"He's fast," Sokka muttered, eyes on the dark shape of their quarry as it slipped through the bamboo. "I thought this guy was just a bureaucrat?"
"Retired commander," said Suki.
The bamboo thickened, and Sokka paused to draw his sword from its sheath. It whistled in a long, smooth arc as the stalks fell away, and Suki had leaped through the gap before his arm completed its swing. Fast and skinny, Sokka thought, running again with the sword still in his hand.
Nearly all of them ran, in the end, though Sokka couldn't fathom why. Enough time had passed since Fire Lord Zuko's coronation that he was widely known to be softhearted. The first round of war criminals to be convicted were stripped of their ranks and titles and sent to a penal colony, not a single execution among them. But those who tried to escape before standing trial — or worse, after their convictions — were at the mercy of whatever soldier or bounty hunter got to them first.
Sokka and Suki were gentler than most, perhaps. But that wasn't saying much.
"He's going down into the ravine," Suki called from up ahead, shouting to be heard above the crash of her own footfalls — the underbrush was dense, and the time for stealth was past, besides.
"There's a waterfall on one end and cliff on the other," said Sokka, panting a little. "He'll have to go across."
"I'll cut him off," said Suki, and without breaking stride she was in the trees, scrambling up a vine-covered trunk amidst the sea of bamboo and running along its branches, past the lip of the ravine. Sokka glimpsed her first, wild leap across the void, to the trees that leaned out from the far side. Then he was sliding down the steep incline, his boots leaving long, bare patches in the carpet of fallen leaves.
At first, they'd often taken the other Kyoshi warriors with them on hunts like this, or sometimes Katara and Toph. But Toph was just too ludicrously powerful — it wasn't fun with her along. The Kyoshi warriors belonged to the Earth King, not the Fire Lord, and had inevitably been sent home. And when Aang was called away on business, as he was most of the time, Katara went with him.
That was fine, though. There'd be some other chance to have all his friends together again. Until then, he had Suki, and that was good, too. More than good, on those nights that followed the easier days, when they weren't too tired to properly enjoy each others' company.
This wouldn't be one of those nights.
Sokka cursed loudly as the ground dropped away. His left hand shot out and caught hold of a stalk of bamboo, the force of his momentum nearly wrenching his arm out of its socket, but one foot slipped over the edge before he could stop himself. He landed hard on his knee and swore again as sharp rocks dug into his flesh.
For a fleeting moment, he thought of giving up. Who was this guy to him, really? Why did it matter? Only Sokka knew exactly why, had read about the forced labor camps and the women this man had pulled aside for his private use. And the knowledge forced his limbs to move again, to drive the point of his sword down into the mud and use it to pull himself to his feet, ignoring his body's complaints as he did so.
Sokka could hear him moving up ahead, clumsy in his haste, and with one last grunt he pulled his sword out of the ground and jumped down from the ledge.
This was good, he thought as he ran, his sword in his hand, thin branches of bamboo leaving welts along his arms. This mattered.
Ahead, the man cried out as Suki dropped from the branches above.
The throne room was cooler than Sokka remembered. He hadn't been there since the coronation, and in the interim Zuko had done away with the traditional wall of fire before the throne — it reeked of imperialism and arrogance, he said, and he didn't want anything to separate him from his people, not even the element that united them. Still, he was the Fire Lord, looming over them as he knelt upon his raised dais, and Sokka couldn't help but feel a little intimidated. Zuko was his friend, but this wasn't a friendly visit.
"I don't think I need to explain why I've called you here," said Zuko. He sounded tired, as he often did these days.
Suki crossed her arms, unimpressed. "The same reason you called us here the last three times?"
"Four," said Sokka. "Remember, that time with the Rough Rhinos…"
"Oh! You're right, I always forget that one."
"It's because Longshot and Smellerbee were there, it makes the whole thing feel like it was in the Earth-"
"It would be nice if you'd at least pretend to listen to me," said Zuko, loudly and a little petulant, which shattered what was left of his regal affect.
Sokka and Suki exchanged an unsubtle eye-roll, but kept their mouths shut.
Zuko took a deep breath, then said, "These trials are important to me. You know that. I want the men and women who dishonored my country brought to justice. I want the rest of the world to see that I won't forgive the crimes they committed." He paused, frowning at them both as if waiting to be interrupted. When neither spoke, he went on. "But it isn't appropriate for you to be hunting them down like this."
Sokka couldn't help laughing at that. "Like you and Mai are any better."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," said Zuko, avoiding their gaze.
"Zuko, we all know, there's no point in pretending."
"Good job on that prison guard last month, though," said Suki.
Zuko reddened. "You can't-"
"Aang has a really big mouth," said Sokka.
Which was apparently all the explanation Zuko needed. His jaw snapped shut again, and he glared at them in embarrassed silence until he was composed enough to go on. Then his eyes met Sokka's, and the genuine worry in them was sobering. "I put you on the council because I trust you, and because you're better than anyone else at what you do." His gaze shifted to Suki. "The Earth King agreed to let you stay here because it reminds other people that the war is over. That we're allies, now."
Sokka rubbed the back of his neck. "Zuko…"
"I can't stop you from doing what you want," he said quietly. "And I don't want to. Just…please. Be careful. I only call you in here when other people figure it out. It'd be nice if that didn't happen again."
Suki nodded. "We'll try, okay? Promise."
"Thank you," said Zuko. His official business concluded, he let his shoulders sag a little and leaned back on his palms. "I have to ask, though…why do this at all? You don't need the money, and you never collect the bounty anyway."
Sokka shrugged. "It's nice to stay busy."
Zuko barked out a laugh. "If you want more work to do, you can have some of mine."
"That's bureaucrat stuff," Sokka mumbled. "Not the same."
Zuko looked like he meant to protest, but in the end, he didn't bother. "It's not," he agreed, his mouth quirked into a sad little smile.
"We're warriors," Suki said, plain and unromantic. A statement of fact. "All of us are. We can't stop just because the war is over."
Zuko brought a hand up to his face; pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger and closed his eyes. "We'll have to," he said. "That's…things aren't like that anymore. That's what we wanted. That was the point of all of this."
"But we can't," said Suki, and they all knew she was right.
A long moment of heavy silence followed, all eyes on the floor. Then, abruptly, Sokka laughed. "Seriously, Zuko, get off that thing," he said. "It's too weird talking to you when you're up there."
"I'm the Fire Lord," Zuko grumbled. "It isn't weird." But even as he said it he unfolded his legs and slid down off the dais, his slippered feet noiseless as he crossed the floor. He looked much more ridiculous, up close like this, his teenaged body overwhelmed by brocade robes.
"Aren't you hot?" Suki wondered, pulling at a sculpted shoulder ridge.
Zuko swatted her hand away. "No."
Sokka draped an arm around his shoulder. "Look, I know what this is really about," he said.
Zuko's scowl deepened. "Really."
"We'll take you with us next time, okay?"
"And Mai," said Suki.
"Yeah, and Mai. You guys are good, we'll round up twice the runaways in half the time."
"That's not what this is about," said Zuko.
"I know you're got a lot of staff to shake," Sokka went on, ignoring him. "So you'll need what…five hours notice?"
Zuko sighed. "Four," he mumbled. "Two, if it's dark."
The crown made hair ruffling impractical, so Sokka punched him affectionately in the arm. And he wondered, as Zuko laughed and rubbed the spot where he'd been hit, how long it would take for his sister and Aang to reach the capital, and how hard it would be to get Toph to hold back for once.