A/N: I've reposted the epilogue in the interests of updating my comments. Mostly because this story is still racking up hits, despite its age (hit count for epilogue over 4,000!). It seems only fair to somehow acknowledge that. I've put my comments at the end so as not to distract those readers plowing through, as it were, to reach the terminus. Feel free to ignore my ending comments (not like I have any control over you anyways )
Disclaimer: Okay, I don't own Avatar or its characters. Owell. I'll get over it. So will you. In the meantime…
Sokka was awakened by a none-too-gentle kick on his backside.
"You have no idea how long I've wanted to do that," Zuko said mildly, backing off from the groggy Water-Tribe boy.
"What the hell do you think you're doing!" Sokka growled, sitting up and rubbing the offended body part. He wondered if, perhaps, he should draw a weapon.
"Man, you snore! Like nothing on earth! I think I could have slept another couple hours if you hadn't started up again. You always snore."
"I sing… I snore… I talk too much… All of which you have had plenty of time to get used to. Did it ever occur to you that the problem is not me but you, yourself?" All Sokka wanted was to return to his interrupted slumbers. Why didn't anyone understand that a growing boy needed his sleep? "If you assume my lack of complaints where you are concerned reflects in any way my satisfaction with you as an immediate neighbor you are dead wrong." Sleepily he reflected on how Zuko's good luck was actually merely a reflection of his ability to intimidate his predecessors or, more likely, given his position, any need to do so…
"Enough already. It's late. We need to get moving," Zuko had been up for a while, his exhaustion and relief finally overwhelmed by his internal clock.
"We? What is this 'we' business, your highness? And when did you decide that you can order me around?" Sokka had never been at his best first thing after waking, and his companion's peremptory attitude did not help matters.
Zuko glared. "If you think I'm going to let you bumble around an occupied area when you could betray me at any time then you really are crazy."
"Hello. Been walking around your damned 'occupied areas' for months now. I think I can manage, thank you very much," Sokka rolled his eyes.
"Right. Your 'managing' landed you in prison with a death sentence, remember?"
"My 'managing' got us both out, remember?"
They glared at one another. Sokka's stomach interrupted the stare-down with an amazingly loud gurgle. Zuko's single eyebrow elevated as Sokka blushed.
"So. Maybe breakfast is in order."
Zuko smirked. "I hope you're not planning on Ling-Ling finding us out here?"
The stream yielded fingerling trout, tedious to catch but easy to swallow with benefit of Zuko's quick searing after Sokka removed heads and guts. After a month's prison fare, the tender flesh was a paradise for both boys. By common consent they returned to the stream after a first round to satiate their appetites further and fill the rucksack Sokka had grabbed from the armory to carry explosives.
Neither pursued the question Sokka had raised as to their continued collaboration.
Their course followed the stream under the assumption that it would, eventually, bring them to the sea. They knew that the prison wasn't far inland. Roads were far from safe and coastal ports offered the best opportunities for true escape from pursuit. That is, once you got to them.
At a still pool Sokka paused to muck around the edges, pulling up handfuls of green, weedy-looking mess. After rinsing, Zuko recognized it as edible, although bitter and usually forming part of a side dish rather than the main meal. He began to appreciate anew his companion's odd talents and experience.
At first their combined inclination was to run the other way. After two days' rough and ready travel, generally under the cover of darkness, the last thing either of them sought was confrontation.
And the noise they heard was clearly of confrontation.
But the sea was also in the air.
And the sea drew Sokka like a lover. Even as it repelled Zuko, whose mind had to overcome his experience; years associated with loss, the alien, and a sense of failure.
But Zuko prided himself on his intelligence. It was the reason – he told himself, the only reason – he respected Sokka.
They were cautious. Well upland, with the woodland cover still thick around them, it was hard to discern exactly what they saw. But for Sokka, it was clear enough.
A Water Tribe force, in strong numbers – he thought he could make out the corsairs, so distinctive to Southern Water-tribe construction, moored on the beach. His heart leapt, even though his mind beat it into submission.
Unlike at the prison, there was no shortage of fire-benders in the opposition. Even in late afternoon, perhaps especially then, their frequent flares lit up the battlefield, clouding it with their smoke. It was impossible to tell who had the advantage.
Sokka wanted to run down, throw his lot with his fellow tribesmen, and forget anything and everything that had happened since his father had left with the village fleet. He was, after all, now a proven, competent warrior, and wanted nothing more than to add his efforts to that of his clan.
But Zuko forcibly restrained him, with a sharp left-hand cut to the throat that left Sokka momentarily breathless. Just long enough to allow Zuko to subdue him from yet another unexpected quarter; a hard blow to the side of his head reinforcing the message.
Sokka was appalled. He thought he had known better.
"Don't mistake me, Sokka. This time we wait," Zuko swore, a part of him hating himself.
"Are you crazy? Stay if you like, but I'm going down there," He shoved hard against Zuko.
For one brief second it occurred to both of them that they might mirror the struggle on the slope below after all.
Then, cold steel pierced Zuko's shoulder, and at first they just looked at it, surprise overwhelming all other thought.
The shaft that pinioned him to the tree was no more than half the length of a normal spear, but had pierced his shoulder and embedded itself deeply within the tree behind him. He found himself remembering Sokka's discourse on the potency of a certain Water Tribe weapon. Pain stole strength from his legs and the hand that grasped the spear trembled.
Sokka nearly wept.
He swore potent curses against Zuko for exposing them both to fire from the combatants.
Zuko found breath to laugh. But that hurt, too.
Gritting his teeth, Sokka put one hand on Zuko's shoulder, his thumb encircling the spear. Wrapping his other arm around the prince, he pulled him gently forward, away from the tree, sliding the shaft of the spear through the wound.
Zuko gasped, his knees buckling further.
Still supporting the other boy with one arm, Sokka drew the machete he had taken from the prison armory. With all his strength he severed the spear shaft behind Zuko's shoulder.
No longer supported by the tree, Zuko's dead weight now fully fell on Sokka. Dropping the machete, he lowered the prince to the ground, then pulled the haft back through the wound, dropping it in turn to brace his hand against the splay of blood from the wound's bared core. He drew on memories of the siege of the North against his rebellious stomach.
Throughout, Sokka maintained an endless diatribe against Zuko's ancestors for starting the damned war, destroying the great cities of the South Pole, eliminating the Air Nomads and turning people against each other who should have been friends.
Zuko would have liked to protest, but he needed his breath for concentrating away the pain.
Sokka padded and wrapped the fire-bender's wounds with strips torn from his tunic. He could spare it.
Summer was nearly upon them.
Zuko thought he was dreaming. But his half-dazed delirium did not prevent him from being full witness to the Water-Tribe boy's reunion with his father.
What kind of just spirit subjected a witness, himself bereft of hope regarding parental regard, to such a sight? There would be no such reunion for Zuko.
Sokka had thrown himself into the arms of the tall, dark-haired warrior who picked his way across the field at the battle's end. The older man looked taken aback. The lanky young man before him was almost unrecognizable as his son.
And Sokka was crushed against him.
"So that was a rescue party after all?" Zuko asked, some time later.
"Yeah. Imagine that. They might even have made it on time." Sokka was seated beside Zuko on the beach.
"For you, maybe."
Sokka shrugged. He was still astonished at the size of the force that had been sent to rescue him. His father had explained that it had taken little in the way of persuasion to divert his fleet to this part of the Earth Kingdom when word had reached him of Sokka's whereabouts. Any Fire Nation target was worth taking out, and one with personal ties was particularly enticing to the Water Tribe.
"Now what?" Zuko asked.
"Don't you already know?" Sokka responded.
"I thought I did. I thought you would be off to find your sister and the Avatar. But that fleet isn't going that way, is it?"
Out of deference to Sokka's assurances that the wounded fire-bender was actually a Fire Nation fugitive, the Water Tribe warriors had let him be. They had even replaced Sokka's makeshift bandaging job with attention from their own medic. A good thing, since Sokka's tunic had been none too clean. But they hadn't trusted him enough to talk to him, nor was Sokka allowed to give him real information.
"No. It isn't."
"Will you be going with your father then?" Zuko could see the ache in the other boy's eyes.
Instead of responding, Sokka asked a question of his own, "What are you going to do?"
"Try to find my uncle. If he's still alive," Zuko said dully. "And maybe find a way to kill my sister."
Sokka shook his head. "The Fire Nation is crazy."
"No, Sokka, just some of us. Really," Zuko reached up to touch the bandage on his shoulder. "You never answered my question."
"I have to go where I'm most needed. So yeah, I'm gonna go find Aang and Katara," and Sokka stood up. "We're both gonna need supplies to get us started. I'll see what I can get from Dad."
He walked away without looking back. Zuko smiled. Perhaps their ways might lead together for a while longer. Perhaps.
This is STILL the end. It could, with stretching of the imagination, almost fit in canon.
Which is, for most readers, probably its saving virtue. Myself, I got a big kick out of fleshing out Sokka's character into something a bit more relevant than a mere comedic sidekick. But then, I always did see Sokka and Zuko as developmental peers, if not peers in the traditional story-line that drew clear lines between Aang and Zuko. Let's face it, Aang is interesting enough on his own as to make Zuko a mere commentary. But when you juxtapose the non-bending peasant with the fire-bender prince, there is amazing room for contrast and commentary. At least, it always struck me as psychologically rich minings to reflect on not only each other but on Aang himself.
I did start a sequel not long after finishing this story. Obviously, the story line diverged drastically from the original, following my own character interests rather than canon plot.
Yep. "Passages" is all about Sokka trying to rejoin Aang and his sister as Zuko tries to figure out what he should do next and why. On the whole? All good fun all around. [Or so I say…
As of 2012, years after the original story ended and a new timeline appeared, this story has had over 105,000 hits. It appears to be a minimum of 4k hits per chapter. I thank you, and hope you have enjoyed yourselves with this exploration of dialogue between two of my favorites from the canon, forced into a bizarre recognition of each other's humanity, and the lengths to which it would bring them. Because I read every review it has not passed my notice that most were from repeat readers of each chapters. I swear – y'all are the best! Given my own tendencies, I also appreciate those who waited to comment till the end; I know your comments reflected an overall opinion on the whole that was greatly appreciated, as I hope my diligent responses have indicated.
As for the rest of you who read without commenting; that's okay too. It really was rather fun to write and such a response – getting this far – is commentary in itself. (Frankly, the fact that in 2012 people are still finding their way to this story is astonishing to me, and very gratifying).
For those of you who weren't quite satisfied with this story's exposition of the character of Ling-Ling (damn it - she confounded me for an extraordinarily long time!), don't feel alone or abandoned. She did spawn another story by another author – beautifully written, at least, I think so. If you want more, go to my profile page, where you will find the link (for some reason, I can't do it here!).
And yes, I succumbed and have brought her back in "Crossing The Line" a story I assume will be wholly limited to those interested in Sokka and my odd OC. I hope to finish it… someday.
Thanks again to all of you!