WARNING: This contains spoilers for episodes that have not yet been aired on network television in the USA. Namely the episodes "The Western Air Temple", "The Firebending Masters" and (mostly) "The Boiling Rock" both parts.
They aren't exactly plot synopsis spoilers, but if you don't want these episodes spoiled for you at all, don't read any further. Anyway, it's not going to make much sense if you haven't seen it as I'm not explaining a whole lot. You can't say that I didn't warn you and get mad, alright? That is all.
A/N: Wow…and Avatar fic from me! That's…different.
Disclaimer: I own nothing you see here.
Summary: Some things are easier to discuss with a person who hardly knows you at all. A Sokka and Zuko friendship one-shot.
Between the Lines
Zuko, former crowned prince of the Fire Nation, was almost sulking. It was different from the way he usually brooded, which could be (and was) confused with almost sulking on occasion. When he was brooding, the teenager usually had a reason for it—like trying to figure out what spirit he'd pissed off in his past. When he was almost sulking, like right now, there wasn't any reason that he knew of other than he didn't feel like complying with—as Toph put it—'Madame Fussy-britches'.
So he smelt like Appa. Big deal. Didn't mean he needed a bath. The whole place smelt like Appa. She was just looking for an excuse to yell at him, as usual.
At least he hadn't been alone this time, though. Sokka had been banished with him until they, and the underwear they were wearing as she said she'd be washing their clothes, could return smelling not-Appa like. This was ironic, really, as they'd been furthest from Appa for days now. The older teen strongly suspected that what Katara was REALLY smelling was the gases from the lake and prison, but since she couldn't know that she was blaming Appa.
Zuko frowned down at the freezing water, missing—not for the first time—heated baths. After months in total exile, without even his ship, one would think he'd be used to it. But a lot of that time had been spent in Ba Sing Se (which did have heated water, in fact), and he'd gotten used to being pampered surprisingly fast while he'd been home. It was those small comforts, like warm towels, that he always missed the most.
Sokka, on the other hand, didn't seem to care at all what temperature the water was as he plunged in without even testing it first. Must have had something to do with growing up in snow. If you constantly had to wear mittens—something not even heard of in the much warmer Fire Nation—there was little here that would seem cold to the other teenager.
Too bad Zuko couldn't say the same thing as the small wave the other had created crashed over his head, causing him to gasp and shiver in surprise. "Hey! Watch it!"
A brunette head bobbed to the surface, a wide grin on the younger boy's face. "What's the matter, Zuko? Too much for your sensitive skin?"
"It's not sensitive," he muttered in response, dropping into the chest deep water with minimal almost sulking and only some minor shudders. "I just didn't spend my childhood swimming in water that could kill me like you did."
Sokka shrugged his dark shoulders and flipped stray strands of hair out of his eyes, frowning a little as he studied them in the half-moonlight. "You're the one that missed out. Summer in the South Pole is more fun than anything I've seen. You can chase penguin chicks, and dive for sea prunes…"
"Sounds like a real blast," Zuko muttered, dunking his head underwater. Might as well try and get this done quickly before he got all nasty and wrinkly. His Uncle might be one to soak for hours on end, but Zuko personally HATED the feeling of being wet. He stood to the surface again, and spat the moister off his lips. Maybe if he tried hard enough to give off some heat, the water might warm a little, like Uncle could do? Then it would at least be bearable. "Why couldn't your sister have let us heat some water back at camp and take our baths there? We'd be more protected than all the way down here in the canyon all by ourselves."
The younger teen paused in his floating to cock his head to the side and raise an eyebrow at the prince in that almost overly expressive way of his. How one look could say so much about the other boy's concern for his mental well being, Zuko did not know. "Afraid something's going to sneak out of the dark and get you?"
"Of course not. It's just more practical."
That oh so expressive face was making it quite clear that Sokka didn't believe that for a minute. "Right. Well, Katara is weird like that. She usually likes us to take anything related to hygiene away from camp. She's even starting to get on Toph for picking her toes to close to our bedding."
Zuko couldn't help the face he made at that, and made a mental note to thank Katara once she gained the ability to speak to him civilly. He did not want to think about the kinds of things that might end up between the girl's toes as she seemed to enjoy being as disgusting as physically possible. He liked her well enough, of course. Just not her feet on or in his stuff.
If Sokka noticed the slight twitch that occurred when Zuko thought of the younger Earthbender touching his stuff with her dirty feet, he didn't acknowledge it. Instead, he started floating on his back again, watching listlessly as a few wisps of cloud passed over the moon and cast shadows on the water. "I can see your point about wanting the water to be a little warmer, I guess, and I wouldn't mind a little light. But, with Katara, you've got to pick and choose your battles. Some things really just aren't worth it."
"I'm starting to notice that," the older boy muttered, finding a smooth submerged rock to sit on. "Does she always have to be right about everything?"
"Pretty much. She's not always right, of course, but she always thinks she is." Sokka flipped over, diving underwater for a few moments before resurfacing. He seemed unfazed by the streams of water running down his face as he spoke. "Like this one time, she stole that Waterbending scroll from the pirates, and justified it to me as okay because she stole it from pirates."
Zuko said nothing to this, instead just sinking down a little lower into the chilly depths. That stupid scroll was tied into the stupid necklace—which he still had not stolen but it didn't seem that anyone really cared about that fact—and the pirates that had tried to kill him. It was not something he particularly wanted to discuss.
"Well, Toph was scamming some gamblers who were scamming other people," Sokka continued, now leaning against the rocky side of their small pool, "and Katara gets all up in arms about how that's wrong. I really don't get it. And she refuses to admit that she might be wrong about you, which isn't fair. You've more than proven yourself."
"Yeah, well," Zuko muttered into the dark water, letting some wet locks fall down into his face, "I've got a lot to make up for."
"YOU aren't responsible for all the sins of the Fire Nation, no matter what Katara thinks."
The Firebender glanced up, catching the younger boy's dark look at the water, before averting his eyes down again. He didn't know what to say to that. Everyone else seemed to think it was his responsibility to make up for what his ancestors had done, and Zuko agreed with them. He shrugged a little, though there was no way Sokka could see his shoulders in the dark water. "It's my destiny to help the Avatar and fix the world we helped destroy."
Sokka made an indistinct noise that, in spite of its lack of words, carried across his disbelief fully before diving under the water again. Even a few short days ago, this would have bothered Zuko. He would have thought that Sokka didn't believe it was his destiny to help Aang restore balance to the world. Now, after spending so much time with him, it was pretty clear it wasn't his destiny specifically that Sokka had a problem with but the idea of a destiny at all.
Not a new view to Zuko, but certainly one that very few people he knew held. Most of them took comfort in the idea that certain people were supposed to do certain things and everything would turn out right in the end when you discovered what it was you were supposed to do. From their talks in the war balloon, and just the way the other behaved in general, it seemed to Zuko that Sokka strongly believed that it was everyone's responsibility to do the right thing, and that saying it wasn't their destiny, but someone else's, was just a cop out.
Zuko really hoped they'd run into Uncle again sometime, as he'd love to see Iroh and Sokka get into a philosophical debate. They were both remarkably a like, in spite of the vast age gap, and the former prince was certain a battle of wits between them would be fascinating.
Sokka surfaced once more, a serious look on his face. "You only ever ordered that one attack on the South Pole, right?"
"And you would have left us alone if Aang and Katara hadn't set off the flare and you hadn't seen Aang airbending from a distance, yes?"
"Yes," Zuko frowned, feeling like there was something important Sokka wasn't saying. "Where are you going with this?"
"Even when you did attack the village, you didn't even try to hurt anyone except me, and I attacked you first."
This may have been true, but it really was not making Zuko feel any better.
Sokka ignored his discomfort, almost as if he wasn't really speaking to Zuko at all. "So, really, you didn't do much wrong in that case. It wasn't even much of an attack. Just you and a couple of intimidating looking guys that didn't even do anything."
"Seemed impressive at the time," the former prince muttered, not even sure himself if he was joking or not. "More force seemed unnecessary."
"And was which is EXACTLY what I'm talking about. Zhao, probably even your sister, would have wiped us out simply because they could. You didn't. You weren't interested in anyone but Aang, and given your mental state at the time, that's understandable."
"Mental state?" He tried to sound insulted, he really did, but it was almost funny in some way that they were even talking about this—more so because the boy he'd fought, would have hurt if Aang hadn't shown up when he did, was taking his side—and he couldn't quite keep a small laugh out of his voice.
"Really," it was official; Sokka was ignoring him now, "you weren't anything like the rest of the Fire Nation, even back then. Innocent women and children just weren't of interest to you. Not like…others…" The younger boy trailed off, a dark unreadable look clouding his features.
It was rare that Sokka's face didn't show exactly what he was thinking, and it was always disconcerting. Zuko had formed the opinion, was still forming it in fact, that a lot more went on in that head then the other ever said, but more often than not his face would let you know anyway.
But when he got like this, where you couldn't say for sure what he was feeling at all, it was like looking in some twisted and, frankly, eerie mirror.
True to form, as quickly as the expression came it was replaced by a grin and cheery voice. "So, naturally, Katara is being ridiculous, as usual. We should come up with a way to teach her a lesson. Maybe get Toph involved, she's always up for a laugh."
Zuko frowned a little, turning his head to the side so his left ear nearly touched the water. It was too much like Azula, that day on the beach. When she'd talked about their mother—something she hadn't done since the day their mother had gone—and then shrugged it off. For the first time in his life, Zuko had been SURE she was lying. She had been hurt, really hurt, by whatever it was in their past that she was not sharing with anyone. And she hadn't wanted them to ask, so she'd made it seem like it didn't matter.
Maybe it didn't, it was Azula after all and she could get over anything.
But right now, the air had that same feeling, like it had gotten heavy with the weight of all the things not said. There was some story, some reason, for the pause, for the look. For the brief mirror.
Sometimes, Zuko wondered if he'd asked Azula about the things she didn't say more often if things between them would have been better. If she might have hesitated, at least for a moment, before doing some of the things she had.
And Azula and Sokka were spookily a like in their own way—intelligent and reserved, giving the distinct impression that there was more going on than they would ever tell you, with charisma and charm in spades, and the kind of person you would follow without even quite realizing you were doing it. It would be easy enough, Zuko knew from experience, for something to take away the Sokka-ness of his new friend and turn him into a creature just like Zuko's own little sister. He couldn't let that happen.
He already knew that Sokka's first girlfriend—who ever she was, though apparently not Suki—had been turned into the moon (that was the first time he'd seen that look). That didn't seem to be the reason this time, this was a more intense look than that had been, but he couldn't figure out what was.
Maybe it had something to do with Katara. She'd been the one to lead up to this discussion anyway, and the first thing he'd mentioned when he'd finished.
But she seemed fine, except for her tendency to be a bit…scary…and jump to conclusions about people.
Like she had in the cave.
He heard her voice, echoed by the glowing rocks around him, as she'd yelled at him. "You don't know what this war has put me through. Me personally! The Fire Nation took my mother away from me."
And, unless the Water Tribe was vastly more different from the Fire Nation than it seemed, her mother would have been Sokka's mother as well.
Since he'd joined the Avatar, and even before, Zuko had heard Katara mention her mother on several occasions. It was almost like she hoped to bring her back by speaking about her often enough. He could understand that—he'd cried out for his mother until Azula made him stop after she left, half-hoping that maybe she was hiding somewhere.
Not once had he heard Sokka speak about his mother. Now that he thought about it, he usually turned away or got an angry look on his face when ever Katara did bring her up. That same kind of look he'd just gotten.
Okay, so his mother and whatever, exactly, had happened to her seemed a safe bet as to where that sentence may have been going. Now, he just had no idea what to do with that information. Zuko was keenly aware that he lacked well developed social skills, but flat out asking him about it felt wrong. He would have toasted anyone who asked him about what had happened to his own mother.
His own mother…that might actually be the key. It had worked with Katara, at any rate, and he didn't really mind talking about it with Sokka. It WAS one of the few things they had in common, really, and if he had opinions on the matter the younger boy was likely to keep them to himself.
The Firebender sat up fully, balancing rather precariously on his rock. "You know, I'm not totally the exception to what our nation is like."
Sokka rolled his eyes, tilting his head back so his hair fell in the water. "Yeah, Zuko, I know. Your Uncle is like the world's coolest guy, I get it."
"Well, yeah, but I was talking about someone else this time." He hesitated a little, drawing in a steadying breath as blue eyes rose to look at him. "My mom was a pretty nice lady. She always looked out for me, and she'd probably the reason I'm not as bad as I could be."
It was such an easy shot Zuko himself was tempted to add 'I turned out worse', and normally Sokka would have jumped all over it. Instead, he said nothing. Just leaned against the wall and got that expression again.
Zuko could not tell whether this was a good thing or not, but now that he'd started he couldn't really take it back.
"Remembering her when I was home, some of the things she'd told me about being true to who I was instead of trying to be like my sister, was what made me choose to leave."
"You keep speaking about her in the past tense," Sokka's voice was quiet, closer to when he'd asked about the prisoners than his normal obnoxious self.
"She…left. I didn't find out why for sure until recently." It was suddenly a little more difficult for the Fire Prince to breathe. He didn't really want to be talking about this, least of all with this boy he knew little about. But…it was the same boy who hadn't left him behind in that prison, who'd been among the first to trust him (the first to trust him as much as he had), who stood up for him…if telling him could help save him from his own demons, Zuko knew he owed him at least that much. "My father made the mistake of trying to gain the Fire Lord's favor over my Uncle after my Uncle's only son died. As punishment, the Fire Lord ordered that he would learn through similar suffering. My dad was to…"
"Dad's going to kill you," Azula's childish voice mocked in his head, awful in the truth she spoke. "Really, he is."
All this time, he'd convinced himself that she had been lying, trying to scare him. Azula always lied, but this, this was true and so much worse than she could have imagined for it.
"My dad was supposed to kill me. Mom found out. I don't know what, exactly, happened. All I know was that she did something…something treacherous…to protect me and got banished for it. The next day, the Fire Lord was dead, my mother was gone, and my Dad had the throne."
It was so still when he finished speaking that not even insects were buzzing around them. Zuko looked up from where he'd been studying the water as a breeze blew passed. Sokka wasn't looking at him. Instead, he had his eyes fixed above them on the moon. A few clouds passed over head, plunging them into half shadow.
Sokka's blue eyes shown in the darkness as he slowly lowered his head to look at the Fire Prince. "How old were you?"
"I was ten." The younger teen's voice was little more than a whisper, but Zuko heard him perfectly in the still night. "I don't remember my mother. I can't see her face, hear her voice…but I remember the screaming and the heat. They were after children. I don't know why. Probably something to do with waterbenders."
Zuko felt his stomach give an unpleasant lurch. It didn't surprise him, really, that his father or grandfather would have ordered the murder of innocent children to keep the Southern Tribe subdued. They were ruthless men, he could see that now, and neither one of them had hesitated to include his life in their games.
A breeze blew Sokka's hair in front of his eyes, and the other teenager made no move to reveal his face. "We were supposed to hide in the caves—Katara, mom, and I. Dad and the other men were fighting them off. I couldn't just stay. I wanted to help. I thought I could help. I ran out to try. She followed me, leaving Katara behind. She tried to stop me, and we were caught by the Fire Nation."
Zuko all but held his breath as the other boy continued, his voice breaking slightly. "I can't remember what she said, what she sounded like. But I remember she protected me…she was the shield as they attacked, so they couldn't get to me. She was protecting me, and I couldn't do anything. I can't even remember her!"
The clouds moved away, revealing something glittering on Sokka's now mostly dry face. Tears. The other boy wasn't sobbing or yelling, like Katara had, but the feeling of loss was somehow…more than Katara's words had carried. Zuko could almost taste it as he listened—a heaviness in the air that hadn't been there before.
He'd pretended for years that he hadn't had a mother. She, the only one to really believe in him, had left him and it had hurt so much he almost couldn't stand it. But he'd always known, deep down, that any time he wanted to he could recall her voice; remember her wisdom, her caresses, and her love. It had hurt deeply, but it had also been his hope until the Avatar had shown himself.
What would it have been like to really forget? To close your eyes, try and remember, and still have nothing. Katara had told him that the Fire Nation had taken their mother away, and that was true. But Katara still had pieces of her, memories and her necklace to hold on to. As long as she had those, her mother could still be alive and real for her. Sokka truly had nothing.
Zuko didn't know what to say to that. There weren't any words he knew that would be even close to enough to help his friend face that, if anyone truly could. Instead, he sat in silence and hoped the still night would help Sokka hear all the things he couldn't say.