Title: In His Shoes
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: This is such a blast to write. Look to regular updates!
In order to avoid spamming my favorite comms, I'm only posting an update on every third chapter (but I'm including links to the other chapters). Regular updates can be found on my LJ.
The full moon had risen high over the lower rings. Her ghostly light illuminated empty streets and threw different parts of the slums in sharp relief. The Cultural Authority might say that this was the place for craftsmen and artisans, but anyone who had any delusions over what kind of place this truly was would have to come at night. Only then could they see the real lower rings of Ba Sing Se.
While the streets were more or less lighted, the hidden places between the buildings and behind merchant carts were still pitch dark. These places were no mans land; except for one furtive shadow. A young man, dressed in black, a small pack strapped to his back. He darted in and out of the corners and alleys, constantly looking around, pausing and halting in his step, and heading further and further inwards towards the city.
Sokka had figured that the city would get better the closer he moved to the second ring. He was wrong. It only got worse. Everywhere he looked was squalor, and every breath he took was of human stink.
How had he missed this? He remembered the first tour he took with the gang and Joo dee. Even then the lower rings seemed like a wild, slightly sinister place. Perhaps they had just been shown the best parts of the lower ring.
This… this was bad.
He paused mid-step, checking the street both ways for anyone around before crossing. His plan was simple — get through this bad spot as soon as possible, get back into the upper rings, and figure it out from there. This was supposed to be the easy part. He hadn’t counted on getting lost, and accidentally heading in the wrong direction for an hour. Sokka was sure that he was going the right way now, but he knew he had to hurry to get to the upper rings before dawn.
Out in the distance, he could hear the wail of a hungry infant. He thought of the little family he and the rest of the gang had traveled with across Serpents Pass, and their tiny newborn baby. Where were they now? Hopefully, not in a building like this.
Stupid Fire Nation. There were so many displaced war refugees that it was just making this city worse. Maybe this place had once been for craftsmen and whatever.
I’m going to get my body back, and then I’m going to drag spoiled Prince Zuko down to this part of the city and show him what his people have done. See? Goals were good.
Sokka heard a noise, the sharp rap-tap of multiple feet approaching rapidly from down the street. He froze again, and ducked into the nearby shadow thrown by a crumbling edge of a building.
Three Dai Li agents strode by. Two of them had restraining hand on the shoulders of a pudgy man, his hands bound in rock manacles. It was the third agent who got Sokka’s attention. He too had a prisoner, but his looked to be only about eight years old, and was a little girl, softly weeping.
“Daddy!” the little girl cried.
The pudgy man twisted around to look at the little girl, then at the agent to his left. “Please, let my daughter free. She had nothing to do with this. It wasn’t her fault I couldn’t pay—”
“You should be glad,” replied the agent, and Sokka could see his smirk under his wide-brimmed helmet. “With her helping serve out your dept in prison, your term will be cut by at least a third.”
“No!” The man’s knees crumpled, apparently in grief. The two agents hauled him back up to his feet, none too gently.
Sokka had seen enough.
Looking back, he didn’t really know what he was thinking. After all, he did have a broken arm still slung up to his chest. He was tired, and on edge both from a lack of sleep and the crazy day he’d had so far. But he knew he could provide a distraction — perhaps long enough to allow the man and his daughter to escape.
He hesitated only long enough to dig the mask out of his pack — the last thing he wanted to do was to be recognized with the distinctive scar, and have any trouble fall on the surprisingly nice General — then he picked up a rock, testing its weight and hefted it.
Maybe if the Dai Li were as attuned to their element as Toph was, they wouldn’t have been caught unawares. Then again, Toph was the greatest earthbender in the world, and these guys were just a bunch of jerks.
The rock hit the top of one agent’s head with a satisfying clang. The man cried out, and went down, and the other two turned about.
Sokka stood out in the middle of the street, laughing blue demon mask on, his unbroken arm resting casually on his hip. “Hey! Why don’t you pick on someone your own size! Like me!”
“It’s The Blue Spirit!” One of the Dai Li barked. Instantly, they let go of their prisoners.
Sokka turn around and ran, zig-zagging to avoid whatever earth the agents threw at him. Something whistled past his ear, and he ducked just in time to avoid what looked like a hand-shaped rock fly past his left ear. Zuko had apparently pissed a lot of these guys off using this mask, and they were out for blood.
He ducked down one side street, and then another, hearing the sounds of pursuit fall further and further behind him. Annoyingly enough, Zuko was able to run faster than he had, although his step was interrupted slightly by the fact he couldn’t swing his left arm.
Then he hit a dead end.
Sokka cursed and looked about for something, anything to use as a weapon. He spied something metallic, glinting in the moonlight and leapt for it, catching the bottom rung of a fire-escape ladder in his good hand. With an upward swing and a twist that should have been impossible for him, but was very possible for Zuko, he landed on the balcony of a second-floor apartment.
Unfortunately, he was by no means alone. The lowest ring was crowded, with safe sleeping spots in scarce supply. On a semi-warm night like this, some members of large families slept on outside covered balconies.
Feeling the unusual tremor of someone landing, the young woman sat up and opened her eyes.
A demonic figure in a demon mask stared back at her, cocked his head, and spoke, “Hey… you were in that poetry club, weren’t you?”
The woman screamed.
“Shhh! Shhh!” the demon put a hand to the mask’s wooden lips, and tried to calm her down, holding his hands out in entreaty. “I’m not going to hurt you! Just be quiet. I’m the haiku guy, remember?”
A light came on from inside the apartment, along with a man’s roar. “What’s going on?!”
The young woman continued to scream, and Sokka cursed again, alighting to the rail of the balcony. He turned to the woman for the last time. “Just for the record, I totally won.” Then he leapt off the railing, using the advantage of height to land on the low roof of the next building over.
“There he is!”
Sokka ignored the Dai Li’s shout, and focused on keeping his balance upon slippery roof tiles. He leapt from roof to roof, occasionally throwing out his good arm for balance, searching for a good place to duck and hide.
A column of earth sprung up from the ground between two buildings in front of him, catching him mid-jump. Sokka pinwheeled his arms, but hit the column just the same. He fell hard and rolled, neatly avoiding a flurry of rock-spikes that erupted from the ground.
He got to his feet, caught a flash of at least six Dai Li rounding the nearest corner, and threw himself to the side, crashing his shoulder against a nearby door. To his relief it sprung open. Sokka ducked in and slammed the door behind him, relocking the door by throwing a heavy metal bar across its face.
He knew it would last all of ten seconds against six earthbenders, and he swung around, looking for inspiration.
Although he didn’t know it, the building had housed a chic clothing store which had fallen pray to the recent hard economic times. Sokka had unwittingly stumbled on one of only a handful of buildings in the lower ring that was vacant, for not even refugees had the time to move in and take available space. It also seemed to have only one exit; the way he had just blocked.
Sokka ran to the other side wall, kicking it in pure desperation, searching for a weakspot. Nothing.
He heard the sharp crack of a splintering wooden door, sounding like an explosion.
An explosion! He was in a firebender’s body, wasn’t he?
Sokka didn’t know exactly know what to do, of course. As a child, he had scoffed at Katara’s “magic-water”, and hadn’t paid her the slightest bit of attention when she talked about how she did it. But desperate times called for desperate measures… and right now, he was out of options.
So, ignoring the agonizing pain in his left arm, he slammed two clenched fists against the wall, putting everything he had into the blow; all of his fear, his panic, and even his anger at being trapped in the enemies’ body. He pulled from some inner core he didn’t know he had, and pushed everything out in that one single strike.
The wall exploded outward with a concussive force.
But it wasn’t only the wall. The explosion splintered the wooden beams around him, incinerated rock manacles that had been flying through the air towards him, and knocked back the approaching Dai Li at least fifteen feet.
The remaining walls and beams began to buckle. Sokka had just enough time to stagger out of the wreckage before it all crashed down.
Some left over instinct kicked him into a tired run. He didn’t dare look back to see the horror that he had just caused.
He ducked and weaved through back alleys, aware that there wasn’t an active pursuit anymore, but needing to get away. Vaguely, he was aware that somehow he had ended up nearly where he had started — only a few blocks away from Zuko’s apartment. Finally, he spied a sharp staircase, and forced himself up it, coming to the top of a gravel-lined roof.
Sokka fell to his knees and stripped off the blue mask. His chest was heaving, and no matter how hard he gasped he didn’t feel like he could get enough air.
He remembered, clearly, when Aang had been playing with firebending for the first time, and how he had burned Katara’s hands. Sokka had been so angry then, but now he understood, at least a little, how that could have happened.
Yep. Fire was evil. It was destructive, hungry, and… well, evil.
It also took a lot out of the person generating it. He felt like an empty shell, for he had literally thrown everything he could at that wall. If a platoon of Dai Li were surrounding him right now, Sokka doubted he could even get to his feet.
For how long he sat there, feeling lethargic and numb, he didn’t know. The sky lightened around him without his notice, the crescent of the sun peeking over the walls of the city.
The first rays hit the unscarred cheek, and almost without knowing why, Sokka turned his head towards it. A spark of life relit inside of him. Groaning, he made his heavy arms lift his black shirt over his head.
Sunlight hit his pale skin, and suddenly Sokka felt like he had breath back in his body again. He sat there, drinking in the rays as if it were pure energy and life.
He had heard someone, probably Katara once say, “Firebenders rise with the sun.”
And now Sokka understood that, too.
Following the explosion a few hours ago, all Dai Li agents were put on high alert, and Chun was no exception. He was eager to get rid of the Blue Spirit, and wanted peace and order returned to the city.
The sun was rising. The people of the lower rings were beginning to stir. Chun kept an eye out, all senses searching for anything out of the ordinary.
His gaze fell upon a young raven-haired man. He was standing at a merchant’s stall, his back to him, and was dressed in simple green peasant’s robes. But he fit the height and build of the Blue Spirit, and Chun thought he would be worth a quick look.
“You there!” he barked, and noted that the kid didn’t even flinch. “Have you seen a masked man wondering about?”
The young man turned his head slightly to the left. Chun caught sight of a puckered, reddened scar covering about a quarter of his face. It looked as if the poor guy had been captured and tortured by the Fire Nation. Despite himself, Chun took a step back.
“Masked man?” repeated the young man, flashing an amused smile, “Is there a festival going on or something?”
“Don’t be smart, boy. I’m talking about the Blue Spirit! He is an enemy of all peaceful loving citizens of this city.”
“Ohh, that masked man.” The young man’s face scrunched up, accidentally highlighting the unattractive scar. It was strange how one yellow eye looked at him in mirth, while the other was narrowed in a permanent glare. “Nope, haven’t seen him.”
“Where are you from?”
“Actually, just down the way. I work in a teashop with—”
He was cut off by a call over the gradually thickening crowd, “Nephew!”
The boy closed his eyes and Chun could have sworn that he heard him curse under his breath before saying, “With my Uncle.”
A pudgy older peasant walked up to the both of them, apparently the boy’s uncle. The uncle cast a swift look at Chun, and bowed his respect before turning to his nephew. “Ah, there you are. You weren’t in the apartment. I was worried.”
The scarred boy hesitated, and Chun got the feeling that he had just been caught at something. “I was just getting breakfast, Uncle.”
That was all well and good, but Chun was hardly interested in family matters. He had a terrorist to catch. “A pleasant day to you both.” He murmured, touching the brim of his helmet before he stocked off, leaving the peasants to their morning.
Sokka held his breath as the Dai Li agent retreated and a moment later he heard the agent’s sharp voice questioning another early riser. Under his stolen robes, he clutched both the mask and his dark clothing along with a couple of coppers he had found in the pockets.
Katara would be ashamed of him for stealing.
“That’ll be two pieces,” the merchant in front of him said, sliding a hot loaf of breed and a small wedge of cheese across his counter. He didn’t look Sokka in the eyes.
Despite himself, Sokka’s mouth quirked into a smile. He didn’t take offence. After all, it wasn’t his ugly face.
Zuko’s uncle was still beside him, casually watching, but saying nothing. Sokka had the feeling the General knew that he had just stepped in at the right time.
He paid the merchant and nodded to Zuko’s uncle to grab the food tucked the food into his robes. He wasn’t hungry, not really, but he had the feeling that Zuko’s uncle would be. He felt drained, and mostly at a loss of what to do. The entire night had been wasted getting away, and he didn’t want to really travel the city in the daylight with Zuko’s distinctive features.
“What was that about?” asked Iroh, once they were down the street.
Sokka shrugged his shoulders. “Someone blew up a building last night and got those Dai Li agent’s more paranoid and angry than usual.”
“That is unfortunate, nephew.”
For the first few moments after Zuko woke up, he was in blissful ignorance. He could hear a faint clank and scrape of pans and knew Uncle was up and fixing breakfast, getting ready for the day. It wouldn’t be long before he would come shake his shoulder and tell him to wake up. Tea shops didn’t open themselves.
Zuko rolled over, pulling the blanket over his head. Maybe Uncle would give him a few more minutes…
“SOKKA! GET UP! YOU ARE NOT MISSING ANOTHER MEAL!”
Zuko’s blue eyes shot open.
Being greeted by an unfamiliar place, in an unfamiliar bed, and surrounded by unfamiliar people would startle anyone. He fought to sit up, struggling both against the weight of the strange thick blankets, and his sleep-fogged brain. “I—wha?”
His vision cleared. The water tribe girl, one of the banes of his existence, was standing before him, holding a spoon in hand as if it were a deadly weapon.
“I said, you are not missing another meal as a family.” To his intense relief, she turned her glare to the little earthbender. The little girl was awake, but lounging on a nearby futon and pretending to ignore her. “Where were you two last night? I didn’t even hear you come in.”
“That’s not a surprise. You were snoring loud enough to wake the dead,” said the earthbender.
The water tribe girl shot a narrowed look the earth bender clearly couldn’t see, and then turned back to Zuko. “Fine. Why didn’t you at least check in, Sokka? You’re the one who is always on about this weird city and how we always need to be vigilant.”
Zuko hesitated, frankly at a loss of how to respond. He had planned on giving himself time to plan ahead, had wanted to use the night’s darkness to think on how he was going to act around these people and especially how to get the Avatar alone. He hadn’t expected just to drop off to sleep the moment his head hit the pillow.
She’s his sister, he reminded himself, she has no reason to suspect you. “Look… you know I can take care of myself—”
“Oh, so you mean that the checking-in rule only applies to Aang, Toph, and I?” She waived the spoon angrily at him, and Zuko feared he was about to get rapped over the head.
“So, the great Sokka can go traipsing wherever he pleases? Is that what you mean?” The spoon was waving just an inch away from his nose now, and Zuko had to grit his teeth to fight the urge to snatch it from her fingers and burn it. Not that he could, anymore. “I am sick and tired of your double-standard.”
“I’ll have you know that I am a Master Waterbender, and if I have to check-in then you do too!”
He couldn’t take it anymore. With a motion quick as a striking snake he snatched the spoon out of her hand and tossed it aside. “Fine! Now will YOU JUST LAY OFF?!”
There was a shocked silence from the girl, enough for Zuko to realize that he had, once again, screwed up.
“We were just out exploring, Katara.” The earthbender said, breaking the uneasy silence. “He wasn’t going to get into trouble. He had me around.”
“You see?” Desperate to get the heat off of him, he pointed to the little girl… before his brain caught up with what she said. “Hey…”
The water tribe girl—Katara— cast them both a final swift narrow eyed look. “You two aren’t invincible. Next time, check in.”
The earthbender shrugged. “Whatever you say, Sugarqueen.”
“Sure… Sis.” It was very, very hard not to make a face while saying that. He had some very bad connections with that name.
The smell from whatever had been cooking wafted over, sweet and delicious. Zuko’s stomach gave a mighty growl, causing Katara and the earthbender to giggle. Zuko glared at them both. He hated to be laughed at. But before he could say anything, Katara pointed to a small rice pot on a cooking counter across the large house. “Go ahead, but save some for the rest of us.”
Zuko didn’t need to be told twice. He thought he was hungry last night, but now it was almost as if his stomach was trying to gnaw a hole through his back. He stretched and got up, looking about the house for the first time. It was large and well furnished, but without the personal touches that made a home. There were some places like this back at his Palace — guest houses for honored visitors. It was a vast improvement from the small apartment he had just left, but at the same time, he wished he were back there… back in his own body, back with Uncle…
Stop it, he told himself firmly, as he ladled some rice into a bowl. You have the best chance yet to capture the Avatar and fulfill your destiny. You have no right to feel sorry for yourself.
His eyes fell to a mirror across the room. The boy looking back was mostly unfamiliar to him, if not a little puffy-eyed and rumpled from sleep. It was strange how… relaxed he looked. Sokka’s body fell naturally into a slouch that had been firmly schooled out of Zuko from early childhood. He began to straiten, and then thought better of it and corrected himself before turning back to the food.
“Sokka, I said leave some for the rest of us! Aang will be back soon.”
Zuko glanced down, realizing he had piled the rice into his bowl without realizing it. Quickly, he spooned a little back into the pot, added some sort of bubbling fruit sauce, and walked over to join the two girls. “Where is he, anyway?”
Katara was busy brushing and replaiting her hair, but at Zuko’s words, her face fell. “Searching for Appa.”
Zuko had a very bad moment before he remembered that Appa was not the name of another stranger he had to deal with, but the Avatar’s bison. It was missing? How did someone lose a giant flying animal? Maybe someone took it… actually, that wouldn’t be a half-bad idea. Without the bison, the Avatar and his friends were stuck. He should have thought of that earlier.
He took a bite of food as he thought. It was tangy, sweet, and exactly what he needed. Yes, he had better in what seemed like a different lifetime ago at the Palace, but after three years of ship food and then Uncle’s cooking, this was divine. “Hey… this is really good!”
“Always the tone of surprise.” But a ghost of a smile curved Katara’s lips, and for the first time Zuko realized that she was quite lovely.
And he was in her brother’s body. Gah.
Bending his head down, he quickly applied himself to his food.
He was about halfway finished, and already thinking about going back for second’s when the earth bender turned her head vaguely to the front door and announced, “Twinkletoes is back.”
Less than three seconds later the door slammed open with a rush of wind, and Zuko set eyes on the Avatar for the first time in weeks. The kid hadn’t changed much, of course. He was still the same bald, tattooed little monk with ears too large for his head. But as the Avatar stalked into the room, shoulders hunched forward and eyes narrowed, Zuko realized that something indeed had changed. The kid had been always smiling, light and airy even locked in battle. Now it was almost as if a thundercloud had entered the room.
Katara glanced at Zuko, an unreadable look on her face that probably would have conveyed some message to her true brother, but meant nothing to him. Then she gracefully stood and walked over to the Avatar. “Any luck?”
“No.” His response was curt, but at the same time sad. He had been disappointed. Yet again.
“I’m sorry, Aang.” There was a beat while Katara physically composed herself, laying a hand on the monk’s shoulder. “Why don’t you get something to eat and join us? Rice is in the pot.”
The Avatar did as he was told, and had soon joined them in what was becoming a silent, rather somber meal. Zuko was just glad that the reason for the dark, uncomfortable mood within the group wasn’t him. If he had known how much losing that stupid bison would affect the Avatar he wouldn’t have bothered with the whole necklace disaster with the pirates.
“So what’s the plan today, Snoozles?” asked the little earthbender.
Zuko was in the middle of his last bite, and suddenly felt all eyes on him. He swallowed, hard. Why were they asking him? Surely this buffoon wasn’t their leader…?
He racked his brain, trying to come up with something, anything. He needed to get the Avatar alone. Needed to figure out a way to catch him by surprise… “Maybe we could go out… sightseeing?” he asked, forcing his voice to be bright. “And keep an eye out for, ah, Appa? I mean, he is huge. Maybe…” Everyone was still watching him, and he himself was wondering where he was going with this. Why couldn’t he ever think ahead? “Maybe we should check open spaces… like a game preserve?”
It was more a question than a statement, but the Avatar was nodding, and flashed Zuko a sudden smile. “Yeah… whoever has Appa has to keep him in a big area. He’d never fit in a house or anything.”
“Exactly.” Zuko leaned back, satisfied.
“Hey Katara,” Aang began, glancing up at his friend, “is something going on with your brother that I should know about?”
“Sokka?” Katara glanced for her brother and spotted him on the path just up ahead. Their search for wide open areas within Ba Sing Se hadn’t been successful so far. Most of the uninhabited areas were outside the walls, and Aang had already flown over those with his glider. What they had found in the upper rings had been more like a park than a preserve – Katara didn’t see any real wildlife anywhere, just orderly rows of trees and well maintained lawns. Still, they had decided to go for a walk — just in case.
She hadn’t failed to notice that Sokka had been quiet all day. Katara, Aang and Toph had been joking around like they always did (even Aang fell into a better mood now that they were doing something to look for his lost friend), but Sokka’s responses had been clipped and a little awkward. His expression had been closed, something that Katara had come to expect when he was thinking hard – planning ahead.
“Well,” she said, after a moment’s thought, “we did get in a fight earlier today. I just thought he was sulking a little.”
“His heartrate and breathing have been all over the place,” said Toph, from Katara’s right. “I can feel it using my earthbending.”
Aang looked at her. “What does it mean?”
“I don’t know.” Toph paused, pursing her lips, her toes digging into the soft earth. “It’s… like he’s really upset. Maybe he’s angry, maybe he’s scared, but he’s trying to hide it, and he’s doing a pretty good job… at least on the outside.” She grinned, silently reminding her two friends that she was the best earthbender in the world, and they had been respect it.
Now all three of them were watching him. He was strolling along the path, looking unconcerned and fittling with his boomerang, examining the sharp edges. Just plain old, boring Sokka in Katara’s opinion. She said as much and Toph shrugged.
“It’s just what I feel. If you ask me, this stupid city has gotten to him. It’s getting to all of us.”
“What?” Katara paused mid-step, making Aang crash into her back with a soft ‘omph’. “What do you mean?”
Toph paused and turned to her. “Just what I said: This city is bad news. Aang is all dark and moody all the time—”
“Because I’m worried about Appa!”
The earthbender stamped her foot, causing all the pebbles in a three foot radius to jump. “I know, but that isn’t the point. Sugarqueen, your blood pressure is way up. You’re stressed—”
“Only because I don’t know where anyone is half the time. Anything can happen here—”
“And now Sokka’s feeling it too,” Toph continued, as if Katara had never spoken. “Face it. This city is bad news.”
“Hey!” Sokka must have just realized that the other three had stopped walking, and had turned around, annoyed an exasperated. “What are you guys waiting for? There’s a rise up ahead. Maybe we’ll be able to see more of this place from the top.” He looked as he always did when he was a little put out, but at the same time there was no hint of humor in his blue eyes.
Katara had seen all of her brother’s moods. They had shared the darkest times in their lives. If something was bothering him, why was he shutting her out?
Maybe it was her fault. She could deny all she wanted, but Toph was right. Living in a tightly controlled city after months of freedom and a lifetime of small villages in the snowy wilderness had put her on edge. She just didn’t realize how much until now. What was it doing to her brother?
Signaling that she heard him with a raised hand, she quickly turned and spoke to her two friends. “Maybe it’s the city, but I know Sokka and there has to be something else bothering him too.”
She would get him to open up, and she knew just the thing to get him to do it.
“Shopping?” repeated Zuko, with a raised eyebrow.
The game preserve had been a big waste of time. There had been zero opportunity to get the Avatar alone by himself, and the more Zuko thought about it, the less sure of what he could do when he did. He couldn’t count on his bending, after all. With this weak body, how was he supposed to overpower the Avatar? Eventually he had just given up for the moment and chosen to scout ahead so he could think… but no brilliant idea came.
Now, out of the preserve they were walking back to the house when the Water Tribe girl decided to get it into her fool head to make another detour. Ugh! He didn’t need a detour. He wanted to meditate. He was at a serious disadvantage, and knew he needed to heed Uncle’s advice for once and plan ahead if he was going to have any chance at succeeding.
“Not just any type of shopping.” The infuriating Water Tribe girl said, throwing a friendly arm about his shoulders, and steering him to the right. Zuko did his best not to squirm. “Weapon shopping.”
He perked up, despite himself. “Well… I guess I could use something else other than this,” he said, touching a hand to the boomerang on his hip. In truth, he had no idea how to even use the stupid thing.
Ahead of them was a dazzling weapons-shop with all types of pointy objects hanging in the display windows. Katara led him right in, and then gave his shoulders a quick squeeze before letting go. “Go on. See what you like.”
“Really?” He looked around, amused, and feeling strangely excited all at once. He didn’t realize how naked he had felt without his bending, but with a weapon he could handle… He strode forward to the first set of shelves, reaching a hand out to examine a set of small daggers.
Behind him, Katara turned and winked to Aang and Toph. “See? I told you.”
Toph crossed her arms against her chest. “Oh sure. Buy his love.”
But Aang was even more excited than Zuko had been. His eyes grew wide as he stared at a giant halberd, its blade about three times the size of his head. He tugged on Toph’s elbow, practically dragging his earth bending teacher over to it. “Oh wow, you gotta take a look at this!”
“I can’t!” grumped the earthbender, but went along anyway.
Katara put a hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle, and walked to the other side of the shop to find what she thought was her wayward brother. She found him, holding a set of Dao swords, and examining the blades. For a moment she had a flash — a strange feeling of vertigo, but then it passed. “Ugh, you look like Prince Zuko with those things.” She made a face, fully expecting her brother to look at her and laugh.
Instead he just snorted softly and waved one of the swords about as if testing its balance. “He’s pretty good with these.”
“Yeah, well it gives me the creeps. Besides,” she smiled, “you’re better.”
Her shot her a quick look, almost as if he didn’t believe her. He rolled his wrist, testing the right blade, then shook his head and returned them back to their rack.
Katara followed her brother as he walked slowly down the dusty isle, fingers trailing over a couple of weapons, but picking none of them up. He seemed deep in thought, his blue eyes distant. Well, now would be the time, if any.
He didn’t respond, choosing instead to pick up a long sword. It was old, its sheath covered in so much dust that his fingerprints left vivid marks in the cracked leather.
Still not responding, he unclipped the catch and drew forth the sword. Katara knew it as a broadsword, but in her opinion, it was rather plain. What was with him? Normally he would be dashing around the store oohhing and awwing over the shiniest objects.
She tried a third time to get his attention, this time her voice was sharper. “Sokka!”
He jerked in surprise, startled. “What?”
“Like that sword, much?” Katara drawled, and only got a shrug in return. Well, this was going nowhere, fast.
“It just seems… familiar somehow,” he shrugged again, still gazing at the dulled blade. “I don’t know why, but I recognize it.”
“Let me see.” She stepped closer and bent her head down, brushing aside her hair loops so she could get a clear view. “There are inscriptions, but… they’re all faded. Here, turn it to the light.” She grabbed his wrist and twisted slightly so that the blade caught the far lamp in the corner. “It’s… no, I can’t read it.”
“Neither can I.”
Katara could hear Aang and Toph still on the other side of the room. They were talking animatedly, giggling over some unusual weapon or something. At least Aang was in higher spirits.
Her brother was turning away again. Now was the time, if any. She’d never get a chance to have a heart to heart in the house. “Sokka,” she laid a hand on his shoulder, turning him back around, “is everything okay?”
He hesitated for the briefest of seconds before answering, “Yeah, of course.”
“Right.” Katara’s hands fell to her hips, and she gave him her best I’m-your-sister-don’t-pull-that-on-me look. “Then why have you been acting all dark and gloomy today?”
“I have not!”
“Yes you have! You’re quiet and off to yourself… I miss my big, goofy brother who tells stupid jokes and makes ridiculous plans that somehow always end up working.” He was quiet, but Katara could tell that he was at least listening. Encouraged, she went on. “It’s hard enough with Aang so upset about Appa and being stuck waiting here for the Earth King for a month. We need you, Sokka. If there’s anything that’s bugging you—”
“I don’t like it here.” He said, suddenly cutting Katara off. “You know, I— we had always heard about Ba Sing Se, but when I got here it just felt like I was closed in. I’ve wasted so much time here… it feels sometimes like I’ll never get out. I don’t know how to get out.”
“You’re out of ideas.” Katara guessed.
“Yeah.” He closed his eyes, “I guess I am.”
“Sokka…” she wanted to hug him, but the way that he clutched the sword in his hands, the stiff upright way in which he stood, told her that he wouldn’t welcome it. Her big brother was getting too old for hugs. “We will find Appa. No one expects you to perform miracles, but I know that when the time is right,” she smiled, “you’ll think of something. You’ll get that idea... we will get Appa back.”
For the first time all day, a smile pulled at Sokka’s lips. “Thanks, Katara.” He said, quietly.
She smiled back, and, feeling as if her mission was accomplished, turned to check to make sure Aang and Toph weren’t making too much a nuisance of themselves.
Behind her, Zuko unsheathed the sword again. The Water Tribe girl was right. He would think of a way to capture the Avatar, and return his honor. He just needed to wait for the right time.
Sokka awoke with a start.
He sat up on the thin pallet, chest heaving. He had been dreaming; something terrible, something about Katara, Aang and Toph being in trouble without him… but the details of the dream were fading fast, just leaving the lingering terror.
His mouth felt like a dry desert. No surprise, there. Shortly after breakfasting with the General, he had been dragged back to that tea-shop for Zuko’s daily shift. On zero sleep.
It had been a disaster. For one thing, Sokka didn’t know where anything was. He had never served tea to people other than family, and had only been in restaurants a couple of times in his life. It wasn’t like there were any establishments in the South Pole.
He blamed what he could on the broken arm. As soon as he got off shift, he intended to make some excuse and take off to find Aang and the others… But the need for sleep finally caught up with him, and he ended up collapsing on the pallet back at the apartment.
Now it was the middle of the night and he was wide awake again.
I should go, he thought, casting a swift glance at the other side of the room where the General would be sleeping. He couldn’t see the other man in the darkness with Zuko’s stupid eyesight, but figured he had to be sleeping…
… Until he stepped out of the sleeping quarters.
Iroh was sitting traditional style in the middle of a circle of lit candles. His hands rested loosely on each knee, his eyes closed. All of the window shutters had been closed creating a lazy, smoky atmosphere inside. Sokka watched in equal parts fascination and horror as the General breathed in, and the candles around him did the same; the flames brightening and filling, until he exhaled and let them die down again.
“Nephew,” the General spoke without opening his eyes, “I did not expect you to be up. Are you having trouble sleeping?”
Sokka got the feeling the old man not only knew why he was up, but he expected it. Despite the heat of the room, he felt a chill go up his spine. “My arm…” he gestured vaguely to it, even though the General’s eyes were still closed. “It still hurts from yesterday.”
“Pain can sometimes be a very wise teacher. Why don’t you come meditate with me? It may help.”
Somehow, this seemed more like an order then a request. Sokka hesitated, wanting to leave, but at the same time, not knowing how without also tipping the General off. He nodded, again, aware that the old man couldn’t see him, and sat down facing the General, copying his pose, and feeling pretty stupid about it.
“All firebenders should make a regular habit of meditating. It cleanses the Chi, and it will enable you to better manipulate your element.”
I am not a firebender, thought Sokka, I just happen to be in the body of one.
He closed his eyes, listening to the General’s calm breathing, and let his mind mull over what he planned to do next. He still intended to get out of there and rejoin the group; that hadn’t changed. He just needed to figure out some way to do it without alerting Iroh and without getting himself accidentally killed by the others when he showed up. The Dai Li would be extra vigilant tonight. Sokka had seen them patrolling the streets in huge numbers all through the day, so he would have to avoid them too…
Sokka peeked open one eye and saw that the General’s own were still closed. “Uh, yeah?”
“You’re not meditating.”
“I am so meditating! Wait,” he opened the other eye, “how do you know?”
“Because you are not one with the fire. Here.” For the first time Iroh moved. He opened his eye and with a sweeping motion, pulled the tiny candle flames from their wicks and collected them into a fireball in his palm.
Then he casually tossed it at Sokka.
Sokka did not have time to think. He could only react. His good hand shot out and he caught the fire within his fingers, just as he would a ball of snow back home.
It took everything in his power not to let his jaw drop, not to let Zuko’s face reflect any amount of surprise at all. Forcing himself to be relaxed and unconcerned — even though he was HOLDING A FLAMING BALL IF FIRE IN HIS HAND — he looked back at the old man.
Iroh was watching him, his yellow eyes hard and calculating. Sokka was suddenly very much reminded the hard General he saw at the North Pole oasis again, and knew that he wasn’t sitting with Zuko’s kindly tea-loving uncle. He was truly dealing with the General now. And for whatever reason, he was being tested.
“Focus on the flame in your hands. Fire is life.”
Fire is not life, thought Sokka, swallowing hard. Fire is death and burning.
“Close your eyes. Let it breathe as you breathe.”
Sokka did as he was told, closing his eyes and concentrating on breathing. His heart was racing. He could only guess what the General would do when he figured out for sure that he wasn’t his nephew. Sokka wasn’t concerned about himself, but for Katara, Toph, and Aang. They thought they were safe in Ba Sing Se. They wouldn’t be prepared for an angry, vengeful firebender. This guy had helped chase them all over the world… who knew what he would do…
The fire in his hand was pleasantly warm and tickled distractedly against his skin. Again, without hardly thinking about it, Sokka controlled the flame. He moved it upward a little so it rested a few inches above his palm.
He could feel the fire. He could feel it dance and pulse as he held it. It wanted to escape his grasp, as Sokka wanted to escape this room. Sokka took a deep, unsteady breath and felt his blood warm. The fire in his hand grew… he had it wrong. He wasn’t controlling the fire in his hand — he was controlling the fire within himself.
He was the fire.
Sokka’s golden eyes shot open, and stood up so fast that the fire extinguished in his hand. He had enough spooky fire magic. He was a logical guy, and furthermore he was Water Tribe. He had to be breaking at least ten ethical codes here.
“Oh wow, that was great and all but…” he made an exaggerated yawn, “I’m tired again. Thanks for the lesson.”
The General was watching him very closely. “Zuko—”
“NO!” He didn’t mean to snap at the old man, but when he did he saw Iroh’s suspicious face relax a little. Well, he was the Angry Jerk right now, wasn’t he? Time to be angry, and jerkish. “I don’t need to do this! It’s basic, and stupid, and I’m fine. Besides, what if one of the neighbors popped in on us fire bending? How would we explain that?”
Iroh gave a single nod and in that space in time the suspicious fire bender faded, and Zuko’s uncle stepped forward. “It is good to think ahead, Nephew. I did not consider that. It’s just—”
“I’m different recently, is that it?” Sokka had to nip this in the bud, right here. Right now. “Look, I’ve been going through a lot, okay? I didn’t expect to just… die!” He tried for a light laugh which seemed just strangled from his lips. “Give me some time, Uncle. Please.”
It seemed to be the right thing to say. Iroh stood up, a solemn figure in the circle of candles. “You’re right, Zuko, forgive me. It’s just… I thought I had lost again. After Lu Ten…”
“I know.” He didn’t, but it seemed to be the right thing to say. He wondered if he should reach out, if this was supposed to be a family bonding moment, but Iroh had turned away. “I’ll… I’ll be more careful. I promise.” Well, he amended in his mind, he was going to find a way to switch back and then make Zuko more careful.
Iroh turned to him. His eyes were wet. “Thank you, Nephew. I could not stand to lose another in Ba Sing Se.”
Sokka wondered if he intended to keep that promise.