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10 July 2008 @ 09:44 am
In His Shoes: Chapters 1 - 8  

Title: In His Shoes
Rating: T
Disclaimer: Avatar is not mine. Belongs to Nick.
Summery: In order to fully understand a man, you must first walk a mile in his shoes. Sokka and Zuko are going to find that out the hard way.
Spoilers: Only for season 2
Notes: Sorry I haven't updated on this comm recently. I write quickly and I don't want to flood you guys. So here's chapter 1 through 8. I hope you like it!
*****

Chapter 1|Chapter 2|Chapter 3|Chapter 4|Chapter 5|Chapter 6|Chapter 7

OOOOOOO


Sokka was checking the hinges of the doorway, looking for signs of rust when he heard a commotion, sounding out even over the general babble of hundreds of jailed prisoners. Gripping the bars, he stuck his head out of the cell as far as he could, but the noises —muffled shouting that faded almost into obscurity from the echoes of many stone walls — was coming from two floors above him.

After about a minute or so whatever was happening passed out of hearing range.

“What do you think is going to happen to us?” Jin asked, and Sokka started in surprise. He hadn’t realized that she was standing that close to him. She was nearly at his back.

“I don’t know,” he answered, honestly, although he had an idea of some kind of trial followed by a prison sentence. Or execution. He wouldn’t allow it to go that far… He was sure he would think of something.

Jin shivered and Sokka had to resist the urge to pull her close. But she had been markedly distant since being thrown in the cell, even after they talked. Not that he could blame her. Not at all. She looked at him again, green eyes bright with fear. “They say when people get arrested by the Dai Li… they don’t come back normal.”

“What do you mean?”

“They—” she visibly swallowed and her crossed arms only got tighter against her chest, as if she was giving herself a hug. Her words tumbled out quickly, like she had been thinking about them for some time, but could only get it out now. “They say when people come back from this place they don’t know their friends or their family anymore. They just smile all the time, and their eyes are sort of dead. ”

Sokka immediately flashed to Joo Dee, and he wondered if that woman had once found herself in a cell like this one. They had to get out of here. But Jin’s words sparked another memory inside of him too, and this one made him smile, despite the circumstances. “I dunno. That sounds made up to me… You know, like zombies.”

“What?”

He shook his head ruefully, “It’s an old Water Tribe legend that my dad used to tell. Zombie’s are bodies without spirits, and they traveled the ice on moonless nights like this,” he held out his arms straight out, a almost comical blank look on his face, “looking for living people so they could eat their brains.”

Jin stared at him. “That’s… horrible. Your dad told you that?”

“Yeah, well.” He shrugged, turning back once more to examine the hinges. “I think he started doing it to scare me and my sister into not sneaking out of the igloo in the middle of the night. It was scary at first, but after awhile it became sort of a tradition for him to tell us stories before bed.” And after he left to go fight the Fire Nation, Sokka had missed the stories terribly, even the scary ones.

She was silent for a few minutes, obviously mulling that over, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth. But Sokka could see that her arms not nearly as tight against her as before, and she had stopped shivering. Abruptly, Jin looked up. “So is it true that the sun doesn’t come up in the winter in the south?”

“Yup,” he answered. He glanced through the bars, but there weren’t any guards in sight. Laying a hand on one of the hinges, he tried to concentrate on warming it. If he could get the metal hot, it might be pliable. Almost without meaning too, he started breathing in deep, calming breaths, stoking the fire within.

As he worked, he started talking. A habit he picked up from his father while fixing fishing nets. “It’s not that bad, really. It only lasts for a few months… My people are adaptable. We’re survivors. Besides, there’s always night-fishing.” He was about to say more, but he clearly heard footsteps down the hall and he drew his hand away from the hinge. It was glowing orange with heat, and he heard Jin take an alarmed gasp.

But she didn’t say anything more, and the Dai Li guard walked by, unconcerned. Within a few moments, that guard was joined by another and together the two of them paced up and down the hallways. Sokka watched them with a wary eye, noting how agitated they both looked. Something was up, and while they were on alert he couldn’t work on the hinges. Reluctantly, he drew back into the shadows.

Jin’s hand gripped his own. He looked at her, and saw the naked fear in her green eyes. Not for him, although he was sure that there was certain wariness there, too. She feared the guards, and what she thought lay ahead.

He wanted to reassure her, tell her that he had been in situations a lot worse than this hundreds — er, at least four or five times before. Most of them, ironically enough, caused by a certain scarred prince. But of course, he could tell her none of that. He had walked the line of insanity by telling her his true name and origin, but anything more than that and… well, he wasn’t going to go there.

So instead, he told her of something else. “Speaking of night-fishing,” he said, and felt her attention on him again and not on the guards. “I remember the first time my dad took me out. I must have been five or six, and you know, driving my mom crazy from being cooped up in an igloo all day, or night, whatever you want to call it.” Sokka had long ago forgotten exactly what his mother looked like. Her face was a blur in his memory; her voice was that of Katara’s... but he did remember her annoyance on that day.

Keeping his golden eyes on her bright green ones, Sokka walked her over to the single bench in the back of their cell, keeping her eyes on him and not at the guards outside. As he spoke, his own mind drifted, back… way back to a place where he had lived and grew up. Where the air was so cold that it could make your very teeth hurt, where kids sledded on top of penguins and scaled slippery glaciers. Where boys became men on annual seal-hunts and where the southern lights danced across nights that sometimes lasted for months…

It was his home, and Sokka told everything he could to Jin about it, taking her mind away from the dark cell to the bright clean air of the South Pole.


OOOOOOO


Zuko squeezed his eyes shut as hard as he could, wincing against the bright circling lamplight. The rock restraints held his head fast, and another crumble of rock had a final restraint over his mouth. He couldn’t even scream.

An agent stepped behind him, and rough fingers pried his eyes open.

“Calm down,” repeated the agent who stood in front of him while the lamp drifted in lazy circles in the background. “No one will hurt you within these walls. Let your mind go blank.”

His eyes followed the whirling source of light almost without meaning too. He grunted, something that would have been a string of angry curses if he hadn’t been gagged.

“It’s no use to fight us. We aren’t trying to hurt you.”

But now the lamp was taking his attention, and the agent’s words took on an almost dreamlike quality.

“That’s it… yes. Let it go… Let it all go…”

He did feel a little calmer…

No… NO!

With an effort that felt like moving rolling a boulder up a hill, he forced his eyes away from the light to the ceiling. To the floor. To the ceiling. To somewhere, anywhere else.

He got a sharp backhand across his face for his insolence, but the pain seemed further away, somewhere removed as if it had happened to someone else. His eyes fell again to the circling lamp.

Desperately, he fought to keep himself in the here and now... He would never see Uncle again. A memory of him, laughing, danced in front of his eyes, blocking the lamp for a few precious moments. Zuko focused on it. It was an old memory. Uncle had salt and pepper hair instead of the steel grey of today. That was back when Mom had been alive.

And now her face swam up in his mind, too. She came as a vague melancholy thought, heavy with lethargy. He remembered everything about her. Every line on her face, the way that her eyes would crinkle up when she laughed…

… and the way Toph had talked to him, like he was a normal human being, and the way Katara had smiled and tried to mother him, and the way Aang had joked around and not taken anything seriously…

He was going to lose them all.

“He’s still fighting us.”

“Yes, it doesn’t seem like this boy gives up very easily. No matter. This will help him.”

The agent reached forward, and something with a sharp, medicinal smell was pushed under his nose. He tried holding his breath, but after a few moments had no choice but to breathe it in. The world seemed to twist and lilt to the side by the time the horrible stuff was taken away.

The lamp was still circling, and Zuko’s blue eyes automatically followed it, unblinking.

Suddenly Katara stood in front of him, right where the Dai Li agent was supposed to be. And next to her stood Toph, and Aang with that stupid lemur on his shoulder. Zuko stared at them, knowing that he was starting to hallucinate, but almost glad for it. They blocked the light from the cloying lamp; they were buying him time.

“I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” said Toph. The little earthbender crossed her arms; rock steady, and annoyed. “What’s so hard about not looking at something?”

Aang smiled, leaning against his airstaff. “It’s okay. If we know anything about Zuko, it’s that he never gives up. ”

Katara reached out, her semi-transparent hand brushing against Zuko’s cheek. Somewhere, in the back the agent was still droning on in his monotone voice, but when Katara spoke, she drowned him out. “Just hang on, Zuko. I’m not going to allow my brother to be brainwashed. We’re coming. Just hang on.”

And then they were gone.


OOOOOOO


The Water Tribe boy had finally stopped his struggle. He was no longer staring at the bright circling lamp. He was not staring at anything at all.

Jing, the Dai Li agent in charge of this operation, allowed himself a small smile. “Excellent. Now allow your body to relax. Remember, you are in no danger, here. Let it all go. Surrender yourself. There is nothing you need to fear, here.”

No answer. Not even a twitch.

Jing bent over, looking in the boy’s blue eyes and found them dilated. He was in a basic hypnotic state, and from here Jing would gather all the information he would need and begin the process of reeducation. He had been a tougher nut to crack than usual, but he had succumbed, just like they all did. “Now,” said the agent, with a smug glance to his partner sitting in the back. He flicked his wrist, removing the rock gag over the boy’s mouth. “We’ll start easy and move up from there. What is your name?”

“My name is,” there was a slight hesitation, and a shiver ran through his frame, “Zuko.”

“That’s strange,” Jing’s partner said, “I have it here that his name is Sokka.”

“What?” Jing hesitated, and then rechecked the boy’s eyes again. “Did we grab the wrong kid?”

“Have you ever known Long Feng to make that sort of mistake?”

Hmm… good point. Jing turned again to his prisoner. “Okay then, er, Zuko. Why are you here? What is your mission?” Long Feng would want to know what the extent of the Avatar’s conspiracy to overthrow the Earth King.

There was another long hesitation from the boy. “I was sent by my father.”

“Your father?”

“Fire Lord Ozai.”

There was a pause before Jing’s partner barked out a laugh. “Oh, I get it! He thinks he’s funny.” The man laughed again, slapping his knee. “I don’t think you have him completely under yet, Jing.”

But Jing wasn’t so sure. Sokka — or Zuko was showing every indication that he was under control. The boy was staring straight ahead, a trail of drool down his chin. He was telling the truth, or at least what he believed to be the truth. No, something else was going on here. It was a sad fact that the reeducation process was stressful to the mind and even though Jing hadn’t even started to break down his thoughts and memories, sometimes the process created mental cracks where there had only been weak-points in a normal person. It was a shame… there’d probably be nothing but an empty, drooling shell by the time this was over.

Putting his hands on his knees, Jing ignored his laughing partner and bent down so that he was at Sokka’s eyelevel. Softly (for he did feel a measure of pity for the kid) he asked, “Where is your sister and her friend?”

This pause was the longest one yet. Sokka’s fingers tightened on the rough wooden chair, and his dilated eyes flicked back and forth too rapidly to be normal. Almost as if he was in a dream. “I… I don’t…”

“Where is your sister?”

“She’s…” he swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing up and down, “Chasing me… no… she’s back with Toph… and Ty Lee and… and Mai…” he halted, and a low pained groan came from somewhere deep inside of him. “I don’t know which one she is.”

Jing stood up. His partner had stopped laughing, and was looking at the boy with a slightly horrified expression. “Is he cracking up?”

The agent just nodded, and with a slight mental nudge, sent the lamp back into motion. “Long Feng’s not going to get much out of this one. Let’s try putting him under a bit further.”


OOOOOOO


“C’mon… c’mon….”

Aang squeezed his eyes shut, concentrating as hard as he could inward. Somewhere, some place deep down inside of him, he knew he had the power to access the Avatar State. It was the only thing that could get him out of here.

But it wasn’t a switch he could turn on and off. They had proven that with crazy General Fong months ago, and Aang inwardly recoiled at using that awesome power again. It wasn’t him. He could easily hurt a lot of people.

He needed to save Sokka.

“C’mon, Avatar state,” he whispered, eyes still shut, forcing himself to remember his friend’s frightened face as they dragged him away. He needed to get upset. He needed to lose control. For Sokka. He had done it for Katara and he had done it for Appa.

He couldn’t do it now.

Aang opened his eyes, and even though he felt the hot prick of tears behind them, he knew he wasn’t anywhere near the out of control rage and violence that it took to ‘glow it up’ as Sokka had once said.

He was a horrible friend.

The young monk sighed, slumping against the taunt chains. Although he hadn’t said anything to Sokka (because he didn’t really want to go into that story) being imprisoned like this reminded him strongly of the time when Sokka and Katara got sick and he got caught by Admiral Zhao. Prince Zuko had freed him then, or else he’d probably still be tied up there. And even though Aang was sure that the prince had his own agenda, he had been grateful.

He snorted softly. “Yeah, like Zuko’s gonna come save me again.”

No sooner he said that then there was a strangled shout from a Dai Li agent down the corridor. Aang’s head shot up, and he listened intently. Another shout, a crumble of rock, the distinctive of a body falling to the ground, and then the sound of running footsteps.

Aang’s grey eyes were wide now. “No way….”

He peered through the bars of the cell, fully expecting to see the lithe figure and laughing mask of the Blue Spirit.

Instead, he got something different.

“Aang!” Katara’s voice rang out beautiful and joyous. She and Toph were standing there in front of him; tired, sweaty, but looking extremely pleased with themselves.

Toph gave a victory punch to Katara’s arm. “See, I told you I could find him.” Then she cracked her knuckles. “Stand back, Sugarqueen.” With that, the tiny earthbender stomped one foot to the ground. The stone cracked immediately and split into two, pulling the two sides of the barred metal doorway apart with a wrenching screech.

Katara took over from there. Stepping inside, she waved her arms in two graceful movements, and the water from her pouch sliced right through Aang’s chains like the sharpest blade.

“We have so much to tell you,” began Katara, “The Earth King—”

Aang cut her off. Grabbing her arm, he tried pulling her down the corridor. “We don’t have time. Sokka’s in trouble!”

“What?!” Katara whipped around, glaring at Toph. “I thought you said he was okay!”

Toph blinked her sightless eyes even as she hurried to catch up with him. “I don’t understand. He’s three floors below us, and his heart rate and breathing are fine.”

“That’s because they’re brainwashing him, like they did with Jet. They thought he’d be able to tell them where you guys are!”

Katara made a noise in the back of her throat, sounding like an angry Saber-Tooth Moose Lion. Aang risked a glance at her and saw something steel-cold in her eyes. She was going to hunt down whoever was hurting her brother and make them pay.

As they ran down the bleak hallways, they passed row after row of prison cells. Hands reached out from behind the bars, voices called out to them, pleading.

Reluctantly, Aang slowed to a stop. He was the Avatar. He couldn’t just ignore this. “I need to free these people. Go get Sokka!”

Katara nodded, and turning she set down the corridor with Toph hard on her heels.


OOOOOOO


Just as soon as the lamp started moving, a voice broke in from far off, sounding small and tinny.

ZUKO!”

He hardly noticed. In the forefront was the agent’s soothing voice, washing away the confusion and the hurt… telling him to relax and let it all go…

ZUKO! ZUKO!” The voice was getting closer.

He blinked once, slowly, hearing the voice, unable to place who was saying it or even what exactly was being said. It sounded like his name, but he was falling… slipping under the weight of the voice and the ever circling lamp…

“Let it all go…”

ZUKO!”

No… not Zuko… He woke up a little, blinked again. The voice wasn’t calling Zuko… it was something else…

“SOKKA!”

Suddenly the world exploded. The earthen door shattered apart as if it were made of plate glass. The damnable lamp was knocked out of its circular track and fell to the floor with a firey smash. Zuko heard the agents screaming, saw smashing rock and violence… but he registered none of it.

The bonds were cut from the chair, and he slumped forward, only caught by a girl’s strong supportive hands. Her face was above him, and she was speaking… asking something…

“Mom?” he asked, dazed.

The girl’s lovely face crumpled, but then she was pushed aside. Another took her place and a small hand slapped his face, hard. “Snap out of it, Snoozles!”

“Ow.” He raised his hand to his jaw, and then blinked again. The world slowly shifted back into focus. His pupils contracted, and Zuko came back into himself as if he was waking from a long, unpleasant nap. “What… what was that for?”

Toph smirked. “For scaring me.”

“Are you okay?” Katara asked, and instantly her bending water was out again, ready to heal.

He shook his head, but answered with a curt, “Fine.” He felt too dazed to be relived. A trail of drool had somehow escaped his mouth, and he it wiped away before looking at his tanned hands for a long moment, not recognizing them as his own.

Oh… of course. He had escaped one nightmare only to wake up again in this one. But even the most jaded part of Zuko couldn’t stop the warm feeling of gratitude as he looked up again at Katara and Toph. His sister. His friend. Two girls that weren’t his sister or friend at all… yet they were. They were.

Waitaminute. This wasn’t another hallucination at all. They were here. They were real. So how… “What are you even doing here?”

“Saving you,” the smirk on Toph’s face grew even wider, “and telling the Earth King all about the vast conspiracy in his city. It took us all day to blast our way in and finally convince him.”

“Long Feng’s been arrested,” continued Katara, and Zuko could swear that the waterbender was preening. “That’s when we learned where you and Aang were. He’s off rescuing the prisoners, by the way.”

“I told you we should have just stormed the Palace in the first place,” added Toph.

Zuko stared at them for a long moment. At Toph’s wide, slightly evil smirk. At Katara’s smug look. Then he put his head in his hands and groaned.


OOOOOOO


Sokka was just dozing off when strange sounds brought him back to consciousness — shouting, screaming. Beside him, Jin stirred, hearing the same thing. She looked to him almost fearfully, and he shook his head, answering her unspoken question. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

His muscles were stiff and sore from laying the cold bench. He forced himself to move, walking to the front bars and peering out. The shouting, whatever it was, seemed to be coming once again from the upper level. Only instead of it being a single voice, this was many voices. Sokka strained to listen, to get an inkling about what was going on, and realized that the voices weren’t shouting in fear or pain… it was in joy.

“I think… whatever is happening is good. They’re yelling—” he broke off, listening. Then a cry, clear as day pierced the foggy prison air.

“IT’S THE AVATAR!”

Sokka gasped and sure enough a few moments later a blur of red and gold sailed down from above, then come rushing down the corridor. He had seen Aang airbend so that he could run as fast as the wind too many times to count. To the point where he had stopped being impressed by it.

Sokka was officially impressed again.

As he ran, Aang hit the sliding locks with the butt of his airstaff with enough force to knock the locking bolt free of its casing. Sokka pushed, and the door gave way. He was out in a moment, along with hundreds of freed prisoners. “Aang!” he yelled, over shrieks and glad cries of the entire crowd. His voice was swallowed up in an instant, and his friend didn’t hear him.

With a whoosh of air and an easy leap, Aang alighted to the top of a railing. “The exit is that way! Get out of here!” He pointed his staff to the right and then easily jumped down to the next level to start freeing the people there as well.

Forgetting who he looked like, Sokka pushed through the crush of people. “Aang! Wait!”

“Sokka!”

He turned and saw that Jin had followed him out the cell. She was reaching for him, but the weight of hundreds of bodies was pushing her away. As he watched, she stumbled, and nearly fell.

Sokka glanced to the railing and back again, torn. But in reality, he had already made his decision a few days ago. With a shove that only an Angry Jerk could do, he pushed his way back through the crowd to Jin, catching her hand in his. Together, they moved with the crush of people, and to freedom.


OOOOOOO


Zuko ran alongside Toph and Katara down the long corridor to the nearest exit. With each step he took away from that horrible room, he felt more awake, more in control of himself. The earth and waterbender kept looking at him sideways, as if making sure his brain hadn’t been melted into pudding. It hadn’t, but sitting in that chair and facing his own demise had brought some very important things to his attention. And they didn’t alarm him nearly as much as it should have.

They heard a shout echoing down the stone passage, but it was only Aang. The Avatar greeted them with a loud cry of, “Sokka!” and a moment later he was nearly bowled over by an enthusiastic airbender. Zuko found himself chuckling, pushing Aang back with assurances that he was alright, that the girls saved him in time.

And he really was. He really was alright.

“I’m just glad we got the family back together.” Aang chirped, as they crossed a long courtyard to where Appa was sitting, waiting patiently.

Family. He didn’t have his honor, or his throne. He had a family instead.


OOOOOOO


The sun was beginning to rise once again over the walls of Ba Sing Se, and Sokka took heart from it. Turning his unscarred cheek to the east, he breathed in deeply and felt the energy flow through his veins and quicken his heartbeat.

Jin was watching him curiously. She had been mostly silent on their escape from the prison, aside from the quiet request for Sokka to walk her back to her to her house in the lower rings. He was going to do that anyway— surely her parents would be frantic that their daughter hadn’t come home the night before, and he didn’t want her to take all the heat herself.

Ugh. More firebending puns. He had to stop doing that.

Hand in hand, they walked down the streets to some of the less dingy suburbs. It was so early that the residents hadn’t even started to stir, and Sokka felt like he and Jin had the entire world to themselves.

Suddenly Jin stopped. Sokka assumed that they had made it to her home, but she made no move to knock at the door. She was still looking at him, but now her mouth was set in a firm line. When she spoke, her voice was quiet, resolute. “I’m going to ask you a few questions, and this time I want the truth. How can you be born in the Water Tribe? I’ve heard your stories, Sokka. You love the South Pole. It’s part of you. So how are you a firebender?”

The question took him completely by surprise. He gaped at her, and she went on. “And I want to know if you truly are a firebender, why aren’t I afraid of you?”

That, at least, was something he thought he could answer. “Well, it’s hard to be evil all the time…” the joke fell flat. Sokka sighed. “I know what you mean. I used to think the same thing. The Fire Nation was a bunch of evil savages set on taking over the world. I guess… we’re not all bad, Jin. At least, I don’t think I’m bad.” He touched his chest with his free hand, and a small voice couldn’t help but wonder if he was talking about himself this time… or Zuko. He was a jerk, but he wasn’t evil.

Her eyes softened, and she seemed to be mulling this over. “You still didn’t answer my first question.”

“That’s because,” Sokka sighed again, “I can’t.”

“Why?”

“I can’t tell you that, either.”

Their gazes locked, green against gold. Then she nodded, and her hand slipped from Sokka’s grasp. “I’m sorry, Sokka.” Maybe another girl would have been crying, but not Jin. She was small and cute, and she had her own strength. “I’m really sorry, but don’t like being lied too. If you can ever tell me the truth… I’ll be here.” Then she turned around, and fled.

Sokka watched her go. Then, with head hanging down with his ever growing dark hair sweeping into his eyes, he turned around and walked back the way he came.


OOOOOOO


It took Toph and Katara nearly a full hour to tell Zuko and Aang all about their own crazy adventure. How they had waited and waited for the boy’s return, before realizing that something had gone wrong. How, flying on Appa, they had blasted through the palace wall, fought dozens of Dai Li agents off, and finally confronted the Earth King.

And how, just as they had King Kuei convinced (but not before literally flying him to the far outer wall to see the Fire Nation’s giant abandoned drill) Long Feng had finally made his appearance, only to be arrested on the Earth King’s command. Apparently, he had been too distracted by the boy’s arrest to realize what was going on until it was too late.

“And the Earth King wants to see you as soon as possible, Aang. After we get some rest, of course.” Katara was at Appa’s head, directing the beast to land outside of their old guest house. Zuko had a moment of confusion before he realized that with Long Feng out of the picture they could return safely. Good, because he still had a few changes of clothing in there, and he was sick and tired of this servant’s uniform.

“Yeah,” the Avatar yawned loud and wide, making Zuko realize how tired he also felt. The sun was coming up, and the last time he had gotten a good nights sleep was… what… two days ago? He didn’t think Sokka’s body had it in him.

Suddenly, Aang snapped his fingers, dismounting Appa with a flourish. “Oh! We did get something good done. We found some records!”

“Records?” repeated Toph, dubiously.

But Zuko had caught on, and was already digging in his deep pockets, carefully avoiding the one he had stashed his own into. He brought out the ripped parchment. “Long Feng’s office was stuffed with these.” He handed one to Toph, who made a sound of disgust and handed it to Katara to read.

“A Guru wants to teach me about the Avatar State!” Aang grinned around at them, as they slowly walked in their house. “He’s waiting for me at the Eastern Air Temple.”

Meanwhile, Katara had unfolded Toph’s parchment and summarized it quickly. “It’s a letter from you mom. She’s here in the city and she wants to see you!”

Toph’s face lit up in brief surprise, before turning into a disgusted scowl. “What does Long Feng want with our letters from home anyway?” She shook her head, “That’s just sad.”

“Sokka,” Katara was looking at him, and the last piece of parchment he had in his hand. “Was there anything for us?”

Unsure of what to say, Zuko just nodded and handed it over.

With visibly trembling fingers, she unfolded it. “It’s… a small fleet of Water Tribe ships protecting the mouth of Chameleon Bay... led by Chief Hakoda!” She captured him in a swift hug. “It’s Dad!”

“Yeah,” he forced a laugh, suddenly aware that Toph’s head was turned towards him, as if she was looking at him. “Great…”

Finally Katara released him, and reread the intelligence report again, almost as if she couldn’t believe her eyes. “It’s all such big news,” she looked around towards the others. “Where do we even start?”

There was silence from all four of them. Aang put down his letter, and voiced what everyone had been thinking. “No, we just got the family back together. We’re not splitting up.”

Katara shot Zuko a look, full of meaning that he couldn’t quite grasp. “Aang, you have to see this Guru. You need to master the Avatar State.”

For some reason, the young monk took a hard long look at Zuko before he nodded, shoulders dropping. “Yeah, I guess.” Then he brightened, “Well, I can drop you off at Chameleon Bay on the way there.”

Zuko was still aware that Toph was looking at him, or at least as much as a blind girl could look. He forced himself to ignore her, for now. “Katara, you should go see Dad. Someone needs to stay behind and help the Earth King.” And he was best suited for the job, in more ways then one. Yes, he had started to accept them as his friends, as family, but he was no traitor to his people. There would not be an invasion of the Fire Nation on his watch.

But Katara shook her head. “No Sokka, I know how badly you want to help Dad. You go to Chameleon Bay. I’ll stay here with the King.”

“No, really,” said, Zuko. “I’m fine. You go see Dad.”

“Sokka—”

“Why are you being so stubborn? He’s there. You go see him.” He laid his hands out as if putting blocks in a neat, organized order.

“But… he’s been all you’ve talked about for two years.”

“Look, Katara. We both know I’m the best one for helping the Earth King—”

“Oh, is that how it is?”

Meanwhile Aang and Toph were both following the rising argument, heads swinging back and forth like tennis players at a match. Finally, Aang stepped forward, holding out his hands peaceably. “Whoa there, guys. Do you really need to fight about this?”

“Your right, Aang.” But Katara’s narrowed eyes never left Zuko’s, “Sokka should just go. Like he wants too.”

There was a particular emphasis on those last few words, enough for Zuko to pause. Something wasn’t right here. Why didn’t she want to go see her father? Zuko knew his own reasons, of course, and knew that everyone fully expected him, Sokka, to jump at the chance. He was in real danger of raising their suspicions, and now…

Now suddenly he felt a real panic at being found out, and not losing his chance at capturing the Avatar… at being rejected by these people. “Fine,” he bit out, at last. “I’ll go.”


Even though it was daybreak, all of the kids were exhausted. Zuko and Aang hadn’t slept at any point though their ordeal, and Katara and Toph were tired from their own brutal raid. After finalizing the rest of the details — it was decided that they would depart the next day for their mission after seeing the Earth King — they headed over to the raised platform for a little shut-eye.

All except for Zuko.

He was exhausted. His eyes felt gritty, and he knew he probably wasn’t thinking straight. But he also knew the only way he would ever get any privacy to look at his parchment would be when the rest of the gang was out cold.

It took a force of willpower to stay awake. He had never slept so much in his life as when he had been put in Sokka’s body, and the only way he could keep on this side of conscientious was to dig his fingernails in his own palms.

Eventually, deep breathing and soft snores filled the house, and he knew it was safe. Rolling over, he untucked the square of paper out of his white and blue tunic, and finally read.


Name: Iroh (AKA: Dragon of the West)

Age: 65 (Approx)

Occupation: Tea Server

Location: Lower Ring, Third Quarter, 42nd district – Apartment 256

Suspicious Activities: Known firebender. (Alerted by citizen Jet— reeducation #3789). Under strict surveillance. No arrest yet; may lead to other Fire Nation defectors within the city.

Family: Royal Fire Nation, traveling with Prince Zuko


 


Name: Zuko (AKA: Lee)

Age: 16 (Approx)

Occupation: Tea Server

Location: Lower Ring, Third Quarter, 42nd district – Apartment 256

Suspicious Activities: Known firebender. (Alerted by citizen Jet— reeducation #3789). Under strict surveillance. No arrest yet; may lead to other Fire Nation defectors within the city.

Family: Royal Fire Nation family, traveling with Iroh (AKA, Moshi, Dragon of The West)


The Dai Li knew… they had known all along. Jet had told them everything, and the rest….

Zuko’s hand drifted automatically to the left side of his face, and he was almost startled to find smooth skin there. Well, it wasn’t hard to put two and two together with his distinctive scar. Jet had set them on their trail and one way or another the Cultural Authority had figured it out.

He wanted to hate the memory of Jet for betraying him, but knew first hand how the Dai Li extracted their information. He had been helpless, and Jet even more so.

They knew about Uncle. How long until he was arrested and reeducated? Even with the Earth King apparently in power for the first time, Zuko wasn’t willing to bet Uncle’s life that it was safe. They wouldn’t see an old tea-loving man who was looking for a new life. They would just see Fire Nation.

And they would throw him in that chair, and — no. He had to warn him.

In a moment Zuko was up and heading for the door. He didn’t know what he was going to do, really. Or how he was going to do it. Maybe he would leave a note on the door. Maybe he would… well, the first thing he had to do was get there.

Shutting the front door as quietly as he could, he set down the street.

Despite his best intentions, despite the surge of adrenaline running through him, he dozed off on the monorail down to the lower ring, only to be shaken awake by a kindly old woman. “This is the last stop, dear. You’d better get going.”

He and Uncle had lived in the far reaches of the outer ring, luckily not too far from the end of the rail-line. Knuckling his eyes, he set off on a brisk walk down dusty, overcrowded lanes.

His heart seemed to skip a beat when he finally rested his eyes on their run down apartment complex. And abruptly all thoughts of leaving an anonymous note went right out of his head. He had to see his uncle, had to make sure he was okay.

Forcing his tired legs into a heavy jog, he rounded the last corner. There was the door. He knocked, tentatively at first, and then harder when there wasn’t an immediate answer.

Nothing.

If he had his days right, it was Uncle’s usual day off at the teashop. A tingle of dread went up Zuko’s spine. He tried the door handle, surprised when it slid easily under his fingers. Then, taking a deep breath and pulling some limp excuse out of thin air, he went in. “Sorry for the interruption, sir, but—” He stopped.

The room was empty.

The sights and smells of the apartment hit him in a rush, and he turned in place, looking at it all. It seemed to belong to another reality. That was the corner he used to sit and think (Uncle had called it sulking, but he had been trying to meditate), and that was the wall that Uncle had hung a small cheep set of flutes. “I think it’s long past time we reestablished music night, Nephew…”

And it was all gone.

There wasn’t any sign of a struggle. No blood, no pieces of chipped china. Quite on the contrary, someone had obviously swept up. It seemed his Uncle had moved out. Gone on… without him.

It’s for the best. He told himself, swallowing past his thickening throat. He was under surveillance anyway, and I’m sure Sokka didn’t stick around, and…

Zuko couldn’t go on. Picking what had been his favorite shadowed corner, he curled up his knees to his chest, ignored his own watering eyes, and slept.


OOOOOOO


Sokka turned the handle to the apartment door and stepped inside, hardly surprised at all to see his uncle look up from their small table. Iroh should have been at the Jasmine Dragon, but instead he was here at their new apartment, waiting for him. After all, he had been missing for a day and a half.

“Nephew,” Iroh’s tone was mild as usual, but his eyes were clearly full of concern, “that must have been one date.”

Sokka snorted, and closed the door behind him. If he had his own body, he would have been dead on his feet, but even Zuko’s body was exhausted. His scarred eye felt dry, and he rubbed it absently with the back of his head. “Yeah, well we sort of got arrested by Dai Li agents. I guess one of them recognized me from the lake. It took awhile to get out of their hidden prison, and she dumped me. That was great, too.” He looked up, finding Iroh staring at him with a pensive expression on his face. “So… how’s the unpacking going?”

“I’m nearly finished.” His uncle set aside the basket he was working on. “Do you think we can expect trouble from the Dai Li over this?”

It occurred to Sokka that Iroh must have really had a lot of confidence in Zuko — in him. His own father would have been at his side in an instant, quizzing him on everything and offering instantly to help mop up the remaining mess. But Iroh trusted him to take care of his business, to fight his battles and win them. He, would only step in if asked.

“No,” Sokka said, after a moment of thought. Then he laughed, and it came out bitter. “The Avatar is the one who broke us out – all the prisoners. They’ll be more interested in finding him then me.”

Iroh nodded. “That’s good, nephew. You should have a cup of tea. It will help revitalize you.”

“No… sleep first.” He looked longingly towards the bedroom — his own bedroom since Iroh had been given a nice large apartment to go with the tea shop. “Tea later. The grand opening is tomorrow, right?”

“It is.” A flash of pride crossed the old man’s face, making Sokka smile.

“Great.” He paused at the doorway to his bedroom. “Don’t worry, Uncle. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”


 
 
Current Mood: bouncybouncy