"Oww," Sokka moaned, "My head."
He tried to rub it, but found that his hands were tied behind his back. Confused, Sokka looked around. He was in an unfamiliar tent, but it was too dark to see anything much. Sokka turned his head to look behind him and hit it against something.
"Oww!" groaned an unfortunately familiar voice.
"Zuko?" Sokka questioned, turning his head as much a possible, "Is this another trap for Aang?"
"Oww," repeated Zuko, sounding slightly dazed.
Sokka shifted himself round to see the scarred Firebender in a similar position to himself. Zuko managed to bring Sokka into focus and glared at him.
"What's going on?" Zuko demanded.
"I wish I knew," replied Sokka.
There was a moment of silence as the two fully comprehended their situation. Zuko tugged at the bindings on his wrists with a noise of frustration. Sokka could feel rope holding his hands behind his back.
"Can't you just Firebend your way out?" Sokka asked.
"It's metal," Zuko snapped. This time Sokka heard the clink of chains when the Firebender moved.
"Well Firebend me out," Sokka suggested, "I'll find a way to get you out. What?" Sokka questioned Zuko's skeptical look, "I'm not just going to leave you here."
Zuko stared at Sokka for a long moment.
"Very well," Zuko agreed, "Move so I can reach."
Sokka did as he was told, presenting his bound hands to Zuko. The Firebender breathed a mouthful of fire onto the rope. Sokka barely managed to keep in his cry of pain as the flames licked at his wrists. Zuko concentrated on the fire, trying to keep it burning only the rope. The few moments it took for the fire to sufficiently weaken the rope was agony for Sokka. At Zuko's hissed command, Sokka snapped the smoldering rope and cradled his burnt wrists to his chest.
"Get some wet bandages, it'll help," Zuko offered, sounding sympathetic for the first time since Sokka had met him, "Try and find something to get me free once you're ready."
Sokka gave a whimper as he pulled his hands away from his chest. A pile of bandages lay in a corner of the tent and Sokka began wrapping up his wrists. An idea struck him.
"Do you think it was Sandbenders who captured us?" he asked Zuko.
"It looks that way," Zuko agreed.
"That means we're in the desert somewhere," Sokka reasoned, "And they'll have supplies."
Zuko nodded, understanding Sokka's point. Sokka began rooting around the tent, looking for something to unlock Zuko's handcuffs with. He found a small, fancy-looking knife and moved back to the Firebender. Zuko held his hands steady for Sokka to work on. It took Sokka a while, but eventually there was a click and the handcuffs fell off Zuko's wrists. Zuko stood up, rubbing his wrist and looked at Sokka.
"That's my knife," Zuko said, holding out his hand for it.
Sokka shrugged and handed it over. Zuko pocketed his knife and joined Sokka in searching the tent for other useful supplies. Finding none, Sokka motioned to Zuko, indicating that they crouch.
"We'll need to look for some sort of supply tent," Sokka whispered, "And hopefully that's where my weapons will be too. Once we're there, we get as much food and water as we can carry and escape."
"What if we're caught?" Zuko asked.
"Then we run," Sokka said simply, "But we stick together. We've got better chances in the desert if there's two of us," he sized Zuko up, "Let's agree on a truce, ok?"
"Truce," Zuko nodded, "Until we get out of this desert at least."
"Right," Sokka pulled up the back of the tent and peered underneath. Seeing no one, he motioned to Zuko, "Let's go."
The two ducked out of the tent. The sun was casting long shadows on everything with its dawning. Zuko and Sokka ran from tent to tent, peering into each one on the way. They made it to a large tent full of barrels and snuck inside. There were several empty waterskins laying near a few sturdy barrels. Sokka levered one barrel open and found it full to the brim of water. He and Zuko both filled a waterskin and drank a few grateful mouthfuls.
Moving deeper into the tent they came across boxes full of food. Zuko picked up a bag and started filling it with the most edible things he could find. Sokka gave a muffled yelp of excitement and rushed off to another part of the tent. His boomerang, machete and bag were piled in a corner next to a pair of broadswords. The charts Sokka had pilfered from the spirit library were in an untidy pile nearby.
Sokka picked up his weapons lovingly. Zuko grabbed the broadswords and slung them over his back. Sokka put his waterskin and his charts into his bag and looked at Zuko, who was slinging the bag of food and his waterskin over his shoulders with the broadswords.
"Is that everything?" Sokka asked.
Zuko nodded and the two headed out of the tent.
Zuko peered over a dune at the Sandbender camp. It was still as quiet as when they left it. He slide down the dune to where Sokka had a few maps laid out on the sand.
"They haven't sounded any sort of alarm," Zuko informed Sokka, "We should be able to get a head start. Have you figured out which way we need to go yet?"
"I'm not sure where we are right now," Sokka answered, frowning at the charts, "But we want to head North-East, that direction," he clarified, pointing, "Unless you have another destination in mind."
Zuko shook his head. Sokka rolled up his maps and put them back in his bag.
"Let's get moving," Sokka suggested.
The two set off away from the Sandbenders' camp, into the desert.
Several hours later, the two walked tiredly over yet another dune. The edge of the desert was nowhere in sight. Sokka was not coping well with the blazing sun and was putting a great deal of effort into not lagging behind. Being from the Fire Nation, Zuko could deal with more heat than the Water Tribe boy, but nothing could have prepared him for the scorching temperatures the desert had to offer.
"We should stop and make camp," Zuko decided, halting.
"Finally," Sokka muttered as he flopped to the ground.
"It's not for long," Zuko warned, "We need more ground between us and those Sandbenders."
"More ground?" Sokka complained, "We've been walking for ages!"
"The Sandbenders have their gliders," Zuko said, glaring at the dunes they had just traipsed over, "They'll catch up if we don't keep moving."
"Why do they even want us?" Sokka asked his feet.
Zuko sat down and unslung his pack. He looked inside with a grimace. The food was looking decidedly less appetising for being kept out in the heat. Still, food was food, and would keep them alive for now.
"I've got a price on my head," Zuko answered, "And you're friends with the Avatar. That's worth something to the right people."
"I guess. How much food have we got?" Sokka asked, unslinging his own supplies, "And water? I'm thirsty."
"Don't drink much," Zuko said as he passed over a waterskin, "That's all we've got."
"Maybe we can get some more," Sokka said, looking around.
"And where do you think we can find more water?" Zuko snapped, clearly near the end of his tether, "We're in the middle of a desert!"
"How about that?" Sokka said, pointing at a cactus he'd just spotted.
Zuko watched skeptically as Sokka ran over to the cactus and chopped the top off. Sokka grinned at the liquid inside. Zuko walked over and peered at the half of cactus Sokka held. Sokka drank a mouthful of the cactus liquid and gave a sigh of refreshment.
"Try some," Sokka offered the cactus to Zuko.
Zuko took the cactus and gave the contents a cautious sniff.
"I'll stick with the water," said Zuko.
"Cactus juice is the quenchiest," Sokka promised, sounding slightly off, "Nothin'll quench ya like it!"
Unimpressed, Zuko dropped the cactus on the sand. Sokka gave a cry of despair and sank to his knees, grabbing at the wet sand.
"Nooooooooooo! Zukoooooooo! You've doomed us all!" Sokka cried.
With a sigh, Zuko grabbed Sokka's arm and dragged him back to their packs. Once it was clear Sokka's addled state had made him beyond understanding, Zuko decided to just carry them both himself.
"How did we get out here in the middle of the ocean?" Sokka distractedly asked.
"Let's just keep moving," Zuko said tiredly.
Zuko began walking, then, realising Sokka wasn't following, reached back and grabbed the Water Tribe boy's arm. The two set off over the next dune.
Zuko woke up and with startling horror realised he couldn't move his legs. He sat up panic and stared in disbelief at Sokka, who was burying him in the sand.
"What do you think you're doing?" Zuko snapped.
"Shh," Sokka said without looking up, "You'll wake Zuko."
Enraged, Zuko shoved the Water Tribe boy away and pulled himself out of the sand. Some of the anger Zuko felt died as he saw Sokka piling up sand with childlike determination. The cactus juice was obviously still at work.
Suddenly Sokka stopped working and stared up at the bright moon. He gave a wistful sigh and waved. Zuko sharply looked up, but couldn't see what the other was waving to.
"Yue looks so pretty tonight," Sokka said dreamily.
"Come on," Zuko said.
It was late, but with the few hours of rest they had had they should be able to cover a few more leagues until they needed to sleep again. Zuko grabbed Sokka's wrist, then immediately let it go when the Water Tribesman gave a yell of pain. Sokka cradled his hands, whimpering.
"I'm a Firebender," Sokka said suddenly, "See, my hands are on fire."
Zuko grabbed Sokka's upper arm and hoisted him to his feet. Sokka allowed himself to be pulled along.
"Whoosh!" Sokka said, pretending to shoot fire, "Ha! Got you!"
Zuko ignored him, focusing on the stars to determine their destination.
"Yue?" Sokka twisted in Zuko's grip, forcing the Firebender to watch him look at the moon, "Is Katara alright? I'm supposed to protect her," Zuko gave a snort, pulling Sokka's attention away from the moon, "I am," he insisted, "I promised dad."
Zuko remained silent, but his grip on Sokka's arm loosened slightly. Sokka seemed to finally break away from his fascination with the moon and allowed Zuko to lead him over the next dune.
Zuko had ordered another stop the next evening. Even with Sokka practically incapacitated they had covered a fair distance. Zuko looked at the sun, it was low in the sky, but it still had an hour or two left before the temperature would become bearable. He also noted, with satisfaction, that it was almost behind them; they were still heading in the right direction. Next to him, Sokka gave his head a few experimental shakes and managed to bring Zuko into focus.
"Uh," Sokka groaned, "I think my head's starting to clear out that cactus juice."
"Good," Zuko muttered.
Sokka rubbed his eyes and peered around.
"How far have we got to go?" Sokka asked.
"I'm not sure," Zuko admitted, "Another day at least."
Sokka held his head in his hands with a moan of despair.
"Let me see your wrists," Zuko said.
Confused, Sokka looked at his wrists. The bandages brought back the memory of the burning and Sokka's eyes watered.
"Why?" Sokka asked, holding his hands defensively to his chest.
"Let me make sure they're healing properly," Zuko explained, "I'm... experienced with burns."
Sokka contemplated it for a moment, then slowly held out his hands for Zuko to examine. Sokka let out a hiss of pain as Zuko pealed the bandages off. As the Firebender began cleaning the wounds with a carefully rationed amount of their remaining water, Sokka cast around for something to take his mind off it.
"How's your uncle?" Sokka asked, surprising Zuko.
"Why?" Zuko questioned.
"Well he got hit by the crazy blue fire lady," Sokka said, "Ow! How is he?"
"He was mostly recovered when I last saw him," Zuko answered, "And that girl who shoots blue fire, her name's Azula. She's my sister."
"Really?" Sokka asked, "But she seems so... Ow!"
"Sorry," muttered Zuko, "Hold still."
"Your family's kinda messed up," Sokka commented.
"Believe me, I know," Zuko said darkly.
Zuko finished tying Sokka's bandages and sat back.
"Thanks," said Sokka.
"They're not that bad," Zuko said dismissively, "It could've been a lot worse."
"Thanks anyway," Sokka said. He yawned, "I guess we need some rest."
"Only for a couple of hours," warned Zuko, looking at the setting sun, "We have to make the most of the time without the sun's heat."
It felt like Sokka had barely closed his eyes before he was shaken awake by Zuko. The moon was bright and almost full in the sky.
"Get up," Zuko ordered.
Groggily, Sokka did as he was told. Zuko was looking as tired as Sokka felt.
"Can't we rest for a bit longer?" Sokka asked, already knowing the answer.
"No," Zuko said shortly, already starting to walk.
Sokka picked up his bag and trudged after Zuko. The two stumbled over the sands wearily, using Sokka's charts to find their way.
The sun beat down heavily on the two boys as they tiredly forced one foot in front of the other.
"Wait," Sokka stopped, squinting into the distance, "Is that water?"
"Just another mirage," Zuko said dismissively, not even looking.
"I think it might be real," Sokka said, brightening up, "Let's get a bit closer. If it is a mirage, I'll carry the bags until we're back on track."
"That's what you said last time," said Zuko with a scowl.
"Come on," Sokka said, already walking toward the water.
Zuko gave a sigh and followed Sokka.
A small lake sat in a rocky canyon. Two high cliff walls cast cooling shadows over the place. A waterfall from the higher wall fell gracefully into the lake with a pleasant splash.
Sokka and Zuko stared at it in wonder.
"You were right," Zuko admitted in disbelief.
His voice snapped Sokka out of his dumbfounded state. The Water Tribe boy flung his weapons and supplies to the ground and ran straight into the water. Zuko followed at a more reserved pace and knelt at the side of the pool. He splashed his face and took a long drink.
Sokka emerged, dripping, from the pool as Zuko was filling up their waterskins.
"I think I saw some fish," Sokka said, grabbing his boomerang and machete, "I'll try and catch some if you get a fire going."
"Fine," Zuko replied, stoppering the waterskins.
The Firebender began hunting for some sticks, while Sokka snuck toward the deeper end of the lake, his weapons at the ready.
The setting sun bathed the rocks in orange light. The two boys were sat around a small fire Zuko had started, munching contentedly on some fish that Sokka had caught. The absence of the desert's heat let them both relax somewhat and they had managed to get most of the sand out of their clothes and hair.
"So," Sokka said, swallowing a mouthful of fish, "How'd the Sandbenders get you?"
"They ambushed me," Zuko said, scowling at the fire.
Sokka waited for more details, but Zuko continued to eat his fish as though nothing had been said.
"Well I don't even remember them," said Sokka, "We were at Wan Shi Tong's spirit library –" Zuko looked up in interest, Sokka noted smugly, "– and the spirit who guarded it, this giant owl," he flapped his arms like wings, almost dropping his fish in the process, "Started to attack us. We were almost out, but he grabbed me and threw me out into the desert. The next thing I know, I'm waking up in that tent. I guess the Sandbenders must've just found me."
"The library actually exists?" Zuko asked before he could stop himself.
"Not anymore," Sokka said, "The spirit said it was going to bury it. So much information... except for the Fire Nation. Someone had burnt it all already." he added at Zuko's questioning look.
Zuko said nothing and put another log on the fire. Sokka was finding the silence strange. Usually Aang would be blathering on about something, or Katara would be ordering someone around, or Toph would be insulting someone. It wasn't right to have quiet around a campfire, in Sokka's opinion at least.
"You know," Sokka said slowly, "This is our truce over. We're out of the desert now."
"Right," said Zuko.
"So are you gonna attack me now?" Sokka asked.
"What's the point in that?" Zuko said, "You're not who I'm after."
"So that's what you're gonna do next?" Sokka asked, "Go after Aang?"
"No," Zuko said shortly, "I'm going to find my uncle. He's probably worried about me."
"We could extend the truce," Sokka suggested, "Until we get to Ba Sing Se."
"Why Ba Sing Se?" Zuko asked.
"I'm pretty sure my friends are there," Sokka explained, "And you could look for your uncle there too."
"Why would he go to the Earth Kingdom capital?" Zuko asked, "Someone might recognise him."
"There's hundreds of refugees," Sokka said, "I doubt anyone will notice one more. And even if he's not there, it's safe. You could start your search without having to worry about your own neck."
Zuko was silent as he considered it. Finally he looked up and nodded.
"Alright," he agreed, "Only until we get into Ba Sing Se."
"Great," said Sokka. He gave a long yawn. "We should get some sleep. We can find a route tomorrow."
The Water Tribe boy curled up on the ground and began to snore almost immediately.