Standard disclaimers apply. Will eventually include some darker theme (including torture and child abuse) and some happy themes of male/male love.
Sokka considered himself somewhat of an expert on Things Getting Worse. A quarter hour or so ago, when the three of them had been settling into their camp in the fading light of a setting sun and Katara was cooking, things were going really well, which meant that when Katara dropped the soup pot sending half their current provisions splashing into the dirt, Things were Getting Worse. And when she revealed the cause of the wasted soup to be having heard the sound of a child screaming for help, Things looked to Get even Worse than that.
Ten minutes ago, when Sokka and Katara caught up to Aang at what appeared to be a vine strewn hillside with some picturesque remains of an ancient park beside it, Things hadn't quite Gotten Worse, but they had gotten a bit confusing, as there was no sign of a child. But then Aang said he could hear the crying as well and took a deep breath to give one of his crazy airbending strength blows at the hill, revealing a place where the flowering vines pressed inward instead of scattering around. A hidden cave, then. Things probably Getting Worse, this pointed to a possible kidnapping not just a lost kid. But they plunged ahead, moving into what turned out to be a tunnel choked with more vines, these damper and unflowered, which seemed to cling to their legs as they pushed in. Sokka kept his machete out with a torch in the other hand while Katara held her water flask like a weapon and Aang listened carefully for any more sounds of the child.
Five minutes ago, when the clinging of the wet vines became less "seeming" and more "watch out, the plants are trying to capture us!" it was definite that Things were Getting Worse at a rapid pace. The vines didn't mind getting wet or frozen, and there was only so much good that blowing on them could do, plus Aang had begun to act somewhat lethargic and less upset than the situation really warranted. So Sokka had a brief shining moment of being the most effective one, cutting swathes with his machete and trying to move the other two back to the mouth of the cave. But Katara stopped and argued about whether they should leave without finding the child, and Aang seemed to want to sit a moment and relax, which in short order brought them to the present time, with Sokka's machete arm hopelessly entangled by vines and all of them being pulled slowly but steadily deeper. Things, without a doubt, had Gotten a lot Worse.
"Aang, this is a really serious situation here, you need to do something about this!"
"Um, yeah, serious... I kinda see what you're saying, but I'm not... you know, really... I dunno, maybe the plants are friendly..."
The airbender's eyes were looking distinctly glazed, and Sokka was distinctly scared. He had found Aang's lapses into what he called the Avatar State frightening, but it was very powerful, and might be the only option to get them out of this. But it seemed that Aang had to be feeling some strong negative emotion to get there, and whatever was happening had him too calm to Glow It Up right now.
"Seriously, anyone, help!"
"Katara, who's going to hear you?" Sokka wasn't sure whether to point out that anyone who did hear her was likely to just end up stuck with them. If the Avatar, a water bender and a brave warrior such as himself were outmatched, a random passerby wasn't likely to do them much good.
"I don't know, but no one will hear if we don't yell, now will they? HELP!"
As Sokka tried once more to gain enough freedom of moment to bring his machete to bear on the vines pulling them deeper into the tunnel, he was surprised to hear a shout from the direction of the cave mouth.
"Chang! Is that you?"
Awkward. "No, but help anyway? Please?" Sokka was wondering who Chang was and how many people were going to end up stuck here when a burst of flame cleared the vines between them and the unknown voice.
The water tribesman had just enough time to wonder if he would rather be saved by a firebender or stay captured by vines for a while longer when the firebender leapt over the smoldering plant remains holding one flaming hand up like a torch, and he definitively made up his mind. The very pale firebender. With his head mostly shaved except a tall topknot. And a burn scar covering one eye. Did the spirits really hate Sokka this much?
"Oh, hi Zuko... that's a nice vest. Sokka says this is serious, do you think you can help?" Well, at least Aang's pleasant confusion had the side effect of completely flummoxing the Fire Nation prince. And true, Zuko was wearing some sort of sleeveless red top and black pants instead of his usual armor, but Sokka wasn't sure that fashion compliments were really the way to go in this situation.
"What are you... augh, nevermind!" the prince spat out after an array of expressions had finished warring for primacy on his face, with irritation as the clear winner. "Look, have you seen a little boy in this cave? Five years old, fire nation clothing?"
"What, did you get tired of harassing a twelve year old and now you're attacking someone you can handle?"
Sokka appreciated his sister's talent with an insult, but figured this would be even less helpful at getting out of here than the fashion talk. "Katara, don't piss off the firebender while we're incased in flammable objects! No, we haven't seen anyone, but we were looking for a kid Katara and Aang thought they heard screaming and crying. Why don't you let us out and we'll help you find him?" Yeah right. Zuko's target was helpless and both of the Avatar's protectors were in no better state, things weren't going to get any better for the prince than this. The warrior waited in dread for Aang to be knocked out and carried off before his eyes.
"I don't have time for this." Zuko stared at the young airbender for a moment with a look that could only be called hungry, then shared the fire he was still holding between both hands, stretching it out into two long whips of flame that he swung towards them.
As Katara shrieked in fear and Aang murmured "pretty..." Sokka just struggled to keep his eyes open, not wanting to hide from his death like a coward. But the lashes landed neatly to the sides of each vine snared form and Zuko let them dissipate to reach forward and and yank the younger two loose from their damaged bonds while the water tribesman managed to break himself free. Then the prince just silently pushed past them, letting loose a burst of fire that cleared the tunnel ahead of him before moving forward with another call for the unknown boy.
"We have to get out of here!"
Sokka growled slightly. "Yeah I remember saying that a few minutes ago, before we got trapped... Look, take Aang out, get him some fresh air, maybe that'll help. I'm gonna keep trying to find the kid."
"But... Zuko is here!"
"That's why Aang shouldn't be. But... It looks like Zuko is here to find that same kid, maybe? So it should be safe for me as long as he's distracted by that." Sokka didn't give his sister a chance to object, and wasn't sure he could explain himself why he wanted to continue a rescue mission he had been dragged into to begin with, just turned Katara towards the cave mouth, shoved Aang into her and then ran down the tunnel after the fire prince.
When he caught up, slicing a singed vine that had grabbed onto the older boy's arm, he got exactly the look of surprised suspicion he had been expecting. "What are you still doing here?"
"You know, saving people, being heroic and stuff? What are you doing here in the first place?"
The annoyed look made Sokka glad that the prince apparently had better things to set on fire right now as another smooth blast of flame cleared more room ahead of them. "I'm looking for a little lost boy, who apparently has been captured by a plant monster. And being bothered by a Water Tribe idiot."
"Hey, I'm not bothering, I'm helping!" The very-much-not-an-idiot-thank-you-kindly enforced this with a couple of helpful machete chops. "And I mean, why are you here looking for a lost kid?"
"Because the local guard are moronic colonial slugs, and his mother is sitting on my ship crying into my uncle's shoulder..."
Sokka recalled now that the town being a Fire Nation colony had quashed plans to resupply there. No wonder Zuko had specified Chang's clothing that way. "Oh, what so you know the kid?"
"No, why would I know a random colonial brat?" After sparing a brief glance to take in the continued confused look, he elaborated as he blasted more fire. "His mother came to ask for help because she knew the guard wouldn't send anyone soon enough, and my ship flies the royal family's standard."
"Oh... right, cause if they're Fire Nation themselves, you being a prince from there would be a good thing... I guess? So wait, do you do this sort of thing a lot?"
"Not plant monsters, no." Sokka choked for a moment as he tried to figure out if the dry humor had been intentional and then dismissed the idea as crazier than Zuko being in a regular habit of helping people. "Just, you know, problems. Bully soldiers, corrupt governors, bandits, pirates, runaway brides... Uncle handles anything requiring diplomacy and I track people down and set things on fire."
A further choking fit at this straightforward summary of the prince's talents distracted Sokka sufficiently that when the other boy came to a sudden stop he ran into his back, almost knocking them both forward before Zuko grabbed at the remains of a vine to steady them. "Watch it!"
"Sorry." They had come to a drop off where the narrow tunnel opened up into a larger space. As the fire around Zuko's hand intensified, they could see a cave perhaps a dozen yards across, coated floor to ceiling in the writhing vines. Two bundled shapes could be seen near the ceiling, one struggling faintly against the plants, and a soft sobbing could be heard.
The fire prince blasted the ground under the moving shape and backed up a few steps. "If you want to help, jump down there." Sokka didn't really like taking orders from a firebender, but couldn't think of a non petty objection, so he sheathed his machete and launched himself towards the bare patch, torch in hand. As he regained his feet and blew on the torch to get it bright again, he heard a few running steps and looked up in time for the admittedly impressive sight of Zuko leaping straight across to grab hold of the vines above him. Producing a flame dagger like the ones he had threatened Sokka with at their first meeting, he sliced neatly through the entangling plants, revealing a small boy who shouted first in relief and then fear when Zuko roughly pulled him free and dropped him to the floor with a yell of "Catch!".
"Little more warning next time?" the water tribesman yelled angrily as he managed to break the child's fall. Seeing he wasn't going to get any response, he looked at the boy in his arms. "Um, Chang, right? Are you okay?"
"Wow! He can do fire daggers! Did you see that?" The fear seemed to have fled before a surge of admiration for the fire prince, who was currently climbing across the vine covered walls, letting them grab him enough to keep him up before burning himself loose to move on. "My brother is training for the army and he says fire daggers are super hard, but that guy did one while hanging from the plants, he must be the best firebender ever and did you see that jump and he..."
"Yeah, yeah, he's all cool like that, don't bother to thank me for stopping you from breaking your neck or anything..." Sokka looked up to where the object of worship had made it to the unmoving bundle and placed a hand on it. After a second, Zuko simply left that one and pushed off the wall to land in the cleared patch with them. Sokka couldn't help but notice that the vines were starting to encroach back into their area and in fact all of the plants were becoming significantly more active since Zuko had freed the boy. "The other one, are they...?"
"No body heat left, they must have been taken a while ago. The woman had mentioned other disaopearances." The prince knelt slightly before the little boy. "Chang, can you run?"
Chang seemed a little startled by the closer view of his savior, and Sokka felt a brief moment of pity. Can't be fun to have a face that literally scares children... But the boy shook it off and answered, "I don't think so, it was all squeezy and I feel wobbly..."
"Argh, of course not, um okay, water tribe, can you carry him and use that big knife?"
"It's Sokka, and yeah, if I leave the torch, but you light things up pretty good... um this is looking bad though."
Zuko's eyes were darting around the cavern, clearly also realizing that the vines were taking a more active interest. "Right, kneel down and hold him close." The price was biting out rapid orders now and for once Sokka wasn't inclined to take time arguing. "I'm going to count to three, both of you take a deep breath and breathe out on three, then we run like crazy, got it?" Both of them nodded and the warrior cowered down, wrapping his arms protectively around the small boy.
"One..." Zuko took a bending stance.
"Two..." He folded his arms to his chest and tucked his chin down, taking a deep breath in as Sokka and Chang did the same.
"THREE!" The firebender flung his arms wide and a sphere of flame exploded out from him in all directions. Sokka could smell singed hair and even though Zuko had pushed the flames up and out rather than down towards the two at his feet, the reason for his breathing instructions was perfectly clear. If he had breathed in during that momentary inferno... even his first breath afterwards seemed to dry out his lungs.
Then a hand was yanking him up and he had the boy slung over one shoulder while they ran. The blast had cleared enough of the covering vines that they could now see a path up to the tunnel mouth. Zuko did his part on the remaining vines, which had pretty much gone crazy rushing towards them, but Sokka could see that his flame blasts were weaker and the firebender was panting like he had just sprinted a mile. No problem, though, more targets remained for the machete that way.
Neither spoke or slowed down until they had left the tunnel behind and collapsed amid the darkened ruins outside. "Wow..." Sokka gasped once he thought he could talk again. "Now that... that was some firebending. Not that I'm complaining, mind you, but I've never seen you do anything like that..."
Zuko made a sound that might have been a laugh if he wasn't gasping for breath. "It's not... exactly a good... combat technique. To much buildup... nothing left after... and really, how often... do you need to... destroy everything around you... you know?"
"Well, probably not as often as you do... but seriously, nice job. Don't think there'll be much plant monster left to bug anyone now."
"Actually... speaking of that, I need to ask you a favor."
"Um," this was unusual. "Well, you can ask..."
Zuko had sat up, largely recovered from the exertion, and now he looked back at the cave mouth with a very familiar determined set to his jaw. "Now that Chang's safe, I want to go back in there and try to burn that thing out at it's roots. There's probably little enough of it left that it's safe to do it, but I can't count on the colony slugs to take care of it before it grows back enough to be a danger again. And I'd rather deal with it now and be ready to leave when I get back to my ship." His mouth twisted in a half amused, half annoyed grimace. "If I bring Chang back first, Uncle will try to make me eat and rest, and probably drink some sort of appropriate tea for the situation before he lets me come back."
Ignoring Sokka's soft snort at the image of the fire prince being babied, he continued, "So, if you could take Chang down to the dock and just watch and make sure he gets on my ship, I can take care of it now, and be sure nothing like this happens again."
The water tribesman looked at the cave mouth too, noticing in the light of the rising moon that all of the flowering vines had been burned away. "Yeah, I can see wanting to solve the problem permanently before moving on... okay, but if I get arrested by the town guards, I'm totally blaming you."
Zuko smirked. "As terrible as that risk to me is, if you demand to see General Iroh confidently enough, they'll probably take you to him. Then once he's served you tea and tried to run your life for you, you'll be free to go..."
Sokka couldn't help it, he laughed at what he was pretty sure was Zuko deliberately making a joke. "Is it good tea?"
"It's excellent tea, from what I hear, I'm not that good a judge."
"Well, then I'll definitely take the risk." He stood and helped up Chang, who had been happily staring at the fire prince the whole time and murmuring things like "Biggest fire blast ever..." and "Kun is never gonna believe this..." Feeling awkward and not wanting to leave just yet, he gestured to the cave mouth. "So, you don't like flowers?"
"Hrm? Oh, those are Sleepy Violets, they have a chemical that makes you sort of calm and off your guard... a lot of Fire Nation nobles will put them on the walls of their estates to make anyone sneaking in a little careless. Did the Avatar eat a few or something?"
Sokka laughed again, remember the huge breath Aang had taken in front of them. "Or something, I guess that explains that... well, um..." Take care? See you around? Thanks for not leaving me to die?
Zuko was already walking back to the cave. "Thank you, Sokka," he said over his shoulder.
"That would have been a lot harder if you hadn't stayed to help and Chang might have gotten hurt. So thank you."
"Oh. Well, you're welcome..." Zuko had disappeared from sight. "Okay then, kid, let's get you back to your mom."