What you're getting here is sort of nebulous S1 we're-stuck-together-and-it-just-sort-of-happened-and-shall-never-be-spoken-of-again pre-friendship, complete with a lot of banter and undignified struggling.
I for one quite enjoyed writing it. Hope you enjoy the read.
Zuko glared. He did it well. His face was basically made to glare. "Make no mistake, Water Tribe; the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy."
Sokka's own retaliatory glare had no choice but to falter. It turned into a full-face scrunch instead, which was probably much more his style anyway. "That's a lot of enemies."
Zuko glared harder.
Normally, Sokka would have been more than content to glare back, but today was slightly different. Today four no-good Earth Kingdom soldiers were holding him captive for unclear reasons. He hadn't fought them too hard upon being captured, since he hadn't wanted to hurt the good guys and had figured they just didn't recognize him. But when he'd mentioned being best buddies with the Avatar, they'd only laughed at him and high-fived each other. Then they'd put him into a deep pit with a very disgruntled Fire Prince and left. Zuko had been glaring since Sokka first arrived, which was four hours ago.
But no measly stinkeye was going to stop Sokka from escaping this literal hole in the ground and rejoining his sister and friend. Even if he had to use Prince Glare to do so. Unfortunately, Prince Glare was implacable so far.
"Of course I have a lot of enemies," he retorted, still glaring. "And you're one of them. The only reason I haven't burnt you to a crisp yet is because then I'd be stuck down here with your corpse and I hate the smell of burning flesh."
Sokka pulled a disgusted face that was only slightly exaggerated. What kind of freak considered that a good reason to spare someone's life (not that his life needed sparing, thanks, especially when Zuko had handcuffs and he did not)? How did that even come to mind? Anyone who knew the smell of burning flesh well enough to consider that sort of thing was not the kind of person Sokka cared to be stuck in a tiny hole with. Why, that pretty much ruled out the entire Fire Nation, didn't it. Funny, that.
"You're psycho," he said. "Plus you have handcuffs so you couldn't hurt me if you tried, but mostly you are psycho. You sniff your victims?"
For the first time, Zuko's glare slipped. "I – what? No! There's – what do you mean, victims? I'm not some – some murderer!"
Sokka snorted, very loudly and disbelievingly. Zuko's scowl returned with a vengeance.
"…I'd think it would be obvious why I'd hate the smell of burning flesh, you imbecile," he muttered, turning his face away. The motion revealed the scarred half of his face, as clearly as it could be revealed in the dim light.
"Ohhhhhh," Sokka breathed. For a long moment, he almost felt guilty, because Zuko's scowl seemed kind of emotionally wounded rather than just angry, but then he remembered this was the enemy. "Well – well, sure. I knew that. You jerk."
Zuko just sighed. Sokka hung his head; it was true, that had been weak.
"…My point is," the firebender eventually said, "that you should stop trying to get me to escape with you. There's no way I'm helping you get out of here."
Sokka sighed as well. Then he let his head thunk back against the dirt wall he sat against. Then he kicked Zuko in the shin. To relieve stress. It was fairly effective.
Well, it was effective until Zuko swore (impressively), leapt to his feet, and kicked Sokka back. This prompted Sokka to stand up as well, and the two soon engaged in a cramped kicking battle.
It was difficult to kick well, given the small space, especially since Zuko was taller and wore boots with metal tips. Sokka gained considerable advantage, however, as soon as he remembered that his wrists were not cuffed together behind his back as Zuko's were. Being so blatantly evaluated the lesser threat rankled, but it came in useful nonetheless: Sokka was able to grapple his opponent into a hold against the wall. He slid a knee between Zuko's to keep him from kicking any more, leaned an arm heavily across his throat, and gloated.
"Ha! Don't underestimate me, you Fire Nation scum! I am a strong, wily warrior and you don't stand a chance of beating me when you can't use your stupid bending, so just acknowledge me as boss and obey me already!"
Zuko's face was difficult to make out clearly in the shadows, but the sound of his voice made it clear that he was gritting his teeth. "There is no way in hell I'd ever lower myself to obeying you, peasant! Don't get ahead of yourself!"
All of a sudden, he spat fire. Sokka let go and jumped back to avoid the sudden burst of flames, only to tangle his legs with Zuko's and bring them both tumbling painfully to the ground. Their ensuing struggle only seemed to make things worse, as Sokka shoved at any body part not his own and Zuko flopped around uselessly without being able to move his arms. They were both shouting at each other.
"Get off me! Get – ow, stop, that's my face – hey, don't kick harder you, you – you Ponytail Jerkface!"
"What the hell are you – stop it – get off – my arms my arms my arms, damn it peasant, I'm going to immolate you –"
"Oh, I'd like to see you try –"
"Hold still and I will –"
"Yeah, that's likely –"
Sokka and Zuko both jerked their heads up at the sudden shout. Far above, an Earth Kingdom soldier stood at the top of the hole. He seemed thoroughly fed up.
"Oma and Shu, if you don't stop shouting I'll bury you both! You'll be worth less dead than alive, but it'd be worth it for the peace and quiet!" He stomped warningly, dislodging several clumps of dirt that fell down onto his prisoner's faces, before turning and moving out of sight.
Fighting momentum gone, Sokka occupied himself with spitting dirt out of his mouth. To his surprise, Zuko didn't attempt to get away from him; rather, he went limp, laying back across Sokka's legs and staring up at tiny sliver of blue sky visible high overhead.
"So they're definitely still here, then…" he muttered thoughtfully. "They must be planning on selling us to bounty hunters or slave traders."
"Slave traders?" Sokka asked, horrified. His father had taught him a lot about the world beyond the South Pole, but he'd never mentioned slavery.
Zuko's shrug was weirdly nonchalant, given the situation. Also his shoulders were bony and Sokka's thighs didn't appreciate it. "No one will admit to condoning slavery anymore, but with all the chaos of the war, it's hard to effectively police stuff like this… The Fire Nation Prince and the Avatar's close friend would definitely fetch a high price with someone."
Sokka wanted to protest, but everything Zuko was saying made sense. Of course the underworld would be flourishing during such times as these. All the law-enforcers were too busy fighting the Fire Nation to pay much attention to actual law-enforcing, at least on any national scale. It would be quite easy for slave traders to operate if they were careful about it. Especially with corrupt soldiers like these aiding them.
He'd known it already or he would never have tried allying with Zuko, but this was the first time it truly hit Sokka just how much trouble he was in. He could very easily die here, or worse, end up sold into slavery. And Katara and Aang wouldn't even know what had happened to him… he couldn't let that happen.
"This is all the more reason we should work together," Sokka said. "I don't want to be your friend; I just can't get out of here on my own."
Zuko finally sat up, smoothly as though his arms being bound behind his back made no difference to him whatsoever. "Why are you so eager to join forces with me? The Avatar's going to come get you anyway."
Sokka swallowed hard and shook his head. "Aang and Katara don't even know where I am. I went off to fish up some dinner and these guys jumped me."
"Still," Zuko said calmly (which was just weird), "if we're so close to your campsite, they're going to find you eventually."
Sokka cleared his throat. "Well. They would, except. I may have tripped into the river and been carried far away downstream before I ran into those Earth Kingdom soldiers. Possibly that happened."
Zuko groaned quietly.
"It was an accident, okay!" Sokka snapped. "What about you? I thought you had a whole boat full of lackeys who'd be out looking for you!"
"I'd expect someone from the Water Tribes should know the difference between a boat and a ship, but I guess you're just special," was Zuko's snotty reply. "And no, my ship full of lackeys is not going to find me until long after I've been sold."
Sokka ignored the dig at his intelligence in the interest of escaping any time soon. "Why not?"
Zuko sighed heavily. "Because, they're on leave for the next two days. I headed off on my own to search for news of the Avatar – I knew he was nearby. But none of my crew are expecting me back for at least another two days. Even if my uncle organizes a search right away when I don't show up, it would probably still take another full day for them to find this place. There's no way these guys are going to wait around for three more days."
Sokka moaned piteously. "Why couldn't you go on leave too? You could be off getting drunk in some dockside bar instead of making me endure your company. Damn obsessive freak."
"Shut up," Zuko said. "Would you rather be stuck down here alone? You'd never be able to get out of here by yourself."
"Oh, so you're willing to make a truce now, are you?"
The sun must be setting. Sokka could hardly see Zuko's face anymore in the dim light, but still, he'd have sworn the prince rolled his eyes. "Obviously. I thought I'd be able to escape when the Avatar freed you, but that's no longer an option. But just because I understand the necessity of working with you, doesn't mean I'm going to trust you for one second!"
"That's fine," Sokka sniffed haughtily, "I'd never trust you either."
The only problem was, none of their escape plans worked very well when neither participant was willing to trust the other. Zuko kept insisting Sokka pick the lock of his handcuffs, and then he'd be able to scale the wall, defeat the guards, and let down a rope.
There were lots of problems with this plan, in Sokka's mind. First, there was no way in hell he'd free Zuko's arms. Sure, the guy could somehow blow fire out of his mouth, but not all that much and that danger was nothing compared to how much trouble Sokka would be in if he had full use of his arms. Plus there was no way Zuko could climb the wall just like that. Sokka had tried – the dirt was hard-packed and he wasn't able to get more than a few feet up before he inevitably slipped and fell back down to the bottom. And finally, even if Zuko was able to climb to the surface and defeat the soldiers who had captured him in the first place, there was no guarantee he'd help Sokka out of the hole. He would probably just claim him as his own prisoner instead, and try to use him for Avatar bait.
Sokka much preferred the plan where he stood on Zuko's shoulders and used that boost to help him climb to the surface. Once he was up he'd defeat the guards himself, and let a rope down for Zuko.
"Don't be an idiot," was the flat response he got when he voiced this brilliant plan. "At least I'd have firebending, but you would be alone and unarmed in the midst of – I counted four – soldiers, one of whom is definitely a bender. They'd toss you right back down here. That, or you'd run away like a coward and leave me to die. No thanks."
"I wouldn't run away!" Sokka insisted. But he had to admit Zuko had a point about the whole one-unarmed-person-versus-four-armed-soldiers-one-of-whom-is-a-bender thing.
And so, they found themselves at an impasse. Oh, they argued it out, back and forth plenty of times, but eventually they realized something had to give. It was pitch-black in the hole by now, the sun having long since set. If they wanted to escape (which they did), it was best to do so now, while at least some of the soldiers would probably be sleeping.
"Okay, this is ridiculous," Sokka said, breaking the latest huffy silence. "We've been stuck in here for like eight hours, I haven't eaten, and Katara's going to be really worried. We've both agreed that they probably want to take us to the slave traders tomorrow, so this is really our best bet at escaping. Do you want to be sold to the highest bidder?"
"I don't even know how to pick locks!" Sokka whispered harshly, flinging his hands up in exasperation. "It would be morning before I got you free, and then they'd look down, see your hands, and earthbend handcuffs right back on! …Come to think of it, why do they even include a lock anyway?"
He jumped when Zuko spoke. The firebender was apparently sitting right next to him. "I think it's so nonbending soldiers can still use them." He hesitated for a moment, then continued: "I do see your point. But I can't trust you not to leave me here. I'd rather drag you down with me than let you get away while I'm still captured."
Reaching out blindly, Sokka patted his way across his fellow prisoner's chest (ignoring his protests), shoulder, down his arm, and finally reached his linked hands. He grabbed some fingers at random and squeezed them tightly while waggling them up and down.
"Here, we can shake on it. I promise I won't leave you down here."
"Not good enough. And let go."
Sokka did, grumbling. "Then what the hell is?"
Zuko took a deep breath. "I want you to make an oath on your honor. That's – Water Tribe warriors value that too, don't they?"
They did. A lot (not as much as Zuko seemed to, but he was sort of obsessive so he didn't count). Particularly if they happened to be Chief Hakoda's son. Sokka hesitated for a long moment.
Then again, the Southern Water Tribe also highly valued practicality! And what was more practical than making a temporary truce in order to survive?
"I swear, on my honor, that I will come back and help you escape too." Sokka waited, and then elbowed Zuko when no response came. "Finally good enough?"
Zuko elbowed him back, with considerably more force and deadly aim. Sokka collapsed forward, clutching his gut and wheezing. He heard the prince shuffling to his feet in the dark. "I guess it will do."
"…Jerk…" Sokka choked out. Zuko ignored him, tilting his head up and breathing a short gust of flame. The red fire briefly lit up the dark hole, allowing Zuko to examine the walls for a moment before darkness descended once more. The prince repeated this technique several times. By the time Sokka had recovered, the latest breath of fire revealed a satisfied smile on Zuko's face. In the dim, flickering firelight, it was a surprisingly handsome expression. Not even the scar could make it look sinister.
"I thought so," he said, allowing his flames to go out. "This wall over here is the best. There's a root sticking out near the top that you can grab."
Sokka stood and strode over to join Zuko at said wall. It wasn't much of a walk – the hole in its entirety was barely five feet across. He peered up, but all he could see was formless darkness, with a few stars peeking through. He'd just have to take Zuko's word for it.
"All right, let's do this!" He cheered quietly, flexing his climbing muscles. "Bend over so I can step on you."
Zuko hissed angrily, but when Sokka felt blindly in his direction, he found the firebender already crouched and ready. Grinning a little – it wasn't every day he got the chance to literally walk all over Fire Nation royalty – Sokka placed his hands against the dirt wall for balance, and stepped up on to Zuko's shoulders.
"Okay, stand up."
Zuko grunted, and smoothly stood. In fact, he moved with such ease that Sokka, who had been expecting some shaky fumbling or hesitation, was caught off guard and lost his balance. He fell backwards, hitting his head on the opposite wall, and his flailing feet brought Zuko down on top of him. For the second time, the two boys ended up sprawled all over each other in the dirt.
Zuko rolled over onto his stomach, paused a moment, then firmly headbutted Sokka. Of course, their heads weren't quite aligned in the darkness so it ended up more like Zuko just slammed his face into Sokka's armpit. Which was still painful, but also just felt sort of weird. Sokka retaliated automatically by clamping his arm down and holding Zuko's head in place. It was only when Zuko started struggling to get free that he realized what he'd done.
"Ha! Suffer the stench of man," he crowed quietly. And then immediately after, remembered that Zuko could blow fire. With a yelp, he let go. "I mean – um, just kidding!"
Zuko snarled incoherently and bit his elbow. Sokka had to clap his hands over his mouth to keep from shouting in surprise and pain. He settled for repeatedly kneeing Zuko in the butt (all he could reach). Finally, Zuko let go and spat on the ground.
"You taste terrible."
Sokka blew gently on his injured elbow. Zuko had teeth like a vise. "Oh, shut up, you cannibal. Let's just try again."
The second attempt went much better. Sokka managed to keep his balance as Zuko stood, feet planted firmly on the firebender's shoulders. Of course, the rim of the hole was still out of reach. But he was able to dig his fingers into the dirt wall and slowly inch higher, until he was on his tiptoes on Zuko's shoulders. Then he stepped on Zuko's head – for once the prince's mostly bald hairstyle came in handy, since his scalp made for decently solid footing. Not that he seemed to appreciate the boot on his cranium, judging by the steady stream of quiet swears he was muttering, but he didn't have much choice in the matter.
Sokka scrabbled upwards, stretching as high as he could in search of the root. Finally, he found it. A couple tugs revealed that it would indeed be strong enough to support his weight, so he grabbed hold and used it to help himself scale the last foot and a half left to the grassy turf above. Heaving with all his might, he managed to flop himself out of the pit like a leopard-seal beaching itself on an ice floe. He lay there, panting, for several minutes before crawling quietly away from the pit into the cover of some nearby bushes. Once he was sure no one had noticed his escape, he peered out between the branches to assess the situation.
It wasn't as bad as it could have been – but that wasn't saying much. Sure, three of the guards were sleeping around a low campfire, but the one on watch was the earthbender. Not to mention, they'd all slept in their armor, with their weapons close at hand. At least there really were only four men; if he or Zuko had miscounted then there would have been no chance for victory at all. Sokka's escape had also gone unnoticed so far, which was good. They weren't leaving until morning. He had time to plot.
Zuko woke with a start. He attempted to leap to his feet, but had forgotten about the shackles on his wrists behind his back, and stumbled ungracefully to his knees. Luckily no one had seen.
He looked up at the small ring of sky above. It was a dark blue-black color, and the air was still quite cold and damp, but Zuko knew the sun was rising. He could feel it in his bones; it gave him strength.
It also proved that the Water Tribe peasant had broken his oath. It had been hours since Zuko had helped him escape, and there hadn't been a single sound of struggle from above. Most likely, the sneaky coward had just slipped away unnoticed. There was no way he was coming back to free his enemy.
Zuko knew he should have expected this – and in fact he had, but that didn't make it any less disappointing. He'd known from the start that the Avatar had no care for honor (the way he'd broken their agreement the first time they'd met proved it), but had hoped that maybe the scrawny boy who called himself a 'water tribe warrior' would feel at least slightly bound by his oaths. But of course, Water Tribe oaths didn't count if they were making them to someone from the Fire Nation. Zuko scoffed. If it had been him, he would have honored his agreement. Once they'd both escaped, sure he might have tried to kidnap the Avatar's friend himself, but he would have held off until they were well free of the Earth Kindom soldiers.
Well, so much for that. He was on his own again.
Zuko sighed, and began to reevaluate his options. He might have to break out of the cuffs with firebending. He'd been reluctant to do so until now, as it would be a noisy and painful process – heating his skin enough to shatter rock would burn his own wrists pretty badly, and the explosion would definitely alert his captors. Then again, maybe he could turn that into an advantage.
If, as soon as they lifted him out of this hole, he shattered the cuffs, maybe the shards of superheated rock would injure them. Or at least startle them enough for Zuko to get an advantage. He was certain he'd be able to beat them in a fair fight; it was mere chance that they'd captured him in the first place. He had been walking under a rocky overpass when everything went dark – probably they had dropped a rock on his head from above and knocked him out. He'd had a pretty bad headache for the first few hours of his captivity, but it had gone away soon enough that Zuko figured he didn't have to worry about a concussion. Still, by then he'd been cuffed and thrown into a deep pit where he couldn't fight back.
This time would be different. Well, he hoped it would, anyway. If they encased his legs in rock as well, he would probably be unable to do a thing. There was no point in thinking like that now, though. All he could do was wait for them to come get him, and be ready to fight the moment they did. He didn't need that idiot's help; he could escape on his own.
It was just as Zuko was thinking this that a wailing Earth Kingdom soldier fell from above, momentarily blotting out all light from the rising sun. Shocked, Zuko nonetheless reacted quickly, flattening himself against the wall so as not to be hit. As soon as the man landed with a painful-sounding thud, Zuko sprang forward, delivering a single sharp kick to the man's jaw.
The soldier's eyes rolled up in his head, and Zuko used his feet to roll the man over onto his back. After a wary glance upward, he crouched down and used his hands to fumble blindly behind him in search of a key in the man's pockets. He hadn't found anything yet when a second shadow blotted out the sky. This time, the man casting it was not falling into his own prison, however; he was squinting suspiciously down at Zuko.
"Hey! I told you to quit fighting each oth– Ping? Oi, get away from Ping!" he shouted. "Spirits, what – where'd the other prisoner go?" He turned away from the hole, yelling for his remaining companions to get up, the prisoners had Ping.
Zuko searched frantically behind him. The man must have tripped or something, it didn't matter. This was his chance. If he could find a key and free his hands before the earthbender came back –
He didn't get the chance. Not even a minute later, the earth beneath him began to rise to the surface with dizzying speed, the hole filling itself in as its core rose back to the surface. Zuko abandoned his search for a key; instead, he made good use of the momentum the earthbender had provided him by leaping forward into a spinning kick as soon as he reached the surface. He got one of the men, but it was only a glancing blow and not the earthbender. The key to winning this fight was taking out the earthbender before he caught Zuko's feet and robbed him of his mobility. This meant, until he was sure the ground wouldn't be reaching for him, staying off of it as much as possible.
Despite his wobbly landing (being unable to use his arms even for balance was really a problem) Zuko launched into a second spinning kick, this time with his foot trailing a whip of fire through the air. He managed to get the soldier he'd hit with his first kick more solidly this time, and the man fell limply to the ground under the combined blow and searing flames – but that only made the odds two to one, and Zuko spun back to face the other two a second too late to dodge the small boulder flying at him.
It hit him in the shoulder and sent him tumbling head over heels through the grass. Zuko kept rolling, narrowly avoiding a second boulder, then leapt back to his feet. His shoulder was aching horribly, but he ignored it. He had to keep moving.
Suddenly the final – and largest – nonbending soldier was right in front of him, brandishing a sword. Zuko retreated rapidly – right into a tree. He swore and ducked just in time, the metal biting deep into the wood right where his head had been. Taking advantage of the time it took to pull the blade out of the tree, Zuko charged forward, aiming his uninjured shoulder right into the man's gut.
He succeeded in knocking the man over and making him lose his sword, but not much more. Earth Kingdom armor prevented his attack from winding the soldier, and he was a large, well-muscled man who still had the use of his arms. Zuko, in contrast, was pretty scrawny and while he was fit, he didn't have anywhere near the amount of brute strength necessary to break loose once the man wrapped his huge arms around him.
"Got you now," the soldier leered, standing up and just holding Zuko off the ground in a humiliatingly effective bearhug. The more he struggled, the more he was squeezed, and his weak kicks did no good whatsoever. "Hey, Gen, I think you'll need to try getting his legs in stone too. Then this little runt won't be able to cause us any more trouble, and we can go get the other one."
The soldier holding Zuko turned around as he spoke, and both he and Zuko fell silent at the sight of the earthbender crumpled motionless on the ground. The man's grip loosened slightly in shock, and Zuko took advantage of that to squirm down to the ground. He spun on one foot, and kicked high with the other; but the man just caught it in one large, meaty hand.
"What have you done to Gen?" he snarled, twisting Zuko's foot painfully. The banished prince hopped awkwardly on the other, trying to keep his balance.
"I don't know; it wasn't me!"
"Don't lie to me, Fire Nation scum!"
"I'm not lying!" Zuko tried to concentrate and build up the heat in his wrists. If he could shatter the cuffs, this would be the moment – but he couldn't focus on such tricky bending when his ankle was in this much pain. He had to succeed, he was so close to escaping, but the man just kept squeezing and Zuko was having trouble even standing, let alone bending. Still, if he could just focus for a second…
"He's not lying; it was me!"
Once again, both Zuko and his captor froze in momentary surprise; once again, Zuko recovered faster. He yanked his foot free of the once again loosened grip and stumbled back out of the way as Sokka threw his boomerang right at the soldier. Of course, the man dodged it easily, but Zuko remembered well the trick to that particular weapon. If he just kept the man distracted until it swung back around – this technique was so very useful today –
He took a deep breath and exhaled as much fire as he could at the soldier, just as the man reached for him once more. Far from the small amounts he'd been producing last night to see by without alerting the kidnappers, this time the amount of fire was an effective close-range attack. The soldier yelled in surprise and pain as his hands were engulfed in flames, and stumbled back – right into the boomerang as it whistled back around. It hit his head with a sharp clok, and he fell like a stone.
Zuko straightened slowly, wincing at the pain in his ankle. That could have been bad. He really had to thank Uncle for teaching him the breath of fire. But more immediately – he turned to face Sokka. "You came back?"
The Water Tribe boy wandered over, plucking his boomerang off the ground. "Of course I did! Don't you remember that whole thing where you made me swear an oath?"
Zuko shrugged. "I thought you broke it. That wouldn't be the first time."
Suddenly, the sharp edge of the boomerang was in front of his face. "I've never broken an oath."
Zuko wrinklled his nose and leaned away from the boomerang. "Your friend has, and you didn't seem to have much problem with it. And anyway, you were gone for hours; what was I supposed to think? You didn't even do much good when you did come back."
Zuko ignored the affronted exclamation, turning instead to kneel in front of the unconscious soldier and begin patting his pockets. Maybe this guy would have the key.
Sokka bent down next to him. "What are you doing?"
"Looking for the key."
"Oh, right." Almost absent-mindedly, Sokka pushed Zuko's hands aside and took over the task himself. "Back to the point, what do you mean I didn't do much good? I took down three of the four guys!"
Sitting back on the ground (if Sokka wanted to do all the manual labor involved in finding the key, he wouldn't stop him) Zuko snorted. "Let's see, one of them tripped into a hole, I took him and the other two out, and you got the bender. You did better than I expected of you – doesn't mean you did much."
Sokka puffed up proudly. "For your information, that guy did not trip. Well, he did, but he tripped on a genuine Water Tribe tripline, courtesy of me, thank you very much! I didn't attack them all in the middle of the night because I thought attacking in the morning, when they were distracted by packing up camp, would be more effective. So I lied in wait all night just to save your ungrateful ass. And this is what I get?"
Zuko recognized the intelligence of that plan, especially as it had given him the added firepower of the rising sun, and given it had ended with him distracting the kidnappers while Sokka attacked them from behind, but he didn't have to admit to being impressed. "It took you all night to think of a tripline? Besides, the fall didn't even knock him out. I had to do that." He paused. "Just like I knocked out two of the other three soldiers. Without planning all night. Oh, and with no hands."
"…Shut up," Sokka said. "This guy doesn't have the key. Let's move on."
They checked the other nonbending soldiers… or at least Sokka did, while Zuko watched him carefully for signs of treachery and participated in a vicious squabble regarding who could really claim to have defeated that last soldier. Sokka's boomerang had knocked him out, just as it had the earthbender, but Zuko's flames had been what put him in position for the boomerang to hit. 'Teamwork' was the obvious conclusion, but neither boy wanted to admit to anything resembling that – so they squabbled.
By the time Sokka had finished searching (and tying up) all three nonbenders without finding anything resembling a key, Zuko started to get worried. Sure, he always had the option of shattering the cuffs with firebending, but he really didn't want to resort to that unless he absolutely had to. It would burn his wrists, and might even drive stone splinters into his back. Not to mention it would take a lot of energy.
Still, they headed over to the earthbender to tie him up as well, and Sokka decided to search through his pockets as well. Zuko didn't see the point – but he was quickly proved wrong as the first thing Sokka found was a square stone key. They both stared at it, confused.
"Why the hell would an earthbender need a key to open stone cuffs?" Zuko asked.
"Maybe he's not a very good bender?" Sokka said. He elaborated when Zuko frowned at him. "I mean, he only used some pretty basic techniques, right? He dug a hole and threw some rocks. I can do that. Did he even make these handcuffs? Someone could have just given them to him."
Of course, Zuko had been unconscious at the time so he had no idea whether the man before them had made the cuffs or not, but Sokka's explanation made sense. It was still rather pitiful – but then, he wasn't the best person to scoff at others' bending prowess.
"Whatever," he said instead, turning and presenting his hands. "Take these off."
"No way," Sokka laughed. "Not until you swear an oath on your honor that you won't attack me or follow me back to Aang."
Zuko turned his head to glare over his shoulder. Of course. He should have known the only reason the other boy would help look for the keys would be to hold them over him somehow. This night had made him drastically reevaluate his opinion of the Avatar's friend. Before now he'd considered the boy sort of worthless; he couldn't bend, wasn't even a great fighter, and had never seemed very helpful in any way. But now it was clear that he had a sharp and cunning mind – he might even be the one behind all the Avatar's clever evasions. This was someone to watch out for.
Zuko grit his teeth in reluctant respect. There was no doubt in his mind that he could beat Sokka in a fight even without his bending, but he knew plans weren't exactly his strong point and he had been well outmaneuvered this time. If he refused the oath, he probably would not be able to wrestle the key away from Sokka – not given his injured ankle and the weapon the boy had reacquired. If he said no to the key, pretended to leave, but exploded the cuffs off and followed Sokka back to his camp in secret, he would be tired from the difficult firebending, his wrists and possibly back would be injured, and he would have to sneak about on an injured ankle. There was no way he could capture the Avatar in that kind of condition. And of course Zuko would never dishonor himself by agreeing and then breaking the oath.
"As Agni is my witness, I swear upon my honor that I will not harm you or follow you to your companions from this location, once you have freed me." Zuko bowed his head as he spoke, and adopted a formal tone for the binding oath. After he'd finished, he waited with his head still bowed for acknowledgement. None came. "Well?"
"What?" Sokka said. "Oh, uh, okay. Wow, that was kind of fancy. Makes my oath sound sort of uncool."
Zuko rolled his eyes as he held his hands out once more, feeling Sokka fiddling at each wrist with the key. "That was nothing. That was about as informal as an oath can get. Mine wasn't cool – yours was just very lame. Then again, I guess you are just a peasant; its not like you know better."
"Oh, shut up, Prince Fancypants," Sokka muttered as he finished with the cuffs. Zuko rubbed his wrists and stretched his arms – his shoulder hurt where the boulder had hit it, but it didn't feel broken or dislocated so it would probably just bruise. Then he snatched the handcuffs away from Sokka.
"Hey, what are you doing with those?"
Zuko leaned down and cuffed the unconscious earthbender's hands together behind his back. Then he took the key and threw it away into the woods. "Bending training."
Sokka laughed. "Man, that's harsh. Kinda funny, too. Bending training. Ha!"
No one ever liked his jokes. Caught by surprise, Zuko smiled. "Thanks."
The moment quickly got awkward. "Yeah, whatever," Sokka grumbled. "I'm more surprised that you didn't burn them all alive or something, after all of this."
Any trace of a smile lingering on Zuko's face instantly vanished. "I told you before, I'm not a murderer."
"So you say."
"Agni, you piss me off."
"Oh yeah, well the feeling's mutual, buddy."
"I'm not your buddy."
"I'll have you know that –" Sokka stopped mid-sentence as his stomach rumbled loudly. He stared down at it for a minute, then turned and walked over to the ashes of the campfire, plunking down on a small boulder next to the Earth Kingdom soldiers' supplies. "I'm going to steal those jerks' breakfast before I leave."
After some hesitation, Zuko joined him. He took a seat on the opposite side of the fire, and bound his (probably sprained) ankle in bandages from the soldiers' medical kit while Sokka scraped together some kind of porridge and cooked it over the campfire (which Zuko relit). The whole scene was uncomfortably amiable, even if the porridge tasted awful and they argued about their respective cooking abilities (nil on both sides, but that didn't stop them from fighting about who was worse).
It was almost a relief when the soldiers started waking up. Of course, then they started yelling their heads off and saying insulting things about their ex-captives' ancestries, so Zuko knocked them out again. Sokka scolded him halfheartedly but clearly would have done the same himself if they'd carried on much longer.
Still, it served as an incentive to get going. Zuko and Sokka trudged together over to the nearby river, eyeing each other suspiciously.
"Remember," Sokka said, "You swore on your precious honor not to follow me."
Zuko took a deep breath, and closed his eyes briefly. "I know," he said. "But next time I'm coming for the Avatar."
Then he turned and walked away downstream without a single glance back. Sokka knew, because he watched Zuko carefully for a long time before heading upstream himself. Though he'd never admit it, that had been pretty manly just now. Actually, Zuko had been pretty manly throughout the whole night, possibly more so than even Sokka (which was saying something, because Sokka was pretty darn manly). Not to mention that whole breathing fire thing was kind of cool. It was a shame he was evil Avatar-chasing Fire Nation scum, otherwise he would probably be pretty fun to hang out with.
And to spar with. Sokka hadn't missed the way Zuko had effectively fought three enemies at once with his hands tied behind his back and actually held his own. Sure, he'd had Sokka backing him up from the shadows (thank Tui and La that Sokka always carried Boomerang with him even to go fishing, and that the soldiers hadn't noticed him quietly stealing it back in the middle of the night) – but even so, he was a pretty good fighter even without his bending. Kind of made Sokka want to train some more, actually (he wasn't feeling threatened, just… prudent).
It took most of the day steadily hiking upstream, but Sokka eventually made it back his friend and sister. They were flying Appa around in circles above the treetops, it seemed, and swooped down as soon as they spotted him to bestow hugs and much worried ranting.
One look at Katara's face, strained with ill-concealed fear, and Sokka couldn't bring himself to tell them where he'd really been. So he told a half-truth instead, that he'd fallen in the river, washed way downstream, and spent the night before hiking back up.
The worry on Katara's face seemed to melt away. "You big goof," she said with a grin. "Why don't you just leave the fishing to us waterbenders from now on? It's not like you even catch anything."
"Yeah," Aang chipped in, laughing merrily. "You took two whole days and didn't even catch a single fish!"
Sokka explained that fishing was a very serious, important, manly duty that only he could undertake, much as sewing and making delicious food were mysterious womanly arts he'd never be able to master. This got him lots of slightly-exasperated ribbing from Katara, particularly about a certain island of lady warriors who could probably fish just as well as they could fight ("That means better than you," Aang pointed out cheekily, the traitor).
At Sokka's suggestion, they moved on without any delay. He claimed he was sick of this river; but watched it unwinding far beneath Appa in silent contemplation. Somewhere down there, Zuko could probably see them leaving.
Zuko, standing on the deck of his ship, swore loud and long as he watched the familiar white bison fly off into the distance. His uncle shot him a disapproving glance, but he ignored that in favor of stomping away to his room. He was too late!
When he had made his oath to Sokka, Zuko had been careful about how he'd phrased it: he had sworn not to follow the Water Tribe boy 'from that location'. In other words, following him once he had reached the town wouldn't break his word at all. He'd known he wasn't terribly far away from the town, whereas it sounded like Sokka had washed far downriver before being captured. Zuko had hoped that he would have enough time to hurry back to port and use his small riverboat to overtake Sokka and get to the Avatar first. Sure, his injured ankle had slowed him down, but he still should have had plenty of time.
The only thing he'd forgotten was that his crew was on leave. The only people on the ship when Zuko arrived were his uncle and three crewmembers in charge of guarding the ship in the harbor. He'd sent all three out immediately to recall their crewmembers, despite Uncle's warnings that the already discontented crew would not like being deprived of their leave. Zuko couldn't care less about the feelings of his crew when the Avatar was finally almost in his grasp.
Unfortunately, the crew didn't seem to be nearly so excited about their chance to capture the Avatar and go home. They straggled in one by one over the next few hours, most of them drunk or hungover, and clearly uncooperative. Several had obviously been enjoying the comforts of certain port women, and did not relish the interruption. By the time Zuko had finally gotten enough of the feckless and resentful soldiers together to man the riverboat, it was already afternoon. And then Lieutenant Jee had seen fit to challenge Zuko's authority, complaining about having leave rescinded without warning. It was like the lot of them didn't even care about catching the Avatar!
Still, he'd finally gotten the riverboat ready and in the water – and now this! Now he would have to wait even longer to follow the Avater as the riverboat was loaded back onto the ship and his crew sobered up. Even Zuko could accept that, while there were enough sober soldiers to man the riverboat, it would not be a good idea to set off in the ship until at least a few more were able to walk in a straight line.
At least he'd gotten a good look at where the Avatar and his friends were going. Almost due north; he would be able to follow them up the coastline fairly easily, which was something worthwhile. Sure, he was frustrated, his pride (and shoulder) was badly bruised, and his ankle sprained – but at least he knew more than he had yesterday. The Avatar was close, heading north, and his male friend was definitely no hanger-on but someone to watch out for from now on.
Sokka had been unexpected in a lot of ways. Zuko was surprised to find that he hadn't actually hated the boy. Sure, he was a Water Tribe peasant and the Avatar's ally, but arguing with him had actually been sort of… weirdly not so bad. Maybe even a tiny bit fun. It was sort of a shame that he was the enemy.
Zuko decided that once he captured the Avatar, he'd try to let the Water Tribe siblings go free. Or at least make sure they received fair treatment in prison. Sokka had come back for him, after all. He clearly valued his honor highly, and deserved at least the respect of acknowledging that. Zuko would give him that.
Once he caught the Avatar, anyway. Which he would – and soon. As soon as he could get his crew moving! With a snarl, Zuko left his room to go yell at them some more.
He knew where the Avatar was.
It wouldn't be long, now.
Oh, how little Zuko knows... This was S1 though, I couldn't end it any other way.