Okay. So here we are. Final chapter! And with this, we segue almost seamlessly into the Boiling Rock episodes. Almost. Certain things here don't fit into the timeline (and it will be obvious what they are ), so just consider it AU. And the conversation Sokka and Zuko have at the beginning of Boiling Rock part 1 is here too, but not the exact dialogue. It's been changed slightly to fit the story.
I don't want to put any author's notes at the end, so I'm going to say now that eventually I will edit this fic for typos, grammatical errors, boring writing, etc. And also that I do have a few more fics cooking up there, some avatar, some not, so be on the lookout. They'll also be posted to my LJ (link on my profile).
Anyway… I want to thank all my reviewers, readers, anyone who took the time out of their life to give this silly, meandering, fanfic a chance. It really means a lot to me, so thank you so much!
"Okay," Sokka said, rubbing his temple, "One more time. Why are we back at the air temple?"
"Er, actually, Sokka, that was your idea," Aang spoke up, "You were pretty much unconscious the whole time, but when were deciding what to do next you suddenly woke up and told us to come back here. Since, Azula wouldn't think to look for us in a place she already…looked for us, or something like that…" he trailed off, thinking hard, and then smiled brightly. "No, no, that does make sense. Thanks, Sokka. You have good ideas."
"Um. You're welcome," Sokka said, deciding to be proud of this, "So. Second question. How did we manage to get out of all that?"
"We couldn't have done it without Mai's help," Zuko said softly. Even though things had ended badly between them, he was still somewhere proud of Mai's decision. He knew he had liked her for a reason.
"Who?" was Sokka's only response, accompanied by a blank stare.
"Mai." Zuko repeated.
"She's my – was my girlfriend."
"Who was your girlfriend?"
"Yeah, yours, but what was her name?"
Zuko smacked himself on the forehead. Sokka, Sokka, Sokka. Zuko might want to strangle him if he didn't like the guy so much.
"Mai," Katara cut in, "Mai was her name. Tall, pale, scary girl? Liked knives? Remember?"
"Voice like sandpaper?" Toph helped.
"Personality like a zombie?" Aang added.
"Guys…" Zuko pleaded.
"OH! Mai! Yeah, I remember now. Wasn't she Azula's lackey or something? I distinctly remember her trying to kill me the last time we met."
Under less frustrated circumstances, Zuko might have joked, 'Oh, don't worry, she does that to everyone she likes' but the situation being what it was, he just sighed deeply and tried not to lose his temper.
"Do you not remember," he ground out each word slowly, as if trying to convey a complicated idea to the village idiot (a title which Sokka occasionally picked up), "me saying, just a moment ago, that she helped us?"
"Um," Sokka said, clearly unsure of what the correct reaction was supposed to be, "I may have… Yes, yes, it's all coming back to me now. Okay, but that still doesn't explain why I'm here and in one healthy piece instead of a Sokka-skewer, barbeque style, back over there."
"She tricked Azula and distracted her so that we were able to escape." Toph supplied. "I didn't actually see her, but Zuko and Katara did. So there you go."
"So she's like Zuko," Aang said, looking very solemn, "She betrayed Azula to help us, so she's basically a traitor to the fire nation,"
"Not exactly like me," Zuko interrupted, "Azula doesn't know that Mai is the one who supplied her with the wrong information. It could have been anybody she spoken to. So, as long as she doesn't figure that out, the worst that can happen to Mai is that she loses a little of Azula's trust. But she'll be fine."
Meanwhile, Sokka (now that the danger was past and the remaining mysteries had been solved) was turning over one sentence in his head.
Mai was my girlfriend.
He pictured Mai in his head. Dark, broody, quiet. Lethal. She was probably an ideal match for Zuko. He could see them, walking along together in some garden, talking about how much angst they had in their lives. Or, more probably, not talking at all. It was sickeningly perfect.
And Sokka couldn't figure out why that bothered him so much.
But wait – he said was. As in past tense. So that meant Zuko didn't care for her anymore? But that couldn't be true, it was obvious in the way Zuko sounded when he talked about her. But maybe he just respected her, it was possible to respect a girl without being attracted to her and god damn it all why did he care about this, anyway?
He had Suki and Yue and enough problems with romance in his life that there was no reason to go and add more trouble to the mix, and it didn't matter if Zuko was the first person in a long time to be on Sokka's level, and it didn't matter if he couldn't – and didn't want to – remember (a week ago) what it was like before he was there, and it didn't matter if the sight of Zuko smiling made him feel all happy for no reason and –
"—next, plan guy?"
"I said, 'what's next, plan guy?' Or are you still recuperating from your ordeal?" Zuko joked, smiling lightly at Sokka. Sokka's brain melted.
"I'm fine!" He declared perhaps a bit too loudly. There was a pause as Sokka thought. Then, he took a deep breath and stuck out his chest in what he felt was a commanding manner. "Well, first off, my idea to return to the air temple as a means of escaping Azula was brilliant, even if I don't remember coming up with it, but --," and here he paused again, this time for effect.
"BUT! We should only think of it as a temporary solution. It'll throw off Azula, but not for very long. Once she realizes we're not in any of the places we should be, she'll start looking in the places we already were. Namely, here. So we should recoup, rest our heels for only a bit, and move on to…wherever it is we need to be going."
"What about dad? And everyone else that went missing during the invasion?" Katara asked.
"I haven't forgotten about them," Sokka admitted, deflating a little, "I just…haven't figured out what to do about that. Anyway, our main priority is not to get captured – and by that I mean Aang -- right now. Otherwise everyone's efforts will be for nothing." He finished neatly, but the frown on his face said that it wasn't an answer he was really satisfied with.
"Sokka, it's our father. How can we possibly just sit here and—"
"I know!" Sokka barked, but his next words were spoken quietly, "I know, how could I not? It was all because of me that the whole thing went wrong in the first place. If anyone should have been captured by the fire nation, it should have been me."
"Uh, you were captured." Toph helpfully reminded.
"Yeah, but I got away! That's hardly fair, now is it?" Sokka shot back, their conversation taking on a silly turn despite the serious subject being discussed.
"Well." Toph said with finality, crossing her arms over her chest, "Your dad didn't have a boyfriend willing to 'storm the castle' to rescue him, now did he, princess?"
"He---buhwhat?" Sokka's rebuttal died mid-air.
"Boyfriend?" Aang asked, then after a moment's consideration, added, "…No, Suki was a girl, I'm sure of it. But then Sokka looks better in the dress, so does that make her the man? Wait, no, I'm confusing myself again. If Sokka's the boy, but Suki's the man, then the girl is—"
"Don't lose any sleep over it, twinkletoes, the answer's right in front of you," Toph said with a laugh, slapping Aang on the back. Zuko coughed awkwardly into his fist.
"You know what sounds good right now?" He asked generally, "Tea. I'm going to go make some."
"Zuko, wait!" Sokka blurted, but the firebender had already beat a hasty retreat.
"Zuko knows how to make tea?" Aang said, bouncing up and down where he sat.
"He does, when he's trying to avoid participating in certain conversations," Katara said, leering smugly at Sokka. Sokka looked down at his hands and blushed. Toph turned her head in the direction that Zuko had exited from.
"Huh. Must run in the family."
As it turned out, Zuko actually did know how to make tea, as the group discovered when he returned to them balancing a tray full of cups of the steaming hot beverage.
As it also turned out, Zuko's impersonation gags were probably the only thing worse than his puns. But that was easily dismissed because lucky for Zuko, his uncle wasn't the only one who knew how to make decent tea.
"Mm, hey, this is actually pretty good," Aang said between sips.
"I know!" Katara blinked, peering down at her own cup as if it were about to grow fangs and bite her, "I'm…surprised."
"Um, thanks?" Zuko said sheepishly, not sure how to deal with the obvious backhanded compliments. Everyone laughed. Except for Sokka, that is, who sat away from the others, practically hunched in a corner. There was something weighing heavy on his mind, that much was clear, and it was a little painful to see himself, that troubled version of himself from just a few weeks ago, reflected in his friend.
He walked over. Sokka didn't even look up until Zuko's shadow fell across his eyes.
"Tea?" Zuko offered, holding out the cup. Sokka absentmindedly took it from him and held it close. "What's on your mind?"
"Hn," Sokka grunted noncommittally.
"You know," the other boy said, setting the tray aside and sitting next to Sokka, "I used to have trouble sleeping. I got really bad nightmares…the kind where you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, afraid to go back to bed."
Sokka looked curiously over at Zuko.
"And that happened all my life, until one day I became friends with this guy. We didn't get along at first – ha, that's an understatement – but, once I got to know him better I realized he was smart, funny…kind. He's really great, actually. You would probably like him."
Sokka raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
"And he listened to me. To my problems. And it wasn't like with other people. For the first time, I felt like there was someone out there who was really listening and who really understood me. And…the nightmares stopped. Just like that." Zuko smiled at Sokka, "If I ever got the chance, I'd like to return the favor."
There was no response right away but he could see Sokka trying to work something out in his head. When he finally did speak, his words came out tangled up in a jumble, as if he hadn't finished deciding what to say.
"Zuko, hnn – actually, I do. Need to talk." He looked over at Toph, Aang, and his sister, "With you. In private."
"O-okay," Zuko blushed as Sokka took him by the wrist and dragged him further in the temple – far enough to be out of sight, and hopefully sound, of the others.
"It's about my dad," Sokka said once they were alone. Zuko and his over-active imagination were slightly disappointed.
"Um, what about your dad?"
"As you might have guessed, he was…captured by the fire nation during the eclipse," he said. Zuko nodded in recognition. But hadn't they already gone over this, earlier today? Sokka himself had decided that nothing could be done about it at the present time.
"I need to know where they might have taken him," he said seriously.
"What?" Zuko said loudly, taken aback, "Sokka, I can't tell you that—"
"Why not? Zuko, please. It's my dad." Very clever, Sokka. Make your sister think you've given up then turn right around and do the opposite.
"Even if you knew, it wouldn't do any good."
"Zuko," Sokka pleaded, looking up at the firebender with his clear, blue eyes, and Zuko had already lost.
"Probably…he was taken to Boiling Rock," he said, and before Sokka could question further, he added, "It's a prison in the middle of a lake of boiling water, in a volcano, in the middle of the ocean. Completely inescapable."
"Oh, really. And where is it, speaking exactly?" There was a glint in Sokka's eyes that Zuko took to mean he could expect trouble soon.
"You passed it on your way here, actually. It's midway between this temple and the fire nation."
"Huh, fancy that." Sokka said lightly.
"Don't think about trying anything," Zuko warned, "I mean it, nobody has ever broken out of that place."
"No, I'd never," the tribesman assured him, but despite that worry started clawing deep in Zuko's gut. "Just…wanted to know."
Sokka yawned and stretched his arms, and walked over to the window in a big display of changing the subject. He leaned against the stone sill, gazing out at the jungle beyond. He tried, and did a bad job of, hiding a smile, a secretive smile that was like a tiny peephole into his thoughts.
Zuko, suddenly, felt overwhelmed.
"Are you – was that all you need to say?" He walked next to Sokka, licking his suddenly very dry lips.
"Huh? Oh, yeah. That's all."
"Good. Now it's my turn." That got Sokka's attention, and he turned to face away from the window.
"What are you mmpf."
And then they were kissing. It was awkward at first, with Zuko doing all the work and Sokka standing there like a dead fish and Zuko was just beginning to think that it might have been a bad idea when all of a sudden Sokka started kissing back and – oh, this was better than any dream or fantasy Zuko could ever have cooked up and Sokka's hands found themselves tangled in Zuko's hair and everywhere and Zuko had no idea how he'd managed to live his life up to this point without this feeling.
For a few brief, wonderful, seconds, they were in paradise, where there was no war to fight and no nation lines to cross, just him and Sokka and it was perfect. Then Sokka seemed to realize what he was doing and abruptly pushed away.
He looked scared.
"No, I can't be doing this," He said, holding Zuko away at arm's length.
All Zuko could think about was the rush of cold air on his lips and how it was a space better occupied by Sokka.
"I have girlfriend," Sokka said, shaking his head rapidly, "Suki."
Zuko cocked his head to one side as if to say, 'yeah, and?'
He wrested himself from Zuko's grasp, and ran away.
Zuko was too bewildered to follow.
Night fell, and for once the motley crew of underage adventurers slept soundly, minds unclouded by worries of Azula or creepy three-eyed men. Or maybe, after everything, they were all just dead tired.
Well, most of them were.
Sokka, for his part, was doing an excellent job creeping over his friend's sleeping forms, making less sound than a ninja. His mind, however, was noisier than a Owlpig squealing for its next meal.
Suki is my girlfriend, and I like her. I really do. I really like her. She's strong, she's pretty, she's not a bender, and hey, she likes me back! It's great. Everything is great. Zuko and I can still be friends. He'll understand. Still, it's probably better that I'll be away from everyone for a while. Not that I'm planning to avoid him or anything, because nothing happened worth avoiding over, and anyway---
"Yo," a voice greeted him after he had climbed to the top of Appa.
Sokka made a "eeeeeeee!" sound and nearly toppled off the bison, but Zuko grabbed him in time so he fell forward instead, crashing into the other boy.
"Shh, you'll wake them," Zuko said.
"Zuko! What are you doing here?" Sokka demanded after untangling himself. He was grateful for the dark, otherwise Zuko would see how red his face was.
"I don't know, why are you here?" Zuko turned it around.
"I'm not doing anything – " The firebender shot him a look that said, 'I'm not stupid, so you might as well fess up.'
"Okay, fine. I'm going to Boiling Rock to rescue my dad. Happy?"
"No. I'm going with you," Zuko said earnestly. Sokka's heart skipped.
"No, you're not. This is something I have to do alone."
Zuko shook his head. His amber eyes looked bright in the moonlight, and Sokka felt jolted, the way one feels after they've missed a step except Sokka was sitting down.
"You're going to need my help. I've been to Boiling Rock a few times with my father, so – "
"No, you can't come. You can't. Because – "
Sokka must have blacked out or something, because the next thing he knew they were kissing again. And this time he started it.
When they finally came up for air, Zuko was smiling.
"You have a girlfriend."
"I know, and I'm a dick," Sokka said, resting his forehead against Zuko's, feeling incredibly drained, "and she's going to kill me when she finds out went and I fell in love with a guy."
A beat of silence.
It just slipped out. Kissing was one thing, but what he just said was an entirely different can of worms. But Zuko seemingly paid no notice, and just chuckled as he leaned in comfortably against Sokka's shoulder.
"I hope she doesn't. I've gotten kind of attached to him, too."
Sokka's eyes widened and he felt like laughing, loudly enough to wake everyone around, because here they were, two adolescent boys in the midst of a global war and they were about to just walk into the most high-security prison that ever existed, and after that, they were going to take on the most powerful man in the world and it was just crazy.
And for once, everything made perfect sense.