Note: Since I'm considered to work in "essential services" I probably won't get much writing done until Corvid blows over. Until then, I was able to squeak out this chapter. Best wishes and health to all of you!
Note 2: Brownie points for whoever gets the Film Reroll joke.
"If the city is as magnificent as its wall, Ba Sing Se must be something to behold. I hope you all may see it someday, if we don't burn it to the ground first."
~ Iroh, Zuko Alone
Jet snarled and sliced forward with the sharp hook of one sword, but Sokka moved with it, stepping lightly to the side in a dodge, and Jet was forced to raise his second sword to block Sokka's quick cut.
"Get out of my way! He's a firebender!" Jet yelled.
"He's Water Tribe," Sokka said, "And when you mess with one of us, you get all of us."
Jet's face went from surprise to indignation to outright fury. He struck at Sokka, and again his hook blades were turned aside—where had Sokka learned to do that?
"Jet!" Smellerbee yelled.
Her voice broke through Zuko's shock. He had been staring in slack-jawed surprise. They all had been. He turned and caught Longshot's gaze.
The archer's green-gray eyes firmed and he lifted his bow again. He was going to loose his arrow at Toph.
No time. Not to get up, Not even to bend. Zuko kicked and caught Longshot hard on the ankle. Longshot grunted in surprise, and as his fingers rolled off the string, the point of the arrow twitched to the side.
The arrow sailed past Toph, missing her by a hair.
Zuko saw red. If there had been a flame in this dank alley, it would have been in his hands. He must have scrambled up and launched himself, barehanded, at the other boy, because the next thing he knew he was on top of him. Longshot's nose broke under his fist.
Metal swords clashed—Toph was cursing up a storm, not knowing how close she had been to taking an arrow in her liver—and Smellerbee had peeled off to follow the sword fighters, a wicked blade glinting in her hand.
Jet and Sokka's duel had taken them further down the alleyway. They seemed to be of equal ability—Sokka was keeping up with both swords, and Jet's stupid wheat stalk had cut short—but Smellerbee was going to knife Sokka while his back was turned from her.
They were too far away to reach, even with Zuko's longest fire lash.
Instead, Zuko launched himself to where the anchoring rope of the snare was tied to a post. He grabbed his pearl-hilted dagger and sawed.
"Toph, stop her!"
The rope parted and the little earthbender crashed down hard. But it took more than that to knock her out of the fight. She groped against the ground to get her bearings and then narrowed her eyes. "Gotcha, little sneak!" She slammed one upraised palm upward.
A column of stone rose under Smellerbee's feet, launching the girl with a shriek up onto the next rooftop.
Seeing both his cronies down, Jet turned and fled. Holding his streaming nose, Longshot did the same.
"You all right?" Zuko bent to help Toph undo the rope around her ankle— it had left a raw red burn. She slapped his hands away.
"I'm fine, Sparky. You got incoming."
Zuko stood in time to receive his brother, who was running toward him. In a second they were pounding each other on the back, grinning, speaking over each other.
"Sokka?! When did you learn to use a sword? That was amazing!"
"What are you doing here in Ba Sing Se? In the lower rings?" Sokka demanded, hardly listening.
"Me? What about you? What—Are Katara and Aang okay?"
"Of course they're okay! Worried sick over you. Who was that jerk?"
"Just an ass I met on the way here." Grinning fit to burst, Zuko pulled away from Sokka to gesture to Toph who had stood up. "This is Toph Bei Fong. She's the best earthbender I've ever seen."
"I'm the best earthbender in the world," she corrected with her usual amount of humbleness. "In the rumble arena, they call me the Blind Bandit." She tilted her head as if examining Sokka, her toes flexing on the ground. "So you're the brother Sparky wouldn't shut up about? You two don't look much alike."
"That's because—Wait, are you blind?"
Blinking, Sokka turned back to his brother. "Come on, Katara and Aang are going to lose their minds."
Zuko realized he was grinning so hard his cheeks ached with it. It didn't seem real. Sokka was here. They all were. "Let's go."
Toph didn't move. "Yeah. No. The earth rumble is going to start any minute, and those idiots already made me late."
Surprised, Zuko turned to her. "Toph, I haven't seen my family in—"
"Good for you," she snapped, not sounding glad at all. "But the earth rumble is the whole reason I came all this way, remember?"
"How about this." Sokka stepped between the two. "We have a house in the upper ring. I'll take Zuko there, have a happy reunion, and then we all come back down and watch the earth rumble. Aang needs to see some quality earthbending." He glanced at Zuko ruefully. "He's been getting nowhere."
Zuko let out a breath. "Fine."
"Whatever." Toph looked as hurt as Zuko felt, but she had no right to ask him to wait to see Katara and Aang after all this time. She turned on her heel and started walking away. "Come find me. I'll be the one with the championship belt in hand."
Zuko and Sokka glanced at each other.
"She's… stubborn," Zuko said. "Fighting in the arena means a lot to her.
"Should we just let her go off on her own? Hook-sword guy might still be around," Sokka said.
He shook his head, letting out a long breath. "She can take care of herself, trust me." Then he glanced at his brother. "This city is huge. What were you doing here?"
Was it his imagination or did something in Sokka's eyes dim for a second? "Sword fighting class!"
Zuko had a vague idea that the upper ring was… well, upper. But as Sokka took him through the path that cut through the city, he was surprised at the quality of the fine houses, each with their own little manicured garden out front, the wide roads without a bit of trash or filth.
He felt scruffy with his plain brown and green Earth Kingdom robes, and dusty from the road. The closest thing he'd had to a bath recently was while trying to out-swim a river serpent.
Momo settled on his shoulder and made a cooing sound as he searched Zuko's pockets for any hidden food. There was none.
Sokka glanced at him, grinned, but didn't ask about the lemur. In fact, he hadn't asked a thing about how Zuko had gotten from the North Pole to the middle of the Earth Kingdom…. Though it would make sense if he didn't want him to have to tell the tale twice.
Sokka finally stopped at a large house with grand windows and tall, welcoming doors. Zuko heard the lowing of Appa from somewhere in a back garden.
Stepping forward, Sokka opened the wide double doors without knocking. The smell of Katara's cooking wafted out, making Zuko's throat tighten with a sudden flood of memories. Of home in the South Pole.
"Nice house," Zuko commented, feeling a strange churning of emotions, not the least of which was trepidation and a little bitterness. Why was Sokka so quiet? Was he angry?
But the glance Sokka shot him was amused… if a little distant. "Pays to travel with the Avatar."
Since when? Zuko wondered.
Sokka led him through a living room bigger than Iroh's royal quarters on the ship. The door to the back garden was open outside… and there they were. Aang was brushing Appa's wide tail, and Katara was sitting on a bench nearby, moving a globe of water between her hands.
Zuko stopped, taking them in. It felt that no time had passed at all. Yet… he had the feeling something had, and he wasn't sure if it was his family or within himself.
Not noticing his hesitation, Sokka called out, "Katara, Aang, guess what I found?"
"Another spiced jerky stall?" Katara asked, not looking up.
Sokka stepped to the side and pointed grandly with both arms as if performing a magic trick. "Ta-da!"
Aang's jaw dropped. "ZUKO!"
The little airbender crashed right into his chest in a bear hug. Arms and legs. Katara let out a wordless cry and moment later she was hugging him too. Zuko closed his eyes. All felt right in the world.
Then Appa came over and half leaned his chin on top of all of them. Momo chittered, flying in tight circles above them all.
Shouting, laughing, they pushed the enthusiastic bison away.
"How? When did—What happened to your hair?" Katara demanded, reaching for Zuko's short scruffy hair before stopping. Then, "You stole Iroh's lemur? Is that Iroh's lemur?!"
"Hey little guy!" Aang cooed, peeling back to lift his hand up. Momo came down and Aang rewarded him with an apple-pear from a nearby tree.
"It's a… really long story," Zuko admitted. His voice was rough.
Then Katara hugged him again, hard. "I'm glad you're okay," she said. "I'm so happy you're home."
Home. He was half a world away from the South Pole, but that didn't matter. Home was where his family was.
Zuko closed his eyes. "I missed you all so much."
Toph's feet had never seen anything as large as the Ba Sing Se arena. For a long moment, she stood in front of it and just... took it in. The crowd inside alone contained more people than the entire population of Gaoling , and the stands were only half full.
From the quality of the earthbending she could feel going on, she had made it in time. These were only the warm-up fights. The appetizer to get the crowd going before the real event began.
Toph planned on being center stage.
By the end of the night tonight, I'll be a champion again, she thought with fierce pride that felt... somewhat empty inside. Like a geode with a hollow center.
She knew why. Whenever she imagined this moment since she left home, Sparky had been with her. Instead, he was going to watch from the stands with his family.
Family came and went, but winners are forever.
He'll see me win, and then he'll know I'm the best and he'll be sorry.
Though she was a little unclear even in her own mind what he would be sorry for. Deep inside, she couldn't blame him for taking off the first chance he got. He'd never shut up about his siblings, but…
… Hadn't he known this was important to her, too?
It didn't matter. Toph was a rock through and through, and rocks did not get all twisted up over fair-weather friends.
Some ticket holders were still trickling in, but Toph set her feet to a side entrance she guessed was for the combatants.
There was even a bouncer guarding the door.
"Autographs will be available to purchase at the end of the rumble," he said in a bored tone.
"Great, you can get mine, then." Toph lifted her chin. "I'm the Blind Bandit, the champion of two Gaoling earth rumbles, and I'm here to defend my championship belt."
The man's heart rate spiked in surprise. Good. He had heard of her, then. Maybe had even seen her kick butt. There was the sound of ruffling papers. Then, "You're not listed on tonight's line-up."
Line-up? That was an odd way to put it. Things were more… improvisational in Gaoling. "I'm putting myself on the line-up," she said. "Who's going to stop me?"
You think you can stop me? Was implied, but not said. Not yet.
Her earth sense showed her the feeling of heavy approaching steps— familiar and alarming. The bend and warp of the soil underfoot that only a powerful earthbender could accomplish.
She only had time to think, Wait, I know that guy—
She started to turn. Huge arms swept around her and lifted her up, up, up, crushing her into a chest as hard as granite.
"Ack. Get off me!" She wiggled and thankfully the Boulder set her down. The second her feet hit ground, she spun around. "You looking for a rematch?"
"It is good to see you, my tiny friend!" the Boulder boomed.
Friend was a bit far considering how Toph and wiped the floor with him, but she would take it. Either way, his body language told her he wasn't looking for a fight.
She cocked her head. "Took my time getting here. I had to kick Fire Nation butt on the way." Specifically one, former prince.
He laughed, loud and booming. "The Boulder is glad to see you, young competitor! Come inside and greet the rest. We can work you into tonight's program!"
Toph's ears caught the odd phrasing again, but for whatever it was worth the Boulder's seemed sincere. Plus, she could always bury him to his neck if he tried something. She followed him in, and the bouncer stepped aside for them both.
At the end of the large hallway was a comfy sitting area the Boulder declared as the 'green room' though Toph would just have to take his word for that.
And there they were. The Big Bad Hippo, the Gecko, Gopher, and even Fire Nation Man. There were others sitting on lounging couches, too. (Fire Nation Man seemed to have taken over a spread of food set out in the corner.).
The Boulder rested one meaty hand on Toph's shoulder and she felt her feet try to sink an inch into the ground. She was made of sterner stuff and didn't act like it bothered her.
"This is The Blind Bandit. Do not let her tiny size fool you. She is a force to be reckoned with!"
Darn right, Toph thought. It was good to get some respect.
The Boulder went on, introducing others from different cities and ending with, "This is Rock'a'lanche, tonight's winner."
"Wait," Toph said. "You mean the winner of the last match, right?"
"Negative!" The Boulder enthused. "Rock'a'lanche is a crowd favorite and has slated to win tonight, though," he chuckled, "We will make him work for it."
Toph resisted the urge to dig out her ears with a finger. The Boulder could not be hearing what she thought she was hearing.
But no, she could hear just fine. In fact, there were the sounds of a lot of papers shuffling.
Her confusion must have been obvious because Fire Nation Man wandered over from the food table to bend down and study her. When he spoke, it was completely without the accent he used on stage. "She really is blind, then? Huh. That's not an act."
"I can still kick your butt!" she declared hotly.
The Boulder laughed. "There is no need for that, young Bandit. The time where we fought each other has passed. Now we are a team and we fight for the accolades of the audience!"
"What does that mean?" she asked.
"It's all planned out," Gopher said.
"Wait..." She started to get a bad feeling, but, no. No way. "You guys are taking a fall?"
"It's all in a script, dear," the Gecko said in a surprisingly cultured tone.
"It's much better. Now we are not hurt and broken at the end of the match. We have been gifted a truly interesting storyline," the Boulder boomed. "My backstory is thrilling!"
"Hippo finally has dental insurance," Big Bad Hippo added.
"Honestly, the retirement plan could be better," Gecko admitted, "but you're young enough so it may not matter."
And Toph stood there, stunned as the well-meaning, but completely oblivious Boulder shoved a stack of papers into her hand. The script for tonight's performance, apparently.
A script she could never read.
There was so much to say, news to catch up on. It shouldn't—couldn't happen all at once. Not that Aang didn't try, showing off his lightning scar before jumping to a swamp they'd visited full of Water Tribe folk who were so unlike their southern and northern "cousins" to the long flight here and all the earthbending classes he'd been kicked out of.
His speech was disjointed, out of order, and so rapid… Zuko felt dizzy with it, didn't understand most of it much less how those events connected. But he was glad to listen—glad to have someone else do the talking. His turn to share would come.
He was home. He had time.
They had moved indoors. Katara ladled out a hearty stew over rice that was clearly Earth Kingdom food (Aang rattled off something about being a guest of the Earth King even though it was going to be weeks until they met the guy).
"—And I saw you in the swamp, too, Zuko!" Aang continued. "You were standing next to a short girl with dark hair."
Zuko set his bowl aside. He'd gone through two portions, including tidbits he'd fed to Momo. "That… sounds like Toph. She came with me to Ba Sing Se." He instinctively glanced at Sokka, but his brother was gazing at the front door, not listening. "Actually, that reminds me: She's fighting in the earthbending arena later tonight. I promised to cheer her on."
"Oh?" Katara gave him an arch look.
Again, Zuko glanced at his brother, but Sokka wasn't focused on the conversation. Even his bowl of rice and stew had been set to the side. Momo was eyeing it speculatively. "Sokka said you might benefit from watching some good earthbending, Aang. She's the best earthbender I've ever seen."
At the mention of his name, Sokka seemed to snap back into focus. "He's right. You guys go on, I'll meet you back here tonight." And with that, he stood.
"Wait." Zuko blinked. "You aren't going with us?"
"Can't," Sokka said turning toward the door as if in his mind the discussion was already over. "I was going to the sword training class when I ran into you, and if I hurry I won't be late."
"But—" Flummoxed, Zuko turned to Katara. But instead of the expected support, his sister only rolled her eyes. Aang was no help either, giving Zuko a helpless sort of shrug.
Something was really... off here. Sokka was already almost out the front door. Putting down his bowl to the side, Zuko went after him. He caught up just outside. "You can't put it off for one night?"
Sokka turned back, his jaw firmed in annoyance. "Did you ever put off bending lessons with Katara?"
"Well no, but—"
"Then there you go," Sokka said lightly, turning away.
"But—!" It didn't make sense. Zuko knew he was just going to class, but now that they'd found each other, he didn't want any of his family out of sight now. It made his stomach feel queazy.
Sokka turned back, impatience written on his face. That took Zuko aback too. He blurted the first thing that came to mind. "I'd like to join you sometime. Maybe learn some swordplay?" Benders could learn the sword, could they?
Something... odd flashed over his brother's face. In the half-light it almost looked like fear before his expression smoothed out again. "Zuko, no offense, but this is kind of my thing." Then he reached out and gripped Zuko on the shoulder. "You get it, right?"
Sokka turned away again.
Stung, Zuko did not call him back.
He closed the door back to the house and rejoined Katara and Aang. Katara was staring at her bowl as if it had personally offended her and her chopsticks stabbed down at the rice as if they were knives.
"He seems… really intense about sword training class," Zuko said, torn between hurt and annoyance, but mostly just confused. Why was Sokka being so weird about this?
"It's not sword training class," Katara practically spat.
"He's seeing a girl there." She stabbed at her rice again. "He let it slip one time."
Zuko blinked, thought for a second, and then blinked again. That... explained a lot. The bitter edge of hurt dulled to be replaced by bemusement. Sokka was seeing a girl? Why didn't he just say so? Did he think that, what, Zuko would move in on her? Then he caught sight of Katara's stormy expression.
"Why are you saying that like it's a bad thing?"
"Because he's with Yue!" she snapped.
His eyebrow rose. "Princess Yue?"
"Yes, and they had an understanding! Or, she thought he did. They were writing love letters, but now all he wants to do is practice with his sword."
"You don't know that, Katara," Aang said.
She ignored him.
Brotherly pride made him speak up in Sokka's defense. "I don't think Sokka is the type to, um," he glanced at Aang, "practice swords with two girls."
"I know what you're talking about," Aang said breezily. "There were baby bison at the temple."
Katara shook her head. "He's changed. Or this city has changed him. I can't remember the last time he made a stupid pun."
Now that was worrying. "I'll talk to him," he said. No offense to Katara, but there were things that were easier for brothers to speak of than little sisters.
She sighed and then put her bowl down. "We should head out soon. I have work tomorrow."
"Wait, you do?"
Now her expression softened, pride replacing anger. "I do. I work with a crew of other waterbenders out in the lake."
"She's really good," Aang enthused. "They've taught her all sort of tricks with ice needles."
"They use waterbending for fishing for navigation their boat, for cooking. There's so much. Water is in everything. I never realized it." Her eyes took on a glow. "I've learned so much."
But Zuko caught the undercurrent of what Katara wasn't saying, and he didn't like it very much. Their youngest sister was out working all day while Sokka was out… swordbending.
Thankfully, Katara was still chatting happily and didn't notice his darkening expression. "They're an offshoot of the Foggy Swamp Tribe, like second cousins. I know they'll be happy to meet you."
For her sake, he tamped down on his annoyance with Sokka and smiled lopsidedly. "One condition: Tell them I'm a firebender, first."
One thing he had learned on the trip here: If he could help it, he would never again allow his firebending come out as a surprise.
There was a knock at the door. This time of night, it could only come from one person.
As always, Azula made sure she was the one to answer. Sokka would be under her sway.
She pulled the door open and waited that extra second, just like she always did, for the flare of panic to show in Sokka's eyes. His fear was delicious, and his grab for his weapon was predictable as it was useless.
"Sokka, the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai."
The Water Tribe teen's hand dropped from his sword.
"I am honored to accept his invitation."
Azula stepped aside and as soon as the Sokka stepped inside she said, "Report."
He stood at attention, perfect as any Fire Nation soldier. "My orders were to come back if something important happened."
"Zuko has entered Ba Sing Se. He's reunited with Aang and Katara."
"Prince Zuko," Azula said with a glance towards the supervising pair of Dai Li. "That is concerning. He's supposed to be Fire Lord Ozai's son. That means the Fire Nation may be trying to infiltrate the city."
The Dai Li agents looked at each other in alarm. "Long Feng must be told at once."
"Agreed," she said sharply. "The sooner the better. Whatever the Avatar is planning, he must be stopped. I'll take care of Sokka."
The two Dai Li exchanged a look and walked away out the back.
Azula waited until the door had closed before she turned to Mai and Ty Lee. "It looks like we have an opportunity here, girls."
"We do?" Then Ty Lee cocked her head. "Wow, Mai. You probably didn't know you'd be seeing Zuko again. I wonder what he looks like now." Ty Lee elbowed her friend, who didn't react.
"Who cares?" Mai sighed.
"If all goes according to plan, we won't see Zuko at all." She turned her attention to Sokka. "Return to your house as if nothing has happened. They will want to leave Ba Sing Se, but you must not let that happen. Say whatever you need to convince them to stay within the city. Then, come report to me again."
"I am to return to the house as if nothing has happened," Sokka repeated. His voice was monotone, perfectly obedient.
Pleased, Azula listened as he recited the rest, and absently reached to stroke a nail down the back of his neck. "Very good, Sokka. You are free to leave. When you reach the next street over, you will think you have spent the entire night in training. Go now."
"I spent the entire night in training," he repeated, then turned to leave.
"Wow, Azula," Mai intoned as the door shut behind the Water Tribe boy. "I never knew you wanted a pet."
She smiled. "Sokka is much more obedient than a usual pet."
Ty Lee cocked her head. "I know you have something planned, but I can't figure out what it is."
"We have to move quickly, girls. The Avatar must escape Long Feng's plans."
Mai blinked, which for her was a look of absolute shock. "Why?"
"Because it will make Long Feng look foolish and me strong in comparison. By the time my pet tells me where the Avatar and my traitor brother are hiding, this city will already be under my control."
The earth rumble was well underway by the time that they got arena. Zuko wasn't too concerned. He had been hearing about rumble tales for weeks from Toph. There were usually a few warm-up matches before the main event.
Surely, once the organizers got a look at what Toph could do, she would be the main event spectacle.
He noticed that Katara paid their entrance fee with a proud little smirk. There was nothing wrong with a woman working, but it didn't sit right in his heart that Sokka was leaving her to make ends meet while he did this own thing. Even he and Katara had to fit their bending practice into heir schedules while helping to hunt for the tribe.
He felt... oddly at war with himself. Part of him, the Water Tribe part, reminded him that he had just arrived here and that Sokka was his elder brother, and wanted there to be peace within their family.
The other part didn't give a flying bison turd for who was eldest. He was going to have a conversation that Sokka wasn't going to like.
But that was for later. For now, he was here to see Toph kick butt.
The roar of the crowd was insane—enough to tremble the ground underfoot, and that was without the smash and crumple of rock against rock.
He, Aang and Katara all alarmed and excited exchanged looks.
"Let's get a good seat," he said and stepped faster towards the benches.
He had heard enough of Toph's stories to know that being in the low seats was a very bad idea. But to his surprise, they seemed to be filled here. As latecomers, he, Katara and Aang took a seat in a high section.
The main first event had just started.
"This is going to be to be a bunch of big, sweaty guys throwing rocks at each other, isn't it?" Katara asked.
"It's no opera," Zuko said absently, leaning forward. He caught Katara's started expression out of the corner of his good eye, but had no time to examine it as the show was just starting.
To his surprise... there was more than a little bit of theater. At least, before the two contestants, The Big Bad Hippo and The Gecko, started their match, they both monologued at each other, complete with backstory.
"That's... weird," Zuko said.
Aang seemed to be completely taken in by the stories and gasped aloud when the Gecko revealed that they had known each other in the past, and had loved the same woman.
That... seemed like a big coincidence to Zuko. When were they going to throw rocks at each other's heads?
As if his unspoken wish was heard, the match finally began.
Zuko was no earthbender. Obviously. But it became apparent from the start that something... wasn't quite right.
"Did that big guy actually get hit?" Katara demanded.
"No, he got knocked down," Aang said.
Zuko shook his head. "That rock missed him."
But the man had fallen to the ground and was rolling around, clutching his big toe in agony as if it had been crushed. Only to get up at the last second and unleash a hail of pebbles when the other guy got close.
It was all showy and the crowd was eating it up.
The next match was worse. One of them, The Boulder, kept repeating phrases as if he couldn't remember what he was supposed to say.
"When is your friend showing up?" Aang asked politely.
"I don't know," but he was certain that Toph would only allow herself to be part of a real rumble. He stood. "I'm going to go find her."
Katara stood up, completely ready to go. Aang pouted for a half-second. "Aw, but I wanted to see if the Boulder would avenge the death of his half brother…."
With the rumble still going on, the way to backstage wasn't that hard to find. They were stopped by a tough looking man who seemed to be guarding the way.
"Autographs are in the main lobby, fee paid in advance," the bouncer said.
Zuko sized the man up. "I'm here to see the Blind Bandit."
"Don't bother," said Toph's dejected voice. She walked out of the shadows, past the bouncer who looked annoyed. "I'm here."
"What happened?" he asked. "Why weren't you in the arena?"
"It's fake!" she exploded. "All prissy scripts and shadowboxing. They aren't even allowed to hit each other because they do several shows a night. The winner is in the script!" With that, she threw a roll of parchment down. "No broken bones, no hitting each other, no real fighting at all!"
"That's... awful?" Katara tried.
Toph turned to her. "It is! Bad enough all those cowards left their home arenas when the Fire Nation moved in, now they don't fight at all!"
Abruptly, the fight seemed to drain out of her. She slumped. "I came all this way for nothing. Now what am I supposed to do?"
"You can join us!" Aang said immediate and easy even though he had met this girl less than two minutes ago. "Plenty of room on Appa's back."
Katara looked hesitant, and Zuko could read the look in her eyes. It was the same look she had when food was getting tight in the south pole. It was a: Now we have another mouth to feed, look.
"Aang's right," she said kindly, instead. "We've got a house with a lot of room. A real bed and everything."
"I don't care about beds," Toph grumped.
"They also have a huge back garden for you to destroy," Zuko said. "Lots of rocks."
She snorted and punched him on the shoulder. "Now that's what I'm talking about."
They exited and she seemed to pick up a little more life. She turned. "I'm Toph, by the way."
"I'm Aang," he chirped, "and this is Katara."
She nodded. "What happened to your other brother, Sparky? Lose him already?
"Sparky?" Katara repeated with a laugh.
Zuko rolled his eyes. "He's probably be back at the house."
They were walking down the streets. Night had fallen. The rumble hadn't let out and the streets were deserted thanks to the late hour.
It turned out, the streets were too quiet.
Toph stopped so quickly, Aang ran into the back of her.
"Shh!" She shot out one hand to cover his mouth. "My feet feel someone coming, and they mean business."
Katara shot Zuko a startled look. "Your… feet?"
Before anyone could answer a man in black and jade green robes stepped forward, flanked by no less than five other nondescript men in conical shaped hats.
"Avatar Aang," the leader called out in a cultured voice. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Long Feng, Grand Secretary of Ba Sing Se and head of the Dai Li." He gestured to the men beside him.
Aang was an optimistic soul, but he wasn't stupid. He stepped forward. "What do you want?"
Toph slid one foot across the cobbled stones, elbows locked and hands up in a guard position. "Two more flanking on the roof," she muttered loud enough for Zuko and Katara to hear.
Zuko glanced up and around. Sure enough, two more men in the large hats sat perched on the edge of the roof on either side of the alleyway like glowering pigmy pumas. They were surrounded.
Long Feng smiled. "Avatar Aang," he said again, voice booming with authority. "By order of the Earth King, you are under arrest for placing unauthorized posters and allowing an enemy of the Earth Kingdom into our walls."
No need to elaborate on who the enemy was.
Once, just once Zuko would love to go into an area of the Earth Kingdom and not be arrested for being a firebender.
"I think there's been some sort of mistake," Aang said.
"No," Zuko said, the words bitter. "There hasn't."
Katara raised her chin. "Zuko is not your enemy, and you don't want the Avatar to be, either."
Long Feng chuckled. "Is that a threat, young lady?" Then his focus rested on Aang. "Well, Avatar Aang? Will you come peacefully?"
To his surprise, Toph stepped forward. "You take on Smirky McEvilvoice," she said to Aang. "Sparky? Sparky's sister? You can take the chicken spittles on the roof."
"And you?" Katara asked.
Toph smirked. "I'll take the rest."
Katara huffed. "I don't think—"
That was when Long Feng apparently had enough. In a hard voice to his Dai Li, "Take them."
And suddenly, half a dozen hands made of rock were flying at them, fingers open as if to grab.
Aang slammed his staff down, generating a torrent of air strong enough to blow Zuko back a step. It knocked the closest glove out of the air, and the one beside it off coarse. The rest aimed true.
At least until two wedges of stone rose from the road in front and on either side of their group. The stone hands hit the earthbend-hardened wedges and crumbled away in a pile of dust.
Toph flicked her fingers out and the several ton wedges shot down the alleyway, faster than an ostrich horse at full gallop. Long Feng and the Dai Li had to leap to the side to get out of the way. One man wasn't fast enough and was knocked several feet back with a yell. He wasn't quick in getting up.
Katara and Aang's jaws had dropped. Zuko grinned, feral but not surprised. After all, Toph was the reason why he made it to Ba Sing Se.
"She can handle them," he said to Katara. "Aang, you take Long Feng!"
He turned his focus on one of the Dai Li at the top of the alleyway who was throwing down a second glove.
Zuko breathed out sharply, letting his inner fire flare. Then he whipped out with a golden fire lash at the man's feet—if one thing the battle at Lee's village had taught him was that earthbenders relied upon that connection to the ground. The surest way to beat them was to break their root.
The man used the ledge to spring away, and the rock hand went wild.
He felt more than saw his sister at his back. From the snapping noise of ice hitting stone, she was waterbending at the Dai Li on the other wall. He glanced over his shoulder to see the man dodge ice knives, each as wickedly sharp as they were brittle. She had learned a few new things, too.
Aang had leapt in a way only a master airbender could, and was now dodging stones and rock fists from Long Feng. He looked like he was dancing more than fighting.
Zuko took this in at a flash—his own Dai Li had landed, and gestured to the ground at Zuko's feet with an impatient gesture. He felt a warning tremor and stepped to the side in time to avoid the paving stone shift unexpectedly from under his feet. Katara, too, let out a yelp as the stone under her feet became unsteady.
"Oh, no you don't!" Toph yelled.
She stepped forward and slammed her fist down, hard. Rock rippled forward like a tsunami made of land, taking out the four Dai Li who had been with Long Feng, and knocking them down onto their butts.
The two Dai Li at the top of the alleyway abandoned Zuko and Katara to jumped down and help their comrades. Toph turned. With clawed hands, she made a spreading gesture. The ground opened up where they were to land and they fell into a tunnel of her own making.
The other Dai Li were picking themselves up, just as Aang hit Long Feng with a lucky blast that crashed him into a brick wall with a thud.
"We need to get out of here," Zuko said. "Now."
"On it!" Aang said cheerfully and took out his bison whistle.
All four turned to run back the way they had come.
As they left the alleyway, Toph turned back. "Cover me!"
Zuko had a feeling he what she was up to. "Got it!" He and Katara exchanged a look and read each other's intent there.
Stopping to turn towards back to the alley, he and Katara stepped forward at the same time, one of their old katas they had worked for months to perfect in the South Pole. A ribbon of fire and water shot out, twining over and over in an hissing crackling steam. Only now Zuko's fire was golden and bright with his own inner power, licks of gold edging to sea-green among the outer flame like the dragon who had showed him his inner fire.
The quality of Katara's waterbending had strengthened too. Now the stream glittered with ice. Strong as the hardest permafrost, sharp and cutting.
The steam of the combined water and fire was devastating. The Dai Li jumped out of the way only to have their vision obscured by the roiling hot steam the opposite elements gave off. It gave Toph cover for what she had to do.
She planted herself in the middle of the street, feet out in either direction and held her arms up and out. She took a breath to center herself. Then she launched into a series of fast snap kicks and low punches. No rocks disengaged and flew out from her. Instead there were only distant subtle snaps as if she were cutting through invisible supports.
Then, all at once the walls on either side crumbled inward up and down the entirety of the block, burying Long Feng and the Dai Li in rubble.
Zuko was very, very glad they were in an industrial district and she had only destroyed warehouses.
Katara brought her hands down, stepping out of her bending pose. There was no point continuing. She turned wide blue eyes at the other girl. "Did you just bury them…?"
Toph was blind, but she could see the implications a mile away. "I can feel their heartbeats and they're earthbenders. They're fine."
"They'll dig themselves out soon," Zuko warned.
Aang had been silent. Zuko was a little worried—from what little he'd caught of his duel with Long Feng, his airbending had been less than effective. He'd only won out by sheer strength.
There was a beat of silence. Then Aang turned to Toph, his gray eyes wide. "Toph… that was amazing. I've never seen anyone do anything like that, and one of my best friends was a mad genius at earthbending." Then he fell to his knees, his hands clasped together. "Please, please, PLEASE be my earthbending teacher!"
It was rare to see Toph so taken aback. Then a slow smile spread over her face.
Overhead, Appa let out a bellow as he landed, Momo riding on his head.
Zuko was relieved in more ways than one when Appa touched down in the garden back in the upper ring. What had taken more than an hour of travel could be accomplished in a couple minutes of flight. He had really, really missed Appa.
Toph was clearly not a fan of flying. The moment Appa's feet left the ground, she had grabbed onto Zuko's arm and held on for dear life.
Katara had grinned at him. Zuko scowled back at her. How would she like it if she were made completely blind in mid-air? As far as he was concerned, Toph had more than proved her bravery.
The second Appa touched down, Toph was on the ground, digging her toes into the soil again and leaving her "lifeline" with a dead-numb arm.
Thankfully, Sokka was back from his sword training class. He met them in the back garden, his sword still strapped to his belt.
"The Earth King has gone crazy!" Katara said. "He sent his creepy 'grand secretary' to arrest Aang."
"He thinks I'm Fire Nation," Zuko said bitterly. "I'm here to take over the world with my evil firebending powers. The usual."
Weird how a few months ago, he wouldn't have been able to say that with the heavy sarcasm. Maybe he knew himself better now, and was more confident with who he was.
Maybe it was because Hakoda had treated him like a man of the tribe, Iroh had sacrificed himself for him. Zuko had a better grasp of his own worth.
The Fire Nation was still his enemy, but it was laughable that one person could do that much damage to Ba Sing Se all by themselves. Even a firebender.
"That doesn't make sense," Sokka said.
"It never does," Zuko said with a shrug as if it didn't bother him. "But we need to get out of here. This is the first place they'll look."
"Toph is going to teach me earthbending!" Aang chirped. "We can do that anywhere."
"Just as long as there is good earth under my feet," Toph agreed.
"No, wait." Sokka held up his hand. There was a beat of silence as everyone looked at him. Zuko fully expected Sokka to make a pun about earth or maybe a lighthearted jab about freaky soil magic.
But Sokka's expression was dead serious—he looked older in that moment. There was a lot of Hakoda in the set of his jaw. "Aang, it's a mistake to run from this."
"Did you miss the part where they tried to arrest your friend?" Toph asked.
"Sokka, we don't know how far this goes," Katara added. "You've heard that creepy Joo Dee, lady. 'There's no war in Ba Sing Se.'" Her eyes went wide and somehow blank and her voice took on a mocking tone.
"Exactly." Holding out his hands, Sokka stepped forward. "I don't know if you guys haven't noticed, but the war isn't going so well. Since the Northern Water Tribe fell, this is the biggest city not under Fire Nation control… and they're not even in the war."
"But Sokka, the Earth King wants to arrest me," Aang said.
"Are you sure? Maybe it's the Grand Secretary guy pulling strings. I'm just saying we shouldn't leave until we've tried to get him to see reason."
"So, you want to... what, storm the palace?" Toph asked, arms crossed. Then she shrugged. "Sounds fun."
Sounded a lot like a suicide mission, but fighting sounded better to Zuko than running. He took a breath. "There is something else the Earth King should know—that you should all know," he said reluctantly. "I learned it on Iroh's ship. It's the Fire Nation's greatest weakness. They call it the Day of Black Sun..."
And he went on to describe, briefly, the eclipse and what it meant for firebenders.
As he did, he saw Katara and Aang's eyes widen. They exchanged amazed looks.
Sokka grinned and punched one fist into his open hand. "That's it! We storm the palace, speak to the Earth King and show him the Avatar isn't his enemy—we'll bring news on how to stop the war once and for all. He'll have to listen!"
"That... might work?" Aang looked from one to another. Then seeing the hope on their faces, he straightened his narrow shoulders. "I want to try."
"What about Long Feng and his band of losers?" Toph asked bluntly. She wiggled her toes on the ground. "They're not close, but when they come they'll be hopping mad."
"We need a place to hide and rest up," Sokka said, "and let Long Feng tire himself and his men out by searching all night. We'll hit the Earth Palace in the morning."
Now Katara grinned. "I know one place where they'll never look."
They loaded up again on Appa and took off into the night sky. Toph still held onto Zuko's arm, but it was less of a death grip the before. She seemed to be getting used to the idea of flight.
Zuko took the opportunity to gaze out over the saddle. Even at night, it was startling to see how big Ba Sing Se was. Buildings with lit windows seemed to stretch on and on, broken only by dark city rings. Looking down on it all, it was easy for Zuko to imagine frustrated Dai Li searching the streets for them. Hopefully, like many earthbenders, they wouldn't think to look up.
Katara was at Appa's head and directed the bison to the shores of the big lake. They circled down at one of the docks, and she coaxed Appa to land on a wide, shallow boat. The vessel tipped a little as Appa settled his massive weight down, but then studied again. The boat must have a deeper draft than it looked on the outside.
"This is my employer's fishing ship," Katara said in a hush. "They live a little ways in the city—I'm not sure where, but if we get Appa covered we should be able to stay here for the night."
It was good thinking. The Water Tribe would look at a large body of water as a place of safety, but the people of the Earth wouldn't.
There were tarps and netting neatly bundled at the bow. Working together, Katara, Zuko, and Aang got a tarp thrown over Appa. There weren't many torches lit near the docks, and the tarps obscured the bison's shape to a casual viewer. Momo zipped around, chittering in confusion, then seemed to decide the warmest place to be was under the tarp with the bison. He zipped under, and Zuko heard Appa give a grumble a greeting. Those two were becoming fast friends.
Sokka stood at the bow facing toward the lights of the city, keeping watch with one hand resting lightly on his sword. Toph stood not to far away, frowning. Zuko went to her.
"Eh. I wish we were standing on good ol' dirt, but the harbor is shallow here. Lakebed is only a few feet away." She pointed straight down then hesitated.
"What is it?" Zuko asked.
She bit her lip. "I can't hear your brother. It's weird."
"He's over near the starboard side of the ship. The right side," he corrected, remembering she wasn't Tribe.
Toph stamped in frustration. "Not now—I mean, my feet can't see a thing right now. But most people's heartbeats are all over this place. His is like a metronome. Tock, tock, tock."
"You're saying… he has a steady heart?"
"I'm saying there's nothing there! The window are open, the kitchen oven is lit, but no one is home."
Zuko was completely baffled. "That is ridiculous. Sokka is the smartest person I know." And this was the second time today he found himself defending him. "Maybe your feet are wrong."
"My feet are never wrong," she said, solid as anything. "And you know it."
Biting back on frustration that tasted like sparks, Zuko ran his hand through his hair. The problem was, he did know it. "I'll talk to him," he conceded. "After this mess with the Earth King is over." He didn't bring up that Katara brought up concerns, too. That felt like a family matter.
His answer seemed to satisfy Toph, however. "Good. So, where are we sleeping? I'm beat."
Glancing over, he saw Appa's flat tail sticking from under the tarp. Katara was starting to arrange the bedding on it.
"Come this way," he said, not reaching to Toph—knowing she would hate it—but letting his voice guide her in the correct direction. "Bet Appa makes a better bed than at your fancy house."
"Don't need a bed when a rock will do." But Toph shuffled forward anyway and once she got there, took the sleeping bag Aang offered without much fuss.
Katara laid her bed down next to Toph, Zuko took the next spot, and Aang settled happily in beside him. The boys didn't ask for blankets. Their individual bending was enough to keep warm on a mild night like this.
Sokka, who had been keeping silent watch, turned from his contemplation of the city. "We should sleep in shifts. I'll take the first watch. Katara will go after me, and Zuko will take the dawn watch."
"What about me?" Aang asked.
Sokka flashed him a grin. "You gotta keep your strength. You'll be busy winning over the Earth King tomorrow."
Aang managed to look both equally excited and nervous. "What if I can't? What if he doesn't like me? Or what if he wants me to earthbend to prove I'm the Avatar? I still haven't cracked it."
"Don't worry," Toph said. "I'll take care of the earthbending. You just twinkle your toes at him. Show him you're an airbender."
"Twinkle his what?" Katara asked.
"He's so light-footed. He barely touches the ground." This seemed to make perfect sense to Toph.
Zuko grinned. Lacing his fingers behind his head, he stared up at the night sky and let their voices wash over him.
Perhaps he should be more concerned about crashing the Earth King's palace tomorrow, but he couldn't find it in him.
As long as he was with his family, he would be okay.
He drifted off to sleep. The sounds of water against the hull, the murmur of voices and the fluffy bison fur made it easy to drift off.
He never noticed Sokka slipping away in the dark.
Azula's pet proved his worth yet again, by showing up at a most opportune moment. She spared a few moments to murmur another set of instructions, taking him down another level by whispering of cities of walls and secrets.
Then she turned to the Dai Li who were arranged in ranks before her.
They were not hers—not like Sokka. But Long Feng had embarrassed himself tonight by being bested by four children.
Even the Dai Li who had been with him did not suspect Mai's involvement. A cut from perfectly thrown stiletto could so easily be mistaken by a sharp chip of rock or shard of ice. A sharp pain at the wrong time could spoil any aim.
Ty Lee had waited behind the chaos and helped get her friend out before she was noticed by either group of fighters.
Now Long Feng was in disfavor among his own men, and was in fact locked in a cell in his own prison.
Whether he stayed there tonight depended on how well Azula proved herself.
"Excellent work, Sokka," she said after he had given a terse summary of where Zuko and the Avatar are hiding.
"Princess Azula." One of the Dai Li, Bohai, was courageous enough to step forward. He nodded his respect, but he did not bow.
Soon, whispered a voice in Azula's head. She hoped it was her own. Soon you will be mine, too.
"You understand that Ba Sing Se has had a… complicated history with the Fire Nation," Agent Bohai continued. "You understand why we are hesitant to obey your orders."
"Then allow me to me succeed where Long Feng has failed." She raised her voice so all could hear you. "Let me show you the power of true leadership, by someone who was born for the role."
There were quiet murmurs from within the ranks, like a stream of gravel falling down a gently sloping hill. Not positive, or negative, but present and watching.
Neutral Jing could be so tiresome. She was lucky there was real fire burning within the hearts of these men.
Some would be content to serve under any king. These Dai Li, however, grew disillusioned by incompetence and self-serving arrogance. Between the Earth King and Long Feng's that's all they had.
She turned and signaled to Man and Ty Lee. They had work to do.
"Wake up." Sokka's voice, oddly flat as if it were coming from far away, pierced through Zuko's sleep fog. "We've got company."
For a second, Zuko was confused. Wasn't sure where he was. He was... back home in his family's tent in the South Pole? No, the bed was too soft. On Prince Iroh's ship? No, that was impossible, too. The ferry?
Momo let out an alarmed shriek. Zuko bolted upright and so did everyone else...
... Just in time to see a bolt of blue fire strike the sleeping bison's side.
Appa bellowed in surprise and pain. Zuko caught a flash of scent, charred fabric from the tarp and singed fur. The bison leapt up into the air, tumbling everyone down who had been sleeping on his tail.
"Appa!" Aang yelled after him.
For a moment, Appa checked himself as if he meant to swing back down. Then another blue blast of fire shot at him from the docks. Appa surged up into the dark night sky to avoid it, leaving everyone scrambling on the boat.
Blue fire. Oh no.
"What happened?" Toph demanded, fighting free of a tangle of fur blankets and sleeping bags. "What's going on?"
Sokka was the one who answered her. His voice was dead of inflection. "The Princess of The Fire Nation found us… and about fifty Dai Li."
Standing, Zuko turned and stared.
Fifty Dai Li was low a low count, Zuko thought, seeing the silent figures arranged on the nearby shore, the docks around them, and every boat within sight.
But they were nothing compared to Azula. She stood at the head of the pier closest to their boat. Even in the half-light, he could see the scarring leftover from the lightning strike she had taken at the North Pole. A silver and red tracery ran up her throat.
He wondered how long she had watched them sleep.
"Azula," he said.
Her gold eyes focused on him. "You look surprised, Zuzu. You can't have thought you had seen the last of me."
"What are you doing with the Dai Li?" Katara asked. Her gaze focused on the waiting men arranged around them, still standing like statues. "She's the Fire Princess!"
Azula laughed. "They know. They are waiting to see how this will play out. You see, these are men who have been failed by their leaders. The Earth King is a child in a man's body. Long Feng is ambitious but incompetent. Only I can give them what they crave— a true purpose. Power like they have never seen before." Her gaze focused on Zuko. "I have the divine right to rule. And I'll show that by bringing the Avatar under my heel."
"Yeah," Toph said, standing free of the blankets at last. "I don't think so."
Then she sunk down into a deep horse stance as if she were lifting a heavy weight.
And the bedrock under their boat began to rise. Toph was blind without being able to be on land. So she was bringing the land to her.
Fire leapt easily into Zuko's hands. He had never drawn it from his inner flame so often has he had the last few days, nor had it come so easily to him before. An arc of fire shot out, lighting the scene around him and throwing the watching Dai Li into half shadows.
Azula batted it away contemptuously.
She ran up the pier, leaping nimbly over past a chunk of stone Toph had managed to break from the bedrock below, and over water tentacles Aang and Katara used.
She twisted in mid-air, her blue blast of fire sliced cleanly through Zuko's fire lash. And she landed, neat and nimble as a dancer, on the boat.
Still, the Dai Li didn't move. They watched. They waited.
Zuko didn't understand, could only be grateful. If it was only them against Azula… they had a chance.
"You've made a mistake, Azula!" Zuko yelled, rolling to avoid a bolt of fire. It didn't matter because Toph covered his dodge with another thrown boulder—her aim was bad, but it caused Azula to check.
"Oh?" Despite the fact she was having to twist, turn, duck, and leap over every element thrown her way, Azula not only managed to fire back but not sound out of breath doing it. "What mistake, Zuzu?"
Ignoring the nickname, Zuko planted his feet and grimly, pulling one of Azula's wild blasts out of the air, twisting into his own fire before sending it back to her. "Last time, I took you on alone. Now, I have my tribe with me."
Azula opened her mouth to reply, but at that moment Aang brought his staff down in a blast of air that knocked her, end over end, nearly to the edge of the deck.
She was up in an instant, firing precise blasts and Zuko had to bring his own fire up in a glittering wave to absorb it.
It didn't matter. A wave was building behind Azula's back, thanks to Katara. Higher and higher, it would crest any moment and sweep the Fire Princess into the lake.
Suddenly, Azula grinned.
"I'm not alone, either."
There was the rapid knock-knock-knock of something striking wood. Katara cried out. The building wave collapsed back into the lake.
Zuko whipped around in time to catch the last flash of something in the air—knives, needles?—rain down upon Katara. She held up a hasty shield of ice, but was visibly bleeding in a half dozen places.
"Katara!" Aang screamed, abandoning his attack on Azula to rush to her side.
Two more thumps on the deck: two more figures landed on the deck, jumping from the next ship over. They were two girls, Azula's age. One was dark and held more thin needle knives, the other was dressed in garish pink and held only a smile.
They had leaped over from the next boat, using Azula's fight as a distraction.
Staring at them… something deep inside Zuko's brain clicked.
"Mai?" he breathed. "Ty Lee?"
He knew them. He. knew. them. But at the same time, he couldn't remember a thing about them. It was like running headfirst into a wall… and left him breathless and staggered.
"Hi, Zuko!" Ty Lee waved cheerfully. "You got tall!"
Aang had reached Katara and helped her back up to her feet. She was bleeding in a half dozen places. None of the wounds looked deadly serious—which was good because Aang's face had taken on a pinched look it only got when he was in danger of going glowy—but she was bleeding and clearly hurt.
Sokka stood between them and the newcomers, though for some reason he hadn't yet drawn his sword.
Still, the Dai Li remained motionless and watchful. Watching to see if Azula had what it took to lead them.
Zuko had to take her down. Gritting his teeth, he turned back to her. Okay, seeing Mai and Ty Lee was… odd, but neither one of them were benders. "Give it up, Azula. Even with your friends, you're still outnumbered."
"Oh, Zuzu." She flipped a lock of her bangs back. "You could never see the big picture. I've already won." She smiled. "Sokka, the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai."
What? Zuko thought.
"I am honored to accept his invitation," Sokka intoned.
Azula flicked her fingers. "Take the Avatar prisoner."
In a flash, Sokka drew his sword, and Aang had to drop Katara to avoid a slash aimed at his neck.
"What is he doing?" Toph yelled, from the wild way she'd thrown boulders, she was targeting based on hearing, but she was clearly picking up enough to form context clues.
Zuko didn't have time to respond. To understand. He had to dodge a needle-sharp lance of blue fire aimed for his chest. He was almost not fast enough—the heat of it was incredible.
But it was nothing to the roaring in his ears, surprise, rage, confusion… He couldn't—why was Sokka—!
Katara called Sokka's name with panic and horror in her voice. Toph yelled out, too, in surprise rather than pain as Ty Lee hit her. The hit hadn't looked hard, but Toph went down.
Then Azula closed with him, daggers of fire in her hands. He reacted on instinct, slapping the fire dagger away only to have her hit him with a slap that left fingernail scratches under his bad eye.
"You really think you're better than me?" she asked almost casually while he was kept on the defense, dodging her blows, no time to throw anything up but useless sparks. "You got lucky in the North Pole."
Suddenly, she lunched forward. No fire in her hands—he was completely off balance and she didn't need it to beat him.
Hard fingers closed around his throat, cutting his air. The flame he managed to spark ran through his fingers like water and died.
"I'll tell you a secret, brother," Azula leaned forward, ignoring his struggles as if they were nothing. "I am the lucky one."
He caught a flash of pink from the corner of his good eye, fingers jabbed his spine three times, and suddenly his arms and legs went limp. He fell heavily to the deck.
Katara was down again, bleeding, and Sokka...
Sokka had swept behind Aang and held the edge of his sword so so tight to the boy's throat he couldn't move.
Aang stared back at Zuko, his gray eyes wide. No hint of a glow. Then again, if he went into the Avatar State, Sokka's sword could slip. And then...
"Sokka!" Katara yelled. "Sokka, what are you doing?!"
There was no expression on their brother's face. It was like he wasn't even there.
His heart beats like a metronome, he remembered Toph saying. Tock, tock, tock. No one is home.
That wasn't his brother.
"What have you done to him?" he snarled, struggled with all his strength, but could not move an inch.
Ty Lee bounced up beside Sokka and Aang. "Hi, let me help you with that."
And she… it wasn't like she hit Aang, but it was as if she lightly jabbed him, pointed and precise.
Sokka moved his sword away and Aang went down like a sack of apple-yams.
Chi-blocking, Zuko remembered as if in a dream. Ty Lee comes from a family of specialists… Had she done something to Sokka, too? He couldn't remember, and quite possibly the first time in his life, he desperately wanted to.
At last, the Dai Li moved. One by one, they bowed to their new master. Azula visibly preened.
Silently, Sokka lowered his sword and stared at Aang. Laying helpless, Aang looked back up at him, and his expression was full of compassion.
"Sokka, you're my friend. You've got to snap out of it. You know this isn't you!"
"Sokka," Katara had one hand pressed to her shoulder. Red blood welled between her fingers. "It's not too late. You can help us. Please!"
"Sokka," Zuko barked. "Be the chief we know you are. Wake up!"
Sokka's expression cracked. He blinked, looking around in visible confusion. "Wait, what's going on…"
Then Azula stepped up beside Sokka, leaned close, and whispered something in his ear. Zuko was too far away to hear exactly what was said—something about a city of walls and secrets.
Whatever it was, the light fled Sokka's eyes.
Zuko and Katara's brother was gone.