Toward the Center

by Melospiza

Author's Note: Wanton manipulation of Iroh and Zuko's storyline gives this opportunity. I warned you that the title might change, and so I've changed it. Also if you read Chatper 1 when I first posted it, you might want to go and make sure I didn't add anything to the end, it's been so long I honestly can't remember. I'm making this chapter longer from the get-go so that doesn't have to happen again. Also, I want to thank all of you who left me reviews, but especially those who left longer commentary addressing specific aspects of the story. I definitely want to know what is working and what isn't, if anything. I would gladly welcome constructive criticism, as long as you're nice about it.

Part II: Cover Me

I'm going to prove the impossible really exists

Minutes stretched like hours while two young men struggled against the swamp's living malignancy, both moving too fast to think. If Sokka would have had time to consider it he might have wondered at Zuko's continued non-use of bending, or when exactly he'd gotten his other sword back. He might have even paused to marvel at the grace with which the banished prince used those blades, how they glinted in the sunlight as he spun in a whirlwind of deadly steel, Sokka's chopping and dodging seeming amateurish in comparison. As it was, Sokka was too busy trying to keep his own skinny behind from getting strangled, dragged underwater, dragged away, drowned, dead. He tried to keep Zuko at the edge of his vision, part of his mind clamoring stay with him, stay with him, and later he would be amused by his own dogged determination to remain at his enemy's side. But for the moment, everything was a blur of splashing and snarling and flashing blades. Then Sokka and Zuko had beaten a swift retreat, trampling through the mud, careening through thickets and stands of reeds before finally slowing, stopping, and turning to eye one another warily.

But as their gazes met, a silent understanding passed between them. Cooperate or die. There was no other choice.

And when Sokka looked at Zuko, who was now so liberally smeared with mud that he was even more unrecognizable than before, and forced himself not to laugh, the pact was sealed.

Sitting on a blessedly dry hump of massive, twisted tree root, Zuko pulled off his left boot and poured from it the greenish swamp-water that had filled it during the battle. Sokka settled nearby, folding his arms over his chest, and began to count silently.

He got as far as thirty-six before Zuko started to ask," Where is—"

"The Avatar?" Sokka snapped. "Do I look like I know? And even if I did, do you think I would tell you?"

Zuko gave him a flat, hard look, then lapsed back into silence as he dumped the water out of his right boot. Sokka pulled his knees up to his chest and, folding his arms across them, glared sulkily into the water. After a minute or two of silence, a glimpse of something white made Sokka's head jerk automatically in that direction.

It was steam. Eyes half-closed, Zuko was drying himself off, apparently by doing nothing more than increasing the temperature of his skin. The mud on his face and neck dried, cracked and began to flake off. He brushed it away with his hand, then started to scratch vigorously at the thatch of fine dark hair that now covered his once mostly-bald pate.

"What's with the—" Sokka began to ask, then was cut off from the question by Zuko's sudden murderous glare.

"—the outfit?" he finished.

Zuko shrugged, wiping bits of dried mud from the unmarred side of his face.

Deciding he wasn't going to get an answer to that question, Sokka asked another.

"Where is your uncle?"

"We split up," Zuko said. Sokka wrinkled his nose. Had Zuko always been this soft-spoken? Not really soft, that implied it was pleasant. Just surprisingly quiet. He'd only ever heard Zuko shouting before.

"Why did you split up?" he asked.

"It's none of your business," Zuko replied acerbically.

"Well, how did you get—"

"Do you always ask so many questions?"

"Yes," Sokka shot back, scowling. "Yes, I do. It's how I learn things."

"Then you're just going to have to learn to be quiet," Zuko said, his eyes narrowed dangerously. "I can't think with all your idiotic chattering."

"But what about—"

"Shut up!" Zuko snapped. Sokka glared at him defiantly. It didn't feel quite so weird talking to him, now that he was using the sort of tone Sokka was more familiar with.

"Tch." Pushing himself away from the moss-covered root, Sokka turned his back to Zuko and started to walk away. Only when the prickling in the back of his neck made him sure of Zuko's gaze did he turn, meeting the prince's startled golden eyes with a look of utter indifference.

"What?" Sokka asked, arching a brow. "I don't know about you, but I'm starving. And we're not going to catch any game if you keep yelling about everything."

Turning away once more, Sokka resumed wading through the calf-deep water, the splash and slosh of Zuko sliding off the root to follow him causing a feeling of deep, smug satisfaction to settle in his chest.

The satisfaction did not last long, however. Sokka soon discovered that Zuko possessed the spectacular ability of being able to stand around like a completely useless lump while Sokka scrambled in the mud and murky water, trying to find and catch fish with his bare hands. When he growled at Zuko to do something, the Fire Nation prince only looked almost comically confused for a split second before sneering and stomping over to the nearest, driest tangle of vegetation upon which to sit.

Now very damp, and almost as muddy as Zuko had been, Sokka glared and squeezed the water out of his topknot with one fist, grumbling, "Fine, I'll find us some nuts."

"No nuts." The tone of Zuko's voice was not one that would accept any disagreement.

"Some berries then," Sokka retorted, his temper growing shorter by the instant.

"No berries. No nuts, no berries, no plants," Zuko said icily, golden eyes narrowed.

"Then what do you expect us to eat?" Sokka asked.

"You can eat whatever you want," Zuko replied. "But I'm not eating anything that could be potentially poisonous."

Sokka blinked at Zuko in utter incredulity for several moments before saying, "You know, there are some fish that are poisonous too."

If Zuko was going to continue to look so surprised and disoriented every time the younger of the two said something, Sokka thought being stuck with him in this stupid, ugly swamp might actually not be so bad.

"I knew that," Zuko muttered as Sokka turned away again. Then he repeated, louder, "I knew that!"

"Yeah, yeah," Sokka said with a dismissive wave.

"I did," Zuko protested. He was starting to sound petulant. Sokka couldn't believe he'd been scared of this guy.

"I'm sure you--"

"Shh!" At some point during the conversation, Zuko had come up behind him, and now Sokka found himself being shoved face first into the mud. Flailing and sputtering, he spat foul water out of his mouth and began to snarl, "Hey, what's the big--"

"Look," Zuko whispered, pointing. Sokka followed the impatient jab of the prince's finger toward the cluster of reeds just before them that served as a natural blind. Through it, they could observe the activity in what appeared to be a deep pool just ten feet ahead of them.

There was some kind of tortoise swimming in the water. Just when Sokka began to salivate, a dark shape that had appeared to be a floating log suddenly heaved itself up out of the water, huge and reptilian and whiskered and unfriendly-looking. As the two of them watched, it lay still for a minute, then used its tiny legs to carry itself further onto the muddy ground, crawling toward what looked like a pile of rotting vegetation.

"What's it doing?" Sokka murmured.

"Shh!" Zuko hissed.

The catfish-gator let its ugly chin rest upon the pile for a moment, then began to paw at the mass of dark, wilted leaves and crumbling wood. After a few seconds, a glistening white sphere was revealed by the digging, then a second, then a third.

Turning to look at each other at the same moment, Sokka and Zuko exhaled the same word on the same breath. "Eggs."

"I'm going to get some," Sokka declared, starting to rise to his feet. But Zuko grabbed his arm and pulled him sharply back.

"Are you insane? We have to wait until it re-buries them and then goes back into the water. And then you can distract it while I get the eggs."

"You? Why should I let you get the eggs?" Sokka said.

"Because I can't trust you."

"I can't trust you, either!"

"You run faster than I do."

"Yeah, well..." Sokka rubbed the back of his neck with his hand.

"Just keep it distracted," Zuko said, rising to his feet. "Try not to get in the water with it, and if it comes up onto land after you, run in a zig-zag pattern. Reptiles are fast, but only on a straightaway." He started to walk away into the vines and thickets, then seemed to vanish into the greenery right before Sokka's eyes.

Sokka looked back toward the hollow, where the catfish-gator had re-covered its eggs and was starting to drag itself back down to the water. From his vantage point it looked to be at least ten or fifteen feet long.

"Oh man," he whimpered.

Reaching back to finger the sheath of his boomerang, Sokka let his eyes move over the less-submerged parts of the swamp surrounding the hollow. He had to get the thing's attention and get it away from the nest just long enough for Zuko to snatch a couple of eggs without getting his arm chomped off. And he had to do it without getting his own arm chomped off. Sokka searched the still surface of the water once more (Was that it, or was that really just a log?), then rose to his feet and started forward.

At first nothing happened. He looked into the trees for Zuko, apprehension twisting in his stomach that he'd been left alone again. Then, just when he was getting ready to start jumping up and down on the trunk of a tree that had fallen into the water, he saw the swishing of a tail beneath the surface and one of the "logs" began to swim toward him, very very quickly.

Sokka looked up. Where was Zuko? Sokka looked down into a wide pink mouth and rows of sharp white teeth. He yelped, jumped backward, and started to scamper to the other side of the tree. There was a crash behind him, and splintered wood whizzed through the air as the catfish-gator smashed into the dead tree and began trying to slither into the narrow space between it and the mud. Sokka jumped into a huge patch of vicious-looking brambles and tried to zig-zag like Zuko had told him while half-inch long thorns tore into his skin and clothing.

Raspberries, he noted distractedly. Tons of them. Damn that Fire Nation bastard.

At that very moment, Zuko materialized like a ghost, dropping down from a branch just above the catfish-gator's nest. He thrust his hands into the sickeningly moist compost, rooting around until his fingers closed on one leathery globe, then another. Hearing an alarmed squawk, he looked up quickly, but the Water Tribesman had just tripped over something and was in no real danger. Of course, that meant--

Zuko shoved the two eggs into the front of his shirt just as the catfish-gator lunged out of the water toward him with a hiss like a steam engine. He flicked his broadswords from their sheath just enough to give it a good whack on the snout. Then he ran, leaping over thornbushes and pushing his way through vines as he distanced himself from the angry catfish-gator, trying to angle his path toward where he had seen the last flash of blue against the swamp's murky green.

"Stupid, filthy peasant!" he shouted. "You were supposed to keep it distracted!" His steps slowed, then stopped, his heart unexpectedly dropping in the long moments before he heard a loud snort from nearby.

"You're real good at giving signals there, smart guy," Sokka said angrily, kicking down a few offensive saplings and pulling out his machete to chop through some vines. "I didn't know when I was supposed to go, or anything."

They were face to face again, sweating and breathless, gnats swarming around their heads. The corners of Zuko's mouth twitched into the barest hint of a smile, and he pulled his shirt open to reveal the two eggs, whole and nestled securely against his pale stomach. Sokka let out a whoop.

He had already chopped half an armload of dry wood and was looking for a place to light a proper fire when he turned and saw Zuko cradling one of the eggs in his palm, giving it an intense look.

"Woah, woah," Sokka said, snatching it away from him. Zuko growled, but before he could start a tirade of name-calling and abuse, Sokka had whipped out his smaller hunting knife, poked a hole in the top of the egg's shell, and handed it back to him.

Brow furrowed, Zuko peered at Sokka for a moment, then returned his attention to the egg. A few seconds later a wisp of steam came curling up from the hole in the shell.

"You know," Sokka said casually, placing his pile of wood on top of a broad, moss-covered hunk of debris, "as much as I'd like to see you with egg on your face, I just didn't feel like putting up with your temper."


"The stuff inside the egg expands when you heat it like that," Sokka explained, fishing around in a hidden pocket for his flint. "If you don't put a hole in the shell, the egg will explode."

Silently Zuko sat on the massive rotting log directly opposite Sokka, the sad little pyramid of firewood standing between them. Then, still without speaking, he reached across to place the cooked egg into Sokka's hand.

Sokka blinked at him.

Withdrawing the second egg from his shirt, Zuko held it out. "Give me another."

Sokka used his knife to puncture the second shell, then placed the blade back into its pouch, resting the warm egg between his knees as he wiped his grimy palms on his trousers. By the time he began to peel away the shell from the greenish-white meat of the egg, Zuko had finished cooking the second in his palm and was peeling it as well. Their eyes met momentarily, then each glanced casually elsewhere as they bit into their eggs.

"Yech!" Sokka let the half-masticated chunk of egg dribble off his tongue and onto his leg. At the same time Zuko was gagging and turning his head to spit out his own mouthful.into the bushes.

:"This is disgusting," he cried.

Sokka gave his egg a reproachful look as if, with its awful taste, it had betrayed him..

"Well," he said. "We have to eat something."

They each tried another bite, making pained, horrified faces as they choked down the foul-smelling, foul-tasting, foul-textured mass.

"Maybe it would be better to try catching the cat-gator," Zuko muttered.

"You know, I saw some berries back there," Sokka ventured.

"No," Zuko replied quickly, adding, "At least I know this won't kill me."

Sokka looked dubious, taking a third bite of the egg and grimacing. "Are you sure about that?"

"Just shut up and eat."

Over their heads, the flies buzzed. Over their heads, unseen creatures of unimaginable description moved about in the swamp's overstory. And above the trees the sun glided on its track through the trackless sky, inching inexhorably closer to night.

A/N: This was first started for a "five firsts" challenge on Livejournal, but ended up getting way too long, so I decided to just fic it. Chapter 1 was "first meeting." Chapter 2, "first date." Quelle romance!