A/N This was started as a response to a challenge: "Ye Olde Cliche". There's no bigger cliché than the whole Zuko kidnaps Katara for bait. Well, what would Sokka have to say to that, anyway?

Disclaimer: Okay, I don't own Avatar or its characters. Owell. I'll get over it. So will you. In the meantime…

Chapter 1

The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, even in the Fire Nation. In the territories, those wheels barely move at all. Perhaps because in the territories, there is even less incentive to push forward the demands of "progress". This is just one of the many lessons history teaches that civilization ignores.

So it was that two condemned prisoners found themselves with days, perhaps months, to 'kill' while they awaited the orders for their execution. The surety of their fate was not in question; it was merely a matter of when. For the one, the waiting was torment. He sought salvation in the executioner's block, an end to a short life of striving, disappointment, and uncertainty. For the other, the waiting was merely the culmination of a cosmic joke at his expense. That their cells shared an adjoining wall was, on the one hand, coincidental; on the other, it was the inevitable end to the strange series of events bringing two young men from very different backgrounds together.

"I don't know, I guess I'd take strings over flute or horn" Sokka said, as he answered his own question yet again. The Fire Prince on the other side of the bars occasionally acknowledged him, but rarely allowed himself to respond to Sokka's continued attempts to engage him in conversation. Not that Sokka cared. He took perverse pleasure in their parallel situations, and enjoyed goading the prince with his nonchalant assumption of commonality, and therefore social equality, in awaiting the headsman's ax. "I used to love the horns, or even better, the drums. So stirring, you know. But the last year or so, I've come to love the voice of the strings"

"You are an ass." There was no bitterness left in Zuko's words. They had been there long enough that he had resigned himself to the inanities that issued from the neighboring cell. Still, he couldn't wholly ignore either Sokka's presence or his efforts to engage him.

"Really, so you prefer the horns?" Sokka smiled to himself, deliberately misunderstanding Zuko. "Ah well, but I seem to recall someone said you actually played the suungi horn. I prefer a reed instrument to the suungi horn myself – so much more plaintive sound, I think."

And yes, tiny plumes of smoke feathered above the prince's fingertips, bringing sweet satisfaction to Sokka's soul.

Zuko couldn't stand it anymore. "Where are they? Your sister, the Avatar? By now they must know you are doomed. Why don't they come to rescue you?" His own hopeless situation pushed back in the recesses of his mind as he pondered the mystery of his neighbor's predicament. It simply didn't mesh with what he thought he had learned of them.

Sokka stretched himself out along the length of his cell, thankful yet again for his unfettered status as a result of not being a bender. "I've no idea what you are talking about."

"You are so full of shit! How stupid do you think I am?" The words echoed in his brain. He knew he had uttered them before, to no better purpose.

Sokka's eyes rolled. "Do you really need to ask" He chortled. He had no desire to die so young. But if he had to go, he could think of worse ways – to be allowed to make the last days of the Fire Prince a living hell was sweet penance indeed. Zuko rewarded him with a breathy blast to the charred ceiling of his cell.

Still, Sokka knew their time was running out. In truth, he was no more cruel than any normal boy. With that, he gave the prince an honest answer.

"You are the ass, Zuko," he said resolutely, "You and your sister, and all the Fire Nation, to think that we couldn't anticipate an attempt to use us against Aang, and not prepare for it."

"Hah! Some preparation — you were caught easily enough," Zuko spat out bitterly. He wondered how he himself had missed such an obvious solution to the question of trapping the avatar.

"Right. It was bound to happen, sooner or later." Sokka met Zuko's glare stolidly. "So. Given that, do you really think we would allow Aang to rescue either of us?"

"Could either of you have stopped him? I think not," This time the bitterness of Zuko's answer burned his own lips.

Sokka laughed quietly. "I admit, we did wonder about that a bit, initially. But don't kid yourselves. He's twelve going on a hundred-thirteen. You killed off his people, you threaten, no! You're trying to enslave the rest of the world. Aang hates it, but he knows what he has to do." He closed his eyes, picturing cold blue glaciers instead of sweating metal walls and bars. "And so do we."

Zuko looked at the boy across the bars. An ignorant peasant. He heard Sokka hum to himself some melody he attributed to the water tribe. He hated Sokka even more than he hated the avatar, hated them both for what they made him see in himself. Somewhere along the line he had lost his certainty, even as he had lost everything else. Now he found himself envying the pathetic water tribesman he had so easily dismissed on their first encounter. This made no sense. They were both going to die.

"I never did like the sound of the suungi horn — and I hated playing the damn thing! If you must know, I like the flute."