A/N: Wandering around looking for decent Sokka stories I noticed a recurrent theme of Sokka captured by the Dangerous Ladies, with either Ty Lee or Azula falling for the dear boy. Frankly, I've yet to see any of these stories catch and keep my interest, but it did occur to me to attempt the premise myself. Being freakishly lazy, I didn't bother attempting to come up with a scenario to fit with the season's ending, so assume this takes place shortly after The Drill. Yeah, gonna do a non-fluffy piece with Sokka and three scary girls. Hang onto your hats, folks, cuz it's gonna be a bumpy ride…

Disclaimer: Well of course I don't own these characters or their universe. I just plays with them to suit my fancy, and respect all property rights held by others. Y'all can just back off now…

Cog in the Machine

Chapter One

"This one's alive…just," He heard the voice as if from the depths of a long tunnel; the words echoed such that he wasn't quite sure that he heard them correctly. With that, and the fact that some idiot was hammering at various points along his body and brain with a hammer the size of one of Appa's feet, he honestly felt he couldn't be blamed for not quite catching the man's words before, again, all sensation blessedly faded into a dull gray haze that he suspected couldn't really count as sensation at all. This, despite the occasional bursts of scattered color behind his eyeballs that he associated with pain, even though he had no idea what part of his body the pain might be centered on.

Such fuzziness, distasteful though its memory was to his ordinarily fastidious thought processes, was infinitely preferable to the sharply defined ache throbbing behind his left eye and pulsing along the same shoulder-blade in a knife-edge of heat and more defused pain spreading out along his back as consciousness returned. Having isolated these particular grievances, he proceeded to consider the rest of his body, and was pleasantly surprised at perceiving little more than the normal protests of strained muscle, random bruising, and fatigue that usually greeted his waking mind. Granted, there was additional rather stronger-than-usual soreness along his right side – he remembered wrenching his body to that side to try to avoid the collapsing wall – but all in all he seemed remarkably whole considering he had been caught in what he thought was the complete fall of the outer defenses of Ba Sing Sae.

Of course, he must be wrong in that assessment, since after all here he was in what must be a recovery ward for the survivors. The wall must not have fallen after all; he and the other defenders outside must have been brought back inside the defenses. And soon Katara would be there to bring her waterbender's healing touch to his various aches and pains. He would boast about the success of his plan to defeat the Fire Nation's latest attack and she would dismiss his boasting derisively.

So why were the walls swathed in red and why did they seem to lack the solidity of stone? And why did Katara take so long?

When he opened his eyes again he was comforted by the sight of a long, dark braid across the shoulder of the visage gazing back down at him. Less so when he noted the eyes that greeted his were grey. Not blue. And that face…

Sokka swore silently and let his eyelids flutter closed again. He might as well be dead.

Better dead, really.

An imperious voice pronounced something about classifying the wounded into those recoverable, those valuable, and something else he missed even as he recognized the main purpose as being to abandon along the wayside those deemed unworthy purely by dent of their inability to survive without help. A part of his brain weighed the utility of being left to die as opposed to quick execution – from the perspective of those so assigned – even as he tried to decide if he was better off so abandoned or being recognized as "worthy". Glumly, he decided his first assessment was correct; the world was better off if he were dead.

Unfortunately, the Fire Nation did not agree.

"You're sure."

"Oh yes, I've seen him several times now. It is him. There's no mistake." Ty Lee spoke with no hesitation. Granted, she'd not seen a lot of Water Tribe youth in her life, but she'd certainly seen enough young men she'd found attractive to be able to distinguish among them. This was one of the keepers. And really, there weren't all that many she was ready to say that of.

The princess raised her brows in askance as she surveyed her other minion. Mai lifted a shoulder in a hint of a shrug as she dug one hand negligently into a bowl of fire flakes on the table before them. Far be it for her to put the prisoner on a plane of importance above anything else.

"She's right. He has one of those… memorable faces. Besides, what are the odds of two Water Tribe warriors our age taking on Fire Nation troops outside the walls of the capitol of the
Earth Kingdom? Not that I really care, but he is the one that matters, the Avatar's friend. Assuming any of them matter."

"Yes. I thought I recognized him. And the reports on that one are…interesting." The Fire Princess was not easily read by even those who knew her well. But anyone knew that it was deadly to catch her interest.

Ty Lee thought wistfully about the possibilities she had considered in her imagination for the Water Tribe warrior under thrall to the Fire Nation. While she recognized in herself a penchant for a "pretty face", she confessed herself surprised at the thought that Princess Azula might be equally susceptible. Well, there was a first time for everything.

Awakening to the prospect of manacles was unpleasant but not surprising to Sokka. He no longer bothered to count the times his path had crossed from freedom to captivity and back again. The optimism of youth had been tempered in him by the vision of his mother's funeral barque, by his unspoken funeral duties as the "man of the tribe" over the last several years since his father left with the rest of the men of the tribe, and most recently by Yue's transference into the spirit world while literally in his arms. He swallowed hard, recognizing the taste of bile as the sick-man's bed was denied him and he was herded into a tiny group of those prisoners deemed somehow sufficiently valuable to the Fire Nation for a trek back to their ships.

And Sokka's stomach clenched as he realized the whole point of the attack on the city had been to capture Aang or, in default, some valuable hostage. Sokka had become practiced at analyzing Fire Nation attacks, and he had instantly spotted the anomaly in this one; it threatened the staging area for the ferry with an unsupportably large force. Either they had something to attack the wall or the ferry was vulnerable in a new way. In his enthusiasm to help what he perceived as Suki's venue, Sokka had failed to apply his usual thoroughness.

He would like to believe that Aang, Katara and Toph would make a rational decision regarding any attempt to rescue him. Because rationality recognized that as a non-bender and probably only a modestly effective fighter (Sokka was perfectly capable of honest assessments of his abilities with only himself as arbiter) he was unlikely to be recognized as any great asset. But to expect purely rational behavior from Aang, Katara and, maybe, even Toph as regards Sokka was like expecting a solar eclipse every day. It just wasn't going to happen.

Of course, maybe the Fire Nation could be convinced otherwise.

And that, Sokka told himself, was his only hope, short of escape.

She had always considered herself to be apolitical at heart. Such a position was a necessity for profitable travel among the four – no, there had been only three for generations now – nations.

Granted, her early days with the circus had been – illuminating, as least in terms of experiential mores – and she had certainly felt comfortable with the decisions she had made. At least, until the Princess Azula had returned and reminded her that, while all politics might be local, if you did not actually live locally you needed to take a broader view…

Still, she had thought the broadmindedness of the circus could extend beyond the circus. But Azula had trapped her yet again, noting that ultimately one's loyalties had only one home. It didn't matter how much she might appreciate another culture, another standard of beauty – and who wouldn't appreciate the clean lines and easy smile of the Water Tribe boy anyway? – one's true loyalty lay at home.

That he had fallen into their hands was a fluke of fate, not exactly design on their part. No one had expected the wall to fail just there, not after the epic battle on the ramparts between Azula, the Avatar and the earthbending master. No one expected anyone from the Water Tribes to be among the common soldiers in the fray.

But. There he was. The idiot was frequently at the fore of battle, usually just where you didn't want anyone at all. To date, luck had attended him, and there was no gainsaying his presence had somehow been crippling to the Fire Nation effort (although that was probably attributable to the Avatar, not him).

Ty Lee dismissed Azula's concerns for the nonce. The Avatar was a child, and lacked sex appeal even if he was incredibly powerful. The Tribesman, however, while still clearly undeveloped and a non-bender, had those amazing blue eyes set in a face so beautifully proportioned – except perhaps for a chin that was rather too prominent for true beauty, and argued for potentially unpleasant stubborness – that even a Fire Nation sculptor would have been intrigued by his visage. She'd seen enough of his build – shoulders nicely displayed in throwing that thingagummy weapon – and stamina – he could run and jump long enough to outlast even Mai, that she was convinced this latest pretty boy to catch her eye was, in fact, a keeper, no, a real prize.

It really didn't matter that Azula migh think he was a prize for entirely different reasons.

But, in the privacy of her quarters, it was reason enough to weep.

Why doesn't she want me to just kill him?

As she asked herself this question, there was no passion in it, or anything to push her to act at all. Mai had honed herself to a perfect edge and really, the only thing that boggled her mind anymore was why her principals didn't use her to their best advantage.

The perfect tool, she didn't recognize in herself a lack of ability to act of her own volition. Mai could no more kill without command than she could consider love without consent by her parents. It was only when she was required to kill that which she loved that she considered her options otherwise. And even then it had happened only in her imagination, and only for a love she told herself over and over again was purely a childish daydream. Still, she recognized that in that one case she might not have managed to satisfy loyalty over love.

Happily, she felt no love for Sokka, so her issues on that are not our story. On the other hand, it would seem there was nothing to stop her killing Sokka.

She was the greatest firebender of her age. She was the daughter of the Fire Lord. She would be proclaimed his heir!

Of course, she was his heir in ways that could never be proclaimed, but had always been recognized and accepted when they met eye to eye. He had not flinched. She faced the world confident in the knowledge that he never would.

But she had made mistakes. She had missed her brother and uncle not once but twice! Her trail on the Avatar was even more fraught with missteps.

Even as she analyzed the problem it was clear that the more she knew of her enemy, the less likely she would be to make such mistakes in the future. This latest prisoner could be very valuable indeed.

Dimly in Azula's mind simmered the bits and pieces of this minor companion to the Avatar that were, of course, if secondary to the Avatar's emotional attachment to him. She had not needed to be reminded that in their first contact with him he had demonstrated a weapons expertise that thwarted even Mai, and Azula had been pondering, on an admittedly tertiarly level of her multi-tasking consciousness, his presence when the Drill was destroyed ever since she had herself recovered from that debacle. After all, his lack of outstanding martial skills would seem to have made him a liability that even the naïve Avatar would have avoided bringing into such a critical situation, so he was there for a reason, and that reason was important. So, even discounting the Avatar connection, the Water Tribe boy was a prize.

As it happened, the princess called for him literally in the middle of a period proscribed for his bath. When the courier arrived to summon him Sokka responded with an invitation to the princess to join him, as is, or at another place of her devising. By now, he was feeling reckless and more than ready to tempt death. Days had passed and he was well on the road to recovery from his battle wounds.

His lack of rescue on the part of his sister and friends had done much to both enhearten him and incise a certain bitterness in the pragmatist in his soul. For the first, he assumed they believed him dead. Abandonment simply didn't make sense otherwise, despite the demands of his own rationalism. What niggled at him was his firm belief in the lack of rationalism in his companions. And it was that, perhaps, that allowed him to take heart in a situation that had apparently written him off as, he had himself expressed, better off dead.