A/N: This originally started out as a very long AU one-shot, but after talking it over with my beta, we decided it would work better if I could write it in chapters and include more details. So, for Azula/Sokka/Zuko day, here is chapter 1. The story will primarily focus on Azula and Sokka's relationship, but Zuko will become very important further into the fic. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: Written for ATLA Couples Month. The characters and places portrayed in this fic belong to Nickelodeon and not to me. I make no money from this story. The song lyrics that begin this chapter are from the song "Breath" by Breaking Benjamin and also do not belong to me. Thanks to Val-Creative for betaing!
So sacrifice yourself
and let me have what's left
Sokka had begun to notice that his days never seemed to end well anymore.
Most of them started off just fine. Waking up was always annoying, but breakfast immediately cheered him up, and he was usually able to think up some really good jokes to crack once he was awake enough. There was no shortage of things to joke about in the mornings: Toph's messy, dusty hair; Katara's muttered curses as she tried to put in her hair loopies; Aang's attempts to help the girls get ready for the day. There was laughter and smiles, and hope for what the new day would bring.
By the end of the day, things had always gone wrong. They were tired. They'd encountered firebenders. They hadn't been able to get food. Somebody important to them had gotten hurt. By the end of the day, the dark oblivion of sleep was always welcome, a way to forget things.
Sokka had the ugly feeling that he wouldn't be sleeping very well tonight.
Tonight, he was going to be trapped on board a Fire Nation ship – a ship that he was being very forcefully led towards, his hands pinned firmly behind his back.
"You've got to be stupid," drawled Mai, the Fire Nation girl to his right. Her hair was jet black and swept up, for the most part – except for two long ponytails that hung thick and glossy over her shoulders. She looked at him askance, her pale gray eyes studying him with disdain. "Giving yourself up to Azula like this. You don't know what you're getting yourself into, do you?"
"I think it's all very sweet," said the girl on the opposite side of him – Ty Lee. She was dressed in several bright shades of pink, her flat belly exposed. Her brown hair was tied in a long braid, and she was all smiles, beaming constantly at him. "Giving himself up so he could take his sister's place. I wish somebody would do that for me." She batted her eyelashes at Sokka, smiling broadly at him. He stared at her incredulously. What did she think she was doing, pretending to flirt, pretending to show sympathy? She didn't care. She was Fire Nation.
The voice sent chills through Sokka. The girl in front of him stopped, turned, and looked back at the trio. Her eyes were sharp and yellow, her smile the vicious grin of a foxwolf. This was Princess Azula, staring at her companions as though Sokka wasn't even there.
"We don't have little chats with the prisoners," Azula said, her voice low and rich and full of danger. "Prisoners are beneath us."
Mai rolled her eyes. Ty Lee looked abashed. "Sorry, Azula," she said.
Azula sniffed and glanced at Sokka. Her gaze was piercing; for an instant, Sokka thought she could see right through him.
Thankfully, she turned away and began walking again. "The ship's waiting for us at the harbor," she said. "I've sent a message warning them that we have an incoming prisoner; hopefully those idiots will keep a tight guard on the ship. We don't want our little Water Tribe savage escaping."
Sokka looked up indignantly. "Hey!" he snapped. "I'm not a savage!"
Azula kept walking. "Ty Lee," she said, "Please gag the prisoner."
Sokka wanted to protest, but Mai jabbed him forcefully in the side. Ty Lee frowned, looking around. "What am I supposed to gag him with?" she asked.
"You have bows in your hair," the brooding girl said. "Use one of those."
"Ooh!" Ty Lee immediately brightened. "Good idea!"
"That's really ok," Sokka said, eyeing Ty Lee as she undid one of the bows in her hair. "I don't need – "
Ty Lee leaped in front of him and cheerfully shoved the bright pink fabric in his mouth, tying it in a firm knot just beneath his warrior's wolftail. "There," she said. "No more chat."
"Good," Azula said shortly. "I can't stand listening to idiots talk."
Sokka tasted something bitter in the back of his mouth as impotent rage welled within him. He wished that he could rip Azula apart right there, watch the arrogance disappear from her twisted face as he leaped at her – but no, he wasn't a bender, and he couldn't take her on. Not like Aang, or Katara.
The rage began to die immediately when he pictured Katara in this situation instead of him, helpless due to Ty Lee's chi-blocking abilities. It should have been her between these two assassins – would have been her, if Sokka hadn't returned to Ba Sing Se earlier than expected and discovered that his sister had been captured. It might still have been her if he had not gotten down on his knees in front of Azula and begged to be taken instead of Katara.
"Just let her go," he'd pleaded. "You can keep me."
Azula's eyes had glistened with malevolence as she'd looked down on him from the Earth King's throne. "What use are you to me?" she had sneered, arching an eyebrow in disdain.
"Begging your pardon, princess," one of the Dai Li had said, "But this boy is responsible for the planning of the Day of Black Sun invasion."
Sokka had looked up, horror filling his face. "You – how did you – ?"
"Your precious Earth King told me all about it," Azula said, smiling cruelly. "He assumed – on your word, I might add – that we were friends. That we would need to know of the plan. So trusting. So ignorant." She chuckled, a horrible laugh without mirth and without joy. "So you're the mastermind behind the plan?" She looked him over, her lips twitching in amusement. "I find that difficult to believe."
"He may appear to be harmless, Princess," the same Dai Li agent said, "But he has proven very dangerous to us quite a few times during his stay. He is very clever."
"Me?" Sokka said, smiling nervously. "Clever? No way. I'm just an average guy. Kind of a klutz. Crack bad jokes. Love meat and sarcasm. That's all there is."
When he'd looked back at Azula, she had stepped down from the throne, her hands folded behind her back. She looked strange in green Earth Nation robes – younger, sweeter. She looked like the kind of girl he might have stopped to ogle if he'd passed her in a market – except for the eyes. Despite their warm golden color, they looked like hard flecks of stone, cold and unfeeling. There was nothing there in them but vanity and hate.
When she looked at him, her expression filled with a strange curiosity, as though she were examining a foreign creature she had never before encountered. Alien, that was the word – Azula was look at him as though he were entirely alien
"Interesting," she said finally. She turned away with a bored flick of her wrist. "Very well. I accept your pathetic little proposition. Your sister is set free, you come with us." She dropped into the throne and studied her nails. "Go release the waterbender," she ordered to a cluster of Dai Li. "Oh, and you." She pointed at the lead Dai Li. "I'd like to speak with you."
She'd left Sokka in Ty Lee and Mai's hands. Mai had ignored him; Ty Lee had giggled and smiled and batted her eyelashes until Sokka was quite certain she was insane.
Then the armies had come, wave after wave of Fire Nation military storming through the city. Still between Mai and Ty Lee, Sokka had watched the city burn, his heart pounding in his throat. The destruction of the city was vicious and horrible to behold, and with every new fire that sprang to life Sokka felt as though a piece of him had died.
And now they were marching away, leaving the city in a general's hands, returning to the Fire Nation. Sokka could hardly believe it. He had thought that Azula would surely wait for Aang to return. That had been his plan, mostly – give himself up, free Katara, pray he wasn't killed. Wait until Aang arrived. Be rescued. Run.
But Azula wasn't waiting. And if she wasn't waiting, Sokka wouldn't be rescued.
Between Mai and Ty Lee he sagged, exhaustion and sadness overwhelming him. Both Ty Lee and Mai caught him under the arms. Mai yanked on him, dragging him firmly after her; Ty Lee merely supported him, helping him to walk. When he glanced at her, she was studying him with a worried frown, her eyes wide and full of sorrow.
"Azula," Ty Lee said. Her voice had an edge of concern, but it was bright and happy otherwise.
Azula sighed irritably. "What, Ty Lee?"
Ty Lee glanced at Sokka. "I was just thinking," she said. "Since our prisoner is so important, wouldn't it be better if he had someone to... permanently guard him?"
Azula glanced over her shoulder, raising an eyebrow. "I don't follow."
"Oh, you know," Ty Lee said, shrugging. "Somebody you really trusted always being there with him, keeping an eye on him so he doesn't run away."
Azula turned forward again, but the tilt of her head suggested she was thinking. "Not leaving him with the guards on the ship, you mean?"
"Yeah," Ty Lee said. "You know, like, you could leave him with Mai. Or maybe me. Since we're just going to be on the ship and all."
Azula glanced over her shoulder again. She looked suspicious, her eyes narrowed. "Any particular reason you thought this would be a good idea?"
Ty Lee blinked innocently. "Is it a bad idea?"
Azula frowned. "No," she said slowly. "It... would probably be a wise course of action. But," she said, her voice growing sharp, "I expect you to act as a guard to him. He's not one of those boys you can get to follow you around everywhere, you know. You must keep him locked up at all times."
"Oh, of course!" Ty Lee said, nodding vigorously. "Whatever you want, Azula. You're the one who really understands all these things about prisoners and war and stuff."
Azula still looked suspicious, but she shrugged away her concerns and turned forward again. "Keep him in your room on the ship," she said. "And don't leave him alone at any time. I'd hate to see him escape because you were being lax."
"Yes, Azula," Ty Lee said.
Sokka glanced at her warily. She turned to him and smiled a gentle, friendly smile that probably would have made his heart stop – if she wasn't Fire Nation. If she wasn't his prison guard. If there wasn't a war.
Oh, how Sokka wished there wasn't a war.
When they arrived on the ship, Ty Lee immediately snatched Sokka away from Mai and dragged him down a series of twisting corridors to her room. She didn't speak, and kept glancing nervously over her shoulder, as though afraid Azula was following her. But Azula's voice was still echoing down the hall, giving orders to the navy soldiers stationed on board.
Sokka tried desperately to memorize the way to Ty Lee's room, but she dragged him down so many corridors – a few of them, he suspected, she brought him down at least twice – that he was soon totally lost.
Finally she stopped in front of a large metal door, not very different from the other metal doors in the hall. "Here we are," she chirped, opening the door and pushing Sokka inside. "Your new home!"
Sokka looked around. He'd expected to be thrown in a prison cell, despite Azula's grudging agreement to let Ty Lee serve as his guardian – but he stood instead inside a comfortably-sized room, furnished with a large four-poster bed draped in red curtains, a vanity, some small chairs with red cushions, and a huge Fire Nation flag on the wall. There was also a collection of paintings and sketches – a very small Ty Lee with an equally small Mai, playing with dolls (Mai, of course, looked bored); Ty Lee, probably around eight years old, cheering on Azula as she practiced firebending; the trio sitting on a bench at a park. The sight of the pictures shocked Sokka. They looked so – normal. What had happened?
"So what do you think?" Ty Lee asked, looking around the room. "It's a lot nicer than the room I had at the circus, let me tell you." She looked him over with a small frown. "Oh!" she exclaimed, clapping a hand to her mouth. "I can't let you loose! That's right! Hang on just a second..."
Ty Lee did a flip and landed on her hands. Still in her headstand, she walked all the way across the room, as though this was perfectly normal. She did another small flip and rose to her feet, grabbing for some very lovely scarves that were neatly folded on her vanity. "Well," she sighed, "Guess these will have to do."
She turned to him and strode across the room. She came so close that Sokka feared she was going to run into him – and, in fact, she probably would have, if he hadn't kept backing away.
"What's the matter?" Ty Lee asked, pouting. "I thought you'd want to be close to girls."
"Mot ooo," Sokka exclaimed indignantly, but the gag prevented him from being heard.
As soon as he had spoken, he smacked into a bedpost. In the blink of an eye, Ty Lee was behind him, tying his hands.
"Mmmmm!" Sokka tried to shout.
"Shhh," Ty Lee said. "This will be much easier if you just relax and be quiet."
Dejectedly, Sokka slumped and let her tie him up. There were, he thought, worse things than being tied to a bed by a pretty girl.
"I know I'm not really supposed to talk to you," Ty Lee said as she reached around him and wrapped a scarf around his waist. "But I really just think you're so sweet, giving yourself up to take your sister's place. I'm Ty Lee, by the way. You probably figured that out by now, but just in case – you know, it's always so awkward when nobody makes the introductions."
Yeah, Sokka thought sourly. Because this isn't at all awkward to begin with, of course.
She slipped off the bed and came to stand in front of him, beaming. "I hope you don't mind being kept in my bedroom. I don't normally let strange guys into where I sleep, but, you know, Azula gets the fancy set of quarters on the ship and the rest of us have to live in single rooms. So!" She clapped her hands and folded herself into an elaborate pretzel, setting her chin in her hands and beaming up at him. "What's your name?"
Sokka stared at her. Was she really expecting an answer? Hadn't she just said they weren't supposed to talk?
He blinked, shrugged, and decided to risk it. "Fawga," he said, around the gag.
Ty Lee giggled. "How silly of me! I forgot about that. Let me just fix that for you." She did a flip, stood on her feet, and leaned very close to him, untying the gag with quick and deft fingers. "There," she said, smiling warmly.
Sokka blinked. Her eyes were a very nice shade of brown. He hadn't seen very many people with brown eyes. "Uh... I – Sokka," he managed. "I mean, me Sokka. I mean, I am Sokka. Sokka is... my... name..."
He trailed off into embarrassed silence, looking anywhere but Ty Lee.
She giggled. "Sokka," she said. "That's such an adorable name. You're so cute."
She pecked him lightly on the cheek, as though this were perfectly natural. Sokka twitched a little, wishing he could move his hands. "Uh... is this... how you usually do this prisoner guarding thing?" he asked.
"I suppose," Ty Lee said with a small shrug. "I'm pretty new to prisoner guarding. Actually kind of new to the whole assassin and tracking bit." She stepped back and tied her bow back in place, apparently uncaring that it had been in Sokka's mouth. She paused to look at herself in the mirror, frowning critically. "Hmm. What do you think? Too much?"
"Uh..." Sokka stared at the bow. "No?"
"I suppose I can just store it there in case I need to gag you again or something," Ty Lee mused, tapping a finger against her lips. "Not that I really want to gag you. You seem nice, and I like having somebody to talk to. Azula is wonderful and all, but she just doesn't do small talk very well."
Sokka tried to picture Azula making small talk about the weather, and only succeeded in making his brain implode. "Well, I have to warn you," he said. "I'm not particularly good at the whole small talk thing either. Though probably better than Azula."
"I would tend to doubt that, peasant." Azula's voice cracked across the room like a whip. Ty Lee, previously doing a handstand, collapsed into a heap with a small squeak, rolling onto her stomach and staring wide-eyed at the door. Sokka snapped his mouth shut and cringed.
Azula struck an intimidating figure, dressed in full Fire Nation armor. Even her hair looked like it could kill. Her eyes glittered dangerously in the low light, and Sokka wished he could disappear. He wished she was still wearing her Earth Nation clothes. At least then, she looked like she could perhaps be normal.
"Why is this prisoner not gagged?" Azula asked.
Ty Lee stood, twisting her hands in front of her. "I just wanted to talk to him," she said.
"You do not talk to enemies of the state, Ty Lee," Azula snapped. "You interrogate them. You punish and torment them until they are screaming all their secrets at your feet." She turned her vicious gaze to Sokka and smiled coldly. "And then," she said, "You kill them."
Sokka swallowed hard. Azula approached him, stalking towards him like a predator eyeing her dinner. She leaned in close, as close as Ty Lee had only a few minutes previous – but her yellow eyes excited only fear and loathing. "I hope you didn't think this would be easy," she said, pressing a finger to his chest. "Because it won't be. I'm going to make you suffer until the Avatar hears you screaming in his sleep. And when he comes for you, I'll take him down." She chucked his chin as a mother might to a child. "I'll come to visit you and tell you all about it," she promised. "Every night, just before you sleep."
Sokka felt his heart sink. So she was still planning to capture the Avatar. And he had become the bait.
Not good. Very, very not good.
Azula turned on her heel. "Ty Lee," she snapped.
Ty Lee straightened. "Yes!"
"Gag him," Azula said. She narrowed her eyes. "And don't let me catch you talking to him again."
"Yes, Azula!" Ty Lee squeaked. "Of course! You know what's best."
Azula smiled. "Yes," she said. "I do."
Ty Lee shuffled across the room and lifted the gag back to Sokka's mouth. Over her shoulder, Sokka watched Azula turn to leave. He followed her back with an icy glare, and hoped that someday he would watch her die a slow and very painful death.