Note: Sorry about the wait! Have you ever had one of those weeks where you spend your an weekend trying to get diving certified, and then get a massive double ear infection that takes you out of work and stops you from completing the final dive the next weekend? Yeah, I've had one of those week's. Sigh. Well, there is always writing! :)
And I just can't wait for the new episode tonight!
An uncomfortable dry heat woke Zuko up sometime around mid-afternoon. He reluctantly got to his feet, and after checking the apartment one last time for clues where Uncle might have gone — there weren't any, not even a hidden White Lotus tile — he started making his slow way home.
The trip back was uneventful, and his mind drifted to other places. How was he going to get out of visiting Sokka's father? He didn't want to see the man. He didn't even know him, and even though it shamed Zuko to admit it… he didn't know how a normal father should act.
He stepped lightly on the wider streets of the upper ring, frowning in thought. His father was an important man, always busy with running the Fire Nation. Sokka's father was a peasant, and… what if he wanted to talk about 'old times'? Zuko had no memories of Sokka's childhood.
Then, without any warning at all, the ground swallowed him up.
Zuko let out a rather undignified yelp. He had just sunken waist deep in solid rock, which meant —
"Where did you think you're going, Snoozles?"
He closed his eyes. Toph.
She walked right in his line of vision, hands on her hips, her lips pressed into a thin line. "Next time you decide to sneak out, remember that you are living with the best Earthbender in the world." The ground tightened almost painfully around his legs as she spoke. "And don't you forget it!"
He glared back at her, not amused, and very much aware that a corner of the damning piece of parchment about Uncle and himself was sticking out of his tunic. Toph couldn't see that, but she could apparently see much more; his heartbeat, his breathing. If she asked the wrong question, he'd be done for. "I went out." Zuko snapped, figuring anger was the safest — and easiest option. "That's allowed, right?"
"Wrong. You went out when you thought everyone was asleep. You were upset, and you were out for blood."
The ironic, dry way in which she said that reminded him strongly of Mai, for some reason. Gritting his teeth, he tried to answer in his most reasonable voice which somehow came out as high pitched and panicky. "There's… there's just something I had to do, okay?"
"No, it's not okay!" The little earthbender stamped her foot and immediately Zuko was pelted with a shower of pebbles. "Both you and Katara are keeping secrets. Neither one of you wanted to see your father, and, now you're sneaking out when you think no one is looking."
He tried one more time to pull himself out of the rock, but suddenly his hands sank down as the ground solidified around them. Now he was completely suck. Zuko sighed. He had to keep this as vague as possible. "Someone I care for was in danger from the Dai Li, and I went to go warn him. That's all it was."
Toph jaw clenched, and Zuko knew that she 'saw' he wasn't lying, but still wasn't happy with his answer. He had to think of something fast before he got smothered by ten tons of Earth. "Look, if I thought I was in danger or if it would hurt any of you I would have said something. But… he wasn't even there!" A wave of unexpected loss made his still settling voice crack. He winced against it, looking down. "It doesn't matter."
The little earthbender was quiet for a long, long moment before she spoke. "Fine." And with an uplift of her hand Zuko popped out of the hole like a cork. He landed with an ooph in a rather graceless heap, and Toph bend down to help him up. But she still wasn't smiling. "So what was with you and Katara earlier?"
There wasn't any question what she meant. Zuko thought of his father, and the last time he had seen him. His worst memory — the Agni Kai duel-yard. "My relationship with my father… it's complicated. I respect him, but—"
"But you don't know if you love him."
He glanced at her, bemused that she had gotten to the point so quickly. Then again, that was Toph. "What, are you suddenly, a mind reader?"
"No." Her voice was short, and she walked over to the steps of their guesthouse, sitting down and resting her chin on her knees. "My father thinks I'm some kind of china-doll, some weak little girl who can't take care of herself. I think he's… ashamed because I'm blind." She let out a hitched breath and rested her forehead on her arms. Her words came out muffled. "I hate him."
Zuko hesitated, unsure what to do or how to act. What would Sokka say? Zuko had no idea what the Water Tribe boy's real relationship with his father was, although he suspected it was warm since Katara mentioned it had been all he talked about for the last two years. But Zuko had no experience with that. Toph would know he was lying anyway. So he spoke from his heart. "Hate is a pretty strong word." And he knew. After all, he had hated a lot of things in life, more often then not, he had hated himself. "I haven't always… gotten along with my father, but he is part of me. He's an honorable man. And I know that sometimes I haven't always agreed with his methods, but he did it because he's trying to do what's best for me."
"Even if it's shutting you away and pretending that you don't exist?" Toph's voice was full of a very familiar sort of bitterness, and Zuko closed his eyes.
He didn't think that he would ever have anything in common with the Avatar's friends, much less a blind earthbender, but at that moment, sitting on those steps he knew that he did.
Sokka dreamt; vague, disjointed images flashed in front of his eyes — disturbing and sad, and something about suffocation… then… then it felt as if he was burning from the inside out. He couldn't breathe… he was burning…
No, it was real! It was real!
His golden eyes shot open, and all he could see around him were flames. His very bed was on fire.
Sokka swore and rolled quickly to the side. Once he was safely away he turned around, unthinkingly putting out a hand to reach to the fire; drawing it back, down and finally out.
He hadn't been burned, but it was a very near thing. The newly stuffed futon was destroyed.
Sokka knelt by the ruin and mess, his breath shaky. Absently, he rubbed at his chest. It burned on the inside, a pain he had grown to associate with the feeling of loss. He ruthlessly shoved it away like all the rest.
That must have been some dream. He couldn't remember the specifics, and was mostly glad now, seeing how it had made him accidentally set his own bed on fire. This was about a hundred times worse than the time he dreamt that food ate people.
Someone should have really told him that firebenders could bend in their sleep. Sokka was really getting tired of trying to figure this stuff out the hard way… although he did vaguely remember one time when he, Katara, and Aang had been first heading up north. He and his sister had woken up to what they thought was a windstorm — a windstorm that died out as soon as the young Avatar woke up. At the time, Sokka had passed it off, tossing it away as some sort of freaky elemental magic he didn't want or care to understand.
Now he wished he had paid attention, at least a little.
Sokka sighed loudly, reaching up to run a hand though his sleep-tangled hair. It was getting long, and needing a cut soon. He'd think about that later. First, the bed. Then maybe some more sleep, if it was still early enough.
Wincing against the sharp pain of his bad arm, he rolled up the blackened remains of the futon and hefted it over his shoulder. While he had finally gotten his own bedroom with the new apartment, it was small and lacked windows. So the sudden brightness from the main room caught him off guard – it was later than he had thought.
Iroh was up, puttering around their small kitchen and cutting snips of some kind of white flower into a tea-strainer. He looked up at Sokka's approach, his eyes falling to the bed. A vague look of surprise crossed his face, but as usual he said nothing about it at first. "I am trying a new blend of chamomile. Would you like to try it?" he glanced again at the ruined mess, "It is good for the nerves."
"Maybe later." Sokka didn't know what to expect; chastisement or something. He had just burned a brand new bed, after all. But then again, it wasn't his uncle's way. With a mental shrug, he hefted the mattress out the door into the hallway. He would take it to the street corner when he and Iroh went out to open the new Tea Shop.
Walking back in, he noted that Iroh had poured him two cups anyway. Apparently, his offer for tea had not been a request.
His uncle continued dicing the white flower into smaller and smaller bits, but Sokka could see him watching him slyly out of the corner of his eye. "It has been a long time since you last burned your bed, Zuko. You were five, or six?"
Sokka shrugged, blowing on his tea to cool it instead of providing a direct answer. He was becoming far too practiced at avoiding questions like this, about Zuko's past. Still, something in the way his uncle was casually approaching the subject touched some long forgotten memory of his own childhood. He smiled, "Uncle, I only burned the bed. I didn't wet it."
"Losing control of your element while sleeping can be a warning sign of great inner imbalance."
"Hey! Do I look imbalanced to you?" But Sokka thought immediately to when he had freed Appa under the lake, and all he had given up since then. He had made his choice, and he wasn't the type of guy to go back on it. But seeing Aang in the prison escape had showed him exactly how tenuous that decision was. Could that be it? Sokka frowned, looking from his cup of tea to Iroh's watchful eyes. "Fine. Maybe I am… a little. So what do I do about it?"
He was silent for a long moment. "I admit, I was a little surprised that this sort of thing had not come up earlier. You had been hunting the Avatar for years. He was your source of hope, and when you let that go to follow a new path, that could not have been easy for you."
Iroh reached out as if to lay a hand on Sokka's shoulder, but Sokka shook his head and moved away. He didn't feel like being comforted right how, and he had the feeling that Zuko wouldn't either. Standing up, he walked to the window and looked out while Iroh spoke again. "You must find inner harmony within yourself. You are Lee, a refugee who lives with his uncle… but you are also Zuko and he is a Firebender."
Sokka swallowed, finding it odd how close Iroh was to coming to the truth. He didn't trust himself to look back at the old man, just continued staring out the window towards the rising sun. "So what do I do?"
"Since your inner imbalance has manifested itself in your bending, I would suggest practice. Sometimes, something so simple can be meditative."
Sokka nodded, thinking back about how, when he was younger, sometimes he and Katara would get into an argument and the best way to cool off would be to go outside and toss his boomerang around. He didn't think he was all that 'imbalanced' but then again waking up to a bed-full of flames wasn't all that great either.
"There is a rock quarry on the edge of the outer ring," continued Iroh, "perhaps you should go today."
"What?" Finally, Sokka turned around, facing him. "No, today is the grand opening. I'm not missing that."
"Zuko, I'd rather you find balance—"
"No," Sokka said firmly, and knew that his voice booked no argument. "I'll practice tonight. You need help with the shop today, and I'm not going to miss out on that because of one stupid burned bed."
His uncle looked at him for a long moment and then nodded, and Sokka caught a hint of a smile on his face before he turned to a simmering pot on the stove. "I'm cooking some jook. Do you want some?"
"I'd love some, Uncle."
Normally Zuko would have enjoyed the feeling of sitting on the flying bison, of soaring and swooping and the total freedom of nothing but air around him. But as he caught the first sight of dark blue sails just over the horizon, a deep feeling of dread sunk in his stomach, making him feel ill.
Earlier in the morning, while Aang had been meeting with the Earth King, Zuko had pulled Katara aside and offered once more to stay behind and let her visit her father. Her response had been sharp and unpleasant, and they would have gotten in another argument had Toph not stepped in and encased them both in stone.
After that, Zuko and Katara's exchanges with each other were nothing but cold. The only time she warmed up was when the Earth King mentioned that some kind of Kyoshi Warrior was about to join their ranks.
Zuko didn't know what Katara's problem was. He had his own father, and didn't need to see this one… why was she being so hostile? But he didn't know her well enough to ask without tipping anyone off. In the end, everyone was expecting him to be happy and excited, so he finally gave in and pulled a dopey grin on Sokka's face. Only Toph seemed to know the difference, but she had remained silent.
Appa swooped down closer, coming to land on the top of a cliff overlooking Chameleon Bay. A fleet of wooden ships had been pulled to shore, and blue tents littered the beach. From his high point, Zuko could hear laughter of men and some kind of low-tuned flute floating up from the camp site.
Maybe it would be easier if he just threw himself off the cliff's edge.
Beside him, Aang turned, an innocent look on his face. "You haven't seen your Dad in over two years. You must be so excited."
Zuko closed his eyes. In fact, it had been more like three years since he had last seen his father. His stomach lurched and he put a hand to it. "I just feel sick."
"Don't be nervous. He's going to be so happy to see you!" The Avatar put a hand on his shoulder, and Zuko smiled, despite himself.
If only he was going to see his real father…
He glanced once more to the campsite and then reached for his pack. He had also brought along that useless boomerang, mostly to keep up appearances. Finding his pack, he slung it over his shoulder. "I guess I'll just… head off then." He said doubtfully, sliding off the bison and landing lightly. He glanced back at Aang, wishing that he could find an excuse to go along with the boy instead of having to face the unknown. "Aren't you nervous to meet this Guru?"
"Not at all! I'm ready to master the Avatar State." Aang flashed him another smile before snapping Appa's reigns. "See you in a week! Appa, yip-yip." Then with a rush of air the sky bison leapt into the sky.
Zuko watched them fly away until Appa was a tiny blip against the clouds, and then nothing at all. He sighed, turning back to the camp. He didn't want to do this. There were countless things that could go wrong. Aang and his friends weren't so bad, but he had no desire to live among Water Tribe men for a week. Besides… he had his own father. He didn't want to meet Sokka's.
For how long he stood there, he couldn't say, but in the end, he didn't have much choice. Katara, Toph and Aang expected him, Sokka, to go down and have some sort of family reunion. He'd been unable to back out, and now he just had to go through with this.
Zuko tilted his head towards the sun, instinctively seeking its warmth and guidance. Instead, though, his eyes fell upon the pale outline of the hovering moon. She looked down on him with a strong sort of benevolence, and somehow… he felt calmer.
He picked his way down the cliff, and before long found himself walking sullenly across the outskirts of the camp. One by one the tribesmen stopped what they were doing and rose, walking forward to greet him. Zuko tried to see some kind of recognition in their eyes… he had no idea what Sokka's father looked like. But all the men were grinning, and within a few moments he was surrounded. He found his hand being shook, and one made a comment about how tall he'd grown, and playfully tried to push him down to size. Zuko smirked and straightened himself up to Sokka's full height to the pleased murmurs of the men.
If he imagined hard enough he could almost — almost make himself believe that it this was really him and that he was returning to the Fire Palace…
… and that his people would be happy to see him return as a warrior. No longer a boy, but a man.
Suddenly the warriors parted, and Zuko looked beyond to see a large blue upraised tent stretched across four poles.
One of the Water Tribe warriors helpfully said, "He's in there."
Taking a deep breath, Zuko nodded and walked to the opening. In his mind's eye he was no longer walking across the pebbly beach, but instead crossing the marble steps of the Fire Palace… his father would be sitting there waiting for him, beyond the curtain of flames.
He parted the tent flaps and stepped in, Sokka's eyes needing no adjustment from the bright outside to the dim light from within. A group of tribesmen sat around a map, and one with newly healed burn-marks looked up towards him and smiled. He then nudged another man who sat in front, studying the map with concentration.
The man, more decorated then most, and clearly the leader, looked up. Zuko met his blue eyes, and saw the registered shock and then elation in them. The man stood up, murmuring, "Sokka."
He knew, knew then that this was him. A smile, the first full one since Zuko could easily remember, crossed his face. His heart ached, and he so wished that it was his father…
With a scroll of General How's battle plans in hand, Katara walked confidently across the streets of the Upper Ring. Her bad mood had long ago faded, courtesy of Momo's wild antics during the war meeting.
She and her brother had always been close, but that didn't mean that she sometimes didn't want to strangle him. Why was he being so stubborn and wanting to stay behind when there was a chance to see their father?
Why were you so stubborn? A little voice inside her mind whispered. Katara shoved it back. She had her reasons. It would be good for her brother to see their father. Maybe he would start smiling again. Besides, she was strong. Sokka always said that he was the idea guy, well, she was the one who took care of them all, and that meant being the anchor for the group and staying here.
As she walked, Katara firmly put her mind to the ever brightening future. She planned to drop off the battle plans first and then to catch up with Suki and the rest of the Kyoshi Warriors. She and the others just learned about their arrival a few hours ago, and she was eager to hear all what had happened to her friend since they last saw each other.
Momo twittered on her shoulder, wrapping his long tail about her neck. Katara reached up to pat his head. The little lemur was hungry, and for once so was she.
She caught the scent of spice in the air and turned to see a new gleaming tea shop. She hesitated. It would be the responsible thing to go on and deliver the battle plans at once, but the Earth King wouldn't notice if she were only a couple of minutes late. "What do you say, Momo? A cup of tea before we get back to the King?"
The lemur purred, and Katara smiled, stepping to the entrance where a young hostess waited. "Table for two please—"
A voice, rough, and shockingly familiar, cut over the babble of customers. "Uncle, I need two jasmine, two green, and one lychee! How's the tea machine working?"
She turned and stared in shock and horror. Zuko. Her eyes saw, but didn't register his green waiter's uniform, the way his left arm was bound up in a sling, and the smile on his scarred face. He had his back mostly to her, and was addressing an aged man.
The old man smiled at the prince, and Katara recognized him as Fire Nation as well — the General. "It's working just fine. I'm brewing as fast as I can!"
With a gasping noise, Katara turned and ran away as fast and hard as she could. She didn't bother to wonder what Aang's top enemy was doing in a tea shop of all things, or why if he and his Uncle were in Ba Sing Se they hadn't attacked yet. She just had one thought on her mind: She needed to warn the Earth King!
She twisted right and left, running up the long stairs without break and into the luxurious halls of the Palace. Having seen her yesterday in the presence of the Earth King, the servants opened the doors without question and soon Katara skitted to a stop at the main palace room.
The Earth King was gone, but in his place sat three heavily painted girls. Katara felt a sense of relief wash over her. "Suki!" she cried, "Thank goodness you're here! I just saw Prince Zuko and his Uncle! We have to tell the Generals and the Earth King!"
The girl she thought was Suki stood up, and Katara focused on her, realizing for the first time that her eyes were not green — they were gold.
"Oh don't worry," said Azula. "I already know about them. You can be assured that everything will be taken care of."
Katara didn't have a chance to react before Ty Lee rushed forward, planting her fingers perfectly on her pressure points. Katara's legs collapsed under her and the last thing she heard before she blacked out was Azula's low chuckle.
"Perhaps you should leave a little early."
Iroh's voice broke through the fog in Sokka's mind. He had been staring at the tea-maker, about to do… something. But the only thing he could think about was the constant, hungry burning in his chest. In the spare seconds he'd had between waiting tables, Sokka could almost imagine that there was a fire way deep down inside him, trying to get out. He had been aware of it for days now, ever since his decision at the lake, but now he could no longer push it away. Even concentrating on his new invention didn't help.
"Huh, what?" Blinking, he looked around as if waking up from a nap. The grand opening had been a huge success, but now that closing time was drawing near, the steady rush of customers had dwindled to a trickle. Sokka could only see two or three people in the back.
Iroh smiled. "You've done very well today. I can close up from here… it's time you looked after yourself."
Sokka slipped the apron over his head. "What, you don't like the idea of me accidentally burning down our fancy new apartment?"
"I can replace whatever is lost in the apartment." His uncle's golden eyes were on him, "But I cannot replace you."
That was the type of thing his own father would have said. Sokka paused, and then nodded, folding the apron over the top of a chair. "Thanks, Uncle. You know," he took one final glance at the shop, at his own invention, at the wise man standing before him, and allowed himself a swell of pride. "I never was really that into tea… but it's not so bad. Not really."
"It was good to share this day with you, Nephew."
Hearing the warmth and pride in his uncle's voice made Sokka smile again, even though his chest burned as if there was a living fire-snake coiled around his heart. Taking one last look about the Jasmine Dragon, and finding everything in order, he stepped outside and into the cool night air.
The directions to the rock quarry were direct, and soon he was walking among giant hills of chipped and blocked off rock. The sun had fully set, and Sokka could almost imagine himself in a forest among the towering rock-spires, reaching up to the night sky. Finding a flat spot somewhere in a valley between a low hill and two unstable looking rock walls, he turned his face to the sky where Yue sat, hovering.
"I hope you don't hold this against me." Sokka said, somehow keeping his voice light. "I just have to get this crazy fire-magic thing under control."
Of course, there was no answer from the moon, and after a long moment he turned his attention back inward to where the fire inside of him lurked.
Okay, so according to Iroh he was imbalanced, and even if Sokka didn't trust his word he sure did feel horrible. Normally when he felt on edge or down he would go practice among the snow drifts. He spent hours stalking invisible fire-nation soldiers and then smiting them down with the fury of his boomerang or club or handy stick. Afterwards, he'd always come home exhausted, but happier.
Sokka looked around at the mounds of earth littering the quarry and sighed again. So what was he supposed to do? He wasn't a little kid anymore, and pretending to stalk invisible Water Tribe or Earth Kingdom soldiers went against every fiber of his being. He didn't have his boomerang and Zuko's Dao swords were useless to him with one good arm.
It would have to be the fire then.
He frowned again, throwing the reddened scar in sharp relief against the moonlight. Katara had a series of moves she called Kata that she had practiced. Sokka had seen her do it a hundred times before, but it wasn't like he knew fire kata. Zuko's body had a certain degree of muscle memory, but that was different than actual knowledge.
Well, he had to do something. Standing in a rock quarry wasn't going to help anything.
Slowly, doubtfully, Sokka unwound the sling around his neck and stretched out the bad arm. It ached, but it was healing — slowly.
Settling his feet apart in a wide stance, he shut his eyes and tried to remember what his little sister used to do; the graceful, yet strong movements of her arms.
He struggled at this for a minute or so before he realized that this wasn't going to work at all. The movements he remembered Katara doing where wrong — all wrong, somehow. Water was different than fire. It was all flowy and graceful, and full of pushing and pulling goodness. Fire was quick, aggressive, powerful — and probably just a little bit evil.
It wasn't him.
Sokka returned to a normal standing position. This was impossible. Deep down inside, he was Water Tribe. Besides, he was a practical guy and this spiritual stuff just wasn't his thing.
A gleam of something metallic caught his eye, and he walked over to pick it up. It was the spade-end of a broken shovel, and as Sokka turned it round and round in his hands, feeling the sharpened edges, it occurred to him that maybe if he could heat up the thing he could smelt it into something useful like a new boomerang.
He had just started to concentrate on heating the metal when a slight crunch of rock behind him got his attention.
Instantly, Sokka whipped around into a crouched stance — one palm out and the other fist cocked. What he saw made his stomach clench and his unburned eye widen in surprise and fear.
The pale gloomy girl, the one who was so adapt with stiletto knives, stood right in front of him, a bored expression on her face.
It was strange, Zuko thought, walking alongside Hakoda as the older man proceeded to give him a grand tour of their temporary camp. Strange how there didn't seem to be any official rank with these Water Tribe men — at least none that he could see. There weren't any commanders overseeing platoons of men, or captains barking out orders. Everyone referred to Hakoda cheerfully as 'Chief', but Zuko couldn't see anything to set him apart either, aside from his confident step.
Yet despite the lack of formal rank, the beach-camp was industrious. Half the men seemed to be involved in mending dark blue sails, the other half packing some sort of substance inside large round containers.
It was to one of these containers that Hakoda directed him, laying a firm, warm hand on his shoulder as he spoke. "This bay leads directly to the outskirts of Ba Sing Se. We've been using these tangle mines to stop Fire Nation ships from getting through."
Zuko's eyes widened almost imperceptibly. After glancing at Hakoda for permission, he stepped close to one of the large spheres and lifted the cap. A wave of putrid scent hit him full on, and he quickly replaced it, but not before he saw what was inside: Seaweed and what looked like skunk-fish. "If a ship were to hit one of these, it would jam up the propellers." He said, feeling a mix of horror and admiration. Thank Agni his own battleship had never come across one of these. "It'd take hours to get it untangled. And the smell…"
Hakoda nodded in satisfaction. "Very perceptive. Most of the time the Fire Nation don't even go that far. The smell drives them out, and they end up abandoning the ship."
"Unless they don't have anywhere else to go," Zuko muttered under his breath, watching the mines wryly.
"I call it," Hakoda paused, "The stink 'n sink."
Ugh. That was horrible. Zuko half groaned, causing Hakoda to laugh out loud and merrily slap his shoulders. "I see you've grown too old for my jokes!"
A man to his right, one that Hakoda had called Bato, grinned. "It happens to all of us, Hakoda. Look there, I think Sokka's grown about as tall as you now."
"You think?" Sokka's father sized him up, and Zuko automatically straightened under the scrutiny. There was at least a head's height still between the two of them, but you wouldn't know it from Hakoda's warm smile. "Not yet, but soon. Speaking of which," he gestured towards the other man then turned to face Zuko directly, "Bato's told me how you left the South Pole and started traveling with the Avatar."
Zuko felt his muscles tensed, ready and expecting the lecture to come.
"When I left you to look after our tribe and your sister, and I never doubted for a moment that you would do great things. I'm proud of you, son."
Looking in Hakoda's blue eyes, and seeing the love and pride there, something jagged and painful unclenched in Zuko's heart, despite himself. He knew the words weren't for him… but they felt good to hear, all the same. "Really?" He asked, and his voice cracked, "I mean, thanks… Dad."
"Hakoda!" All three turned to see another man, dressed in blue garb come running up. "Our scouts have spotted four Fire Nation ships."
Hakoda's jaw tightened imperceptibly, and then he nodded and started snapping orders. "Bato, get these mines loaded up." He turned to the rest of the tribesmen, who had set down their tasks and walked over to see what the commotion was about. "The rest of you men, get ready for battle!"
Zuko turned, doing a swift count. Assuming the four Fire Nation ships were some small Bonfire class ships, these warriors would still be outnumbered nearly two-to-one.
Yet the rest of the men had broken up without complaint and were setting about their assigned tasks, breaking up the tents and playfully calling out to one another. The air was of purpose, with no hint of worry among them.
Bato must have seen the doubtful look on Zuko's face, because he grinned and offered cheerfully. "Remember, water is our element. Those hotheads won't stand a chance."
Zuko looked again at the wooden ships and blue sails, and imagined that against the might of the Fire Nation. These were traitorous thoughts he was having… for he should be rooting for the conquest of his Nation. But looking around, seeing the smiling faces of the men and one proud face of Hakoda in particular, he found himself asking, "Uh, what should I do, Dad?"
Hakoda favored him an amused glance. "Aren't you listening? I said the rest of you men get ready for battle."
There was a beat as Zuko processed the information. It felt good, and it hurt at the same time — hurt that it wasn't really his Dad who was saying those words. But he couldn't stop the smile on his face anyway, and with a quick nod, went to help Bato lift one of the heavy mines.
And later, an even more treacherous thought then one against his own country cropped up in his mind, along with a wave of guilt.
Sokka should have been the one to hear that from his father.
Sokka stared at Mai for a moment, dimly realizing that she knew him — or at least, Zuko. And why not? These bad guys always seemed to know each other. Slowly, watching her for any reaction, he lowered his stance. She didn't move, and he asked what he thought was the most logical question. "What are you doing here?"
She almost seemed to shrug without moving. "Tracking you. Not that it was very hard."
If that was supposed to be a jab, Sokka didn't care. "Congratulations, you found me. Now what?"
There was a measured pause from Mai. A slight flicker of emotion crossed her impassive features – too quick for Sokka to figure out what it was – before she stepped forward. "Is that all you have to say for yourself?"
Keep pushing it back on her. Make her reveal her own reasons for being here. Sokka thought briefly. His eyes flicked to a small nearby mound, the perfect cover to avoid her sharp knifes. He set his face into a scowl, and cautiously leaned towards the rock, ready to duck and run at a moment's notice. "Well, what do you want me to say?"
"The usual." She intoned. One hand drifted to the hem of her sleeve in a way that made the hair on the back of Sokka's neck stand up on end. He had, after all, been the target of those knifes before. Mai spoke again, and although her words should have carried some hint of passion, her tone was carefully measured, bored. "It's been three years, Zuko. You went from the boy I used to throw mud at to just gone and banished in one day. Why couldn't you just keep your mouth shut?" She hesitated, almost as if afraid she had said too much, or given away too much emotion. Sokka could practically feel the burn of her eyes on the left side of his face. "It doesn't matter. Your sister is coming, anyway."
She moved so quickly, that if Sokka hadn't been ready for it, he would have been taken by surprise. With a quick flick of her wrist a trio of knifes shot through the air, right at him. Sokka dived for cover, rolling behind a large bolder. A sharp twack, twack of metal hitting stone told him he'd just avoided being impaled by less than a second.
In a moment he was out again, running for the upper lip of the next rock hill. But she was faster than he had feared, and within a second he had to throw himself to the right to avoid another pair of knifes.
Sokka didn't think. He whipped around, dragging his foot as he did, intending to kick a shower of loose shale at her.
What he got instead was a torrent of fire that exploded outward from his right heel, and suddenly it was Mai was ducking for cover. Sokka should have used the moment to run, but he had been shocked at his own surprise firebending – and how good and natural it had felt. The hideous fire around his heart loosened its grip slightly. He didn't see Mai's unnaturally quick recovery, and suddenly he found himself launched backwards, sleeves pinned against a large rock by four expertly thrown knives.
Sokka struggled, but the knives had sunk in deep. He was stuck.
"Hmm…" Mai strode up to him, hands once again tucked idly in her sleeves. She wasn't even breathing hard. "That was easier than I thought it would be. Victory really is boring." She looked like she was going to say more, but almost on cue the sound of one person's clapping echoed throughout the rock quarry.
Sokka looked up to see none other than the Azula and her creepy smiling friend, Ty Lee standing at the lip of the crater.
He also didn't miss the flash of irritation on Mai's pale face, or the way that she instantly schooled it away.
"Excellent work, Mai." With one expert leap, the Fire Princess slid down the loose rock wall, coming to a stop right beside her impassive friend. "You've found my dear brother for me."
A strange shiver went up and down Sokka's spine. He had known that Azula was Zuko's sister, of course. But hearing it from her lips was another thing entirely. Siblings don't fight each other… not like this…
"You know, the Dai Li have all sorts of interesting records on you and Uncle," continued Azula, when Sokka remained silent. She walked up close, so close that he could smell a strange sort of scent about her — metallic and evil, "I've sent a team of Dai Li agents to retrieve him in that pathetic tea shop of his."
"No…" the word escaped Sokka's lips before he had chance to pull it back. Azula smiled in a surge of triumph, and he knew someway, somehow he had just screwed up. In desperation, he pulled once more against the pinning knifes, and felt one of them loosen, ever so slightly.
Azula turned her head towards Ty Lee, snapping out an order to paralyze him. Sokka had only a moment to move. Coiling his legs against the stone, he launched himself as hard as he could. The knifes snapped away, and a moment later he had grabbed Azula in an ungraceful tackle. They hit the ground hard. Sokka heard the air whoosh out of her.
Then there was an explosion of rock, a flash of blue, and Sokka was thrown roughly to the side.
The two firebenders got to their feet and faced each other, dropping into firebending stances. Sokka, with one fist cocked and Azula with two fingers at the side, and ready. Ty Lee made a move to step forward to help, but Azula shook her head. "No, I can handle him myself." Her lips curved up into an evil smile, "What are you going to do, Zuko? Challenge me to an Agni Kai?"
Agni Kai. There was that word again. Sokka suddenly understood the context of it. It was some kind of duel. He clenched his fist, thinking of Iroh and how he was about to be overwhelmed by agents in the tea shop. The burning in his chest dissipated, as he found new focus. He would have to embrace the fire – really accept it as part of himself, if he had any chance of winning this. "Yes, I challenge you!" he called back, "Just between you and me. Leave Pink Girl and Stabbity out of this."
"Hey!" Ty Lee yelped, from the side.
"Whatever." Mai sighed.
Azula smirked. "Well, that is the point of an Agni Kai, right?"
Sokka had the space of two heartbeats to prepare himself, to think of a plan, before a bolt of blue fire shot out, straight for his heart.
He leapt to the side and countered with a quick punch. He didn't know what he was doing, not really. But he had an idea, and that gave him hope. Once he let it, the fire leapt eagerly from his fingers in successive bright orange balls.
Azula took care of those easily, looking almost bored as she blocked and sent back her own blue flames. Sokka leapt over the sudden whip of fire, ignored the jabbing pain in his broken arm, and kicked out, sending a spiraling wave at her. She blocked with a quick wave of her hands, and he watched her closely for how she did it, copying the move when she retaliated.
Sokka held his own, but it was taking no effort at all for Azula to block or dodge him while he was doing everything in his power not to get yet another burn scar.
But he wasn't too worried. He had anticipated this.
He kept on the offensive, firing fireballs at her feet, making her dodge instead of attack. For every three attacks of his, she blocked or swerved two, but backed up one step. Finally, she stood almost back against a rock spire.
Azula seemed to sense Sokka's hesitation, and smiled at it. "Is that really all you have, Zuko? It looks like living as an Earth peasant has really dulled your skills." As she spoke, two fingers traced the air almost leisurely, creating sparks of energy behind them.
"No. It's not." And with one powerful step, Sokka thrust both his fists forward, putting everything he could into one blow… just like he had done in the warehouse as the Blue Spirit. A force of flame erupted from both fists with a concussive force.
Azula simply stepped to the side, letting the jet miss her and hit the rock wall instead. It was exactly what Sokka had hoped for.
With a rumbling noise, the unstable rock mound shifted over Azula. Sokka stepped back, safely out of harms way and watched the whole mound slide down right on top of the shocked Princess.
He had a moment of triumph — and a flash of deep regret. But then, right before it seemed Azula would be buried, she crouched down and living lightening sprung from her fingertips.
The explosion was enormous— so many times larger and louder than Sokka had ever heard before. He hit the ground, hands over his head, as bits of molten rock flew outward from every direction.
When the dust cleared, Azula stood in the middle of a shallow red crater, a murderous look of rage on her face, a single hair out of place upon her head.
Sokka gaped, and sprung to his feet before she attacked again. A flurry of blue flamed whipped out from punches and kicks that were too quick and efficient for him to even track. He found himself stumbling backwards, trying and failing to counter. But she had him backing up now, and he was realizing with horror that firebending didn't work so well on the defensive.
He knew then; knew that she had just been playing with him before. He hadn't had a chance at all.
He did a near flip to avoid another blast and in desperation he scooped up a large rock and threw it at her, scuttling back, trying to get room to breathe. It exploded in mid-air from one of her well timed fire blasts, and the resulting explosion knocked him down. He landed on his back and in a moment a blue flame wreathed fist hovered just over his nose.
Sokka froze, panting for breath. He was beaten.
"That was clever, Zuzu." Azula allowed, "But as you see, talent will always win. Ty Lee!"
The bubbly girl jumped to the command, and a couple of jabs later Sokka was truly helpless.
Even though all the Water Tribe men were set on their duty, it still took several hours to break down the camp and get the large wooden ships loaded up. Zuko mostly stuck by Hakoda and Bato, and was both surprised and dismayed to learn that neither could bend their element. In fact, there wasn't a single waterbender among all the tribesmen.
Zuko didn't want to draw comparisons between Hakoda and Ozai. It felt disloyal — but he couldn't help it. It was readily apparent that these men didn't follow Hakoda because he was powerful. They followed him because he extruded leadership from every pore. He had good ideas and they followed him not out of intimidation, or tradition, but out of loyalty and trust.
And he also couldn't help the warm feeling that came over him each time Hakoda would draw him aside, and carefully explain his plans… and ask, actually ask, for Zuko's input. As if he mattered. As if he was important to him.
"We've one more hour until the ships are ready to set sail." Hakoda said, on one of these occasions, as he checked his bearings on a map. "Based on our information, we won't reach the Fire Nation ships until well after sunset." He paused, absently scratching the back of his neck, "For some reason we always do better battling at night."
Zuko traced his finger along the map, checking the currents for what he remembered of his own travels. "That's because they don't have Agni — er, the power of the sun." He had said this almost absently, and didn't expect Hakoda's sharp look of surprise.
"What do you mean?"
"Well," Zuko put his own hand to the back of his neck awkwardly, unconsciously miming the man he was slowly coming to admire. "Firebenders get their power from the sun. So when it goes down and the moon comes up it's just not as easy to bend. They, er, don't see as well at night either." He added, "Their eyes are made to look and understand bright flame."
"Sokka, you're a genius." Hakoda turned and called out to the beach, "Men, get into your war-paint. Douse any and all lights on the ships once we're out on the water. We're going in silent and invisible!"
An answering roar from the men on the beach told Zuko that they approved of this idea. He hung his head sheepishly, once again feeling that mix of pride and shame. Pride that he had maybe just given these warriors and advantage, and shame that he had also just betrayed his own people.
"Now," said Hakoda, drawing his attention back to the map, "the current runs north-east this time of the year, but I think that we should hit them this way…"
And so the evening rapidly faded into night, and finally the ships were ready to cast off shore. Zuko hesitated at the bottom of a ramp leading to the ship, asking himself if he was really about to do this; if he was really about to join in battle with his enemy against his own countrymen.
Too many thoughts and feelings, impulses on both sides, tugged at his mind. He was actively hunted by the Fire Nation… but he wasn't even in that body anymore. Should he keep defending a nation that hated both the old him and the new him? Or should he join these warriors who were kind to him, and a father who loved him… even though he wasn't really that boy?
It was too much, and Zuko never really liked being introspective. That had always been Uncle's thing. His way was to follow through with action and let the rest of the world settle itself out.
So he put his foot firmly on the ramp and strode forward.
A whoosh of air and a low groan behind him drew his attention. He turned to see none other than Appa land with Aang on his head. The young Avatar locked his gaze with him, eyes full of despair. "Sokka, Katara's in trouble."
Zuko felt his heart sink.
Katara had walked all around her large cave cell at least three times before she admitted to herself that there was no way she could get herself out. The Dai Li had sealed every exit. At least she had light, courtesy of the upthrust glowing green crystals that littered the floor and stuck out randomly from the walls and ceiling in every direction.
And she had water.
She smiled to self, glancing back to a small crack in the far wall where a trickle of water seeped in to form a small puddle. When she had first got here it had only been a damp spot on the wall of the cave, but Azula's Dai Li agents were foolish to let a Master Waterbender alone by herself. She had felt like an idiot, mistaking Azula for Suki even under all of the heavy makeup.
Next time, Katara vowed, wouldn't be taken by surprise.
Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened about ten seconds later.
The roof of the cave fell apart with a crumble of stone, and brilliant light from outside flooded in, blinding her for a moment. She threw up her hands and between her fingers saw the outlines of three agents toss a shadowed form in. "You've got company," one sneered, before the stone wall resealed itself.
The prisoner tumbled down the sharp incline, landing with a heavy thud. Immediately, he curled in on himself, gasping and yelling to no one in particular, "Why! Why is it always my arm!?"
She knew that voice. "Zuko?!"
Immediately, the firebender whipped around, one hand still clutched over his arm. His face was alight with hope, relief, and joy. "Katara?!"
Brownie points to whoever got the tiny reference I put in there. Azula totally is Kung-Fu Action Mrs. Coulter.
Anyway, thanks for reading and I can safely say the next chapter will finally have Sokka and Zuko meeting! :D