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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



Previously on In His Shoes...
"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.


"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."


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.


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.


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?"


"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.


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.



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