(Jin-Sing - Early Afternoon)

Backwater towns like Jin-Sing seldom establish communal infirmaries, but being a civilizational necessity, there's usually at least one resident practitioner of the remedial arts; their competency however, can be a gamble. Some are well-educated while others, like Black Alchemists, are unscrupulous yet no less schooled; and then there's the unskilled sawbones, failed students and crazies whose idea of –treatment- involves performing a prayer dance beseeching spiritual intervention. Fortunately on this occasion, Sokka struck it lucky, or Azula did anyway given Lady Luck's illogical rancour toward him.

With the rain still pouring the streets were deserted. It felt pretty surreal actually, slogging down the sidewalk, an unconscious Fire Princess in his arms, both soaked to the skin. They must've made quite the picture.

Sokka headed for the Churl March Inn, figuring it the surest place to seek assistance. He hadn't the energy to run though, and Azula's injuries weren't that serious anyway, just scrapes, bruises and a fainting spell evoked by fatigue and pain overload. Sokka was however concerned the Black Alchemist Stone's touch might've poisoned them. Azula had suffered the worse contact, easily, but he'd touched it too, an accidental experience Sokka hoped never to repeat. He'd overheard Bogar explain how the human body cannot abide its touch and will eat itself to escape prolonged skin-contact; nasty, but poison doesn't normally work like that. Still, better to err through caution than ignorant assumptions.

He expected the inn to be abuzz with chattering drinkers awaiting the rain's surcease, but upon fumbling open the front door one-handed and carefully angling the princess over the threshold, Sokka was relieved to find the place empty but for the tall, bald burly cook and plain looking, brown haired waitress in the open-walled kitchen, the cheeky curly-haired barkeep manning the counter who's –accidental- booking error landed Sokka sharing a room with Azula, and one drunk, scraggily bearded farmer passed out with his head on a corner table; good, Azula wouldn't appreciate an audience witnessing her in this vulnerable state, especially not while cradled in some -peasant's- arms. Realistically, preserving Azula's regal image wasn't Sokka's problem; her subsequent displeasure for neglecting its preservation however, certainly would be.

Lumbering bedraggled and dripping rainwater to the counter where the bartender was building a precarious yet impressive tower of beer tankards, Sokka wearily inquired "Hey, you wouldn't happen to know where I can find a healer?" The half-dozing barman glanced up then snapped full awake into a double-take so abrupt he nearly toppled his architectural masterwork,

"Well you're in the right place," The waitress exiting the kitchen answered for the dumbstruck barman, wearing a concerned smile as her professionally gentle jade-green eyes assessed first Sokka then the limp, ill-treated girl he carried "I studied the healing arts for two years at Jao-Way College, and did an extension course on alchemy and botany too." The waitress had a pretty smile Sokka decided, it offset her plain, workaday appearance quite nicely.

"Huh, that was lucky;" Sokka said, taken-aback "Can I rent the big third floor room we got last time?" he asked the gawking bartender.

"Scary Lady?" The barman squeaked disbelievingly, meaning Azula "What force on earth could do –this- to someone like her?"

"A force with a beer-belly, scruffy beard and a penchant for banditry." Sokak answered dourly.

"Bogar? That ninny beat the Fire Princess…." Bar-guy sputtered, incredulous.

"Trust me pal; Bogar was no ninny." Sokka corrected tiredly, unsurprised Azula had been identified; her infamy's reach is long indeed.


"Yeah, -Was-;" Sokka confirmed, his sunken face a glum portrait of conflicting emotions, mostly guilt as he looked at the waitress turned healer "How much will I owe for?..."

"I won't hear of it;" She interrupted sternly "If you indeed rid us of that wretched brigand, hospitality is the least we can offer in gratitude, now come, bring her upstairs" She flicked the bartender's ear, demanding "The room key, fathead!"

Grumbling unflattering truths about the tyranny of the farer sex, the barman fumbled at the key-rack then thoughtlessly extended the key to Sokka whose hands were full of unconscious princess. The waitress snatched the key, administered another ear-flick then rounded the counter to lead the way upstairs with Sokka following on tired legs after sparing the poor ear-abused barman a sympathetic –I know how you feel- look.

"I'm Sai-Thuh, in case you were wondering." Waitress Lady said, and no, Sokka hadn't wondered, a discourtesy Katara might've scolded him for were she present; alas his brain was too scattered to wonder much at all right now.

Nevertheless he dredged up a polite smile; only fools disrespect healers "Sokka; and, thanks for the hospitality."

Sai-Thuh merely nodded, knowing as they started up the gloomy, candlelit spiral stairwell that Sokka, encumbered by pack and princess, needed to focus on his balance. The climb was hell on his already burning legs, yet the stair was spacious enough to diminish hardship. Upon reaching the second floor landing, Sai-Thuh said "Go on ahead while I get my medical bag."

Sokka grunted agreeably and drudged on, his abused body punishing his every step. When finally he reached the room, winded, Sokka felt like collapsing, but Sai-Thah had already caught up carrying her doctor-bag and unlocked the door; it opened squeakily and they stepped into the sizable, sparsely furnished inn-room, all gloomy darkness within but for the rainy day's dull light seeping through the closed window shutters before Sai-Thuh, entering first, began lighting the room's candle-lanterns.

"Just lay her on the bed, on her back." Sai-Thuh, clacking spark-stones, directed, and in four eager strides to the room's –only- double bed, Sokka did, gently, then less gently unslung his backpack and plopped it in the room's corner, rejoicing in the unburdening with some stretching exercises and deep, oxygenating breaths while Sai-Thuh discreetly closed the room's door then started fussing about with pillows for Azula's comfort.

Despite her ordeal, Azula's quiescent countenance bespoke tranquillity "She's definitely less terrifying asleep….better company too." Sokka thought then suddenly exclaimed "Ah-crap I forgot." Cursing his own negligence, Sokka hastily retrieved a pair of thick gloves from his pack and donned them before shakily withdrawing his cloth-wrapped acquisition from the pack's side-pocket "You said you studied alchemy, so I figure to do your healer thing you'll need to know what needs healing; the small cuts and bruises are from fighting, but after Bogar overpowered her, he used this nasty black stone thingy to…hurt her, and...well look for yourself;" He rambled, placing the fist-sized cloth cocoon on the writing desk by the window and carefully unwrapped it with nervous hands "Just don't touch it without gloves, trust me, it isn't fun."

His warning was needless "Spirits;" Sai-Thuh gasped, her posture going rigid and expression horror-struck at recognizing the evilly resplendent Black Alchemist Stone Sokka unveiled, flawlessly cut, polished as crystal yet utterly opaque, as if devouring any light that dared touch it "I never expected to lay eyes on one of those vile things, not in my lifetime;" Sai-Thuh's quailing panic gradually ebbed "Still, you're right, this is alchemy, and of the darkest variety."

"Well I accidentally touched this thing too, so I'm kind of freaking out about it being poisonous, so…."

"Understandable, but your trepidation can be put to rest; these stones serve many nefarious purposes of which poisoning isn't one."

"I overheard Bogar saying it makes the body eat itself through prolonged skin-contact…"

"You overheard truly, however Black Alchemist Stones are capable of far worse mischief; brainless oafs like Bogar only see a pretty gem that doubles as an implement of torture, but in the criminal underworld, these –odiums- sell for a king's ransom."

"How do you know though? Uh, what it really is I mean."

"Most every field of study has a history, a dark side and usually a long recitation of both recorded in various books dating from recent pasts or very distant ones, for posterity sake and to guide future students in the chosen art from repeating the mistakes of predecessors." The way she said that made her sound more like a teacher than the ungraduated student she was

"Hmm, I see. History books eh? Makes sense."" Sokka narrowed his eyes and scratched his chin like how he'd seen some scholarly types scratch theirs while deep in thought and wishing he had Wang Fire's beard to twirl a finger through for a smart guy effect.

Despite her severity, Sai-Thuh humored his performance with an amused, playfully mocking smile while mimicking his chin scratch "Elementary Indeed young detective." She was poking fun and Sokka cursed his own beardlessness "Personally though, I take the truths claimed in history books with a grain of salt. Still, they were required reading, especially one on the dangers of Black Alchemy which is where I found the frightful chapter recounting the ancient history of The Black Alchemist Stones exactly like the one you have there, and what their capable of.".

"Geez; sounds worse than I thought;" It did, especially with Azula's ordeal and his own experience touching the evil thing still fresh in his mind "Who'd make these things?" Sokka asked, appalled,

"Nobody alive today; I never studied much history, nor do I recall the story accurately, but in short, several centuries ago a nasty, old, once respected grandmaster alchemist, don't recall his name, Sceptiarus I think, fell from grace following some hardship or other; he created five of these vile stones, each capable of incomparable atrocities in the wrong set of right hands; The Avatar of that time, don't recall his name either, didn't approve of Sceptiarus's creativity and demanded he surrender the stones, Sceptiarus refused, they battled, The Avatar won, well the fight anyway, but knowing he'd die combating The Avatar, Sceptiarus auctioned off the five Black Alchemist Stones beforehand, probably just to spite the Avatar."

"Right, evil guy makes evil stuff, dies and leaves an evil legacy every wannabe evil guy wants a piece of, same-old same-old basically."

"Same-old same-old;" Sai-Thuh agreed "Anyway, over the centuries, several different Avatars –allegedly- stumbled across and destroyed four of these stones, thus if that's true and that sick old twist didn't make more than five, so if the history book I studied is accurate, you and your partner just stumbled on the elusive fifth and final one..." Sokka looked troubled, but Sai-Thuh wasn't done "I can't imagine where Bogar found it, but I doubt he knew it's significance, if he had, he would've shed the brigands lifestyle, auctioned it off to the underworld then bought a small country to crown himself king of; so while I abhor this –thing's- presence here, I can't deny you've done the world a huge service confiscating it; I'm just glad that dim-witted bandit had it, because to a Black Alchemist, the sheer fellness they could…" Sai-Thuh shuddered, sighed "No, I'll spare you the gory specifics."

"I appreciate that, but I'd appreciate knowing what to do with this thing even more; should I smash it or something?"

Sai-Thuh's head jerked up "Are you insane?! Do you know what happens to these stones when they break?!" Sokka shook his head "The whole stone is powder solidified into polished glass tougher than diamond, meaning if –somehow- you successfully smashed it, the stone would explode in a powder-cloud so fine it would literally fuse with the very air you breathe! Can you imagine how your body would react to inhaling even a spec of it?!" Sokka gulped, not wanting to imagine "Worse than that, the stuff would spread far enough to genocide a large city's populous! Hundreds of thousands of innocents, their bodies self-cannibalizing to…" Sai-Thuh slumped, expression remorseful "I apologize, you couldn't know; just understand that's only one of those myriad specifics I aimed to spare you…."

Sokka cringed, rattled by her outburst "That's um; that's okay, I say and do some pretty dumb stuff sometimes; so, you said past Avatars dealt with these Black Alchemist Stones, right?"

Sai-Thuh nodded "Yes, either that or you seek out a trustworthy Master Alchemist who can safely dissolve it."

"Easy done, I'd planned on sending a message for my friends to come back and pick us up anyway."

"One of whom is the Avatar? Yes, good idea; for now though, the best thing is to wrap the stone up tight in that cloth and stow it; you might also consider burning those gloves and the cloth later too, true it's not contaminative, but overzealous paranoia is tantamount when dealing with Black Alchemy;" Sokka was already re-wrapping it as she spoke "And one last thing, don't tell –anyone- here that you have it; while most in Jin-Sing are decent people, well, there's always opportunists…."

Re-packing the wrapped stone and gloves, Sokka nodded in understanding, silently relieved Azula wasn't awake to hear them or she might get the bright idea to steal and sell the stone for enough to raise a rebellion or some-such skulduggery; call him paranoid but Azula's still Azula and one can never be sure where she's concerned.

"Now, to the condition of your friend…"

"She's not my friend…"

Sai-Thuh shrugged "Your- companion's- injuries are minor and her fainting a mixed cause of bending exhaustion and system shock from the stone's touch, no poisoning, no illness and, given a few hours sleep, she'll recover fully, that prognosis goes for you too; did, you really carry her and that pack all the way here from the slopes?" She questioned, her tone betraying mild admiration.

Sokka nodded, yawning "Yep, aaaaalll the way."

"Impressive, though I imagine you'll be aching for days;" Sokka grimaced, and Sai-Thuh, not one for conversational gaps, pressed her palms together "Well, since I will have to undress your, companion, to clean her wounds, I think it best you wait outside…."

"Uh, yeah, sure, good idea, nothing I'd want to see anyway." Sokka chuckled awkwardly, scratching his head, adding "Actually, will you be using the washroom? Cause I need a hot bath –REAL- bad."

"No, I won't and that sounds like a fabulous idea since we prefer to keep our rooms here free of;" She scrunched up her face "Whatever you smell like."

"Way to bolster my self-esteem," He muttered, digging through the bag for his spare change of clothes but finding Azula's first, said "Here," and held out the Princess's nightgown "Beats leaving her in those torn mucky clothes; more comfy too;"

"Another ingenious idea, you're on a roll." Sai-Thuh quipped, accepting the gown.

"Should've heard me earlier, you'd have keeled over in awe." He quipped back, Sai-Thuh rolled her eyes in that vexing way women suspiciously contrive in his company, but he shrugged it off as feminine meanness and disappeared inside the washroom.

The washroom was small but not cramped, plain wooden walls, floor and ceiling with a slit of a high window letting in the bleak grey daylight. A bench sat left of the door, some corner shelves right of the door were stocked with towels while a short side-table with an unlit candle and powdered-soap pot on it stood beside the bath which was a simple wooden tub slightly wider than his shoulders and long enough that he could sit comfortably in it with –some- leg stretching space. An open-ended pipe protruded from the wall above the tub's foot that would supply a steady flow of water via operation of an old model pump leaver on the pipes left side, filling the bath with –maybe- warm water coaxed from the tanks in the boiler-room.

Placing his clean change of clothes on the bench where, hopefully, adventurous spider-roaches wouldn't investigate and later greet him with enthusiastic bityness, Sokka got to pumping, a chore that, normally, he'd not find difficult, but his quivering, aching muscles griped nonetheless; still, Sokka preferred this to the temperature adjustable taps in Zuko's lordly palace. The Fire Nation might have technological superiority, but such conveniences exact a dependency on those they convenience, dependency which will inevitably soften and stupefy people survival-wise on adverse occasions where those conveniences aren't available, especially if they use the tech without studying its functionality. That's one reason He respects Azula, she's a pampered privileged royal capable of roughing it.

The pumping didn't take long, Sokka two thirds filled the bath, accounting for his body mass rising the water level. He then scooped a handful of soapy powder from the pot and sprinkled it in to cleanse both the water and himself of germs. Next he undressed and benched his soaked clothes, separately from his clean ones obviously. Finally, he entered the tub, tentatively at first, but quickly rejoiced at finding it agreeably warm, not as soothingly scolding like last time when he'd stepped into the Firebending heated water Azula had just used, but enough that he stretched out as best he could and relaxed with his head on the leather padded rim with a contented sigh.

Ten minutes later, long after he washed and right about when the water began to cool, Sokka climbed out, yanked the plug to drain the water down the drainpipes then snatched a towel, dried off, rehung the towel and changed into his clean, typically identical blue Water tribe undergarments, tunic, pants and socks. His shoes had to dry and his damp, dirty clothes needed washing, though not in bathwater, that powdered soap might discolour the fabric, or worse, weaken it, thereby setting him up for a potentially embarrassing, misfortune. Regardless, washed and cleanly dressed, Sokka felt much better now, though his muscles which still ached and would for days, but small victories and all that.

Sokka put an ear to the door, heard nothing, knocked "Safe to come out yet?!" He called "Cause I really don't fancy being blinded by royal nudity" He really didn't, Toph would laugh her ass off it that happened.

"It's safe." Sai-Thuh answered, laughing as he stepped out into the main room "Much better;" She commented, assessing his cleanliness "You're lucky, getting our best room free of charge, only the top floor rooms and those of my family respectively have washrooms."

"Definitely feeling the love; so, how's she doing?" Sokka glanced at the bed where Azula lay, now under the blanket and, he assumed, in her nightgown since her new but now ruined hunting getup was piled next to his pack.

"Her injuries were several yet minor, I've cleaned and applied med-patches to any cuts, and salve to soothe her bruises; the most serious aliment was the disharmony in her chakras influenced by contact with the stone, but I rectified the imbalance with some pressure point treatments; the best thing for her now is to sleep it off;" Sai-Thuh smirked "And come morning I'm sure she'll be back to knocking you around again."

"Wonderful." Sokka drawled sarcastically, but inside he felt strangely glad Azula would recover, though he'd saved her from a gruesome death and busted his butt carrying her here, his relief still surprised him; it didn't mean he liked Azula, in fact he still loathed and distrusted her, yet that respect for her that'd been growing these past weeks, hadn't stopped growing.

"That goes for you too, sleep…" Sai-Thuh then registered the one bed situation "Oh, well, doubtless that will be on the floor, I'd offer you your own room but a forerunner booked most of our available rooms earlier today for the guards and merchants of a large southbound caravan due to reach town around sunset; still, I can easily get you some spare pillows…."

"Nah don't worry about it, thanks for the offer but I'm used to sleeping under worse conditions, plus I've still got my sleeping bag and it's plenty padded…." Sokka reassured then remembered "Uh-hey, where does a guy go to wash his clothes around here."

"We have a little facility for that out back…I, can wash them for you if you like, I'd wash your frie-companion's clothes too, but ruined as they are…."

"Ah-don't worry about it, besides I wouldn't ask anybody to suffer washing my, er, unmentionables."

"Merciful of you, but it's no problem, I've dealt with far worse working here." She smiled and Sokka shrugged, ducked back in the washroom for his clothes which he then handed over in a scrunched up, soggy bundle.

"Happy birthday, enjoy." He quipped, Sai-Thuh guffawed.

"Gee thanks, and ten days late for my birthday, but it still the second worst present I've received this year after my dirty minded little brother's, who you just met."

"The bar guy who's not good at booking guests into separate rooms, right?"

"He didn't?" Sai-Thuh stared, aghast, Sokka nodded, she facepalmed "Not again; and yes, that's him; I'd offer you another room but we're booked…"

"It's fine, no harm done, except to my back…" Then her words registered "Wait, You're Pa-pa, he's the tall cook I'm guessing."

Sai-Thuh nodded "He also owns this inn, that is he and Ma-ma ran it together before she passed away."

"Uh, sorry to hear that; its heavy business, losing a parent…." Sokka muttered blearily, moulding a sympathetic expression from memories of his own mother's fate.

"Thanks, but it was years ago and I stayed on to help Pa-pa and my brother run this place instead of finishing my alchemy and medicinal studies; anyway, don't mistake Pa-pa, he may seem harsh and uncivil, but he's a good man really, just has an odd sense of humour, not unlike you actually."

"Yeah, I noticed that, he even laughed when I burped the other night."

"I remember," She drawled disapprovingly "He's not much for manners either;" Pointed look, Sokka grinned guiltily "But Pa-Pa's the type who'd take it as a compliment, shows you like his cooking."

"Do I ever!" Sokka licked his chops and rubbed his belly in fond remembrance.

"I also remember how much your partner appreciated your table etiquette;" Sai-Thuh smirked, smugly satisfied "How's the bruised shin?"

"Nah, that's nothing," Sokka waved dismissively "She kicked me full in the head just yesterday; now that hurt."

"Well, I'm sure you deserved it."

"Ehhh-maybe." Sokka made the –it's debatable- hand gesture "Not sure why, but women seem to have a thing for knocking me around."

"Unsurprising, you strike me as the antagonistic -speak before you think- type." She jabbed then relented "But Pa-Pa's the same way and Ma-Ma loved him, so maybe your type has some charm I'm just not getting."

"Definitely." Sokka nodded emphatically.

Sai-Thuh chuckled "Oh, and here's your room key before I forget;"

"Thanks, I need this to get in and out…." Sokka declared with staggering insightfulness.

Sai-Thuh rolled her eyes and asked "Are you hungry?"

"I'm always hungry." Sokka grinned.

"Well if you come downstairs an hour before this merchant convoy is due, I'm sure Pa-Pa will whip you up something special."

Sokka's eyes sparkled with gluttony "Sounds like a spiffy-splendid plan to me, especially if one of those merchants is in the cabbage racket; he's someone, best avoided."

Sai-Thuh's eyebrows defied gravity "Cabbage merchant?"

"OH-yeah, that guy's got a real hate on for Team Avatar, don't know what we ever did to him but he even co-wrote a play on Ember Island a year back to slander us; the actors interpretations were insulting, eh-well actually, the guy who played me was quite compelling, and Toph loved her portrayal, but the rest was garbage."

"Somehow I'm sure that won't be an issue;" Sai-Thuh laughed "In fact thanks to you two, travellers and merchants needn't fear the infamous Bogar's attentions ever again;" Sai-Thuh walked to the door, opened it, stepped out then glanced back, murmured "I…I hope the bounty's reward money repays your troubles." Then gently pulled shut the door behind her.

Sokka just grimaced dejectedly in Azula's direction and pouted, grumbling "What reward money?"

The rain outside had passed while he'd bathed, and comforting as its drumming timbre on the Inn's roof had been, Sokka wasn't sad to see those wooly-grays drift east, leaving behind a sky of clear, pristine blueness bejeweled with stunning twin rainbows. In his life Sokka had walked the span of many rainbows lucklessly seeking the fabled Pot-O-Gold. Now, with double treasure up for grabs, he mourned his spent energy as finding that Pot-O-Gold sure would doll the sting of losing his bounty. Sokka wasn't insensitive toward Azula's rage and irrefutable need to strike back at her dead torturer, but couldn't she have just kicked Bogar's corpse instead of voiding –his- bounty by roasting it into unrecognition? "Three days wasted, that rankles."

Sokka had opened the shutters to benison the stuffy room with fresher air before slouching back in a sturdy wooden chair with his feet up on the desk to stare aimlessly through the open window while more aimless, formless thoughts circulated his drowsy mind until, finally, he dozed off.

Sokka started awake barely an hour later to a taloned weight alighting rather painfully upon his right shoulder, rudely buffeting his cheek with feathery appendages. Sokka swatted at the nuisance halfheartedly. Its buffeting didn't subsist. He cracked an eye open and practically fell off the chair at Hawky's surprise return, Hawky jump-glided to the windowsill and Sokka swore the damn bird smirked at him. What next? Would Azula sprout wings and start squawking? Nah, she can already squawk better than any bird. Speaking of Azula, he glanced sideways at the bed. Yep, still asleep "Watch it birdbrain;" Sokka hissed, finger pointed in warning "Hawk-Ham Pie's one of my favorite dishes, and I'm feeling -mighty- hungry right now." Hawky's head tilted, feigning innocence "Smug little..."

He must've napped a couple of hours because the sun was halfway to bowing out for the day, its warm, glowing glory beaming golden into the room and splashing the lightly populated street of lengthening shadows below in an eye-pleasing tangerine chromatic, Azula certainly seemed more at ease laying there bathing in its radiance. Was that a tiny smile curving her lips? Typical Firebender. Still weary and bedless, Sokka envied her even as his back punished him for flaking out in such a spine-spiting posture. Yawning, he slid his legs off the desk, stood and stretched until his belly made hungry, growly sounds. The beast would get fed soon enough, sunset wasn't far and Sai-Thuh's promise of free food with it; Sokka just had one very important matter to attend first, well two actually since he needed to pee.

The latter urgency was quickly satisfied before Sokka sat back down at the desk, now with quill, ink and parchment to attend the former.

Wherever Hawky had been these past two days is anyone's guess. Yet the bird's return was timely Sokka thought, neatly snipping the bottom third off a sheet of blank parchment, deeming cutaway's size, when furled, roughly on scale with the weatherproof cylinder secured to Hawky's leg. Next Sokka got to writing a message to Aang or Katara or whoever received it. He pondered directing Hawky to bug Toph with it for laughs, but decided the news too important for fooling around.

The message was laconic as all hawk communiques necessarily are "Aang, Sokka here, we hit trouble with the bounty, forced to kill Bogar, bad-bad black alchemist mojo confiscated and requisite of immediate Avatarly attention; Azula and me still in Jin-Sing, need extraction, find us at Churl March Inn. P.S: if this is Toph, please convey memo to more literate-enabled eyes." Then scrawled his signature, sniggering "Hehe, that ought to get her goad," Sokka thought, unable to resist goading Toph the way she constantly does him, it's their game after all.

Sokka furled the memo then summoned Hawky as taught. Hawky punctually alighted on the windowsill and Sokka, unsure if the bird had eaten, fed it some dried meat strips from his rations before carefully sealing his letter away within the airtight cylinder. The greedy creature gurgled demands for meaty seconds "Yep, definitely my bird, always hungry." Sokka laughed quietly, placating Hawky so his demanding squawks wouldn't wake the other squawking monster resting in the bed to his right and hoping Hawky's overfeeding wouldn't leave him too fat for the flight ahead. If so, too bad; Sokka -persuaded- his glutton courier, now impudently awaiting meaty thirds, out the window in a startled flutter of wings over its sudden exit as he took to the air. Sokka swore that damned critter actually sneered at him before gliding off to do his bidding with its ruffled dignity –mostly- intact.

That done, Sokka's rumbling stomach prompted him to take up Sai-Thuh's suggestion of going downstairs for a meal, a nice, big, meal. He loitered at the door, conflicted whether to wake Azula and ask if she was hungry, or to just let her sleep. Ultimately he chose the latter, she needed sleep and could easily eat later. So he left her, locking the door behind him, not locking her in but locking others out, for their own safety of course, not Azula's.

Unsure why he cared to salvage Azula's pride, he'd excluded mention of her defeat and subsequent torture at Bogar's hands in his message. Telling Zuko may seem the right move, but in Azula's mind it'd make her look weak, and pity from her brother would only undermine her pride further. Not to mention Toph and perhaps Katara's too would ridicule her for losing to a common bandit. Certainly such petty blackguard is not beneath their enmity toward Azula; nor his for that matter. Indeed, Sokka himself might've mocked Azula had he not seen her there, helpless at a psychopath's mercy, her wild anguished golden eyes, glistening with tears scarcely restrained, desperately beseeching his intervention as her anguished, gag dampened screams resounded throughout the cave as Bogar bloodthirstily enumerated every torture she'd to come. No, Katare and Toph would not have been unmoved, especially if they felt firsthand the Black Alchemist Stone's mind-shattering touch as Sokka had. They'd have stopped Bogar, and without needing to kill him.

A little self-deprecation there; Bogar's death, despite the bandit's actions, would not fall clear of his conscience's nightly morbid ruminations. Nor, Sokka suspected, would the bandit's actions leave an already mentally scared princess unaffected, however insistently she will dissemble to the contrary. Therefore right now, He believed Azula would want to appear strong, serene and invulnerable, even if she didn't feel any of those things; and Sokka, if nothing else, grasped the importance of hiding personal suffering behind false fronts more than intimately enough to respect those wishes.

Sokka went downstairs early as Sai-Thuh suggested. He had himself a nice mug of potent wine, draining it just as the hearty, very meat based meal he'd been promised was presented to him by the cook himself. With no other customers but the drunk farmer still passed out at his table, Sokka accepted an invitation to eat with the barman and the big cook, preferring not to eat alone right now despite his fatigue. Sai-Thuh didn't join them though; too busy polishing up the joint for the traveling merchants and their wagon guards soon to arrive. His spur of the moment dining companions were good company, the former more than compensating for the latter's lackadaisical social skills. Sokka didn't mind, being simultaneously laconic and entertaining takes talent, and the cook was a master.

When their plates were empty, or licked clean in Sokka and the Cook's case, the latter returned to the Kitchen to help Sai-Thuh prepare, leaving Sokka and the Barman to join forces in building the tankard tower. They'd reinforced the foundation added two extra spires beyond battlements that boasted a portcullis represented by the curving handles of two mugs and were part way into heightening the main tower another two stories when the first road-weary merchants, labourers and bodyguards trickled in, filling the formerly peaceful taproom with a low thrum of indistinguishable grumbling.

Several of the more lively bodyguards ambled over to order drinks, the Barman had plenty of spare tankards left and fulfilled their orders. Currency changed hands and beverages were served to the very thirsty, very grateful newcomers who instead of plodding off to an empty table, pitched in with the grand construction in progress, the activity slowly drawing more interested budding architects as the project grew. When it got too crowded, Sokka slipped away unnoticed back upstairs, leaving the barmen and his new army of helpers to it. Yawning, Sokka reached his room and unlocked the door which he'd locked to protect, not the slumbering dragoness within, but any incoherent drunk from mistakenly bumbling into a premature cremation for disrupting said dragoness's beauty sleep.

A faint clatter from below accompanied by a mournful chorus of voices signified Tankard Fortress's doom, angry, unintelligible rebukes suggested some fumbler was responsible "Pity," Sokka thought sadly "Fort Beer-Tankard would've been worthy of any king; architect's object lesson, never employ an inebriated construction team."

Sleep however was illusive, partly because of his achy body disagreeing with the hardwood floor and partly because his brain griped about sleeplessness even as it buzzed with scattered, irrelevant, incomprehensible nonsense, imbuing false urgency into matters of purest unimportance. Did other people have this problem? Or was his brain's vexing penchant for self-sabotage, so prominently exercised in his waking hours, now branching out into the insomnia racket?

Thus there, again, Sokka sat, at the desk by the open window, eyes half-lidded and fixated longingly skyward, gentle fingers of intermittent wind tousling his scruffy, unbound hair and soothing his jaded, jumbled mind like some ethereal masseuse. It was a beautiful night out, cool, calm, the sky a dazzling panorama of worldly beauty and wonderment with the dancing light of the few lanterns in the shadowed street below not reaching high enough to obscure his view of the myriad stars above, nor of the full moon bathing his sore, weary body in her soul-soothing silvery embrace and seeding in Sokka a mournful wish he had the energy for a lovely night stroll through the lush, grassy fields beyond Jin-Sing's walls.

Nevertheless, with a full belly countervailing his many bodily aches, Sokka stretched his hands behind his head and leaned back with a contented sigh, not at all startled when Azula appeared beside him.

In one long graceful motion, she'd slid noiselessly from beneath the bedcovers and perched regally on the desk's edge with her left leg crossed over the right, one bare foot rested daintily on the edge of the chair he occupied scant inches from his knee. Azula's lithe, curvaceous nightgown-clad figure was noticeably more prominent and disquietingly exotic in the subdued silver rays of moonlight lancing like gentle, misty javelins into the rooms half-dark. She didn't speak but Sokka felt her studying him, yet his gaze never left the brilliant view beyond the window, determinedly refusing to meet her eye. Relief swelled when Azula's intense golden eyes shifted from him to take in the bright, starry night sky, almost sparkling in the full moon's glow.

Still, her proximity made him uncomfortable, yet the space between them was just far enough that he couldn't object without sounding like an ass. Was this one of her mind games? Sitting like that, playing seductive to mess with him? Sokka was no pervert or cheat, Suki was his girl . . . and yet here he sat, moon-gazing, remembering one princess in the company of another whose soft, steady breathing, aside from the occasional cooling breeze, was the only sound he heard.

And so, right then in that peaceful moment, Sokka decided that, for once, Azula wasn't messing with him; his drowsy brain's paranoia, though justified, he felt was misplaced this time. If anything, Azula's demeanor was casual, contemplative, either unaware or uncaring of how that gown favored her physique, a detail Sokka of course did notice. He acknowledged she was attractive, but, just not to him, a relieving realization that allowed him to truly relax and simply lose himself in one of the rarest, most uncomplicated moments of his life – one, he felt sure he would remember for the rest of his life.

They sat together, peasant and princess, watching the stars twinkle and the moon shine – they sat together, with their minds a million miles away.

A/N: I decided my readers deserved a better ending to this fic than what Chapter 4 offered. I gave up writing 2 years ago and this chapter sat in its folder unfinished for as long. I Hope it is an improvement. Thanks to all whom got this far for reading, despite the abrupt conclusion.

And gratitude to Seyary-Minamoto for encouraging me to make this final update. You're right; this ending is much better.