Thursday, March 31st, 2011 03:38 pm
Title: In His Shoes
Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: Avatar is not mine. Belongs to Nick.
Summery: In order to fully understand a man, you must first walk a mile in his shoes. Sokka and Zuko are going to find that out the hard way.
Spoilers: Only for season 2
Notes: It's the beginning of the end, guys! Are you excited? I'm excited. :D
*****


 



OOOOOOOOO


Previously on In His Shoes...
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"You can come with us," Hakoda said. "Whatever is in your past, me and my men will not hold it against you."

The masked man turned, and Hakoda wished he could see some expression behind the blue oni's scowl. But the man finally broke his silence. His voice was roughened with emotion. "I can do more good back there." He paused, and took in a shaky half breath. "I sorta have… a lot to make up for."

"We owe you a debt."

The man snorted softly, an unhappy sound, and shook his head again. There was a pause as he dug around in his black jerkin and came back out with a folded piece of parchment. "If you see your son," he said, and Hakoda was sure he heard Prince Zuko's voice crack. "Give this to him."

"I will." Hakoda said, taking the parchment.


OOOOOOOOO



"What do you mean you don't know where she is?" Zuko growled.

The merchant he was speaking to simply shrugged one massive, rounded shoulder. "The old apple lady only comes around when she has something to sell. And she already sold everything, didn't she?" he said, then to Zuko's complete disgust, snorted deep in his throat and spat wetly on the ground.

Zuko felt his lip curl up and for the first time in some weeks, wondered how he could possibly pull rank with this peasant. People had never dared spit in front of him when he was a prince— well, not that he could remember in the time before he was banished, at least.

Katara tugged on his arm. "Sokka, let's just go," she said, sounding about as grossed out as he felt.
The reminder of his name - his new name, he supposed– mollified him slightly, and he allowed the Water Tribe girl to pull him away, out of the small village square all together.

It was several mornings after Zuko's had his dream: he had initially wanted to track down the old woman immediately and ask if she had indeed seen the Water Tribe, but Katara had been adamant that she come along as well. And then, she insisted on waiting until she was certain Aang would be okay on his own for awhile.

The little monk was still weak and pained when he moved around too quickly, but after a few days awake he was cracking smiles and eating regularly.

Still, the delay might have cost them their only good lead on if any members of the Southern Water Tribe men were still alive.

Zuko cast Katara a sideways glance, trying to figure out why she didn't seem upset. Maybe she just didn't like admitting she was wrong, that it had been a mistake to wait. Katara could be like Azula in that way.

"She has to be around here somewhere," Zuko muttered. "We should ask around some more, maybe use some of Toph's money as a bribe." He had, after all, tracked the Avatar across the world. Surely he would be able to locate on mysterious old merchant lady.

Katara, however, simply shook her head. "I was thinking... you know what Dad always used to tell us if we got lost?"

Of course Zuko didn't. "Uh," he said, seizing upon the first thing he could think of, "Don't eat yellow snow?"

"No! You know," Katara prompted, at his blank look. "About the strength of the Water Tribe." He shook his head and she scowled, "Dad always said that strength could be found in the water, remember?"

"But... none of them are benders."

The look Katara gave him was so surprised that Zuko knew at once he had made a misstep, but he couldn't take it back now.

"You know none of that mattered, Sokka," Katara said, quietly. Firmly. "Not to him."

What are we talking about?
Zuko thought, wildly, but nodded anyway as if he understood. Katara still searched him with a long, eerily penetrating gaze before she shrugged and took the lead again, following the path to the field where they had left Appa.

Still wary, he let her take Appa's reigns and kept his council as she directed the giant bison up into the sky and back towards the direction of Ba Sing Se.

Inwardly, Zuko knew that anyone who held their own against the might of the Fire Nation Army, as Hakoda and his men had, probably knew how to run and hide very well. If they wanted any chance at outwitting Azula's forces, they'd already be far, far away.

But Katara only set her jaw and angled Appa towards a wide-mouthed river, set in the distance: one that drained away from Lake Laogai.
Zuko was trying to figure out how to best tell her that this was pointless when he suddenly spotted a curl of smoke drifting up against the sky.

"There!" he called, pointing.

Appa groaned as Katara flicked the reigns. They crested over the next rise and then... along the banks of the river, Zuko saw them.

Men. Dozens of them were camped alongside the water. Some were casting out rough-woven nets, some tended to cook-fires or worked cutting and reshaping timber.

And every last one of them wore blue.

Appa dipped closer, looking for a place to land. Zuko spied a familiar upturned face among the strangers. It was Hakoda.

They had found the Water Tribe.

Appa landed among men already running up to greet them. Hakoda was first there, scaled Appa's massive head in a single leap and pulled both Zuko and Katara into an embrace.

Zuko knew he shouldn't have really allowed: this wasn't truly his father and Sokka was - had been - nearly a man. But... he couldn't bring himself to pull away.

"This is amazing!" Katara said, when she could, tears streaming silently down her face. "We thought - we saw what was left of the ships and you were all gone. What happened?"

Hakoda's wide grin slipped a little. He hesitated before he answered. Some of the men grouped around them looked away.

"We had some help. I'll tell you about it later, when it's time," Hakoda said, then slapped Zuko's shoulder heartily. "Come, let me show you what we've been up to."


OOOOOOOOO



Sokka nodded to the Dai Li guards as they stepped aside from the cell-door and let him in. It took some maneuvering to close the door behind himself with a tray in hand. Luckily, he'd had lots of practice working in the tea-shop.

Iroh sat on the bare floor in the middle of the small, dark cell, his back to Sokka, not reacting at all.

Sokka took a deep breath and then stepped forward, feeling the familiar clenching in his gut: the almost overwhelming sense of guilt returning anew. Being with Mai had helped him almost forget for a time, but seeing Iroh again— imprisoned and possibly waiting a death sentence back at the Fire Nation all because Sokka had failed, drove it back home.

"I brought you breakfast," he said, and knelt to slide the tray under small gap between bars and floor.

Iroh did not react, did not move. This wasn't unusual. He hadn't so much as looked at Sokka since the day in the crystal caves nearly three weeks ago.

"I thought I should tell you," Sokka said, after an awkward moment, "We're getting out of here— er—, I mean Azula is shipping us back to the Fire Nation. All of us. We're going together." The silence was oppressive, and Sokka sighed, running a hand through his hair. It was getting long, he noticed, not for the first time. Zuko's hair grew fast.

He was about to turn away and get out of there, return to the refuge of a bright sunny day when Iroh suddenly, inexplicably, broke the silence.
"It is chilly in here, nephew. Would you mind lighting me a fire to keep warm?"

"What? Oh, uh, sure." Sokka walked to a nearby unlit torch, set well out of arms reach from behind the prison bars, and put his hand over it, concentrating. He searched for the warm spark within— whatever made a firebender a firebender - and brought it out with an exhaled breath.

Or at least, that was the idea.

It took Sokka three tries, three breaths to light a small flame. And even then it was a weak thing, flickering and in danger of going out until it caught the oil soaked straw of the torch.

Sokka thought he saw Iroh watching him out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned his head the old man still sat in the same spot, still looking away.

"Uncle Iroh?"

"Things are changing, Prince Zuko." Iroh's voice came out flat, as if he were speaking to the far wall.

It felt like the bottom dropped out of his stomach. "Wait... You-What?" he sputtered. "What do you mean?"

Did Iroh know? No, he couldn't have— he just called him Zuko, didn't he?

"My advice is to make sure you are ready," Iroh said, calmly. "For whatever is to come."

Sokka swallowed. "I don't understand."

"Be ready, nephew," Iroh repeated, and would not say more.


OOOOOOOOO




To Zuko's surprise Katara soon excused herself, saying that it would be best if she took Appa and brought back Aang and Toph as soon as possible. He would have thought, after not seeing her father for years, she would have wanted to stay longer than just a few minutes.

Zuko elected to stay. The Water Tribe men didn't have the resources, of course, to rebuild their sleek warships, but they could still manufacture weapons cut from wood: sharp spears, bows, arrows and simple canoes.

All hands were needed and as Appa and Katara rose into the sky, Zuko was asked to carry water up from the river to help with the night's stew.

The sun was glistening brightly upon the river and Zuko was just reflecting that he used to hate it when Uncle asked him to gather water, when he bent down to dip his bucket in and—

A pair of light golden eyes stared back at him from Sokka's tanned face.

Zuko lurched back, dropping the bucket and shattering the reflection.

He snatched it back out of the river and waited endless seconds for the water to still again and for his reflection to resolve.

Blue. His eyes were blue. He peeled down the lid of one eye just to be sure, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. Nothing changed. It must have been a mistake— a trick of light.

"Sokka!" someone called, waving at him from a distance. He thought the man was called Bato.

"Coming!" Zuko called back, and took one long last look at the river, Sokka's blue eyes, before he filled the bucket and went to join him.


OOOOOOOOO



As night fell and Appa returned with everyone aboard, the celebration kicked off in full. The Water Tribe didn't have much to them - they had been on the run for days it seemed – but they did have their lives. And as Katara had said, they seemed to draw strength from the river; or at least, food and basic supplies.

They ate a meal of baked guppy-salmon with some sort of river-weed which had an almost peppery flavor. A bonfire was started and Zuko sat with Aang, Toph, Katara, Hakoda, and the rest of the men as they passed stories around the fire.

In some ways it reminded him of his best memories of Ember Island, when he had been literally a different person.

Aang, thankfully, was happy to take over story-telling from their side. He still used his air glider as a crutch, but looked happy and more lively than he had since he woke up.

After awhile, Katara leaned over and asked, "You're being really quiet. Is everything alright?"

Zuko glanced at her in surprise. "What? I-I am?"

She shrugged. "I just thought you would want to be the one to tell our story."

Because Sokka was a loud-mouth
, Zuko thought, and he was... well. Speech making had never been his talent. Zuko scowled in answer and tried to turn the question back on her. "Yeah, well... what about you?"

"Me?"

"You haven't talked to your dad more than once today. I thought you would be happy to see him?"

"I am!" Katara said, but her face was oddly flushed in the firelight.

"You aren't asking like it," Zuko accused, getting angry now. Katara didn't know how good she had it – she had a father who cared about her, one who actually wanted to see her. If Ozai had cared half as much as Hakoda did

But now Katara's face was definitely reddening. "You don't understand, Sokka!" she snapped, loud enough to be noticed by others.
Conversations around the fire stilled and it seemed like everyone was watching as Katara continued in a growl, "You never understand!" and stood up, stomping away.

Zuko half-stood to go after her, but was stopped by Hakoda's voice.

"Let her be." The chieftain was sitting far enough away that he couldn't have heard the entire conversation, but from the suddenly aged look on his face Zuko was willing to guess he'd gotten the gist of it. "It's okay, Sokka," he said, and gestured for Aang to continue telling about Kyoshi Island. "There's something I need to speak with you about. Come with me."

His expression was serious and Zuko's stomach clenched, but he nodded and rose to his feet.

Hakoda led him away from the firelight, into the darkness where the noise of the conversations dimmed and was replaced by the chirping of night-bugs.

"I'm sorry," Zuko said, wanting this to be over with, and acutely aware that he had never had any type of close conversation with his father alone. He didn't know what to say. "I don't know what Katara's problem is..."

Hakoda let out a small huff of a laugh. "I think I do. She's... so very much like your mother."

He didn't elaborate any further, though, and led Zuko to the river, stopping on the bank and gazing out to the water for a time before he spoke again. "I didn't want to tell you this in front of your sister— I didn't want to worry her further or make her feel more guilty. But you should know the truth: we were captured by the Fire Nation. It was close and we nearly didn't get away."

"What?" Zuko stared at him, nearly speechless. "How did you escape?"

"We had help." Hakoda turned to face him, eyes glittering in the moonlight. "From someone I think you know." And from his tunic he withdrew what looked like a folded piece of parchment, sealed by unbroken candle-wax.

"He asked me to give this to you," Hakoda said, handing it over and then laying his hand once more on Zuko's shoulder. Pride in his voice. "I don't know what you did to persuade a Fire Nation prince to act on our behalf, but whatever it was, it worked. You have a good friend there, Sokka, and we're all indebted to him."

Then he left, heading back to the fire, leaving Zuko mute in shock and clutching a letter addressed to Sokka in his own handwriting.

The moon was bright behind him and gave enough light to see by as he tore open the letter with shaking hands. The message inside was short and terse, written in his own hand.


SHE IS GOING TO KILL HIM.


Zuko didn't need to wonder who "she" was. Azula, obviously, and that could only mean...

"Uncle," he breathed.

Zuko hardly knew what happened next. Everything seemed to collapse and fall inward, as if he were waiting for this point and hadn't known it. This moment. As if every worry he'd had in the last few weeks: Aang's health, Katara's weird reluctance towards Hokoda, Toph's crush on Sokka, how they were going to survive, what they were going to do next, and a million others – all of it fell away, leaving only one thought.
Azula was going to kill his uncle.

His feet were moving before he was even aware. He ghosted, silent like the Blue Spirit he once was, towards Appa. The bison trusted him and Zuko had driven him too many times for this to be unusual. He didn't give a complaint as Zuko climbed on a flicked the reigns.

Everyone was grouped around the fire. They'd never know until he left.

He didn't look back once as he guided Appa towards Ba Sing Se.


OOOOOOOOO

Thursday, March 31st, 2011 10:49 pm (UTC)
I have to lol that the chapter ended with a page break that was a transcription of what I was doing- OOOOOOOOO
Friday, April 1st, 2011 10:32 pm (UTC)
That made for the best mental image ever, I tell you. :D
Friday, April 1st, 2011 01:17 am (UTC)
You know, it's always driven me insane when reviewers do this to me, but... more please? This is amazing and what a place to leave it. (Most of those reviewers just write "update soon," though, so I can do a little better.)

I love how the canon has continued on as usual. The decisions in the start of season three didn't have much to do with either of them, and the entire premise of this still makes me happy. The two of them were completely destined for BFF status, and it only took them two and a half seasons to realize it. That really comes through here, even when the two of them are barely interacting, because it's very easy for them to make all of the same decisions and mistakes. (Also, any scene with Zuko and Hakoda is sad and wonderful at the same time. Zuko's finally getting an idea about what fathers are supposed to be like, and his isn't coming out at all well in comparison.)

I love how easy it is to follow the characterizations here, even when it could have been a bit of a muddle. Zuko is clearly acting true to form, even if he's doing it with blue eyes and a non-homicidal crazy sister, and Sokka is plainly himself even if his borrowed uncle seems to have a very good idea of what's going on.
Friday, April 1st, 2011 10:35 pm (UTC)
Oh there will definitely be more coming! :D

Thank you for your kind comments! The characterizations in this fic are very important to me to get right so I'm glad to hear they were easy to follow for you.

You definitely bring up a good point about them both not being important part of the decisions in early season 2. Every pivotal action (save for maybe the idea of capturing a FN ship by Sokka in the comics) is made by someone else. It made this part especially tough to write.

Thanks again! :D
Friday, April 1st, 2011 01:47 am (UTC)
Uh oh.

Welll, this is going to work out interestingly. (What I want to know is when Iroh noticed, and when he was sure...)
Friday, April 1st, 2011 10:37 pm (UTC)
*Grin* He noticed... gah... in chapter 12. Or at least, he knows something. But I posted that like a year ago, and it was one section so it's easy to overlook.

Thanks again for your comment! :D
Friday, April 1st, 2011 04:45 am (UTC)
CLIFF HANGER!

I wonder how the Water Tribe would react when they find 'Sokka' gone? And is the curse wearing off? Shall Sokka and Zuko have their own bodies once again?

What happened to all the battle plans that Sokka drew up? All the information on the Fire Nation? Did Zuko leave it at the camp, or take it with him?

Love how this mirrors canon but is also so different...
Friday, April 1st, 2011 10:38 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much for your comment. I want to answer your questions, but I can't because they will be answered in the next *checks* two chapters. Don't worry -- Sokka's battle plans will definitely be coming up again. At first I was going to have him send them to Zuko, but I don't think they're there yet in terms of trust. Thanks again!
Friday, April 1st, 2011 06:04 am (UTC)
AHHH CLIFF-HANGED!

To second everyone else--they're so IC! And I'm glad the curse seems to be wearing off? But also nervous because Zuko hasn't had his heel-face-turn yet and cannot be relied on to do the right thing! I am super-stoked to how operation save-uncle will go, though!
Friday, April 1st, 2011 10:40 pm (UTC)
Thanks very much for your comment! :D The next chapter should be a dozy (I've had it in my head since this started... I can't wait to get it down!). I'll try not to keep you waiting too long.
Friday, April 1st, 2011 06:56 am (UTC)
I was so happy when I saw that you updated this fic!

I like that Zuko doesn't get the thing about the Water Tribe wanting to be near water even though they're not benders. It would probably be really hard for a bender to understand that even non-benders are connected to their elements.

I wonder what Hakoda's gonna think was in that letter to make his (not)son run off like that.

Love this fic!!
Friday, April 1st, 2011 10:41 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much for your comment. LOL that icon!!! And yeah, that's not the type of thing that Zuko can get. He still comes at things from a bender's POV for sure.

I'll try not to keep you waiting long for the next part!
Friday, April 1st, 2011 12:11 pm (UTC)
thrilled to see you're continuing this story. it's been a while since i've read, so i stayed up late to play catch up. you've done such an incredible job switching Zuko and Sokka. i can't even begin to imagine how confusing it could get in spots.

i went to sleep with parts burned into my brain, like Sokka as Zuko with Mai under the tree. i also love the spookiness as the switch hints at ebbing away. i can't wait to see what happens.
Friday, April 1st, 2011 10:44 pm (UTC)
Oh wow, that is very kind of you to say. For some reason, keeping the characters separated was not hard for me, although it probably should have been. Then again, I didn't imagine how long it was going to get. XD

Anyway thanks again! I'll try not to keep you waiting too long for the next bit.
Friday, April 1st, 2011 05:09 pm (UTC)
This fic is, and continues to be, totally great. I love that everyone is still IC, despite the fact that they aren't even really "in" the right character. I love that the other characters don't seem stupid for not figuring it out, that there are believable reasons for the boys to be so... weird. This is a complaint I tend to have with Freaky-Fridayesq stuff but you clear that hurdle like a gold medalist track star.

Also, I am so fraught with conflicting emotions. I'm nail bitingly concerned with *when* the boys will switch back and how bad the timing could be and what exactly they have to do to get out of it. I'm also terrified that they could be stuck like that forever. OMG, and how would this effect the various pairings? Oh my.

Plus I have a weak spot for Hakoda and Zuko interaction. Seriously, it's the consistency of jello. Zuko's got such daddy issues and Hakoda is such a great daddy. Even if it's complicated it's amazing.
Friday, April 1st, 2011 10:46 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much!

I've had that problem with Freaky Friday fics as well, so it's great to hear you don't think mine fell victim to that.

You're not the only one who has a weak spot for Hakoda and Zuko father/son bonding time. Writing the scenes for that in In His Shoes gave me the basic idea for Another Brother. :D

Thanks again for your comment!
Saturday, April 2nd, 2011 12:57 am (UTC)
Love it! :) It took me a minute to remember what had happened before though. Ha ha! But really, I can't wait for more. This plot bunny is fantabulous!
Saturday, April 2nd, 2011 06:04 am (UTC)
Great chapter, as always.

As regards Zuko's eyes and Sokka's firebending...is the prescence of another soul effectively reshaping the body it's been swapped into?
Monday, April 4th, 2011 01:09 am (UTC)
This chapter is sweet like pistachio icecream. Iroh must be saved!

Also, did you mean to write this and I'm just not understanding it correctly?-----

"You aren't asking like it," Zuko accused, getting angry now.

MOAR CHAPTERZ PLEAZ!
Monday, April 11th, 2011 07:17 pm (UTC)
I love that you're continuing this story and have an endgame and everything. I look forward to the end, not 'cause I want it to be over, but so I can just sit there and read the whole thing over again.