Title: Not You
Disclaimer: I own nothing
Summary: A battle with Azula goes terribly wrong, and now Sokka will never be able to talk again. Not to mention that it's all Zuko's fault. No slash, just Sokka Zuko brotherly type bonding.
AN: Dark little plot bunny that wouldn't leave me alone.
The silence was deafening.
Zuko had never heard a quiet so loud. But, he supposed, he was still accustomed to noise following Sokka wherever the swordsman went. Sokka always kept up that continuous stream of chatter, filling up a silence that no one was aware of except for him. But not now. Sokka couldn't now. He couldn't chatter and fill silences, real or imaginary. Sokka couldn't outline plans, couldn't squawk in response to a comment from his sister, couldn't yell or laugh or banter at all. Sokka couldn't talk anymore.
And it was Zuko's fault, utterly and completely.
The others tried to tell him differently. Even Sokka, in an odd hopping dance, had made it clear that he didn't blame Zuko for that night. But they were all wrong to give him such a strong benefit of the doubt. It was his actions, his weakness, his inability to fight back and be strong enough that left Sokka silent for the rest of forever.
Zuko had begun to avoid Sokka. All he could see when he looked at Sokka was his friend, lying on the ground and bleeding, all the while making that awful, terrible gurgling noise.
"What'd'ya mean that Azula's escaped?" Sokka demanded. "Wasn't she in like, a super high security prison with guards and stuff? And wasn't she completely crazy?"
Zuko shrugged. "Yes, she was. And she is crazy. But that just makes her all of the more dangerous. As to how she got out, I have no idea. But she completely obliterated the prison,"
"What about the guards?"
"Ouch," Sokka winced. "No survivors at all?"
"One," Zuko frowned as he spoke. "But he was raving crazy. He kept talking about how the spirits made him do it. How the voices told him too."
"Azula does have that effect on people," Sokka said lightly while he cracked his knuckles. "When are we leaving?"
"In an hour," Zuko answered, and then pointed at Sokka. "But I'm going alone."
"Psh," Sokka rolled his eyes. "Of course you are, if by 'alone' you mean with me. And Katara."
The Water Tribesman was already walking away. He waved a hand airily. "See you in an hour!"
Iroh sat down heavily next to Zuko on the bench. "It is a beautiful day," the old man said.
"Yeah," Zuko answered, his words spit from his mouth. His eyes didn't leave his hands as he spoke. "Real pretty."
Iroh sighed. "Zuko, what happened…it wasn't you –"
"Yes, it was!" Zuko snapped. He sprang to his feet and whirled to face his uncle in a cyclone of anger and self-loathing. "It was all me, Uncle! My fault, my knife, my stupid weakness! I wish people would stop saying that it was 'not me', because it was! All of it was me!"
He turned and stalked away, heading for the palace's library. Upon arriving, he breathed a sigh of relief before realizing that he was not alone. Creeping along the many shelves, Zuko moved towards the voices that marked the presence of another person. Zuko thought that it sounded like Aang, and a glance through one of the bookshelves confirmed his thought. But it was the person sitting next to him was who made Zuko's breath catch.
Sokka was bending over a large book with the Avatar. Aang was talking, and both were moving their hands awkwardly and slowly. "Okay," Aang was saying now, and pointing at an illustration in the book, "It looks like this one means thank you."
Zuko watched as he realized what the book was: sign language. Sokka was learning how to speak, and Aang was learning how to listen. But soon Zuko's gaze was drawn towards the white bandage that was wrapped around Sokka's neck.
My fault, he thought, all my fault.
As Katara walked in to join Aang and Sokka, Zuko quickly and quietly stole away. They probably wouldn't want him there anyway.
They found Azula with little difficulty. Or, really, she found them. Zuko walked towards the stables. Sokka flanked him on the right and Katara to his left. All three of them were armed to the teeth, Sokka and Zuko with blades and Katara with water. "This'll be easy," Sokka said confidently. "We'll go, we'll capture, and then we'll come back here and eat!"
Zuko and Katara both snorted at Sokka's words. But at the same time, his words did buoy their confidence levels a little. In those rare moments that Sokka chose to be optimistic, it was close to impossible not to be infected. It was with this invincible feeling that they entered the stables.
Maybe that's why they didn't sense the ambush.
Zuko had automatically assumed that Azula would go as far from the Fire Palace as possible. He had assumed wrong, underestimating her cunning insanity. Upon entering the stable, Zuko found himself inexplicitly pinned to the wall, unable to move. Sokka was to his right, and Katara flung back and against the far wall.
"What the hell?" Sokka said from next to him. "I can't move. Can you move? 'Cause I can't move!"
"Hello, big brother," Azula said. She was smiling, with her head tilted at that same disturbing angle as the day of the comet.
"Azula," he said in reply. He wondered when his men would realize something was amiss. Or, if they would be in time to stop anything from happening. Zuko had the terrible feeling that they were on their own.
Azula sneered at them. She idly tapped her fingers on an unfamiliar amulet that hung around her neck. Zuko found his eyes locked on it, unable to look away. Azula paused. "Do you like it, Zuzu?" she asked, her voice quiet and dangerous. "It was a gift from the Spirit World. Do you remember the stories? The ones about Roushi?"
Zuko felt a deep fear, far within his chest. Roushi had the power to control people's minds. And there had been the one surviving guard, the man crazy and ranting about how it wasn't he who helped Azula. But mind control? That was ridiculous.
She smiled. "I'm guessing by that wonderful terror on your face that you do. You see, Zuzu, I was going to kill you first. But now…now I think I've discovered a much better way."
Sokka huffed from next to him. "Will someone please be a little less cryptic?"
They all ignored him. Zuko still couldn't tear his eyes from the amulet.
"Zuko," Azula said, all emotion gone from her voice. "Why don't you go over and draw that knife over there?"
Zuko dropped to the ground. He landed in a crouch, and felt his body stand up straight. Get the knife a whispering, enchanting voice said in his ear. Zuko found himself unable not to listen to that voice, and drew the blade.
"Zuko?" Katara asked. "What are you doing? Zuko?"
"Seriously, Jerkbender," Sokka said in a tone identical to his sister's. "You're kind of freaking me out here. Why aren't you attacking Queen Crazy over there?"
Azula's smiling face turned to Sokka. "We'll start with him, don't you think, Zuko?"
Sokka blinked in confusion. "What do you mean, start with me?"
Azula grinned even wider. "Zuko," she said, and pointed at Sokka. "Kill the peasant."
"You can't keep this up," said a voice from behind him. Zuko turned to face Aang.
"Can't keep what up?"
"Avoiding Sokka," Aang answered. The young Avatar crossed his arms and stared at Zuko dead on. Zuko sighed quietly as he remembered a time that Aang would've balked at the thought of standing up to him like this. But, alas, that was a time long gone. "He's going to start thinking that he did something wrong."
Zuko felt his heart start to pound and his eyes grow wide. "He didn't do anything!"
"I know that, and you know that," said Aang. "But Sokka can be kind of…not smart about these sorts of things. You know that."
"I know, I know," Zuko said as he scuffed the cement in front of his boot. "I just…I can't…"
"I don't know," Zuko lied. Aang didn't say anything. He just uncrossed his arms and stared at Zuko, stared at him until he couldn't take it anymore. "What, Aang, what do you want me to do?"
"I want you to go and talk to your friend."
Zuko exploded. "My friend? My friend? Friends don't try to kill each other, Aang, friends don't take knives and…and…"
As Zuko stuttered to a stop, Aang's stare softened. "You used to try and capture us, remember? We don't care about that. That was all your father's fault. Well, mostly your father's fault. But this…this was not you, Zuko."
Maybe, just maybe, Aang had had a chance at convincing Zuko to go and talk to Sokka. Maybe. But by saying that, by saying those words, Zuko shook his head and walked away.
"It was me, Aang. It was me."
Zuko couldn't stop it. He could hear Katara sobbing and yelling from somewhere behind him, begging him to get back in control before it was too late. He could also hear Azula's cold cackles as she watched him raise the knife. But Sokka was terribly, terribly silent. Then, even though the guards were holding him helpless with his head pulled back and his throat exposed, he managed to look at Zuko. "Zuko, c'mon buddy, you got to fight this, right? I-I mean, this isn't you. This is her, so just stop. Zuko. Zuko?"
Gold met blue as their eyes locked on each other. Zuko wanted to scream at the trust that he still saw there, even now as he raised the knife for the killing stroke. Sokka swallowed tightly as his breath came in sharp gasps.
"It isn't you," Sokka said simply. "This is not you."
They were the last words that Sokka would ever say.
Zuko stood on the balcony, watching in silence the scene below him. Toph and Sokka sat on the grass together. Sokka had a hand resting on the blind girl's shoulder, and she was asking him questions. Sokka would tap once for yes and twice for no. When Katara or Aang could, they would translate for Sokka. Apparently, neither were available at the present moment.
"Does your neck hurt today?"
"That's good. Did you sleep the whole night or did you have nightmares?"
Sokka didn't respond, just quirked a slight smile that Toph couldn't see. Thankfully, she seemed to sense it as she slapped her forehead. "Okay, duh. Sorry, Sokka. Did you sleep the whole night?"
Tap. Tap. Sokka reached out and patted the top of Toph's head. She smiled sadly.
"No, I didn't have any nightmares either."
The, for lack of a better word, conversation died away after that and they sat in almost silence, listening to the birds and the world around them. Zuko blinked sharply, his eyes suddenly stinging. He hurried away quickly, thinking of the easy banter that used to fill the air whenever Sokka and Toph were in hearing distance of each other, literally. Zuko could remember one instance where Sokka stood on one side of a rock canyon and Toph on the other. They had screamed the dirty jokes that each had come up with during their time apart back and forth across the canyon. There were people blushing for miles around.
Now, though, now Sokka and Toph would never – could never – communicate with the effortless ease that they once did. Sokka could talk to people who could see; Toph could communicate with those who spoke. Any and all conversations would follow the same lines as the one Zuko had just witnessed, no more screaming profanities from opposite sides of a canyon.
And it was his fault.
It was only after the knife had sliced through Sokka's neck, only after Sokka had started to make that awful gurgling sound that Zuko managed to break free of Azula's grip. Somewhere between the shock of thinking that he'd just killed his best friend – killed his brother – and feeling Sokka's blood coating his hands he had become back in control of his own will again.
There was a shriek from behind him, and he turned just in time to see Katara blood-bend her way free from her captors and raise her hands towards Azula. That is when Zuko realized he hadn't broken free.
Katara had simply gotten to Azula. Zuko looked down at the dark, bloodied knife in his hands, and with a primal roar threw it at Azula. The one time princess's eyes drew wide, and she crumpled to the ground.
Katara knelt on the ground next to Sokka, desperately working on stopping the bleeding. "Zuko, I need water!" she yelled. When he didn't move, she turned and screamed over her shoulder at him. "Zuko! If I don't get some water Sokka will die!"
"My fault," he whispered. "Oh, spirits, its all my fault,"
Then Zuko turned, and sprinted for the water and for help.
The night was silent, and Zuko stood on the tower alone. However, he heard the door creak open behind him. He could only sigh, and acknowledge the fact that he couldn't avoid Sokka forever.
"What're you doing up here?" Zuko finally asked. Sokka stood next to him, and shrugged in response. "It's late."
Zuko could hear Sokka arching an eyebrow at him while poking him roughly in the shoulder. His meaning was clear. You're awake too.
"But I'm not…" Zuko trailed off, still determinedly not meeting Sokka's eyes. His unfinished words hung in the air between the two boys. 'But I'm not hurt like you are. I didn't almost die.'
Sokka waved a hand airily, much like the day they went after Azula.
"I'm…I'm sorry, Sokka," Zuko said. He could hear his voice shake. "Spirits, I'm sorry, I –"
Sokka held his left hand flat and brought his right hand down sharply. Stop. He pointed at Zuko, then at his own throat, and then shook his head again. Wasn't you.
"I held the knife, I should've been able to fight it, I should've been able to stop it," Zuko said. "It was me."
Sokka let out a silent huff. He sat on the ground and began to write with his finger in the dirt. It was Azula and her stupid spirit, jerkbender.
Zuko couldn't look at Sokka. In fact, the last time he had met the Water Tribesman's eyes, he had slashed Sokka's throat open. "I tried to kill you. I would've killed you."
Sokka stood again, and grabbed Zuko's hand before positioning it over his heart and cocking an eyebrow. Sokka's meaning was clear. You didn't.
Sokka pulled Zuko's hand up to the side of his neck now, and placed two of the firebender's fingers over his pulse. Then he waited.
Zuko's breath stopped. How could Sokka be so calm about having the very hand that had stolen his voice be so close now? Sokka had a similar look in his eyes to that night. The one that was absolute trust. It made Zuko feel sick. He pulled his hand back and backed up several steps.
Then he turned his back on Sokka and walked quickly away down the stairs. He ignored the sound of Sokka slapping the wall, trying to get his attention again. Zuko knew that he was being a coward, but he didn't care. Or, rather, he cared too much. Sokka may have forgiven him, but Zuko hadn't.
He didn't know if he ever could.
Zuko sat outside the healer's room, head buried in his arms and rocking. He was curled as tightly as he could, and could feel the blood coating his shirt sleeves smearing onto his face.
The very thought, the memory, of what he had done made Zuko shake with guilt. He would have vomited, but he had already emptied his stomach shortly after arriving. Nevertheless, he still gagged as he continued to rock.
Iroh stood motionlessly next to him. He made no move to touch his nephew or comfort him. He had tried, originally, but was met with opposition from Zuko. So now he stood, and watched Zuko fall farther and farther away.
Katara walked out of the tent, deathly pale under her dark skin. Her bushy hair was tied back, but small pieces of it escaped. Her clothes were stained with her brother's blood, and all it took was a single look to see how exhausted – physically and emotionally – she was. Zuko looked up at her desperately, his eyes rimmed with red from unshed tears. Katara's cheeks bore signs of crying. "He'll live," she whispered, staring ahead into the night at a sight none but she could see. "We got the bleeding stopped in time, but…"
They stayed silent, none wanting to know what the 'but' signified. Zuko's stomach churned and boiled. Iroh finally broke the quiet. "But?" he prompted.
A new tear slid down Katara's face, and she looked at the elderly firebender. "His vocal cords…there was nothing I, nothing we could do," her voice was shaking and thin, and grew more broken with every word, "And he won't be able to talk. Oh, spirits, he's never going to be able to talk again –"
Zuko staggered to his feet, and ran from the room. He could hear Iroh calling after him and Katara crying from grief and pity for her brother. He ran out of the palace doors and into the night, and some part of him whispered to turn around and face his actions. But Zuko kept running, running, running until he was blinded by tears and his heart hammered. It thudded out an accusation that Zuko was well aware of.
Your fault, his beating heart told him, your fault, your fault, your fault…
The next day, Zuko walked through the city. It was by complete accident that he stumbled upon the scene.
Sokka was angrily mouthing words, and Zuko realized that he was talking and forgetting the fact that no one could hear him. The same realization hit Sokka, and he ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. He signed a couple things with his hands, and the man he was trying to talk to shrugged helplessly. "Sorry!" the man said loudly. Zuko hated when people did this to Sokka. When they assumed that because he couldn't talk he couldn't hear either. "I – don't – know – sign – language!"
Zuko watched Sokka's hands for a moment more. He walked up behind his mute friend. "He says that if you try and hit your wife again, he'll come and hit you, see how you like it," Zuko translated quietly. Sokka spun around in surprise, obviously not aware that Zuko had been there. Then he began to sign rapidly again. "He says that he'd like you to meet his friend, Fire Lord Zuko – that's me, by the way – and that as the Fire Lord, you should know that he hits hard. And I do. But Sokka does too."
Sokka nodded and grinned as the man scurried away. Then he turned and looked at Zuko with that scrutinizing glare that missed almost nothing. Sokka placed his fingertips on his lips and lowered his hand. Thank you.
"You're welcome," Zuko said softly.
Sokka chewed his lip and held out his right hand. Are we okay?
Zuko hesitated for a moment. Then he clasped Sokka's hand in his own. "Yeah. We're okay."
Sokka grinned, and they dropped each other's hands. Then Sokka jerked his head down the street, and began walking. Zuko followed his friend – no, his brother – down the road.
He had stolen Sokka's voice. He had almost killed him. Sokka had forgiven him before anything had even happened. Zuko couldn't do it that easily. Sokka couldn't speak anymore. It was a fact that hurt Zuko, but a fact nonetheless. And he was going to need someone to help him sometimes.
No, Zuko hadn't forgiven himself. But at least he could now begin his penance. He had taken Sokka's words; now, he would give them back as best that he could.