Disclaimer: If I'd owned A:tLA, it would have been a lot more bloody. 'Nuff said, don't you think?
Shipping (since I know this can be a deal-breaker for some): This is a gen story. I am a gen writer, and I want no part in anyone else's ship wars. As such, I'm going to do my best to keep this story as ship-neutral as possible. If, however, I absolutely cannot avoid making mention of who ended up with whom (the characters are teenagers, they're going to think about their love lives once in a while), I'm going to stick with canon, for the sole reason that that requires the least amount of setup on my part. So there will be a bit of Sukka, some hints of Kataang, and mentions of past Maiko—but nothing more explicit than cuddling, a chaste kiss, and one suggestive thought on Sokka's part. What does happen is mostly in the form of easily glossed-over background events, and while I hope that won't put anyone off from reading, if that is the case you have been thoroughly warned.
Gasping, he staggered into the hallway, the one hand he held to the wall barely sufficient to keep him upright. The other hand was pressed against his side in a desperate, if mostly futile, attempt to stanch the flow of hot liquid that was spilling from in between his fingers. Every movement was agony, and already he felt himself growing faint from loss of blood.
Help… I need help…
Help, however, was not going to be readily available anytime soon. The guards that had been stationed outside of his door were all unconscious or worse, a fact which was confirmed when he bruised his foot on a helmet that was swiftly sent clattering away. Still, if that assassin thought that he was just going to lie down and die, then he—or she, he hadn't gotten a good look—had another thing coming. Zuko would never give up without a fight.
As determined as he was, however, he could only fight for so long.
He had made it only halfway down the hallway when his knees started to give way. Desperately, he tried to remain standing, but his legs were no longer willing to support him, and he could not find any purchase against the smooth surface of the wall; his body was growing heavy and darkness had started to creep in at the edges of his vision. Right when he thought he couldn't hold himself up any longer, he heard running footsteps.
"Zuko? Toph said that she heard—oh no!"
The last thing he was aware of was Aang's slender but strong hands coming up to catch him as he fell to the floor.
Awareness returned to him slowly, one sense at a time. The first thing he knew was that he felt lightheaded, as if the world were spinning around him even though he was sure he was not moving. He was lying on his back, on top of soft bedding. Then, he became aware that something cool and soothing was being pressed to the aching wound in his side, and that little by little, the pain was receding. He was still unable to stop himself from giving a slight groan.
"…coming to." The voices around him were drifting in and out of audibility, but got clearer with each passing moment. "Katara, can't you…"
"…fast as I can… really stubborn…"
"…wake up. Come on, Zuko, you can do it."
With effort, he pried his eyes open, and was immediately greeted by the sight of another pair of gray eyes above him, set beneath a bald forehead that was decorated by a sky-blue arrow.
"Aang?" His voice came out as a barely-audible croak.
In response, Aang grinned. "Welcome back to the world of the living, Zuko. Man, we were really worried about you for awhile there."
"Okay, I think that's the best I can do for now." Looking away from Aang, he saw that Katara was at his other side, and that she was bending a stream of water off of his skin and into a nearby bowl. "Sorry, but I couldn't heal it all the way in one session," she explained. "Your chi is still a bit messed up. I fixed all of the life-threatening damage, but… well, it was a really deep wound." With the water cast aside, she took up a jar of some sort of ointment. "Okay. This will probably sting a bit."
He nodded his understanding, and then cringed as Katara began applying the contents of the jar to his wound, which seemed to light it on fire all over again. "Wh-where are the others?" he asked, more to distract himself from the pain than anything else.
"Well," Aang said, pulling up a chair and sitting down beside him—he seemed to have taken the hint—"Toph went after the assassin. One of the guards came in a few minutes ago to tell us that she'd caught the suspect and that they're holding her in the prison." Zuko nodded. "Sokka and Suki went to check out the crime scene. Sokka got this idea that if he could figure out how the assassin got in, he'd be able to fix up the weaknesses in your defenses and keep it from happening again."
"If anyone can do that, Sokka can." Realizing that the stinging had mostly faded, Zuko turned his attention back to Katara and saw that she was now pressing a bandage to his wound.
"Okay," she asserted as she finished securing the gauze. She swiped a forearm across her brow as she stood, Zuko noted, and her eyes were puffy with missed sleep; just how long had she been awake, anyway? "That's just about all I can do for now, but I'll be sure to take another look at it tonight." As she finished the last sentence her mouth gaped open of its own accord, and she brought a hand to her face to cover the wide yawn.
"Katara? Aang?" Much as he dreaded the answer, he knew he had to ask. "How long was I out?"
"Well, you were attacked right before sunrise, so I'd say…" Aang looked out the window. "Maybe two hours?"
"Two—oh no!" Zuko had barely managed to raise himself up onto one elbow, however, before Katara pushed him back down, far more easily than she should have been able to.
"You need to take it easy," she said firmly. "You lost a lot of blood."
"But there was so much I had to do today!" Not wanting to risk Katara's wrath, he sank back down, burying his face in his hands.
"So tell us what you need and we'll see that it gets done," Katara said reasonably, heaving an exasperated sigh.
"Yeah, we're your friends, Zuko," Aang piped up. "Don't worry, I'm sure that people will listen to the Avatar just as well as the Fire Lord."
"That is what worries me."
Aang only grinned. He'd barely opened his mouth to make a reply, however, when the door to the room opened again and Sokka poked his head in, wearing an expression that was deadly serious in contrast to his usually lighthearted demeanor.
"Hey, Katara? I think you'd better take a look at this."
It was supposed to be a vacation.
The Avatar was back, his father was back, they'd won the war, and Zuko had reigned for a full year without incident. Everyone had thought a nice big party was in order, and so it was they'd agreed to a reunion in the Fire Nation capital on the first anniversary of Sozin's Comet. This was supposed to be a celebration.
Instead, it seemed that no sooner had he fallen into his bed after the long journey from the South Pole than he was awakened by shouts and a lot of rumbling earth. He came a lot more awake when he heard Toph yelling "Assassin!" at the top of her lungs.
Things had happened quickly after that. By the time he'd disentangled himself from the sheets after having fallen to the floor with all of his panicked flailing—not his most dignified awakening ever—and made it to the door, Toph was already well out of sight, but he was just in time to see Suki rush past as well. On his way down the hall, club in one hand and boomerang in the other, he'd glanced out the window to see several of the imperial guards rushing toward Toph and another person who was encased up to the neck in a wall of earth. His mind was taken off of that entirely, however, when he made it to the end of the hallway and glanced down the next branch, to see Aang half-carrying an unconscious and badly wounded Fire Lord. He remembered seeing Suki emerging from his sister's room with a tousle-headed Katara in tow; remembered the rush to the infirmary; remembered the blood (so much blood) that had soaked Aang's hands and clothing, staining his monk's robes crimson where they had once been a calming saffron yellow.
After that, everything had been a blur, a blur of blood and panic and more blood and Katara yelling at Aang for clean water and at Suki for bandages and at Sokka to sit down and stay out of the way so that she could work.
The time had crawled by with agonizing slowness. Sokka, having nothing else to do and having been admonished one too many times to stay out of the way, had taken it upon himself to liaise with the Fire Nation officials who came by, passing on whatever information he could get out of Katara. Which for the most part had consisted of she's doing everything she can and she needs to concentrate, all while pushing people out of the doorway.
Eventually, they had fallen into a pattern. Aang took up a station on the side of the bed opposite from Katara, grasping Zuko's hand and whispering words of reassurance. Suki had moved over to join Sokka at his post by the door, and when she wasn't assisting Katara and he wasn't shoving yet another person out of the room, they spent the time leaning up against each other, both of them exhausted and yet too tense to sleep. Katara, for her part, continued to work in stubborn silence, pressing hands coated with healing water to the wound in Zuko's side. Whenever she needed something that was out of her immediate reach, she would specify it with a single word, and Suki would stand up to get it for her in equal silence.
And that had only been Sokka's morning.
Finally, after what seemed like days (but couldn't have been more than an hour and a half), Katara stood upright, pushing strands of sweaty hair out of her face and gazing around the room with blue eyes that were exhausted, but relieved.
"He's going to be okay."
At that, the tension seemed to drain out of the room all at once. Suki slumped against him, eyes drifting closed as she nestled into his shoulder. Any other time, the gesture would have had Sokka's heart pounding with excitement, but today he was too busy sagging against the wall himself to manage anything more than to limply drape his arm around her shoulders. Aang positively beamed at everyone in the room in turn, but none more so than Katara. "I knew you could do it, Katara," he said, favoring her with an ear-splitting grin.
Katara only gave him a weary smile before getting back to work; Zuko's life may have been out of danger, but the wound was far from fully healed. Aang, seeing that she was busy, turned his attention to the still-unconscious Fire Lord next. "You too, Zuko," he added as an afterthought. "You never give up, do you?"
"Yeah, well I'm just glad he's on our side now." At that moment, there was another knock at the door, and Sokka got to his feet with a groan.
"Look, my sister's working as fast as she can," he said as he opened the door, not even bothering to let the man speak. "Zuko's life is out of danger, but she still needs to—"
"It's not that, Lord Sokka, sir," he said, stumbling for a moment over which title to use for the "Water Tribe savage." "Though it's very good to hear that the Fire Lord will recover," he added hastily. Sokka motioned for him to continue, though he was unable to hold back a yawn. "We've questioned the assassin, and she's now being held in the Imperial Prison."
That caught Sokka's interest. Instantly, he came to a full state of alertness. "What did she tell you?" Dimly, he noticed Suki coming to stand behind him.
"She keeps saying that the Fire Lord has done nothing but ruin her family ever since he took the throne. That's all we've been able to get out of her."
"Her family must have been profiting from the war, then," Sokka mused. His head came up as another thought occurred to him. "Hey, is Toph still over at the prison?"
"Yes, but why?"
"Think you could send word to her that Zuko's going to be okay? Thanks, I owe you one." He clapped the man on the shoulder before he even had time to reply, pushing past him through the door. "Hey, Suki, could you come with me?"
"Sure, Sokka," she said with a wry smile, tying her robe tighter around her body as she stood. Ah, well. They'd have plenty of time to fix that later.
"Hey, Sokka?" Aang's eyebrows were drawn together in a slight frown. Leave it to the Avatar to be perturbed by Sokka's apparent flippancy. "Where are you running off to all of a sudden?"
"I just want to check out the crime scene to see how the assassin got in. The sooner we make sure this can't happen again, the better." He gave Aang a smirk. "Why, what did you think we were doing?"
"N-nothing! I didn't think you were going to do anything!" The pink blush rapidly spreading over his face, however, gave the lie away. Even as she worked, Katara rolled her eyes.
"Sokka, that was mean," Suki chided as they closed the door behind them. Her smile, however, was mischievous.
"Hey, he asked." He slung an arm around her shoulders as they made their way down the hall. "Someone's got to teach that kid the facts of life, and I don't think my sister is going to do it."
They both broke down into a fit of snickering at the thought. The laughter seemed to lift an additional load of tension from their shoulders.
"Besides," Sokka added as the laughter died down, and they rounded the last bend in the hallway, "we haven't had anything to laugh about all morning."
Their mirth died instantly as they took in the sight of the new guards stationed outside of the door, of the scattered pieces of Fire Nation armor and the blood that was liberally spattered over the walls and floor. There was a long, messy streak of red on the wall that started next to the door and ran several feet down the length of the hallway—that must have been where Zuko had leaned against the wall for support as he struggled to drag himself toward help.
"What happened to the guards?" Suki murmured, picking up a severely dented helmet.
"Knocked out, for the most part." A middle-aged woman came striding toward them from inside of the room. "There were a few concussions, but no casualties, and the injuries were nothing the palace physicians couldn't handle." She looked the both of them up and down. "You two are friends of Fire Lord Zuko." It wasn't a question.
"Suki of Kyoshi Island, leader of the Kyoshi Warriors."
"Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe."
She nodded once. "Chao. Captain of the Guard." Her eyes swept over them again. "So what did you come here for?"
Suki stepped forward. "Actually, we were hoping to take a look around, if you don't mind."
Captain Chao raised an eyebrow. She stared them down like that for a few seconds—just long enough for Sokka to start squirming uneasily—before letting out a sigh.
"The Fire Lord has made it clear he trusts you with his life. I suppose I should as well." She gestured for them to enter the room. "Move nothing unless you have to. We don't want the evidence to be disturbed."
"Got it!" Sokka gave her a cheery grin and a thumbs-up.
Shaking her head, Captain Chao took up a station just inside of the door, leaning casually against the wall as they began their exploration of the room. Sokka wished she wouldn't; it broke his concentration knowing that someone else's eyeballs were constantly boring into the back of his head. Still, he did his best to ignore it as he swept his eyes over the room. Aside from the things Zuko had knocked over on his way out, there were surprisingly few signs of a disturbance.
Apparently, Suki was thinking the same thing. "The assassin managed to stab him in his bed," she said, her hand stopping just short of the ripped and bloody sheets. "And we all know how hard it is to sneak up on Zuko. Whoever did this, she was good."
"Yeah, no kidding. Hey, Chao?" The Captain of the Guard raised an eyebrow, which Sokka took as a sign to continue. "How did the assassin take out the guards without making any noise? I mean, one of them should have realized what was happening in time to raise an alarm, right?"
"From what the guards told me when I talked to them in the infirmary, the attacker disabled them so fast that by the time any of them had realized what was happening, they were already on the ground. They described the attacker as striking them very quickly on several points on the body, but being completely unable to move after."
At her description, Sokka felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. He and Suki exchanged a look.
"Still on Kyoshi Island. I know." Sokka rubbed his chin, grimacing at the sandpapery feeling of rough stubble; shaving, like so many other things, was something he just hadn't managed to do that morning. "She had to have learned it somewhere, though. Do you know if she ever taught it to anyone besides you and the other Kyoshi Warriors?"
"She's never said where she picked it up. Not to my knowledge, at least. But I do remember her saying she's never taught it to anyone before."
"Not to break up your party or anything, but would you care to enlighten me as to what you've found?" Captain Chao was still leaning against the wall, but her raised eyebrow and attentive expression showed her obvious interest.
"Maybe you can help us." Suki turned to the Captain. "One of my warriors is originally from the Fire Nation, and knows how to block people's chi by striking a series of pressure points. Do you have any idea where she might have learned it?"
"Chi blocking. I've heard of it. It's an invaluable skill, but there are very few people who are fast and agile enough to be able to use it effectively."
"Trust me, Ty Lee's plenty fast and plenty agile," Sokka put in. "I've fought with her enough times to know."
"She was a circus performer before she was conscripted by the princess," Suki added. "If that helps."
Sokka continued to listen to the conversation with one ear as he poked around the room. He didn't know Ty Lee nearly as well as Suki did (besides, she creeped him out, flirting with him so much while she was trying to disable him), so there wasn't much he could contribute to the conversation beyond what he'd already said. So while the two of them were chatting, he preoccupied himself with analyzing the damage. A trail of bloodstains led from the bed to the door; a chair had been knocked over along the path, as had the nightstand, and its contents were now scattered all over the floor. A prominent scorch mark along the ceiling indicated that Zuko had at least tried to fight back. The window was open, and looking out of it, Sokka could still see the disturbed earth where Toph had caught up to the assassin and trapped her in rock.
He turned away from the window with a frown, letting his eyes rove once again over the room. There was something going on here that just seemed… off.
"Hey, Suki? Chao?" The two women stopped talking and turned to look at him. "Why do you think she didn't finish him off?"
"What are you saying?" Chao's brows were drawn together in an intense frown.
"It's just… look, it doesn't make sense." Sokka paced back to the door, careful not to step in the puddles of blood. "She starts by taking out the guards." He gestured to the carnage that was still visible in the hallway. "None of them have time to raise an alarm, so she manages to get into the room with no one the wiser. Everything is going exactly the way she wants it to." He turned around in the doorframe. "She somehow even manages not to wake up Zuko—looks like she put out the nearest torch to avoid letting any light in when she opened the door." He pointed to the nearest bracket that hung opposite the door, and sure enough, the torch it held was unlit, the wall behind it sporting scorch marks that spoke of a hasty snuffing. "So she makes it to the bed." He crossed the room once more. "The Fire Lord's asleep, or barely awake at most, and he's completely at her mercy. She manages to get in one good hit." He mimed a stabbing motion down toward the bloody sheets.
"So…" It was not a question, however, but a prompt to continue. He could tell from the look in her eyes that Suki was putting the pieces together just as he was—and that she could also tell that something wasn't adding up.
"So why did she run immediately after?" Sokka started pacing back and forth. "Zuko might have woken up, but he was still in no shape to fight back. Yeah, he shot a few flames, but they definitely didn't hit anything before reaching the ceiling." He pointed to the ceiling and the line of soot—the completely unbroken line of soot—that he'd noticed earlier. "He was out of the fight, but she had to have known it wasn't a sure thing that he would die. So why did such a competent assassin go to all this trouble, but then decide to just bet on her luck?"
A chill started to make his way up and down his spine at those words, and for once Sokka really hoped that his instinct was wrong. That the assassin was skilled but inexperienced, and thought she'd made a sure kill. That she was stealthy and a good fighter, but just didn't have the stomach for murder. That she hadn't known they'd had a waterbending healer in the palace. If, if, if…
"Chao." Suki's voice brought him out of his increasingly dark thoughts. "I'd like to see the weapon."
The Captain of the Guard snapped her fingers. Immediately one of the guards hurried into the room, carefully holding out a metal box which was unlocked and opened.
At the sight of what was inside, Sokka's insides promptly tied themselves in knots. Though his stomach had been grumbling only a moment before, he was suddenly glad he hadn't eaten any breakfast. He exchanged a glance with Suki, and one look at the hardened expression on her face told him that she also knew exactly what they were looking at.
She laid a hand on his arm. "I'm going to go get dressed. Then we'll interrogate the prisoner." Her eyes flashed.
"Right." He nodded. "I'd better tell Katara. Chao, come with me. There's something you really need to know."
Sokka stood just outside the door of the Fire Lord's private infirmary. Chao had run off, cursing, just as soon as he'd brought her up to speed, leaving him to break the news to his friends alone.
Well, there was nothing for it. Any time spent standing outside the door was time wasted—time that Zuko might not have. Clutching the box tightly in one hand, he pushed open the door.
"Hey, Katara? I think you'd better take a look at this."
The moment the words had left his mouth, he cursed himself inwardly—Zuko being awake was a possibility he hadn't considered, and should have. Right at the moment he did not seem to be afraid, only confused, but it was evident from the look in his eyes that he could tell something was wrong. Aang rose to his feet, looking worried.
Sokka locked eyes with his sister. Trying to do what damage control he could, he jerked his head in the direction of the hallway.
Thankfully, Katara did not ask questions, but followed him out without further comment. Aang wasn't far behind.
Only when they had made it into Sokka's room and Aang had closed the door did he open the box. "Do either of you recognize this?" he asked without preamble.
"Um… it's a dagger?" Aang didn't seem to want to get too close to the thing, which was bloodied up to the hilt.
Katara, on the other hand, was frowning, and Sokka could tell she knew something was off… she just hadn't figured out what, yet. Wordlessly, he lifted the weapon from the box and twisted the pommel, sliding it off to reveal a hidden chamber that was filled with some kind of clear liquid.
Just like the dagger Jet had showed them when he'd been trying to pass a harmless old man off as an assassin.
"Katara, please tell me you already neutralized whatever poison is in here and we've been getting all worked up over nothing."
The way that his sister's eyes widened in horror, however, did not bode well. The words she spoke after seemed to fill his stomach with ice.
"What do you mean you can't?" Aang's voice was getting higher with every word he spoke.
"I mean that water healing doesn't work on poisons!" Katara was rather agitated now, pacing back and forth. "I mean, I can counteract the effects somewhat, but I can't just remove poisons from the body. Oh, no." She stopped pacing as a hand flew to her mouth. "That must have been why his chi was so messed-up."
"Katara. Is there anything you can do?"
"I—yes." Letting her arms drop to her sides, she faced them both. "I can ease the symptoms, and hopefully undo some of the damage on his body. If he's lucky, he might… he might still be able to pull through."
Aang and Sokka exchanged a glance. Luck was one thing that Zuko had never had on his side.
Aang was the one who chose to break the heavy silence. "Is there anything we can do to help?"
"Yes." Katara turned to her brother. "Sokka." He stood up a bit straighter. "I need you to do whatever you can to find out what kind of poison was in that dagger. The more I know about what I'm dealing with, the better the chances I'll be able to help."
Sokka nodded. "Suki and I were just about to go question the assassin. I'll see what I can do."
She gave him a quick nod, letting him know that he had her trust. "Aang."
"I need you…" She took a deep breath. "I need you to get a message as quickly as possible to Ba Sing Se."
A/N: And there you have it: idea that's been gnawing at me for who knows how much time. This story is going to be short: four chapters plus possible epilogue, but the chapters are shaping up to be much, much longer than what I usually write.
This story is not comics-compliant, but it does draw some ideas from the comics, namely The Promise and Rebound. Some of the same events happened but in different ways, and others didn't happen at all; at any rate, it's not necessary to have read the comics in order to understand the story.
In other news, I really enjoy Sokka as a POV character. While this story is rapidly taking a turn toward the Dark and Angsty (as my stories tend to do), it was also nice to have some small measure of comic relief.