather awkward. Sokka was sure somewhere in the proverbial rulebook they had violated several decrees and raised quite a few flags. There were still issues that needed to be discussed, though. How far were they going to go? Was it purely physical? Was it a mistake brought on by the final and full realization that they were safe? Sokka found himself discrediting the last two thoughts.
Zuko was beginning to shift next to him. The blanket was tousled and the prince raised a hand to his eyes. The motion caused their arms to rub against each other and Zuko stopped, his hand frozen halfway to his face, but whatever the prince's inner reflection had concluded it allowed the hand to continue to his eyes and rub away sleep. Sokka watched out of the corner of his own left eye as Zuko's hand wavered over his scar.
Zuko dropped his arm and stared at the ceiling, allowing Sokka a view of his unscarred side. He could, however, also see the unnatural blue tinge left from Zhao. There had been a reason he didn't dare lay kisses down the prince's neck or descend further. He knew Zuko wasn't about to forget either.
"We've really gotten ourselves into something, haven't we?" Zuko asked quietly, catching Sokka off guard. The Tribesman, however, couldn't deny it.
"Yeah…" The statement hung in the air above them like something sharp and deadly.
Sokka was brought back to the question he'd been previously asked - was he going to return to Aang and Katara? In all honesty, he didn't know. He was still bound to his friend and family, but he was also bound to the prince, through friendship and something more.
"What are we, anyway?" Sokka asked automatically and nearly palmed his forehead. The question was not meant to verbalize itself as it just did.
Zuko's face didn't change. His eyes stayed fixed on the ceiling. "I don't know."
"Are we in love with each other?" Sokka wasn't sure if the question was a safe one to ask, but it needed to be vocalized.
Zuko's attention was caught and he turned to face the tribesman with a sharp glance. He sighed and said, "I don't know. I've never been in love."
The prince's behavior annoyed Sokka but he was willing to ignore it. He had rarely had a serene conversation with Zuko and enjoyed it. The prince had not yet fallen into his usual behavioral patterns; he was still groggy with sleep.
"If we are, do you think it would work…?" Sokka felt those things sharp and deadly begin their decent. Zuko was beginning to answer hesitantly when a sudden bang echoed from the door and both occupants of the futon scrambled to a respective side. It was a natural instinct, Sokka told himself, it was natural to move away from to person you'd spent the night with when someone potentially dangerous to your relationship was about to walk through the door. Thankfully, it was bolted.
Zuko, who was standing, his pants intact, asked, "What is it?"
"My prince," an unfamiliar voice said from behind the steel barrier. "Commander Heika has ordered me to inform you that your Uncle's Ship has been spotted several hundred knots to the north. We would rendezvous with them by noon." There was a pause, then. "Forgive the intrusion, sir."
"It's fine," Zuko said in an indifferent voice. "Tell the Commander I'll be there in fifteen minutes."
"Yes, sir!" The brief sound of hurrying footsteps followed.
Sokka sighed and glanced over at Zuko again. The prince was gathering his clothes from the floor and tossing them aside. He moved toward a chest as Sokka stood and stretched, the muscles in his arms were sore.
"Here," Zuko tossed a pale garment at the Tribesman.
Sokka caught it but held it away from his body with distaste. "Fire Nation clothing? You don't seriously think I'll wear this do you?"
"It's only temporary," Zuko said as he secured his chest plate, tying the knots at his sides without much difficulty. A thin smirk pervaded his usual unhappy countenance as he handed over a pair of pants. "You might not want to wear those in the halls. They're stained."
Sokka looked down and groaned. "Just my luck." He accepted the pants from Zuko and begrudgingly stripped down. The prince didn't pay attention to him and Sokka wasn't sure if he would be thankful or just a bit bitter. Zuko was pulling his hair into the traditional tie and had not spared him a glance. Sokka finished pulling the shirt over his head and frowned. "This looks stupid."
Zuko's attention was caught and he turned to face Sokka. "Deal with it," the prince replied neither confirming nor denying Sokka's statement. "It's better if you blend in, anyway."
Sokka admitted he was right in that sense and simply felt like sulking. They would reach the ports soon; of course, he would not wear these clothes onto the docks. It wasn't right. He wasn't a firebender.
They were both clothed, yet Sokka worn neither the armor nor the insignia. Zuko's clothes were slightly loose, but the armor fit seemingly perfect and covered the extra folds at his stomach.
Zuko closed his eyes and inhaled, exhaling slowly. Sokka assumed he was mentally preparing himself for what lay beyond the steel door. It hadn't occurred to Sokka until that moment, but today Zuko woke up as the leader of a rebellion - a rebellion against his own father. Understandably, it wasn't easy. Sokka bit back a smile, knowing the prince trusted him enough to show a slight weakness in his character.
"Ready?" Zuko asked and Sokka shrugged.
"No, but let's go." He felt his stomach through the rough cloth. "I'm starving." Zuko snorted but a hint of a smile remained in his eye.
Breakfast was served in the mess hall, and all though there was a separate room for higher-ranking officers Heika suggested the Prince eat in the regular hall. It was propaganda and both the teens knew it, but the faster Zuko could gain the officers' respect the better. It affirmed equality, something Zhao was never likely to have supported.
There were, or course, stares, glares, causal glances, and some openly idiotic pointing. All of it was irritating and Sokka could tell Zuko was trying to keep his attention on Heika. His face was set with a passive stare but Sokka caught his good eye twitch twice and his fingers jerk and perhaps heating the air slightly. Sokka decided to stay silent and save the moment for another time.
Breakfast - which was delicious beyond record - finished as they moved toward a conference room. Heika glanced sparingly at Sokka as he entered, but Zuko had not decreed that the tribesman be banned from the area so he said nothing. Sokka had never explored a Fire Nation ship. It wasn't particularly interesting, he found. A large portion of the decoration consisted of the insignia and gold, red, or black silk or scrolls. The conference room - or "war room" as Sen called it - was just as extravagantly decorated as Zhao's office.
Sokka sat in the traditional style, mimicking Zuko, and waited as the other five men introduced themselves. Besides Heika and Sen, there were two burly men with full beards. The larger one was a private called Huo Li, whereas the other was a lieutenant by the name of Feng. There was a placid, older man with a longer beard, also a colonel, named Zheng. Three other men that had no distinctive qualities when compared to the men in the mess hall were seated adjacent from Sokka; they were all lieutenants.
Heika greeted the group serenely as the final members sat. From what Sokka could pick up, the men were all now reassigned as commanders. They, Heika said, exemplified the needed characteristics for the new army. The news passed well with the officers, especially the lieutenants who were apprehensively nodding to one and other. Sokka wondered where he would come in, there had to be a logical reason he was attending.
A large map of the world was attached to the wall; Sokka couldn't help but trace a path to the North Pole where he assumed Aang and Katara were. They were all right, he assured himself. They were smart and resourceful, if anything they were having a good time flinging snowballs at each other with their newfound skills. Sokka smiled to himself.
Zuko stood next to him and Sokka was snatched back from his daydream. Zuko was impassive as he made his way to the front of the room and stood in front of the map.
"I assume you're all aware of the circumstances we face," Zuko began. He folded his hands behind his back and faced the group. "We have been restricted to a single ship, whereas the entirety of our Nation's army and navy number in the thousands. A sane man can understand that to simply turn and attack is pointless - a waste of recourses and a waste of life. It should be easy to understand why I will be requesting foreign aid…"
Sokka was surprised at the whispers that followed. Feng and two other lieutenants were looking begrudgingly toward Zuko.
"We entered this alliance under the impression that we were not defecting from the Fire Nation," Zheng said in a stoic voice.
"You're not defecting," Zuko countered quickly. "We share a common goal with both Water and Earth. We want this war to end; we agree that it is unnecessary; it has no gain for our families. I was asked, once, to whom my loyalty belongs, to my father - the Fire Lord - or to my people - my Nation. I assure you, I am a loyal subject. I will never forsake the Nation of Fire and I am sure you feel as much."
Zuko took a breath and Sokka could see he was clinging to his self-control. "Foreign aid is inevitable. Perhaps Bai Sing Sei will not help us if we have the former General Iroh on our side. Perhaps the Northern Water Tribe will not come out of their crystalline cities. There are few foreigners who would even consider aiding a ship of two hundred Fire Nation revolutionaries. But, there are enough to bring us attention."
"Is that how you plan to win the war?" Huo Li inquired. Sokka could not tell whether or not he was mocking Zuko. "Attention?"
Zuko looked frustrated, but continued to stand still. His hands, Sokka expected, were either steaming or sparking by now. The War council was rather harsh, but he suspected they all did not fully trust the banished prince. He was, after all, still branded a traitor and that may have been the reason Heika suggested he lead. Zuko had a legacy.
"I don't plan to win the war," Zuko said darkly. "But, we will stop it."
"And how do you propose we do that?" Sen asked sarcastically and Sokka was surprised. It soon wore off; Sen was setting the prince up for his next crucial point.
"Our greatest battle has already been won," Zuko said flatly. "We're here. You've succeeded in the overthrow of an Admiral. Our next major step is to mass our forces - ally ourselves with other nations."
Feng snorted and continued staring at Zuko in an unimpressed manner. "And what exactly will entice these 'other nation' to join our cause? In their eyes we are a joke - you are little boy on a wild goose chase, which you have yet to complete, I might add."
"They believe in the Avatar…" Zuko's voice was thin with irritation. "They may even rally under the Avatar, which is precisely why the airbender's on our side."
"You've captured him?" A lieutenant asked, nearly standing in surprise. A few eyes drifted toward Sokka.
Zuko looked a bit discouraged but answered with: "No… but that matter is irrelevant now."
Sokka took a breath. He had heard bits off the discussion between Heika, Sen, and Zuko during breakfast in what Zuko had said. He also knew that they firebenders intended to use him as a direct connection to the Avatar. He felt cheated, but it was worse for Zuko, the proverbial figurehead to their plans. He couldn't help feel they were both being manipulated. He knew the efforts Heika and Sen were exerting were in the favor of the "good" side, but their methods were disagreeable. Zuko, he was sure, was in agreement but had no better way to entice the newly instated commanders.
"But," Sokka said after Zuko's dispirited answer. "That's where I come in."
"And who exactly are you?" Feng asked. "You're not Fire Nation."
"Sokka," He said smoothly, trying to ignore the eyes of the benders on him. "Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe. My family is pretty influential and I have connections to quite a few Earth Kingdom cities who'd be willing to aid our cause, especially a group of steel rig escapees." The men looked skeptical.
"I'm also one of the two people on the face of this earth closest to the Avatar," Sokka added, knowing it was exactly what Heika and Sen expected him to say. "The Avatar will side with our cause."
"This is… in all earnest?" Zheng asked suspiciously. "You're only a boy!"
"And you're only a man," Sokka said sarcastically. "I don't see what that should matter. Besides, I'm sure you've see the wanted fliers for Aan… the Avatar."
The remainder of the meeting was spent discussing maneuvering the ship and the course to the next dock and the one beyond that and the massing of forces. Sokka found himself watching the men talk and argue drearily. They were much like the other Firebenders he and had met over his journey. They were ruthless and it seemed the older they were the more they expressed that side. The meeting concluded with Commander Zheng leaving angrily. The torches that stood like sentries at the doorway flared at his exit.
"Well," Heika said with a smirk. "That went better than expected. I was surprised it lasted quite so long." Sen nodded.
Zuko's abrasive expression didn't change but the atmosphere in the room seemed to cool when the last man left and the four of them were alone in the room. "I hate politics," the Prince scoffed and looked begrudgingly at the two Commanders in front of him. "Don't expect me to fall into all of your schemes. Of all people you should know what trait I inherited from my father. I am not one to be simply pushed over."
"Of course, sir," Heika said bowing lowly. "Forgive us…"
"Just don't spring another meeting on me like this," Zuko said in a resigned voice. "I'd prefer to do some of my own strategizing."
"Of course," Sen answered and bowed his head. Zuko bowed once to them and they left quickly, inclining their heads to Sokka as they exited the room.
After a well met silence Zuko suggested they spar and Sokka agreed seeing as they both needed to unwind. Zhao had installed a large training arena near the rear of the ship and they met at the entrance after changing. Sokka was glad to be back in his familiar blue clothing, despite the unwelcome stares he received. Zuko was in a sleeveless black vest, similar to many of the occupants in the arena. Sokka marvel at the vast area, it could have fit his village, save for the wall of course. The sun had risen higher and was streaming into the roofless field as each opponent took opposite sides.
"Hand to hand," Zuko said calmly, but Sokka could hear the simpering in his voice. "No weapons."
Sokka smirked back. "No bending."
There were a few seconds of silence, the few men in the area were watching with interest and Sokka vowed not to screw this one up. As fast as he could, Sokka ran, lunging at the prince. The attack was a feint, both of them knew it. It only served to sever the distance between him.
Zuko easily avoided the outstretched hand Sokka had flung at him and sidestepped, letting Sokka pass him by mere inches and exposing the tribesman's back to attack. Sokka twisted around and managed to avoid the strike meant for his spine.
Both opponents stepped back and Zuko surveyed Sokka with a fiery gaze. "You've improved since I last fought you."
"Yeah, well, I've been practicing," Sokka said and took the defensive stance he'd learned from Suki and her Kiyoshi warriors. He was sure Zuko recognized it but the other boy didn't say anything, instead the prince closed the distance again with a hooking punch. Sokka avoided this too, and shifted his back foot, enough so that he faded back and caught the front of the prince's shirt. He intended to send the prince flying past him, but he failed to notice Zuko reaching to catch his arm, so when he turned to release the prince, he also was pulled to the ground.
Sokka landed over the prince and thought they shouldn't fight like this. He was beginning to admire the way the prince's eyes caught the light, how gold they were. Sokka pasued, his fist should have buried itself in Zuko's stomach, but it didn't. He didn't want to, and willingly, he couldn't. Zuko, on the other hand, took no time. His right foot caught Sokka's leg and, thrusting his torso upward, he forced Sokka off him and to the ground. Zuko knelt over him, his fist extended in a mock punch to Sokka's face.
"Looks like you still need more practice," Zuko said and stood, offering his hand to Sokka. It was accepted and Sokka grinned.
"Ah, Prince Zuko." A familiar voice said from the entrance. Sokka turned and saw a stout old man in Fire Nation attire. He was sure this was the Iroh everyone spoke about; he'd seen him with Zuko before. "It's good to see you practicing the basics."
"Uncle," Zuko said a little surprised but pleased. "It's good to see you well." The prince approached the older bender and bowed. "How is my crew?"
"We're intact," said the man Sokka assumed was Iroh, and patted Zuko on the shoulder. "The losses were regrettable but few." Iroh paused and peeked from behind Zuko, noticing Sokka for seemingly the first time. "Whose your friend, Prince Zuko, he looks familiar?"
Zuko automatically turned so he was between them. "Uncle, this is Sokka… of the Southern Water Tribe. He is one if the Avatar's companions."
Sokka approached and bowed as Zuko had. "I'm honored to meet you."
"As am I," Iroh said and his voice was steady and controlled. Sokka was sure he hadn't been fully informed of every event since the battle. "This is an interesting situation you've worked yourself into, my Prince. You must tell me over some tea? What do you say?"
Sokka couldn't help smirk as Zuko shot his uncle an annoyed look but consented. Iroh lead the precession out of the arena, both boys behind him. Although Zuko didn't openly express it, Sokka noticed he walked with a lighter step.
There were things they'd left out, of course, such as the waterfall and the pine trees. Sokka wasn't particularly helpful when pointing out Zuko's obvious weaknesses, but nonetheless Iroh was content with what they told him. Content and pleased with the overall outcome.
Night fell quickly and Zuko found himself standing with his uncle on the deck, overlooking the last glowing rays erupting from behind the seascape. Iroh was watching them with a wistful look on his face and Zuko knew he was concerned with the upcoming events. Revolutions weren't easy things to succeed in. Through history the Fire Nation was exceedingly efficient in quelling them. This was, however, different. There never had been members of the royal family in any of the latter rebellions Zuko could remember, and never had the rebels invested in aid outside their element.
"There will be complications."
"I'm aware, Uncle. I'm very aware of that." Zuko didn't dare look away from the setting sun. "We all are."
Iroh leaned over the railing watching waves break against the dark hull. "And the tribesman, Sokka?"
Zuko paused and looked over at the great black structure housing the soldiers - his soldiers - and Sokka. "He'll most likely return to the Avatar. Once we find the damn monk, of course."
Iroh seemed to nod, but didn't meet Zuko's gaze. The last rays of sunlight were at last dispersing at the horizon and, by now, a few of the early stars could be seen in the dark blue sky. "We've received reports of the Avatar heading to an herbalist's temple," Iroh said finally. "It's located beyond the port, maybe ten miles."
"And you've neglected to tell me until now?" Zuko said through his teeth. His hands were automatically white-knuckled against the railing.
Iroh smiled with a shrug. "From what I understood you've given up chasing the Avatar, Prince Zuko. Besides, we are headed for that exact port at this moment - I was going to wait until morning, after you've had a proper rest."
"I'll be able to rest once this war is over, Uncle." Zuko let go of the railing. "Even then… We don't know how my father's supporters will react. I don't think lack of rest will be my largest problem."
Iroh nodded and finally turned to his nephew. "A man needs something to love in life," the old general said watching the sea. "I have seen things, killed men, and suffered the tragedies of war. All these things can tear at a man's heart, drive him mad."
"What do you love, then?" Zuko asked in a quieter tone, his eyes fixed on the pale foam collecting along the side of the ship.
"Peace, tranquilly… tea," Iroh said. "I cherish those closest to me, Zuko. They give me strength."
Zuko caught his uncle's gaze and held it, there was an indistinguishable feeling churning in his stomach. "What are you implying, Uncle?"
"Hm?" Iroh raised his eyebrows. "Nothing. Nothing. This revolution - it will be more complicated than the calculations you and the commanders have laid down. Remember, nothing will ever go as planned." Iroh smiled genuinely and then shrugged his shoulders, rubbing them. "It's become cold, Prince Zuko. I'm going to have some tea before bed; I suggest you do the same."
Zuko nodded, bowing his head slightly. "Goodnight, Uncle."
He could hear his uncle's footsteps retreating as the ocean calms lapped at the sides of the ship. Zuko swallowed the feeling in his throat that had crawled up from his stomach. The memory from morning was still freshly branded in his mind. Sokka was lying next to him, asking him if they loved each other. If they did, would it work? There were obvious complications.
Iroh's footsteps stopped and Zuko almost thought his uncle had stepped into the warm threshold of the ship, when the familiar voice said, quietly enough for only their ears, "I'm very proud of you, Zuko. Remember that, also." The sound of the steel door closing softly followed.
Zuko didn't bother to turn. He stood, watching the sea and the dieing pale orange dusk, before leaving for his new quarters within his new ship. The officers on guard, nodded to him out of tradition and he returned the salutes. Somewhere, he could faintly hear the sound of laughing and a slurring that might have been a song. He didn't bother investigating.
The door to Sokka's room was closed and Zuko didn't bother checking if the tribesman was asleep or not, he really had no business knowing. His own quarters had been restored to what they were previously. Two large Fire Nation tapestries hung on each side of the small bench and dragon idol. The familiar black futon was pressed against the wall at his left.
Discarding his clothes, he folded them and set them aside to be cleaned. It was nice, comforting, to pull on his familiar dark maroon robes and sit in front of the idol. He simultaneously lit the six candles and sat, crossing his legs. How long had it been since he had meditated? The last time was the first night in the forest when he had realized they were poisoned. He hadn't noticed it, perhaps because he was usually too tired to remember trivialities, but his dreams had quieted some. His main concern was his life and Sokka's - his quest was overshadowed.
Zuko let himself fall into rhythmic breathing, inhaling as the candles flared and exhaling with their diminution. He could see the single flame in his mind, moving with the others around him, which he could feel. He lost sense of time, slowly letting the candles synchronize, and his mind calm.
His eyes opened at the short, sharp rapping on the steel entry. When he reached the door, Sokka was leaning against the nearest wall, arms crossed. Zuko was surprised, but didn't make a move to let him in.
"What do you want?" He asked before Sokka could greet him.
Sokka scowled but spoke anyway, stepping past the prince and into the room, "I've been thinking…" and Zuko refrained. "About what we were discussing last night. About me staying." Zuko tried to keep his face blank as he stared into Sokka's eyes. Sokka continued when the prince remained silent. "I… I want to stay."
"You do?" Zuko knew he should be happy. It was, after all, what he wanted. Sokka was one of the only, if not the only, person who he had confided in during his darkest moments. There was no question that the tribesman meant more to him than his family, save Iroh, and nonexistent friends.
"Yeah," Sokka said and dropped his gaze to the floor where one of the rattan mats was laid. "I had some time and it occurred to me, if I hadn't sav… I mean, if I hadn't helped you out in the first place, none of this would have happened. This whole revolution's sort of my responsibility, too. It doesn't seem right leaving you to run the whole thing on your own." Sokka looked up with a lopsided grin. "Besides, with your social skills there's no way in hell you'll be getting any 'foreign aid'."
Zuko frowned. "And I suppose you'll be our envoy?"
"Why not," Sokka shrugged, still grinning. "I'm worldly wise, smart, funny, good looking… who else fits the job?"
Zuko smirked, finding himself falling into the other teen's plot. "Possibly, but I don't know about good looking."
Sokka frowned and crossed his arms. "You're one to talk. Maybe if you didn't frown or glare and emphasize on that damn scar all the time, people would notice you have a really great body…"
The room quieted and Zuko looked at Sokka carefully. The tribesman's cheeks flushed with colors and he turned away. Zuko hadn't expected any physical attraction between them; he had reasoned that any romantic relationship occurred out of raw trust not passion. He swallowed the feeling in his throat. He knew Sokka was not unattractive. Sokka was lighter, but taller, than he was and Zuko had begun to overlook the angles of his face for his sharp blue eyes, which he decided should not be gouged out when they landed on him. It occurred to Zuko that he had never put much thought into beauty - efficiency was held in higher regard.
"I lied," Zuko said after the pause. "Since I feel obliged to return the compliment… You're eyes. I like them."
Sokka turned darker and stuttered, "Thanks."
Sokka had asked him if they were in love. Zuko didn't know. What was love, after all? There was the love he shared, but didn't show, toward his Uncle. The kind that lead him to track down earthbenders and forgo the Avatar in order to rescue the old general. He assumed that was the love families shared - something that should have been inherited through blood, which his father and sister had ignored or never received. His father. Zuko knew that he did love the man, it was something internal that would take time to give up, but he also knew his father was wrong.
What he felt toward Sokka was different. He knew he would put his life on the line for the Water Tribe boy; it was something that, again, couldn't be helped. It was the same thing, the same feeling - like trust, faith, happiness, loyalty, and lust mixing together, to make a single emotion that throbbed and flowed throughout his body - which kept him from wincing as Sokka's lips moved off his and down his jaw line, along his neck, descending. It was the same feeling that kept him from biting into his cheek, his eyes open as he watched Sokka above him, and his knees raised.
Zuko gasped a little, groaning, and Sokka collapsed next to him, heat in his breath. The room might have been sweltering but Zuko assumed it was only the friction between them. It was dim, the candles had been put out and clear, bright, moonlight was flowing through the hatch.
Sokka moved minutes later, resting his head on an elbow, so he could see Zuko's reclining form. "Gods," he said, still a bit short of breath. "You must love me, to do that."
Zuko nodded faintly. "I guess you're right, I do."
Sokka smiled, Zuko could feel the grin without looking. Sokka moved over and lay on his side, an arm wrapping around Zuko's waist, pulling him closer. "Looks like we're going into another forest, huh? This time it isn't going to be earthbenders or poison, is it?"
Zuko consented with a noncommittal sound. He could feel himself slipping away, into sleep. Sokka sounded tired himself, but continued, "Zhao's gone but we've got bigger things after us now. If they know, if they find out, they could hurt us. They'll use me against you. I know that."
Zuko blinked, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. "We'll watch each others back's, Sokka."
The tribesman nodded softly against Zuko's shoulder. "Promise me, if you love me, you won't let that happen. Don't die for me; don't let it die for me. Please. It always works out better if you keep the promise. It did this time. Please."
"Don't worry, Sokka." Zuko felt sleep encroaching. "I promise."
Sometime later, when all the trouble of finding the Avatar had been passed, Zuko and Sokka stood together on the deck, observing the land far, far away. Above them, Zuko was sure the large flying bison belonging to the Avatar, Aang, was dodging through the coloring clouds. Above were the jubilant faces of the girl and airbender laughing or simply smiling widely, so happy that they had gained an ally in their own quest. So happy that it had become easier.
Zuko scoffed at their naivety. Both he and Sokka knew that the time ahead would be trying, that there would be death and war and, essentially, all that they avidly were trying to stop.
A loud horn sounded from the ships behind them, and Zuko turned to look back at the procession. Green flags were waving from one of the masts, the Earth Kingdom insignia dark, black, and defined over the emerald. Zuko was glad it was not gold or gold encrusted. Just beyond the large steel ships were others. Smaller. Wooden. The Water Tribes.
"Admiring your fleet?" Sokka asked and Zuko snorted. It was small and unreliable, full of rebels and defectors. However, he admitted, from any other firebender's eyes he was one of them, and, so, he did not think of them in low regard. There were always reasons.
"We've been contacted by Bai Sing Sei," Sokka said casually. "They'll arm us."
Zuko clenched his fist. "Good. It's more than I'd have hoped for."
"Pessimism. At least you're realistic." Sokka shook his head, still grinning. "They've also agree to sent troops if we can prove the Avatar's with us. Looks like the king's a fan of his. Lucky for us, huh?"
Luck, Zuko reminded himself, luck was all they'd ever had in that forest and in this one. Katara, the waterbender, had told him once that the gods favored those who were pure of heart. Zuko remembered that his gods favored the strong and loyal. He found himself hoping that the girl was right. All the fortune they received would help in the long run. So far they had been lucky; as far as he was concerned it could only last so long.
Sokka made a noncommittal sound and Zuko turned toward him. "What?"
"Look at the flags," Sokka prompted and Zuko turned his gaze upward. "Heika had them changed."
The familiar red and black flag was waving lazily from a wire between the helm and the bow. The color was the same; the insignia, Zuko noticed, was turned oddly to the right so that the three-tongued flame was on its side. From where they stood Zuko could see three other flags, all fashioned in the same manner.
Sokka, whose neck was also craned, whispered, "It almost looks like…"
Zuko's lips upturned at the sides and Sokka grinned openly, both staring off into a crimson painted dusk, above them a new era dawned. The sky, Zuko reflected, was a particular color - not unlike the red flag waving above the ship, but not akin to blood. And for once, perhaps, it was at last a good omen.
"Pink sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight."