Toward The Center

by Melospiza

Author's Note: An AU, clearly. Written for a challenge, this is first #1 - first meeting. Wanton manipulation of Iroh and Zuko's storyline gives this opportunity. No beta, so things may change. Including the title, which has changed once already. Thanks for the reviews so far, folks. Con-crit is encouraged but please be nice. :)

Disclaimer: Avatar: The Last Airbender isn't mine, I didn't make it up, yadda yadda yadda, don't sue me.

Part I: Together Again for the First Time

The easy solution to this and everything else is to move on.

Sokka wasn't about to let this place get to him.

It was one of those things that was easier said than done. He was aware of the fact that his steps were more unsteady than they had been thirty minutes before, and the hand on his machete was clenched white-knuckle tight and he felt trembly all over, but there was nothing supernatural about this swamp; he was hungry and hallucinating, it was swamp gas, toxic fumes, tricks of the light, and he hadn't actually seen anything out-of-the-ordinary
( you didn't protect me )
at all.

It was all natural phenomena, it all could be explained away by logic and science. Sokka could figure it all out himself, in fact, if he wasn't having so much trouble breathing due to this tightness in his chest. It didn't matter, anyway. He just had to find his sister and Aang, and then they could all get out of this miserable, overgrown place.

Of course, the trick was finding them. He had gotten turned around more than once since they had been separated and now wasn't sure of where it was they had spent the night. It was possible that he could have tried climbing a tree and getting his bearings from the sun's position, but at the moment he didn't feel like venturing into the light again.

So he slogged through the muck, and he hacked apart the vines that got in the way, and he kept his head ducked and looked around in swift glances until movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention.

Part of him wanted not to look, reasoning that it could just be
( Yue )
another hallucination. But the more sensible part of him reminded him that it could be Aang or Katara, and he needed to stop being such an idiot. Wiping his face with the back of his hand, he pushed aside a scraggly curtain of moss and ventured closer to where he had seen the flicker of motion.

About thirty yards ahead of him, a young man was just beginning to pick himself up out of the water. Sokka could see that he had been walking on the massive log that was still behind him, the track of his untidy slide down its side was still torn into the moss and decay. His hair was cut unusually short, he looked muddy and pale and a bit ragged, and Sokka was just opening his mouth to call out to him when the man turned and Sokka saw the scar blazed across half his face.

Sokka froze. His heart felt like it had lurched to a stop, his body clenched in the tight grip of panic. Zuko. Zuko. Sokka had been dreading that the prince would catch up with them again, and here he was, without another damn bender in sight. For a minute Sokka tried to convince himself that Zuko was another phantasm, but he never would have imagined Zuko like that, not in Earth Kingdom clothes, not rangy and unkept, not with cropped hair.

And certainly not with a sword. What did a firebender need a sword for anyway? Sokka certainly wouldn't have imagined Zuko having a sword, or drawing it, or flicking it apart to reveal there were actually two swords. Though to his credit he might have been able to dream up the expression of pure savage malice on his face as Sokka charged through the open water toward him, a snarl on his lips.

The clash of the machete against Zuko's sword sent a jolt down through Sokka's shoulder, then he had to dance back swiftly to avoid the second blade. Groping behind his back, he unsheathed his boomerang, using its edge to deflect another sword strike, and then another. The boomerang and the machete weren't appropriate weapons for close combat like this, but he wasn't dead yet, so they were good enough.

Zuko was fast, faster than Sokka had realized. But the mud was slowing him down. Sokka was fighting like a wild animal, snarling, using a pidgin of three or four styles to repel Zuko's swift, coordinated attacks. His boomerang was biting into his palm, the blows were making his palms sting and his shoulders ache. But Aang and Katara were somewhere behind him (behind him, in a moment of clarity he was sure), and he had to keep Zuko away from them, chase him off somehow, either that or kill him.

Zuko's broadsword slipped off the edge of Sokka's machete, the flat of it skidding down Sokka's arm. Suddenly Sokka was within the circle of the exiled prince's arms. He didn't waste the opportunity, but stepped in swiftly to knee Zuko in the stomach. When he doubled over but didn't drop his swords, Sokka spun to pin Zuko's left arm under his own, chopping at his fingers with the boomerang. Zuko yelped, and the broadsword fell into the murky water with a splash.

Even with one weapon to Sokka's two, Zuko drove Sokka backward until they both suddenly lurched into a sinkhole, warm swamp-water filling their boots as they sank to their thighs. A wild swipe knocked Zuko's remaining sword to one side, Sokka's machete finding its way to Zuko's throat. In the same instant, Zuko's empty palm appeared spread-fingered in front of Sokka's face. Heat shimmered the air in the inch of space between it and Sokka's cheek. They were both breathing hard, and a trickle of sweat was working its way annoyingly into the corner of Sokka's eye. He had never been this close to Zuko before. He refused to blink.

"This isn't working," Sokka grunted.

"No, it's not," Zuko said.

"We're stuck here."

"We are."

"This is a draw."


"Let's get out of this stupid hole first, then we'll pick this back up."


". . . Get your hand out of my face, jerk."

"Get your knife away from my throat, peasant."

Neither moved. They stood face-to-face, panting, flies buzzing around their heads and mud oozing into their boots, and stared unblinkingly at each other, pale sapphire reflecting gold, gold reflecting it right back. Then Sokka's perspective shifted: Zuko had swayed back from him. But before Sokka could even begin to wonder at the fact that Zuko seemed to be relenting, Zuko's legs were jerked out from beneath him and he plunged suddenly into the murky water.

The vines had come alive again.