Chapter 23

(updated 7/26/09)

A/N: Ick. No excuses offered for this puppy living beyond the series' life. Shit happens, as they say. I'm guessing, if you like this, this you'll let me know.

Speaking of the series, I am frankly surprised that it is still spawning fanfic, actually. I think Nic squandered its fan-base capital with the odd timing of releases during season 3, as well as the complete absence of the show now: how are they going to promote the live-action movie, anyway?

Disclaimer reminder: I own nothing and have no profit expectations. Civil suit is pointless.

Chapter 24

Sokka was just as glad to have Ty Lee worming her snub of a nose beneath the notched placket in the neckline of his Fire Nation tunic, although the warmth of that wandering nose and yet warmer hands as they slid up beneath the hemline of said tunic were damned hard to ignore. Still, she wasn't actually expecting anything from him at the moment beyond complaisance and, for the moment, it was a cheap price to pay while he used the time thus purchased to think!

The stupid collar was all about Azula trying to humiliate him, to grind his nose into the reality that he lived or died by her direction, and that for now it amused her to let him live, at Ty Lee's beck and call, apparently. Galling as it may be, did it actually pose any particular problem to his half-formed plan to use Ty Lee's apparent infatuation with him against the Fire Nation? That is, to convince her to allow him into a position from which he could escape off this damned ship?

Water Tribe pride howled like a sea-wolf, but Sokka saw in his mind's eye his father's lopsided grin as he explained how even the sea-wolf was capable of cunning, of hiding in the shadows carefully downwind, his blue-grey coloring so like the ice-on-rock of the canyons… and the wolf's patience as it waited for its prey. Of course, he had to remind himself, I probably should be thinking of how the prey avoids the predator, and not worry about my damned pride…

"What? That stupid—" Mai swallowed hard upon the word she'd almost chosen to visit upon the personage that made her family's fortunes exceed the diplomatic average. Learning that Azula had ordered Sokka collared like an animal or a slave was, she thought, perhaps the final straw. Damn it, what had happened to the incisive intellect of her childhood friend? When had her political acumen devolved into the common frenzy for mere power? And how much longer should she continue to moor her family fortunes to what had begun to appear an increasingly unstable regime?

Mai carefully drew a few breaths, allowing the gossiping servant to exit her cabin unhindered. She would probably have to seek that servant out soon to ensure no untoward rumors spread from her unguarded words – a lazily offered threat should be enough to close her mouth – after all, Azula wasn't the only one with a reputation in the Fire nation.

Mai relaxed a bit. So that itch along her spine probably had as much to do with an astute assessment as to the current reigning family's vulnerability to a coup as to any interest in the Water Tribesman beyond his expertise with his intriguing weapon. That, combined with her earlier decision that she was practicing some kind of emotional displacement of her long-time crush on Prince Zuko, eased her mind considerably. It wasn't like she actually identified in any way with this non-bender warrior with the all-too-knowing eyes. Zuko's eyes had been guileless, hadn't they, whereas Sokka's were cynical and, if anything, mocking. Oops. Not so helpful to her rationalizations…

Ty Lee's hands had ghosted their way over her Tribesman's form teasingly as she snuggled herself against him, cautiously waiting for his protest. Reassured, she returned to grasp the tunic's hem and pull it across the slack form on the bed up towards his head, dragging the limp arms with it. A part of her enjoyed tremendously his inability to protest or take control of the process. But another part of her couldn't help hearkening back to that fierce, almost primeval kiss.

She was reasonably sure that at the crucial point in this seduction he would regain sufficient control of his faculties as to transform this from a mere exercise in tactile stimulation to a true sexual encounter, mutually satisfying. She had every faith in her own abilities to inspire the requisite level of arousal – last night's firmness beneath her thighs was evidence enough of that!

But there was something disconcerting in the passivity of her target's facial expression, despite the taut musculature, peaked nipples, and increased heart rate. She closed her eyes to it, focusing instead on all the other signs – the physical signs, in particular – that he had show his interest in her. Ty Lee rested easy, although at the back of her mind a tiny voice questioned Sokka's current general limpness against that upsurge of his torso during the collaring – something was a bit off about that, wasn't it?

Azula was honestly surprised as to how much of her attention was held by the Water Tribesman. After all, she had ostensibly given Ty Lee full rein over his treatment, once he was collared and, presumably cowed. She knew she thrilled at the evidence of his outrage, that she was exhilarated anticipating tomorrow's encounters with him, the trading of quips and barbs as they each skewered the other on some finer point of strategy or even law…

Damn it. It wouldn't do to have such an encounter observed, not even by Ty Lee or Mai! As for guards – ah, hell no! They would almost certainly misinterpret the exquisite understanding she would share with Sokka, and twist it into something improper… Her father would understand, wouldn't he? Unworthy enemies could be swatted like flies, but opponents who could actually challenge you?

Ty Lee was right, of course, the Tribesman was a lovely specimen of manhood. It was an affront to the Fire Nation that he was so damned clever, that he had managed to defeat all assaults against him – but then, he had had the Avatar at his side, clearly an unfair advantage!

As she felt the sun angle its way towards the horizon she slowly recognized how Sokka's situation had become something of an obsession to her. Not liking such thoughts, she actively sought out ways to avoid facing the obsession. World domination did not require subjugation of one obsolete warrior, after all.

Still, his subjugation would make world domination uncommonly sweet!

The kitchen boy was pissed, but it certainly didn't pay for him to show it. Maybe he'd been a bit less careful in washing the greens for the salad or the scallops for the main dish. Maybe, but those who checked were clearly incompetent; the sous chef and the kitchen boy were aligned on this issue, if nothing else (although they were also both in agreement as to satisfying the kitchen boy's appetites, although, what the sous chef had in mind there might have surprised the kitchen boy…) . In any case, as the former expertly wielded his knife, he listened patiently to the kitchen boy's complaints as to the outrage of Lady Ty Lee's actually housing the dirty Tribesman in her own chamber, murmuring consolingly at appropriate moments. He found it interesting, if not particularly surprising, that the guards were none too happy about this development as well.

"It's the princess, you know," the kitchen boy groused. "She doesn't care how hard it is for Lady Ty Lee, or how it besmirches her reputation. She's prepared to do anything to learn whatever Water Tribe secrets that guy has – and he must know quite a bit since he hangs out with the Avatar, right? I mean, strategically it's probably a good idea, and Lady Ty Lee will probably win all kinds of recognition and promotion for her role here, but only if it isn't generally known just how she'll get him to talk…" the boy's expression transmuted through a range of expressions as he imagined his idol's manipulation, her glory, and her shame.

The sous chef enjoyed the play of emotion, imagining being the author of such passion, but frankly believed his young protégé was getting far too caught up in politics for his own good. It was one thing to know whose star was rising, and ensure yourself attached to those going up rather than going down; it was another entirely to become so emotionally attached that one couldn't take the required actions that prevented one from taking the attendant fall.

The simple reality was that Sokka had lost much of his capacity for coherent thought. After all, it was only yesterday that it had been enough for Ty Lee to merely make lewd suggestions to him in too-close proximity as to make him tell more than he should have about his clothes. Maybe he'd thought he'd gained more sophistication with the evening's grapple and his assertion requiring some kind of quid pro quo, but the simple truth was that he was a healthy adolescent male with far too much education and imagination and far too little experience when it came to carnal relations.

Ty Lee had removed the tunic and was now licking his chest.

Licking it!

While he could just about prevent his arms from moving off the bedding he had no equal control over another appendage, and the rational fraction of his brain still determined to make use of this situation was heartily swearing at the rigid morality that had prevented him from visiting those houses in the lower rings of the city he'd heard bandied about during their stay which might have immunized him a bit from such temptation. After all, what Gran-Gran didn't know no one would tell her – unless Katara somehow found out. Sokka groaned – although it actually was only partially inspired by Ty Lee's antics. Katara would have found out, of course.

He desperately hoped she wouldn't find out about this, because he was reasonably sure he lacked either the control or even the will to stop this from achieving its logical end.

Sure enough, Ty Lee's hands were no longer limited to his torso in their wonderings. With a bit of a start, Sokka tried to calculate just how much longer he needed to remain passive under her administrations.

He was still trying to resist her.

Ty Lee could tell; she'd noticed the tightly clenched fists – which actually eased that worried voice in the back of her mind a bit, since it seemed to suggest a reasonable progression of returning control to her subject that, when combined with the emotional shock of Ty Lee's humiliation and its adrenalin rush, could explain his earlier ability to move. Of course, that also could have merely evinced his continuing anger at his "pet" status, along with the stubborn closed-down look on his face ever since.

But those parts of his body not subject to his active control were positively singing under her touch, and she reveled in it. She was sure he would finally succumb. And when he did, she fervently hoped he would release that wild creature that had taken control of their kiss so thoroughly yesterday. One, she had relished that animal's passion and suspected he would find ways to make her own body sing in response. And two, perhaps even more importantly, wild Sokka may prevent dangerous Sokka from deciding to splatter her brains across every surface of her cabin in retaliation for fastening that damned collar around his neck!

As all these considerations worked their way through her consciousness, those aspects of Ty Lee's personality that had always held the greater sway were delighting in the current situation. Granted, this young man lacked the height and mass of a full-grown man – greater size was always something of a delicious enticement for Ty Lee's adventurous soul – but the muscles beneath his skin were hard and well-formed. And as her questing hand found its target she was able to affirm what the previous evening's more amorphous judgments had suggested. Ah yes, it appeared Sokka's generally pleasing physical proportionality would not disappoint as to the essentials – she could think of any number of previous lovers whose endowments paled in comparison.

Well then, even if he refused to comply – so pissed off as he may be to Azula's damned collar – it seemed one of them would still find enjoyment in the evening's activities.

The assiduity of her efforts paused momentarily while Ty Lee considered how to adjust her paralyzing blows so as to not prevent adequate blood flow to a certain important body part, once adequately stimulated.

Having decided that the whole situation was intolerable, was there anything she could actually do about it?

From what she remembered about him, Zuko would hate her enough for consorting with Azula against him, now. She had known that from the moment she joined the princess, some months ago. But the converse was worse. Azula would almost certainly kill Zuko if she thought it to her advantage, and without Mai there was no one to suggest otherwise. Azula trusted her loyalty and her judgment. If anyone could save Zuko from Azula, it was Mai.

So she had chosen the lesser of evils and joined Azula's crusade.

When had a stupid Tribesman's predicament impinged in any way on her primary goal?

Well, when he had accepted without question her desire to master his bizarre throwing weapon for the sake of the beauty of the weapon itself. He was a man after her own heart and, damn it, the truth was he deserved better. Azula's and Ty Lee's plot to exploit his apparent sexual naïveté was ugly on its face.

It was nice to know her concern had nothing to do with what he thought about her.

And if she walked away right now it was likely he would die thinking no less.

So why was that not enough for her? Search as she might she could find no practical justification. And Sokka was not sufficiently similar to Zuko to satisfy a coldly applied psychological comparison, either. Ah hell.

It seemed it was just because she felt she could relate to this guy, that they were somehow peers after all. Damn it! This was not a satisfactory answer, any way you looked at it!

Mai refused to consider that her heart might be ready to reach out to another, that it had finally given up on Zuko. Now that was far too painful to consider!