Author’s note: In which there is bromance, half-baked plans and unplanned reunions.
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***The Boiling Rock (part I)***
It had taken a few days for Lia to completely calm down and stop flinching whenever anyone came near to her or Zuko, but in the meantime life moved on. Aang was having trouble with the basics of firebending, mainly because of his own reluctance, but both Zuko’s refusal to take “I can’t” as an excuse and Toph’s taunting kept him going. Sokka was the only one not to participate to the generally good mood at the Western Air Temple, something that puzzled his friends and sister to no end.
One night, nearly a week after the invasion, he was standing a little ways from the rest of the gang who were sitting around the fire. Zuko had offered to make tea for everyone, an offer that was met by surprise.
“No one can make tea like uncle,” he explained as he put the cups on a tray, “but hopefully I learned a thing or two.” He looked up to the others. “Would you like to hear uncle’s favourite tea joke?” he asked.
“Sure,” Katara shrugged.
“Yeah, I like jokes,” Aang added. Zuko passed out cups to Haru and the Duke.
“Well, I can’t remember how it starts but the punch line is, “Leaf me alone, I’m bushed.”” Everyone looked at him expectantly. Zuko blushed a little. “Well, it’s funnier when uncle tells it,” he muttered.
“Right. Maybe that’s because he remembers the whole thing,” Katara chuckled, taking a cup and kissing him lightly on the cheek. The whole group laughed at that.
“It’s nice to get a chance to relax a little. It hardly ever happens,” Toph said taking a sip from her cup. “Hey, that’s not half bad!” she exclaimed surprised. Sokka suddenly walked up to the others and patted Zuko on the shoulder.
“Hey, can I talk to you for a second?” he asked sombrely.
Zuko followed him to the area where Appa was sleeping.
“So what’s up?” he asked, hiding his nervousness. Sokka had yet to send any death threats in his direction regarding Katara. The prince suspected that this had a lot to do with Lia’s still-prickly attitude.
“If someone was captured by the Fire Nation, where would they be taken?” Sokka asked seriously.
“What do you mean?” Zuko asked in alarm. “Who was captured?”
“When the invasion plan failed, some of our troops were taken. I just want to know where they might be.” Zuko’s eyes widened in realisation before he turned away.
“I can’t tell you,” he said grimly.
“What? Why not?”
“Trust me. Knowing would just make you feel worse,” Zuko insisted.
“It’s my dad. He was captured too. I need to know what I put him through.” Hearing Sokka’s determination Zuko closed his eyes.
“My guess is, they were taken to the Boiling Rock,” he said. Sokka looked at him confused.
“The highest security prison in the Fire Nation. It’s on an island in the middle of a boiling lake. It’s inescapable,” Zuko explained. Sokka’s eyes narrowed.
“So where is this place?” he asked.
“Why do you need to know?” Zuko looked at him suspiciously. “What are you planning?”
“Nothing! Boy, you’re so paranoid.” Sokka gave his best “who-me?” look.
“It’s in the middle of a volcano between here and the Fire Nation. You guys actually flew right past it on your way here,” Zuko explained warily.
“Thanks Zuko. Just knowing makes me feel better.” Sokka smiled at the older boy and turned to walk back to the fire.
“Yeah,” Zuko scoffed, “I’m sure it does.”
Later that night, long after everyone had fallen asleep in their rooms, a shadow sneaked back outside. Warily watching the shadows, Sokka tip-toed to Appa, a small bundle of things on his shoulder. His eyes widened when he saw someone already there.
“Not up to anything, huh?” Zuko asked, raising an eyebrow. Sokka let out a yelp and fell to the ground.
“Fine, you caught me. I’m gonna rescue my dad. You happy now?” he asked stubbornly. Zuko gave him a look but Sokka insisted. “Look, I have to do this. The invasion plan was my idea. It was my decision to stay when things were going wrong. It’s my mistake and it’s my job to fix it. I have to regain my honour. You can’t stop me Zuko.” Said boy had initially meant to knock some sense to his friend – quite literally – but something in Sokka’s words made him change his mind.
“You need to regain your honour? Believe me, I get it. I’m going with you.” He announced.
“No. I have to do this alone.” Sokka climbed to the saddle determinedly. Was I really that stubborn? Zuko wondered.
“How are you going to get there? On Appa? Last time I checked, prisons don’t have bison day cares,” he pointed out the most obvious flaw in Sokka’s plan. Sokka’s shoulders slumped. “We’ll take my war balloon,” Zuko concluded softly. With a sigh Sokka jumped down and followed the other boy the higher levels of the Temple.
The next morning Katara woke alone. Thinking that Zuko had woken up before she had, what with him being a firebender, she rolled over and walked at the “kitchen” area. The Duko was already there feeding Appa and Lia, Toph, Aang were just coming out of their rooms. The sound of paper being crumbled stole her attention and she looked down to see Momo clutching a paper in his sleep. She scooped it up and narrowed her eyes, trying to make out her brother’s unsightly handwriting.
“What does it say?” Toph asked curiously.
“Need meat. Gone fishing. Back in a few days. Sokka and Zuko,” she read out. Aang smiled brightly and turned to go back to his room to catch some more sleep. Katara’s voice stopped him to his tracks. “One more thing. Aang, practice your firebending while I’m gone. Do twenty sets of fire fists and ten hot squats every time you hear a badger frog croak. Zuko.” A frog was heard in the distance.
“Nobody else has homework,” Aang groaned but he walked off to do the exercises.
“So where do you think they actually went?” Toph asked. The two older girls shrugged.
“Don’t know,” Lia said as she started to walk away. “But I’m going to find out.”
As it was Sokka and Zuko were on their way to the Boiling Rock. Zuko had taken in it upon himself to up their speed with firebending, thankful for the silence. Sokka suddenly started to whistle, bored with the silence his co-traveler appreciated.
“What?” Zuko asked Sokka annoyed.
“What? Oh, I didn’t say anything. You know, a friend of mine actually designed these war balloons,” Sokka bragged with a smile.
“No kidding.” The Avatar and his friends might have met all kinds of weird people, but this seemed too farfetched to Zuko.
“Yup!” Sokka insisted. “A balloon. But for war.”
“There’s one thing my dad’s good at, it’s war,” Zuko muttered as he turned his attention to the tank again.
“Yeah, it seems to run in the family,” Sokka shrugged.
“Hey, hold on. Not everyone in my family is like that!” Zuko retorted annoyed.
“I know, I know, you’ve changed.”
“I meant my uncle. He was more of a father to me. And I really let him down,” Zuko explained, his eyes fixed on the fire. Sokka looked at him surprised.
“I think your uncle would be proud of you. Leaving your people to join us, that’s hard,” he said seriously. Zuko gave a bitter chuckle, remembering the events leading up to his joining the Avatar.
“It wasn’t that hard,” he said. Sokka looked at him in disbelief.
“Really? You didn’t leave behind anyone you cared about?” he asked. Zuko shook his head.
“I was only close to my mother and she is not there anymore. Lia knows where she is but now that everyone in the Fire Nation thinks I’m a traitor, it’s too dangerous to contact her. I couldn’t drag her into this.” Sokka bit his lips, trying to come up with something that would make Zuko feel better.
“My first girlfriend turned into the Moon,” he finally said, his thoughts drawn back to the beautiful princess of the Northern Water Tribe. Zuko winced.
“That’s rough buddy.”
Suddenly a cloud of mist appeared up ahead. Zuko squinted, trying to pierce through it to see what was before them. The blur of an enormous building appeared.
“There it is!” he called to Sokka. “There’s plenty of steam to keep us covered. As long as we’re quiet we should be able to navigate through it without being caught.” Famous last words… The balloon’s descent wasn’t noticeable at first but their speed rapidly increased. Zuko tried to gain control again.
“We’re going down. The balloon’s not working anymore!” he exclaimed in alarm. Sokka rushed to the side and looked around.
“The air outside is just as hot as the air inside so we can’t fly,” he realised.
“So what are we supposed to do?” Zuko asked, grabbing hold of one of the ropes for balance. Sokka shrugged.
“I don’t know. Crash landing?” A spray of boiling water splashed him and he bit his fist, trying not to scream from the pain. Thankfully, the balloon made it to the small island before crashing.
Shaking his head to rid it of the flying Momos, Zuko looked around exasperated.
“How are we gonna get off the island if the balloon won’t work?” he asked no one in particular. Sokka shrugged dismissively
“We’ll figure something out. I suspected it might be a one-way ticket.”
“You knew this would happen and you wanted to come anyway?” Zuko asked in disbelief.
“My dad might be here. I had to come and see,” Sokka insisted.
“Uncle always said I never thought things through, but this,” Zuko nearly banged his head on the basket of the balloon in frustration, “this is crazy!”
“Hey! I never wanted you to come along in the first place. And for the record, I always think things through. But my plans haven’t exactly worked, so this time I’m playing it by ear. So there,” Sokka retorted and went back to trying to push the broken balloon in the water. The now-burning metal scorched his hand and he started cursing before he kicked the balloon into the water.
“What are you doing?” Zuko asked him. Sokka’s action’s made even less sense than usual.
“It doesn’t work anyway. And we don’t want anyone to find it,” he explained. Zuko sighed.
“I hope you know what you’re doing. There’s no turning back now.”
It was easy to sneak inside the prison and hide in a storage room. Almost too easy Zuko, whose chronic bad luck on undercover missions had yet to appear, worried. They changed into guard uniforms, complete with helmets.
“Now we just need to lay low and find my dad as soon as possible,” Sokka summarized. Suddenly the corridor filled with guards. One of them turned and called the two astonished boys.
“Guards! There’s a scuffle in the yard, come on.” They hurriedly followed them, not wanting anyone to become suspicious. A guard there was bullying one of the prisoners, forcing him to firebend to protect himself. The guard shook his head in mock shame.
“Firebending is prohibited.” He smiled ominously. “You’re going in the Cooler.” He turned and pointed as Sokka. “You! Help me take him in.” The boy started and hurried there.
“Meet back here in an hour,” he hissed at Zuko before leaving.
The Cooler was a tube-like contraption sealed by two heavy doors. Sokka opened them and for a moment the temperature reminded him of a winter night back home. The guard pushed the prisoner into the compartment. Sokka couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the guy.
“The warden will deal with you soon.” He turned to Sokka exasperated. “Can you believe this guy?” Sokka smiled agreeably.
“Prisoners. Am I right?” he said in understanding.
“Ugh. Tell me about it,” the older man sighed.
A meeting with the warden later Sokka was able to sneak back out to the balcony overlooking the courtyard. Another guard was standing there alone, scanning the ground below him. Sokka walked up and leaned at the railing.
“Hey there, fellow guard. How goes it?” the other guard said. Relieved Sokka raised the visor of his helmet.
“Zuko? Great!” The firebender hurriedly shushed him.
“Listen, I asked around the lounge. There are no Water Tribe prisoners. I’m afraid your father’s not here,” he said disappointed. Sokka stared at him in shock.
“What? Are you sure? Did you double check?” he said desperately. Zuko nodded.
“I’m really sorry Sokka,” he said quietly.
“So we came all this way for nothing. I failed. Again.” Zuko knew that he had to prevent the other boy from convincing himself that he was useless and he desperately searched for something to say. What would uncle say?
“Sometimes…” he began hesitantly, “clouds have two sides, a dark and light. And a silver lining in between. It’s like a silver sandwich. So when life seems hard take a bite out of the silver sandwich.” Sokka gave a small smile, looking down at the courtyard.
“Maybe we haven’t failed after all,” he said with new conviction.
“That’s the spirit! I can’t believe that worked. I didn’t even know what I was saying.” Sokka gave him a look.
“No, what you said made no sense at all. But look, it’s Suki!” he pointed at the girl sitting on a small boulder, a mad grin on his face.
The moment the prisoners were back in inside, Sokka rushed to his girlfriend’s cell. Zuko stood outside keeping an eye out for actual guards, a feeling of apprehension slowly growing. Suki looked up when the door of her cell opened, watching disinterestedly as a guard entered.
“What is it?” she snapped sitting up. “Did I do something wrong?” Sokka crossed his arms.
“You mean you don’t recognize me?” he said hurt.
“You people all look the same to me.” Suki turned to the other side.
“Oh. Then maybe you’ll recognize this.” Sokka leaned to kiss her but before he had a chance a punch landed on his stomach, sending him to crash on the door. The helmet fell to reveal a pair of startled blue eyes. Suki’s eyes widened in shock and happiness as she rushed to his side and pulled him to a hug.
“Sokka, it’s you!” He blushed a little before hugging her back.
“The other Kyoshi Warriors, are they here?” he asked urgently. Suki shook her head.
“No, I don’t know where they are. They locked me here because I’m the leader.”
“Well, you won’t be here for long, I’m busting you out,” her boyfriend said decisively. Suki leaned her head closer with tears of happiness in her eyes.
“I’m so glad to see you Sokka. I knew you’d come.”
Outside things weren’t going so well. Zuko looked up in alarm when a guard walked up to Suki’s cell.
“‘Scuse me, I need to get into that cell,” she said in a bored tone.
“No, you can’t go in there,” Zuko said, hurriedly looking for an excuse. “The lights are out… the prisoner could sneak up on you.”
“Step aside, fool.” The guard tried to push him to the side but Zuko grabbed her arm and slammed her to the wall. “Hey! Hey! What are you doing?” she said alarmed.
Inside the cell Sokka heard the commotion and put his helmet hurriedly back on. Sneaking out he saw the guard struggling to keep Zuko down. She saw him.
“Guard, help!” she called. “I think he’s an imposter! Arrest him!” Not knowing what else to do Sokka tackled Zuko to the ground crying:
“You’re under arrest!” Forcing his friend to his feet he leaned and whispered. “Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out.”
Zuko was led to a spacious cell that was probably reserved for interrogations. The door was left open but there were more than enough guards stationed outside.
“Well, well, well,” the oily voice of the warden was heard from the door. “I never thought I’d find you in here, prince Zuko.”
“How did you know who I am?” Zuko demanded. The warden looked at him in amusement.
“How could I not?” he asked. “I was there when you were banished.” Zuko looked up, his body tensing at the memory of the pain.
“You were there? And you think I was at fault?”
“Quiet!” the man snapped. “You’re my special prisoner now. And you best behave. If these criminals found out who you are, the traitor prince who let his nation down. Why, they’d tear you to shreds.” The prince raised an eyebrow.
“So what’s in it for you? Why don’t you just tell my father and collect the reward?” he asked. The warden smiled darkly.
“Oh in due time believe me, I intend to collect,” he said before leaving.
When Sokka found Suki again it was during mop-duty. She was busy cleaning a remote area near a staircase with Zuko nearby.
“Oh, good. You guys have met up,” Sokka said satisfied.
“It wasn’t so hard to miss him,” Suki said wryly. Zuko caught the fleeting look at his scar.
“Nice to see you again too,” he said dryly. Sokka checked around before joining them in a quiet corner.
“So listen, I think I have an escape plan,” he began. “I checked out the Coolers again, the whole point of them is to keep firebenders contained right?”
“Yeah…” Zuko said, unsure where this was heading.
“So they’re completely insulated and sealed to keep the cold in. Well to keep the cold in it also has to keep the heat out, right?”
“Just get to the point Sokka,” Suki said impatiently.
“It’s a perfect boat for getting through the boiling water,” Sokka explained triumphantly.
“The cooler as a boat? Are you sure?” Zuko asked sceptically. His luck was beginning to take a turn for the worst by now.
“I’m telling you, it’ll work,” Sokka insisted. “I walked around the perimeter. There’s a blind spot between two guard towers. It’s the perfect launching point. I already tested it out. We’ll roll the cooler into the water and just float with the current. It’ll take us straight across. As long as we don’t make a sound, no one will notice. And bing, bang, boom we’re home free.”
“But how are you going to get the cooler out?” Suki wondered.
“Yeah,” a voice said from above. The all looked up sharply to see the prisoner from earlier. “How are you going to get the cooler out?”
The three teens all cursed inwardly. Despite their experience none of them had noticed the man, Chit Sang, creep up to them. Sokka panicked.
“What? We didn’t! We… We didn’t say that,” he stammered.
“Yeah, you heard wrong,” Zuko added in a calmer tone. Chit Sang raised an eyebrow.
“I heard you hatching an escape plan and I want in.”
“There’s nothing to get in on,” Zuko insisted firmly. It might have worked if Sokka hadn’t opened his mouth again.
“Yeah, the only thing we’re hatching is… an egg!” he said. Behind him Suki and Zuko facepalmed.
“Ok, well, I come with you or the warden hears about this egg too,” Chit Sang switched tactics. Suki sighed.
“I guess we have no choice,” Sokka nodded.
“Okay, you’re in. Now, first we need someone to unbolt the Cooler from the inside.” He handed a wrench to Zuko, who nodded in understanding and hid the tool in his pocket. Chit Sang smiled.
“Oh, I can get you inside,” he said.
Chit Sang’s plan was simply picking a fight with Zuko. Both of them had enough experience to make the fake brawl look believable. Prisoners gathered around them, coaxing them to continue. They heard Sokka call for more guards and Zuko took advantage of this to send a fiery kick under Chit Sang’s feet. Two guards grabbed a hold of him.
“No firebending. Into the cooler,” one of them said before dragging the prince away.
A few hours later Sokka walked to the unit and opened the door.
“I can take you back to your cell if you’ve learned your lesson,” he said indifferently, hiding his worry. Zuko lifted his head and let out the breath of fire he had been holding.
“Yes, I have. Completely,” he said. Sokka smiled in relief.
“I got Suki and Chit Sang out of their cells a few minutes ago. They’ll be waiting for us at the shore,” he explained in a low voice. Zuko’s head shot up and he dragged the other boy inside the Cooler.
“Someone’s coming,” he explained and they closed the door partially. A pair of guards passed by.
“Yeah, new arrivals coming in at dawn.”
“Nah, just the usual. Some robbers, couple of traitors, some war prisoners. Though I did hear there might be a pirate.”
Zuko looked at Sokka concerned.
“War prisoners. It could be your father,” Sokka looked away.
“Well, what should we do?” Zuko asked. “Are we going ahead with the plan or are we waiting another night?”
“I don’t know,” Sokka looked torn. “Is it right for me to risk Suki’s freedom, all of our freedom on the slim chance that my dad is gonna show up?”
“It’s your call Sokka,” Zuko said simply. He couldn’t and wouldn’t make the choice for his friend.
They were going to go ahead with it. Sokka had decided that it would be too risky to just leave the unbolted Cooler lying around. Of course sneaking the heavy thing out was harder than it looked. Both boys found themselves wishing Toph was there.
“Took you guys long enough,” Chit Sang hissed when they finally arrived at the meeting point. He showed them a guy and a young woman waiting a little ways. “This here’s my girl and my best buddy. They’re coming too,” he explained. Sokka sighed annoyed.
“Fine, everybody in the Cooler. Let’s go,” he said. Zuko looked at him uncertain as they pushed the Cooler near the boiling water.
“Are you sure you want to go?” he asked Sokka. “You’re the one who said you wanted to redeem yourself. Redeem your honour. Rescuing your dad is your chance.” Suki looked up sharply.
“Your dad?” she asked surprised.
“If I had just cut my losses at the invasion, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess. Maybe sometimes it’s just better to call it quits before you fail,” Sokka said simply.
“No, it’s not,” Zuko said softly, causing Sokka’s movements to pause. “Look Sokka, you’re going to fail a lot before things work out.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?” Sokka asked annoyed.
“Even though you’ll probably fail over and over and over again…” Zuko continued.
“Seriously, not helping.”
“You have to try every time. You can’t quit because you’re afraid you might fail,” Zuko finished his sentence, a little annoyed at the constant interruptions.
“Hey!” Chit Sang suddenly called. “If you two are done cuddling, can we get a move on?”
“No, I’m staying,” Sokka said resolutely. He turned to Zuko and Suki. “You guys go. You’ve been here long enough,” he said specifically to Suki. She shook her head.
“I’m not leaving without you, Sokka.”
“I’m staying too,” Zuko placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Chit Sang rolled his eyes.
“Not me, I’m out. Let’s roll baby.” The teens watched as the Cooler-turned-boat sailed away.
“We gave up our only chance of escaping,” Sokka said quietly. “I hope we haven’t just made a huge mistake.”
They were climbing back to the prison when a pained yell tore throughout the air. Alarms started blaring and guards burst out of the building. In no time Chit Sang and his friends were back at the Boiling Rock. From above them they heard the warden yell.
“Get the fugitives and throw them in the Cooler!”
“Uh, they are in the Cooler sir,” a guard dared to say.
“One that’s bolted down and not floating in the water! This is a lockdown! We have new prisoners arriving! Everything must be completely secure!” the warden shouted, one step from having an aneurism.
Sokka’s eyes scanned the area when a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.
“The gondola’s moving!” he whispered. Three pairs of eyes were glued on the slowly moving vehicle, scanning the shadows inside. “If my dad’s not there, we risked everything for nothing.” He said gravely. Suki placed a hand on his shoulder.
“We had to,” she said softly. He gave her a small smile before turning his eyes to the gondola again.
“Come on, come on…” Sokka whispered urgently. A big burly man came out on the courtyard.
“Is that him?” Suki asked. Sokka gave her an incredulous look.
“My dad doesn’t have a nose ring!” he exclaimed incredulously. He turned back, searching the faces of the prisoners for his father. “Where is he?” The last man came out. “That’s it? That can’t be it.”
“I’m sorry Sokka,” Suki said softly. Her boyfriend let his head hang in disappointment when one of the guards called.
“Hey you, get off!” he called to someone inside the gondola. Sokka’s eyes widened as the last man came into the light.