Boomerangs and Rainbows - mindbending (2024)

Chapter 1

Chapter Text

“Hey, this is some quality rope!”

Having made his declaration, Sokka resumes inspecting said rope, its sadly cut coils now draped across his palm. They’re double-braided, strong and firm yet pleasantly smooth to the touch, with a little reddish tint that speaks to their dreadful Fire Nation origins but does make them nicer to look at it. Most remarkably, the coils have remained totally dry, despite hours of exposure to the polar elements and whatever ice water Zuko hauled them through-

Okay, so maybe Sokka’s got bigger things to think about than some very pretty rope. Things like the pitched siege thundering around them, as the full might of the Fire Nation Navy focuses on the Northern Water Tribe. Like Aang, newly rescued from the rope Zuko bound him with. Aang’s panicking because the spirits are in trouble and need their help, an absurdity that chills Sokka worse than the polar night.

Sokka clenches the rope in his fist and clambers onto Appa, besides Yue, off to rescue the spirits from what’s no doubt another dastardly Fire Nation plot. In front of him, Aang hops up to take the reins…

“Wait,” Aang says, slumping forward. “We can’t just leave him here.”

He looks to Zuko. Zuko’s half-buried in ice, right where Katara dumped him after destroying his latest devious attempt at abduction.

“Sure, we can,” Sokka says breezily. Zuko’s safely unconscious for now, but soon enough he’ll burn his way out. It’s a law of the universe, like the sun coming up every morning- he’ll be up and back at his “quest for honor,” as persistent and desperate as an otter penguin yapping for fish. “I bet you he’s working with whoever’s hunting the spirits. We bring him back to the oasis right now? It won’t be pretty.”

Aang takes a weird, longing look at Zuko. “Okay, we’ll come back for him. Yip-yip!”


The moon goes dark.

Sokka abandons the rope. Abandons all thoughts besides we’re doomed and Yue’s gone.

Somehow the moon rises once more.

(After the battle Aang returns to where they’d left Zuko, only to find a blanket of flat, unbroken snow. Zuko’s obviously escaped to torment them another day, but Sokka can’t bring himself to care right now.)

When the sun rises, the moon must fall once more. Sokka feels a phantom hand brushing his neck as the sunbeams creep forward.

It’s surely her farewell.


Except it isn’t.

He smiles again, when he climbs onto his hammock and feels a quick tickling touch in his sleep, so light he might’ve imagined it. When he wakes he gets a flick to his chin that makes him frown, because it stings a little. Maybe there’s a learning curve to becoming the moon spirit.

Hypothesis 1: Yue’s presence is still lingering, blessing him with touches from the other side.

It’s sunny though, and the moon’s nowhere in sight. So Sokka’s rational side points out, regretfully, that it might not be Yue at all.

Hypothesis 2: Sokka’s imagining all this, because he’s suffering from post-battle nerves and/or badly-managed grief.

He stays twitchy all the way to their rendezvous with General Fong of the Earth Kingdom, constantly looking over his shoulder, throwing suspicious glares at Momo whenever he comes within poking distance. But besides one awful buzzing on his cheek- which turns out to be an ordinary milli-fly, newly smeared across said cheek- he doesn’t sense anything else unusual. Once he’s safe in Fong’s garrison, the adrenaline from the North Pole slowly subsides. The twitchiness fades with it. Hypothesis 2 is validated; this is nothing a good night of sleep won’t cure.

(He feels a vague tug on his ankles that night, when he tries to convince Aang to let Fong have his way and insta-kill the Fire Lord with some sweet Avatar State action. Sokka dismisses it as a trick of his imagination. An outlier that should not be counted.)


General Fong works through a list of hypotheses of his own, trying to forcibly drag Aang into the Avatar State. He tries hooking Aang on chi-enhancing tea, but it seems to have no effect besides doubling his usual hyperness. A later strategy involves an Earth Kingdom sage, who dresses Aang in ceremonial clothing from all four nations and then proceeds to combine the four elements together in a bowl. Water. Earth. Fire...

The sage takes a lit torch from off the wall and brings it closer to them all, intending to drop it into his bowl of mud, but the fire jumps. The flame leaps from the wick and arcs forward, stretching its fire-y tendrils straight towards Aang-

Who blows it out with one tremendous gust.

General Fong claps his hands in interest. “Have you already studied firebending?”

“Barely.” Aang shakes his head. “I didn’t do that. Not on purpose, at least.”

“Then it’s a sign of your subconscious skills,” the general boasts. “This must be a step on the path to the Avatar State. Bring forth another torch; come now, Avatar, show us your power!”

The sage presents a new torch. Aang huffs and puffs and mimics random firebending poses he probably stole off Zuko- the angles look wrong, but who’s Sokka to judge- and the flame does nothing. It flickers irregularly, looking perfectly, spitefully ordinary, until Aang airbends too hard and blows it right out.


The moon’s waning tonight. Sokka sleeps like a log, completely free from phantom touches or any other pesky supernatural-ish phenomena.

Case closed.


Fong turns out to be more than a little nuts, because apparently traveling with the Avatar means you can never have nice things. Sokka whacks Fong on the head with Boomerang, and then they pile onto Appa once more. Just him, Katara, and Aang, on their way to Omashu.

(Sokka jumps, feeling a finger-like poke to the small of his back. But when he turns, he only finds Momo sitting behind him, staring up with thoroughly suspicious widened eyes.)

“Secret tunnel! Secret tunnel! Through the mountains, secret, secret, secret, secret tunnel!”

They escape Fong and run right into the clutches of a troupe of non-air nomads, starring an off-key musician, Chong, who may or may not have short-term amnesia. One of the nomads gushes about a waterfall that makes a never-ending rainbow. Slightly more usefully, Chong claims there’s a secret passage to Omashu, right through the mountains.

After the non-secret route gets them nearly killed by Fire Nation cannonballs, Sokka begrudgingly follows the nomads into the passage. It’s just an underground tunnel, carved in earthbending territory. Nothing sketchy or unusual about that...

“Actually, it's not just one tunnel,” Chong says, “The lovers didn't want anyone to find out about their love, so they built a whole labyrinth.”

“Labyrinth?” Sokka snaps.

“All you need to do is trust in love,” one of the other nomads reassures him. “According to the curse.”

“Curse?” Sokka squawks. Nobody else seems to listen. Nobody ever listens to him.

According to this alleged curse, only those who “trust in love” can escape the caves. That is vague, vague phrasing, and for a second Sokka’d rather take his chances with the Fire Nation cannonballs again. Then Aang- master of balance and love and icky crushes on Sokka’s baby sister- overrules him, and then the Fire Nation closes in and pins them inside the cursed labyrinth, in with a bunch of giant draconic statues that look like they’re watching.

Not creepy in the slightest.

The Fire Nation’s blown up the entrance, trapping them all inside the gloomy darkness, and Sokka’s trusting in love less every second. Still, he doesn’t lose his cool. He is an unshakable expert explorer after all, and so he treats this as any rational man trapped in a possibly cursed labyrinth would. He takes stock of their supplies- five torches, capable of lasting two hours each. Then, he grabs a pen and some paper, and he starts drawing a map.

It’d be a foolproof plan, if the walls would just hold still for a minute.

“Sokka,” Katara complains one torch later, “this is the tenth dead-end you’ve led us to!”

He glares at the path in front of them, blocked off by a deluge of rocks. Then he glares at his map. “This doesn’t make sense, we’ve already been through this way!”

“We don’t need a map,” says Chong in singsong. “We just need love!”

Sokka keeps pacing around, totally ignoring him. Then something brushes the nape of his neck, and he drops his map with a squeak. Surprised, everyone turns to him.

“There was something behind me,” he protests.

“No?” Aang shrugs. “At least I didn’t see anything, sorry.”

“Me neither,” says Katara, frowning in concern. “Maybe you’re just jumpy. Would you feel better if you had a torch?”

Sokka resents that remark. He is a battle-tested warrior. He doesn’t need to personally carry a torch, even if creeping around a cursed and scientifically infuriating tunnel system gives him the heebie-jeebies.

“...Yeah, I’d like that.” Once he’s taken the torch from Chong, he rolls up his map and announces the conclusion of his extensive scientific inquiry. “There’s only one reason why the map wouldn’t get us out- the tunnels must be changing.”

That sparks a minor panic in their merry band.

“I knew we shouldn’t have come down here,” Chong cries out.

“Right,” Sokka deadpans. “If only we’d listened to you.”

There’s a huff of air on his neck like a chuckle, but Sokka grips his torch a little tighter and steadfastly ignores it.

“Everyone be quiet,” says Katara. “Listen!”

And now there’s a ghostly clamor wailing its way through the caves, and yeah, they really shouldn’t have come down here. Still, Sokka does his best to show no fear, standing tall with his torch, facing down the darkness.

Then a wolf-bat shoots out of the tunnel and dives right at him. At first Sokka ducks, but as it swoops around them all with its fangs bared, he lifts his torch and tries sweeping it through the air. He means just to scare it off. Yet the flame leaps from his torch like he’d thrown it, more effective than he was expecting. The wolf-bat’s wing catches on fire. Its smoking mass corkscrews through the air, screeching and scaring everyone else to the side before spiraling down into Appa’s leg. Thank the spirits, his wool doesn’t catch fire, but he lows in pain and starts charging wildly into the cave walls. At first Sokka stays in one place, stunned as the tunnels start to collapse, but then there’s a painful yank on his ponytail, tugging him backwards, just before a massive slab of stone falls right where he’d been standing.

He gets up, choking on the dust, one hand still clenched around the torch. Then he looks at the veritable wall of rocks separating him from everyone else, screeches just like the wolf-bat, and starts digging, limbs windmilling as he tries to burrow right through.

He burrows and he burrows, but it’s no use.

He’s alone.

Going by the soreness of his limbs, he dug for at least half an hour, yet the torch is still burning strong at close to its original length. Sokka contemplates that and then shrugs off the discrepancy- he must be over-estimating how long he worked. Blame it on leftover exhaustion from, well, everything.

He gets up and starts trudging forward. He thinks it’s forward. He keeps his map, tucking it under one arm, but frankly he’s got some doubts about that approach now. Logic may have failed. Still, intuition can get him out of this. Sokka’s instincts will kick in any second now.

So he keeps going forward, and left, and then backwards and then right and then backwards for a little while again, and bam, his instincts are on point (see, Katara?). There’s a big circular door made of stone, and clearly this is the exit. He’s saved!

It then occurs to him that it’s a big circular door made of stone, with no handle to speak of.

Frowning, he lifts his torch and examines it a little more closely. It’s not unlike that door at the Air Temple that opened to airbending, or the one that the Fire Sages opened with firebending.

“The key is earthbending,” Sokka mutters to himself. It helps, sometimes, to talk through his plans out loud and pretend someone’s listening. It’s not weird. Not even a little.

He kneels down and inspects the door more closely. It’s got an intricate pattern on it, a circular border with grooves around the edge, but the sculpture looks older and simpler than the craftsmanship at the other temples.

“Maybe fake earthbending could work here,” he remarks.

He reaches out to touch the possibly cursed ancient sculpture. After a second, he gets up close and friendly with the border, sticking his hand right into one of the lines carved deep in the stone.

There’s something in there.

Sokka brings forth his torch, and the firelight reveals a rudimentary locking mechanism. If he can just find a key, a piece of rock to jam in, maybe he’ll be able to trick the door into opening. He steps back and scans the area.

There’s another creepy draconic statue watching him. When he takes a closer look, he realizes that no, those are badgermoles, creatively reimagined with weird head spikes.

Weird head spikes that look the same size as the grooves in the door.

Sokka weighs the pros and cons of desecrating an ancient statue of the patron animal of earthbending and decides, yeah, it’s worth it. He aims Boomerang, and a perfectly key-sized chunk of rock clatters down. He collects it from the floor and lugs it over to the door.

Yep, he nailed the size- at least on one side of the fragment. The other edge is all rough and choppy from where it broke off from the statue, but hey, he’ll just leave that side up.

He fits the smooth side into one of the grooves and feels a neat click.

“Nice thinking,” he tells himself, because a little well-deserved preening never hurt anyone’s mental health. “So now we just need one, two, more of these.”

There are eight grooves, and at first it seems like he needs to just fit eight keys in at the same time. But that’s not right; the other temples’ locks required prodigious displays of bending. Yet any earthbending kid could chop off eight rocks and stick them in holes. Surely there’s some deeper trick at play.

Also, it had better not be right, because there are only five head-spikes still left on the statues.

He removes the rock and spins around, hoping for some more clues. Maybe there’s another statue to steal spikes from, hiding down the tunnel? Yet out of the corner of his eye he spots his torch’s flame blowing sideways, like there’s a breeze, even though Sokka hasn’t felt one.

“Am I dead?” he squawks to the labyrinth. “Did I die and become immune to wind? Because don’t get me wrong, that’d be super-helpful back home in the winter, but that’s still really not what I signed up for here?”

His torch’s flame calms down again, and Sokka laughs after a second. There’s a perfectly rational reason for the flame to jump around weirdly. The Mechanist put powders in his candles so they flickered on command and let out special noises. Obviously the nomads did something to their torches too- not with any clear purpose, just because they enjoy the chaos.

Still, for no particular reason, he takes a look in the direction the flame had pointed. There are pilasters framing the door, columns set into the wall, and there’s writing on the pedestal of one. “May all things be in order.”

Sokka checks out the other pedestal and finds the same message.

“Right,” he drawls. “The creepy labyrinth with the moving walls really cares about logic and order. I totally believe that.”

He drops down on the pedestal with a huff. Takes a look at the torch that’ll burn out in under two hours, though so far it still looks it’s new.

(Which is its own little mystery, but it’s one that benefits Sokka for a change. He’s not going to question it right now.)

“May all things be in order,” he murmurs to himself. Then he leaps up and takes another look at the eight grooves. “Maybe there’s a combination. I just have to get the order right.”

He squints, doing some quick mental math. There are 40,000 possible orderings of eight grooves, rounding down. It’s infeasible for any old layman to open the door, but maybe a skilled earthbender can feel the rock falling into place. It makes perfect sense. Too bad he’s as far as you can get from a skilled earthbender.

“So there’s probably a metal locking mechanism on the inside,” he muses, ignoring the way his voice echoes creepily. “So any old earthbender can’t make it in. Just the ones who sense the right order.”

He tries shoving his ear right up against the wall and sticking the block into a random groove. There’s a click, same as before. He tries the other seven, clambering up onto the door and balancing on the carved decoration like it’s a ledge. There’s seven other clicks. They all sound totally identical.

He hops down with a grunt of frustration. His torch is still burning merrily away.

He looks down the seemingly endless tunnels, and checks the map he’d made, covered with criss-crosses and parts he’d scratched out. He hasn’t got a better plan at the moment.

So he tries it again, moving the block around, listening as carefully as he can for a click that’s not like the others. On his fourth try, there’s a weird tap against his knuckles, like the stone side of the groove had jumped up to touch him, even though it couldn’t possibly have. He’s not an earthbender.

Sokka stares at the groove and then decides to trust his instincts.

He starts drawing a new diagram on the back of his map. “So the rightmost one on the bottom goes first, which leaves seven choices for the next one.”

He tries all seven again, going clockwise. Nothing.

“What?” Sokka says. “Do I have to do it all in the right order?”

There’s no answer. Suddenly, Sokka really hopes the lock doesn’t want him to reuse grooves, because then there are infinitely many orderings and he’s never getting out of here.

With a groan, he sticks the block in the first groove and then tries going counterclockwise. When he sticks the block in his next guess, he feels the click, and then the same weird rapping sensation.


He keeps going, first punching in the grooves he’s already figured out and then continuing onwards, trying new spots until there’s another convenient tap. Obviously he’s tuned into the system of tumblers within the lock, because it’s gotten creaky with age or because his instincts are just that awesome. Standing on tip-toes to reach the top of the door, he inserts the key and feels the click and a weirdly delayed tap.

Then the whole door rumbles, throwing him to the ground, and it slowly slides away, revealing-

Not the exit.

“Are you kidding me?” Sokka whines. He can totally indulge in kiddy theatrics, not like anyone’s around to hear him.

Then he steps inside this new cursed room that’s full of dust and dark as a tomb.


It is a tomb.

Sokka climbs down to the bottom of the hall. At the center are two sarcophagi, raised up on a giant stone circle- a pedestal, with carvings along the side. He kneels down to examine them, surely imagining the way his torch flares, illuminating them more clearly.

“So here we’ve got two lovers,” he mutters to himself. “They’re from two different villages, on opposite sides of a war. Totally normal. And they learn earthbending to meet each other, and...they made the cursed labyrinth together. Well, whatever turns you on. And then...oh.”

Out of nowhere, the guy dies.

Sokka feels like that’s not how the story was supposed to go.

Then the girl loses it and shuts down the war with a massive earthbending intervention, and she creates a new city named Omashu, because her name was Oma and her lover’s was Shu. In Sokka’s opinion, shoving a couple’s names together isn’t a good way to name anything, but then again nobody asked.

“Great origin story,” Sokka says. “Now how the heck do I get out of here?”

He raises his torch, looking for further clues. He finds them in the form of two giant statues kissing each other, plus an inscription saying “love is brightest in the dark.” Sokka takes this in and then sinks to the ground, groaning.

He is willing to admit, after a thorough review of the evidence, that this place might have some magic going on. He’s gotten lost way too many times and hit too many dead ends to believe he’ll make it out without some kind of supernatural intervention. That means he needs to play whatever game Oma here set up, all those centuries ago.

(Would it have killed her to be a bit clearer on the rules?)

“Love is brightest in the dark,” he repeats to himself. “Could be a random platitude. Could be a hint, like the thing about order. Maybe I do have to ‘trust in love.’”

He waves his torch around, hoping to uncover more useful inscriptions. No such luck.

Maybe if it’s a magic labyrinth, it’s listening. Which is creepy as anything, but Sokka sighs and resigns himself to the fact that this is his life now.

“I love my family,” he offers. “I know I give Katara a hard time, but she’s kind and so smart and I really hope she gets out of here fine, even if...if I don’t.” He takes a deep breath in. “I miss Dad every day. I get that I was too young for the war when he left, but...I still wish I could’ve gone with him. I miss Mom, too. And I do love her, even if I can’t remember her right, not after the Fire Nation…”

He trails off. Beside him, his odd little torch seems to glow a little brighter. Then it gutters, shuddering the way Sokka does.

Firmly, he pulls his breath back under control. “I love Aang too. Not like that! I mean, guys are great and gorgeous, and he’s the Avatar, but he’s also twelve. And bald. Not that baldness strictly kicks a guy out of competition-“ he has the abrupt realization that Zuko could be in that particular competition, and that’s a cursed thought that he pushes right back where it came from- “but he’s into Katara anyway. I love Appa and Momo. I...loved Yue. I’d like to believe that somehow, she still knows that.”

He gives it a few minutes before turning his head up to the kissing statues and hollering, “Is that what you wanted? You got my tragic backstory, can I get the way out?”

There’s no sound. No sign anyone or anything cares.

Sokka shoots to his feet, feeling suddenly alone and maybe a little hysterical. “Okay, maybe you want me to take this literally. Is that what you want? An actual kiss?”

He kneels down and plants his lips on a picture on the stone circle, the one where Oma and Shu were kissing. Who knows, maybe it’s the key to another weird earthbending lock.


He wheels around and jumps onto the statues’ knees so he can reach the “love is brightest” inscription. He looks around for any locking mechanism there. Finding none, he kisses that too.

“Seriously?” he demands.

He puts his torch down- carefully hanging it off the edge of the stone pedestal and weighing it down with rocks, so it’ll stay put- and plants himself in front of the statues, hands on his hips. After a few seconds, he works out a route upwards. Then he lunges, scales the statues- and yikes, Oma probably doesn’t appreciate his grip right now- and he sticks his lips right on the spot where their lips meet. He tries that a couple times, adjusting his angle for optimum...something.

At last, he shimmies back down and considers contemplating defeat.

“Nope,” he tells the dust bunnies. “I’ve got one more plan.”

He takes his torch back up and jumps onto the pedestal, going up to the sarcophagi.

“So,” he says, approaching the nearest one, “I have no idea if you’re Oma or Shu, but I guess it’s a good thing that I’m cool either way?”

He holds his nose and brushes his lips on the box’s lid, just a little. Then he switches to the other one. Then he frantically rubs his mouth on the hem of his shirt, because there’s definitely a couple centuries’ worth of dust now caked on his mouth like the world’s worst lipstick.

Frowning when nothing happens, he circles them a couple times, inspecting them for hinges or latches or-


There’s a little dent at the rim of one of the sarcophagi. Not wide enough for his fingers to fit through, but Boomerang will slip in just fine.

He shrugs. “No big deal. It’s just a matter of leverage.”

Seizing a giant breath to prepare himself, he takes Boomerang out and slides it into the hole. If he jiggles it just right, he’ll be able to pop the lid off the box and boom, he’ll be out of here-

The torch’s flame gets bigger, like it’s trying to catch his attention. He ignores it. Leans down on his makeshift lever and lifts the lid a couple inches…

It falls back into place with a thunderous crash. Then Sokka reels back, screeching.

He stumbles back into the wall because something just whacked him on the mouth, and oh, spirits, it’s not letting go. A second later, he realizes that whatever’s attached itself to him feels almost like a mouth, even though by the time he lifts his hands there’s absolutely nothing there anymore, but he can’t double-check with his eyes because he dropped the torch at some point and it went out and spirits, please, make it stop-

There’s a light in the darkness.

Sokka turns, suddenly freed, and sees glowing green light from the ceiling outside the door. Torch forgotten, he grabs Boomerang and runs, following the green crystals that seem to light up in the dark- and that makes so much sense, of course there was a sensible non-magical explanation for that “love is brightest in the dark” nonsense. Same goes for the weird blow to the mouth. He must have dropped the torch first and then gotten mauled by a freakish cavern creature. It fled again once the crystals started glowing, leaving him with blood on his teeth and a fat lip.

He didn’t offend any supernatural entities by disturbing the remains of the first earthbenders. How could he? He didn’t even finish opening the box.

He definitely didn’t just kiss an angry ghost. Why would anyone even think that.

He runs into Aang and Katara on his way out.

“Spirits, Sokka, what happened to your mouth?” she exclaims.

“I won a fight with an extra-fast wolf-bat,” he declares. It’s the truth now. He’s sticking with it.

“We’ve been looking for you for hours,” says Aang. “We went through three of the torches!”

Sokka’s torch was still going strong at most half an hour ago. He chalks that up to the unreliability of all things Chong-related.

Once he makes it out to sunlight, he grins. “See? No curse. No weird, supernatural shenanigans anywhere.”

Chapter 2

Chapter Text

So Omashu’s decked out in red now.

“Ugh,” Sokka cries. “Does the Fire Nation have to latch onto everything? Can’t one place stay free of tacky red drapery?”

Getting into Fire Nation territory means sneaking into Fire Nation territory. Sokka gamely trudges uphill through a sewage pipe. He doesn’t complain even a little when he emerges above ground with a solid two pounds of grime and gunk caked onto him. He stays obligingly quiet as Katara splashes him with a barrelful of water and Aang blasts him with a frankly concussive gust of air-

There’s still something stuck to him.

That’s when Sokka freaks.

He shrieks like a soprano in a finale as he pulls at the giant pink pustules newly clinging to his head, but they refuse to budge, sticking in place like they’re just part of him now. “Agh, they won’t let go, heeeeeelp-“

Aang tackles him into a wall and then gives him a totally benevolent smile. “Stop making so much noise, it’s just a purple Pentapus.”

Sokka continues his wailing, albeit at a lower volume. His eyes dart back and forth between the Pentapuses that are now sucking his skin with their evil Pentapus tentacles. Then Aang reaches out with his classic Avatar fearlessness, and…

Tickles one Pentapus gently? Affectionately? On the head?

It squeaks in delight and promptly unsticks itself. Aang pulls it right off. Warily, Sokka tries the next one and succeeds in detaching it too.

The Pentapuses turn out useful- Katara passes the suction-cup-tentacle marks off as “Pentapox,” and Sokka sells the act with his top-notch dramatic skills, and they manage to chase off a bunch of Fire Nation guards. As Sokka cups the little critter in his hands, he can’t help thinking it’s cute, too.

Pretty soon they fake an entire plague of Pentapox and smuggle all of the citizens out of Omashu, right under the governor’s nose. Sokka congratulates himself on a plan well-executed until a Fire Nation invader insinuates his way into their group- a guileless, toddling invader who keeps making grabby-hands at Sokka’s nose.

Turns out, when they left Omashu, they accidentally dragged the governor’s son along with them. The governor offers to trade King Bumi to get his kid back. Sokka sees no way in which this can go wrong.

(Sokka can see sixteen ways this goes wrong, but he’s keeping the list to himself for Aang’s sake. He simply mutters all his hypotheticals under his breath- not like anyone’s listening.)

So, Sokka has identified sixteen ways this can go wrong, but he hadn’t accounted for three teenagers showing up to handle a highly sensitive Fire Nation hostage situation. For a second he mistakes the middle one for Zuko- whoever they are, they’ve got the same extra-fancy gold-edged armor, and there’s something similar that he can’t put his finger on in their faces. But this one’s a girl with makeup and a full head of hair and…

“Is that a crown?” Sokka mutters to himself. He feels something poke his rib- probably the baby sticking his foot where it doesn’t belong. Again.

“The deal’s off,” declares one of the other girls, and oh, fun, she’s the one who tried to knife them to death last night. She waves her hand. There goes Bumi back to prison as a metal chain hauls his box away-

“Wait!” The girl in the golden armor speaks, her voice shrill and piercing. “I propose a different deal.”

The chain halts. Then it rolls back down.

“What do you want?” Aang calls.

“Information.” She walks forward to meet him. “I suspect you’re the Avatar and his companions. That means we have a common enemy.”

“Somehow I really doubt that,” calls Sokka from a safe distance.

“I’m on a mission to capture Zuko,” she retorts.

“What,” Sokka quips before he can stop himself, “did you lose your honor too?”

The girl does a double take and then lets out a laugh that will haunt Sokka in his nightmares. “I see you’ve talked to him. Then you know-“ she takes another casual step forward, and every hair stands up on the back of Sokka’s neck- “that he’s feeble, dim-witted, cowardly, and generally an embarrassment to the royal family. I’ve been sent to find him and make sure he brings no further shame to the Fire Nation.”

Aang starts to say something, but Sokka gets there first. “How do we know you’re not lying, and just trying to find Zuko to team up with him?”

She laughs again, an off-key screeching sound. “That does sound like me, doesn’t it? But no. Here are the Fire Lord’s official orders.”

She pulls out a scroll with a very-official red-and-gold seal and unrolls it. Sokka squints, but he won’t get close enough to read it- because it could still be a fake, and because he doesn’t want to die.

(Still he feels a sudden tug on his hand that nearly pitches him into the ground, face-first. He again chalks it up to baby weirdness.)

“If you want your King Bumi,” she announces, “tell me everything you know about Zuko’s whereabouts.”

Sokka, Katara and Aang all look at each other.

“...What are you going to do to Zuko?” Aang says, like he’s worried for the guy.

“Nothing too terrible,” she snorts. “We might just lock him up where he won’t see the sun again.”

Sokka can’t deny he’s been fantasizing about doing exactly that to their personal Avatar-chaser. He looks at Katara, and she’s thinking the same thing.

“We haven’t seen him in a while,” Aang finally says. “Not since he tried to ambush us at the North Pole.”

“He failed miserably, I assume?”

Sokka feels a little embarrassed for Zuko as he confirms, “Yeah, pretty much.”

“Excellent,” she says. “I won’t make the same mistake.”

And then everything’s bright and blue and on fire.


They escape, but Bumi doesn’t. Though they could’ve gotten him out, he insists on staying behind, simply offering Aang mystical advice about finding a different earthbending teacher. Sokka doesn’t get all this cryptic hand-wavy gibberish. He’s glad nothing magical ever happens to him.

“We might’ve just met Zuko’s baby sister,” Sokka says casually, once they’ve gotten safely away from Omashu. “Same gold armor, plus she had a crown.”

Katara frowns. “There’s no way. Why would anyone try to capture their own brother?”

“Yeah, and I don’t get why the Fire Nation would be mad at him anyway,” Aang says, sounding confused and awfully young. “Wasn’t he supposed to be chasing me?”

“The girl said he was bad at it,” Sokka muses. “Which is bad news, if they’ve got people better at hunting you.”

“How would anyone be better?” Katara says, picking up on his worries. “We barely survived Zuko as it was. Remember how he got that giant mole to track us? If we hadn’t been at a perfume factory, he would’ve gotten Aang.”

“And he got way too close with the pirates,” Aang recalls with a wince.

“And remember Roku’s temple? I don’t even know how he got to the sanctuary, it’s not like the layout made sense,” says Sokka.

She frowns. “But they called him a traitor, didn’t they? Maybe he broke into a sacred space that day.”

“He’s good at breaking into places,” Aang says, contemplative. “I never told you this, but...he broke me out of that military base, when you were both sick. And then he tried to capture me again, but he was really cool for a minute there. He’s like a trained acrobat, and he took on ten soldiers with his swords-“

“Swords?” Sokka exclaims with what might just be jealousy. “As in multiple swords?”

Aang nods. “He can use two broadswords at a time, it’s epic!”

“I...kinda want to see that.”

Katara scowls at him. “He’ll probably just stab both of us simultaneously!”

“That girl said he wasn’t strong or smart or brave,” Aang reflects, sounding confused again. “And I don’t like Zuko either, but only because he’s not nice. Not the other stuff.”

“Gotta give the guy credit for creativity,” Sokka comments, “and determination. He’s probably tracking us right now, plotting his next abduction.”

“Unless that girl’s scared him into hiding. Maybe they really have sent someone better,” Katara says softly.

“If anyone better than Zuko comes after us,” Sokka declares, half-wry and half-terrified, “we’re doomed.”


The next thing to come after them is a full-blown tornado.

(Full-blown, get it?)

Said tornado springs up out of nowhere and flings them off Appa’s back, right into a creepy, sticky swamp. Still, Sokka picks himself up out of the gunky water elegantly, without the slightest complaint.

“Sokka,” Katara observes, “you’ve got an elbow leech.”

Sokka panics, and flails, and yanks the thing off with a dreadful pop, screeching all the while. “Why do things keep attaching to me?”

Katara shows him no sympathy whatsoever.

Regardless, Sokka is a man of action. He takes his sword and starts hacking his way out of the swamp’s endless vines, even though Aang and Katara keep whining about it. Katara claims the swamp feels alive, like he’s hurting its feelings, and Sokka rolls his eyes at that. Besides that leech, he hasn’t felt anything even remotely odd- no imagined touches, no weird breezes.

(Nothing since that time he nearly fell over in Omashu, which he’s already decided shouldn’t count.)

There’s nothing freaky going on here. No reason to worry about the tendrils of mist reaching right for them- it’s obviously just swamp gas. And there’s no reason to panic when a shrill birdcall rips through the night, painfully similar to a human scream. The three of them panic anyway.

“I think we should build a fire,” Sokka says, teeth chattering as he clings onto the other two for dear life.


He builds the campfire- no thanks to Katara and Aang, who just stand around judging him as he cuts their firewood- and there’s nothing of concern anywhere. Nothing but the milli-flies that have decided to circle Sokka specifically.

“Does anyone else get the feeling that we're being watched?” Katara says, huddling with her arms around her knees.

Sokka scoffs, “Please, we're all alone out here.”

He slashes at one of the milli-flies with his sword, and it casually explodes into a giant ball of light. Which just happens to illuminate a bunch of glowing eyes, fixed down on them.

Nothing of concern whatsoever.


They fall asleep, somehow, as the fire naturally dwindles down to embers. Sokka curls up facing said fire, sword clutched like a safety blanket. Despite the creepy atmosphere, he manages to sink into a deep slumber. Aang and Katara are asleep right behind him, their backs all pressed together. It’s way more non-fatal bodily contact than he usually gets, and it’s surprisingly pleasant.

(He’s sleeping deeply, which is why he doesn’t notice when one of the swamp’s vines latches onto his leg, curling around again and again and again.)

In the dead of night a swamp monster attacks, yanking all three of them apart. Sokka fights valiantly, slashing wildly at its vine-y limbs, but he still lands face-first in swamp water, utterly alone.

There’s a pool of sunlight in front of him. In it stands a young man in red and brown robes with gold on the edges. He’s facing the other way, and at first Sokka can only see pale skin and black hair worn loose, barely down to his shoulders. Then the man turns, light pouring down on his right side while his left side falls into shadow. The lighting’s physically impossible, but that’s just how it is.

Sokka’s too far away to see his face properly, and yet he can sense every detail. Sun-kissed skin. A heart-shaped face, outlined by hair that dips right at the center of his forehead. Warm honeyed eyes and a perfect dusky pink mouth and he seems so familiar, Sokka racks his brain to figure out why he already knows this man intimately-

That mouth quirks into a smile- sweet, and a bit hesitant- and he lifts one hand in a little wave.

“Hello,” he says, “Zuko here!”

Those three words dunk Sokka in ice.

Suddenly Sokka notices the sprawling red scar on the left side of his face- how could he have missed it before? Suddenly that sweet smile’s devious to the core. Sokka does the only thing he can- he draws his sword and charges.

“Zuko? I swear to Yue, I’m going to get you-“

Zuko doesn’t respond with a wave of flame. Instead his face falls, disappointed- how dare he look disappointed, like Sokka’s somehow in the wrong here- and he steps out of the sunlight. Then he promptly disappears right into the depths of the swamp, tricky bastard that he is. Still Sokka catches a glimpse of red in the shadows, and he strikes before Zuko can, flinging Boomerang right at that elusive point in the distance. He waits for a thunk, maybe a satisfying shriek. He waits for Boomerang to zip right back into his hands.

Nothing happens.

Zuko never comes back. Neither does Boomerang.

Throwing up his arms in bewilderment, Sokka trudges forward towards where he’d seen Zuko, muttering hypotheses under his breath. “This is just a trick of the light. It’s swamp gas. I hit my head running away last night. I'm going crazy?”

He cycles through his theories. That last one seems the likeliest.

He discovers Boomerang glinting deep in a murky puddle of swamp water. There’s no further trace of Zuko. Sokka keeps hunting for him though, and for Aang and Katara, and for any way out of this creepy vine-y ecological manifestation of an armpit.

Aang and Katara end up finding him by crashing into him and knocking him to the ground.

“What do you guys think you're doing?” Sokka snaps. “I've been looking all over for you!”

“Well,” Katara snaps back, “I've been wandering around looking for you!”

A little awkwardly, Aang admits, “I was chasing some girl.”

Katara’s eyes go wide. “What girl?”

“I don't know,” Aang says. It sounds like the truth. “I heard laughing and I saw some girl in a fancy dress.”

“Well-” Sokka turns up the snappishness to eleven- “there must be a tea party here and we just didn't get our invitations!”

When Katara speaks, her voice is shot through with sorrow. “I thought I saw Mom.”


Sokka inhales deeply, trying to let go of any nasty feelings stirred up by hallucinating nasty princes. “Look, we were all just scared and hungry and our minds were playing tricks on us. That's why we all saw things out here.”

He regrets the words immediately.

Not missing a beat, Katara demands, “You saw something too?”

Sokka turns his head away. “I saw...Yue. Which makes sense. ‘Cause I, uh, think about her all the time, and you saw Mom, someone you...miss a lot?”

He trails off, sure he’s failed to sell his story. By some miracle Katara doesn’t pry.

“What about me?” Aang pipes up. “I didn't know the girl I saw. And all our visions led us right here.”

He begins poking around, guiding them to a tree that gives the glaciers back home a run for their money, size-wise.

“It’s the heart of the swamp,” he declares in his most pious Avatar voice. “It's been calling us here. I knew it!”

Sokka doesn’t like this. Sokka doesn’t like this one bit.

“It's just a tree,” he protests, trying to keep the desperation out of his voice. “It can't call anyone. For the last time, there's nothing after us and there's nothing magical happening here.”

Which, obviously, is when the giant vine swamp monster tackles them again. But that turns out to just be another waterbender, maneuvering the water inside the vines. Ta-da! Nothing supernatural to worry about.

(Okay, so bending itself might be evidence of the supernatural. Sokka’s postponed that crisis for another day.)

A couple minutes later, Huu- the waterbender who’s thankfully stopped attacking them- has roped them into a grand spiritual lecture on how the tree’s connected to everything in the world, and the swamp’s connected to everything in the world, and the world’s connected to everything in the world too. We’re all one and the same. Sokka nearly snorts that, no, he is decidedly the opposite of, say, Zuko. Still he takes pity on Aang, who’s totally engrossed in the lesson, and refrains from spoiling the moment.

Katara interrupts instead. “But what did our visions mean?”

“In the swamp,” Huu explains, in his rough grave voice, “we see visions of people we've lost, people we loved, folks we think are gone. But the swamp tells us they're not. We're still connected to them. Time is an illusion and so is death.”

Well, that sounds fake. The time part, and the death part, and also the “people we’ve lost” part. He highly doubts they’re lucky enough to have lost Zuko for good- the guy’s like Boomerang’s evil counterpart, no matter how far you throw him he always comes back. And even if it’s Opposite Day and Zuko’s given up their trail, Sokka’s certainly never loved him.

He tries to find some way to object without revealing that he totally lied about seeing Yue. Fortunately, Aang challenges Huu for him: “But what about my vision? It was someone I had never met.”

“You're the Avatar. You tell me,” Huu replies, because spirits forbid anyone ever be clear about their mysticism.

“Time is an illusion,” Aang says, puzzling it out. “So, it's someone I will meet.”

When Huu nods in approval, Sokka contemplates his own vision for a hot second. He decides that time’s an illusion, so he saw Zuko from some alternate timeline where he didn’t turn evil. That timeline and its alternate Zuko are both very much dead now, thank you, and Sokka will shoo them out of his brain.

“Sorry to interrupt the lesson-” he rises to his feet, totally satisfied with his conclusion- “but we still need to find Appa and Momo.”

Aang finds them. He lays one hand on the trunk of the tree and lets a pure white ball of energy out of his fingers, because being the Avatar means you can do that, apparently. Said ball of energy starts darting down the tree and into the ground, leaving a bright white trail in its wake. Two seconds later, it’s led them to Appa and Momo.


“Well,” Sokka says that night over dinner, “I hope you realize now that nothing strange was going on here. Just a bunch of greasy people living in a swamp.”

Katara retorts, “What about the visions?”

“I told you, we were hungry. I'm eating a giant bug!”

(Insects are like meat, and meat is always good.)

“But,” Aang adds, “what about when the tree showed me where Appa and Momo were?”

Sokka dismisses that with a wave of his hand, “That's Avatar stuff, that doesn't count. The only thing I can't figure out is how you made that tornado that sucked us down.”

Huu frowns. “I can't do anything like that. I just bend the water in the plants.”

“...Well, no accounting for weather,” Sokka declares cheerily. “Still, there's absolutely nothing mysterious about the swamp!”

Chapter 3


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

For the next couple weeks, all supernatural phenomena give Sokka a break. Toph’s powers are awesome, but not outright magical. The incident with Kyoshi showing up was more Avatar weirdness and therefore doesn’t qualify. Appa starts molting, but Aang insists that’s a natural sign of the coming of spring.

Then Toph wakes them up in the middle of the night, insisting they’re about to get hit with an avalanche that isn’t an avalanche. Yawning, they pick up and move camp and spot a giant steam machine chugging along below them.

So the not-avalanche probably isn’t magical. Doesn’t stop it from being scary, though.

Katara and Toph keep sniping at each other even after they land in a new place, never mind that Sokka’s just a guy trying to sleep here. The catfight gets cut off when the machine shows up again, like it’s honed in on them by sheer willpower…

“It could be Zuko,” Katara says, plucking the thought right out of Sokka’s head. “We haven’t seen him since the North Pole.”

“Who’s Zuko?” asks Toph.

What Sokka would give to be that innocent again.

“Oh,” he says out loud, “just some angry freak with a ponytail who’s tracked us all over the world.”

“What’s wrong with ponytails, Ponytail?” Katara shoots back, hitting below the belt in blatant violation of the Sibling Code.

“This-“ he points dramatically to the back of his head- “is a warrior’s wolf-tail!”

“Well,” she teases, “it certainly tells the other warriors that you’re fun and perky!”

“Because Zuko, who really mastered the ponytail, was sooo fun and perky.”

(Sokka insistently does not think about Not-Zuko running around the swamp, with a smile that was adorably, unrealistically pleasant.)

Something presses on his stomach just seconds later. Sokka reaches out and feels Momo’s ears. “No, Momo, shh. Sleepy time.”

Two seconds later, the machine’s back.

They get a good look at it now. It’s a Fire Nation tank, massive and ugly and metal, though the design’s different from what Sokka’s seen before. They hesitate before running. Sokka low-key hopes it’s Zuko. Because there’s no ice around anymore, but now they’ve got a master earthbender on their team, and Toph can totally bury him underground again so they can all just get some sleep-

The three girls from Omashu step out instead, riding giant iguana steeds, and Sokka takes one short, sleep-deprived moment to be disappointed it’s not Zuko.

“We can take them,” Toph declares. “Three on three.”

She’s clearly too tired to count, which bodes poorly for any attempts at combat. Sokka corrects her: “Actually, Toph, there’s four of us.”

“Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't count you. You know, no bending and all.”

She doesn’t sound even the slightest bit apologetic.

“I can still fight!”

She smirks. “Okay, three on three plus Sokka.”

Sokka screeches, near-apoplectic. For reasons completely unrelated to Toph’s insinuation, he’s the first to run away.

Appa crash-lands pretty soon after that. Katara really blows up, and Toph stomps off, shaking the ground as she goes. Sokka just wants a nap. If he doesn’t nap, he’ll get twitchy, and if he gets twitchy, he’ll start imagining breezes brushing his neck or tapping his shoulders again, and then he will literally die of stress.

Which is one way to solve the sleep-deprivation problem, but still.

Aang comes up with a plan- he’ll leave a fake trail with loose bison fur, while Katara and Sokka can go look for Toph on Appa.

They find Toph, right as the two non-bender girls find them. Katara gets pinned down with knives. Sokka gets chi-blocked, and for the record that is one sensation he never needs to repeat- it’s all pins and needles, even while his limbs loll uselessly. Toph saves them. She just locks herself in one of her rock tents where the girls can’t get to her, and then she lifts them onto giant slabs of dirt and chucks them into the river.

“This is where you clap,” she informs them after emerging.

They can’t clap, thanks to the whole knife-and-chi-blocking thing, but she seems to forgive them. With only a little posturing, she frees them and gets them back on Appa. Then they try to catch up with Aang before Princess Blue Fire does.

(Sokka imagines Zuko’s with them in spirit. You know, the whole chasing the Avatar thing? It’s right up his alley.)

Miraculously, they arrive right after Katara restores feeling to Sokka’s arms with some careful healing, and right before anything’s on fire. They’ve caught the princess mid-villainous monologue.

“You don't see the family resemblance?” she simpers, before raising her hand to cover the left side of her face. “Maybe this’ll help.”

“Knew it,” Sokka exclaims, right before chucking Boomerang at her crown. She ducks it in both directions, which instantly puts her in a league above Zuko. Katara, Toph, and Aang engage her in full-blown bending combat, and Sokka decides to contribute all he can.

“All he can” is a never-ending flow of trash talk.

“I get the feeling you weren’t cuddled enough as kids. Did they stick you in a metal tank to rock you? Is that why you’re so blue all the time?” Ducking the debris from Toph’s attacks, he keeps heckling her from the sidelines, barely pausing for breath. “Bet you never saw your mom. She’s too busy sticking kids into ovens!”

“That’s more our father,” she snaps back, slipping it in with surprising grace while back-flipping over a column Toph just raised. “And he only baked Zuzu.”



Sokka has no idea how to respond to that, so he just scowls for a second and moves on to the next line of attack. “And what’s with your sense of fashion? Is that why the Fire Nation kills everything that moves, ‘cause you need blood to dye everything the ugliest red ever seen?” She completely ignores that, that’s cool, he just needs to pick a different tactic. “By the way, Your Highness, Zuko’s kicks are better than yours.”

And that earns him a fire blast. Not a serious one, he stumbles out of the way in time- but he’s found a sore spot. Katara takes advantage, smacking her with a water whip, and then Toph somehow drags her princessy foot right down into the dirt. She throws blue fire right at her own foot, and seriously, do Ozai’s kids have any sense of self-preservation? By blowing all the dirt away, she frees herself. Still, she’s on the back foot from then on. They all gang up on her, pressing her back towards a wall, ready to hit her with three elements and an equally powerful boomerang.

Suddenly, she does the one thing Zuko never did.

“I give up.” She raises both hands. “You got me. A princess surrenders with honor.”

After flitting back and forth, her eyes settle on one of them.

She sweeps one hand in a magnificent arc.

Throws bright blue fire right at Sokka’s face.


Sokka wakes up in the darkness.

“Am I dead?”

It’s a perfectly reasonable question.

Katara’s face moves into view, and as Sokka squints, the night sky comes into focus behind her. Below him, Appa rumbles.

“No,” she says. Her voice sounds wet and raw. “But we don’t know why.”

Gingerly, he raises one hand to his face and finds bandages, but they don’t hurt when he presses down. “Better not to look a gift ostrich-horse in the mouth?”

“Sokka,” Aang says from somewhere behind him, sounding uncharacteristically grave. “Why didn’t you tell us you were a firebender?”

…He’s dead. Sokka’s clearly in an evil afterlife, sentenced to an eternity of terrible jokes.

“A what?”

“She would’ve killed you,” Toph says, sniffling from down by his feet. “That should’ve killed you, but then you blocked most of the fire. Your firebending saved your life.”

Sokka pushes himself up. “I don’t know what you thought you saw, but clearly it was a trick of the light.”

“I don’t get tricked by light,” she says, and yeah, he probably should’ve thought of that.

“Look-“ he facepalms, and silently thanks Katara for healing him well enough to not regret it- “I swear on Yue’s name I’m not a secret firebender!”

“Then what happened?” Katara pleads.

Sokka scrunches his eyes closed and searches for some other plausible explanation. He can’t find one.

“...I might be the littlest bit cursed?”


“Okay, so we’ve got six possible reasons why I could’ve turned magical.” Sokka’s forgoing sleep one more time to write out a chart. The most important chart of Sokka’s entire life. “Best case scenario, it’s Yue’s blessing from the Spirit World.” He squints up at the crescent moon. “Can you give us a sign if you saved my life back there?”

Aang frowns. “I’m not sure spirits can talk to you directly like that. She’s really far away.”

“Look,” Katara says, pointing upwards, “I think the moon twinkled!”

“Maybe?” Sokka squints. “But it could’ve been that cirrus cloud just messing with the brightness.”

Toph shoves one foot out to kick Aang. “You’re the Avatar, why don’t you try talking to her?”

“Oh, right,” he says, nervously rubbing the back of his neck. “Yue, can you let us know if you’re not the one guarding Sokka?”

“No!” Sokka exclaims. “I said to give us a sign if it was her.”

“But can’t she let us know either way?”

“How many favors are you going to ask for here? I bet Yue’s really busy-“

“Also,” Katara inserts, “isn’t it possible she’s looking out for him even if she didn’t bend the fire?”

So they set the Yue possibility aside for now.

“Next up, we triggered some deep ritual thing in that temple with Fong,” Sokka says, frowning at the chart. “There was fire acting weirdly there too, right? That chi tea could’ve unlocked Aang’s subconscious firebending.”

His eyes go wide with terror. “What? No! No way, I can’t be firebending all over the place without controlling it! What if I have a nightmare and I start a forest fire in my sleep and Hei Bai comes and drags me away to the spirit world-“

They set the Fong possibility aside too.

“So the next likeliest option, according to my ranking system, is...” Sokka breathes in deep, preparing himself. “The labyrinth curse.”

Katara considers it, resting her chin on both hands. “You were acting extra-jumpy that day.”

Aang frowns. “Did anything weird happen to you, when you were on your own?”

“My torch took longer than I expected to burn out? Also...I might’ve broken a sacred badgermole statue.”

“You what?” Toph squawks.

“And I kinda disturbed an ancient earthbender grave,” he finishes in a mutter. Thankfully, Toph’s offended shrieking over the statue drowns that part right out.

“You also could’ve been cursed by the swamp,” Aang sighs. “We told you not to chop up everything in sight…”

“Hey,” Sokka retorts, “the firebending saved me from Zuko’s sister. Maybe the swamp decided to bless me!”

He receives three looks of utter disdain.


They run through the other scenarios Sokka’s listed his chart, such as:

  • Sokka somehow soaked up power from just being near Kyoshi, when she showed up on Avatar Day
  • Yue’s gotten Sokka the support of some other powerful spirit, probably Agni himself
  • Sokka’s secretly super-important to the fate of the world, so destiny itself intervened to save him

Sokka likes all of those possibilities, but they get convincingly shot down. Toph takes special pleasure in laughing at that last one.

“Right,” she giggles, “Sokka’s gonna take down the Fire Lord with his boomerang.”

“Hey, don’t count Boomerang out- it’s got powers beyond your comprehension!”

“Sure, maybe Boomerang blocked that girl’s firebending!”

She’s clearly teasing. Still, Sokka discreetly adds that possibility to his chart.


After several hours of arguing over whether the moon really twinkled at them or if it’s just wishful thinking, they decide to get actual data.

“I still think we should go to Aunt Wu,” Katara sniffs.

“I will literally beg the curse to blow me up before you get me in that town again-“

“We’re near the Misty Palms Oasis,” Aang interrupts. “It used to be a thriving commercial hub, a big stop for all the traders in the Si Wong desert. I bet we can find someone with information there.”

The Misty Palms Oasis turns out to just be a miserable plot of sand, but they do run into an over-friendly anthropologist with tales of a giant library, out in the desert. They find it soon enough, descending into the now-buried library with their new professor friend while Toph stays behind with Appa.

Then a giant owl spirit finds them.

“I am Wan Shi Tong,” he rumbles in a voice that booms like thunder, “‘He Who Knows Ten Thousand Things.’ And you are obviously humans, which, by the way, are no longer permitted in my study.”

“Oh, good,” Sokka says, “so we’re all humans!”

Hey, it’s a legitimate thing to question. Maybe he got turned half-firebending demon at some point.

“Hmm,” the spirit grunts. “In my experience, humans only learn things to get the edge on other humans.”

“That’s not why we’re here,” Sokka replies, emboldened by the fact that it’s the truth. “There’s been weird magical things happening around me for a while, and we thought you might have a book to explain it...O, All-Knowing Feathered One?”

He winces at his attempted flattery. For his part, Wan Shi Tong seems less than impressed. Still, he relents. “I shall let you peruse my collection.”

They nod. Satisfied, he lifts one rustling wing and summons forth a fox assistant. “Curses seem likely for this one,” he tells them. “Start there.”


A troop of foxes gathers around them, pulling scrolls and books off shelves and depositing them on a central desk. While the professor wanders around, Sokka, Katara and Aang hunch over said desk, flipping through texts as fast as they can.

Aang squints at his current scroll. “Hey, Sokka. Do you think a scorned girl might’ve taken a doll of you and nailed it to a tree?”

“No, who have I scorned?” Sokka says, right as Katara says, “Wait, that works?”

Sokka can see her designing a Jet-shaped doll in her head right now.

“Maybe Yue became a snow-woman phantom,” Katara yelps, passing over her book. “Look, there’s a story about a Moon Princess who gets trapped on earth and haunts people every full moon...”

“But that book’s at least a century old,” Sokka points out. “Plus it wasn’t the full moon, last time we ran into the princess. Hey-“ he waves at one of the foxes- “do you know any magic that’d mess with fire?”

With any luck, he actually got blessed with fire resistance at some point. Maybe something good happened to him for once. Right on cue, one of the foxes brings them a new batch of fire-related books.

“Uh, Sokka? Have you noticed a ball of lightning in your navel?”

“A what?”

For half-a-minute, Sokka glares at the scroll Aang’s unrolled and verifies that yes, some people allegedly get haunted by balls of lightning in their belly buttons, and no, there is no lightning in his. Small mercies.

A fox nips at his tunic, redirecting his attention to a new book: “Maladies of the Soul.” It’s got a nice index, and Sokka promptly looks up “fire.”

“Fever of Flame:

An affliction that visits the most spirited of firebenders, when the vision of the self is fractured by action…”

“Yadda, yadda, yadda.” Sokka flips back to the index and finds another mention of fire, under “yurei.”


In exceptionally rare and tragic cases, an unquiet soul is barred from the next life after their death, instead caught in-between as a yurei, or ghost. To become a ghost, a soul must have been animated in life by remarkable passion, a drive towards some yet-unfulfilled goal. They must also have met a grotesque end, their death arising from betrayal or some other form of deeply personal misery. Finally, they must have been deprived of a fitting funeral, whether by accident or disrespect.”

Sokka meant to just skim ahead to the mention of fire, but Katara’s started looking over his shoulder and reading the passage out to herself, quietly. He waits for her to finish before switching to the next page.

By then, Aang’s joined the fun. “That sounds awful.”

“Really?” says Sokka. “Sounds like poetic gobbledygook to me.”

By his heels a fox spirit growls at him, and he sighs and turns the page.

“Ghosts are often tied to a place of significance, such as the location of the death, or to a person of significance, such as a loved one. Descriptions of the yurei’s appearance are rare and unreliable, as these phantoms are widely held to be invisible.”

“Ah-ha,” Sokka exclaims. “If they’re invisible, then how would anyone know they exist? All made-up, I tell you-“

“Different ghosts make themselves known in different ways,” Katara reads with a touch of extra acid, “perhaps by making noise or by touching the place or person they haunt. If blessed with powerful bending in life, they may show similar abilities after death; vengeful yurei have been blamed for tempests, earthquakes and wildfires.”

Sokka sniffs. “How’s that for a convenient legal defense? I didn’t burn down your forest, clearly a ghost did it-“

“However,” Katara cuts in, enunciating viciously, “some descriptions say ghosts appear as they did in life. Others- more likely arising from the theater than truth- claim they dress in eerie white, with long black hair free from any top-knot or queue. Playwrights in the Fire Nation, particularly famed for theatrical excess and a disregard for facts-“

Sokka snorts. Guess even books full of paranormal fiction have the occasional nugget of truth.

“-represent the ghosts of firebenders with hitodama, balls of unnaturally colored fire that openly reveal the inner flame.”

“This is really interesting,” Aang says, “but I don’t think that’s what’s going on with you. You don’t have any loved ones who were really powerful firebenders, do you?”

Katara shakes her head. Sokka scoffs a little more loudly than he should in a spirit library.

“But I think Mom believed in this,” Katara adds quietly. “Maybe it was just a story, but she told me a friend of hers became a ghost- a little girl who froze during a blizzard.”

After a second, Sokka starts reading aloud himself. “To rid the world of a ghost, the soul must be put to rest. Some yurei may be appeased simply by receiving proper funerary rights. The rest may find peace by fulfilling whatever wish drove them in life, or by slaking their thirst for vengeance. Should those methods fail, exorcism rituals prove effective in pushing all but the most stubborn ghosts to the afterlife.”

“So that’s irrelevant,” he concludes. “Cool, but irrelevant. And still possibly fictional.”

He drops the book in front of the nearest fox and plows on to the next volume in the stack.


They leave Wan Shi Tong’s library with brains stuffed full of horror stories- apparently some undead beings have oozing goiters which they drink from, and that is so not an image Sokka ever needed to acquaint himself with. Unfortunately, they’re no closer to guessing whether Sokka’s apparent firebending is a blessing, or a curse, or just a weird spiritual quirk.

They tell Toph all this while climbing onto Appa, and she tells them a bunch of sandbenders tried to steal Appa and got their butts whooped, Blind-Bandit-style. They swap stories all the way back to the Oasis village. Then Professor Zei waylays Aang for another observation session, and Sokka gets ahead of the group and walks into the little village bar, thirsty from the day’s work. There’s a lady at the counter with a particularly pretty drink- the surface is pearlescent, shimmering with rainbows.

“I’ll take one of those,” Sokka says.

“No, he won’t,” she retorts without looking up.

Sokka frowns. “What is it?”

“Top-grade cactus juice. A kid like you won’t appreciate it.”

Sokka’s not sure if that’s a dig at his age or just at how clearly he’s from out of town, but either way he resents it. “Actually, I’ll take two of those.”



When Sokka takes his first sip, he stops for a second to evaluate the flavor. It’s hard to describe, but it isn’t alcoholic in the slightest. Thus he gulps down both cups without a worry.

“Why’d you think I wouldn’t like it?” He turns to the lady, who now has a massive goiter swelling under her chin.

It’s oozing cactus juice.

Sokka tumbles off his chair, and everyone in the bar’s turned to laugh at him in unison, a thrumming drone that’s coincidentally synched up with his heartbeat. Screeching a little, he stumbles out the door. The lady follows him out, now catching her ooze in her cactus juice cup with the parasol- it’s surprisingly stylish- and she starts talking to Momo. Or maybe she’s talking to Katara, but Sokka can’t imagine why. Momo’s the one who understands human speech.

“He chugged two…hallucinogen…keep an eye out for anything weird...”

Sokka keeps an eye out for anything weird. He spins around in a circle to take in the oasis, which is lush and full of water. Toph’s doing a headstand which makes sense because she sees with her head, and Professor Zei’s dissecting Aang to catalogue how Air Nomads look on the inside, and Appa and Momo are discussing philosophy. Nothing weird there.

He completes the circle, squinting into the desert where there was a mirage earlier, and there’s still something hazy and silvery there and-

Oh. Now that’s weird.

“Hi!” Sokka says, waving.

Katara turns her head, looks, and then frowns at him. “Sokka, there’s nothing there.”

Sokka barely hears her. Even after the words register, he certainly doesn’t care, because there’s a teenager right in front of him, staring back at him with giant widened eyes like a startled seal-deer. Sokka thinks for a minute and then resolves to set him at ease: “Hello, translucent boy friend!”

Toph chokes behind Sokka. “What did you just say?”

“Look!” Sokka points right at him.

“I’m looking,” she says dryly. “Since when do you have a ‘boyfriend’?”

“Since now- he’s a boy and he’s the friendliest!” Sokka frowns. “Wait. Are you a friend? Or is that just my subconscious saying I want you to be a friend?”

Aang’s snigg*ring about something. Sokka doesn’t stop to figure out what, he’s too interested in his new maybe-friend. He decides this is a friend.

Friends deserve hugs.

Sokka darts forward, arms outstretched, but the boy somehow shoots backwards, moving inhumanly fast until he’s far out of reach. Instantly, Sokka falls onto his face, even though he’s positive he didn’t trip on anything or get pushed. No, if anything it felt like a pull.

“He pulled me over here,” Sokka whines into the ground, gesturing towards the boy. “But he’s over there. Like a string.” He lifts the hand in question and squints at it. “Do you see the string?”

Katara comes over and pulls Sokka up by the other hand. “Your friend’s a real meanie, huh?”

“No, he didn’t mean to,” he says, defensive on instinct. He spins around and gives the boy a pleading look. “Right?”

The boy’s still standing and staring at him. After a long moment, he slowly shakes his head.

Sokka has an idea.

Without warning, Sokka charges backwards, not looking where he’s going. His legs are going one way, but his head’s still twisted around to watch his new friend. There’s another weird tug on his hand, and boom, the boy’s hand jerks forward, bringing his body along with it.

“String theory confirmed,” Sokka announces. “I’m a genius!”

Nobody else seems to recognize his contribution to science, but he basks in Appa’s applause. His appause.

So that’s one experiment completed. Sokka strides forward to follow Professor Zei’s example and perform a more thorough inspection. He rattles off his observations; hopefully Momo’s taking notes.

The boy doesn’t move far enough to knock Sokka over again. Still, when Sokka approaches he flinches, shrinking away.

“He’s dressed entirely in white,” Sokka reports in his most scientific voice. “It’s puffy. And flowy. And- hey, could you drop the veil for a second?”

The boy tilts his head, brow scrunched up in confusion. Then he understands and pushes back his snow-white hood, revealing the entirety of his head.

“He’s bald,” Sokka declares, “with really long hair. It’s so shiny-

“Is it black?” Katara calls, seemingly miles away. The ghost turns his head to look at her.

“Whoa, how’d you know?” Sokka says, not pausing to get an answer. “And his hair’s up. It’s also all down.”

The boy whips his head around to glare at Sokka, and his long ponytail ought to whip Sokka’s nose. Yet it doesn’t, instead flying straight through to the other side.

“And his hair isn’t there!” Sokka yelps.

“Yeah,” Aang says. “There isn’t anyone there. Please just drink some water, and maybe lie down and sleep this off-”

Sleep? Who has time for sleep? Sokka’s too awake to sleep, suddenly finding himself face-to-face with the boy, who has glowy hypnotizing golden eyes and a face. Sokka’s fascinated by that face.

“Guys,” he says, too stunned to move. “Guys? Don’t tell the ghost, but he looks…” Sokka raises his voice, just to make sure the boy in front of him won’t hear. “Gorgeous.”

There’s a lot of yelping somewhere far away, but Sokka tunes it out. Nothing matters but the utter disbelief on this boy’s face. Disbelief, like he doesn’t believe Sokka could look at him and adore him on sight.

“You are,” he croons, like he’s approaching a frightened baby penguin-otter. “There’s a rainbow on your face.”

It’s true. There’s color popping out, all over his otherwise pale visage. Mottled blue and purple spots. Crimson lines arcing across his skin. Then there’s the largest splash of color- a faded, dusky pink that spills across the left side of his face, the hue growing darker and more vivid around the eye.

Oh, no.

Sokka’s suddenly small and cold all over, never mind that he’s in the middle of a scorching desert, because his scientific explorations have drawn him inexorably to a miserable conclusion. “Did someone hurt you?”

The boy stares at him like he’s been frozen.

“Did a lot of people hurt you?”

He looks like he’s been through a war. He looks like he lost. His whole face is a rainbow of color and pain, and he’s scowling back at Sokka but the scowl’s crossed with bewilderment and he looks so, so lost.

“Can you talk?” Sokka asks. A quizzical look furrows up his brow.

The ghost’s scowl hardens. Then, his mouth forms the word “no,” but no sound comes out.

“That’s okay,” Sokka breathes. “That’s okay, I can talk enough for both of us.”

The boy nods. And nods. He keeps nodding like he’s trying to make a point, and after a second Sokka laughs, because he does talk a lot, doesn’t he? It’s one of the curses of having such a big brain. He always has so much to say!

Now the boy gives him a scathing look. Sokka must’ve said that last bit out loud.

“Sokka,” Professor Zei says from somewhere in another dimension, “I’m afraid you’re simply hallucinating one of the creatures you read about in that charming library. You’ve just conjured up a textbook example of a ghost.”

A ghost?

“You’re a ghost.” A slow smile spreads across Sokka’s face as half his world shifts into place. "You gotta tell me what that’s like. How’s life?”

Sokka’s conscious did not make that pun. Sokka’s conscious would never make that pun. Sokka’s subconscious made that pun, and as his conscious races to catch up four things happen in rapid succession:

  1. The boy makes a thoroughly unfriendly hand-gesture, which. Fair.
  2. Sokka regrets all the decisions that have led him to be insensitive to the very first ghost he’s ever met in his life.
  3. Sokka decides the only way to pay for his mistakes and regain his honor is to give the ghost a hug.
  4. Sokka launches himself at said ghost, falls right through him because he’s a ghost, and winds up face-first in the ground again.

“Okay,” Aang says, scooping Sokka up from where he’s now sniffling into the sand. “I think that’s enough excitement for you.”

Sokka is forcibly hauled onto Appa’s back, mumbling out apologies all the way.

“It’s okay,” says Katara. “We forgive you.”

“Not you, I’m sorry at him! How would you like to be a ghost and the first thing someone asks you is ‘how’s life?’”

He’s overwhelmed by his own sorriness. But Aang takes off, and they leave the ghost behind on the ground before he gets to fully hear how sorry Sokka is. Sokka buries his face in Appa’s saddle and starts apologizing for not apologizing faster until something flicks his cheek. He cranes his head up and finds his ghost drifting beside them, flying right beside Appa.

“He’s still here!” Sokka tries leaping out of the saddle to go for another hug, but Katara screeches and the ghost-

The ghost catches him. He plants both hands on Sokka’s face and pushes him back towards safety- oh yeah, Sokka forgot that he can’t float a thousand feet off the ground like ghosts can- with eyes widened in alarm. Then Katara yanks Sokka out of that exquisite moment, tugging him down by the shoulders.

“Sokka,” she says, “would you let us tie you to the saddle? Just so you don’t get hurt.”

Sokka probably says yes, because a few minutes later she’s tied one wrist to the saddle with that high-quality Fire Nation rope that Sokka got...sometime. He racks his brain, but he can’t remember when he saw it before.

He stops caring, because a second wave of cactus goodness bathes his brain at just that second. He can see right through the ghost now, and the world stops making any sense at all.

“I can see his soul,” he babbles at some point. “It’s full of balls! There’s a blue ball, and a red ball, and they’re on fire!”


When Sokka wakes up, it’s dark, and his head feels stuffed full of cotton. But there are no “ghosts” anymore. Spirits, High-Sokka really fell down the believing-in-paranormal-activity rabbit hole, didn’t he? Good thing Sokka’s sober skepticism’s back in control now.

Then he squints into thin air, as a couple things he said yesterday merge with the fractured images he remembers. It feels futile trying to put it all together, like reassembling a pot from shards.

Snow-white clothes, like camouflage armor designed for icy terrain.

Pale skin with a giant pink splotch on the left.

A smooth bald head, plus a ponytail.

“Hey,” he says, poking Katara. “I think I’m over the cactus juice. Do you think that?”

Katara looks at him skeptically. “Do you still think Momo’s the only one here who can hold a civilized conversation?”

“...Uh. No. Sorry about that.”

Toph kicks his leg. “Do you still think you’d win Earth Rumble 7, if they let you in?”

“What?” he sputters . “I mean...I could probably beat Fire Nation Man, but I wouldn’t claim to have a chance against you.”

She sniffs, appeased.

Aang turns to look at him from where he’s holding Appa’s reins. “Are you still being followed around by a ghost with the ‘most radiant eyes you’ve ever seen?’”

“Uh, about that.” Wincing, Sokka rubs his neck with one hand. “So just to check, we all agree I’ve got the cactus juice out of my system?”

He waits for them all to nod before he dares continue.

“Okay, so that’s the good news. The bad news is I’m probably not cursed.” He holds up a hand, stopping the inevitable snark about how that’s not really bad news. “I’m being haunted by Zuko.”


Some of the supernatural phenomena mentioned in this chapter are inspired by stories and practices from real-life cultures. If you're curious about reading more, here are a few links that might be of interest: yurei, Moon Princess, lightning in your navel, curses using dolls, tumor ghosts, and threads of fate.

Chapter 4


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

It isn't surprising that, the second the secret’s out, Zuko makes himself as unhelpful as possible. What’s surprising is his method. He’s giving Sokka the silent treatment. Sokka didn’t know he knew what silence was.

Unfortunately, it makes Sokka look like he’s still on cactus juice.

“I’m serious! Remember that time when I nearly fell over, in Omashu? That was totally Zuko’s evildoing!”

“No offense, Sokka,” says Toph, “but you fall over a lot. I wouldn’t blame that on this Zuko guy.”

“But what about all the weird things I felt in the cave?” Sokka is not referring to the thing that happened to his mouth, which probably didn’t involve Zuko and definitely was not a kiss. “Remember, when we were all still together? I felt things brushing me!”

“That place was so creepy,” Katara says with a shiver. “It might’ve been something supernatural, but maybe it was just nerves.”

“But what about the firebending?” Sokka exclaims, wondering how he got to the point where everyone else is desperately trying to talk him out of an obvious supernatural explanation. They really don’t want to believe Zuko’s magically attached to their little gang. Frankly, Sokka can’t blame them.

“...We’ve run into a lot of firebenders,” says Aang. “Maybe you’re important to them somehow. Could there be firebenders in your family, anywhere?”

“No!” Sokka screeches. “I’m from the South Pole, I don’t have firebending ‘loved ones!’”

“Well, that rules out the ghost Zuko explanation,” Katara says, crossing her arms. “Unless you think you were one of Zuko’s loved ones.”

Aang and Sokka simultaneously gag.


They don’t believe him. Once Katara brought up the idea of Zuko loving him, even Sokka was reluctant to believe himself. Still, they decide to bring in outside help, fast as they can. And that means flying right back to General Fong.

“General,” Sokka says, striding right up to him with his boomerang held casually in one hand. “Nice to see you again.”

Fong’s eyes dart down to Boomerang, holding a trace of fear. Good. Boomerang’s got more power than people give it credit for.

Fong doesn’t mention the disaster that was their last meeting, and at Aang’s request he allows them back into the nearby temple with only a few complaints about the Avatar State grumbled under his breath. The same sage from last time rushes down the towering grand staircase to meet them. Aang efficiently explains how Sokka’s probably haunted by a powerful firebender, though he omits any guesses about exactly who’s doing the haunting.

“A ghost, you say?” The sage strokes his stringy mustache thoughtfully. “I would expect an aura of vengeance from the soul of a powerful firebender, haunting a champion of the Water Tribe during a war. Yet there is no darkness of any kind.”

“Still,” Sokka pleads, “can I get exorcised just in case?”

“Why not? In fact, you’re just in time,” he says, eyebrows jumping. “There is a cleansing ritual to erase anything or anyone stuck on you. Tomorrow, on the eleventh, a fellow sage will guide a whole crowd to be cleansed. You are all most welcome to join the ceremony. It wields powerful magic against all forms of negative energy, and has washed away every impurity ever known in this temple.”

Sokka claps his hands together. “That’s amazing news!”


It is not amazing news. The first part of the ritual is fasting, which means no dinner and no breakfast and not even the littlest snack. Toph excuses herself, citing the fact that the main part of the ceremony occurs in the middle of a river and she’s had enough sand for a lifetime. Katara and Aang join him in his misery, so they all stare sadly at Momo, who spends the morning gnawing his way through a tall pile of straw-peaches.

The second part of the ritual is exercise, a bunch of sacred choreography with incantations to go with it. At first Sokka feels a little silly, shaking his arms around. Then he notices his muscles flexing in time with the movements and glistening attractively, and he feels a little better.

For step 2.5, they have to strip down to their undergarments and wade into a freezing cold river.

“Hey-” Sokka’s supposed to be repeating an incantation right now, but he stops to hiss at Katara- “can you warm up the water?”

She gives him a look and slaps him with an icy wave, not stopping her chanting for a second.

He gets the message- if he wants to be free of weirdness, Zuko-related or otherwise, he’s got to do this right. So he shuts his mouth and walks with the rest of the crowd into a dark, creepy, thankfully non-secret tunnel. The river’s carved its way through rock, and there’s sunlight on the other side, obscured by a giant deluge of water.

Gritting his teeth, Sokka takes a deep breath and walks right into the flow of a massive waterfall.

The icy water crashes down on his shoulders, stabbing at him, bowing his back and forcing the breath right out of his lungs. He can barely get his mouth open to recite the incantation because his teeth are so busy chattering. Yet after a second, the burden becomes lighter, and he finds he can stand upright again. He says what he’s supposed to. It’s a bunch of ancient syllables that he doesn’t understand, yet their meaning creeps into his heart anyhow. For a moment, he manages to open his eyes, and the sunlight filtering through the rushing waters looks soft and silver like moonlight.

He forgets all about Zuko and ghosts for a second and thinks simply of Yue. The sage calls, signaling that they can all step out when they’re ready, but Sokka stays, and lets his own worries go, like they might simply flow away with the rest of the waterfall.

He does feel clean when he leaves, eyes pressed shut. Though it might just be the sudden lack of water crashing on his head, he feels impossibly light, too.

When he opens his eyes again, he sees a fine mist in the air, rising from where the waterfall meets the river. And where the sun meets the water vapor, there shines a never-ending rainbow.


Refreshed and purified, they return to the temple by Fong’s base. The sage greets them, beaming and declaring that all four of them have clearly been made new by the ritual. It’s a less-than-comforting remark, seeing how Toph didn’t participate.

“It was a powerful experience, yes?”

Sokka, Aang and Katara nod vigorously. Toph shrugs.

“If there was a ghost clinging to you, it will almost certainly have been washed to the next world. But as you travel with the Avatar, we should exercise extra caution.” The sage brings forth a fancy golden tray. “Here, we shall lay out offerings to draw out this honored ghost if it is still with you. Do you have any inkling what they might have liked, in life?”

“This honored ghost?” Sokka deapdans. He can’t stop himself.

Aang chuckles. But then Sokka leans forward, brow creased, chin on his fist, and thinks as hard as he can. It’s difficult work, imagining that Zuko had enough happiness in him to like anything, and Katara and Aang seem similarly perplexed.

Then Aang shoots to his feet, raising one finger. “I know. Fire!”

The sage lifts one eyebrow in judgment, but he does fetch a torch burning on the wall, put it in a jar to keep it upright and stick the jar on the tray. “Any other ideas?”

“Swords?” Sokka says, remembering what Aang said about Zuko and his multiple swords.

The sage frowns. “Powerful firebenders look down on such things. They consider it dishonorable, if they have to resort to any weapon but flame.”

Huh. Maybe Zuko thought he’d lost his honor so completely that swords were fair game. On the other hand, no matter how much he shrieked about being dishonored, he still carried himself around like the loudest, proudest prince Sokka can imagine. On the other other hand, to achieve the level of proficiency Aang described, he’d have needed years of fencing practice.

It doesn’t add up.

“I don’t know what he- they liked,” Sokka adds after an uncomfortable silence. “Honor? Freshly bottled baby tears? The Avatar trussed up in chains?”

The sage lets out a long exhale. “Perhaps the best we can offer is a chance to express themselves, if they are still present.”

He snaps his fingers, and an acolyte rushes forth with writing implements and a small portable table. She sets up a little writing desk for Sokka, spreading an empty sheet of paper in front of him.

“So what now?” Sokka says. “We wait for ink to appear on the paper? Knowing Zu- what Fire Nation people are like, they’re more likely to start screaming-”

He screams a little as something grips his hand. Something like a hand, even though there’s definitely nothing there but thin air, firmly guiding him towards the brush. Sokka shakes his hand, and it lets go for a second as he dips the brush in ink himself and gets ready to write. The hand comes back and closes around Sokka’s, a weird pressure that’s neither hot nor cold but decidedly there. Then it begins to pull Sokka’s hand around like he’s a puppet on a string, pressing the brush onto paper. Characters start to appear, objectively messy but still strictly neater than Sokka’s usual scrawl…

“Try the exorcism again.”

Sokka reads that aloud, and the room goes silent.

Aang- bridge to the Spirit World and all that- is the first to come to his senses. He plants his staff on the ground and demands, “Who are you?”

For a second, nothing happens.

Then, though he’s not purposefully moving it even a little bit, Sokka’s hand starts writing. And writing. And writing. Once the first couple characters appear, Sokka’s heart threatens to stop.

When his hand pauses, he reads: “Zuko. Son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai. Prince of the Fire Nation, and former heir to the throne.”

The sage’s eyes bug out. Aang facepalms. Katara groans the way Sokka would, normally.

For his part, Sokka just lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding and looks around. “Is Zuko’s mom ‘Ursa’? Because I definitely didn’t know that.”

“Yeah,” Toph replies. “I don’t know what happened to her, but Ozai definitely had a wife named Ursa at one point.”

“Well, lots of people would know that, right?” Katara says cautiously. “How do we know this isn’t just an imposter?”

“Yeah.” Sokka grabs onto this last possibility. “Okay, say something that Aang or Katara would know, but I wouldn’t. Which might be difficult, ‘cause we’re together all the time, but-”

Hopefully-Not-But-Probably-Zuko grabs his hand again. Sokka’s heart keeps threatening to break out of its rib cage every time that happens. He watches the characters forming with an increasingly deep scowl.

“You...are an imposter,” he concludes. “And not a good one. And you’re sick in the head.”

“Why?” Aang’s eyes go wide. “What’d he say?”

Sokka strongly considers setting the entire paper on fire so the children in the room never have to know about this, but he relents. “It says, 'Aang broke into my bedroom, attacked me, and repeatedly pounded me into my own mattress.’”

“What?” Aang immediately protests. “That’s not true!” Sokka nearly thanks the spirits. Then Aang adds, “I only did it twice!”

Sokka’s hand starts scribbling furiously: “You bound me with my own wall hangings-”

“Yeah, but you started it,” Aang retorts, snapping at Sokka even though he’s just the messenger here. “You were waiting for me in your bedroom, and you ordered all your guys to tie me up first!”

Katara and the sage look between Aang and the scroll, scandalized.

Toph exclaims, “Do you two know what this sounds like?”

“Yes,” Sokka squeaks.

“I meant Aang and Zuko!”

Zuko’s dead right now. Sokka’s considering joining him out of sheer embarrassment.

“This...really happened?” he ekes out.

“Yeah. It was really explosive, we wrecked Zuko’s entire bedroom.”

Sokka means to splutter incoherently for a bit, but he’s cut off when his hand gets yanked back to the scroll. Obediently, he reads the message aloud: “You messed up the incantation when you went into the river. Do it again.”

Sokka rolls his eyes. “Great, so you’re a tattle-tale too?”

Katara’s got the funniest look on her face, like she’s been judging Sokka for the exact same reason but doesn’t want to agree with Zuko.

“You messed up the incantation?” Toph squawks, right as Aang says, “Wait. Zuko. Do you...actually want to be exorcised?”

“Obviously,” writes Zuko.

Sokka scoffs. “Why? This is the closest you’ve ever gotten to Aang, which means it’s the closest you’ve gotten to your honor.” Zuko grabs his hand again with frankly unnecessary force, and Sokka leans in close to see what he’s writing. “Oh look, Zuko says, ‘It is indeed my dream to chase Aang around the world because I’m an irredeemable jerk with the worst taste in hair and- ow!”

Zuko twists his hand around. It makes the high points on his palms turn butter-yellow, just on this side of pain, until Sokka drops the brush and yanks his hand away again.

“Both of you-” Toph stomps one foot and shakes the whole room- “knock it off!”

Sokka obeys. Remarkably, Zuko does too. For one blessed moment, there’s peace.

“Zuko,” Katara says, addressing the space above Sokka’s head with a glare, “how’d you...end up like this?”

“It’s obvious.”

Sokka deadpans Zuko’s words before giving his own, animated response. “Hey, we wouldn’t be asking if it was obvious.”

There’s another moment of stillness before Zuko takes his hand again, like he needed time to compose himself.

“I must have been exiled from the afterlife-” Sokka reads that part in singsong, but then his enthusiasm peters out- “being found unworthy of a proper death.”

Zuko’s grip feels firm, his brushstrokes confident, like he’s certain it’s the truth. Still, Sokka has his doubts. The books said you needed a confluence of specific factors to become a ghost- it wasn’t just a matter of “worth.” It can’t be a matter of worth. Fire Lord Sozin must be the least worthy person in history, having slaughtered the Air Nomads, but nobody’s ever accused him of becoming a ghost.

“I don’t think it works like that,” Sokka says hesitantly. “This is...bad luck. The worst luck ever for everyone involved, but I don’t think you became a ghost because you’re unworthy of death. You totally deserve to die!”

That sounded mean, didn’t it.

After a weird pause, Zuko takes up the brush again. “But I died without capturing the Avat Aang.”

He pauses mid-character when he’s writing “Avatar,” before scratching it out and writing Aang’s name instead.

“Somehow,” Sokka says dryly, “I doubt the afterlife’s mad that you let the Avatar live.”

“How’d you die in the first place?” Toph says casually, somehow taking all this in stride.

Zuko’s grip on Sokka’s hand tightens. “I don’t exactly know.”

He presses down too hard, ruining the brush’s pretty bristles. Sokka glares, but he has no idea where to glare, which ruins the effect.

“If I may,” the sage interrupts, “exactly what mistake did you make, with the ritual incantation?”

Sokka winces. With his luck, he changed the syntax and accidentally cursed himself to a lifetime of misfortune.

“I just paused to talk to Katara, right when we got in the water,” he says, feeling a little defensive. “It was just a couple seconds, and we weren’t even in the cave yet.”

“Nothing else?”

“...I stayed under the water longer than everyone else?”

“Hmph.” The sage wrinkles his brow in deep thought. “No, no, that wouldn’t do it.”

“Do what?” Aang says with obvious nerves.

“A misstep that slight wouldn’t disturb the whole ritual. The force of the waters should still have been sufficient to remove all but the most obstinate hangers-on. I’m afraid...this presence must be one of the most dogged, strong-willed souls to ever live.”

Zuko roughly dunks the brush back in the well and starts writing, dripping ink all over in the process. “But I want to leave.”

Sokka snorts, tacking on, “No worries, the feeling’s mutual.”

Zuko keeps writing: “Do whatever it takes to get rid of me. Try every exorcism. Any pain necessary-”

Toph cuts into Sokka’s reading: “If you don’t want to haunt Sokka, why haven’t you just killed him off?”

Oh. Yeah. That’s a good question. Zuko’s clearly capable of injuring him, and Sokka has no way to fight back. Yet Zuko’s been saving him instead. From his sister’s blue fire, yes, but also from falling off Appa while high on cactus juice. Maybe even before that. For one weird moment Sokka thinks about something or someone tapping his hand, guiding him as he broke that lock near Omashu...

“I might end up somewhere even worse afterwards.”

Sokka’s brief pleasant feelings instantly dissolve.

“That’s why you haven’t murdered me?” he protests. “Gee, thanks. What ever happened to, I don’t know, basic respect for human life?”

There’s one more moment of silence. It stretches, and stretches, and Sokka starts to wonder if the exorcism just had a delayed effect.

Then the torch on the tray blasts a massive fireball up at the ceiling. At the same time, a fist clenches around Sokka’s ponytail and twists, pushing him forward and dunking his entire face in the inkwell. Sokka rocks back with a sputter. He pants and bats his hands at empty air and blinks his eyes rapidly, trying to clear away the ink on his lashes, even while screeching, “Bad ghost! Bad ghost!”

Katara splashes his face with a little more force than usual, like she’s mad at Zuko but Sokka’s the only target available right now.

“You got what you wanted,” she spits, not at Sokka but at the general space around him, “I am going to exorcise you if it kills me.”

Sokka wipes his face with his shirt and braces for the next round of ghostly tantruming. Yet it never comes. Even when Aang tries to ask another question and the sage puts another torch out on the tray, Zuko refuses to write anything more. He’s back to the silent treatment.

It’s a definite improvement.


The sage brings them into the temple library after that. He doesn’t have encyclopedias on ghosts like Wan Shi Tong did, but he does have records of other temples throughout the world and their practices.

“Each nation has its own way of dealing with hauntings. The Fire Sages are always secretive about their ways, but the stories say they can enslave ghosts. This soul is already bound to yours; perhaps it could be forced to serve you.”

Katara, Sokka and Aang all share a look. Aang’s the first to break away and ask about other options.

“The Northern Water Tribe’s sages have a long history in dealing with ghosts,” the sage offers. “However, I am not certain the help they can give you is the help you want.”

Sokka tilts his head. “Why not?”

“The Water Tribe’s strength is its ability to change. When one is visited by a presence such as this one-” he inhales deeply, clearly tempted to insult this particular presence but thinking better of it- “they claim it is best to adapt to the bond. They are masters of drawing reticent ghosts into open communication. That seems unneeded- the two of you clearly have a great deal to say to each other.”

Sokka rubs his head. Zuko’s last attempt at “communication” is still stinging his roots.

“The Air Nomads knew freedom best. They could have detached you from each other with only the slightest effort, but I am afraid that option is now impossible.” As he says it, the room’s torches grow a little dimmer, though Sokka chalks that up to a breeze. “To separate from this ghost, you ought to stay within the Earth Kingdom. The most powerful exorcist alive is the Head Sage of Ba Sing Se; he will surely save you if you can meet him. But as he is busy attending to other spiritual affairs of this nation-” he reaches behind a stone table and into a surprisingly mundane filing cabinet, fishing out two slips of paper- “you may wish to consult these local devotees of the supernatural. They are more likely to offer prompt assistance.”

Sokka takes one slip and beams. “The nuns Bato stayed with! That’s great, I’m sure they’ll help.”

“And otherwise…” Katara brandishes the second slip with a low-key evil grin, like the sort of grin Zuko might have once given them if his mouth muscles were capable of smiling. “We have to go see Aunt Wu.”


Aunt Wu is on the way to the nuns.

Of course Aunt Wu’s on the way to the nuns.

It’s just a matter of efficiency, everyone tells Sokka (except Zuko, who’s still remaining spitefully, mercifully silent). They leave the sage, who promises to be discreet about the whole situation, so now they have to visit the other two spiritual experts who might be of assistance. And while making their visits, they shouldn’t waste time by doubling back, just because Sokka might be nursing a bit of a grudge against the closest stop.

(It’s a giant grudge, for the record. A grudge as large as the volcano that nearly exploded on them, thanks to Aunt Wu and her brilliant prophecies.)

Sokka sits on Appa’s back with his arms crossed, sulking and not talking to anyone else. It occurs to him that he’s matching Zuko’s behavior right now. He dismisses that as an unlucky coincidence.

Something brushes his hand, feather-light.

Sokka narrows his eyes, but he lets his hand be guided over to a pen and his current journal. This time he just reads the message without repeating it out loud.

“I sincerely apologize for attacking you earlier today. It was foolish and wrong of me.”

First thing Sokka notices is the “earlier today,” which was definitely on-purpose phrasing to indicate that he’s not sorry about the whole chasing-the-Avatar thing. Second thing Sokka notices is that Zuko apologized.

“Katara,” he whispers. “Zuko said sorry for today.”

She scoffs, like she doesn’t believe Zuko as far as she can throw him, which is “not at all” given the whole intangible-ghost issue. Yet against his better judgment, Sokka trusts this apology. Maybe because Zuko’s had plenty of ways to non-lethally attack him, and hair-pulling with a side of ink-splashing falls on the nice part of the spectrum.

(Maybe because Zuko’s phantom hand held his so softly while tracing out the words, with a gentleness he didn’t know a Fire Nation prince could possess.)


“It is difficult reading the palm of someone who isn’t physically here, but that is why I’ve completed both your horoscopes instead,” Aunt Wu declares in her theatrical little back room. “From these I can perceive both your futures. You may let go of all your worries, now that you are in my care.”

“Thanks, Aunt Wu,” Sokka says through gritted teeth. “There’s really no one who affects my stress level like you.”

He’s got a pen in his hand, plus a clean sheet of paper. So far, Zuko’s stayed quiet.

Aang asks the big question: “How do we separate Zuko and Sokka?”

She lights a stick of incense for no apparent reason except to up the suspense. Or maybe she’s counting on the smog to addle their minds, so they’ll temporarily think she makes sense. “It is an unusual bond you have, and I admit the particulars of a ghost’s magic escape me. But one thing is clear from reading your horoscopes.”

Sokka leans forward, drawn in against his will.

“The two of you were made to marry each other.”

“What?” is the cry that comes up from every human in the room. Momo yelps a nonverbal protest.

“I have never come across two souls more perfectly matched in temperament, tastes, values-”

“Never in a million years,” Sokka squawks, not even thinking about the way his hand goes scrawling. When he reads the paper, it says: “Never in a million years.”

Sokka stabs the scroll with his finger. “This is the only thing we have in common.”

“And you are right! There might not be another couple as well-suited as you, even in a million years.” Unruffled, Aunt Wu holds up a couple charts covered in astrological gibberish. “As you can see from the position of the moon during both of your birth times, you display remarkable compatibility in every respect. Emotional, spiritual, physical-”

“He’s dead!”

“Intimacy takes many forms,” Aunt Wu says, utterly serene. “And it is not my place to judge. From what I see, you have already shared your first kiss, not too long ago.”

“Of course he didn’t,” Katara snaps, practically vibrating with indignation. “Right?”

“Right,” Sokka says, his voice jumping an octave.

Toph snorts. “Liar.”

“...I was really hoping it was a wolf-bat,” Sokka admits, dropping his head and pinching the bridge of his nose to stave off a looming headache. “And in my defense, we were in the cursed labyrinth, and it was either him or a corpse!”

“Whatever turns you on,” Toph remarks.

Everyone else is gaping at him. To escape their scrutiny, Sokka does the unthinkable and willingly engages with Aunt Wu’s predictions.

“Okay, so let’s say Zuko and I are...theoretically compatible.” He forces the word out of his throat. “Why does that matter? I can’t exactly marry a dead guy.”

“Actually,” Aang says quietly, “I’ve been to a ghost wedding, before. See, Bumi’s Aunt Sona was engaged, and there was an accident that killed the girl she loved. But Sona still went through with a wedding. That way their families could be bound together, and maybe her fiancée would be more at peace, and they’d be remembered forever for their love.”

“Ghost marriage is an old-fashioned tradition, increasingly rare these days,” Aunt Wu adds. “And by convention, there isn’t a literal ghost present. Still, the stars do say you will be nothing if not an unconventional couple.”

“Yeah, but you’re missing something here,” Sokka protests. “The stars can say whatever they want, but I have no reason to marry Prince Shout-a-lot-”

“According to the stars,” she breaks in smoothly, “he will reach a peaceful death if, and only if, you marry.”

“You. You think. Are you.” Sokka’s brain fails several attempts at sentences, and eventually he slumps backwards onto the floor. Maybe if they mistake him for dead, everyone will kindly forget this.

Thankfully, his baby sister produces rants even when he can’t.

“That is absolutely ridiculous,” she fumes. “I have so much respect for you, Aunt Wu, but with all due respect there is no world in which Sokka is going to marry Zuko. He attacked our village, and he’s hounded us all around the world, and he’s prince of the Fire Nation. They took our mother from us!”

Katara’s voice wobbles, and Sokka’s hand twitches towards his pen. He staunchly refuses to move; he’s not interested in hearing Zuko insult his mother or worse, make excuses.

“But,” Aang says cautiously, “would it do any harm?” Katara twists around for a new round of invective, but he puts up two hands in self-defense. “I know! I know it’s weird, and they’re not going to feel the way we’d expect two husbands to. But can’t Sokka just keep living his life afterwards? He'll be like a widower; he can still marry someone else who’s alive, right? Nobody needs to know.”

From his place on the floor, Sokka facepalms. “What would Zuko even gain from marrying me? How does that help anything?”

“Well,” Toph mutters, eyes cast slyly down, “probably helps that giant crush he has on you.”

The room erupts into shrieking again. Sokka even lets Zuko pull his hand toward the pen, almost popping his elbow out of place in his haste to write, “I have never wanted a romance with Sokka.”

Toph frowns. “I can’t prove he’s lying, but according to what you said about that book? Ghosts totally haunt their loved ones. So.”

“Technically-“ Sokka’s grasping desperately for alternate explanations, because the idea of Zuko cherishing mushy feelings for him makes him feel icky all over- “the book said ghosts haunt people of significance, such as loved ones. But archenemies could count too.”

Aang lifts an eyebrow. “Aren’t I Zuko’s archenemy?”

“Hey, maybe he had a healthy fear of Boomerang!” At that second, Zuko steals Sokka’s attention by writing a new message, pressing the pen so hard it breaks through the paper a few times. “Huh. He says, I can’t see how marriage helps either, except with funeral rites.”

Sokka lifts the pen for a moment. “That’s part of ghostliness, isn’t it? You didn’t get the right funeral?”

In response, Zuko writes: “In the simplest form of a Fire Nation funeral, one of your closest family members should hold a candlelight vigil for you right after you die, but Azula seemed to think I was alive.”

Sokka narrows his eyes at the unusual name. “Is Azula the scary one?”

“My sister, yes.”

Sokka groans. “Can’t someone else marry you? Does it have to be me?”

“It must be you,” Aunt Wu says. “The star charts are clear on this matter.”

“More practically-“ Toph interrupts Sokka’s stammering about where Aunt Wu can stick her charts- “you just turned sixteen right? It’s not legal for the rest of us, and I feel like we shouldn’t bring extra people into this if we don’t have to.”

“Ugh…” Sokka’s crowed about being the oldest many times in his life, and he takes all his boasting back. “Is there any advantage here? Can I get a nice dowry from the Fire Nation treasury, you know, as compensation for marrying this headache?”

“You’d get the Fire Nation crown-“ Zuko starts writing again, and for one brief second Sokka boils over with both plans and joy- “if all royals, ministers, generals and admirals were dead. Or if you beat the Fire Lord in an Agni Kai.”

Everyone rolls their eyes.

“Real helpful, buddy.” Sokka dramatically throws down the pen and puts his head in his hands and tries to think about this logically. It’s a blow to his pride, marrying Zuko, and the thought of associating himself in any way with Fire Nation royalty roils his stomach in a very interesting way. On the other hand, there’s little practical downside, and Sokka is nothing if not practical.

“You all need to promise you’ll never tell anyone about this,” Sokka finally says.

“Please don’t,” Zuko adds. “My name is hardly honored as it is, but this would still go down as an eternal mark of shame.”

“What a romantic,” Sokka mutters. “Whatever. I’ll marry Zuko, so I never have to deal with him again.”

Aang nods seriously. “How about you, Zuko?”

“I feel exactly the same as Sokka.”


They leave Aunt Wu for the abbey up north, hoping the nuns can suggest a better option than marriage.

“I am afraid the best advice I can offer-“ the abbess has pity in her eyes, and it intensifies when they disclose exactly who’s latched onto Sokka- “is to hold a funeral in the style of the Fire Nation, fit for one of their princes. And without the full cooperation of his nation, the only such rite would indeed be a candlelight vigil held by a close family member. A parent, child, sibling...or a spouse.”

Sokka groans. “Fine. Great. So how do I actually marry a ghost?”

Turns out that’s the simple part. Though these nuns haven’t conducted a ghost marriage before, their library holds records of several prior weddings in both the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom where one or both parties were dead. None of those records claimed the ghost was actively around, haunting the ceremony. Sokka considers this a plus- if he had to actually go through a full marriage ceremony with Zuko, invisible or not, he would spontaneously combust. Instead, they need to find a proxy to physically stand in for Zuko.

“I vote for the effigy,” Sokka says. “Can we please have an effigy? That way we get to burn it at the end!”

“And as fun as that sounds,” Katara replies, doing her best to placate him, “most of these weddings had live proxies. We should do that too, to be safe.”

So Sokka doesn’t get a fun effigy to burn. It’s his wedding and he doesn’t get anything he wants, and he keeps up a steady stream of grumbling under his breath. Sure, he’s thankful to the nuns, who are going along with this farce with surprising grace. He’s grateful they’re decorating the abbey’s main hall. He’s glad they’re preparing a wedding dinner.

“But spirits-dammit,” he mutters, “aren’t weddings supposed to have meat? Even if there’s a vegetarian Avatar in the wedding party?”

Zuko pokes his hand, and Sokka flips to a new page in his notebook with a sigh. “You have to make them redo all the flowers. They’re using camellia and cactus flowers.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“In Fire Nation flower language, the camellia arguably refers to a graceful death, but it mainly says we’re in love. And cactus flowers are a sign of”

The pen pauses, and Sokka raises an eyebrow. “Can’t guess if you don’t tell me.”

“It’s a sign of something spouses ordinarily do but we never, ever will!”

“What- oh.” Sokka’s cheeks heat up. “Well, I happen to like cactus.”

“A cactus made you tell everyone my soul was full of balls.”

“Of fire! Like the book said! Nothing wrong with that!”

Katara drags him away to have his outfit tailored. It’s a suit of scratchy, mothball-scented brocade that the nuns dragged out of some dusty cabinet, made of awful bright red that makes Sokka’s eyes hurt. This is a fact that he complains about repeatedly. Toph hangs around in the corner as Katara makes her measurements- not like she’ll get an inappropriate eyeful.

(Zuko will definitely get an inappropriate eyeful, but if he’s been following Sokka around for weeks- through multiple baths- he won’t see anything new. Sokka’s decided to skip panicking about that. He’s got too many other freakouts that take precedence right now. Anyway, given the state of his muscles? He’s got nothing to be embarrassed about.)

While Katara sticks pins in the pants, Sokka’s hand is pulled towards the pen.

“If you dare joke about how she has to make the front smaller-“ He cuts off his threat early, before he has to figure out how you even threaten someone who’s already dead, and reads what Zuko’s written. “Oh, never mind. Zuko’s writing to you.”

Kneeling with a handful of needles, Katara shoots him a poison-sweet smile. “And what does His Highness want me to know?”

“He objects to the proxy costume,” Sokka informs her, “because it’s inappropriate to dress his stand-in in just a skirt.”

Her smile morphs into a baleful scowl. “Do you know how long it takes, even sewing one seam? Do you have any idea how difficult a shirt or a full robe would be? You’re lucky I’m not sending him in totally naked!”

Amused, Sokka decides to wind her up further, so he rephrases the rest of Zuko’s notes more pretentiously and delivers them with his most princely and pompous accent: “He’d also like to register an objection because the dragon you sewed on more closely resembles a fireworm-“

“Ugh!” She stabs a needle into Sokka’s pants, a little too close for comfort.

Sokka bravely carries on: “Furthermore, if he had lived long enough to be wedded, he would wear nothing atop his head but a deeply pretentious- I mean 'honorable'- top-knot. He therefore most strenuously protests the placing of a silken veil over his proxy’s pate-“

“The nuns gave us this cloth, and I’m not about to waste it. Anyway,” she snaps, “Zuko should thank me for the veil, because if he actually lived long enough to be here nobody would want to see his face!”

“Burn,” Toph jokes from the sidelines.

Toph probably doesn’t notice the pun. Unfortunately, Sokka does.

“They didn’t mean it like that?” he says hesitantly. It might be a lie- Katara absolutely might’ve meant it like that- but it does feel a little low, even for Zuko. “We object to your face because you’re a nasty Fire Nation prince, not because...yeah.”

After a long moment, Zuko writes again.

“I feel so much better now.”

Sokka squints at that. “Was that...was that sarcasm? Do you have a sense of humor?”

“Of course I do.”

After a long internal battle, Sokka allows himself the littlest chuckle.


In a ghost marriage, proxies aren’t supposed to be living people. Since Sokka’s been denied his effigy fun, he’ll have to instead marry an animal. Traditionally, it’d be a white bird.

In his case, it’s a flying lemur.

According to the nuns, Fire Nation fiancés are supposed to cry as they’re led to their weddings. Momo follows that tradition exquisitely. He whines, kicking at his bright red skirt and tugging at the veil somehow bound with string around his ears. Aang’s carrying him up to Sokka, and he really tries to step slowly and solemnly down the walkway they’ve cleared out for this, but as Momo’s fussing gets louder he starts moving faster, completing the procession at a brisk jog. Toph keeps snorting, and Katara’s hiding a smile, and Sokka is outright cackling.

By the time Aang presents the proxy-bridegroom, he’s hissing and screeching.

“Wow,” Sokka says, “he’s really gotten into character, huh, Zuko?”

Zuko pulls on his ponytail in protest- lightly, expressing displeasure without inflicting any real hurt. Sokka whines dramatically anyway, which is when Momo seizes his chance to escape. He spreads his wings, leaps out of Aang’s arms and arcs right over their heads, a little ball of white-hot energy with a train of silk trailing behind him. Sokka only catches him by grabbing his tail.

The abbess overseeing the “ceremony” takes a moment to compose herself.

“We will begin the traditional Fire Nation rites. Please kneel for the first time, to honor the spirits.”

The nuns claim only Sokka needs to do this part, but they can’t be sure, since the texts aren’t terribly clear about the requirements for either ghosts or lemurs. Zuko might be kneeling beside Sokka, if he cares enough to.

(And just in case, Aang folds back Momo’s veil and sticks a shallow plate of puréed moon peaches on the ground. Momo promptly jumps down, gets on his hands and knees, and shoves his face down into the plate, mirroring Sokka’s posture perfectly.)

“I honor the spirits,” Sokka murmurs, “by hoping my past actions have pleased them and that this marriage is in accordance with their will.”

His throat threatens to close up for a second, but no, the moon doesn’t strike him down on the spot. He’d almost wished she would.

He rises. Momo stays kneeling, still up to his ears in peaches.

“Kneel for a second time, to honor your ancestors and those of your betrothed.”

Sokka goes down again, forehead almost touching the ground. “I honor my ancestors, both living and deceased, by thanking them for their wisdom and their sacrifices, and by seeking peace and freedom for our tribe. I honor the deceased ancestors of the one beside me, by dedicating that second bowl of moon peaches Aang’s hiding under his robes to their lemur spirits-“

As if he can understand him, Momo suddenly pounces on Aang, clawing his way towards the food. Simultaneously, the abbess launches a protest, and Zuko prods Sokka’s hand.

“Do I seriously have to say nice things about Sozin?” Sokka says, ignoring Zuko and appealing to the abbess. “You get how ridiculous that is, right?” Zuko jabs him again, more forcefully. “Fine, what do you want?” Sokka unhooks the pen he’s taken to sticking in his belt and pulls out a notebook. “That’s...not a terrible idea.”

Zuko’s written, “Just say something nice that’s true about everybody.”

“I honor Zuko’s ancestors, both living and diseased-“ that gets him a poke in the back- “I mean, ‘deceased,’ by hoping that the dead ones stay peacefully dead, as opposed to, ya know, coming back to haunt us. I hope they’re all remembered for ages, and really, really accurately. And I hope Ozai gets all the good things he deserves.”

He pours as much sarcasm as he can manage into the word “good.”

Though Katara, Toph and Aang are snickering in the background, Zuko doesn’t register any new objections as Sokka rises to face the abbess again.

She’s got a smile playing at the corners of her lips. Still, her voice is serious when she says, “Kneel for a third time, to honor your betrothed.”

So Sokka drops down obediently.

“I honor Zuko-“ he presses down the urge to laugh hysterically at that- “by marrying him so he can achieve the peace he’s looking for...” He was going to leave it at that, but as marriage vows go it does seem a little too spare. “And promising to treat him at least as well as he treats me?”

He trails off, feeling suddenly inadequate. Then something brushes his hand where it’s pressed to the ground, pushing underneath and then around.


Zuko’s holding his hand. It’s not the first time- their hands have touched plenty of times, but for once Zuko’s not inflicting pain or pulling him somewhere or making any demands. He’s just there.

Sokka doesn’t quite know what to do with that.

He guesses it’s an attempt to respect the wedding tradition. A half-hearted attempt to act like newlywed husbands are supposed to.

Sokka squeezes back.


So Sokka’s married now. The mood at the wedding feast is subdued, which Sokka blames on the fact that all five dishes are vegetarian.

“I said we should’ve had meat,” he whines to himself while picking at his salad.

Well, not just to himself.

Zuko pushes him to put down his spoon and pick up a pen. “The biggest problem isn’t the meat, it’s the tea. I don’t even care about tea, but the smell of those burnt leaves is revolting.”

“You can smell?” Sokka says curiously.

“Yes. Please wash your bedroll.”

Sokka’s brief interest sours immediately. “I’m sorry it’s not a palace like you’re used to, but when you’re traveling-“

“I’m not used to a palace. I am perfectly well-acquainted with the hardships of traveling, but it’s no excuse to give up basic hygiene.”

“Please,” Sokka snorts, “what does a prince know about ‘the hardships of traveling?’

“I haven’t lived in a palace since-“

“Hey, Sokka,” Toph calls, “we should rob a Fire Nation bank to get you a dowry.”

Zuko immediately drops whatever he was saying to launch a righteous protest: “You have absolutely no right to demand a dowry; that’s for people who are setting up a household and a whole new life together, which is obviously not an issue here.”

Toph hears out this declaration, which Sokka recites with the most Zuko-esque pout he can manage. Then she grins toothily at him. “I’m totally robbing a Fire Nation bank.”


The sun drops low in the sky, and the plates and flowers are cleared away. All that’s left in the hall is an unlit candle.

The abbess takes a seat opposite Sokka, with the candle between them. “Your marriage is valid, in the eyes of the law and hopefully the spirits, despite certain...liberties with the wedding. However, a proper funeral requires more honesty of feeling. A certain level of gravity and respect.”

Sokka nods, chastened.

The abbess then looks at Katara, Toph and Aang, sitting behind Sokka in a show of support. “I understand this ghost is one you fought on the battlefield. If you fear you cannot sincerely mourn him, this is where you step away.”

Sokka glances back at the three of them. Toph and Aang seem perfectly resolute, but Katara’s looking down at her hands like she’s on the verge of saying something thoroughly unfit for the occasion.


She looks back up at him, eyes shining with something unreadable. “You have to do this, so I’m staying.”

“Technically you’re his family too now,” Sokka offers. The joke doesn’t quite work.

“You must stay with the candle from dusk to dawn,” the abbess says. “Traditionally, this vigil is observed without speaking aloud, but in your mind you must remember the one who’s passed. Contemplate them- their triumphs and their follies and your time together. Reflect on the way they passed. Bid them farewell.”

“Um.” Sokka lifts his hand, feeling like an underprepared schoolchild. “What if I don’t know exactly how he died?”

The abbess tilts her head. “In most cases, I would say you should simply think on whatever you do know. However, this time the soul is present, and should be consulted.”

“Ah,” Sokka says. He tries to find some elegant way of posing the question and then gives up. “Hey, Zuko? Can you clue us in here?”

There’s a long pause, as Sokka waits with his pen. Then he reads out the answers as they come.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t exactly aware of my surroundings.”

“Are there clues? Are you missing a limb or four?”

“No. I look exactly the same way I did, last time I saw a mirror.”

“Do you feel poisoned?”

“No. I only feel cold.”

“What’s the last thing you remember for sure?”

“The three of you.”

Sokka squints. “That doesn’t make sense. You were fine, last time we saw you. Katara dumped some snow on your head to knock you out, but she didn’t do anything lethal.”

“What happened after that?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. We left you there.”

“Where’s ‘there’?” Toph says.

“Outside at the North Pole,” Sokka answers.

“So,” she says, sounding uncharacteristically cautious, “you left a firebender unconscious in a pile of snow?”

Sokka goes cold all over, though he doesn’t know why. “Yeah? I figured he’d be immune to ice. Just melt his way out in two seconds.”

Toph’s face goes deathly pale. Slowly, she shakes her head.

“The Fire Lord reserves extreme cold,” the abbess murmurs before them, “as a final method of torture for firebenders. Or as a particularly grotesque form of execution.”

“But I-“ Sokka stammers for a second, just spouting random syllables as his brain scrambles desperately for alternate explanations. “I said to leave him, sure, but we weren’t torturing him. We don’t torture anybody! He was all bundled up in armor and he was fighting tooth and nail two seconds before that, and he had an entire army to back him up, you think he was alone? Please! He was fine-“

“Sunset,” the abbess says sharply. She cuts Sokka off once and for all, striking a match and lighting the candle. Sokka glances at the window with sudden desperation, only to find the world’s gone dark when he wasn’t looking.

He has to be silent now. He has to, for the vigil. He sits before the candle and looks into the guttering flame, too stunned to think of anything but a name.



How could Zuko-

See, Sokka’s got all the facts, laid out before him. He’s always been good with facing facts. He’s nothing if not practical and grounded in reality.

But this can’t be right.

The ghost he saw, during his flirtation with cactus juice, looked just like Zuko had the last time they saw him. The same half-healed bruises on his face- no extras. All four limbs intact. The same specialized armor he wore at the North Pole. Throw in the fact that his family’s convinced he’s still alive, and there’s no evidence Zuko ever made it out of the battle. No sign he sustained new injuries after their last clash. No reason for him to be dead but that he froze to death, buried deep in an unremarkable snowbank.

The snowbank where they’d left him.

The snowbank where Sokka said to leave him.

His breath catches. The facts and the theories click together in his brain, in that lightning-strike of enlightenment that only chills him to the bone, because it all makes perfect, terrible sense. He knows why Zuko’s bound to haunt him, of all people- not Aang, not a loved one, just him. The guy who personally sealed his not-so-metaphorical coffin. And he knows how Zuko came by the “grotesque death” the book said every ghost needed, with the “deeply personal misery” sprinkled on top.

They- he- froze the adolescent Prince of the Fire Nation to death.


Behind him, there are no words, just a quiet snuffling as Aang starts to cry. Then there’s some rustling- probably Katara reaching to hug him.

Sokka can’t look away from the tiny, flickering flame.

He doesn’t cry. He feels like he’s been whacked on the head by Boomerang, so the world seems strange and hazy and less than real.

He can’t cry. Maybe he should, but he’s not like Aang or Katara. They’re alike, the two of them, with boundless wells of compassion and finely tuned senses of justice that keep them eager to solve every sob story they hear. Which isn’t to say Sokka’s cold, or hard- he helps out with every harebrained save-the-world scheme, and he keeps the bulk of his cynicsm to himself. His altruism’s not all an act. He does care about the downtrodden people they meet, at least in a brainy, intellectual way.

Somewhere behind him, Katara’s begun weeping with Aang. She’s noisier, with sharp, stabbing breaths. She sounds angry.

Sokka’s just built differently from them. The war’s made him pragmatic. Or old. Or numb. Difficult telling the difference, nowadays. Still, he certainly didn’t commit cold-blooded murder here- he winces, noting the unintended pun- and he didn’t set out with the intent to end Zuko’s life. He was just doing what he needed to do to protect his friends and his family and also the entire world. Intentional killing wasn’t part of it.

Of course, that didn’t matter in the end, did it? Not for Zuko.

If Sokka’s honest, it doesn’t seem wholly real that Prince Zuko’s dead. Zuko never even seemed killable. How could he? He was like one of those Fire Nation tanks, the ones that couldn’t be broken, because even if you flipped them upside down or knocked them off a cliff they’d somehow right themselves and keep shooting. He was less human than wildfire. Hungry. Mercurial. Impossible for one man to take down. And sure, Sokka’s laughed at him. He’s poked fun at his haircut and his obsession with honor. The humor’s never let him forget how, the first time they met with ashen snow filling the air, Zuko was a monster made for his nightmares.

(A breeze wafts through the window, and the candle’s flame falls sideways, threatening to go out. On instinct, he lifts one hand to shield it.)

Sokka cares. He poured all his caring out for the labyrinth- and Zuko- to see. He cares about Katara and Dad and everyone from their village, and Aang and Toph now. And Yue. Spirits, it’d be easier if he cared less. But there’s a war on, and the world’s on fire, and there’s a limit to how many people Sokka can let into his heart.

Princes of the Fire Nation- even those tragically lost at war- can’t possibly fit.

Past midnight, Sokka gives up the big questions for unimportant trivia. Zuko’s “just a teenager,” as Aang put it, and his views on flower symbolism are as passionate as his opinions on honor. He’s a teenager, and the last person to kiss Sokka, even if it was just to stop him from kissing a literal corpse instead. Sokka hopes it was Zuko’s first kiss. That’d explain how he miscalculated badly enough to split Sokka’s lip.

Sokka chuckles, though he doesn’t mean to. He’s surprised to find there’s no malice in it.

These are unimportant trivia. Yet as they reach those surreal hours just before dawn, when Toph starts snoring and everything else stops making sense, Sokka thinks the trivia might be all that matters.

Even later than that, Aang and Katara fall asleep, leaning against each other. Toph’s using Katara’s knee as a pillow. The hall’s other torches go out, and the candle steadily burns lower and lower. Sokka begins to wonder if the night will ever end.

The candle holds out until sunrise. Aang stirs first, and then Katara and Toph wake too. Groggily, Toph asks if it’s over.

The abbess lifts the candle to her lips, preparing to blow it out, but it wisps away to smoke first. Then Sokka feels a touch on his hand, soft as a breath.

“I’m still here,” Zuko writes. “Sorry.”

Blame it on the sleep deprivation, but Sokka smiles.


(Update, 1/11/2021) This chapter underwent minor edits to make the discussion of Fire Nation wedding practices gender-neutral. I'd like to believe Fire Nation weddings offer a lot of flexibility and choice in that respect.

Some of the practices mentioned in this chapter are inspired by practices from real-life cultures. If you're curious about reading more, here are a few links that might be of interest: waterfalls and purification, ghost marriage, Japanese flower language and traditional Chinese wedding practices.

Chapter 5


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

They don’t speak much after that. They simply shamble half-asleep onto Appa’s back and head for Ba Sing Se to see the Head Sage.

“As long as you don’t hurt me,” Sokka mutters to himself. “I’ll keep trying to help you move on.”

Traveling with the Avatar means your life stops making sense. Trying to stay on civil speaking terms with Prince Zuko- who’s now Sokka’s newlywed husband, though they’ve all decided not to mention that particular fact, and who is also dead- isn’t that much weirder than falling half-in-love with the moon. It’s less weird than getting a faceful of Princess Azula’s bright-blue flame and living to tell the tale.

Sokka ought to say something more, but the words don’t come. After a moment, there’s a firm squeeze around his hand.


“There are things you should know about Ba Sing Se before you land,” Zuko writes as the walls come into view. “It’s the most dangerous place in the world.”

Sokka raises an eyebrow. “I really doubt that. We’re from the South Pole, where the weather regularly tries to kill us, and you’re from the Fire Nation, which regularly tries to kill everyone.”

“I know you don’t approve of the Fire Nation-“ Sokka snorts at the understatement of the century, yet Zuko keeps going- “but Ba Sing Se is really oppressive.”

“Uh-huh,” Sokka says dryly, after informing everyone else about Zuko’s warning. “And what does the Prince of the Fire Nation have to say about oppression?”

“They banned firebending-“

“You mean like the Fire Nation colonies banned earthbending?” Katara challenges.

“And everything their rulers say is propaganda.”

“As opposed to the Fire Nation’s memos, which are totally true and unbiased,” deadpans Sokka.

“But there’s no freedom of speech at all. It’s not just important people who have to be careful, everyone has to avoid the banned topics. There’s a massive secret police of earthbenders who sneak onto roofs and into walls to listen to everyone. The laws change all the time, and nobody knows who makes up the rules or why. And if the people at the top don’t like you, they can just suck you underground on the open street, even if there’s no charge against you. And I heard they’ve figured out mind control-“

“Hold up,” Toph says. “I know Ba Sing Se’s bad, but mind control? Where’d you get this?”

“My uncle.”

“Your uncle, who tried to invade Ba Sing Se?”

“Yes, that’s why he tried so hard.”

As Katara huffs, Sokka bursts out laughing. “I’ve heard some pretty bad propaganda, but the Fire Nation really outdid itself on that one.”

“What do you mean?” Zuko demands, botching half the characters in his haste.

“I mean, your uncle was either totally hoodwinked by someone higher up…”

“Or he was lying,” Katara finishes, “to pretend he wasn’t just another heartless warmonger.”

“You don’t know my uncle,” comes Zuko’s instant retort.

“We know how the Fire Nation’s been destroying things,” Aang says calmly, “and how they’ll say what they need to, to pretend it’s for a good cause.”

It’s funny- Zuko doesn’t have a comeback for that.


They land in an open spot in the center of Ba Sing Se, only to be greeted by a lady in spring green whose smile seems to be screwed into place. She feeds them the wildest welcome spiel Sokka’s ever heard, filled with circular logic and low-key creepy double-talk, and there might just be a nugget of truth to Zuko’s conspiracy theories.

Aang informs her that they need an immediate meeting with the Head Sage. He’s vague about why, but he does bring out his most dazzling grin and play the Avatar card a couple times, which seems to register behind her dazed, half-dead stare. Then she informs him that they’ll have to wait a minimum of three months.

Toph sticks her hands on her hips. “What part of urgent Avatar business didn’t get through to you?”

Joo Dee’s smile doesn’t falter for an instant. “This will be a wonderful opportunity for you to enjoy the many delights of Ba Sing Se.”

“Okay,” Sokka interrupts, raising his voice in the hopes of getting through to her, “can we at least talk to your generals in the meantime? There’s gotta be a military effort here, we can help with planning the war-“

He gets through to her alright, but her eyes go wide with terror even as her smile stretches another half-inch.

“We do not talk about such things here,” she says, in a tone that sounds strangled and peppy at the same time. “You see, there is no war in Ba Sing Se.”

There’s a tap on Sokka’s hand. Discreetly, he opens his journal.

Told you so.”


It’s a short walk to the house they’ve been assigned in the Upper Ring. The city seems quiet and pleasant, and it’d be a fun walk if Zuko didn’t keep giving Sokka updates.

“There are three men in dark green uniforms and giant hats, tailing you.”

“There’s another woman dressed like this one, just inside that house. Her name’s Joo Dee too, and her smile’s even creepier.”

“There’s a giant underground room under this street, and it has chains and cages.”

Sokka’s eyes widen each time, and he starts scratching Zuko’s observations out immediately, just in case Joo Dee decides to snatch his notebook right out of his hands. She doesn’t, simply escorting them into the house.

“Might I ask what spiritual matter you wish to consult the Head Sage on?”

“Well, Sokka here’s got himself attached to a Fire Nation ghost,” Aang says promptly. “And not just any Fire Nation ghost, it’s-“

“Lee,” Sokka interrupts. “Lee. His name’s Lee. He’s, um, a soldier who I blew up on accident at the battle at the Northern Air Temple.”

(It’s plausible. He blew off half the cliffside with his natural gas stunt; it’d be nothing short of a miracle if there weren’t deaths.)

“...Yeah,” Aang says after a second, hesitantly. “Lee.”

Sokka rescues him by adding, “He’s a super-weak ghost. So far he hasn’t hurt us, or firebent or anything, but he definitely hates us. And would never help us. Because, you know, Fire Nation. So yeah, we really would love to exorcise him, before he manages to actually do some damage.” For dramatic effect, he flinches. “Ow! See, he just flicked my ear. Extremely annoying.”

He glares to his side, just to complete the act.

(Zuko did not flick his ear.)

“I...see,” Joo Dee says, still smiling. “I will submit your requests for meetings immediately.”

She leaves.

“What was that about-“ Katara starts to demand, but Sokka lifts a finger to shush her.

A few seconds later, Zuko brushes his hand. “There’s a man watching through the window from the next rooftop. If you sit down in the back of the room, you’re safe to talk.”

“Let’s kick back and relax,” Sokka announces, clutching his notebook and striding to the couches in the back.


“Come on, Aang, just take a seat! Hang out with me! It’s been so long since we’ve caught up!”

Reluctantly, exchanging glances, the other three join him on the couches.

“Okay,” Katara says, “did you get mind-controlled?”

“Nope,” he replies, now at a normal volume, “but we were being watched through the window.”

“I felt people following us the whole way here,” Toph adds.

“Zuko noticed three spies, plus a weird space under the street-“

Toph frowns. “I felt metal, it must have been for maintenance.”

“No, he looked. Those were chains and cages. And he says there was another woman like this one, named Joo Dee, with the same general...” He gestures vaguely. “Weirdness.”

Aang looks between them both, bewildered, and then sighs. “Why did you lie to her about Zuko?”

Sokka snorts. “Zuko, is it fair to say you like this place even less than I do right now?”

“It’s even creepier than Uncle said.”

“Well,” he says, with a smile that grows almost to Joo Dee proportions, “if you want to investigate a top-secret spy force, I can’t imagine any ally better than an invisible ghost who floats through walls.”


They all decide to take a casual stroll through the city. Joo Dee clearly meant to lead them around, but Sokka seems to take charge of the route instead, propelling them in odd directions and jotting down notes.

“I’ve got an interest in architecture, you see,” he chirps at her, impishly mimicking her over-broad smile. “Oh, that’s such a nice windowsill, I have to sketch that!”

He genuinely is making sketches every time they pause- stop laughing, Katara, that’s totally how that fence looks. But mostly he’s stalling for time, as Zuko zips through walls and floors and ceilings and reports his findings. There’s a spy here, there’s an old torture chamber there. You know, your usual tourist highlights.

“The spies keep talking about a Lake Laogai.”

Sokka frowns. Plays it cool for a little while. “Hey, Aang. You and Toph need to really start your earthbending practice, right? Is there a nice spot for that?”

Joo Dee smiles at him. “Of course! Ba Sing Se University offers several large halls for earthbending training. It would be an honor to host the Avatar.”

“And Katara needs to really whip him into shape on the waterbending, pun intended.” Sokka gestures at his sister.

“Hey,” Aang starts to protest, “my waterbending’s really solid-“

“Are you a master yet?” Sokka asks. “Didn’t think so. And they always like having a big body of water, for their training. You got anything like that here?”

Joo Dee’s eyes widen. “Perhaps one of the University swimming pools would serve your purpose.”

“Sure,” says Katara, right as Sokka says, “No way, we’ve gotta mimic natural ocean conditions here. Nothing but the best for the Avatar!”

He punctuates that with a slightly deranged grin.

“I…” Joo Dee blinks several times, like he’s jammed her gears. “I suppose you could practice by Lake Laogai, near the Outer Wall?”

“Wow!” Sokka whoops. “You’ve got a lake inside the city? Amazing! We’ve gotta check that out.”

At that second, an invisible string tugs at his wrist, and Sokka darts down a new alley. “Hey, look at that gutter!”


“There’s a giant prison system, like a maze below the entire city,” Sokka informs them all that night. His tentative alliance with Zuko’s turned out pretty darn useful.

“I could feel a lot of hollow spots,” Toph confirms, “and some people.”

“They drag prisoners down there- Zuko ran into three today, one who was accused of saying nice things about the Fire Nation, plus two arrested for mentioning the war.”

“Wait,” Aang interjects, “why would anyone not say nice things about the Fire Nation if they didn’t know about the war? How can you make those things both illegal?”

Sokka shrugs. “The hat guys- the technical term’s ‘Dai Li,” by the way. For the guys. Not the hats. So the hat guys were carting all the prisoners off to Lake Laogai.”

“Ohhh,” says a chorus around the room.

“Yeah, that’s what was up with my Lake Laogai spiel! So we’re definitely going to check out a nice Earth Kingdom prison tomorrow-“

“Not tomorrow,“ Toph cuts in. “I’m betting this is going to turn into an all-out brawl with these Dai Li guys, and there’s no way I’m letting that happen before Aang gets some real earthbender training under his belt.”


“Real earthbender training” turns out to mean “Toph yelling at Aang.” And Katara might be a little too sugary on the educational spectrum, but seriously, Toph’s taken things to the other extreme. As Katara paces and fumes on the sidelines about positive reinforcement, Sokka mutters to himself.

“Were your firebending teachers like this?”

“No,” Zuko writes. “Toph’s much more easygoing.”

Sokka snorts. “More sarcasm?”

“No. But they had to be strict; I was a poor student. You’ve seen how my firebending’s flawed.”

“...Actually, I was too distracted by the fact that you were trying to kill me. Tell me more?”

Katara chooses that moment to pace back towards him. “We have to do something. He does need to work more on waterbending, but what if Toph scares him off lessons with me, too?”

“I almost feel bad for him. It’s painful to fail at bending lessons on your birthday.”

Katara’s looking over Sokka’s shoulder, and at the end of that sentence, she squeaks. “His what?”

She looks at Sokka, who shrugs at her and then looks back down.

“It must be his birthday, right? This was the day Avatar Roku passed away, and according to my research the new Avatar is born the same hour the old one dies.”

“You researched this? Of course you researched this.” Sokka takes a second to marvel at Zuko knowing Aang’s birthday when he and Katara didn’t. “Hey, Joo Dee! We need some tourist help.”


Joo Dee may be very bad at giving straight answers, but she’s excellent at giving bakery recommendations. She’s clearly torn between spying on the earthbending lesson and following Sokka and Katara out on their gastronomic exploration, but eventually she decides to stay behind. For their part, Sokka and Katara do actually head right to the addresses she recommends.

“We should get Aang a fruit tart,” Katara says.

“No,” Sokka corrects her, “we should get all of us fruit tarts. You know, to really get into that birthday spirit! I didn’t get a birthday party either, ‘cause we were sick. You could say my only gift was...a frog in my throat!”

As Sokka chuckles at his own pun, Zuko prods his hand. “Was that near Pouhai Stronghold, when the Yuyan Archers caught Aang smuggling frogs?”

“Uh-huh. Frozen frog skin has medicinal qualities.”

“My life makes a little bit more sense now. Thank you.”

Sokka doesn’t read that aloud to Katara. He just keeps it for himself, pulling the journal back to his chest with a snort.

“Welcome to the Crispy Biscuit! How can we help you today?”

“Hi,” Katara says, “we’re trying to celebrate our friend’s birthday. Have you got any fruit tarts or pastries?”

The baker’s eyes light up. “Certainly! Perhaps your friend would like a sticky rice cake.”

She points to a smooth, shiny cake that looks almost like jelly. It’s topped with a delicate arrangement of rainbow-colored fruit. Sokka’s stomach rumbles.

“That looks amazing! Four of those, please-“ He stops short as Zuko prods his hand hard . “Actually, one second.”

He steps out of line, and Katara joins him, visibly puzzled. Her confusion melts away as Sokka pulls out his pen again.

“Aang was right when he told Professor Zei that fruit pies were one of the main products of the Southern Air Temple. Their baking was famous, and that is not what their classic fruit pies looked like.”

“What would you know about the Southern Air Temple?” huffs Katara.

“I read all about it while searching for the Avatar. Some of the sources were unreliable, but I don’t see why a text on their dining habits wouldn’t be trustworthy.”

Sokka purses his lips. “What do you mean, ‘unreliable’?”

There’s a pause.

“The books by Fire Nation historians said that the Air Nomads had an army to defend all their temples. That was incorrect.”

“You mean, that was a total lie,” Sokka says quietly, remembering the Southern Air Temple. Katara looks a little green herself.

There’s another pause.

“Yes. I don’t know whether those historians invented the story or if they were lied to themselves, but yes.”


Sokka never expected a Fire Nation royal to actually admit that.

“So what kind of dessert are we looking for here?” he blurts, trying to salvage the birthday mood.

“Aang might like an egg custard tart,” Katara suggests.

“The Air Nomads ate egg custard tarts regularly, according to the book I read. But they preferred fruit tarts for special occasions.”

Sokka points at a square tart, with layers of cream and jam and flaky gold pastry. “Maybe that one?”

“No. They were big circular pies, with a base made from crumbled cookies, filled with a layer of sweet cheese, and topped with a swirl of light, frothy fruit-flavored cream. Common choices for the fruit were moon-peaches, straw-peaches, lemon-pears or purple sweet potatoes.”

“Purple potatoes?” Sokka blurts quietly, aware of the man in a dark green uniform and a massive hat who’s just entered the shop. “For dessert?”

“Uncle made the cook on our ship try the recipe out. I liked the purple cream better than anything else.”

“So your taste in pies matches your taste in hair, huh?”

“I’m doing my best to help you here!”

“Hey, I’m just kidding.”


“Okay,” Sokka says, “so we’ll probably need this custom-made, right?”

Katara nods.

He grins and plops down on a nearby stool. “I’ll draw up the blueprints.”

Five minutes later, Katara checks in. “Why are you drawing war balloons?”

He makes a high-pitched, indignant noise. “That’s not a war balloon! Look, there’s the crust, and here we’ve got a big round scoop of cheese, and that’s the swirl up top!”

“The proportions are absurd. Also, the fruit swirl looks exactly like the Fire Nation seal, which I’d guess is not the goal of Aang’s birthday pie.”

Sokka sniffs. “You think you can do better?”

He should’ve known better than to challenge Zuko.

It takes fifteen minutes, and several pages because Zuko keeps demanding a clean sheet as soon as one drop spills out of place, but at long last they have a sketch of a pie that looks surprisingly delicious.

Katara leans in close even though the Dai Li agent’s gone. “Lee’s a much better artist than you.”

“Hey!” Sokka retorts. “This was actually the world’s best teamwork.”


Sokka wonders if Zuko’s somehow tricked them. Maybe these pies are actually the national dessert of the Fire Nation. Maybe purple sweet potatoes are poisonous when mixed with cream. Still, Katara lays the desserts out in the main room of their house, and they wait until Toph barrels through the door, grumbling about airbenders and lousy stances. They catch her up and wait a few more minutes for Aang to trudge in.

“He’s coming,” Toph whispers.

“Joo Dee’s leaving him at the door,” adds Zuko.

When the door at last opens, everyone alive shouts, “Surprise!”

Aang’s eyes go wide, and then he sees the four pies, and his face glows with a brilliant grin.

“Come on, birthday boy,” Sokka says. “Katara won’t let me eat until you do.”

Aang rushes forth on an air scooter like walking simply isn’t fast enough, and he takes the plate Katara’s prepared with a slice of each pie, and a second later the plate’s empty and he’s beaming even wider.

“These are amazing,” he babbles with a purple-potato-cream mustache. “It’s not exactly the same recipe Monk Gyatso used, because we had to make the cream stickier so it wouldn’t fly away when we threw the pies at people, but some of the other monks made pies just like these! How did you know?”

Sokka inhales. “Zuko. Apparently the Fire Nation’s still got some old Air Nomad recipes.”

He can’t read the jumble of expressions flitting across Aang’s face right now.

“Oh.” He winds up smiling again, but his eyes sparkle too much for comfort. “Still, you gotta try it!”

Sokka cycles through the other three flavors and saves the potato for last.

“Ugh,” he grunts after his first spoonful. “This actually is the best.”


“How did you know it was my birthday?” Aang asks, after they’ve followed the birthday pies with a big vegetarian dinner.

“Zuko again,” Katara answers with an unreadable look on her face. “I don’t think you told us.”

“I sort of forgot, honestly.” He fidgets. “Sure, it’s my 113th birthday, but I figure I’m not officially thirteen yet, because I lost time in the iceberg.”

Zuko grips Sokka’s hand. “What iceberg?”

Aang laughs, and it is funny. How could somebody know Aang’s birthday and the recipe for his favorite dessert but miss the iceberg?

Then he explains. “I kind of got frozen in an iceberg at the South Pole, before the comet came last time. Katara dug me out with her waterbending, and you found us right after that!”


“Wait,” Sokka blurts. “I thought you knew about the iceberg, ‘cause you showed up right when those two-“ he jabs two fingers at Aang and Katara- “set off their little light show. But if you didn’t know he was frozen, why were you at the South Pole?”

There’s another of those weird pauses.

“It was a lucky guess.”

Sokka reports that to a reception of unimpressed scoffs. “Seriously, you could just tell us that you’re keeping your secrets. ‘Cause I hate to break it to you, but you’re not good at lying.”

“That isn’t fair,” comes Zuko’s response, with rushed characters that wind up unbalanced. “When have I ever lied to you?”

“Who finds the Avatar on a lucky guess?” Sokka retorts.

“I know it’s hard to believe that I was lucky with anything, but it’s true!”

“So why were you around the South Pole in the first place? Vacationing? Scouting out your dad’s next colony?”

“Don’t you people know anything?”

Katara crosses her arms. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’ve told you, I was looking for the Avatar to regain my honor.”

Sokka drops his face into his hands. It’s like talking to Joo Dee. The same circular logic, the same exhausting barrages of words that somehow don’t say anything new.

(Except Zuko’s right, isn’t he? He’s done plenty of lousy things, but he hasn’t specifically lied to them. Maybe he’s trying to be honest, and he’s just stunningly bad at it.)

“Why would you search the South Pole?” he ventures. “I mean, if I was looking for the Avatar, I’d totally go for the Air Temples first.”

“Obviously. I’d checked all of those twice already.” There’s a pause where he leaves the pen midair, before adding, “I’m not stupid.”

“But you didn’t have a sky bison,” Sokka says gradually.

“Definitely not. I traveled on a tiny ship. You saw it.”

Sokka screws up his forehead. Recalls the maps he’s seen, how even small spaces on paper correspond to miles and miles in the real world. Runs through a few calculations.

“How long were you looking?” Katara exclaims before he can with alarm in her eyes.

“Three years.”

When Sokka speaks, it’s in a low, disbelieving monotone. “You were checking air temples for three years.”

Zuko’s hand clenches around his. “I looked a lot of other places too. I wasn’t being lazy or inefficient or”

Sokka’s mouth falls open, and with a little effort he pulls the pen away. “Wait. No. I wasn’t accusing you of being- no.”

(He’s trying to understand, he is, but understanding Zuko feels like reading a scroll that’s been left out in the rain. Half the words have bled together. Half have disintegrated entirely.)

“If you didn’t know where Aang was, or that he was even around at all, then why would you be looking for him?”

“Because the Avatar had to be alive somewhere.”

“That’s not true,” Aang counters. “If I’d died in the Avatar State? The reincarnation cycle would’ve broken, and the Avatar would be gone forever!”

The whole room goes silent. At last, Toph speaks.

“I know we’re all buddy-buddy with the pie and the marriage, but that’s probably not something to share with the prince of the Fire Nation.”

The room goes silent again, until there’s the scritch-scratch of Zuko’s response.

“If it helps, I can’t exactly tell anyone.”

“I’m just saying,” Aang says, slightly contrite, “your search might’ve gone nowhere.”

“It was supposed to go nowhere. I wasn’t exactly meant to find you.”

“So you spent three years looking for someone who hadn’t been around for a hundred years, and then you found him by luck, even though you weren’t supposed to find him.” Sokka rattles off the words. “Did I get it?”


Everyone alive looks around in utter bafflement.

“Do you really not know?”

Aang exhales slowly. “Why don't you tell us?”

“There isn’t much to tell.”

Sokka nearly interrupts to say how very much he doubts that, but he holds his tongue. When Zuko writes again, his brushstrokes are jerky and rigid, with pauses even mid-character. More than once, he blots out a letter half-written. The further he gets, the harder his hand squeezes Sokka’s.

(Funny, there’s something squeezing Sokka’s heart too.)

“I engaged in an Agni Kai with Fath the Fire Lord.”

“You dueled your dad.” Sokka’s eyes dart back and forth as he tries to make sense of that sentence. “Does everyone do that? A...coming-of-age thing, like ice dodging in the Water Tribe?”

“No, it was just me. It was his attempt to teach me respect. I’d spoken out of turn at an important meeting.”

Sokka can believe that.

“He banished me for my performance during the duel. I couldn’t return to the Fire Nation unless I was bringing back the Avatar.”

Sokka’s eyes bug out. As soon as he finishes reading that aloud he swaps to his own questions. “Whoa, did you totally humiliate him? Inflict a secret but debilitating injury?”

“Of course not. If I’d fought that well, I wouldn’t have lost my honor.” He lifts his pen and then adds one more sentence, like an afterthought: “He would have also killed me right then, but I guess that wouldn’t have made much of a difference to the arc of my life.”

“Then what’d you do?” Toph demands, and an undercurrent of fear peeks through her frustration. On the one hand, Sokka’s glad to know he’s not alone in his little freakout. On the other hand, if Toph’s afraid? That’s a sure sign of the apocalypse right there.

“I refused to fight, showing unforgivable cowardice and allowing my face to be burned.”

Sokka’s voice starts to weaken around “cowardice.” By the end, it’s barely above a mumble.

(He ought to cry. In some distant way, he knows that, but it’s so on-the-nose and absurd- the Fire Lord burning his own son the way his armies burn the world, carelessly and easily and “for their own good”- that for one monstrous second, he’s tempted to laugh.)

(Maybe he shouldn’t be able to take this in stride, but what else is he supposed to do?)

Toph’s sheet-white in horror. Aang’s tearing up again, and Katara’s balled up her fists, radiating anger. They look painfully young, all of them. Sokka feels centuries older, and tired to the bone. He’s known what Fire Lords are capable of. Terribly, he’s not shocked by Zuko’s story at all.

(There’s a sort of twisted fairness to it. The Fire Nation’s as cruel to its own children as the world’s.)

Aang sniffles, and wipes his nose, and says, “I’m sorry.”

Sokka means to ask, For what? A second later, Zuko writes exactly that.

“I’m sorry that happened to you at all. I don’t know if I could’ve changed that somehow, we’ll never know, but that shouldn’t have happened. And...I’m sorry we didn’t try harder to help you. I should have saved you, at the North Pole.”

“I should’ve known you’d be in trouble, when I dropped that much ice,” Katara adds. “Leaving you’s what Jet would’ve done, it wasn’t right.”

Sokka’s pretty sure Jet would’ve done more to make sure Zuko died. Jet would’ve blown up the whole glacier if he’d had enough blasting jelly on hand. Sokka does not state this out loud.

“And I’m sorry,” Katara says, roughly rubbing away her own tears. “The things you did to us were wrong and, and...frightening. But Aang was right, you’re just a teenager, and maybe you could’ve grown to be on the right side if we’d let you live. Now we’ll never get to find out.”

She and Aang look to Sokka, expectantly.

“I’m sorry the Fire Lord did that to you,” he offers. “And you shouldn’t have had to be at the North Pole in the first place. You should’ve been in some fancy palace getting manicures, where kid princes belong.”

(There’d always been a note of desperation in Zuko’s voice, when he was alive. Sokka’s not sure how he missed it.)

(There’s a note of desperation in Sokka’s voice now.)

He falls silent, keenly aware of Aang’s disappointment, and Katara’s. It’d be easier to join them in their shows of remorse, but it’s odd- he’s got too much respect for Zuko to utter an apology he doesn’t whole-heartedly mean.

Aang’s about to say something- probably a protest that Sokka’s fallen short of his Avatar principles. but Zuko takes up Sokka’s hand again, cutting him off.

“I cannot accept your apol gracious apologies. You were all within your rights, by the rules of war, to leave me in the ice. Given how badly I had provoked you before that, you would have been justified in doing far worse. The blame would have still lain with me as a combatant, for exhibiting vulnerability in the first place. In fact, while I was previously unreasonably upset by the events at the North Pole and expressed myself ungraciously, I should actually thank you for refraining from dealing further injuries, as you would have been protected by law and Fire Nation custom in exacting additional vengeance-“

“Okay,” Sokka cuts in, “that’s a little far. ‘Not maiming people before you dump them in ice’ is the bare minimum here.”

“Exactly, and I am grateful that you did not exceed that bare minimum when determining my penalty...”


So Aang’s 113th birthday is maybe not his most pleasant.

See, they’d gotten locked in quite the vicious cycle. First, Katara would fume against the injustice of it all, while Aang simultaneously wept about it. Then, Zuko would attempt to comfort them by whipping out a court’s worth of stilted language; he’d formally thank them for not murdering him on purpose. That, or he’d tried to reassure them that, no, their conduct was thoroughly justified and merciful by Fire Nation standards. Eventually, he’d apologized for causing them pain by being so weak as to let the hypothermia kill him.

Every time, Aang and Katara mourned even harder, and every time, Zuko upped the formality and effusiveness of his declarations, until Sokka stood up and declared he needed beauty sleep.

“Happy birthday, Aang,” he said. “How about we forget this whole thing and re-celebrate when you’ve actually lived thirteen years? Should be in a couple months.”

Aang gave a gloomy nod. “Thanks, Sokka.”

So now, Sokka’s curled up alone in bed with his notebook and pen within reach.

“There’s a Dai Li agent on the neighbor’s roof. But right now I think he’s spying on the people two doors down, not us.”



“Thanks, Zuko,” he murmurs.

“Sorry for this evening. I never know what to say.”

Sokka winces. “Look, we’re all going to botch this. Not like any of us have practice talking to ghosts. Or being a ghost.”

Hearing himself, he winces harder.

“They honestly shouldn’t waste tears on me. I don’t want their pity.”

Sinking his head into his pen-free hand, Sokka lets out a sigh. “If it helps, I think there’s a lot of guilt in there. Not just pity.”

“But I told them it’s okay.”

“Aang’s twelve, or thirteen, depending on how you count. Katara’s fourteen, and they’re the two nicest people I know. They’re not exactly used to the idea of causing people’s deaths. Even indirectly.”

There’s a long pause. Still, Sokka stays propped up on one elbow, ready to write. Zuko has more to say.

“But you were right about the Northern Air Temple. I read the reports. There were heavy casualties.”

Sokka closes his eyes. Sighs harder.

“And I wasn’t exactly useful functional, as a ghost, those first few weeks, but from what I could tell the Fire Nation losses at the North Pole were catastrophic. My death objectively shouldn’t matter. There must have been hundreds or thousands of sailors who died too, when Aang was in the Avatar State.”

After a moment, Sokka nods and whispers something he hasn’t been able to say, not to Katara or the twelve-year-olds he travels with. They’re kids. They’re either unaware of what happens when you throw an armored sailor into ice water or bash a soldier into a rock, or they’re joyfully, willfully oblivious.

Sokka hasn’t been a kid in a long time.

“I know.”


Sokka’s brain doesn’t shut off fully, even when he sleeps. A calculation rips him out of a dream. An equation with a missing variable.

“Zuko,” he calls into the darkness, “how old are you?”

Moonlight shines on the answer: “I would’ve turned seventeen this summer.”

“So you were thirteen.”

He doesn’t say when. He doesn’t have to.

“Like Aang.”

Zuko’s hand feels so heavy on his when he writes, “Yes.”

“I’ll be honest,” Sokka says in his half-awake liminal state, “I don’t know what to do with that.”

Zuko’s response comes a minute, maybe an eternity later: “Neither did I.”


I'm temporarily pausing updates on this fic, because I'm about to post a different multichapter fic for Zukka Big Bang. It's a Summer Olympics AU, starring Sokka (the best spectator at the Olympic Games) and Zuko (gold medalist in sadness and self-loathing). It should be lots of fun <3

Chapter 6


The Zukka Olympics AU is now all done, so this fic’s back. Thanks for waiting <3

Chapter Text

“That was so close, Aang!” Katara cheers, floating on a slab of ice atop Lake Laogai. “Now you just have to put a little more wrist into it, so your ice daggers actually pierce instead of just falling apart when they hit something.”

Sokka glances up at Katara, who’s laying on the positive reinforcement extra thick to compensate for Toph’s mistreatment. Then he glances at Joo Dee, who’s still smiling, even though Katara and Aang have accidentally-on-purpose splashed her three separate times. Finally, he glances down at his notebook, where his hand’s just finished writing.

“These are definitely the Dai Li headquarters. There are hundreds of agents with the hats, and I found a room with twenty Joo Dees, all practicing how to avoid answering questions. They’ve also been talking about something called a ‘schoolroom,’ but I can’t get far enough out to see it. I think you would need to go down to the bottom of the lake yourself.”

Sokka scrunches up his forehead. “You know, that can be arranged.”

He whispers to Toph, who promptly runs to Katara and insists that Aang clearly needs to learn how to earthbend underwater, so he can blend his bending styles. Once she gives Katara an exaggerated punch of affection, she catches on and agrees it’s a brilliant idea.

“And,” Toph says with an impish smile, “we’ll have to bring Sokka in with us, to up the stakes.”

“I- what? You are not getting me into an underwater death trap. I’m staying up here, safe and out of the way where non-benders belong!”

After a massive display of reluctance, Sokka winds up right where he wanted- in an air pocket that Aang and Katara use to navigate down to the bottom of the lake. Sokka directs them, following the tug of the invisible string that links him to Zuko. When he at last receives a tap on the hand, they return to the shore.

“That,” Toph rants, “was the sloppiest earthbending of any Avatar ever. I bet Kyoshi would be ashamed of you! How are you going to move mountains if you can’t move wet sand?”

Aang does his best to look ashamed, but Sokka can tell he’s buzzing with excitement. Sokka’s excited too, once he makes it to dry land and opens up his notebook, chattering about how he’s got to sketch that giant tuna-bass that passed their little bubble.

“There are at least fifty dark cells, with lights that keep going around in circles. The Dai Li chain their prisoners in front of the lights and then start chanting at them, repeating things like how ‘there's no war in Ba Sing Se.’ It really looked like brainwashing.”

“Wow,” Toph mutters after Sokka whispers this aloud, “that’s a really big tuna-bass.”

“What else did they say?” he asks.

“They use a lot of code, I didn’t catch most of it. But most of agents kept saying, ‘The Earth King invites you to Lake Laogai.’”

Sokka squints. “That’s not creepy at all.”

“In the last cell the guy who was tied up looked like he was Dai Li too, and the message was something different. ‘The princess summons you to the seashore.’”

“I know about King Kuei,” Toph says, “but who’s the princess?”

“Kuei has a cousin who’s a princess, and she’s fourth in the line of succession.” Zuko answers automatically, like someone who’s had to memorize this. “I never heard she was particularly important, but maybe the Dai Li are fans of hers.”

Sokka shakes his head. “This place just gets more and more complicated.”


Ba Sing Se’s weirdness hits a new peak when Katara picks up the day’s newspaper and announces, “Tomorrow, the Earth King’s having a ball to welcome his new pet badgermole!”

“What?” Toph snaps. “Badgermoles should be king here, they’re not pets!”

As Katara offers her sympathies, Sokka takes a closer look at the paper. “Huh, it’s at the palace. I bet there’s military intelligence there. Might be our only chance at a straight answer.”

“Are you planning to steal military intelligence from your own side?

“You gonna help us?”

“We’re not invited,” Katara points out. “Though I suppose we could sneak in with the other guests…”

Toph cackles. “Please. Anyone in society would spot you all from a mile away.”

“I’m going to master all the elements,” Aang protests. “I can totally figure out fancy manners.”

He sweeps a curtain off a window and wraps it around him like a cloak. “Mr. Sokka of the Water Tribe. Ms. Katara of the Water Tribe.”

“Oh, Avatar Aang!” Sokka wraps the other end of the curtain around himself and dons his most pretentious accent. “How you do go on.”

Aang bows. Sokka bows. Aang bows. They fling themselves back and forth until Zuko grabs Sokka by the shoulders, pokes him in the back so he stands up straight, folds his hands into fists, and brings them together. At last, he presses Sokka down slowly, steadily, and then slowly pulls him back up again, in a proper bow.

“Huh,” Toph says. “Maybe you don’t have to know etiquette yourself, if you’re attached to a literal prince.”


Sokka can’t believe Zuko’s giving him lessons on politeness. Zuko.

“Imagine you’re wearing armor around your torso, when you’re just standing. You have to project a look of strength with the core of your frame, even if you’re miserable or exhausted.”

Zuko used to walk around with armor on all the time, yet there had been an awkward rigidity to his movements that seemed to come from underneath. Sokka wonders whether he was miserable or exhausted, every time they’d met.

He tries to follow Zuko’s dictates, and he takes a turn around the room, imagining a suit of metal binding him in place.

“Closer, but you also can’t let people see how hard you’re trying. Try for more elegance. Imagine you’re holding something delicate, like a fan or a baby turtleduck.”

“So,” Sokka huffs, poking at the ache that’s developing in his back, “let me see if I have this right. You have to try your hardest, but you can’t let anyone see, and you have to be the scariest and the prettiest at the same time?”


“This is the worst!”

“This is how you survive in a palace.”

Still, he walks about the room again. Zuko offers silent corrections, tipping Sokka’s chin up, melting away the tension in his wrists with a gentle touch. It’s slow, tortuous work, but over time Sokka can feel an air of grace settling into him. Maybe, just maybe, he could pass for nobility.


“Forget the coat, Sokka should absolutely have the cape.”

In the dressing room of a terrifyingly fancy tailor’s shop, Katara glowers at thin air. “You just want him to trip over his own feet, don’t you?”

“Nah,” Sokka says with a smirk, “he probably just wishes he had a cape.”

“...Not the point. The cape really takes advantage of your shoulders. The silhouette’s more dramatic.”

His shoulders? Sokka’s always been a fan of his shoulders- he twists around a little to appreciate them in the full-length mirror- but he didn’t know Zuko had noticed them too.

“This is a stealth mission,” she hisses. “We’re trying to be as undramatic as possible.”

“You’re going to a palace ball. The more dramatic you are, the less you’ll stand out.”

“Be serious.” Katara puts her hands on her hips with a thoroughly dramatic eyeroll. “We’ll just put him in a nice green robe and shave off the front of his head like everyone here-“

Sokka’s about to protest, but Zuko grabs his hand first with shocking vehemence. “That’s a total waste; you can’t possibly make a decent queue with such short hair or even with a wig. Just get me a metal band; I can figure out a passable top-knot-“

“But half-shaved queues are the main style in the Upper Ring-“

“I will fight you if you try to cut off Sokka’s hair.”

“How in the world would you fight me?” Katara demands, right as Sokka says, “Are you trying to defend the honor of my hair?”


In another shocking turn of events, Zuko’s hair advice turns out to be good. He picks out a lovely golden band and a bottle of perfumed hair oil- Katara pretends to choke, but Sokka and Zuko agree the scent is the height of refinement- and then proceeds to style his hair. It’s tough work, because Zuko can manipulate his hair but not the metal band that’s supposed to hold it. Still, Sokka figures out how to hold the metal in place as Zuko curls his hair through without pulling even a little, and their hands keep bumping into each other in fleeting instants of contact. A half-hour later, Zuko brushes down the strands of hair that don’t go in the top-knot, completing the look by covering the shaved sides of his head. Then he gives his last bits of advice as Sokka dons the rest of his costume- tragically cape-free, though he’s still got an embroidered forest-green cloak with pockets for his handy pen and notebook.

“If all else fails, never go down without a fight.”

“Thanks, Zuko. Way to calm my nerves.”


Toph and Sokka don’t go in with the party crowd, exactly. Instead, they hang out at the back of the entrance line, looking haughtily down their noses at the other guests, while Zuko scouts the edges of the palace.

“There’s a supply closet right next to the outer wall. Toph should be able to bend right in.”

“Miss Beifong,” Sokka says, offering Toph his arm, “I hear the gardens are lovely this time of year. Would you care to smell the flowers with me?”

“They can’t smell worse than your hair gel,” she replies merrily.

Five minutes later, they’ve gotten themselves into a broom closet.

A dark broom closet.

Locked from the outside.

“It’ll be too loud if I bend through a wall,” Toph warns. “We’re inside the palace now, people will hear.”

“Hey, can I have one of your hairpins? I can break through the lock.”

Toph immediately jabs him with a pin. “You can pick locks?”

“...Not well. But Zuko helps!”

Zuko’s hand closes around his and starts jiggling the pin around, pausing each time a tumbler clicks into place before wiggling some more. A couple minutes after that, he abruptly breaks through and twists the handle, and Sokka tumbles out of the closet. Zuko barely catches him by the shoulders before he slams face-first into the floor. Gracefully, Toph steps out behind him with her nose in the air and strolls by him, her dignity perfectly intact. A second late, Sokka scrambles up, closes the door behind him, and joins her.

They saunter past several other guests who don’t even glance their way. Sokka waits for a tug on his wrist or a tap on the hand, but there’s nothing.

“It just feels like a normal party down here,” Toph mutters. “Everything’s crowded.” She adjusts her stance and frowns. “Everything except for one big empty room at the end of that hall.”

They head in that direction. Sokka feels a string pull his wrist forward.

“Zuko says we should check it out.”

Amazingly, it takes him a solid thirty seconds to consider that it might be a trap.

There’s a set of fancy green doors, and Sokka considers them for a moment before taking the handles and pushing. They refuse to budge, even after he throws his full weight into it, grunting and groaning-

Zuko grabs his hand and pulls. Both doors open easily.


Toph giggles.

They walk into the creepiest library Sokka can imagine. There are perfectly normal bookcases, and there’s some lovely plush carpeting, and there’s nowhere near enough lighting. Most of the light comes from an unnaturally hot, bright green fire. Sokka inspects it from afar and finds it’s filled with those same glowy green crystals from the labyrinth.

“There wouldn’t just be military secrets lying around here, right?” Sokka says, rifling through some papers lying out on a desk. They’re all notes on a badgermole’s ideal feeding schedule.

“Maybe not lying around, but I can feel a big metal box right behind that bookcase.”

“The lock is complicated,” Zuko writes. “I don’t know how to break it.”

Well, that’s convenient. Sokka’s about to air his suspicions about how a Fire Nation prince would be uniquely eager to keep them away from Earth Kingdom military intelligence when Zuko adds, “There’s only one paper in there, about the eclipse.”

Sokka’s eyebrows shoot up. “The eclipse?”

“Yes, it’s a spy report citing Fire Nation sources about the Day of Black Sun. But they have the date wrong.”

“They do, huh? How so?”

“They said it’s on the afternoon of July 25th, which is obviously a day late.”

“So there’s a solar eclipse on the afternoon of the 24th?”

Sokka holds his breath and waits for Zuko to set him alight with that vivid green fire. Instead, there’s just a soft, almost resigned hand on his, like the physical manifestation of a sigh.

“You didn’t know?”

“In fact I did not.”


Sokka stammers incoherently for a second, but Toph yanks him by the hand and shoves him down behind a well-cushioned armchair as the door opens again.

“I apologize for interrupting you during a public event, sir,” a man says. “But several of the schoolrooms at Lake Laogai have been unexpectedly shut down for maintenance.”

“Again?” says another man, with a deep, rumbling voice. “How many?”

“Eight. Twice as many as last time. We can’t tie the Avatar to it yet. They visited the lake for what seemed like just a routine waterbending lesson.”

“I want double the guards on their entire group. Where is the Avatar now?”

“In his assigned building. He appears to have ordered in a romantic dinner for himself and his waterbending master.”

Sokka does not gag, but it’s a close call.

“Where are the other two?”

“They left the house in formalwear, it seems for a romantic outing of their own.”

This time Toph pretends to throw up.

“But where are they exactly?” demands the man with the scary voice.

“...We will begin the search immediately.”

“Alert me when they’re found. I want a full account of their movements.”


So Toph and Sokka skedaddle after that.

“What exactly are they accusing us of?” Toph hisses at Sokka. “We just got here, we haven’t had time to do anything yet.”

“They’re accusing us of dating, apparently,” Sokka says as Zuko helps him pick the broom closet lock again.

“Please. I’d never break up your loving marriage.”

Sokka audibly gags now, even as the door pops open. “Seriously though, we should fake that night out. If they’re accusing us of stuff we didn’t do, I don’t want them guessing stuff we did.”

“Gonna take me to dinner, Snoozles?”

“Are there restaurants where people wear stuff like this?”

“...Yeah, but we’d need reservations a year in advance.”

They flee the vicinity of the palace. Once they do, they pause for breath, and Zuko pokes Sokka.

“Pretend you’ve just finished dinner and now you’re going to the theater district for a show. It’s crowded, and it’s not too strange to dress up.”

“Theater?” she whines. “Gotta say, I’m not a big fan of the scenery.”

“I saw an ad for Love Amongst the Dragons. That’s always very heavy on the speeches; they’ll narrate everything they’re doing out loud.”

“I’m still going to hate this,” Toph declares.


Amazingly, Toph does not hate it.

Zuko and Sokka, on the other hand...

They make it a solid two minutes before Zuko starts poking, forcing Sokka to pull his notebook out of his cloak; the rustling wins glares from all directions. Once he's got it out, Sokka's eyes dart down over and over, taking in Zuko’s verbose critique. For his part, Zuko manages to keep up a steady stream of complaints through all three hours. It’s pretty entertaining reading his invective, when for once it’s directed at an outside target.

“I get that they’re trying for a fiery feel because the play’s by a Fire Nation playwright, but it’s not a Fire Spirit who binds the Dragon Emperor. It’s the Dark Water Spirit, or the Night Frost Spirit in the oldest versions. Also the costume should be a million times more elegant than that, and where’s his mask?”

“They’re adding extra lines to the Dragon Empress’s monologue. Who do these people think they are? They didn’t even get the meter right.”

“Please, the Spirit- who ought to be watery, not fiery- isn’t malicious like that. They’re supposed to just be a manifestation of fate, binding the Emperor and Empress in mortal form together so they can properly fall in love like destiny dictates. But making the Spirit into a full-blown villain? Even the Ember Island Players wouldn’t dare commit this sort of character assassination.”

“Literally,” Sokka mutters, as the Fire Spirit throws lightning at the Dragon Empress and she promptly falls over, dead.

“They did not just do that.”

The Dragon Emperor launches into a lengthy eulogy. “I’ll never forget you,” “there will never be a love like ours,” all those cliches. Sokka stifles a yawn.

“That’s not the right ending. They’re supposed to end up immortal and happy together.”

The Dragon Empress explodes in a blinding ball of white light. The Dragon Emperor looks at it, stunned, and then turns immortal.

“How come he gets to live and she doesn’t? How is he supposed to survive an eternity without her? This is supposed to be one of the happiest romances in Fire Nation literature???”

The second he and Toph make it out of the theater, Sokka launches into his own critique. “Look, I get that artistic license exists, but I have never seen such unrealistic physics in my life. Why would someone explode five minutes after getting hit with lightning? And how did the Fire Spirit make that volcano explode? I buy that as an earthbending skill, but as firebending? Please! They were clearly just showing off their special-effects budget-“

Sokka keeps up his rant all the way back to their building.

“And anyway, I’m pretty sure spirit communication doesn’t work like that or Yue would’ve totally-“

“Snoozles. The Dai Li can’t hear you anymore, you can drop the act.”

He stops, baffled. “What?”

“You don’t have to keep proving we really saw the show.”

“I...That wasn’t for the Dai Li, I’m really mad that they butchered that premise!”

“It’s just a play, get over it.” She rolls her eyes. “Hey, lovebirds.”

Katara and Aang start stammering and blushing intensely, sitting in the remnants of what really does look like a romantic dinner. Toph plops right down, helps herself to a chocolate-covered straw-grape, and begins recounting their night.

“So yeah, we got useful military intelligence,” she finishes, “but only because Zuko has a big mouth.”

“It’s not useful.”

Sokka shoots his notebook a skeptical look. “I hate to break it to you, buddy, but that’s the biggest scoop we’ve ever gotten, short of the actual comet.”

“The eclipse is less than ten minutes long. You can’t do serious damage to any garrison or ship in that time.”

“Maybe not,” Katara says, folding her arms, “but we could break into the palace and take out the Fire Lord.”

“You can’t.”

“Are you really still defending him?” Sudden rage rises in Sokka’s throat, as much for Zuko as himself. “He burned your face off.”

“I mean you literally will not be able to land a hit on him. Do you think he’s stupid? He’ll be in a hidden bunker somewhere, I don’t know which one, and he’ll have non-benders and colonial earthbenders among his guards, plus decoys. My mother told me they keep poison too, in the safehouses. All the royals and the guards will have taken the antidote, but if you get close? They’ll spring deadly toxins all over you.”

“If it’s in the air, maybe I can bend it away in time,” Aang says.

“You want to take that risk? There are probably other precautions they never told me about. If you get anywhere near Father during the eclipse, you will not survive.”

“See, if I’d just spilled a major military secret,” Sokka points out with a wince, “that’s exactly the lie I’d tell.”

“If you don’t trust me, get a second opinion,” Zuko responds after a moment. “But I’m telling you- if you go for any remotely major maneuver during the Day of Black Sun? You will fail.”


Sokka tosses and turns that night, pondering Zuko’s warning. It could be a lie. It feels like the truth. Zuko seems to be honest to a fault, so questioning him now feels unexpectedly mean.

“Hey,” he whispers.

A second later, he feels a languid touch- the back of Zuko’s hand grazing the back of his.

“I can’t believe they had the audacity to play happy music at the finale.”

A moment later, his hand’s clasped between two others, as Zuko squeezes it firmly in solidarity.


“Twinkletoes, you need to quit running away from your problems! If you can’t stop one measly little rock, how are you ever going to stop the Fire Lord, huh?”

Head hanging low, Aang drops into his horse stance for the fourth time.

“And if I catch you trying to stop my rock with airbending again, I’m going to drop it on your head!”

“...Got it,” he sighs.

The next time, he doesn’t jump out of the rock’s way, but he doesn’t block it either. Instead he falls over with a worrying thump. Gasping, Katara runs forth, healing water at the ready.

“Toph, stop scaring him! Aang, you’re making so much progress, and I bet you’d make so much more if your earthbending teacher would stop fracturing your limbs…”

Sokka tunes out Katara’s rant, the same way Toph probably does. But Toph’s words keep ringing in his head, even when he falls into bed that night.

“Look,” he mutters to the darkness. “You can tell me to get lost if you want, but I need to ask you something.”

Zuko tells him nothing. He dares go further.

“What’s it like, facing Ozai?”

Zuko touches his hand immediately. Yet even after Sokka moves towards the faint light of the window and brings the pen to paper, the words don’t come quickly.

“I was naive and sheltered, and I underestimated how far he would go to make a point. You and Aang won’t make that mistake.”

“...anything you can tell us about his tactics? His fighting style?”

He tries to imagine the Fire Nation interrogating him about his own father, or about Katara’s tactics. He wouldn’t blame Zuko for reacting with violence, even after everything.

“He’s the best lightning-bender in history.”

Sokka’s breath catches. “What?”

“Did you see Azula bend lightning?”

“I was half-asleep and running away, but yes.”

“So imagine that at triple-speed. Also, Father can fly short distances with fire jets. Besides that, his technique’s perfect but standard.”

“Yeah,” Sokka says wanly. “Besides that.”

He doesn’t know what a lightning scar would look like.

“Is that what he did to you?” Sokka’s mouth asks before his brain catches up. “The lightning?”

“You have to be a threat to deserve lightning.”


“No,” Zuko clarifies. “He just walked up and lit a flame in one hand. It was very basic, as firebending goes.”

Sokka can see it. He can see any of the firebenders he’s met easily kindling a flame in their palm. There’s no force behind it, no forward motion, so Zuko must have been still when he burned.

He was kept still, or he simply stayed that way. Sokka’s not sure which is worse.

“He wasn’t even supposed to be my opponent,” Zuko says in a sudden flood of ink. “I’d talked back to a general in a war meeting, because there’d be unnecessary casualties with his plan. I thought I would have to fight the general, who hadn’t seen combat in decades. Though I could have won against him, Father used the old law of substitution to step in on his behalf, and I kept hoping someone would step in for me too.”


“Like I said, I was naive.”

Sokka wonders who would be insane enough to willingly step into battle against Fire Lord Ozai. Maybe Zuko’s uncle, who’d trailed him like a quiet, weary shadow. Maybe Azula, in a very different world.

And now they’re sending Aang right into the scorpi-lion’s den.

“He’s going to eat Aang alive, isn’t he?” Sokka asks, voice catching on sudden hoarseness.

Zuko doesn’t answer.

Chapter 7


I added a couple more warnings to the first chapter’s A/N, but I’ll put them here too:
- a brief mention of captives being forcibly drugged
- a brief mention of a side character using firebending to cauterize their own wound

Chapter Text

“I regret to inform you that your request to meet with the Council of Five has been rejected without explanation,” Joo Dee informs them with that terrifying smile. “However, your meeting with the Head Sage has been scheduled for next week. He has been apprised of your condition, and he believes two enemies such as Sokka and Lee will be separated quickly and without pain. Lee will be easily ushered into the next realm.”

“Awesome,” says Sokka. This is good news. It’s what he and Zuko want, more than anything.

Still, when he stretches his face into a broad smile, it feels as fake as hers.


“No!” Toph stamps her foot on the floor, and dust falls from the ceiling. “You have to follow through on your kicks, you can’t just wimp out at the first sight of trouble!”

Joo Dee’s left them to their own devices in their private earthbending gym, after the seventh time she got sprayed with rubble. And while most of those projectiles were flung “on accident” by Toph, a couple were genuine accidents on Aang’s part, and Sokka has to pay full attention to their sparring so he’s not the next victim. It’s why he doesn’t look down when Zuko writes out a message. He ignores it for a solid minute, too busy dodging flying pebbles, until Zuko places a heavy hand on his shoulder.

Sokka looks down.


Keeps looking down, frozen in place, until Zuko yanks him out of a rogue boulder’s path.

“May I have the honor of teaching the Avatar firebending?”


“What?” says Toph.

“Why?” says Katara.

“Do I have to learn firebending?” says Aang.

“Yes,” Sokka tells Aang. To Toph he says, “Zuko will only be around to teach him the basics, but he’s going to leave me notes. Enough to learn from, even after he’s...yeah.”

“But why?” Katara repeats. “I know we’re not- not fighting like before, and the Fire Lord’s hurt you like the rest of us, Zuko, but…why?”

She trails off. Sokka wants to give her an answer, but he doesn’t understand it himself, not until Zuko takes up the pen again.

“Because someone has to step in.”


Toph bends a hole in the gym floor. Katara fills it with water. At Zuko’s direction, Sokka fetches a candle and a pair of spark rocks from outside.

“Aang’s really scared of firebending,” he mutters while walking back inside, keenly aware of the Dai Li agent boring a hole in the back of his head. “He tried one time, and he got bored of breathing, and then he lost control and burned Katara.”

“What do you suggest?”

“I know this might be hard, and you don’t have to sugar-coat things like Katara, but...he needs a gentle touch. And a lot of patience.”

“Okay. I can be patient.”

And there’s another agent, hiding semi-successfully behind a column. Sokka doesn’t respond to Zuko out loud, but he tries to convey his skepticism with his eyebrows.

“I was pretty terrible at firebending as a child, so I know what it’s like to struggle. I’m only going to show him some basics anyway. There are plenty of firebenders who can teach him better, so you won’t miss me.”

Sokka swallows hard as he walks back into the gym. “It’ll also help if you explain why you want him to do things the way you do. He got into trouble ‘cause his last firebending teacher wasn’t the clearest.”

“I can relate to that.”

Aang stands in the center of the gym, fidgeting. “Hi, Sifu Zuko.”

“What about me?” Sokka protests.

“Yeah,” Toph snickers, “show Sifu Sokka some respect.”

Zuko presses down on Sokka’s shoulder, so he sits on the floor and gestures for Aang to join him. Then he starts reading the words that flow easily from his pen.

(And if he peppers the words with dramatic gestures and overdramatic pauses like a sage might...well, it’s not often that he gets to play a bending expert. He’s gotta relish the role while it lasts.)

“I think you’ll be good at firebending,” Zuko says. “ Sokka said you were bored with breathing exercises, but the reason they’re important is that fire comes from air. If you rely just on your body to fuel your fire, your blasts will be weak, and you’ll always get tired out. But if you breathe right, you’ll last longer, have more power, and maintain better control.”

“But I already know how I need to breathe,” Aang says morosely. “I learned it from Monk Gyatso, when I learned airbending. I can’t just undo all that for firebending, and that means I’ll never control fire.”

“I have an idea to help with that, but I have to try something. Could you meditate with your eyes closed? However the monks taught you is fine.”

Aang lets out a long sigh, but then he complies, closing his eyes and visibly concentrating.

“Sokka, I can’t make my own fire anymore, so I need you to quietly light the candle for me. Just put it down next to him.”

Katara makes an aborted noise of discomfort. Sokka can’t blame her- if Zuko still wanted to kill Aang, attacking him during a meditation would be a decent way to do it.

“Put up a wall of ice between him and the flame if it makes you feel better. You can tell him about the ice, but don’t mention the candle.”

So Katara quietly tells Aang she’s going to waterbend nearby, and he nods without breaking his focus. She builds up a little ice fort around him. Sokka lights the candle and places it down on the other side.

“What are we waiting for?” Toph says.

Sokka shushes her. Zuko doesn’t answer. Toph huffs and falls back against the gym wall, and Katara stands by the makeshift pool of water, ready to fight if she has to. Sokka simply stares at that one little candle, transfixed by its flickering, soft and steady in a rhythm like a heartbeat...

“Wait,” Sokka whispers to himself. “Candles don’t have rhythms.”

“They do when a skilled firebender breathes with them,” Zuko writes. “Without surprising him, ask him to keep breathing like that but open his eyes.”

Keeping his voice as soft and soothing as he can manage, Sokka does as Zuko asks. Then he gestures to Katara, who whisks the ice away and leaves Aang with a candle dancing to his breath.

Aang’s eyes go huge with shock, then joy. “You mean my breathing’s already okay?”

“Yep,” Sokka says, swaggering up. “And check it out-“ he gestures around the room- “nothing’s on fire!”


Next, Zuko explains that Aang’s already got a variety of offensive moves under his belt, thanks to the other three elements. “So the most useful skill might not be making your own fire, but just moving it around once a flame’s already out there.”

Aang asks questions, and Zuko does his best to respond. When he’s not sure of an answer, he admits it, usually with a side of self-loathing.

“I was never advanced enough to learn that. Sorry.”

Sokka cuts those bits, simply sticking to, “Zuko’s not sure. Maybe we can look it up, next time we’re at a library!”

Sokka can’t tell whether Zuko’s amazing at firebending or not. He was never as scary as Azula, but that could’ve said more about her than him. And yeah, Zuko would never win a firefight against Fire Lord Ozai, but there are plenty of talented firebenders who could say the same. Regardless, it’s not advanced firebending skill that matters now- it’s the ability to sift through the basics and boil them down to baby steps for the world’s most terrified student. It takes restraint and kindness and a million other qualities he wouldn’t have associated with Zuko.

And yet, Zuko’s amazing at teaching.

Sokka relates his directions, and Aang follows them with growing enthusiasm, and Katara relaxes a little in the background. Sokka spends several hours just clicking his spark rocks together and lighting the candle. Without relying on airbending even a little bit, Aang scowls at the flame until it spontaneously goes out and turns to smoke.

“You’re very good at extinguishing flames. Once you just scale up the same skill, that’s one way to block fire in combat.”


Sokka stays up later than he should that night. He starts a brand-new notebook with sketches of firebending forms and notes on where Aang might struggle, probably based on where Zuko struggled.

(There’s a lot of notes like that.)

Zuko does his best to design a curriculum, though Sokka suspects it’s not strictly traditional.

“If he’s pinned on the ground, kicking a circle of fire is a good way out.”

“I thought firebenders are never supposed to get knocked down in the first place,” Sokka quips.

“They’re not. I had to make up this move myself. Aang can probably invent his own special moves by borrowing from other elements.”

For his part, Sokka keeps peppering Zuko with questions- both to clarify things, and to satisfy his own curiosity. He gets sucked right in, like with every other mesmerizing research project.

“Wait,” he says, several hours in. “We’ve got to rewrite this whole thing.”


“If we’re writing this for Aang, he should probably be able to read it, don’t you think?”

“Oh. Right.”

Over time Zuko’s handwriting has devolved- or evolved- from sharp, proper characters, to a semi-legible semi-cursive, to a squiggly shorthand that’s speedy but practically impenetrable to outsiders. Sokka’s lucky he can read it, because he’d learned how to write at an unusually young age and his mom taught him shorthand alongside the normal style.

(“You come up with ideas even faster than your father,” she’d said with a smile he can just barely remember. “You’ll need extra-fast letters to keep up.”)

(Sokka had asked Zuko how he learned shorthand and gotten only half an answer. Apparently, someone had begun teaching him calligraphy before his father shut them down, declaring it a frilly waste of time.)

Katara and Aang can’t make out even half these characters. Toph took one look and declared it “the prettiest writing she’s ever seen.” Thus, Sokka’s the only person in their group who can understand Zuko’s writing, like the two of them have their own private language.

They rewrite the whole curriculum in slow, normal characters, making improvements to the content all along the way. It’s not until Zuko nudges him- “it’s only three hours until dawn, and I can keep thinking while you sleep”- that Sokka tears himself away. Still he lies in bed for half an hour, imagining the katas Zuko’s sketched out. Imagining a younger Zuko, unscarred with a full head of hair, throwing himself into advanced forms again and again regardless of stumbles.

He smiles, but not in mockery. It’s just a sweet image.


Zuko cedes Aang to Toph the next morning, with strict instructions to practice making armor out of rock.

“Are you sure?” Katara says. “I mean, don’t have all the time in the world.”

“He’s still afraid of fire. Ideally, I’d help him get past that, but under the circ*mstances I just have to make him feel as safe as possible.”

Aang doesn’t master earth armor by that afternoon, but he has figured out how to keep the rocks in place around his body if Toph puts them on first.

“I’m going to throw fire at you. Though the blasts might vary in size or speed, I’ll always keep the temperature cool. Do your best to block them with firebending.”

Even buried under several pounds of rock, Aang manages to look nervous. It’s in the huge eyes.

“Why are you scared?”

Sokka asks it seriously, but not meanly. He doesn’t think Zuko meant to be mean.

“Because…” Aang struggles for a few seconds. “Because maybe this armor can keep me from getting burned, but what if I accidentally move the fire instead of just blocking it? What if it hurts Toph, or Katara-“

“Katara and Toph can stand behind a wall of ice again; nothing’s getting through that.”

“But what about Sokka?”

What about Sokka, indeed. He and Zuko tested this, and Zuko has difficulty throwing fireballs now that he can’t generate them himself. He can’t grow a flame from mere sparks from the spark rocks, and when he tries to draw a combat-grade fireball out from a candle, he usually winds up extinguishing the candle in the process. If he wants to run a drill of any length against Aang, he needs a continuous stream of fireballs, and as he has no hands, he needs someone to continuously light a series of candles. And since Toph’s sensibly refused to go near a firebending drill where she can’t feel one person’s stance, and Katara needs to be fully intact in case Aang accidentally explodes or something, Sokka’s the only guy for the candle-lighting job.

Astonishingly, he’s not scared.

“I won’t let Sokka get burned.”

Aang looks to Sokka, who nods and kneels to light his first candle.

Zuko keeps to his word. He lobs dull red blasts at Aang. He fails to block the first couple, but they don’t even make a dent in his armor. Eventually, his strikes get faster and more decisive, and Zuko starts to change up the rhythm, speeding up the blasts and trying new angles. Still, his fire’s warm and never dangerous. The flames zip by Sokka, leaving him perfectly unsinged and comfortably toasty. He feels as safe as he would in an igloo back home.

The realization strikes like a blast of its own, as he clicks his spark rocks together for the thirtieth time, not even glancing at the barrage of fireballs whizzing beside him.

He trusts Zuko.


The next day, Zuko adapts an exercise he saw Aang practicing with Katara, where they passed a stream of water back and forth, just getting comfortable with the element. Now, it’s a little ball of yellow fire that Aang brings into the world. He tosses it to the place where Zuko should be, and Zuko bends it back to him, and the cycle continues until sunset.

For a few days after that, Zuko tries teaching Aang formal katas, explaining which bits are the most useful in real fights and which steps ought to be accompanied with fire. Unfortunately, while Aang figures out the general poses from Zuko’s notes and sketches, he keeps missing slight nuances in the angles and the transitions. Even more unfortunately, Zuko decides the only way to teach him is with a human model, which is how Sokka gets dragged into doing firebending katas. He staggers from one pose to another in the center of the gym. Aang watches attentively, but Katara keeps looking away and hiding a smile, and Toph openly laughs too much for someone who can’t even see this. He can’t blame them for laughing, not when his form starts off even worse than Aang’s. After all, he hasn’t got the wisdom of a gazillion prior Avatars to guide him.

He just has Zuko. Zuko’s hands wisp over his skin, tipping his head just so, lifting his arms, gently pressing his thigh to lower him into a deeper lunge. One hand nudges his tailbone, and Sokka instantly tucks his hips in and straightens his back. One hand grazes his forearm, and Sokka twists the palm around to face the sun. He’s learned these patterns from the notes they pass at night, but there’s some deeper instinct leading him. These are firebending forms, meant for deadly combat. Yet as he responds to his partner’s every airy touch, Sokka can’t help thinking of dance.


“Today, we could try running some katas hot,” Zuko proposes over breakfast. “We could also spar. I’ll keep the blasts cold again, and you don’t exactly have to worry about hurting me.”

Aang inhales sharply at that. Then he looks to Katara, and then to the hand holding Sokka’s pen. “I...want to thank you, formally, for the instruction you’ve given me, Sifu Zuko. And, thanks to your guidance and the notes you’ve helped Sokka make, I know how to keep learning firebending even after…”

Sokka’s about to slurp from his bowl, but his jook suddenly turns slimy and unappetizing.

“After tomorrow,” Aang finishes. “So if there’s something else you want to do besides training me, please, go ahead.”

None of them step in to qualify that with “as long as it doesn’t involve capturing us.” They wouldn’t do him the dishonor.

“What do you mean?”

“You wanna go to the theater?” Sokka offers. “There’s got to be something on you’ll like.”

“I’m biased against a lot of Ba Sing Se’s theatrical style, since it’s so different from what I’m used to,” Zuko responds. “I don’t want to spend today dwelling on that dislike.”

“If you wanna spar, no holds barred,” Toph says, “I’m down. I’m not sure how to fight someone I can’t see with my feet or hit, but I’ll figure it out.”

“No, I don’t want to fight today,” Zuko writes back. “But thank you.”

Aang ponders it for a moment. “Do you like pai sho? Because my friend Kuzon, from the Fire Nation, used to play pai sho all the time, and he was really great! I’d be happy to play a game.”

There’s a pause. “I like Pai Sho very much, but I can’t, I’m sorry.”

“Please don’t be sorry.” Aang’s eyes go glassy again.

“Is there anything you want to see?” Sokka says. “Any place Appa can fly you to?”

There’s a longer pause. “I wish I could see my Uncle Iroh.”

“Why don’t we find him?” Katara says excitedly. “We can go find that bounty hunter you hired to track us-“

“Please don’t. My father and sister must want him imprisoned or executed, so I think he is in hiding. If you go looking for him now, you’ll draw too much attention to him.”

“We can be subtle!” Aang declares.

Everyone alive shoots him a skeptical look. From the other side, Zuko’s probably shooting him a skeptical look.

“But if in the future you really need another firebending teacher, he’s the best you could have. Also”

The pen freezes for a long moment, Sokka’s hand just hanging in midair.

“Also he has a rightful claim to the throne, though he hasn’t wanted it in many years. Still, if you somehow succeed in your goal, you need to make sure he gets power. Otherwise Azula will probably take the throne, though I’m not sure she’s in a place to rule wisely right now.”

Sokka shudders at the thought.

“Would your uncle want peace?” Aang asks.

“I think he does, in more ways than one. If you defeat my father, promise me my uncle will be the next Fire Lord.”

“We promise,” Katara answers solemnly.

“Unless we find someone better somewhere,” Sokka pipes up. “You don’t have any illegitimate half-siblings running around, do you?”

“Unlikely. We tend to take marital fidelity pretty seriously.”

“Oh.” Sokka slouches and drops his head into one hand, too tired to hold himself up even though it’s still mid-morning. “You wouldn’t want to meet up with your sister, would you?”

“I don’t think that would go well for either of us.”

“Fair, fair.” Sokka’s eyes dart to Katara, and he tries to imagine not wanting to see her on his last day on this earth.

“Do you think we could”


“It doesn’t have to be everyone, I know Aang still needs to train, but could the two of us go see some turtleducks?”

“Turtleducks?” Katara repeats in surprise. “Are those...important in the Fire Nation?”


He doesn’t elaborate.

After a second, Sokka closes the notebook and gets to his feet. “Time to go find some turtleducks, I guess.”


One of the advantages of Ba Sing Se’s overbearing organizational system is it’s a self-sufficient city, food-wise. And since Sokka’s seen turtleduck eggs on restaurant menus, that means there has to be a turtleduck farm somewhere within the wall. He asks Joo Dee for help, and though she’s clearly caught off-guard by the request, she can’t find any reason to be suspicious about it. Soon enough, she’s set Sokka on a train to the Agrarian Zone, with a Dai Li-stamped letter of introduction to a turtleduck farmer and two pockets full of bread.

Said farmer squints at the letter, and then at Sokka. “You only wanna look at the turtleducks? Not gonna buy them?”

“Nope,” Sokka says, lifting his notebook, “just working with the Avatar and doing some research.”

Eventually, the Dai Li seal of approval seems to convince her, and she shrugs and lets him into her coop. It’s a long, smelly building, filled with rows of small cages. In each cage sits a quacking turtleduck.

She has to raise her voice to be heard over the clamor. “Got any particular turtleduck you want to look at?”

Sokka discreetly checks his notebook. “Are there any young birds?”

“I’ve got some little ones in a pen outside.”

She leads Sokka through the building, the birds’ protests ringing in his ears. The racket dies down when they go through the doors on the other side, entering a plot of picked-away grass with a stone pen in the center. With a slap of her hand, she opens a hole in the pen wall, and Sokka steps through, and suddenly he’s surrounded by the cutest baby animals he’s ever seen in his life.

(He coos at them. He doesn’t mean to- it’s just some primordial instinct stirred up by their tiny downy faces.)

“I’ll leave you to your research,” she says. “Holler when you want to leave.”

Sokka thanks her and then plops right down amidst the baby turtleducks, opening his notebook as he does.

“This is outrageous,” he murmurs. “This is a vision from the spirits. It’s impossible to be this sweet.”

“Yet here they are.”

“Do they breathe fire or something?”

(There’s got to be a catch. Prince Zuko can’t decide to spend his last day with Sokka and a flock of harmless baby animals. He just can’t.)

“No. They bite, but only if you hurt them first.”

A turtleduck waddles up to him and begins quacking. It’s a sharp sound, but Sokka hears something sweet in it too, like it’s just trying to start a conversation and doesn’t know how.

On instinct, he reaches out to pet the golden crown of fluff on its head.

“How’d you become a turtleduck expert?” he asks quietly.

“There’s a garden at the heart of the Fire Nation palace. It has a pond and a turtleduck family with a ten-year-old matriarch and her ducklings,” he writes. “My mother loved them.”

“‘Loved’?” he snorts. “Why the past tense?”

(If the Fire Lord dared hurt a baby turtleduck, Sokka’s going to challenge him to an Agni Kai himself.)

“It’s hard to tell, but I think my father had Mom killed.”

(The Agni Kai joke dies strangled in Sokka’s throat.)

“I think she might have killed my grandfather first, but again it’s hard to know these things.”

“...I’m sorry, did she kill the last Fire Lord?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why would she even want to?”

“When I was eleven, Fire Lord Azulon might have ordered my execution, but I’m not sure about that either.”

“Wait. Back up. Was there...why would an eleven-year-old get executed?”

“It wasn’t personal. There was a power struggle with all the adults, none of it was really about me at all.”

It wasn’t personal.

A Fire Lord ordered his grandson killed, and it wasn’t personal.

“Mom probably intervened then, and obviously I wasn’t killed at eleven. But I think I was always supposed to die young.”

Sokka chokes out a huff of laughter. “So the real miracle is you made it all the way to sixteen, huh?”


“That was. That was sarcasm.”

Zuko doesn’t comment on that.

“Baby turtleducks love bread,” he says instead. “Especially the sweet buns we bought. If you offer some to them, they’ll all come running.”

Somehow, Sokka smiles. “Sounds like the otter-penguins back home. You pull out one fish, you get mobbed.”

He pulls out his first bun and goes to throw it out, but Zuko catches his hand.

“They’re too young for that. You have to make it into small pieces. Like this.”

His fingers tangle with Sokka’s as he divvies up the bun. Zuko taps his palm, wherever he’s left a chunk of bread too large.

“Make sure all of them get something. Not just the loudest.”

And that is not a sentiment he expected from Zuko. But maybe Zuko was loud out of necessity, not by nature. It’s not an entirely nice thought.

Sokka makes sure all the turtleducks get some bread, even the quiet ones who don’t push themselves in his face. They’re really small chunks of bread, and Sokka distributes them a few at the time. He starts to notice distinct personalities- those three turtleducks are obnoxious, and prone to snatching bread out of Sokka’s hands before he’s done ripping it, and they’re definitely cut off for now. Those two have too much energy, whizzing from Sokka to the water trough across the pen and back again. A few turtleducks seem older than the rest, bulky and slow. There’s one who quacks aggressively all the time at everything, especially at the littlest turtleduck of the lot.

The little one quacks back, shrill and slightly pathetic. Then it tries to flap its wings- probably a doomed attempt at asserting dominance- but the wings look uneven. The left one is crooked, like a pinioning attempt went wrong.

“Hey, buddy.” Sokka pulls out a new bun and offers a pile of crumbs right to the smallest bird. “You’re having a hard time, huh?”

At first, the fluffball pecks at the crumbs, feet still sensibly on the ground. Then it flutters its broken wings and somehow leaps right into his hand, launching itself face-first into the bread, and Sokka laughs in both surprise and delight.

Even after it’s neatly cleaned up the bread, it stays in Sokka’s hand. He tries transferring it to his left hand, because he wants to fetch even more bread and he needs his right hand to reach it. As he does, he feels Zuko’s hand cupping his, so Zuko can feel the weight of the turtleduck- slight as it is- dropping into place.

Sokka forgets all about the bread, and the notes, and the air. He forgets everything but Zuko’s hands on his, cradling a baby turtleduck.

He forgets the sun, arcing steadily through the sky.

“Hey,” the farmer says, reappearing a long while later. “You get all the data you need?”

“What? Oh, yeah, just one second.” The baby turtleduck’s fallen asleep in his hand, and he lays it down carefully in a corner, as far from its bully as he can manage. He rapidly rips up the remaining bread and scatters it all over, sparking a flurry of running and quacking.

“You sure you don’t wanna buy one of them? They make a good pie.”

“Yeah, I bet they’re great bakers,” Sokka quips back before realizing that wasn’t sarcasm. “Wait. I thought you just keep them for eggs.”

“The girls, yeah,” she says. “But they’re inside on a whole different diet. We raise the boys out here for a couple fancy restaurants in the city.”

Sokka loves meat.

Sokka is an accomplished hunter for a guy his age, especially when you factor in the lack of older mentors around to guide him in childhood.

Sokka looks at the turtleduckling he just set down, still fast asleep in its- his corner, and feels his whole throat close up on him.

“You raise them for restaurants,” he repeats numbly.

“Sure. You get ‘em to seven, eight weeks? Tenderest wings you’ve ever tasted.”

“I. No. Thanks.” He clenches his hand around his notebook, and he races past the farmer, down the rows of cages, back towards the train station.

In the middle of the road, he stops still. “I gotta buy one. Maybe just the little one, I can totally keep it around and it can fly with Momo...”

Zuko tugs his hand. “No. Baby turtleducks are loud and need a lot of care. You can’t afford to keep one as a pet, not with the work you do.”


“I know it’s cute, but that’s just the role it was born into. And I’m sure it’ll be appreciated by whoever ends up eating it. Let it go.”

Sokka nods. He clenches his eyes shut and swallows hard, two, three times, and he forces a smile.

“Let it go. You got it.”


When Sokka makes it back into the city proper, nobody guesses he’d been tearing up over objectively tasty turtleducks an hour back.

“Hey,” Katara says, with one of those compassionate smiles that somehow make him feel even worse. “I don’t know if this helps at all, but we bought a bunch of tickets to every show we could find. Just in case Zuko does find something somewhere he might like.”

“Zuko?” Sokka says.

“I actually wanted to hold a vigil for my mother.”

Sokka doesn’t read that aloud. He just tilts his head, a silent question.

And he silently reads Zuko’s answer: “It’s not like my father held a state funeral for her. I don’t know if she’s dead at all, or if my respects could count for anything, when it’s been so long and I’m not alive either. But I owe it to her to try, in case her soul needs to be put to rest.”

“Right,” Sokka murmurs, “I guess Ozai and Azula probably won’t step in to help with that.”

“What?” Aang asks, confused.

“Sorry,” Sokka says, looking up from the notebook. “I think Zuko and I should probably just stay in tonight.” He looks outside, where the sky’s shot through with brilliant red. “Can you all, um, leave us alone until tomorrow morning?”

“Of course,” he says. Toph and Katara nod beside him.

Sokka closes his door, and he lights a candle and places it on the floor by his bed. Then he sits beside it, cross-legged.

“You don’t have to stay up with me.”

“I know.” Sokka offers his hands. “Maybe it’ll count more if you’re touching someone. Like a grounding technique?”

Zuko takes his hands a moment later. As the sun falls, the only light comes from the one delicate candle flame, growing and ebbing with Zuko’s breaths. The cycle continues to sunrise.

Chapter 8


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

“Sokka? You look half-dead.”

He can spot the exact moment Katara regrets her phrasing.

“Morning,” Sokka replies, sluggish and vaguely disconnected from reality.

“Did you sleep?”


“Cheer up,” Toph calls from the breakfast table. “We’ve got sausages!”

“What kind?”

“Komodo-duck with fruit mixed in!”

Komodo-duck’s not the same thing as turtleduck. Sokka considers it for a second, and then his shoulders sag. “Okay, I guess I’ll take one.”

It’s a silent breakfast; even the juicy fruit scattered through the sausages can’t amuse Sokka today. Katara and Aang shoot him looks of concern, but they don’t comment on the circles under his eyes.

“Zuko,” Katara says at last when they finish, “is there anything else you want us to know? Anything you need to say?”

Sokka opens the notebook up, a few seconds before Zuko touches his hand. Even when the contact does come, Zuko presses the pen down and then doesn’t move it for several heartbeats more.

“Aang, please continue your firebending training. There’s joy in firebending, and I think you’ll one day come to see it.”

Aang replies with an earnest nod. “I’ll keep following your teachings, I promise.”

“And try to see a proper version of Love Amongst the Dragons. Not the Ember Island Players, they’re overrated.”

Sokka chuckles against his will.

“I have no right to this, but I ask you all for your mercy towards the people of the Fire Nation. Yes, you need to seek justice for many injuries, and there are individuals in power you will want to remove. Still I have hope for my people as a whole, especially those who played no willing part in this war, and I beg you to allow them a chance at redemption.”

Katara opens her mouth like she’s about to protest, but then she closes it and looks to Aang.

He nods again. “I promise that, too.”

“And if I could ask for something personal?”

“Of course,” Sokka whispers.

If you win,” he says, “please put my mother’s tablet back in the family shrine, where it belongs. And take care of the garden.”

“What garden?” Toph asks.

“In the palace,” Sokka answers, suddenly hoarse. “With the baby turtleducks.”


Joo Dee greets them at the door of their house. “Please leave your weapons behind. They do not belong in a sacred space.”

“Water’s not a weapon,” Katara snaps.

“If you want to kick rock out of your sacred space,” Toph adds, “that’s your job, not mine.”

“Same for air,” Aang says.

“...Fine.” Sokka wasn’t going to bring a sword, but he goes ahead and leaves Boomerang in the house too, feeling naked as he does. Still he keeps his notebook and pen, tucked safely in his belt.

Stripped of half his power, Sokka rejoins the group, and they proceed towards the palace.

“While most spiritual rituals are carried out in the Earth Temple, the Head Sage believes a different location is required in your case,” she informs them as they walk. “He has prepared a sacred place below ground, in the catacombs of old Ba Sing Se.”

Sokka shivers. But, he supposes, the catacombs of a buried city are as fitting a place as any for dealing with ghosts.

“Good morning.” Now Joo Dee leaves, and a Dai Li agent greets them, taking her place. “I will bring you to the Head Sage.”

Katara, Aang, and Sokka exchange glances. Then they turn to Toph, who nods.

The agent doesn’t attack them or try brainwashing them. Instead, he does exactly what he said he would, bending a tunnel down into a long-abandoned courtyard, filled with nothing but bright green crystals. They’re the same ones from the labyrinth, Sokka realizes, and the Earth King also had them in his weirdly hot library fireplace.

“The Head Sage,” the agent announces, as a hole opens in a nearby wall.

A short, white-haired man emerges from the hole. He’s dressed in bright yellow robes, adorned with sashes and streamers and plenty of gemstones sewn on in seemingly random places. He reminds Sokka of Bumi, which probably shouldn’t be as reassuring as it is.

“Greetings!” His voice creaks with age, yet there’s still a sprightly enthusiasm to it. “I am glad to meet you all. However, I need only Mister Sokka and Prince Zuko to join me through here.”

The Dai Li agent doesn’t react. From everyone else there’s a lot of hemming and hawing, because clearly their ghost is named Lee and they haven’t had any dealings with a Prince Zuko in months, why would anyone even think that?

Then the sage fixes his emerald-green eyes on them, and they give up on the pretense.

“Okay.” Sokka steps forward. “Let’s do this.”

He follows the sage into the hole and down yet another tunnel. The wall closes back up behind him as Sokka steps into a new cave, well-lit by jagged green crystals. Nearby, there’s a stone table laden with equipment. A chalice. Two shallow bowls. A hook sword. A broadsword. A machete.

You know, your standard array of religious instruments.

Zuko places one hand on his shoulder in warning, but yeah, Sokka’s already noticed the issue.

“Oh, don’t worry about those,” the sage says, turning away as he pours liquid from the chalice into one of the bowls. “They aren’t for you. Please, sit.”

Sokka’s about to say there’s nowhere to sit when he stamps his foot and raises a smooth stone chair. So Sokka sits, but he still cranes his neck, squinting at the liquid the sage is pouring. It’s pretty and pearly and far too familiar...

“Is that cactus juice?”

The sage turns around, pours the whole bowlful down his own throat, and then smiles blissfully. “I see you are acquainted! It is a useful aid for devoted truth-seekers.”

“Useful? That’ word for it.”

“A sip before every ritual, that’s my habit. And for a matter as special as this one, a whole bowl. Would you like to try some? I’ve got a backup dish right here.”

Sokka opens his mouth to answer and then realizes he doesn’t know his answer. He should be clear-headed for this, to the extent that someone who hasn’t slept can be. But it’s also his last chance to see Zuko. Sokka can’t guess whether seeing him would make this easier or harder.

“No, I don’t think so.”

Zuko clasps one hand and squeezes it. It’s reassuring.

“I know we said this was just a normal exorcism,” Sokka says before he can stop himself, “but is there any way, when we kick Zuko out, that we could kick him back?”

The sage’s smile shifts to a look of puzzlement.

“I mean. Is this always a one-way road,” Sokka continues, painfully uncertain, “or are there any ghosts who’ve, um…”

“Come back to life?” the sage finishes.

Sokka nods, grateful. “I just. I have to ask. For completeness.”

“No,” he says, not unkindly. “Ghosts can only linger with us, or pass on to what comes next.”

“Oh.” Sokka knew that. Obviously he knew that. He doesn’t know why he asked.

(This is still Zuko, enemy prince. The guy who attacked his village. Sokka shouldn’t be entertaining this possibility in the first place.)

“Why?” Sokka blurts, thinking of turtleducks.

Swaying slightly, the sage sets down the bowl and bends a seat for himself. “Imagine a ghost as having fallen into a rut in the earth. The circ*mstances of their deaths and the lack of respect paid thereafter have placed them in a hole, and gravity drags them down. Some can leap out to the ground with only a little help- with a belated funeral, perhaps. Some are too deeply entrenched, say, by their attachment to some old goal. They must be freed of that link, or else given a push upwards by an exorcist.”

“Cool,” Sokka says, though that really sounds like a pile of mumbo-jumbo. “But why-“

“Why does that prevent them from returning to life? If reaching death requires them to climb to the level of the ground, reaching their old life would require an ascension into the stars. And that would need willpower-“

“Zuko’s got willpower,” Sokka interrupts, suddenly electric with hope.

“And an impossible strength of the soul,” he finishes. “Strength no soul possesses. Even if a ghost was granted the cosmic energy of all mortals and all spirits put together, they would fall back to the ground. They would fall into the next world, the home that is rightfully theirs.”

That too sounds like vague and doubtful gibberish, but something inside Sokka deflates. The sage senses it.

“If you feel guilt over his death,” he says with a mild frown, “you may be comforted to know souls might persist after passing on. The Water Sages teach that the souls of the dead can be passed in part to their namesakes. Many of my fellow sages in the Earth Temple say everyone is reincarnated, like the Avatar. And for my part, I believe there is a shadow world we all reach, a place of rest where we might be reunited with those we loved in life.”

Sokka nods. “Could you gimme a second?”

Acquiescing, the sage busies himself with his tools again. Sokka opens his notebook and writes a message of his own. “If our souls wind up in the same place, would you do me a favor and chase me down again? Just to say hi.”

“Yes. Will you do the same for me?”

“Of course,” he replies.

Then he tucks the notebook back in his belt and folds his hands, one over the other. The sage won’t be able to see how his fingers are curling, twining with Zuko’s.

“Incredible,” the sage says, raising a gleaming silver knife with a serrated edge, “the invisible strings that bind us all. I cannot tell what the link that ties you to the prince looks like, not without several more bowlfuls, but at least this cactus juice lets me see where it is.”

He steps forward, lifting the knife.

“Sometimes,” he adds, “that’s all you need.”

The blade slices through the air, several inches away from Sokka’s skin. Nothing happens. Zuko’s still holding Sokka’s hand, no less present and real than before.

“That didn’t work.”

The sage lets out an irritated hum. “But, perhaps we do need something stronger.”

He takes up a broadsword, shifting it from hand to hand and staring at an empty space by Sokka’s wrist. Then he abruptly slashes down again, and Sokka gasps, curling into himself as pain stabs his gut.

Zuko’s fingers disappear, and Sokka’s hand clenches down around empty air. But there’s a pressure on top of his other hand a few seconds later. Sokka lets out a long breath he hadn’t meant to hold.

“He isn’t gone,” the sage intones, his brilliant green eyes gone wide. He begins to pace rapidly around Sokka’s chair, speaking more to himself than to him. “A bizarre case- his soul should be able to make the jump. After all, the boy’s a firebender, and these crystals hold enough fire to spark his soul to action-“

“What?” Sokka interjects. “How do crystals hold fire?”

“You think fire and earth are separate?” He gestures wildly at the glowing green crystals all around them. “You can see for yourself these rocks contain light. When you feed them to a fire, it will burn hotter and brighter. Firebenders should react the same.”

“ feed rocks to firebenders?”

The sage doesn’t answer. Instead he dives back towards his table, sifting through the gear, chucking objects over his shoulder until he arrives at his target-

A pair of scissors.

A pair of delicate, gilded scissors, like the ones Sokka had puzzled over in their froo-froo Ba Sing Se bathroom until His Highness, Prince Zuko, informed him they were for trimming nails.

“If this cannot part you,” the sage declares, “no exorcism will.”


Sokka grits his teeth and whines as his heart wrenches out of place. Truly, it seems like his whole heart’s bleeding pain, and he doubles over, doing his best to breathe in and out and in until the spots stop dancing in front of his eyes. For one instant, Zuko’s hand crushes his-

The contact disappears.

Something rumbles at the edges of Sokka’s awareness. His head’s pounding, and the world’s pounding, and he can’t make sense of any of it.

“A true oddity,” the sage murmurs, barely audible. “As if there’s some pull to stay besides gravity or an old goal. Some separate attraction…”

Then the sage drops the scissors and stumbles back, falling against his table. As knives and weapons clatter to the ground, Sokka clutches his head, begging everything to stop.

“I see a world of thunder,” the sage says, voice suddenly transformed into an echoing drone. “To paint the darkness blue.”

Sokka’s head shoots up, because even in his sleep-deprived, pain-drunk state he can tell that makes no sense, and the sage is advancing with panicked eyes, both hands wrapped around a machete.

“Wait a minute,” Sokka says, jumping to his feet, “you can’t.”

With a shout of exertion, the sage whips the machete through the air, still safely away from Sokka’s skin. This time, there’s no pain at all.

“You are rid of the parasite,” he declares, raising his voice. “Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation is gone forever!”

Nothing happens. There’s no contact anymore.

With a crash, someone bends a hole in the cave wall.

“It took you long enough,” says a sharp, high voice.

Sokka twists around.

“Dai Li,” orders Princess Azula of the Fire Nation, “arrest them both.”

As the agents flanking her leap forward, the world erupts in dust. The ground shakes as a full-blown earthbending duel breaks out. Sokka just hurls himself towards the place where the weapons fell and grabs the first thing he finds- a hook sword, he can work with that- and then stumbles blindly towards the tunnel. It’s still there, and he scrambles out as the cave explodes behind him-

Only to run into an even larger bending duel. He spots Katara and Aang at the center of the chaos, hurling the contents of a river at their enemies. The girl in pink- Ty Lee, Zuko told him- is cartwheeling through the mess, chi-blocking Dai Li agents. And that’s weird, if Azula’s got the Dai Li on her side, but not as weird as the fact that some of the Dai Li agents are attacking each other.

Sokka runs away from the tunnel towards Toph, who’s been backed into a corner by ten Dai Li agents at once, but an imposing man in long green robes suddenly materializes in his path.

“Dai Li,” he booms, “the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai.”

The fighting instantly stops.

“Dai Li,” Azula says, having emerged from the tunnel behind them, “the princess summons you to the seashore.”


Oh, no.

The fighting instantly resumes, agent against agent, and a flash of red catches Sokka’s attention. Mai. She hurls two knives at him, and he dodges one and bats the other away with his sword. It flies off-course, striking a crystal and throwing off green sparks.

Improbably, the sparks grow into a massive green fireball that throws them both to their feet. At the impact, the notebook flies out of his belt, and it catches fire. Though Sokka nearly reaches for it, it’s a lost cause. He gives it up. Instead he pushes himself to his feet despite the dizziness, clinging to his sword for dear life. He scans the battlefield and finds Aang glowing, rising from a cocoon of green crystal into the air.

Then he spots Azula, and a chaotic battle suddenly turns simple.

She’s slow at making lightning. Zuko had said she was, compared to Ozai, but Sokka didn’t understand until now, when the whole world freezes around him. There’s nothing but Azula, sweeping one hand in a crackling circle edged with blue.

Her eyes are fixed on Aang.

Aang’s in the Avatar State, at his most vulnerable. He’s with Toph and Katara, but they’re all a world away on the other side of the battlefield, with a swarm of Dai Li agents between them and Sokka. He swivels his head and scans Azula’s line of attack. Ty Lee’s the closest, but she won’t get in her princess’s way. The next closest is a Dai Li agent- Sokka can’t guess if he’s still loyal or if Azula’s managed to brainwash him. Either way, he won’t realize in time.

The third closest person is Sokka.

His choice is crystal-clear.

He hurls himself into the lightning’s path, sword extended in case the metal can somehow reroute the current. Azula brings her two hands together in a flash of light. At that instant, something smacks Sokka in the back, and he trips and falls face-first to the ground, flailing.

A bolt of blue light arcs right over him, not even grazing his skin.

Then thunder booms overhead, and Sokka clenches his eyes shut on instinct. Before he can open them again, all his limbs go buzzy and limp, chi efficiently blocked by Ty Lee. The sword falls right out of his hand. Then there’s a grand stomp, and rock closes over his head, and someone approaches with footsteps that shake the ground. The last thing Sokka does is laugh.

A “crystal-clear” choice, in a crystal-covered battlefield. It’s not a half-bad pun.


Sokka wakes, briefly, in a shadow world. Though sounds and breezes and colors blur soft around him, a single voice stands out, a pure sliver of light in the darkness.

“Sokka?” Mom calls.

He hears her so clearly, it’s hard to tell the present from the memory.

“See the lights?” Mom said in his memories, and he remembers turning his face to the sky in wonder, forgetting the cold and the dark and the creeping winter sadness. He’d gazed up at swirling ribbons of color, at the brilliant pink and purple and green dancing through the night sky. In his memories, as Mom pointed up at the aurora, the other children in the village clustered around them, Katara’s small mitten clutched in Sokka’s.

(He can still feel the echo of a hand wrapped around his, like a dream he hasn’t quite woken from.)

“Those are souls,” Mom told them as they gazed upwards at the lights. “Not angry ones. They’re gentle children who left us, who’ve come back to play their games in the sky.”

As Sokka slips into shadow he holds no doubt towards the story. He hopes it’s true. It has to be.

(Yes, he and Zuko might be men, not children. They’ve tried so hard to be men; they've given their lives to the effort. But at least they might meet again, if only as rainbow ribbons, forever crossing the night sky.)


For anyone who's wondering, this story has more than 8 chapters.

Some of the supernatural phenomena mentioned in this chapter are inspired by beliefs from real-life cultures. If you're curious about reading more, here are a few links that might be of interest: reincarnation specifically through namesakes, reincarnation more generally, Yomi (a shadowy afterlife), and auroras as the souls of children who died.

Chapter 9


Behold- the chapter count has at last appeared.

Chapter Text

All Sokka feels is biting cold.

There’s a chill like the worst polar winter nights, when even the igloo walls and the oil lamp and the snuggest furriest coat couldn’t keep him warm. Then a fresh blast of cold air smacks his ear, doubling his agony, and as he shivers he forces his eyes open.

He stretches out his feet and hits a frost-lined metal wall. His cheek’s pressed against a scratchy mat, and his head feels stuffed with wool. He’s lying in darkness, with only a faint ray of light drifting in front of him, peeking through a narrow hole in a door.

A cell door.

He gets to his feet and nearly falls back down as the blood rushes to his head, and he tilts and catches himself with a hand on the freezing wall and instantly draws it back, even colder than before. A moment later, he musters up the strength to step forward and bumps right into something else metal- a barely lit sink, with a matching toilet. He navigates around them both and makes it to the hole in the door.

He folds his hands around the metal bars crossing the little window, and he pulls himself forward until they’re flush against his face and looks outside, to a world of burnished red metal. There are pipes running along the ceiling, and if he cranes his neck towards the sides he can see a dim lamp, a single flame flickering behind a panel of glass. There’s a long hallway stretching on either side of his door, and he can’t see where it ends. The hall’s deserted.

He fumbles with the handle of the door and finds it, not unexpectedly, locked.

His heart jumps into his throat, and he gives himself stern instructions not to panic. Then he instantly disobeys them. He’s alone and dressed in light, blood-red fabric, trapped in the cold and the dark in what is almost certainly a Fire Nation prison cell, and nothing could possibly scare him further.

Something brushes his hand.

Sokka spins around and starts to scream, but something clamps down over his mouth. Sokka can feel his heartbeat pounding in his head.

Then the pressure on his mouth fades away as quickly as it appeared, and Sokka runs through several hypotheses before identifying the truth.


It doesn’t sound like his voice. He breathes the word, tentative and tender.

A moment later, his ghost takes his hand and draws him back a few steps, to the sink. He lays Sokka’s hand down on the knobs.

“You want me to turn it on?”

There’s nothing.

“Tap once for yes, twice for no.”

One tap across his knuckles.

Sokka obeys, still too dazed to disagree, and water comes rushing out of the faucet. He tries touching it and winces- it’s only a touch above freezing. His hand’s gently pushed away from the stream.

Sokka squints at the water falling, barely visible in the dim light. He almost misses the moment it starts to wisp away like mist.

“Are you a waterbender?”

No. No, there are two taps on his hand, and that’s not mist. It’s steam.

On instinct Sokka curls up around the sink, shoving his face into the warm cloud of steam wafting up from the faucet. As the heat slowly filters out into the room, he sags against the sink, the tension from the chill melting away.

The initial panic about imminent death fades to the background. A thousand concerns crash down in its wake.

“Did you finally kill the Avatar?” Sokka asks wearily, barely enunciating.

He gets no response. The steam keeps puffing in his face, suddenly too hot for comfort.

Three taps.

“Yes and no?” he snorts. “What, you don’t know?”

One tap for “yes.”

“Is Katara okay?”

Three taps.


Three taps.

“Did your little sister conquer Ba Sing Se?”

Two taps for “no.”

Sokka believes him.

(Why does he still believe him?)

“Still, Zuko, I gotta say...” Sokka collapses back on his mat and tries to figure out what he can say.

(The practical part of his brain warns it’s a bad idea to antagonize his only heat source in a frigid prison cell. He shouldn’t insult a supernatural entity who can beat him up or squeeze the air out of lungs, knowing no one will come if he screams.)

(But he can’t shut up. Not about this.)

“That was elegant,” he finally comments, “clearing the way for Azula’s lightning. You’re good at playing the long game. Really had us convinced you were a decent guy now, when no, you were just waiting for your opening.”

Two taps, rapped out hard against his wrist.

“No?” he says with burning sarcasm. “What, you didn’t really think it through?”

Two taps, more hesitant.

“You got me out of the way just because,” he deadpans. “Had nothing to do with the Avatar.”

One tap.

“Zuko.” He shoots to his feet, boiling over with so much rage he feels like he could firebend right now. “You’re lying, and you suck at it.”

Two taps.

“No, you really suck at it,” Maybe Sokka should keep his voice down, but it rises against his will into a hysterical register. “Why else would you ever-“

Zuko touches him, but it’s a hard poke to the breastbone. Not a tap, because taps end, and yet Zuko’s finger stays there like he’s pointing at Sokka.



(It was hardly an act of selfless devotion; Zuko needs Sokka to help him with the whole ghost situation, after all. Still it wasn’t as selfish as a straight-up murder attempt would’ve been.)

The sink water abruptly begins sloshing again- no more steam. Then a pair of footsteps comes clanking down the hallway.

“Huh,” someone says. It’s a woman Sokka doesn’t know. “Usually it takes a couple weeks for them to start talking to themselves.”

Then something rams against Sokka’s door, blocking the light, and he jumps back in spite of himself.

“Quiet down in there!” hollers a man with a gruff voice. “You might think there’s no further to fall, but you’d be dead wrong.”

“...Got it,” Sokka calls after a few seconds.

The footsteps recede again. Sokka’s heart doesn’t quit hammering against his ribs.

When he speaks, it’s in a raw whisper. “You really weren’t thinking about killing Aang?”

Two taps. Then a full hand against Sokka’s chest, ignoring his flimsy prison garb and settling directly on skin.

“You were just trying to help me out?”

The words sound unreal even as he says them.

One tap.

“You didn’t plan that very well,” Sokka mutters, hanging his head.

Three taps.

Sokka sighs, sinking back onto his mat. “Do you have anything else urgent to tell me?”

Two taps.

“Then we’re going to do what we should’ve done in the first place.”


Sokka invents a code. An efficient, phonetic code that can be conveyed solely by touch, by light fingers skipping up and down his arms. He explains it to Zuko in hushed tones, ever-aware of guards patrolling the hallway outside.

(It’s nice, having something concrete to focus on besides the cold and the hunger and the general sense of impending doom.)

“Okay,” he whispers, “can you tell me your name?”

There’s hesitation, but eventually he feels it: “Zuko.”

“Where am I?”

“The Hire Nation.”

“The Fire Nation, you needed another tap,” Sokka corrects. It’s easier than dealing with the confirmation that, yeah, he’s locked up in enemy territory.

“Boiling Rock.”

“What’s that?”

“Most secure prison.”

“...I’m flattered,” Sokka wisecracks, because what the hell else can he do. “Obviously I deserved the VIP treatment.”

“Top-security cell. Azula said you deserve”

Zuko pauses and then draws a squiggle on Sokka’s back- their newly agreed-upon sign for question marks.

“Stuck on a letter?”

A tap for “yes.”

It takes a minute, but they identify the letter.

“Just hit my elbow for that, without knocking my funny bone,” Sokka says. He’s stubbornly holding onto his cool rationality, entertaining exactly zero wild possibilities about what Azula thinks he deserves.

(An execution? Is he going to finally meet the Fire Lord, as he’s paraded through Caldera to a sacrificial altar?)

“Azula said you deserved the least comfortable cell here.”

And that explains the cold air, blasted from a hole in the ceiling at irregular intervals.

“So this is a torture room for firebenders.”

One tap.

Sucks for the Fire Nation that Sokka’s from the South Pole. He can handle a little cold. Water runs here without freezing, this cell has nothing on the weather back home.

(Of course, if he were back home, he’d have the benefit of a coat, perfectly fitted boots and as many scarves and mufflers as Katara could strangle him with.)

“Okay,” Sokka sighs. “Tell me everything that happened.”


Some of it, he’s guessed. The sage at General Fong’s temple had cracked under pressure and told Azula about the whole ghost situation, and he’d directed her to the Head Sage at Ba Sing Se. Then the Head Sage lied through his teeth, when he pretended he’d successfully exorcised Zuko. Both Sokka and Zuko felt it when he’d sincerely tried to slice the bond- that final machete strike wasn’t a real attempt. It was a show, because he’d guessed at Azula’s hostile presence, thanks either to his mystical cactus juice powers or to the lightning crashing through the cave next door. That blow was a sham, entirely for her sake.

Azula had infiltrated Lake Laogai. She’d broken into the “schoolrooms,” not Aang, and she’d reprogrammed one Dai Li agent to serve her. Then she’d commanded him to kidnap and reprogram two of his coworkers, and they had to reprogram two of their coworkers, and bam, Azula had an exponential recruiting strategy on her hands. Apparently she’d wanted to bide her time, waiting until she’d gotten the whole force under her thumb before attacking. But the Head Sage had insisted on seeing Sokka as soon as he’d finished prepping for the exorcism, and the generals had turned down their meeting request, and she opted to move early, before Aang left Ba Sing Se and again slipped out of her grasp.

“She got closer than I ever did to catching him,” Zuko says. “If Long Feng- the head of the Dai Li- hadn’t picked up on her plan and intervened with his own loyal forces, Aang would be locked up in here with you.”

“Azula’s really tricky though. How did this Long guy figure her out?”

“Well, he did have an omniscient spy force at his disposal.”

Right. That’d do it.

“Then what?”

“Katara and Toph couldn’t get to you in the caverns. They really tried, but they had to take Aang and leave. Azula retreated. She dumped the Dai Li. Too much of a chance they were still somewhat loyal. Then she came home with Ty Lee and Mai. And you, though she used herbs to keep you sort-of frozen and delirious the whole time.”

Came home. Sokka doesn’t miss that turn of phrase.

“That explains the weird dreams,” he snorts. “But why not dump me overboard? Your sister was more than willing to kill me last time we met.”

“Mai said you’d be more useful as a hostage, if Katara, Toph or the Southern Water Tribe’s navy caused problems again.”

Mai. Sokka hasn’t seen much of her, but she doesn’t strike him as someone who regularly spares her enemies’ lives.

“Why’d she do that?”

If he’s in debt to a terrifying knife lady who’s somehow survived being friends with Azula, he’d like to know about it.

“I asked her to.”

Sokka’s eyebrows spring up.

“I firebent in the caves, with green sparks from the crystals. They were easier to work with than regular sparks, and I wanted to destroy our notebook before anyone else could get their hands on it. Mai saw my bending. So she came down to the brig with a candle for me to signal with.”

“And what’d you say?”

“What you’d expect. I told her you were important to me, and I begged for your life.”

What he’d expect. Right.

Sokka curls up and puts his head between his knees for a while.


There’s prison gossip. Not a lot of it, because Sokka’s being held deep inside a not-so-dormant volcano and prisoners are kept far apart from each other down here, but Zuko’s eavesdropped enough to collect some crumbs of news.

There’s no news on Katara or Toph. Not directly.

(There’s some news on military sabotage- on Fire Nation weapons factories spontaneously flooding or crashing down. The death tolls are high. Sokka both hopes and doesn’t that the two of them are responsible.)

There’s an avalanche of news about how Aang went down. By now, the Avatar State is common knowledge. When Azula shot her lightning, she killed Aang, and she ended the Avatar forever.

(Zuko doesn’t outright say the guards are celebrating, but Sokka can put two and two together.)


“He’s not dead.”

Sokka doesn’t answer.

“Katara was unhurt, and she had that spirit oasis water. She can heal anything Azula did.”

Sokka digs the heels of his hands into his eye sockets, inhales, and holds his breath.

“He can’t be dead. I’ve done this before, I’ve listened to everyone tell me the Avatar’s gone, and they were wrong then. They’re wrong now, too.”

“I’m gonna let you do the denial thing for us both.”

“Not denial.”

“It’s hopeful optimism. Same thing.”


“My uncle had the best proverb for desperate situations like this.”


There’s a pause.

“I don’t remember what it was. I should have listened better, sorry.”


“How long have I been here?”

“It’s the morning of your second day. I can’t get outside, but I can still sense the sun. And the guard shift changes.”

“And they haven’t delivered food?”

“Not to you.”

“Cool. Cool.”


When the food does come, passed through an otherwise locked slot in the door, Sokka almost regrets wishing for it. There’s a pile of shredded, raw cabbage with a side of suspicious burnt mushrooms, plus some kind of vaguely grayish-purple mass.


“If you put water in the cabbage and meat, I can boil them for you.”

“That’s meat?”

“Smoked sea slug. They should’ve cooked it though; only the tentacles can be safely eaten raw.”

Sokka squints. “I don’t see tentacles.”

“They’re expensive. The guards probably cut all the tentacles off and kept them for themselves.”

“How about the mushrooms?” he asks. “They wouldn’t poison me, would they?”

“I think the mushrooms are fine. The woman in the cell above you ate them for dinner yesterday.”

“And she’s okay?”

“She’s insisting there are fire-breathing squid-rats in the walls, but she was doing that even before dinner.”

“I’m...gonna skip the mushrooms for now.” He gingerly picks them off the plate, doing his best to minimize skin-to-fungus contact.


Zuko tells him the sun’s come up again. Sokka gives up on waiting for another meal, and he eats the mushrooms. He promptly gets a headache, but that could be because of the fact that he’s got no sleep schedule to speak of anymore.


“You should sleep.”

“It’s only been one day,” Sokka says with a vague wave of his hand, like he’s batting away a milli-fly.

“It’s been two days.”

“Eh, same thing.”

“It’s not. I stayed up for three days one time, when I was just starting to search for the Avatar. Please don’t try it.”

“What happened?”

“I hallucinated that my mother was waving to me from a nearby island, and I jumped overboard in full armor to get to her.”

Sokka doesn’t know what to say to that. His brain is foggy and long past coherence, and he’s nodded off a hundred times only to get shocked awake by the cold air blasting from the ceiling. Zuko’s warmed the cell somewhat, but they can’t go overboard or the guards might notice the heat when they walk past, so the chill keeps cutting through the steam clouds. Sokka’s both detached from reality and completely sick of it.

(So maybe the mushrooms were a bad idea.)


The clanking of the meal slot wakes him. Sokka scrambles up and finds he’s been served the charred remains of what might’ve once been a squid-rat. He tries to scrape off some of the ash, blackening his fingernails, but no matter how far he digs he can’t find any sign of color.

“I’m sorry.”

“What for? Not your fault your dad starves his prisoners.”

“I apologize on behalf of my country. I’m not sure anyone deserves this kind of treatment, and certainly not a sixteen-year-old locked up without any legal proceeding.”

“Yeah. Well. Welcome to the Fire Nation.”

He tries biting right into the meat, only to choke as it snaps and coats his mouth with sooty powder. As he dives for the sink, Zuko quits the whole steam thing for a second, and he rinses his mouth out with sketchy-tasting water.

“What,” he says, breathing hard and gagging on the aftertaste, “is the point of this?”

There’s no answer.

“Seriously,” Sokka says, not expecting an answer. “They’ve already locked me in a tiny box underground where nobody can find me. What’s the point of serving food that’s not edible?”

“During the Agni Kai, my father told me suffering would teach me respect.”

Sokka drops the squid-rat back in the meal slot; it falls with a clatter. “Respect. Right. If I didn’t have you, all this would teach me is to hate everyone in the Fire Nation.”

“Obviously you shouldn’t be here,” Zuko taps out a few seconds later. “But maybe the people around you really are hardened criminals. How else could they be handled?”

Sokka pinches the bridge of his nose and clenches his eyelids, willing some semblance of clarity back into his brain. “I’m not saying people in the Water Tribe never want vengeance, but...if we’re thinking straight, it’s less about making people pay and more about fixing things. You’ve got to keep people out of danger, which sometimes means kicking criminals out of the community. But sometimes…” He pauses to splash his tongue again. “Sometimes suffering doesn’t really help anybody. Not the criminal. Not even the victim.”

“But how do you deliver justice without punishment?”

“Justice doesn’t have to be about punishment, does it?” Plopping onto his mat with his arms around his knees, Sokka cranes his head up, looking where he imagines Zuko’s face might be, words speeding out of control. “It could be about second chances. Letting people fix their mistakes. I mean, seriously, what’s the point of starving people you’ve already defeated? Or- or do you think you learned the right lesson when your face got burnt off?”

Sokka’s definitely overstepping here.

He keeps going.

“I was the only warrior at home, and it was my job to teach all the kids battle tactics. Do you know how much backtalk I got? Do you know how much fun people made of my fortifications? If I went around burning everyone who wasn’t totally cooperative, there wouldn’t be anyone else left in the Southern Water Tribe.”

Which might, in retrospect, say something about the quality of his battle plans. The point still stands.

Suddenly, all the energy drains out of him. He picks up the squid-rat again, dry and hard as a bone, and starts gnawing.


Sokka’s not sure when he drifts off.

He’s sure he wakes up too soon, startled by an eerie shriek from below him.

“He’s not being actively tortured,” Zuko tells him. “Sometimes people just scream in here.”

Sokka sighs and goes back to bed.


Zuko tells him he’s slept an average of four hours a night since arriving at Boiling Rock. Ironic, isn’t it? Sokka used to curse his schedule for being too full for him to rest. Now his days are empty- he’s not supposed to do anything but dream up hopeless escape plans and stare at the one bit of light in the darkness- and sleep won’t come.

His body’s tired, stomach left to growl by intermittent meals of inconsistent quality. He tires himself out further with crunches and stretches and laps around this tiny cell he can cross with two large steps. He proposes escape plans (“what if we fill the meal slot with boiling hot water, and trap the guard’s hand in it, and we refuse to give it back unless they pass in the keys?”), and he listens without complaint as Zuko points out the practical flaws. He winds himself up on purpose, setting a grueling schedule where none exists.

“There’s got to be a reason they’d let me out of here. What if I challenged the warden to an Agni Kai? Maybe I can bluff and say, yeah, I’m totally a firebender-“

“The issue isn’t that you can’t firebend- people wear armor if both parties agree, I guess a non-bender could ask for a sword too.”

Sokka puffs up in hope.

“The issue is he can’t firebend either, and you can’t have an Agni Kai without some fire somewhere.”

Sokka deflates for an instant before recovering. “Hey, if he’s not a firebender maybe I can take him hostage-“

“If you try that, you’ll die.”

He groans, dropping his head against the wall, and racks his brain for more options. Not that his brain’s good for anything anymore. Once his sexiest organ, it’s been reduced to shapeless gray matter, not unlike that sea slug.

“…What if I distract a guard with my seductive charms?”


“You think I can’t?”

“I don’t know if you can.”

Sokka lifts one arm abruptly and slowly pulls on one side of his collar. They’re not particularly low necklines, but he manages to slide one side down over his shoulder without ripping any stitches.

(The other side of the collar is currently strangling him. Alas, beauty is pain.)

He dons what he hopes is a rakish smile. “You’re the one who said to take advantage of my shoulders.”

“Sokka, this will end terribly for everyone involved. I won’t stop you from seeing other people if that’s what you want, but I’m begging you. Not like this.”

The press of his fingers is uncharacteristically urgent. Sokka takes a moment to do a more thorough risk assessment, and yeah, Zuko’s got a point here.

“Should’ve known you were the jealous type,” he quips, shrugging his shirt back into place.

After a moment, he gets his response. “Thank you.”


Sokka’s done his best to run himself ragged. He’s now got a relentless headache, even when he stands at the window and stares outside so his eyes don’t entirely forget how to see. The pain pounds in his head, and he feels scratchy and strangled and restless, hot and also freezing and also worn to the bone.

He still can’t sleep.

So he gets up for another round of lunges from one side of his cell to the other. He hopes the exertion tires him to the point of sleeping, but he’s also fully prepared to keep going until Zuko tells him it’s sunrise. Not that sunrise matters, down here where the lamps glow with the exact same dimness at all hours, but at least he can pretend he’s got a reason to be up-

“I know what you’re doing.”

“Yeah,” Sokka snaps, testy though there’s no reason for it. “Lunges.”

“You’re trying to overwork yourself so you can rest. I tried that too, after the Agni Kai. And I ended up jumping overboard in full armor.”

“Then what-“


Sokka rolls his eyes, sinking into another lunge. “I’m not an Air Nomad. Or a firebender.”

“You don’t have to be. Sit down with your legs crossed and cup your hands.”

With a sigh that somehow leaves him tenser, Sokka plops down on his mat and cups his hands, side by side. Gently, Zuko rearranges them so his left hand is cradling his right.

“Breathe in for eight counts. Breathe out for about eight counts, but it’s okay if you go shorter or longer. Try to take big breaths into your stomach, near your hands.”

Sokka should close his eyes. Aang closed his eyes, after all, and who is he to second-guess the Avatar on something like this?

(Still, Sokka keeps his eyes on the small pool of light filtering through the cell bars.)

“Your breath is landing too high.”

“Maybe because the lungs are actually higher than the stomach?”

Sokka’s aiming for sarcasm, but it just comes out bitter.

For a moment there’s no response.

“Sorry. I’m not being helpful.”

In a rush Sokka says, “No, I’m sorry. What were you going to say?”


Another silence.

“Can I hold you? Just around your waist, and then you don’t have to outright push against me, but maybe it’ll help, having the reminder of where your energy should go.”

Sokka nods.

And then Zuko’s hands are on either side of his waist, fingers settled on the curve of his hips. They’re firm without being restrictive. Sokka breathes, suddenly keenly, terribly aware of his waist, and against all odds the tension does diffuse away, exhale by slow exhale.

(Zuko’s just holding onto him, exactly like he said he would. It shouldn’t feel like a revelation.)


Sokka sleeps better, after the meditation.

Doesn’t change the fact that his mind is slipping.

There’s no sudden shattering. No dramatic break from reality. Just the casual observation that he can’t follow a train of thought or the thread of a conversation for more than a few minutes anymore.

“You’re not going to crack like the other prisoners,” Zuko vows, repetitive and persistent to the end. “You’re not alone in here. I’m going to keep you afloat.”

Maybe Sokka’s imagining the desperation in his fingers as they dance down his arms.

(Zuko can hear the screams from ongoing breakdowns in the neighboring cells, better than Sokka can.)

“Would you like to hear a joke about tea farming?”

Sokka’s head shoots up. “You? You wanna tell me a joke?”

One tap for “yes.”

He shrugs. “Have at it. But I warn you I was a real connoisseur of comedy before I got locked in this icebox.”

“I don’t remember the setup,” Zuko admits, and now his fingers somehow feel sheepish. “But the ending is, ‘Leaf me alone, I’m bushed!’”

Maybe the cooler’s lowered his standards, but Sokka starts giggling and can’t stop. “I haven’t heard a pun that good in an- ooh, long time.”

It takes a second, but he feels a puff of air like a chuckle on his face. “Oolong?”

Sokka nods with a grin. Then- “Huh, I just felt something ghosting along my face.”

“Must be your husband. Shame he’s dead- you two were such a good matcha.”

Sokka tosses his head back and laughs uproariously, until a guard clanks over and demands to know what’s so funny.

“Just mincing my words,” he replies with glassy eyes and a purposefully exaggerated grin. He slurs the first two words together. Like “jasmine.”


Aang’s dead.

Sokka’s been turned the other way to watch him, as he catches the lightning with his chest and flies backward, as he crumples on the ground with an airbender’s grace. As Azula smirks haughtily in victory. Sokka’s facing the wrong way but he’s still twisted on the ground, ears still ringing with the crackle of thunder, nostrils stung by smoke and ozone. He’s still thoroughly, hatefully alive, because he tried to make one grand sacrifice that’d save the world and he failed-

A shake to the shoulder wakes him from the nightmare. He shoots upright, hyperventilating, blinking pointlessly at the darkness.

“I’m freezing.”

It’s not an exaggeration- the blood is glacier-cold in his veins. There are pinpricks sparking all over his arms, but he can’t process them, not when his head feels so light and yet so heavy it’s about to tip him backwards and drop him hard-

Someone catches him.

There’s another round of pinpricks as Sokka covers his face with his own hands and tries desperately to count to eight. He can’t get that far.

“Can I”

Sokka loses track of the words again, until there’s a squiggle up his back- a question mark.

“Do whatever you want to me,” he mumbles, barely recognizing his quavering voice. “I don’t care.”

And suddenly there are two arms propping him up in the darkness. Two arms wrapping around him, and a solid-feeling chest behind him, solid and steady even as he trembles. Then the hands slide down to Sokka’s waist, and somehow that cuts through the daze like nothing else. Muscle memory takes over, and Sokka drags a breath down towards his stomach, though the air seems to get stuck somewhere in his ribcage.

He lets himself sink back. In the dark, it could be a living man who catches him. Not like he can see otherwise.

(He can feel Zuko breathing, even now.)

“You’re going to be okay.”

“Not to be insensitive,” Sokka somehow chokes out, doing his best to smile, “but I’m feeling a little disembodied right now.”

Zuko’s hands leave his waist and drift up to his head. They sink into Sokka’s hair- straggly and unshorn- and card through the knots, tracing soft lines down his scalp. Sokka breathes, and closes his eyes, and focuses on that sensation.

“What’s it like?” he asks. “Being dead?”

Another insensitive remark, but he hasn’t got any other experts on the subject.

Zuko pauses the finger-combing to reply. “A lot like this, for me. I feel cold and trapped, and it’s very dark.”

“You got a window?” He gestures wearily at the cell door, with its tiny sliver of light.

“I have you.”

Sokka nods, only half-understanding, and sinks back. All the tension bleeds out of him. All of the sudden, he could sleep forever.

In a conversational tone, he says, “I should be dead.”

Zuko’s hands pause again in his hair.

“What do you mean?”

“Aang was the Avatar,” he breathes, struggling against the burn behind his eyes. “I’m just a guy with a boomerang and a bunch of bad puns. And a ghost, I know,” he adds after a second. “And I did mean it, when I said I wanted you to get free. But if we’re should’ve been me. Objectively. There is no world where I deserve to live when the Avatar doesn’t.”

“I don’t believe”

“You think he’s alive, I know,” Sokka cuts in, the words clogging up his throat. “But we’ve left a whole trail of bodies behind us, and I told myself it was worth it to keep Aang alive long enough to take down Ozai, because some lives are just inherently worth that. I’ve been telling myself Aang’s life was worth you-“

Zuko takes his hand, clasping it tight, and Sokka cannot deal with that.

“It’s stupid.” He curls up on himself, knowing full well he should hold himself up and relieve Zuko of his weight, yet too tired to leave. “I’m so, so stupid.”


At first the only sound he can produce is a keen through gritted teeth. It’s an inhuman noise, like someone ground a bow across both strings of an erhu at once.

He shouldn’t say it. He has no right to say this. It’s taunting and hypocritical and rotten in ways he can’t puzzle out anymore.

(But who else ought to say it?)

“I wish-“ those words rip out of his throat, and the heat at last crests to track water down his cheeks- “you were still alive.”

For a minute nothing happens. Then, as he weeps, Zuko just hugs him harder.

Chapter 10

Chapter Text

Sokka doesn’t know if he was wrong, letting Zuko freeze. Everything he said before, it’s still true. Zuko was an enemy then- he had taken great pains to make himself the enemy- and the North Pole was actively on fire. From a practical strategist’s viewpoint, leaving him behind was the smart thing to do.

Sokka regrets it with every bone in his body.

A pair of facts- seemingly irreconcilable, and both true.

Another such pair: Zuko’s dead and gone. He’s also lying next to Sokka at night, also curled up on this miserable excuse of a sleeping mat, and if not for the lack of body heat he’d seem entirely real in the darkness.

(See, Sokka’s neck began cramping a couple days back. Then he began to cry out of nowhere over how much he missed his bed back home- seriously, nothing beats smooth, puffy snow for comfort- and Zuko had pulled his head back down. And Sokka had flailed and whined until his head stopped several inches above the mat.

Because Zuko had put his arm out under his neck, like a cushion.

A hard, armor-plated cushion, but it had done the trick.)

Sokka shifts down, half-asleep, and without a hint of self-consciousness places his head on the place where Zuko’s ribs should be. He’s somehow removed the armor, and Sokka nuzzles his shirt’s soft wool and hums, pleased. A few minutes later, he flips over and fully buries himself in Zuko’s chest.

A few minutes after that, Zuko drapes an arm over him. In response he tucks one arm under Zuko and feels a flutter like a sigh, rustling his hair.

Sokka wakes up that way, Zuko’s arms wrapped around him. “Did I sleep enough?”

“Six hours.”

“I’ll take it.” He rolls over and kicks one leg into the air, attempting to stretch in his tiny hellhole. “Thanks for the pillow.”

“It’s gotten easier, the whole contact thing. At first I couldn’t reliably touch you unless I was attacking. I’d try, and my hand would go through you like everything else. I wasn’t noticeable at all.”

Sokka idly lifts a hand. He’s trying to meet Zuko’s hand, but instead he hits something textured yet airy, parting when his hand touches it.

Is that hair?

Sokka moves his hand, and yes, that’s definitely Zuko’s ridiculous ponytail. It doesn’t feel ridiculous like this though, as Sokka plays with the strands and doesn’t pull. It feels thick, and cared-for, and softer than Sokka can handle right now.

“And it’s like the string’s changed,” Zuko adds. “I can go farther from you.”

That might sound like a sign of weakness, like they’ve grown apart over time. Sokka knows better.

“That’ll be useful,” he says, even as he twists Zuko’s hair up like a rope and curls it around his hand.


Even locked up, even losing his mind, Sokka’s the plan guy. Zuko’s the recon guy, and he points out the risks and flaws that occasionally escape Sokka’s notice, but at the end of the day Sokka’s the one with the grand scheme. He catalogues his advantages.

  1. He’s in solitary for the long term. The guards have keys to his meal slot, but not to his door. For all he knows, they threw the key to his door into the boiling lake. That means absolutely nobody expects him to escape.
  2. There’s a ventilation shaft above him. It blasts freezing cold air at all hours, but he’s looking on the bright side here.
  3. He’s just on this side of starvation, which means he has an actual chance of fitting into said ventilation shaft.
  4. He’s attached to a super-sneaky firebending ghost who seems even more dead-set on escaping than he is.
  5. The eclipse is next week.

Significant advantages, all of them. But by themselves, they’re not enough to escape the world’s most inescapable prison.


Zuko shakes him awake. “A prisoner just broke into the solitary area.”

Sokka shoots upright, chest tightening.

“She’s fast, she scaled a wall to get around the guards.”

Sokka glances around the cell, checking for the millionth time that there really are no weapons.

“She’s coming right towards you!”

Sokka gives up on fighting and just huddles against the wall behind the sink, where he can’t be seen from the window.

Sure enough, footsteps echo, thundering louder and louder before stopping too close for comfort.

“Sokka?” someone hisses.

“She’s about our age. Blue eyes, brown hair. Familiar, but I don’t know why.”

“Sokka, it’s Suki.”

Sokka leaps to his feet and bounds over to the window in the cell door, torn between joy and utter terror. “What are you in for?”

“I met Princess Azula,” Suki says with a grimace, and yeah, that checks out.

Then she lifts hands, offering them to Sokka through the bars. After a second he takes them. They’re warm, the way Zuko’s can’t be.

“I heard the guards say your name,” she continues in a hurried whisper, squeezing hard. “And then I found you in the record book, but I didn’t dare believe-“

“We’re getting out of here.”

Her eyes widen. “What? How?”

“Uh. So. I’m working on that. But I need you to get me a candle and spark rocks, and also guard uniforms in both our sizes?”

“Sokka,” she breathes, “they’ll kill you on sight, if you leave this cell.”

“They’ll only be able to if they can firebend, and there’s a solar eclipse coming up, five days from now. It’ll take away their fire.”

Suki rocks backwards. “There’s a full-prison lockdown that day. They said it was just a drill…”

Sokka resists the urge to smack his head against the bars, if only because the clanging would alert the guards. “Okay. Um. Add several chunks of coal to the shopping list. Doesn’t have to be a huge amount, but enough to fill a pair of shoes-“

“Are you...okay?” Suki slips her hand a little further in to cup his cheek, radiating concern.

“I. I. The plan’s going to make sense, I swear. As much as any plan I’ve made before.”

Which is maybe not the highest standard he could hold himself to, but whatever.

She nods slowly with less than total enthusiasm, but in the dim light he can’t quite read her expression. “Alright, but are you okay?”

“Guards on your left.”

Sokka immediately says so, and though Suki tries to ask how he could possibly know the clanking of metal cuts her right off. In an instant, she’s vanished, and Sokka’s back to huddling in the corner. The guard clanks right past his door without even slowing down.

“Could you check that she gets out fine?” Sokka says under his breath.

A tap for “yes,” and then the string on his hand jerks a little as Zuko zooms after her.

“I couldn’t follow her back up the whole way, but she seemed to be safe.”

Sokka lets out a long breath, dropping his forehead against his kneecaps.

“Who is she?”

“Suki’s one of the Kyoshi Warriors. You...burned down a lot of her village, by the way.”



“Who is she to you?”

Sokka opens his mouth to answer, but he has no idea what to say.

(Why is Zuko asking?)

(Does Zuko care?)

“We really got along well for a bit. Before you stormed in.”

“I’m sorry about all that.”

“Uh...thanks. So Suki’s great, and I’m not leaving without her.”

“But what if”

“I’m not.”

There’s a pause, and Sokka wonders if Zuko of all people is about to lecture him on the downsides of stubbornness.

“Okay. Fill me in on the coal?”


A few nights later, Zuko shakes Sokka awake, just in time to meet Suki again and accept her supply delivery. In rapid whispers, they flesh out the last bits of the plan.


Sokka doesn’t sleep, the night before the eclipse. He can’t. The cell’s too small to contain his jitters, and no matter how hard he tries to focus and meditate he fails. There’s just not enough air in here to fill his lungs.

“I’m going to get you out of here. I promise.”

“Not a fan of Fire Nation prisons, huh?”

“This place is completely without laws or honor.”

(Thanks to the whole phase-through-walls ability, Zuko’s seen more of Boiling Rock than he has. Sokka doesn’t intend to ask.)

So Sokka stays up, pacing his cell, decidedly not thinking about all the ways in which his future stays at Boiling Rock might get less comfortable if this escape attempt fails. He’s also definitely not thinking about the fact that he has no transport off the island at large, even if they do somehow make it out of this prison.

“Sometimes it’s okay not to have every step planned out.”



“...Right. Well, if I die I can be a ghost too and haunt Boiling Rock forever, and you can still keep haunting me!”


Sokka chuckles.


When the lockdown begins upstairs, Sokka can hear it- the echoes of announcements through the prison, and the simultaneous clank of a thousand doors sliding shut.

Sokka looks up and squares his shoulders. “Time to go.”

Even if he jumped from the sink, he wouldn’t naturally be able to reach the hole in the ceiling above him. But he crouches, and waits for Zuko to zoom upwards and give him an extra boost, and a few seconds later he’s jammed himself right into the ventilation shaft.

It’s a tight squeeze. He and Zuko had tested it before, and he can’t even lift his head or get on his forearms to crawl. Nope, he’s locked into place like the filling in a sushi roll, shivering as frosty air blasts through the system. He might’ve been stuck forever if not for Zuko, who alternates between pushing his feet forward and tugging his shoulders, shoving him inch by painful inch along the pipe. There’s a right angle just a few feet away- sure to keep any and all regular climbers from making it too far from their cells. And it does take a lot of maneuvering, and some cut-off grunts of pain, and an ominous cracking noise from Sokka’s back, but eventually Zuko gets him around the corner.

It’s even colder here, but the passage mercifully widens on the other side of the bend. Sokka wiggles his hands free and begins scaling the vent, with Zuko lifting him whenever he can’t quite get a hold.


“I can feel the eclipse creeping up, but we’ve still got time.”

Sokka arrives at the spout where the cold air comes from, and he grits his teeth and goes around it. Beyond it, there’s a complicated system of forking paths and gates, opening and closing automatically. The whole fortress needs constant cooling to counteract the volcano’s sweltering heat, and the ventilation shaft delivers fresh cold air all over at different rates. The pipes to the coolers don’t have any gates at all, so they’re overwhelmed by cold at all times. The gates determine how much cooling other parts of the prison get, so they clank open and shut in rhythms Sokka can’t understand without careful study.

Luckily, Zuko’s been doing the careful studying for him.

“Second on the right leads to the guard cafeteria. Fastest way to start the alarm.”

Sokka props himself up on his elbows and pulls out his candle, spark rocks and a chunk of coal. Just seconds later, he’s lit the coal up and chucked it down the second path on the right.

“Next go for the one on the left, it goes to the guard control room. It should open soon, but only for a few seconds. Get ready.”

Weeks in a cramped cell can’t erase years of boomerang mastery. As soon as the gate slides open, Sokka hurls a couple more chunks of flaming coal right in. When it lands, it glows red as Zuko turns up the heat.

A blast of cold air slaps him right then.

“Did that put out the fires?” he murmurs.

“No, it just blew the smoke along. I’ve kept strengthening the fire, the smoke’s definitely going to carry.”

Sokka efficiently rids himself of all his coal, dumping the smoldering rocks in almost every important ventilation shaft and only choking a little as the smoke clogs his nose.

“Hey,” someone says below with a hint of worry, “you smell that? Did the kitchen coal light itself up again?”


There’s one final flare of heat as Zuko gives the fires further encouragement, and then Sokka’s squirming through the one major shaft he hasn’t hit. It leads right to a secluded hallway like Zuko told him it would, and Suki’s dropped a guard’s uniform in the corner, just like he asked her to. Sokka hastily dons the armor and then hurries out, tipping up his chin and puffing out his chest when Zuko reminds him, acting like he’s just one more prison guard high on his own authority.

“Am I imagining that?” he murmurs.

“No, the coal smoke’s filtered up here already.”

“Hey,” he calls, gesturing at a legitimate guard down a hallway. “Why does it smell like something’s burning in here?”

She sniffs the air and then recoils. “Oh, no.”

“Could be the kitchen coal again,” Sokka says, “that or some prisoners got up to trouble ahead of the you-know-what…”

“I’m new,” she admits quietly, leaning in. “What’s the protocol now?”

“Same as any other fire alarm,” he answers like he’s lived here all his life. He feels like he’s lived here all his life. “Gotta get the prisoners out into the yard.”

“The Warden won’t like that-“

“The Warden won’t like having a hundred dead prisoners on his hands, before they’ve learned their lessons or spilled their secrets,” he says with a casual shrug. “Might be more than a hundred. Even firebenders’ll be in trouble, if they’re caught in a blaze right now.”


“You’d better tell the control room to raise the alarm. It’s good experience for newbies. Chop chop!”

Maybe it’s all the nobility lessons Zuko drilled into him back in Ba Sing Se, but she bows and then immediately darts away. He’s got no doubt that she’ll obey.

Sokka continues marching through the prison, heading steadily towards a staircase Suki told him about, leading to a rooftop. He coughs dramatically as the coal smoke drifts into the upper levels of the prison.

A buzzer rings, and then all the cell doors outside the isolation block thunk open in unison.

He gets lost. The string had never let Zuko up this high, and Suki wasn’t sure about the layout in this part of the prison.

“Hurry, the eclipse is in a minute.”

Zuko’s fingers feel faint. Or maybe Sokka just can’t focus right, because his heart’s racing and what if he dies in here because he can’t find the spirits-damned door-

“Hey,” someone hisses.

Sokka looks up and spots Suki in a guard uniform of her own.

“Roof’s this way.”

He follows her, through a door into fresh air. Fresh air. A little sulfurous, perhaps, but it’s still a luxury Sokka feared he’d never know again.

“Guards,” Suki calls, bounding up the stairs. “You heard the alarm? You’re needed in the yard.”

Sokka follows her right up into a squad of heavily armed actual guards.

“Warden said to ignore the fight,” one of them responds.

What fight?

“We’re not talking about a fight,” Sokka says. “There’s a fire alarm. Something big’s going up in smoke, this is the only place you can’t smell it.”

“Warden said he needs all his best groups on it,” Suki adds with some clever flattery. “We’ll hold things down here.”

They hesitate, and for one moment Sokka’s sure they’ll have to fight their way forward. Then a genuinely ominous-sounding crash rumbles from the other side of the building, right on cue. The guards nod to each other and then rush down the stairs, back into the prison.

Sokka glances up, just in time to see the sun disappear entirely behind the moon.

“Showtime.” He dashes over to the control system of the gondolas to get on and off the island. The next gondola is on the other side of the lake, and he immediately cranks the switch to bring it back over.

Suki lifts a pair of manacles. “I had these so I could pretend I was escorting you, in case you couldn’t find the uniform. You can use them to lock the door.”

“You’re a genius.” Sokka snatches them and bounds back down to the double doors, hooking cuffs on each handle and tangling the chain as best he can. “Probably won’t hold against a fireball, but I guess it’ll do?”

Zuko doesn’t comment.

There’s more yelling and weird crashes over from the other side of the building- maybe other people have escape plans too, or there might just be an impromptu prison riot. Sokka squints through the darkness and begs the gondola to hurry back over.

“Suki,” he says, “can you jam the lever, so it’s stuck in the on position?”

“You got it.” With one smooth kick, she breaks off the handle.

As the gondola swings by their station and then back around, they leap on and head back out, over open, boiling water.

“If there’s drama, let me know,” Sokka murmurs. He crosses the gondola to look at the other station.

Behind him, Suki promptly replies, “Will do.”

Zuko doesn’t say anything.

“Hey,” Sokka says. “You there?”

Suki looks at him in confusion. “Are you talking to me?”

Sokka doesn’t answer that, because if he tries to explain the ghost situation she will assume he’s hallucinating from being alone too long. Also because Zuko should be answering him, he swore to help him through the whole prison break, and he wouldn’t break his promise.

Unless he finally passed on.

Did someone manage to kill Ozai? Did someone break into the palace and stab the Fire Lord while he couldn’t bend? Did Zuko get vengeance with that murder? Or did he regain his honor the second he got them out to fresh air, because he was symbolically so locked up by roles and responsibilities throughout his own life?

Did he find peace and slip away while Sokka wasn’t looking?

“Hey, Sokka.” Suki’s hands are on his shoulders, but it isn’t right. “Breathe, we’re going to get through this.”

Sokka grips the windowsill of the gondola. He can’t see anything in this ghastly darkness.

(They’re safer now when there’s no firebending, but Sokka can’t help wishing for sunlight.)

(Zuko can’t have gone quietly. He’ll go in a blaze of glory, won’t he? He has to be coming back.)

They’re more than halfway across when the first rays of sunlight cut through the sky.


A fireball flies from the edge of the lake, whizzing right into the gondola. It shakes, sending Sokka into a wall, but it doesn’t stop entirely.

“They’re trying to burn the car.”

A sound like a sob tears out of his lungs, but the planning part of his brain kicks into overdrive. “We need to get onto the roof.”

Suki flips right onto the top of the gondola. Sokka does too, though he’s less elegant about it. The sun’s shining brightly now, and he can perfectly see the guards on the prison side bringing out a saw to cut the line. Beside them, another guard slides into a firebending stance and aims right at the narrow tether keeping their gondola out of hot water.

“Suki, I need you to punch the fireball.”

“You what?”

“Do it!”

She drops into a low stance- solid, though Sokka’s first instinct is to adjust her elbows so it’s a bit more firebendery- and punches at the incoming fireball. It wisps away to smoke, a foot away from the cable. Suki stops, inspecting her hands, but another blast shoots up from the other side of the lake.

“Roundhouse kick!”

Suki does the kick, and Zuko blocks the blast.

“What’s going on?” she demands.

“Fake firebending. I promise it makes sense.” He doesn’t elaborate, just squinting at the station at the edge of the lake and running some quick estimates in his head. Right then, the gondola screeches to a halt, and Sokka goes sliding off the edge. Suki dives for him and misses. Zuko grabs him and hauls him over the windowsill below, and he manages to flip himself back into the body of the car. “We need cover.”

“On it.”

The lake below them’s been bubbling away, but suddenly it goes from a boil to a roar. Zuko turns up the temperature, and a wall of steam starts wafting up on either side of the gondola, obscuring the view of the guards back at the prison. Their next few fireballs miss entirely.

“Okay,” he says, “now we just wait for them to cut the line.”

“What?” Suki exclaims, right as Zuko pokes the same question into his arms.

“It’ll move like a pendulum,” Sokka explains breathlessly. “Yeah, we’ll go down, but we’ll also get thrown forward towards the cliff. So wait for them to- kick!”

Another fireball hurtles from the station by the cliff. Suki kicks said fireball out of the air, foot landing heavily on the roof above him.

“Yeah-“ he resumes his speech- “wait for them to cut the line and then jump!”

“Please don’t.”

“What do you want to do?”

Suki keeps fake-firebending, and Zuko keeps really firebending and blocking the blasts. The gondola shivers and stutters as the saw cuts the line. Sokka decides to jump back on the roof, so he’ll have a cleaner running start.


Terror. That’s the only word for the sudden freefall, as the line goes slack and then drops, and as Sokka clings to the gondola he fears he’s miscalculated and they’re only going down, not forward. But then the cliff gets bigger, so they must be swinging towards it, and Suki leaps forward and hits the rock and scrabbles to hold on and stay out of the water, and Sokka jumps after her, keenly aware of the fact that he’s nowhere near as acrobatic as she is.

He can’t make the jump.

It’s physically impossible.

Then he’s tugged forward, flying almost horizontally through the air. The gondola line might’ve been cut, but there’s still an invisible string tied to his wrist, and Zuko’s zooming forward through the cliff and hauling Sokka with him and-


Zuko zooms backwards to slow him down and cushion him a little, right before Sokka can go splat against the cliff. The impact still hurts- his cheek’s scraped up, and his right shoulder’s going to bruise from the landing, but he’s not outright dead.

Suki’s paused her climbing to stare at him, dumbstruck. Sokka opens his mouth to explain, but now the guards from this station begin another volley of fireballs, and Suki can’t pretend to firebend them away- she needs all four limbs to hold onto the cliff. Zuko blocks them easily.

“What,” Suki demands, “is going on?”

Sokka’s really going to explain this time, but then all the guards tumble right off the cliff edge, falling past them into the boiling lake below. A minute later, the entire station creaks and crashes down.

That’s not something Zuko could pull off. Sokka doesn’t know what’s happening either.

Then a roar fills the Boiling Rock, and Sokka cranes his head just in time to spot one more friendly face.


Chapter 11

Chapter Text

Appa flies down, saving Sokka and Suki most of the climb, and then swoops back up through the steam. Momo promptly leaps onto Sokka’s lap, and he takes a minute just to cuddle him, petting his ears.

“This is the happiest I’ve ever been to see you, Momo,” he reports, “and that includes the time I mistook you for dinner.”

Momo chitters back at him, and Sokka squeezes him even harder. Then Suki says hello, and Momo scampers over to her, and Sokka takes the opportunity to rummage through the saddle. He immediately finds Aang’s glider, smooth and solid in his hands.

“Is that a new scratch?” He prods a little nick by the top.

Suki looks at it. “I don’t know.”

“Well, it can’t be new,” Sokka says, “because that means someone’s used it. And it could be Toph or Katara, but Katara wouldn’t let Aang’s staff get hurt, not if…”

“I don’t remember seeing that mark before.”

Blinking back fever-hot tears, Sokka puts the staff aside and keeps looking. He finds a sheaf of papers. His papers. His notes on firebending, with the sketches Zuko had guided him through.

“That’s not my writing.” Sokka squints at a note crunched in a margin, on the importance of keeping a strong root in firebending. “Probably just Katara sizing up her opponents. Or Toph.”

“Toph’s blind.”

“Oh, right,” Sokka says without thinking, and Suki shoots him another strange look. “They’re probably trying to rescue me right now, so we’d better signal them. I don’t want them getting captured.”

“Maybe Appa can roar?” Suki suggests.

“The lake might drown out the sound,” Zuko points out. “Let me send up a signal.”

“Let’s do both. Hey, buddy-“ he climbs over to Appa’s head, reveling in the glorious fluff- “can you roar for us?” There’s silence, until Sokka tacks on an example “rawr.”

Appa roars in response.

Sokka waits, and no, he’s not sure if that was audible from the island. He scrambles for his spark rocks, only to realize he definitely dropped them on the gondola.

“What do you need?” Suki asks.

“A pair of spark rocks?”

She pulls a pair out of her shoe. “I brought extras, just in case.”

“You’re a miracle,” Sokka sighs dreamily.

She grins at him. “I don’t have a candle or coal though.”

“Prisoners’ clothes are pretty flammable,” Zuko reports. “The guards liked setting them on fire, as extra spice for punishment.”

Sokka sizes both himself and Suki up. “I guess we’ve got one option.”

He strips off his chest armor and the shirt below, holds the spark rocks right over it, and strikes. Sure enough the fabric catches fire, and Suki gasps in alarm. Sokka ignores the fire he just kindled in his lap- it dies out almost immediately, while a tiny ball of light whizzes high into air and then explodes with a boom, glowing radiant. It’s not unlike a firecracker, or that signal flare that had first led Zuko to him.


“The short version is we have a firebending ghost on our side,” Sokka says rapidly, even as he sets the fire again.

And one more time.

After the third flare, Appa roars again and then takes off, drawn back to the prison by a sudden summons. Sokka holds onto the saddle with his heart in his throat as they weave between fireballs and sweep down towards an iceberg that’s casually floating in the middle of the boiling lake. There are three figures balanced on it.

Sokka’s not sure when he began crying, or when he started in on the hysterical laughing. Zuko’s fingers cut through to him, somehow managing to feel wry.

“I told you so.”


“So you’re stuck with Prince Zuko,” Suki intones around a campfire that night. They’re as safe as they can be, in the Western Air Temple- a world literally turned upside down.

“You mean he’s stuck with me.” Sokka jokes, plowing his way through his third bowl of Katara’s freshly-boiled mystery soup. As he’s informed her several times, it is the finest culinary masterpiece he has ever known.

Meanwhile, Suki’s soup’s getting cold, because she’s been gaping at him ever since he finally sat down properly to explain things.

(Most things. Everyone’s carefully omitting that interlude with the wedding, in accordance with his and Zuko’s agreement.)

“He apologized about Kyoshi Village, by the way,” he adds more solemnly. “In the off-chance we survive the year, you might wanna ask the Fire Nation for reparations.”

“He saved us today, didn’t he? From the firebenders.”

“Yeah, he does that a lot.”

“Did he save you in Ba Sing Se?” Katara asks quietly from beside him, even as she bends an extra serving of soup into his bowl before it’s even empty.

“Yeah,” Sokka answers. “Yeah, he did.” His eyes flicker up to Aang, who’s watching him very closely from across the fire. “He wasn’t trying to hurt you, he was just trying to get me out of harm’s way. And I’ve already told him a thousand times how stupid that was-“

“It wasn’t,” Katara interrupts firmly. “Aang barely survived, even with all the power of the Avatar State.”

“Yeah, there were a ton of Dai Li agents between us and you,” Toph says, face angled down towards her soup. “We would’ve tried to save you if you went down, but...I don’t think you would’ve made it.”

“Zuko?” Aang says, eyes fixed at the place where Zuko isn’t on Sokka’s other side. “Thank you.”

Suki hesitates for a second. “I’m surprised I’m saying this, but I’m grateful to him too. And as far as reparations go…”

“What are you thinking?” Sokka prompts.

“Can he help me find the other Kyoshi Warriors? I’m not sure where the princess- where his sister had them sent.”

Zuko taps out his response, and Katara’s eyes widen, seeing the dimples forming up and down Sokka’s arm.

“Would looking for the warriors get in the way of the war effort?” Sokka asks the others. “I mean, I don’t know what your plans are.”

“Um, we don’t really have a plan,” Aang admits sheepishly. “I’m still practicing all four elements, but beyond that we’ve just been looking for you.”

Toph nods. “Yeah, you’re the plan guy.”

Sokka means to grin at that, but the signals get crossed and he has to struggle against tears instead. Katara slips an arm around his waist and hugs him closer, and he looks to Suki. “We‘ll help you, no doubt about it.”

“And speaking of reunions,” Katara says with a funny glint in her eyes, “Sokka? I have something for you.”

She hunts through her stuff for a moment, and then casually pulls out the other half of Sokka’s soul.



“I missed you during the eclipse,” Sokka murmurs when he’s alone that night, when he’s hugged everyone alive twice for good measure and been loaded up with a heap of nighttime snacks. Katara’s more worried than she’s saying about the weight he’s lost.

“I don’t know what happened, I lost time. One second you were still in the prison, and then you were in midair on the gondola.”

“I don’t know what happened either. I…kinda thought you’d left for good.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No,” Sokka says, “no, you shouldn’t be sorry. I mean, I’m happy you’re here, I would’ve gotten boiled without you. But on the other hand I also want you to find peace, I mean, that’s the whole reason we listened to Aunt Wu and got-“

A knock at the door cuts off that thread of discussion. The noise startles him- he’s gotten too used to stifling silence, it’s surprising when anything happens- but he counts his breaths for a moment and then opens the door.

“Hi, Sokka.”


She inhales, as if mustering up confidence. “Um. Zuko. I don’t know exactly how this ghost situation works, but could you give us a bit of privacy?”

Sokka freezes. For a second, Zuko doesn’t react either.

“Should I? I can go a couple rooms over, I won’t be able to see or hear anything.”

“Yeah,” Sokka says. “That’d be good.”

“Pull if you want me.”

A second later, Sokka feels the string around his hand jerk a bit as Zuko stretches it out, moving away like he promised. The tension stays there, just a slight tug at the edge of Sokka’s awareness.

“What can I do ya for?” he asks, refocusing on Suki with a bright smile. A second later, he leans against a wall in what he hopes is a cavalier pose.

“I wanted to just talk to you properly,” she tells him. “You know, without the guards breathing down our necks.”

Sokka cracks half a smile, though he still can’t laugh about that.

“I was so worried when I heard them talking about you,” Suki continues, pushing a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “I didn’t want to believe you were trapped in the coolers. But I’m so happy we found each other again. I couldn’t have made it out without you.”

“Right back at you. There’s no way anyone could make it out of that place alone.”

She takes a step forward, into his personal space, and Sokka stops breathing for a bit.

“I’m glad I found you,” she says, her eyes dark and intense in the low light. Then she lifts one hand to cup his cheek, and Sokka closes his eyes like he’s supposed to. It feels good when their lips brush, just like it’s supposed to-

He pulls back. Jerks his hand up to touch his mouth, still stinging with the shadow of hers. It’s an objectively good kiss, at least in comparison to his last disaster. Not a fat lip in sight.

And yet.

“Sorry,” they say simultaneously, before breaking off and speaking simultaneously and breaking off again.

(The tension around his wrist has disappeared.)

“I’m sorry,” Sokka says after the silence grows painful. “It’s just there’s...there was someone else.”

Suki’s wince slices through the air. “I didn’t know.”

“No, it’s…Nothing makes sense in war. And it’s not supposed to, you know?”

In the moonlight, her expression softens. Her fingers have long since dropped from his cheek, but now she clasps his hand. “I understand.”

She gives it a squeeze and then leaves the room again, quietly shutting the door behind her.

“I felt you pull the string,” Zuko comments after Sokka stands there for a few seconds, motionless. “And then I came back too early. I’m sorry.”

“Oh,” is all Sokka can manage in reply.

“Do you want to talk about what just happened?”

“I...I’m not sure there’s much else to say.”

“Do you want to talk about Yue?”

Sokka turns to the moon, large and radiant outside the window.

“I don’t want to believe in fate controlling everything,” he says abruptly. “And if I look at it logically, there were a hundred ways we could’ve saved her. We could’ve stationed a guard at the oasis while we went after Aang. We could’ve taken Zhao down before he killed Tui. If your uncle had gotten there a couple minutes earlier, or if you hadn’t taken Aang in the first place…”

He trails off with a heaving breath.

“And then Chief Arnook tells me that she was meant to go all along. She was born to die young, and there’s nothing anyone could do about it.”

“I was always supposed to die young,” Zuko had once told him, with wretchedly earnest certainty.

“At least she’s still here,” Zuko says now, “sort of?”

“...Thanks, buddy.”

He sits down and props his chin on the windowsill, gazing upwards.

“This might be a bad thing to say, seeing how the Water Tribe’s not big on vengeance.”

He pauses, and Sokka lifts an eyebrow. “I’m listening.”

“If it helps at all, I beat Zhao up in an Agni Kai a little while before.”

Sokka perks up. “Was it embarrassing for him?”

“Incredibly. He asked me to kill him at the end. I refused, sorry.”

He sighs and slumps a little, letting go of the tension in his spine. “Somehow, I’m not surprised he was a sore loser.”

“The sorest. He tried to assassinate me afterwards, right before the North Pole.”

“He what?”

“He set a bomb on my ship. That’s how I got the-“ he pauses- “rainbow on my face.”

Sokka laughs. He absolutely doesn’t mean to, not with the twin tides of rage and sorrow rising in him, but maybe laughter’s the only defense he’s got.

(He’s proud, too. There’s a satisfaction in picturing Zuko smacking Zhao to the ground, maybe singeing his ridiculous fancy facial hair. Maybe shaking that awful, all-devouring arrogance, if only for a moment.)

“Whaddya know,” he murmurs, “there’s a use for Agni Kais after all.”


“Zuko and I figured out how we’re going to find the Kyoshi Warriors,” Sokka reports over breakfast (porridge, glorious edible porridge) the next morning. “And how we’re going to hack the entire Fire Nation strategy machine.”

“How?” Katara asks curiously.

“Cavehoppers,” he says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.


It kind of is, in retrospect. Sokka had wanted to reuse the whole sneaking-around-secret-bases thing that had worked for them in Ba Sing Se, but Zuko pointed out that:

  1. They couldn’t exactly travel around the Fire Nation easily, so they’d have trouble getting to all the bases they wanted to break into.
  2. Every time they broke into a Fire Nation stronghold to inspect its records, they risked getting re-captured and/or blowing Aang’s cover as Kuzon, a perfectly normal and unsuspicious earthbender from the colonies.
  3. While Fire Nation break-ins might be fun, Sokka was surely even more deserving of a break in...his schedule.

(Sokka laughed far too long at that pun.)

So Zuko pointed out another way of accessing Fire Nation communications, involving less work for everyone. They just needed to camp out near a major military communication tower and bring messenger hawks down-

(“You’re going to kill the messenger hawks?!”

“Of course not! Aang needs to bring them in with airbending, gently, without breaking even a single feather. That’s a mandatory part of the plan.”)

Zuko knows how to break seals and redo them. He knows what the different ribbon colors mean, and he knows how to spot a letter treated with invisible ink- a clever concoction, except for the known smudging problem. He and Katara work out a way to temporarily reveal those invisible messages, by bending the lingering traces of wetness out for a second and then setting them back into place, and Sokka’s put in charge of decoding any and all encrypted messages.

“Ta-da! We’ll intercept all the Fire Nation’s correspondence.”

“What are the cavehoppers for?” Toph asks.

“Zuko knows a thing or two about birds,” Sokka answers, “and messenger hawks are loyal as they come. If they’re upset or abused in any way, they’ll alert the soldiers on the other side with their squawking. Lucky for us, cavehoppers are their favorite snack, so if we take them down really gently and feed them a bunch of crunchy hoppers? They’ll be too happy to raise an alarm.”

Toph winds up on cavehopper-gathering duty, because Sokka doesn’t want to draw attention by trying to buy those in bulk at a market. This isn’t the swamp- people would ask questions.


Everyone agrees that the plan’s ridiculous, and that it might just work.

“We’ve missed having you to plan things,” Aang says.

Sokka shrugs. “I couldn’t have done it without Zuko.”


“Sokka,” Toph asks on their first day, “why are you cuddling an enemy hawk?”

“Because it’s of vital strategic importance,” Sokka says while he scritches its itty-bitty head. “Gotta keep all the birds happy!”

She tilts her head with a thoughtful hum. “That’s half a lie. You’ve got another reason, and it’s a big one.”

“...If they’re well-treated, it makes Zuko happy.”


(Suki’s looking at him funny.)


“We can’t heal it,” Sokka protests. “I know it’s being forced to fly with an injured foot, but the Fire Nation probably knows that too. If we send the bird back in better condition than it was, they’ll be onto us!”

“But it didn’t do anything to deserve this mistreatment,” Katara retorts. “I need to help it. It’s my duty as a healer!”

It’s Zuko’s plaintive “please” that does Sokka in.


Three days in, the Kyoshi Warriors mystery solves itself.

“According to this letter, they got transferred from Caldera to here.” Sokka shows her the new prison on a realistic Fire Nation map Toph’s sculpted at Zuko’s direction. “But it’s pretty low-security, and they broke themselves and a bunch of other war prisoners out during the eclipse. Here- we’ve got some wanted posters now.”

Suki takes them and looks down fondly at the faces of her fellow warriors.

(Wanted, dead or alive.)

“We don’t know where they are exactly,” Katara says, “but they were last seen in the colony of Yu Dao. We can get you there, if you want to try tracking them.”

“I want to, you need my help before the comet? I don’t know what your plan is, overall.”

“The plan is Aang,” Sokka replies simply. “That’s it. I’m not clever enough to take down Ozai with any other tricky little scheme.”

“What about me?” Toph interjects. “I bet I can take him.”

“He shoots lightning, and he can fly.” Over the shouts of dismay, he adds, “I have a lot of respect for you, and for Katara, but with all due respect? Nobody but Aang stands a chance against him.”

“Maybe my uncle would.”

“...Except for Zuko’s uncle, maybe?”

“And Azula.”

“Okay, let’s not get carried away here,” he replies with a smirk.

Suki’s looking at him funny again. She does that a lot, whenever he falls into a conversation with Zuko she can only half-hear. “Who did Zuko suggest?”

“His sister,” he answers.

“There’s no one else. Even if the throne was on the line, I wouldn’t have been strong enough to beat him in a fight.”

“So step one of the plan is still that Aang defeats Ozai, with help from us if we can be even the littlest bit useful. Step two is...before step one. We need to find a viable successor, which means finding Zuko’s uncle.”

“I have an idea about that.”


The idea involves that creepy bounty hunter lady Zuko once hired to chase Katara. Suki walks in to engage her services, since she’s the least likely to get recognized and traded for a bounty herself. Nyla picks up Iroh’s scent from a bag of money that he had paid June with last year- though the money’s long gone, June kept the pretty red pouch. Then the shirshu takes off running, and the rest of them follow him on Appa, who’s casually masquerading as a particularly fast-moving cloud.

Unfortunately, Nyla loses the scent at a nearby harbor and then gets stuck pacing the shoreline, whining piteously.

“Uncle’s not on this continent,” Zuko replies, his fingerprints subdued. “And apparently shirshus don’t play nice with ships unless they’re eating the ships, so June can’t track him further.”

Sokka groans. “Perfect.”


“I’d like to hire June again,” Suki tells them that night. “I remembered my hair tie isn’t really mine- I borrowed it from one of the other girls before they split us up. And seeing how good that shirshu’s nose is, I bet it can find her again.”

(Sokka reaches to touch his own hair, bound by a red ribbon Katara gave him. He’s once again wearing it in a warrior’s wolf-tail- or, fine, a ponytail- though he’s decided to let the sides keep growing out. Maybe his hair’ll end up looking like Dad’s.)

There’s a general farewell, and then Suki pulls Sokka aside. Toph, Katara and Aang give them some space. Unbidden, Zuko gives them space too, moving away until Sokka can feel the pull of the string.

“Take care of yourself,” she says.

“You too. I know you’re incredible at what you do, but. Uh. Try to lay low during the comet itself, if you can. I’m not sure us non-benders can do a lot then, besides not getting smoked.”

She nods, though she doesn’t look totally convinced. “Sokka…”


“Is Zuko listening?” She waits until he shakes his head before continuing. “I’m sorry about everything with him and you.”

He frowns; there’s sympathy on her face, like she’s seeing him too clearly for comfort. “What do you mean?”

“He’s the one you meant, isn’t he? When you said there was someone else.”

She places a little emphasis on “was,” and Sokka’s heart briefly wrenches out of place.


“You don’t have to explain. I don’t know if I understand it, the way you light up for him, but I don’t need to. I just hope- I hope you can find love again, even after he...passes on from this state. You deserve that.”

He can’t find an answer for that. Eventually, he just grabs her for a long, long hug and whispers his goodbye.


Now without Suki, they sneak back into the Fire Nation. Aang resumes his training. Katara at last clears Sokka to help out, though there’s still worry written all over her face. He lights a whole line of candles for Zuko and pulls out his boomerang, and Toph pulls up a couple boulders, and Katara readies a water whip.

And then they all attack the world’s last hope against Ozai.

Aang’s good. He’s really good. He blocks Zuko’s initial fireballs with firebending alone, and he smashes the boulders Toph lobs to pieces and freezes Katara with her own water, and he ducks right under Boomerang as it goes out and whizzes away before it comes back. Zuko briefly grabs his attention with a pair of fire whips- Katara shoots them a skeptical glance- and Sokka grabs his chance.

“Sneak attaaaaaack!” He charges at Aang, brandishing his sword, only to get smacked away with a wall of air. The fire whips disappear as Zuko’s hands materialize behind Sokka, catching him before he slams into a tree.

“Sneak attacks tend to work better if you don’t announce them.”

Sokka pouts. “You’re lucky I do. Otherwise I totally would’ve beaten you the first time we met.”

“Pretty sure you did beat me. I had a concussion for weeks.”

Sokka’s face lights up. “Oh yeah, Boomerang!”

“What are they talking about?” Toph asks on the sidelines.

Aang shrugs back at her. “No clue, but he seems happy.”

“Just reminiscing about old times,” Sokka tells them, even as he goes to relight the candles. “Anyone for a rematch?”


Aang throws a fireball at Toph, next time. She blocks it easily with a slab of rock, but Zuko taps out his approval. Sokka relays the praise, and Aang’s whole face goes soft and pleased.

The Avatar really might defeat the Fire Lord.


They keep catching hawks.

In time, they intercept a string of messages about the comet. There’s a whole fleet of airships set to attack the Earth Kingdom from the east. The harbor where they’ll start is highly classified, stricken out from any letter they have a chance of reaching. But they know the destination: Ba Sing Se, and then the rest of the country.

Ozai’s personally leading the charge. He intends to burn everything in his path. It says a lot that nobody- not Zuko or Katara or Toph, not even barely-thirteen-year-old Aang- doubts it for a second.

“So that’s our last stand,” Sokka says, staring at the map. “We can warn the Dai Li. Maybe an army of Joo Dees will creep Ozai out.”

“We can ask the Northern Water Tribe to send waterbenders,” Katara offers.

“There are other resistance forces,” Zuko remarks, fingers fluttering light and fast. “There have to be. Remember what the prison guards said?”

Sokka’s eyes widen. “You wouldn’t happen to know about a coordinated sabotage campaign, would you? Targeting Fire Nation weapons factories?”

Without hesitation, Katara shakes her head. “No, we haven’t heard anything like that. But it sounds like a good strategy.”

“Yeah,” Toph says with a growing, impish smirk. “Maybe we can blow up the airship factory before the airships blow up the Earth Kingdom.”

“There’s a town not too far from here, known for its metalworkers. I bet the army’s set up shop there.”

Sokka nods. “Okay. Time for a new plan.”


The plan is simple. Step 1: Slide into town, pretending to be totally normal Fire Nation villagers.

(“What’s your cover name?”

“Fire. Wang Fire.”

“If you actually use that, I will find a way to come back to life just to strangle you.”

“You can already strangle me,” Sokka chirps helpfully.

Everyone alive shoots him worried looks.)

Step 2: Get schematics for the local military factory.

Step 3: Wait for the workday to finish. Wait some more, to avoid any and all casualties.

Step 4: Gleeful destruction.

They mosey into town, and Toph bends a path into a local archive to find a nice blueprint. Sokka identifies the weak points they’ll need to hit, and then it’s just a waiting game.

“I’m bored,” Toph says, after half an hour of sitting in a local park without causing trouble.

Sokka looks to the center of the park, where a bunch of old people are hunched over game boards. “Any chance you want to play pai sho?”

“You’re on.”


“If my uncle were here, he’d tell you to play the rose or the jasmine, because either will build a harmony and rack up loads more points.”

Sokka glances at Toph, who’s grinning at him like a tiny demon.

“I most certainly should not play those,” he hisses. “Clearly this-“ he lifts a knotweed tile- “is the only way to go.”

He admits he’s doomed three moves later. Zuko scolds him about the importance of appreciating all available harmonies.


“There’s a weird pai sho game going on a couple tables over.”

“Later,” Sokka says, stroking his imaginary beard, “I’ve gotta figure out how to rescue all my boat tiles.”


“You have to go see the other table. Three separate players have played the same moves three times in a row, something’s happening-“

“But my chrysanthemums!”

He apologizes to Toph as Zuko physically hauls him out of his seat.

“I think their games are code. A secret code my uncle knew.”

“The uncle we’re looking for?”

“I only have the one.”

So Sokka casually strolls over to the table, letting Zuko guide him by the elbow. There’s an old person sitting alone by an empty board.

“Can I?”

They smile pleasantly up at him. “The guest has the first move.”

“White lotus in the center.”

Sokka frowns, because that makes no sense, strategically speaking. Still, he sighs and tries it.

It’s the right move. He gets a wide grin for his trouble.

“I see you favor the white lotus gambit,” they remark. “Not many still cling to the ancient ways.”

With good reason, he thinks. Out loud he repeats the code Zuko pokes into him. “Those who do can...always find a friend?”

He likes military code- numbers and ciphers. Not this stilted dialogue that sounds like it came out of a Ba Sing Se play.

“Then let us play.” They throw down a piece in another spot that has zero tactical value.

“Put down a wheel in the same spot, on your side.”

Sokka obeys. They slap down another tile.

“It’s a white dragon now.” Zuko pulls his hand into place. “And then after that, it’s...either a lily or a jasmine.”

Sokka lifts an eyebrow. He keeps putting down pieces, though he can feel Zuko getting less and less confident with each piece. When they finish, the overall design is floral.


“Oh,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. “Uh. It was supposed to be symmetrical, wasn’t it? So I guess I should’ve had two pieces on those angles, and I forgot those little spikes. Right. I’”

They lean back, folding their arms and looking distinctly unimpressed. “And who let you taste the mysteries?”

“Uh. Prince Iroh?”

They toss their head back with a scoff. “You expect me to believe he would allow you in our ranks? I doubt you’ve ever met the man.”

“Hey!” Sokka protests. “I’ve spent plenty of time with him. Ask me anything you want.”

“His favorite musical instrument?”

“The tsungi horn,” Zuko tells him automatically. Sokka repeats this.

“His favorite drink?”

“Ginseng tea,” Sokka says, before Zuko directs him to add, “or that’s what he says if you ask. Really, it’s whatever happens to be in his teapot.”

Their eyes twinkle in amusem*nt. “Perhaps you do know him, then. Are you here for the mission?”

Several facts click together at once, like tiles falling into harmony.

“The factory?” he whispers, leaning in. They tip their head in confirmation. “Nah. I mean, I knew about that and I totally support what the...gang’s been doing, but I actually need to get in contact with Prince Iroh.”

“He hasn’t received many visitors, since his nephew’s passing.”

Sokka frowns. “Does he know Zuko got stuck as a ghost?”

“A ghost who has now been sent on to peace,” they answer, before letting out a sigh. “His host successfully underwent exorcism at Ba Sing Se, just before the Avatar was killed.”

“...I have some extra news about Ba Sing Se,” Sokka says. “And I think Iroh will want to hear it in person.”

They ponder this for a moment and then nod.


The plan for destroying the factory is abandoned- apparently the secret pai sho society’s got it covered.

New plan: Meet with the apparent head of the secret pai sho society, also known as the Dragon of the West, also known as Zuko’s Uncle Iroh.

Chapter 12


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Sokka follows the mystical pai sho player’s instructions, approaching an unassuming hamlet tucked deep in a forest. Katara, Toph, and Aang track him at a safe distance, making sure to keep Appa out of sight.

There’s a door with a splashy white flower painted on it. Apparently, Sokka just has to approach it with “the password of the white dragon,” and he’ll be let right in.

Problem 1: He doesn’t know the password of the white dragon, because he actually has nothing to do with this secret society.

He had a plan to solve this problem. The plan was to watch the door for a while, with Zuko eavesdropping on the passwords other visitors used to get in, and bam, Sokka could copy them.

Problem 2: There are no other visitors. The entire area’s deserted except for…

“My uncle’s inside that building. Come on, you have to go.”

Zuko tugs at his arm towards the building, pleading without being rough, but Sokka stands his ground. “But who’s guarding him? It’s no good to get this close and then die.”

“Just one person. Going by wanted posters, it looks like Master Jeong Jeong, a famous deserter-“

“Oh yeah, he’s the guy who scared Aang off firebending!” Sokka bounds forward and raps his knuckles on the door. “This’ll be easy.”

After a moment, a gruff voice calls, “Who strays from their path to seek true seeds?”

“I have no clue,” Sokka calls back brightly. “But I do have a spare Avatar!”

Yep, that gets him in.


Master Jeong Jeong lets them all in and guides them to a small inner room, behind a door. “You’ve got visitors.”

Sokka steps into the room- about the size of his cell, dimly lit by candles that have burned low. In the center sits Prince Iroh.

Sokka’s not sure he’d recognize him if he hadn’t been told the man’s name. Last time he saw Zuko’s uncle, he was in flowing red robes, practically radiant with fury, single-handedly burning his way through Zhao’s cadre. This man wears dark blue with a white collar, and his hair falls loose on his shoulders without a top-knot in sight. He’s hunched over, even when he rises to greet them. Though he offers them a smile, his eyes are shadowed and unspeakably sad.

“Avatar Aang. Masters Toph and Katara. Sokka of the Water Tribe. It is good to see you all alive and well, though I did not expect our paths to cross.”

“We need to talk with you about strategy,” Sokka says, “but before that, you should know about your nephew.”

Iroh stiffens up for a moment like he’s been struck. Then all the energy goes out of him again. “I heard he was bound to you as a ghost. I am afraid I did not know until after he was helped onward at Ba Sing Se, or I would have found you, if only to say goodbye.”

“Not necessary,” Sokka babbles. “Or maybe it is, I mean, you can say goodbye if you want, but it wouldn’t have mattered that much then...let me back up.” He takes a deep breath in and looks Iroh in the eyes. “Hello. Zuko’s here. Ish.”

A second later, Zuko takes Sokka’s hand from where it’s hanging limp at his side, and he raises it and shakes it in a funny-looking wave. Then the candles all flare, glowing bright and golden and throwing light around the room, illuminating Iroh’s golden eyes- suddenly wide with hope, or perhaps pain.

(Were Zuko’s eyes golden like that?)

There’s a hand on Sokka’s back.

“I think he, um, wants me to hug you?”

Iroh gulps and then gives a jerky nod.

Sokka hesitates, because that’s still a Fire Nation prince, and not the one he’s cuddled turtleducks with. Then Zuko nudges him forward again, and Sokka takes a few steps forward and drapes his arms awkwardly around Iroh. A second later, Iroh’s holding him too. They’re both too scared to breathe.

Then Zuko adjusts Sokka’s arms and pushes them down, pressing along his wrists and his forearms and elbows. Through Sokka, Iroh might just be able to feel Zuko’s touch.

“That’s him,” Sokka confirms aloud.

With a shudder, Iroh inhales and wraps him up in the warmest hug he’s ever gotten in his life.


The door closes.

Sokka paces around the front room. Katara, Aang and Toph are sitting nearby on new benches bent out of the dirt floor. From inside the back room, they can hear Iroh murmuring questions, and the candlelight flares in reply, and there’s definitely the occasional sob thrown in there.

(Sokka takes a moment to marvel at the fact that they’ve left two Fire Nation royals unsupervised and aren’t even a little worried about dying as a result.)

Outside, Master Jeong Jeong asks them a few brusque questions about Aang’s firebending progress, and he grunts out his approval as Aang slides through a kata he learned off Sokka and Zuko’s notes. Then Sokka tries interrogating Master Jeong Jeong. He confirms that, yes, they’ve stumbled into a secret international pai sho society known as the Order of the White Lotus, and yes, it’s been on a military sabotage campaign for months.

“Ever since Iroh realized Prince Zuko was truly gone,” Master Jeong Jeong tells them, “he has dragged us from our pai sho tables to the battlefield. His campaign of sabotage has been creative and ruthless.”

Toph tips her head. “He got all fired-up, huh?”

“No,” comes the stern reply. “His fire has all but gone out.”

Soon after that, there are more knocks. Master Jeong Jeong opens the door immediately.

“I could’ve sworn we had a passcode for moments like these,” a bright, familiar voice says.

Master Jeong Jeong snorts. “We can’t use it. There are uninitiated guests present.”

He steps aside and allows King Bumi into the room. Master Pakku follows him. Katara and Aang jump right up to greet them, but their hellos are subdued. They haven’t forgotten what’s going on, one wall over.

All of the Order’s members wear the same deep blue robes, but King Bumi stands out, as always. He’s got a ring on every finger, and going by the way he jangles with every motion of his limbs, he’s wearing a treasury’s worth of jewelry.

A flash of green catches Sokka’s eye, peeking through his blue sleeve.

“Is that...a sparky sparky boom crystal?”

Everyone else frowns at him, but Bumi only cackles and shakes his sleeve back, revealing a bracelet studded with brilliant green gems. “See, Iroh convinced me to come down with a nasty case of Pentapox, and when I got kicked out of Omashu, I took the crown jewels with me! And you’re very right, these beauties are known for making a hot fire hotter.”

“...Could I have one of those gems? I just came up with a new plan.”


“Could work, could work. You’ve got a knack for opening your brain to the possibilities, haven’t you?” Bumi strokes his spiky white beard, contemplating Sokka’s latest scheme. “Your mind works like mine!”

Sokka grins at him. “So all we need is a metalworker to stick the whatchamacallit-“ he gestures at a green glow-in-the-dark crystal he’s just popped out of a priceless royal bracelet- “on the thingy.”

“And I know just the man for it. Jeong Jeong, Piandao headed home for the night, didn’t he?”

“You’re going to wake him up for a jewelry consultation?”

“He should be happy that’s all I want. Last time I paid him a home visit, it was to drop off Flopsy!”

After promising to return by sunrise, Bumi giggle-snorts his way out the main door.

The inner door remains closed. The candlelight flickers wildly, expressive and eloquent, just on the other side.


The kids are sleeping.

Sokka’s not. The world’s dark except for the light under the door from candles still dancing, long after they should have burned out. The glow blurs as Sokka gazes at it, mesmerized.

“He’s the one you meant,” Suki had asked him. “Isn’t he?”

He’d glimpsed another world in the swamp. There had been another Zuko, dressed brightly in red and gold, with hair that got a chance to grow in properly and a precious, shy smile, who’d looked at Sokka and told him “hello” like it was the most natural thing in the world. Maybe it was. Maybe Zuko’s the one he meant, and maybe Zuko’s the one he’s meant for. Maybe, between the birthday pie and the turtleducks and the coat of steam in an ice-cold prison, he’s managed to fall for his husband.

For his husband, prince of the Fire Nation.

For a dead sixteen-year-old.

For a moment, Sokka lets his eyes drift closed, and he lets his mind drift to a future where Ozai dies, sometime, somehow, and the rest of them end up happy. Maybe Sokka goes back to the South Pole, drawing Zuko with him, and they live like that. Just a guy with a ghost. Maybe they take trips to Caldera every few years, so Zuko gets a chance to see the home he was exiled from. Maybe they’re okay like that. Maybe one day Zuko will kiss him again, not to save him from desecrating an ancient earthbender’s grave, just because.

He roughly cuts off that line of speculation, because Zuko can’t love him back. Not because he’s a non-bender, nor because he’s on the “wrong” side of the war. Just because, after Zuko made it past Azulon and Ozai and Zhao, Sokka’s the one who finally killed him with sheer carelessness. What good is it if he does nothing but care now?

(What could Zuko possibly want with his love?)


The hitch of the door wakes Sokka from a light doze, and he scrambles to his feet.

“Hi. Do you want to go back to sleep?”


“Or you could talk with Uncle.”

Sokka rolls his shoulders and stretches his neck. Then, he gets up and walks into the back room, shutting the door quietly so as not to wake the others.

“Please.” Iroh sits back down and gestures at a tatami mat across from him, where Sokka promptly takes a seat. The candles are still burning brightly, no doubt running on firebending willpower alone.

Then he takes a deep breath.

“Though responsibility for our situation also lies with Ozai and our ancestors,” Iroh tells him, “I want to tell you that I am sorry, for placing you both in this position. I had asked Prince Zuko what his plan was, as he took off for the North Pole, and he told me he was still working on it. I should have stopped him until he had a full idea of how to get out as well as in. As it is, my last words to him were…”

He trails off, shutting his eyes tightly.

“He told me to pull up my hood-“ Zuko steps in for him- “so my ears would stay warm.”

Sokka can’t help a small chuckle, even as his heart twists yet again. Iroh smiles too, like he’s inferred that Zuko filled him in.

“And he told me in that same conversation that he would be fine,” Iroh says, “and that we would meet again after he had the Avatar.”

“Half-true,” Sokka mutters.


They fall into melancholy silence.

Then Sokka blurts, “I’m sorry too. I really am. Aang wanted to drag him back out of the snow but I said we couldn’t, because I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know Zuko.”

“And I apologize for chasing Aang,” Zuko adds on with firm fingerprints. “I didn’t know better either, and it was wrong of me to try.”

Sokka relates this sentiment to Iroh. The man seems weary, but not surprised.

“I had hoped you would realize that in time, Prince Zuko, though I never imagined how you would learn it,” he murmurs.

“I think he’s learned a lot,” Sokka offers, hesitant. “You know, he’s gotten pretty good at the planning thing.”

“No, the plans are all you.”

“Don’t undersell yourself, Boiling Rock was at least half your idea.”

“It was your idea to wait for them to cut the gondola before jumping, I never would have thought of that.”

“But what about the hawk cuddling? Totally brilliant and totally you!”

Iroh smiles, even as Sokka bickers with thin air.

“My nephew tells me,” he says, gently laying a hand on Sokka’s, “that you have been good to him.”

Sokka’s brain is hazy and half-awake. He doesn’t know how he can possibly answer that.

“I promised, one time, to treat him at least as well as he treated me,” he replies at last, softly. “And he’s been surprisingly good to me.”

Zuko takes his other hand and clasps it too.

“Still, I thank you. There were too few people who showed him kindness in his life.” Iroh bows his head and takes another mighty breath. “I understand you’ve been trying to help him...move on.”

“We tried a bunch of exorcisms.”

Iroh nods. “The bond between you must be extraordinarily strong, to resist the Head Sage’s touch.”

He pauses, suddenly feeling awkward. “I guess? We also tried giving him funeral rites, but no luck.”

“And Prince Zuko tells me he’s not looking for vengeance against you or your friends.”

“Thanks, buddy,” Sokka whispers before continuing. “And yeah, vengeance isn’t all that great. I guess I got revenge on Zuko for all the Avatar-chasing, but I really wish I hadn’t.”

Zuko squeezes his arm. Iroh’s eyes flick to the place where Zuko’s fingerprints must have appeared, if only for a moment.

“Then his best hope for peace,” Iroh concludes, “is to complete whatever mission drove him in life.”

Sokka relates his whole fake-Aang-capturing idea, but Iroh shakes his head.

“No,” he rumbles, leaning forward, “whatever frees him, it must be real. I know he no longer wishes to capture the Avatar, but...I believe that was never his ultimate wish, even in life.”

“Then what was?” Sokka asks, looking over his shoulder. “Restoring your honor? Getting your dad’s respect? Just making it home?”

He gets no response.

Iroh shifts, robes rustling against the straw mat. “These are not questions for anyone else to answer. It's time for you to look inward, Prince Zuko, and ask yourself, who were you? What did you want?”


When Sokka wakes up, the sun’s bright, and there are more people in the Order’s hideout.

“There he is! Here.” As Sokka blinks his eyes open, King Bumi sticks a glowing green gem in his face. “A custom ring just for you.”

“Thanks.” Sokka takes it and slides it onto his index finger. “It’s really for Zuko, though. Look!”

There’s a little spring-loaded metal mechanism sandwiching the gemstone. When Sokka clicks it, a sharp metal stick scrapes this special fiery gem, and bam, green sparks fly up, hotter than any ordinary spark rock could manage.

When he tries it again, Zuko catches the sparks and successfully bends them into flame- green flames that quickly cool to orange and vivid, natural red.

The three kids let out oohs and ahs. Sokka preens appropriately.

The door opens just then, and Master Pakku emerges with someone Sokka doesn’t recognize- a distinguished-looking swordsman with a golden scabbard strapped to his back.

“That’s Master Piandao,” Zuko informs him. “He taught me how to wield my dao.”

“Sokka,” Master Pakku says, “it is good to meet you again.”

Katara pipes up: “He’s our step-grandfather now.”

Sokka looks between the two of them. “You mean- you and Gran-Gran?”

Master Pakku nods, lips twitching with a smile.

Sokka’s first thought is “Gran-Pakku.” What Sokka says is, “Huh. Congratulations.”

“After fighting for so long, I wouldn’t have expected our relationship to succeed,” he replies with a chuckle, “but love can work in the unlikeliest ways.”


“We have intelligence on a massive airfleet attack, personally led by the Fire Lord. Ozai’s going to hit Ba Sing Se from the east on the night of the comet,” Sokka announces at the war meeting.

The eight of them- nine, counting Zuko- are arranged on tatami mats around a map of the world, raised from the ground by King Bumi. It’s not the traditional way of drawing things, with the Fire Nation on the west and the Earth Kingdom on the east. They’ve flipped their perspective, so Ba Sing Se’s just to the left of Caldera.

(They’ve got to open their brains to the possibilities. La knows the Fire Nation will.)

“We’ve heard the same,” Master Pakku says. “The Order will stage a full-blown defense of Ba Sing Se with almost all the allies we’ve got.”

“We would appreciate your assistance,” Master Piandao adds, looking to Aang. “It’ll do wonders for morale, if the Avatar’s leading the charge.”

Aang nods solemnly. “It would be my honor.”

“Wait,” Sokka says. “Wouldn’t it be easier to stage a coup earlier? If you take down Ozai now-“ he nods at Iroh- “then maybe everyone can stay home during the comet and absolutely nothing will be on fire.”

“I could legitimately succeed him if he died in war, but I am afraid he has no plans to see combat until the night of the comet,” Iroh replies. “Otherwise, to avoid legal challenges and perhaps a civil war, I would have to defeat him in an Agni Kai. Challenging him would be a dangerous gamble. One of us would have to die, and I am not sure it would be him...”

“There will be another way around Ozai,” Master Jeong Jeong gruffly interrupts. “My sources told me tonight that he intends to step down as Fire Lord.”

Murmurs rise throughout the room.

“That’s not right,” Zuko taps out. “That can’t be right.”

“He’s decided instead-“ Master Jeong Jeong’s voice takes on a note of derision- “to crown himself ‘Phoenix King,’ emperor of the world.”

“Maybe it’s right.”

Sokka drops his head into his hands. “Drama runs in the family, huh?”

“You have no idea.”

“Princess Azula is set to receive the Fire Lord’s title the night of the comet,” Master Jeong Jeong concludes. “But there will be an interregnum period, a few hours where no one holds the crown. You could assert your claim then, without violence.”

“Azula won’t give up the crown without a fight.”

“An Agni Kai with Azula seems more manageable though,” Sokka mutters. “I mean, compared to Ozai.”

“She will lose,” Master Jeong Jeong says simply.

The conversation swirls on, but Zuko prods him hard.

“Sokka. She’s barely fourteen.”

Sokka sags.

(He’s suddenly back in the ice, standing over Zuko’s unconscious body.)

“Do we have to kill Azula?” he interrupts, his voice sharp. “I mean, does she know what she’s doing? Has she ever had the choice to do anything besides follow Ozai’s orders?”

“Azula is crazy,” Iroh replies, “and she needs to go down. For the sake of the entire world-“

“I would’ve said the same thing about Zuko, a couple months back.”

Iroh flinches.

“So what do you think we should do?” Aang says, breaking the sudden silence.

Sokka answers. “Send Katara along, at the very least. Maybe the duel has to happen, but if there’s any chance of healing afterwards…”

The room’s silent.

“And Zuko needs to go too. Not to help you cheat or anything, I know an Agni Kai won’t be respected if it’s not honorable-“ though Ozai got to fight his thirteen-year-old son, because somehow that’s the height of honor- “but just in case.”

Katara frowns. “In case of what?”

“Azula cheats when she’s cornered,” he replies, remembering a rogue blast of blue fire in that Earth Kingdom ghost town. “Zuko, would you put it past her to, I don’t know, attack Katara on the sidelines if she got scared?”

“She would absolutely do that.”

“I can handle myself without Zuko as a bodyguard-“

“Katara,” Sokka breaks in, “I’m not losing anyone else to this war.”

His voice cracks, and Katara takes a long look at his face. He’s not sure what she finds.

“Okay,” she finally decides. “It’ll be the four of us, against Azula.”

“And I’ll face the Fire Lord,” Aang says.

It’s awful all around, but Sokka can’t help feeling this is how it’s supposed to be.


“My nephew has trained you well,” Iroh comments, watching Aang run through a firebending kata. “But there is one other move you must know, before facing my brother.”

Lightning redirection. Iroh invented lightning redirection. Though Sokka would never have a chance of pulling it off himself, he watches the move, entranced.

“Okay,” Aang says after about fifty repetitions, “I think I’ve got it. I’m ready to try it with real lightning!”

Iroh physically recoils. “I’m not going to shoot lightning at you!”

“How about me? It’s not like I’ll end up more dead.”

“I don’t think we can risk any lightning-bending at all,” Sokka says apologetically. “Not with the way the sound carries.”

“Good point. I’m glad you think of these things.”

“That’s me! Always thinking of things. A couple of them even make sense sometimes.”

Zuko doesn’t reply for a moment. Then all of the sudden there are arms around Sokka, wrapping around him. Hugging him tight.


Sokka can’t sleep.

Aang and Toph are gone, traveling by eel-hound back to Ba Sing Se. Katara’s in a deep sleep, worn out by good-byes and a rigorous final day of training. Appa’s snoring beside her. Iroh seems peaceful enough, roughing it in a bedroll like the rest of them, though there’s a frown etched into his brow even in slumber. Sokka’s the only one still awake, squinting at the sky for the first traces of the comet, even though he logically knows they won’t appear for hours.

He’s under the open night sky, as far as he could get from his stifling cell, but he still can’t breathe right.

His eyes drift to the waning moon.

“Hi, Yue.”

Though he waits, the moon doesn’t twinkle back for him.

“I don’t know if you can hear me. And I don’t know if you’re allowed to care about us petty mortals anymore. But I just wanted to say...we could use help. We could really, really use your help.”

There’s no sign she can hear him, and he sighs. Then a hand ruffles his hair a little, lifts his head, and drops it back onto something that’s definitely not his bedroll. He adjusts, fidgeting until his neck’s supported by Zuko’s calves and his head’s cradled in Zuko’s lap. After a moment, Zuko resumes playing with his hair.

(Sokka closes his eyes. It feels exquisitely, painfully real.)


Sokka’s the last to wake, when he does, he finds only his forehead and the bottom halves of his legs are touching his bedroll. The rest of him, knees-up, seems to be floating in midair. He’s completely draped over Zuko, head tucked into the crook of his shoulder, their legs tangled together.

Katara and Iroh don’t mention it.


“The comet’s coming,” Zuko tells him while the sky’s still blue. “The energy’s incredible. I almost feel alive again.”

Sokka clicks his ring. Zuko seizes the sparks and blows them into life, and the flame grows long and full-bodied, blazing hot blue at its heart. Perhaps Sokka ought to be frightened, but as he looks at the plume- blue stretching to green, then yellow and orange and red- he’s struck breathless by its rainbow beauty.


Covered by a cloud, they fly easily into Caldera. Perhaps too easily. The island is quiet, like it’s holding its breath.

(It’s also heartbreakingly beautiful, under a red-streaked sky like sunset. There are crystal-clear springs and lush, rolling hills. The city itself looks well-planned, with glimmering golden lights and neatly spaced circular roads, but a closer look reveals red-roofed houses of all different sizes. It’s an elegant city, without any of the suffocating sterility of Ba Sing Se’s Upper Ring.)

“I get why you wanted to come back,” Sokka breathes.

(For a moment he fears Zuko’s left, now that he’s at last made it back here. But Zuko seizes his hand and doesn’t let go, not even as Appa circles a grand temple and at last lands just outside the gates. As Sokka takes his first step across the threshold, into the grounds of the Fire Nation Coronation Plaza.)

“Is it supposed to be this quiet?” Katara asks as she joins him.

Iroh leaps down last. “The Fire Sages are present.” He gestures at several red-robed men, waiting across the courtyard at the temple’s entrance. “But where is Azula?”


“Run!” Sokka hollers, not even asking why. He sprints back out towards Appa, just in time to see him go up in flames.

Appa’s roar of pain shakes the ground, and he shoots up into the air, smacking his tail against stone in his haste to get away. It looks like his airbending alone extinguishes the flames.

(But Sokka’s hand briefly jerks upwards, and he knows Zuko flew up and helped.)

Appa zooms away, dodging a further barrage of fireballs, lowing in pain and panic. On the ground, a line of armored guards clanks its way through the gate, blocking off the exit. Then a sharp, chilling laugh crackles through the air.

Sokka turns, slowly, to see Fire Lord Ozai emerge from the temple.

“Iroh,” he calls with a merry smile, spreading his arms in a mockery of a welcome. “How kind of you to turn yourself in.”

“Tell me, brother,” Iroh growls back, “why would the Phoenix King cower at home, rather than facing a battlefield?”

Ozai scoffs, tossing his head back theatrically. “You think I would grant Azula the Fire Lord’s crown? No, she can have Ba Sing Se tonight. A chance to redeem herself after her last wretched failure.”

Sokka’s heart is currently trying to worm its way out his throat. Zuko clutches his hand for dear life.

“I knew,” Ozai continues, his robes trailing behind him as he descends to the courtyard floor, “that you would deepen your treachery tonight, Iroh. And so I offer you another chance, too. Take it. Seize the opportunity to fail magnificently, one last time.”

Katara glances around the courtyard. It’s now lined by the Fire Lord’s personal guards, who have all slid into identical firebending stances. Iroh’s no doubt made the same calculations as he bows his head.

“I challenge you to an Agni Kai,” he declares solemnly when he raises his gaze once more, “for the Dragon Throne.”


“We can’t cheat,” Sokka babbles breathlessly. “Because if we do, we’ll get caught, and if we get caught, we’ll get roasted.”

Katara places a hand on his shoulder.

“There are pipes under the courtyard,” she whispers. “Maybe we can escape. We need to look in every direction.”

Her eyes dart away from Sokka, to the space behind him. Sokka nods to her as Zuko squeezes his shoulder in understanding. Then he and Katara are forcibly hauled to the sidelines by two of the guards.

“Water Tribe, huh?” one guard says conversationally. “Go ahead and put up an ice wall around yourselves, if you can. You’ll need it.”

Katara and Sokka glance at each other, and she pops her waterskin open and pulls out the liquid inside. The guards don’t seem to care. They’re not threatened in the slightest.

The last thing Sokka sees before the ice goes up is Iroh, bare-chested and kneeling by the gate, head bowed as if he’s already lost.

(This is not how tonight’s supposed to go.)

And then Sokka’s very, very grateful for Katara’s ice wall. Fire floods the entire courtyard and crashes through the colonnade. The searing heat creeps even past the wall to scald them. Through the wavy haze of ice, it’s impossible to guess whose fire is whose as the reds and golds clash and mix, but Sokka can make out a few maneuvers- Iroh’s thrown up a wall that absorbs Ozai’s fireballs, and it ebbs and grows over several breaths. At last it contracts into the biggest, brightest fireball Sokka’s ever seen and shoots forward, trailing flame like a comet.

“The pipes are too small,” Zuko announces, his fingerprints rapid and faint from terror.

“Keep looking. Service tunnels, hidden rooms, there has to be a way out.”

Katara grunts from exertion as the ice splinters, thinned by heat.

A volley of blasts batters Iroh from above. Ozai’s flying; he might have leapt right over Iroh’s giant fireball, the way an airbender would. Iroh still fights back from the ground. A steady wall of flame defends him, and he lobs fire at Ozai through it. His blasts boom through the air, deafening. They don’t seem to matter, going by how easily Ozai returns fire.

“The tunnels under the city are filled with soldiers. I think half the army’s here.”

“Keep looking,” Sokka grits out as the ice gives out and shatters. Katara pulls water from the pipes underneath the courtyard to reform it, just in time to block another blazing sheet of flame.

They can’t be trapped here. Not with Ozai. Not now.

“There’s no way out!”

“Just look-“

A blinding crack of blue snaps through the air. An instant later, the thunder shakes Sokka to the bone.

Katara lets go of the ice. It splashes to the ground, revealing Iroh lying on the stone of the plaza, body wracked by blue electricity. At last, he extends an arm and sends the current back towards the temple doors, where Ozai might have been a few seconds ago.

Now, though, Ozai’s flitting around in midair on his fancy jets. As half the building explodes behind him, he casually lowers himself back to the ground. Then he saunters forth slowly, with terrible delight on his face, like he’s flipping through all his methods of execution and simply deciding on his favorite. Iroh lies on the ground before him, unconscious, with wisps of smoke rising from his body.

“The lightning was too fast. He didn’t have time to redirect it right.”

Katara winces. “Is he-“

“Not yet,” Zuko says.

Sokka repeats it out loud.

Then his fourteen-year-old sister lifts her arms, about to raise a wave of water from the ground and personally attack the Fire Lord. Sokka grabs her wrist before she can.

She looks at him in anguish. “But someone’s got to…”

Someone has to step in.

Sokka glances around. He takes in the palace, the legions of firebenders sworn to honor the Fire Lord. The waning moon. The comet, brilliant in a blood-red sky.

“Fire Lord Ozai,” Sokka hollers, cupping his hands around his mouth to make the sound travel, “I challenge you to an Agni Kai for the Dragon Throne!”


Special congratulations to those of you who saw this coming <3

Chapter 13

Chapter Text

Ozai lifts a hand that’s red with flame.

“What are you doing?”

“Hey! Ozai! I’m stepping in for Iroh. Law of Substitution, something, something!”

Now Katara grabs his wrist, utterly aghast. Ozai freezes too, hand raised. Then he extinguishes it and wheels around to face him.

“The Law of Substitution,” he says icily, “is reserved for those with an equal claim to the duel. Here, you would need a legal right to the throne.”

“Right,” Sokka replies with a slightly hysterical grin on his face. “I totally knew that. So let’s do this.”

He puts up his fists in a mock boxing stance.

“Sokka!” Katara hisses.

“Heal Iroh,” he hisses back, before turning again to Ozai.

Sokka’s doing his best to muster up all his courage, the mildly unhinged optimism that convinced him to wait for the line to be cut before jumping off that gondola. He’s also taking some inspiration from his first meeting with Zuko. The guy had flung himself head-first into battle with the Avatar in a place filled with ice, well before he knew that Aang was a pacifist twelve-year-old who could only bend air.

Most importantly, Sokka’s channeling the sheer oblivious audacity of Yue’s fiancé Hahn, strutting off in his 85-year-old Fire Navy armor to defeat “Admiral Cho.”

Sokka struts out into the courtyard, right up to the Fire Lord. Ozai towers over him, staring at him with equal amounts of amusem*nt and irritation written on his face. His long hair flutters in the breeze. His not inconsiderable muscles gleam an eerie red.

(Sokka can spot traces of Zuko in that face.)

“What?” Sokka asks, stopping short. “You want a legal claim to the throne? I’ve got that.”

“Really?” he sneers.

“Of course! What kinda fool do you think I am?” Before Ozai can answer, Sokka raises a hand. “Let me start over. Hi. I wish we were meeting in nicer circ*mstances. I’m Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe.”

He puts out his hand. Ozai does not clasp it. Sokka takes it back.

“I’m your son-in-law,” he continues cheerily. “After you exiled Zuko, I secretly married him.”

There are audible gasps all around the courtyard.

Ozai simply lifts his eyebrows and then glances over his head at the Fire Sages. “Is he lying?”

“There’s a ritual,” Zuko taps out frantically, “for determining whether someone’s a legitimate part of the royal family. He made me do it one time, because he hoped I was a bastard.”

The Fire Sages have whipped themselves into a flurry of activity. Nobody seems to care about Katara, slowly dragging Iroh back to the sidelines to be healed.

“Bring out the embers!” calls one of the Sages.

“You’ll have to hold a pile of sacred embers. If you’re a royal, you’ll be okay. Otherwise, your hands will get blown off.”

Sokka tilts his head. He doesn’t dare voice his question, not now that Ozai’s turned back to him.

Zuko answers anyway. “Strictly speaking, a ghost marriage might not count for the line of succession. In fact, it shouldn’t. Otherwise any random person could declare themselves married to any dead royal. The whole system would fall apart.”

Great. Perfect. Not like that obliterates Sokka’s already flimsy excuse for a plan.

The Sages bring out a brazier and beckon him towards the temple entrance, and he swaggers over, swinging his arms, projecting brazen confidence with every step.

“These are the sacred embers,” one Sage informs him. “You’ll have to-“

Sokka promptly puts out his hands, crunches his eyes shut, and prepares for scorching pain...

All he feels is a comfortable warmth. When he opens one eye, his hands are heaped with red-hot rocks, but there isn’t even a hint of hurt.

“His claim is honest,” comes the Sages’ declaration. “There is not the slightest smoke. His union is blessed wholeheartedly by Agni himself.”

“I could’ve told you that,” Sokka boasts, heartbeat hammering his ribs as he drops the embers back into their brazier. “Okay, Fire Lord. You up for the challenge?”

Ozai’s eyes drift closed, as if he’s asking the spirits what he did to deserve this. If prompted, Sokka would be happy to give him a list.

“I accept your challenge,” he finally intones, sounding profoundly unimpressed.

“Cool.” Sokka puffs up his chest. “So we should talk terms. I don’t need armor or anything, but where I come from? We like wearing clothes outdoors, so I’m going to keep my shirt on.”

Ozai waves a hand dismissively. “Keep whatever you like.”

“I- thanks, but I wanna make sure we do this right and follow all the proper Fire Nation traditions. It wouldn’t be honorable to cut corners. So I’m keeping my shirt, and my accessories. Like this?” With one hand, he points at his trademark bone necklace. “It’s got sentimental value!”

“Very well,” Ozai sighs.

Sokka casually twists the ring on his other hand, hiding a glowing green stone from view. It came from the sparky sparky boom crystals closest to Bumi’s house. From the tunnels of Oma and Shu.

“I also want to keep these two weapons.” Sokka twirls his sword around, demonstrating that it’s perfectly normal. Then he briefly lifts Boomerang, its sharpened edge glinting red in the night. “They’re traditional weapons back home. I figure it’s only fair if I have them, seeing how I can’t bend.”

And that gets Ozai’s attention.

“You’re not a bender,” he states.

“Nope!” Then Sokka frowns. “Wait, do you want a sword too? Because I don’t want anyone to come back crying that my terms weren’t fair to you-”

Ozai interrupts, ignoring what Sokka considers a rather generous offer. “Are you genuinely attempting this-” he sweeps a hand backwards, gesturing at the half-scorched courtyard- “with a sword?”

“With a sword, a boomerang-” he waggles Boomerang in the air and pouts at its exclusion- “and the power of the sun!”

Ozai lazily looks upwards, at the completely sun-free night sky. Then he looks back down. “That light’s from the comet, not the sun.”

“I know,” Sokka says, words speeding up. “You firebenders are supposed to really love the sun, right? And if it was daytime during the comet, I doubt I’d ever have a chance one-on-one against you! Um. Really, you could say it’s the absence of a sun that I’m using to my advantage. So yeah. Can I use your awesome Fire Nation-y sun against you?”

Sokka grins and clicks two finger guns at Ozai.

(Sokka’s not breathing. He quit breathing a while back as the babbling sped almost out of his control, as the scowl deepened on Ozai’s face until Sokka became quite sure he’d die right here, struck down by lightning on the spot.)

“Yes. If that’s all,” Ozai finally says with remarkable restraint, “I accept your terms gladly.”

Sokka nods. “That’s all.”

Ozai moves, like he’s about to turn and walk to the gate at the other end of the courtyard. That’s how these things all start, right? Two people on opposite sides?

Then he pauses, favors Sokka with a toothy smile, and makes an observation. “You and my son were well-matched in intellect.”

Sokka inhales for eight counts before he dons a grand smile of his own. “Thanks. We definitely thought so!”

Sokka steals a desperate glance at Katara, bent over Iroh’s prone body. She meets his gaze and shakes her head.

“She said she’ll need hours to heal him.”

Sokka checks that his sword’s sharp, and he double-checks that Boomerang’s where it’s supposed to be, stowed behind his back again. He turns back towards the temple and kneels in the ceremonial position that Iroh took, resting his forehead against his knee.

“You got the plan?” he asks quietly in these last moments of silence, mouth carefully hidden from non-ghostly observers. “I know you said you couldn’t have beaten him, even with the throne on the line…”

“I will never let him burn you. I swear it.”

Eight counts in. Eight counts out.

(Zuko’s hands are on his waist.)

“Stop stalling,” Ozai jeers from a courtyard away.

Sokka takes another slow breath, just to be contrary, and then rises.

The Fire Lord hurls out a cone of flame.

Sokka flicks the switch on his ring.

Then there’s nothing to shield Sokka but rainbows.

Green and blue and red collide with Ozai’s golden firestorm, their colors swirling together at the center of the courtyard. Sokka clicks furiously, so fast he’s afraid the little switch will break. It doesn’t. Zuko seizes every spark he flings out and breathes it into a bouquet of variegated flame and feeds it into his central attack. Ozai’s blast grows, expanding until it spans the courtyard and leaps higher than the rooftop, yet Zuko steadily matches it. Not a single spark of Ozai’s makes it to Sokka’s side of the courtyard.

When the first round of flames dies down, Ozai’s face is glowing with rage. Sokka flicks the switch.

Zuko attacks. He propels two streams of blue-green fire towards Ozai. The streams twine together- it looks more like waterbending than firebending- and gain speed the further they go, like Zuko’s zooming with them and hurrying them along. Yet Ozai kicks out his own sheet of flame, and the rainbows disintegrate instantly. Quickly recovering, Zuko throws forth a vertical sheet of flame. He chases it up with a quick series of fireballs. They all meet the same fate, shattered easily by Ozai’s fire.

They can’t burn Ozai. He’s too good for that, too skilled to be brought down by any sort of standard firebending.

(Sokka’s brain hands him an idea for a mechanical lightning generator- he could conduct the current with metal wires and maybe Zuko could redirect it at opponents- but he discards it. It’s way too late for that now.)

Zuko seems to agree- ordinary attacks will do no good. He retreats to near Sokka, briefly brushing his shoulder before bringing up a circular wall of flames, blocking yet another gigantic plume of orange fire. Then Ozai hurls out his own rapid barrage of blasts, though Sokka only knows them from the sound. He’s shielded on all sides now by a domed shell. There’s nothing but rainbows in every direction, as far as he can see.

(The ground quakes from the blasts, and Sokka gets the feeling they’re starting to really make Ozai mad. It’s not a pleasant thought.)

Sokka keeps clicking away, and Ozai keeps firing, and Zuko keeps blocking and occasionally returning fire. Sokka crouches low to the ground, so Zuko has to cover as little space as possible.

Then Sokka’s thumb cramps.

He instantly drops his sword and resumes clicking with the other hand, but he’s sure: his destiny ends here. He might die from an ill-timed hand cramp, but really it’ll be Ozai’s fire in his face, and really he’ll just be one more causality of a century’s senseless violence. If he’s lucky, he’ll get to haunt the palace and make himself a nuisance to Fire Nation royals for centuries to come. If he’s really lucky, he’ll get to keep Zuko-


Sokka’s clicking away, but none of the sparks are turning to flame anymore. The dome’s wisped away, and Sokka shoots to his feet, just in time to see Ozai rocketing into the air. There’s fire under his feet, propelling him upwards, and in his hands he’s gathering two grand fistfuls of flame.

Sokka clicks.

The sparks die.

But then the jets under Ozai’s feet wink out, one after the other, and Sokka’s jaw falls open.

Zuko and Ozai are doing battle in the air. After dropping a couple feet, Ozai relights the jets easily, and he swipes fire with his hands, trying to bat away whatever invisible parasite’s attached to him. Zuko ignores his attacks in favor of putting out the jets, and gravity tugs Ozai a couple feet down every time he does. It’s fantastically petty. Sokka watches their midair wrestling match, stretching his thumb and almost bursting with pride.

It takes a minute, but Zuko at last manages to put out all the fire holding him up, and then supercharges an upward-facing flame that Ozai was kindling in his palm. It flares bright and abruptly propels Ozai down, and he plummets into the stone of the courtyard. His body strikes the ground with a mighty crash, dust rising all around him.

He’s only a few yards from Sokka.

He begins to push himself up, barely affected by what should have been a deadly fall, but Sokka grabs his chance. He grabs his sword and charges with a proper war cry and screams out a hundred years of pain and horror and loss and-

Sokka stabs Fire Lord Ozai.

It’s not a clean hit. Ozai rolls out of reach, and what should’ve been a direct strike to the liver just slashes his torso. Zuko jerks Sokka back by the shoulder as Ozai lets out a wordless growl, and Sokka clicks just in time for Zuko to block another raging torrent of fire.

(And then Ozai casually cauterizes his own wound with one hand while also blocking Zuko’s next attack. He’s cool about it. Not even a wince.)

For the moment, Ozai’s given up on his dreams of flying like a phoenix. He stays confined to the ground, but his bending takes on a wild edge. His fire stretches wider and higher, it burns hotter, and even as Zuko protects Sokka from the core of each attack the fringes shoot past them, setting the rest of the temple alight behind him. Rubble patters down around them. Smoke clogs the air.

Somehow, Sokka stays standing. A stolen look confirms that Katara’s standing too, though she’s watching the duel without any ice to protect her. They’re still alive, but their luck can’t hold out forever.

Sokka searches for an opening.

Zuko launches a low, whirling ring of flame that expands outwards, along the ground, and Sokka’s abruptly reminded of Kyoshi Village. Back then, Zuko had fallen to the ground and kicked out a ring of flame like this one, only smaller and red. Sokka’s never seen anyone else bend quite like that.

Ozai has to pause his attacks to block it. For an instant he just pauses, like he recognizes this move too.

On instinct, Sokka reaches back for Boomerang and hurls it into the fray. Ozai ducks it easily, and it vanishes behind another wave of red-orange flame, and then the red vanishes too. It’s replaced by sudden blue.

By lightning.

Lightning springs from nowhere, sizzling and deafening and forking all around Sokka, white-hot and sprawling in a way Azula’s couldn’t. Sokka throws his hands up. He knows, he knows, it’s a useless act of self-defense, yet Zuko catches the center of the current just before it fries him, gathering all the light where his hands might be. Then he hurls lightning at Ozai, a brilliant blaze that catches him in the chest.

A moment later, Boomerang comes back. It returns to Sokka’s hand, sharpened edge dripping blood.

Ozai crumples.

Sokka remains standing.

“It’s a trick,” he whispers to himself after a few seconds of silence. “It’s got to be a trick. He’s playing dead, to lure me in and smoke me for good.”

“My father would never feign weakness,” Zuko replies. “It’s a matter of honor, something, something.”

Sokka buries his head in his free hand as a brief, demonic cackle seizes his facial muscles. This can’t be happening. No way.

“He’s unconscious, but still breathing.”

That snaps Sokka back to reality. He slowly pulls himself back together and walks over to Ozai’s twisted body, afraid of what he’ll find.

(There’s a star-shaped scar on his chest, from the redirected lightning. Boomerang’s rebound got the back of his head, now damp with blood.)

“You shouldn’t kill him now that he can’t fight. You legally won the crown, but if you push too much further, you won’t keep it. The second you take the crown you could face a challenge or worse, a military coup.”

Sokka crouches down. Ozai’s lying on his right side, hair in disarray. His crown’s fallen right off, perhaps knocked out of place by Boomerang. Sokka grabs it.

“But what about you?” he murmurs. “You could kill him. Or not. You’ve got options.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, is what you want vengeance, against the person who really started this all? An eye for an eye?”

There’s no answer as Sokka gently brushes Ozai’s long hair out of his face, baring his left cheek. He brings his ring closer than is strictly necessary.


The sparks fly from the gem and then fizz out, untouched.

“No,” Zuko says eventually, “that isn’t what I need.”

Sokka nods. Rocks back on his heels and tries to figure out what to do with a wounded Fire Lord- ex-Fire Lord?- now that he’s got one. He’s made a lot of plans for the night of the comet, but none of them ever got this far.


She flings herself across the courtyard, grabbing him in a tight, silent hug.

“I’d hug Zuko too,” she finally says, face buried in the crook of his shoulder, “if I could.”

“Wanna get in on this?” Sokka asks.

Tentatively, Zuko embraces him too, pressing against his back and wrapping his arms around Sokka. It’s a bit odd- his hands keep phasing through Katara, so Sokka can feel them both in the same spot- but eventually he works out an anatomically plausible group hug.

“What are we going to do with Ozai?” Sokka sighs. “Leave him?”

Katara pulls back to inspect the guy.

“Oh, no way,” he warns. “We are not healing Ozai right now. He’ll just go right back to setting the world on fire.”

Suddenly, the red ambient glow in the air is replaced with white, and Sokka glances up to see-


That’s Yue, floating in midair- no fire jets this time, just twinkling otherworldly spirit magic. She slowly spins, surveying all the Fire Nation guards and sages lining the courtyard. There are more of them than there were before. A crowd must’ve gathered to watch while Sokka wasn’t looking. As she deserves, they look up to her in awe.

“The Fire Nation’s crimes have spanned a century and scarred every country, even this one,” she says. Her voice is sweet and silvery like he remembers, yet it’s layered now with undeniably superhuman power. “Under Fire Lord Ozai’s orders, the Moon Spirit was slain, and every waterbender was robbed of their bending. I do not seek vengeance. But the world will never be safe, under Fire Lord Ozai’s rule. Let healing begin here.”

She kneels down by Ozai, drawing water straight from the humid air and placing one hand on his brow, the other on his heart. Her hands begin to glow, like Katara’s do when she heals, but their light is a blinding white.

“She’s dousing his inner flame,” Zuko reports, fingerprints speeding with excitement. “His soul used to be made of flame, like firebenders’ are, but I can see it turning to air like everyone else’s.”

Sokka nods, accepting the explanation the way he’s accepted every other surreal twist of the day. Then he works through the implications.

“Are you taking his bending away?” he exclaims, his voice ringing through the court.

She simply nods.

When Yue finishes her work, she rises and smiles right at Sokka. There’s melancholy in it, but beyond that- contentment. Then her gaze flits to thin air- to Zuko, who began holding Sokka’s hand at some point.

Before she fades, she smiles on him, too.


After a night of extreme weirdness, Sokka briefly finds himself where he planned- fighting off a bunch of the Fire Lord’s guards.

“Your victory was won without honor and is thus rendered invalid,” a crotchety old Fire Sage squawks at him.

Okay, so they’re spiritual guards of the general office of “Fire Lord,” but the point stands.

“How was that without honor?” Sokka demands. “Do you think it was easy, standing in front of Ozai during a comet and not losing my mind?”

“You clearly had external assistance from some supernatural entity! Though why any firebending spirit would side with a usurper from the Southern Water Tribe, I can’t imagine-“

“The ‘entity,’” Sokka interrupts, “is the ghost of Prince Zuko, who sided with me because we believe in the same principles-“

“Then you must have enslaved his soul.”

“No! Zuko supports me freely, and I support him freely, and I would never do a thing like that to my husband!”

His chest heaves as he spits the words, suddenly furious.

“It’s true,” another sage remarks. “The bond between them is a strong and well-woven rope, not like a chain at all.”

He’s swaying a little. Sokka smells cactus juice on his breath.

“Regardless,” says a third sage, wearily, “you were not allowed to receive anyone else’s help during your Agni Kai.”

Sokka co*cks his head. “Really? ‘Cause I definitely remember the Fire Lord agreeing when I asked, ‘Can I use your awesome, Fire Nation-y son against you?’”


Sometimes there are advantages to announcing sneak attacks at the top of your lungs.


So Sokka wins the Fire Lord’s crown on the strength of his wordplay.

“The only reason they let you through is because they expect Azula to challenge you within the week,” Zuko warns him.

“Good thing I’m gonna abdicate as soon as Iroh’s up,” Sokka whispers back, fiddling with his new hair accessory. He’s been growing his hair out, but it’s still not enough to hold Ozai’s spiky headpiece in place. The damned thing keeps falling out.

He’s sitting in the palace’s medical wing, where Katara compares notes with Fire Nation doctors on Iroh’s case. Zuko assures him they’re the most competent doctors around for treating firebending injuries. Apparently, Zuko had many chances to appreciate their skills, growing up.

(And that’s another reason why Sokka’s tempted to go down a couple beds and slit Ozai’s throat right now, but no. He’s going to look past revenge.)

“I shouldn’t do anything political,” Sokka keeps muttering. “Nothing that’ll convince one of the cabinet ministers to challenge me right this second.”

No banishing Ozai until he captures the Avatar, no matter how tempting it might be.

Still, Sokka’s the Fire Lord, at least for tonight. There’s got to be something worth doing with all that power.

“What should I do?” he asks. “Ban the consumption of turtleducks?”

“Tempting, but there might be serious economic implications for farmers that we haven’t thought of.”

“...I know what to do!”

He checks that Katara’s okay for now, and then he seeks out the Fire Sages again. “I need you to take me to the royal family’s shrine.”

“Fire Lord Sokka, please understand that harming the family shrine may rouse the anger of spirits who protect the Fire Nation-“

“I swear on my honor,” he assures them, “I’m out of my grave desecration stage.”


He isn’t desecrating the shrine. Really.

Sokka enters alone- with Zuko, always with Zuko- bearing two freshly engraved tablets.

“You have to show me,” he says, voice quiet in reverence. “Where’s your mother’s spot?”

Zuko guides his hand to the proper space. Carefully, Sokka inserts Ursa back into her rightful place, and then he flicks the switch on his ring so Zuko can light a stick of incense in her memory.

One tablet to go.

“Where should I put this?”

“Just under hers.”

Sokka bows his head as tears struggle up his throat. The Fire Lord’s crown weighs too heavily on his head, and his heart has been ripped open a hundred times today by both pain and hope, and he nearly died. He nearly died so many times, and while he might’ve made it as a ghost in his own right, he more likely would’ve left this world forever without telling Zuko goodbye.

Without telling Zuko.

“You want to light a stick of incense for yourself?”

“I don’t think the formalities matter so much, to me.”

Sokka nods, and lifts Zuko’s tablet to its empty space. As he places it, he finally pulls the words from his own throat.

“By the way, Zuko? I love you.”

The world goes white.

For a moment, there’s nothing but impossible radiance, enveloping him, so bright he forgets the shelves and the tablets and the rest of the world. He forgets everything but white light.

(If he squints, he can see it’s woven from every color in the rainbow.)

Just as suddenly, it disappears, shooting through the ceiling of the shrine.


There’s no answer. He tries again, but there’s nothing.

Sokka runs out, past a horde of dumbstruck Fire Sages. He’s just in time to see Zuko’s soul leave him in a blaze of glory, ascending from the shrine straight towards the stars.

Chapter 14


Here's the last chapter. Thank you to everyone who's come on this journey <3

Chapter Text

Sokka stands there for a moment, struck still by wonder and grief. Zuko’s soul ascends upwards like a second comet, a ball of pure white that leaves a trail of light in its wake.

Then it curves, like it’s going somewhere.

Sokka stares at it, and then he looks to the stars. Identifies a couple familiar constellations. Checks a couple angles.

He takes off like a comet in his own right, dashing back towards the palace.


As he bursts into the medical wing, she whips her head around. So does Iroh, now awake and sitting up in his bed.

“Call Appa, we’ve got a Zuko situation.” While she scrambles for their bison whistle and blows it, he turns to Iroh. “Can I abdicate to you now?”

He nods. “Yes, but my nephew-“

“Might have just done the impossible, again.”

Iroh’s eyes go huge.

“I’ll find out. Here.” Sokka tosses the Fire Lord hairpiece to Iroh, who catches it against his injured chest with a wince. “Sorry. And good luck!”

Then he and Katara tear back out of the palace, right as Appa comes back. He growls, clearly jumpy about being back on Caldera.

“We have to follow the white light,” Sokka declares as he clambers onto Appa’s neck. “Yip-yip!”

Enthusiastically, Appa springs away again.

Ghosts don’t explode in white light when they die for good, someone would’ve mentioned it if they did. Yet Sokka’s seen this phenomenon once before, on the night this all started. Back at the North Pole, Zuko had moved Aang’s body while his soul was in the Spirit Oasis. Sokka had only been able to track them down because Aang’s soul had manifested as a white ball of light like this one. It had streaked across the sky, shooting from the Oasis back towards his physical body, and Sokka had chased it.

(Aang had woken up, after that. Sokka dares to hope.)

Appa seems to understand the urgency. Seasonal air currents are on their side as they chase down the white light, and he’s making record time. Katara heals him repeatedly, soothing his exhausted muscles and replenishing his energy. Still, the light gains on them. Sokka squints at it, tracking it as long as he can across the comet-reddened sky, but eventually it disappears from sight.

“The North Pole, right?” Katara says.

“I hope so.”

She nods off soon after that. Sokka can’t blame her, but he’s wide awake, eyes fixed on the horizon. After a few hours, Sozin’s comet disappears too, replaced by a ruddy, surprisingly smoke-free sunrise. By Sokka’s calculations, they’ve passed the Northern Air Temple latitude-wise. Green hills turn to icy waters below them, and the frost starts to bite through Sokka’s light, Fire Nation clothing. His sister wakes up soon after that.

“Hey, Katara, can you make steam?”

It takes her a second, but she can. Sokka sits in his personal steam cloud and tries not to let his heart boil over.

(Maybe it’s denial, but Zuko can’t be gone. He can’t.)

(Sokka didn’t get to say goodbye.)


Sokka squints where Katara’s pointing. There’s a narrow column of white light shining from the ice.

“Come on, Appa!” He steers Appa straight toward it, and the bison roars and races forward with a fresh burst of energy.

The light becomes clearer, the closer he gets. It looks white from a distance, but really there are rings of every other color whirling within it.

Then it dims, and disappears.

Wordlessly, Katara grabs Sokka’s hand.

As Appa lands, she’s the first one off, leaping onto the iceberg- the same one where they’d left Zuko buried in snow a lifetime ago. With a wave of her hands, she melts all the ice around them. Sokka spins around, searching for a sign, for anything in the water-

He dives in. It’s not his smartest plan, but he can see Zuko’s lifeless body sinking down into the water, fading from reach, and he won’t let him go now. He gets his arms around Zuko, and then Katara promptly raises them back to the surface on a new slab of ice. He kneels, cradling Zuko’s pale, frigid body as she zooms over and pulls half an ocean’s worth of water out of his lungs, as she places healing hands on his cheeks and over his heart and wills life back into him.

As his eyes flutter open, warm and golden.

His gaze comes to rest on Sokka’s face above him. For a moment, there’s no spark of recognition. Sokka stares down at that face- bruised, with a scowl burned into his left eye and a naturally sullen curve to his lip- and worries that Zuko doesn’t remember. Maybe he’ll shoot to his feet and start yelling about capturing the Avatar again.

Then the softest smile crosses his face, like a sunbeam peeking through clouds.

Zuko lifts a hand to Sokka’s cheek. Effortfully, he pushes himself up. He rises just far enough to meet Sokka’s mouth with his own.

Sokka starts sobbing just as Zuko starts laughing, silent chuckles rocking his whole body.

“You know what this means,” Katara says in the distance. “Aunt Wu was actually right.”

Sokka lets out a muffled groan. Zuko laughs harder. They don’t stop kissing.


Eventually Zuko collapses backwards, breathing hard and curling up into Sokka’s chest like he’s very small. He isn’t. He’s heavy, and so is his snow-white armor, even after Katara bends their clothes dry. Still, Sokka sweeps him up in his arms and carries him back onto Appa. Zuko’s eyes drift shut, but he’s still breathing.

After a minute’s deliberation, Katara and Sokka decide to re-introduce themselves to the Northern Water Tribe.

Chief Arnook’s not thrilled about taking in the Prince of the Fire Nation. Sokka maybe doesn’t make the best argument for it, half-asleep on his feet and still carrying Zuko around: “Look, he took down Ozai. Well. Technically I took down Ozai too? It was a team effort, and if we lose Zuko now, Aang’ll probably go into the Avatar State and wreck half the world-“

Katara shushes him with a gentle hand on his shoulder. Sokka shuts up on cue and just sits down, so he can pull Zuko- deep in weary slumber- a little closer.

She steps forward to address the Chief. “What my brother’s trying to say is that the war is over. Fire Lord Iroh rules the Fire Nation now, and he’s committed to peace. Fire Lord Ozai was defeated by Sokka, the ghost of Prince Zuko...and the moon spirit, Princess Yue.” As Chief Arnook gasps in shock, she lifts her hands and adds, “I’ll be happy to tell you the entire story, but first, Zuko needs medical care. I can try to heal him myself somewhere else, but he was, uh, dead for several months? And if your healers could assist with his case, we’d be truly honored.”

Sokka suspects that last sentence is what gets them in at the end. The world’s best healers can’t miss the chance to help revive the dead; the sheer novelty of Zuko’s case must grab their interest. Master Yagoda ushers him and Katara into the infirmary, and Sokka lays Zuko down on the floor. Rapidly, the healers pull him out of his freezing armor and clothes, revealing both chiseled muscles and a patchwork of mottled bruises splashed across his skin. Katara surveys them in horror.

“What happened?”

“Zhao,” he intones. “Assassination attempt.”

She sets her jaw. “I’ll make sure he gets through this. You should rest.”

“Thanks, but I can’t sleep now.”

(Five minutes later, Sokka’s snoring against the infirmary wall.)



He awakes with a start as Katara shakes his shoulder. “Is he okay?”

“He’ll live. But he’s basically just a pile of wounds, he had fractures and multiple concussions, and there’s an old bruise I think was from Boomerang-“

Sokka winces.

“-and honestly, I’m surprised he was still standing by the time of the siege.”

“How is he now?”

“Stable,” she assures him, “but exhausted. And Yagoda’s worried he’s still running cold, for a firebender.”

“Can I help?”

She opens her mouth to gently tell him no, but then her eyes light up. “Yes, actually! It might help if he could share some of your body heat. We’ve tried just increasing his temperature directly, but maybe he needs the help.”

“You got it.”


When Sokka wakes up again, he’s nestled under a warm fur blanket, with an even warmer body tucked against his. Zuko’s casually using his chest as a pillow. Sokka shifts a little, just lifting a hand to touch that ponytail and the downy stubble on the rest of Zuko’s head. That’s when Zuko shifts, and arcs his back, stretching like a cat, and rolls to look Sokka in the eyes.

This man was made for his dreams.

Sokka means to say something profound, but he’s too busy smiling dopily to manage anything but, “Hi.”

“Good morning,” Zuko replies, lips twitching with amusem*nt. Then he twists around and calls, “He’s awake now!”

When he turns back, Sokka’s goggling at him.

“What?” Zuko says curiously.

Katara walks in at that instant, holding a tray with food, and Sokka shoots upright to address her. “Have you heard Zuko’s voice?”

She looks at him strangely. “Yes?”

“You’ve heard me talk too,” Zuko points out.

“Yeah, but you were always yelling or trying to destroy the world, it doesn’t count,” Sokka splutters. “Your voice is a miracle.”

It is. The tone’s husky and warm, dark yet tender. It’s gorgeous like a tsungi horn, and Sokka’s going to luxuriate in it forever.

“What?” he asks Zuko, who’s propped himself up on one elbow and is serving him a delightfully skeptical look. “You're looking at me like I’ve drunk cactus juice again!”

“Are we sure you haven’t?”

Katara rolls her eyes and drops the meal tray on Sokka’s lap. It’s covered in sizzling meats and pancakes and ice cream- a delicious cloud-blueberry akutaq, from the look of it.

He looks at Zuko. “Want some?”

“No thanks, I already ate.”

Katara drops down by the foot of their comfy snow bed, snickering. “You offered to share your food with him? It must be true love.”

Sokka’s mouth is too full for him to properly retort.

Zuko just nods. “I agree. Oh, and by the way?”

Sokka glances at him.

“I love you too.”

Sokka tackles him with a cloud-blueberry-flavored kiss. Zuko squawks in surprise; the tray definitely gets upturned in the ensuing scuffle. Though Katara clucks and shakes her head, she’s smiling too.


The leader of the Water Sages pays them a visit that afternoon.

“It’s an extraordinary case,” he observes after bending himself a seat from the ice, “though we have prior records of ghosts, and of people revived after several hours in ice.”

“Aang was in ice for a hundred years,” Zuko comments. “But he was alive...just hibernating, I guess.”

“Quite so. No one has ever come back from being so thoroughly dead.”

“Well,” Sokka points out, not-so-subtly wrapping an arm around Zuko’s waist, “I don’t think there’s ever been a ghost who can match my husband for sheer willpower.”

(“My husband.” According to Katara, he’s overusing that phrase. But it feels perfect in his mouth, and Zuko lights up every time he hears it, and Sokka’s going to wear those words out way more.)

“There was more to it than willpower,” Zuko offers while leaning into his arm. “Sokka has this crystal ring that’s just full of light, and I’m sure that helped.”

“Ta-da!” On cue, Sokka raises his hand, showing off his bling before dropping his hand onto Zuko’s knee.

Zuko chuckles. “Not to mention how by the night of the comet, I’d gotten so much of what I wanted in life, one way or the other. My husband had just placed my name in my family’s shrine, and he told me he loved me. I felt lighter than I ever had in my life.”

The sage tilts his head quizzically. “Light enough to return to life?”

He ponders that for a second. “For a moment, yes. But it had always seemed like an impossible jump, trying to get back to the mortal world. I barely made it.”

“Hm.” He strokes his silver beard, frowning. “We sages have always held that there is simply not enough energy in this world to bring the dead back.”

“I doubt there is,” Zuko agrees. “At least in this world. But that night, I also had the comet on my side-”

“Because the souls of firebenders are a kind of flame, right?” Sokka exclaims in sudden understanding. “So you disappeared during the eclipse, but you got super-powered during the comet!”

“My soul was overflowing with cosmic energy,” his husband says sagely, like someone who’s read too many books about the Avatar. “Still, I would’ve never tried that jump in the first place if I didn’t have so much to come back for.”

Grinning, he laces his fingers with Sokka’s.


News winds its way to the North Pole, slowly but surely. Ba Sing Se surrendered instantly on the night of the comet; not a single inch burned within its walls. As his first act, Fire Lord Iroh freed it. As his second act, he rescinded Zuko’s banishment.

Aang survived. Toph did too. Amazingly, Azula was forced into a semi-honorable surrender, though the details of her capture sound contradictory and more than a little concerning.

“Why did she think you were on the battlefield with her?” Sokka asks.

Zuko shrugs back at him, equally lost.

The tales of Ozai’s defeat start filtering in from the Fire Nation. They’re surprisingly factual, and they confirm that Katara and Sokka are not embellishing the story, thank you very much. Iroh’s consolidated power rapidly. Peace talks are already scheduled.

And while Sokka’s brief reign as Fire Lord will obviously go down in the history books, there’s a push against entrenching him fully.

“You’re supposed to get a twenty-foot-tall tapestry in the palace like all the other Fire Lords,” Zuko informs him. “But they always mess up the faces, I don’t think they’d do you justice.”

He reaches out to brush Sokka’s cheek.

“I’m fine not being remembered as a normal Fire Lord,” Sokka remarks, smiling while he presses into the touch. “It’s got a lot of baggage as roles go. And seeing how my one official act led to your resurrection? I should have a whole other title.”

“‘Phoenix King?’”

“Obviously,” Sokka agrees. “Move over, Ozai.”

Shaking his head, Zuko chuckles. It’s Sokka’s official favorite sound ever.


That night, Sokka shakes Zuko awake. He shudders back to consciousness, gasping for breath, one golden eye huge in the darkness.

Then he audibly groans and collapses against Sokka. “Did I wake you?”

“I never fell asleep.” Sokka cups his face, runs his fingers down his unscarred cheek. “You okay?”

“No. You?”


Zuko glances up at Sokka, at the sad half-smile settled on his face.

“We’ll get there,” Sokka whispers back.


“I’ve decided to call it ‘hopeful optimism.’”


A couple days later, as Zuko rests and attends healing sessions and slowly, slowly regains his strength, Toph and Aang crash back into their lives. Toph’s not thrilled about visiting the North Pole- ice and bare feet don’t go well together- so she hangs out on a docked ship in the harbor. For his part, Aang bounds into the city and into Zuko and Sokka’s room the minute he arrives. Sokka’s hello gets drowned out by Aang’s squealing and Zuko’s hollered protests.

See, Prince Zuko’s been captured by the Avatar. His sentence is the most aggressive hug of all time.


“So,” Toph says when the old gang reconvenes in her cabin, complete with one previously dead ex-archenemy. “You’re Rainbow.”

“I am not ‘Rainbow,’” Zuko intones. “Can’t I be something else, like...I don’t know, ‘Sparky’?”

She snorts. “Let’s see. What else did Snoozles call you- ‘Translucent Boyfriend’? ‘Full of Balls’?”

“...Actually, ‘Rainbow’’s okay.”

Rubbing her hands together, she lets out a villainous cackle. “So, both of you. Spill.”

“About the duel?” Sokka chirps, even as he tucks his cold feet under Zuko’s now ever-toasty legs. “Okay, so picture Ozai storming out of the palace-“

“Boring.” Toph cuts him off with a wave of the hand. “Been there, heard that, the entire world’s talking about it.”

Zuko frowns. “Then what do you want to know?”

“How did the romance happen? I want all the gory details!”

Sokka and Zuko exchange glances.

“So Zuko definitely fell for me the first time we met, ‘cause I hit him with Boomerang and gave him catastrophic brain damage-“

“That’s not true,” Zuko says, prodding him in the side with his elbow. “I always knew that Sokka was brave. I mean, the first time we met, he went after my warship with a sword. And he had to be smart and strong, or he wouldn’t have survived traveling with the Avatar-”

“How did you first realize I was hot?” Sokka interrupts, batting his eyelashes as everyone else titters.

“Once I was haunting you, I didn’t have a choice,” Zuko answers, perfectly deadpan. “You kept making muscles at yourself in every mirror that went by.”

And now they’re all tittering at Sokka. He can’t bring himself to mind.

“And we all know Sokka’s crush started with the cactus juice,” Katara teases.

“Not quite,” he corrects. “I already knew Zuko was hot.”

Zuko eyes him skeptically. “Is that a pun?”

“Not an intentional one, but I like how you think,” he replies with a grin. “Do you remember the swamp?”

Katara and Aang groan. Sokka takes that as a yes.

“So I totally lied about seeing Yue in my vision.”

“Yep,” Zuko snorts.

“I actually saw Zuko,” he elaborates. “I thought it was a version of him who’d never exist, but now I bet it’s him in just a few years.” He reaches out to brush Zuko’s scalp, now fuzzy all around the ponytail. “He’d grown out his hair and remembered how to smile, and I thought he was the prettiest boy I’d ever seen in my life.”

As Toph and Katara coo, Zuko blushes bright-red and buries his face in his hands.

“But that’s all about things on the outside,” Aang points out. “What about his inner qualities?”

“Yeah,” Toph says. “When did you catch real mushy feelings?”

Sokka’s wondered that himself.

“It happened over time for me.” He steals a glance at Zuko. “But if I had to pick a moment...there was a thing with a baby turtleduck.”

Zuko doesn’t look up from where he’s hiding his face.

“I know exactly when and why,” he says, muffled. “It was his rant against that version of Love Amongst the Dragons.”

Katara and Aang just look confused, while Toph tosses her head back and laughs raucously. But Zuko’s slumping like he legitimately wants to hide, and Sokka decides to divert some of the fire.

“And then in Boiling Rock? He kept boiling water so I wouldn’t freeze in the cooler,” Sokka says. “So you could say things got pretty...steamy.”

Right on cue, Katara, Aang, and Toph start groaning and complaining about his pun quality, and Sokka starts reminding them that he was made Fire Lord for his pun quality, he is the official Pun Lord of the world, the Pun-ix King. Zuko laughs helplessly in the middle of it all.


Katara sent a message to Iroh, the minute the healers knew Zuko would live. When the reply comes, Zuko holds the scroll like it’s precious, re-reading it until he’s memorized every character.

The letter’s addressed to both Zuko and Sokka. It contains an offer of adoption, an official apology for a case of wrongful imprisonment, and an invitation to hold a second wedding ceremony of royal proportions.

“The writing feels cold,” Sokka says. “Does it feel cold? Does your uncle-slash-potential-father hate me?”

“Royal correspondence always sounds funny,” Zuko assures him. “But I would’ve died to get this warm of a letter from my father.”

“You did die for that.”


(They write back, promising to think about another wedding ceremony.)

(“This time we can have meat!”)


Zuko starts practicing firebending, well-hidden for the comfort of the Northern Water Tribe. Sokka joins him though, providing encouragement and general good company. Sometimes, when Sokka gets close, Zuko’s flame starts flickering with streaks of pink and purple and green.

“What does that mean?” Sokka asks.

“Uncle will know for sure,” Zuko says with a shrug. “But it’s probably just a ghost thing.”



Katara calls him from the edge of the weapons training grounds- Sokka’s been brushing up his sword skills, because Zuko’s promised to train him in the mystic arts of dual-wielding as soon as he’s back to full health.

“What happened?” he hollers back.

“Dad’s coming! They just spotted his ships on the horizon, he must’ve heard we were here!”

Sokka drops everything. Katara runs straight to the harbor, but he makes a side trip to the infirmary, where Zuko’s in a private healing session. Sokka leaves a note with one of the healers outside about the news.

The ships simultaneously pull in, and by the time Sokka gets to the harbor and finds that out, Dad’s disembarked and gone to meet Chief Arnook. It’s quite the chase- more Zuko’s specialty than his- but eventually Sokka asks enough people to learn that Dad’s now catching up with Katara in a private chamber within the palace. Sokka traipses down the hall towards that room...

“-so much destruction. I hated him, Dad. I know Aang wouldn’t want that, but I really hated Zuko, and everything he stood for.”

Sokka stops still outside the door.

“And yes, I felt awful about what happened to him- what we did to him- but it didn’t make it easier to see him getting close to Sokka. There’s been girls, from the Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom, and it would’ve been so much easier if Sokka just dated one of them instead.”

“You’re using the past tense, Katara.” Dad’s voice rings through the hall, deep and warm and just like he remembered it, and Sokka’s at risk of tearbending again. “What changed your mind?”

There’s a pause.

“Zuko did. Ozai said they were well-matched in intellect, and he meant that as an insult, but...I think it’s true. Sokka took down the Fire Lord with the worst pun he’s ever made, and Zuko took down the Fire Army’s communications systems with a bunch of cavehoppers-“

“And with cuddling,” Sokka says, at last crossing the threshold. “Can’t forget the importance of the cuddling.”

“Sokka!” Dad rises from his seat and envelops him in a hug before observing, “You’ve grown.”

“And I acquired an until-recently-dead husband,” Sokka says, when he sits down. “I admit I heard part of that conversation. Don’t worry-“ he turns to Katara- “everything you said is true, and I’m glad you put it out there.”

“You married Ozai’s son,” Dad remarks. His expression’s heavily guarded.

“I did.”

“Katara tells me it started off as a matter of necessity.”

“Still is,” Sokka says, trying to keep his tone casual. “I need Zuko in my life.”

A whole tangle of expressions fits across his dad’s face- surprise, doubt, and an undeniable dose of fear. What he says though is, “Is he like his father?”

Sokka’s brain short-circuits. It’s an eminently reasonable question, and he has no idea how to answer it. Because Zuko and Ozai share so much- the firebending and the drama and the nice hair and the fact that neither of them can dodge a boomerang on its way back. Because Zuko and Ozai have nothing in common, in the ways that matter.


Sokka whips his head around to see Zuko.

“Zuko,” he says. “Darling. Sweetheart. Light of my life.”

(Zuko’s face lights up when he hears his name and then morphs into utter skepticism, the more pet names Sokka so publicly throws out.)


“You’ve got your robe on backwards.”

Zuko looks down and realizes, yes, in his hurry to get here he totally wrapped the right side of his robe over the left. “Right. Thanks. Give me a minute to jump off the nearest gondola.”

He backpedals out the door to fix it.

Sokka turns back to his dad. “I think you have your answer.”

Dad’s still looking at the doorway where Zuko was standing. He’s now fighting clear amusem*nt.

“Look,” Sokka says, knowing full well that Zuko can still hear him, “you’re at least half as scared of him as he is of you. Which is a lot. But Zuko would never do anything to hurt you, and-“ he twists around to face the door- “you meeting my dad can’t go any worse than me meeting your dad!”

“Well, sure, we’re not trying to take over the Southern Water Tribe!” Zuko calls back, voice echoing in the hallway.

“The Southern Water Tribe appreciates that,” Dad says, raising his voice too.

Katara giggles.

When Zuko returns, properly dressed and properly flustered, Dad rises to clasp his arm in greeting. “I’ve heard a lot about you and my children, but I’ll wait to pass judgment until I’ve heard the real story from the three of you.”

The two of them sit on either side of Sokka.

“Go ahead,” Dad says. “Fill me in.”

Katara takes a deep breath. “Alright. So it began here, at the North Pole, on a dark and stormy night-“

“It did not,” Zuko interrupts. “We can’t erase my mistakes, and that means it began on a clear day at the South Pole-“

“Hey,” Sokka yelps. “If we’re telling the whole story, we’re doing it properly. It began about three years ago in the Fire Nation when Ozai woke up and said, ‘I want to win the award for Worst Father Ever-'"

Zuko rolls his eyes. “If you’re going back that far, you might as well go to my grandfather!”

“Great idea! So, Dad, it all began many years back in this royal Fire Nation garden with an adorable flock of baby turtleducks…”

Boomerangs and Rainbows - mindbending (2024)


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