Author's Note: This is a birthday present for Za'atar, who requested "Sokka and Zuko brotherly bonding." She got this. I hope she is pleased.
Sokka perplexed Zuko.
Of course he wasn't always the best at figuring people out, but he had the rest of them pinned down, sort of. There was Toph, who was an earthbender's earthbender, solid and stubborn and occasionally, he discovered rapidly, with a semi perverse sense of humor. Aang was the Avatar, Katara was terrifying, and the others were apparently just refugees that had been involved in the invasion plan.
And then there was Sokka. A non-bender, utterly non-plussed by the incredibly powerful benders surrounding him. Sokka, with his somewhat obscure sense of humor that seemed to delight and frustrate everyone in the vicinity. Sokka, who sometimes seemed the soul of buffoonery, who Zuko had constantly underestimated or downright dismissed; and also the mastermind behind a plan that had certainly made his father nervous.
Being unable to figure the Water Tribe boy out made him nervous.
Zuko rose early every morning to meditate and sometimes just to sit in the first warming rays of the sun, soaking in power, breathing in life. He was taking slow, even breaths when someone plopped loudly down next to him.
"Sokka," said Zuko politely. He wasn't certain what would count as slipping. Polite, he thought, was probably his best recourse if he didn't want to wake up with Katara staring him down. "How…" How are you sounded trite. "How did you sleep?" Zuko said, and then winced.
You sound like an idiot.
"I had a really weird dream about Momo eating all my toes, but it looks like they're still there. I just hope it wasn't a vision of the future."
It took Zuko a moment to blink in incomprehension, and then another to understand that this was Sokka being funny again, and then another to manage a slightly anemic laugh. "Yeah. That's good."
Sokka threw him a vaguely pitying look and Zuko felt a distinct sinking feeling, but the Water Tribe boy seemed willing enough to let it slide. "Any weird dreams on your end?"
"Um," Zuko said, and groped for something potentially clever to say. "…no," he said, failing. "Not really."
"Huh," Sokka said. "Just me then." He sighed heavily, and Zuko shifted, losing all the focus he'd gained through his brief meditation. He felt slightly peeved.
"Sorry," he said, anyway, and Sokka kind of stared at him again before brightening.
"Hey, since we're both up – want to spar?"
Your sister would kill me, Zuko thought, and then his treacherous mouth was saying, "Your sister would kill me."
Sokka looked theatrically to the right, and then theatrically to the left. "I don't see her awake. She won't be up for hours, trust me. Katara likes her beauty sleep."
I really don't think now would be a good time to die, Zuko thought, and this time managed to keep his mouth shut and merely direct a flat stare in Sokka's general direction. He thought, for a moment, that the Water Tribe boy looked faintly disappointed.
"Your loss," he said jauntily, and stood with no trace of the clumsiness of the boy Zuko'd first met at the South Pole, sauntering away with easy, natural confidence. Zuko felt a flash of longing, watching him go, and almost wished he'd taken up the offer.
He returned to meditation instead.
Dinner was awkward.
This wasn't really new. Dinner was always awkward. Haru watched him with vague suspicion and that absurd moustache, and Katara…well. Katara. She watched him with eyes narrowed somewhere between suspicion and dire peril.
Zuko had tried to help her make dinner tonight, and she'd hissed at him like a prickle snake like he'd somehow insulted her personally. Katara seemed to think that his very existence was a personal insult, though.
Aang usually made things a little better, but he was distracted, discussing earthbending with Toph, his other potential ally, leaving Zuko feeling profoundly isolated and slightly nervous. He sat a little apart from the rest of their little group, keeping his eyes on his rice and pretending to be unaware of Katara's death glare.
"Hey, Zuko," Sokka said suddenly. "What's the weirdest animal in the Fire Nation?"
Zuko was startled out of his reverie, and stared at the other boy, who was looking at him expectantly. Apparently he was missing some kind of conversation, because now Aang and Toph were looking at him as well. "What?" he said, and then wanted to hit his head against something for once again sounding like an inarticulate idiot.
Being good was so much harder. Not least because of the conversation.
"The weirdest animal," Sokka repeated gamely, though Zuko noticed Katara rolling her eyes (more, he thought, than was really necessary). "I mean, we have the Otter-Penguins in the South Pole."
"Those are cute!" Aang protested, and Sokka held up a hand and said, "Yeah, and weird."
"Um," Zuko said. And paused. "I guess the mongoose-dragons are pretty bizarre. On their hind legs they can walk on water for short distances."
Recognition dawned on Sokka's face. "Oh yeah! I remember those. Your crazy sister and those two other girls were riding them that one time. I thought we were screwed when we saw them coming across the river." Sokka grinned good-naturedly, and Zuko thought with an uncomfortable frission about Mai. Wondered how she'd taken the note, and what she was doing now.
"Yeah," said Zuko, suddenly feeling awkward. Katara was glaring at him again, as though it were his fault that Azula had chased them. Or maybe his fault that the creatures Azula had used to chase them existed.
"It was only thanks to Appa," Sokka went on, "That we got away. He smacked them both into the river with his tail. It was awesome." He looked nostalgic. Zuko shifted uncomfortably.
"Yeah, I bet," he said, eventually, and then Toph piped up.
"I was talking to your uncle," she said, cheerfully. "He made me tea."
Zuko couldn't help a half smile. "He does that." It faded a moment later, though, as he remembered that he hadn't seen Iroh since leaving the Fire Nation. His Uncle probably still hated him, and he might never be able to explain how much everything he'd said ultimately meant.
"And then later," Katara said sweetly, "Remember, how you shot fire at us when I was just trying to heal your uncle?"
Silence. Zuko stared at the ground. Nothing, he thought suddenly, would ever be good enough for her. He could do anything and she would never change her mind. And that was his fault, for making the choice he had back under Ba Sing Se.
"Katara," said Sokka after a moment, and Zuko was surprised to hear a note of what he thought was reproach. "You don't need to be nasty."
Zuko stared at Sokka, confused. "It's fine," he blurted out automatically. "I'm done. Eating. I think I'll just go meditate."
Katara didn't apologize, didn't even look at him. Sokka cast him an expression that seemed to say, sorry, what can you do?
Zuko fled from the latter more than the former.
"So," said Sokka eventually, as the balloon continued to move them toward the Boiling Rock. "Mai, huh?"
Zuko glanced at him suspiciously, looking for some trace of…something or other. "Yeah," he said, finally, finding nothing. "She was... I don't know. We knew each other when we were younger." She always knew what to say. She really seemed to care about me.
"There's this other girl, actually," Sokka said, "I mean, other than the one who turned into the moon. I haven't seen her for a while, though. I don't really know what happened to her." He paused. "Do you miss her? Knife-girl, I mean."
"Yeah," Zuko said, after a moment. "I kind of wish…"
"Wish what?" Sokka sounded genuinely curious.
"I don't know. That I could have talked to her about all of this. Before I left, I mean. I don't know what she would have thought."
"Maybe after we win you'll get a chance to find out," Sokka suggested. There was nothing but confidence in his voice, to the degree that Zuko was certain Sokka was anything but confident on that front. He let it go, though.
"So," he attempted, uncertain. "Who's this…other girl?"
Sokka looked like he might flush, just for a moment. "She's…amazing," he said. "The first time I met her, she tied me up before I even knew she was there. I couldn't believe a girl could be that good."
Zuko's eyes widened. "With your sister?"
"Yeah," Sokka grinned sheepishly, "I got over that one." Zuko couldn't help a little laugh, and was surprised by the sound, just a little.
"But you don't know where she is now?"
"No," said Sokka, his face falling a little. "Not a clue. She was captured by the Fire Nation, but I don't know what happened to her then."
Zuko felt briefly, obscurely (and, he thought, absurdly) guilty. "Maybe you'll find her at the Boiling Rock," he suggested, though privately he doubted it, and he could tell by the look on Sokka's face that he did too.
"Yeah," he said, anyway. "Maybe." They were both silent for a while, and Zuko concentrated on firebending.
"So," said Sokka after a while. "Your…ex-girlfriend. Is she really as gloomy as she seems?"
"No!" Zuko protested immediately, and then amended, "Well. Sometimes. She just doesn't…let it all out." He thought of being curled up on the couch with Mai and suddenly missed her like he had nothing since leaving the Fire Nation palace.
"You really liked her," Sokka said, as though just realizing this. Still do, Zuko wanted to correct him, but just nodded. Sokka looked out at the clear blue sky, seeming to ponder something for several moments.
"You know," he said, finally, "If I had someone at home, I wonder if I would have left."
"You would have," Zuko said, almost immediately. He didn't understand Sokka, but he thought he knew that. Sokka glanced at him, seeming surprised.
"You think so?"
"Yeah," Zuko said. "If I…I mean. I haven't been here long, but I followed you around for a while, and I'm pretty sure about that."
For some reason, Sokka smiled. "Hey," he said, "Thanks." Zuko blinked, not sure what he was being thanked for. The smile made him want to smile back, though. He looked away instead.
"No problem," he said.
Zuko came around with his head thudding like a drum. "Huh," Sokka was saying. "This could be problematic."
"Nuuh," Zuko said with remarkable coherency, and forced his eyes open to find Sokka watching him worriedly and…bars.
"You all right? You went down pretty hard." Zuko rubbed the back of his head and tried to remember that.
"Oh," he said, not quite able to put the pieces together. "Sorry." And then paused, and asked, "What happened again?"
"We got arrested," Sokka said casually. He did not seem overly alarmed, which alarmed Zuko. Then he groaned. "Katara's going to kill me."
Zuko indulged himself, for a moment, in picturing Katara's face when she heard that her precious brother had been arrested while in his company. He blanched, nearly certain that a knot on the back of his head would be the least of his worries in that case. "Oh Agni," he said, to himself. Sokka glanced at him.
"Oh yeah," he said, still sounding largely relaxed. "She's probably kill you more, wouldn't she?" Zuko just looked forlornly at Sokka. That momentary bond he'd felt during and after the Boiling Rock rescue; only illusion?
"What do we do?" Zuko asked, and then wanted to kick himself for sounding so hapless. He needed to be capable, to be necessary. He wasn't a complete idiot, after all, no matter how ungainly and awkward he felt with this group of children.
Sokka seemed confused by the question. "I was waiting for you to come around so we could work out an escape plan," the younger boy said, as though it were obvious, and Zuko wondered if Sokka was even aware how much that apparently inconsequential 'we' meant to him. It was almost embarrassing how much.
"Oh," Zuko said, once again sounding perfectly brilliant. Things were beginning to come back now. Not very clearly, but he was getting a bit of a picture, and it made him wince. Or maybe that was the continual thudding in his head. "Okay."
"Are you sure you're all right?" Sokka asked, eyes narrowing, slightly. Zuko drew himself up.
"Of course I'm sure. We should…"
"Yeah. Before my sister panics. Maybe we can still get out of this without getting her involved." Sokka's expression turned conspiratorial. "If we do…don't mention it to her. Right? Not a word."
"You couldn't make me," Zuko said fervently. Sokka grinned at him.
"Thank the spirits it's you," Sokka said, "Aang wouldn't be able to keep his big mouth shut. Anyway. A plan. A good plan should always take one's assets into account." He glanced at Zuko. "What're our assets?"
"Firebending?" Zuko ventured.
"Obvious," Sokka assessed, "But effective. And my excellent planning skills. No doubt famous the world over by now." Zuko couldn't help a little grin, feeling a nearly inexplicable flash of affection for the Water Tribe boy. Nearly inexplicable. "Between us," Sokka went on, "I'm pretty sure we can't fail."
Zuko was far from confident, and he suspected Sokka was as well. Whenever Sokka seemed most confident, he had observed, were usually the times he was most sarcastic.
"All right," Zuko ventured, examining their cell. It looked awfully…metallic. "What do we do first?"
"Well," Sokka rubbed his hands together, "Any obvious weaknesses?" Zuko examined the inside of the cell. It looked…depressingly solid.
"Hm." Sokka sounded disapproving. Then he sighed, apparently resigned. "Well then. We could always try trickery. Fool one of the guards that one of us is deathly ill?"
Zuko crossed his arms. "I don't think that would work."
"Well, do you have any bright ideas?"
Zuko blinked, surprised to be asked. It wasn't often people asked him to make plans. "Uh," he said. "We could just…"
Sokka brightened. "Melt the bars! Of course! If you got them hot enough-"
"They'd notice," Zuko said flatly. "And we'd probably end up getting burned besides."
Sokka frowned, and looked distant. He paced in a slow circle, examined the bars. Zuko could hear what he presumed were guards talking in low voices. For sure they'd been recognized by now, and someone, probably Azula, might already be on their way…
"I've got it," Sokka said, firmly, and turned to look at Zuko, his expression very nearly grim. "Hit me."
Zuko was sure he'd somehow misheard that, probably because of the blow he'd taken to the head. "What?"
"Just do it," Sokka hissed.
The Water Tribe boy's eyes were wide and earnest, and serious. "You want to get out of here before Katara works out that we should be back? Trust me. All right?"
Zuko's stomach turned over uneasily. Trust. Easy to say, harder to do. "If you could just tell me-"
"Fire Nation scum!" Sokka said, suddenly ferocious, and lunged. It was instinctive to react, if only to block him, but Sokka went down hard like he'd been slammed into the ground. Zuko blinked at him, bewildered, and then their guards were at the bars.
"What's going on here?"
Sokka was groaning on the floor. "He hit me!" he yelled. "He hit me! I think my nose is broken!"
Zuko stared as the guard's gazes swiveled to him. "Do we need to separate you two?" They said, smirking. Zuko stepped back. "Uh," he started to say, looking at Sokka, who was still rolling on the floor in a disconcertingly pained manner. "I…"
"I'm in pain," Sokka whined. "I'm in pain, get me out of here."
One of the guards frowned. "Maybe we should…" He reached for the keys. Zuko tensed. Sokka moved, and Zuko had never seen the Water Tribe boy move that fast before. He had the keys, bounced the guard's head off the bars, and glanced at Zuko, who took the hint and dropped into a firebending stance.
"Back off," he said, putting as much menace as he could into his voice with his head aching as much as it was. "And don't say anything." Sokka was fumbling with the keys. Then they were out and in the hallway, and the other guard looked at them. His mouth twisted.
"Prisoners escaped!" he yelled, but Sokka was already dragging him down the hall and they were out and running, Sokka grinning even before they were in the clear.
When they finally slowed down, Sokka turned his head and looked at him, seeming absolutely pleased with himself. "How was that?" he said, "Huh? Worked, right?"
"You're insane," Zuko managed after a moment, and Sokka just looked more pleased.
"But it worked," he said, and Zuko had to conceded that point.
It was one of those evenings. Katara had been nasty the whole day, Aang was distracted and Zuko lost his temper briefly and subsequently felt bad for it, and even Toph seemed snippier than usual. So he kept his distance, after dinner was completed, retreating to his room to sit on the side of his bed. Fishing through his pack, he found the one picture he'd brought with him and looked down at his mother's face, feeling suddenly deeply lonely. He wondered what his mother would think of him now. If she would be proud.
"Hey," Sokka's voice said, with a knock on the doorframe. "Busy with something?"
Zuko glanced up sharply, stuffing the portrait away. "What? Oh – no. I'm not busy. Just. Sitting here."
"Good," Sokka said. "They're all talking about bending out there, and I noticed you'd vanished."
Zuko shrugged noncommittally. It didn't feel right, bringing up his discomfort with Sokka; even if for some odd reason he felt closer, easier with Sokka than he did with any of the others. "What were you looking at?" Sokka asked.
"Just a painting."
Zuko hesitated, and then pulled out the portrait and showed it to Sokka, tentatively. "My mother."
Sokka didn't seem particularly surprised. "Oh. You brought this with you?"
"Yeah," and he suddenly felt self-conscious. "I don't know. It was…"
"She looks nice." Zuko realized that Sokka sounded awkward, and it startled him. Sokka was never awkward. Sokka was a lot of things, but awkward wasn't one of them. "I mean, not that I can really tell."
"She was," Zuko said, and then looked down. Sokka was quiet as well.
"It's nice," he said, suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere. "Having another guy around. One my age, I mean. Aang doesn't really count."
Zuko blinked at Sokka, quizzically. Sokka shrugged. "You don't have to look so confused. It's just good to have someone to talk to about…stuff. I mean, Katara is Katara, and Toph and Aang are…well. You know. You know about weapons, and girls, and that stuff."
Zuko cleared his throat. "Uh. Thanks?"
"You're welcome," Sokka said firmly. And stared straight ahead. Zuko got that brief sense of 'uncomfortable' from him once again. Out of nowhere, then; "You're not a bad guy, you know? When you're not all…" Sokka waved his hands in what Zuko supposed meant 'crazy and following us everywhere.
He rubbed the back of his head, self-conscious. "I'm…glad you think so." You sound so stupid.
"We should spar sometime," Sokka said, fidgeting.
Zuko considered that. Examined Sokka, and thought about the Boiling Rock and everything else, and briefly about Katara and what her reaction would be. And then nodded, once, firmly. "Yeah," he said. "We should. Definitely."
He wasn't any good at smiling, but Sokka was.