Chapter Sixteen - Ambush on the Mountain Side

If there was one thing that Toph disliked most, it was to be caught by surprise, and here she stood as her would be assassin retreated from his perch. She thought a moment about throwing up a shield against an onslaught of arrows like what had happened in Omashu, but it did not come. Neither could she sense the presence of unfamiliar bodies near her. She assessed her wound. It was deep; the medic might have to give her stitches, but it was not fatal. She could feel the blood trickling down to her elbow. It felt hot like her rising temper.

"COWARD!" she shouted to the air, chuckling at the failed attempt on her life. Couldn't even finish the job. Toph knew though, that this attack meant that Le Wei Guan had caught onto their little game and it was time to come up with a contingency plan. As much as it amused her to have Aang angry with Jae-Suk again, the humor of it was tempered by the fear that this would not be the last time someone tried to have her killed.

"Better go break the bad news," she muttered to herself. As she made her way back, she was struck by an odd thought about what had just transpired: Why did they only send one? Le Wei Guan cannot stand failure. If he does it, he does it with overkill. She recounted the times that she and Aang had encountered his Black Band Bandits. The pirates in the southern waters, the attackers on Kyoshi Island, the underground slave keepers in Qian, and most recently the incensed mob in Omashu. Each time we've been faced with numerous opponents. Le Wei Guan operates on sheer force. Why this time send a solitary assassin? They know they'd clearly be outnumbered, so what is the end goal here?

Toph paused in her steps to think about it a moment more, but the thoughts began to grow fuzzy in her mind. A small pounding headache began to grow at the base of her skull and she rubbed her neck to relieve it. Her arm felt rubbery as she reached out, and a moment later she had to kneel because the action made her woozy. It almost felt like she had been drinking cactus juice. Her mind flicked back to the arrow that had nicked her. It must have been poisoned. I bet they didn't need to have it stick into me for it to do me harm. What was it that Huang Ze said? That depending on the potency, they can kill someone in seconds. So why am I not dead? Are they just sick bastards who want me to suffer?

As it slowly clicked together in her mind what was happening, she was bowled over by the loss of sensation in her limbs. She collapsed on her back, a prickling numbness slinking down her spine. I just need to be out of the way. I'm not the big target here, not yet. And I just let it happen, let my guard down. Stupid, stupid, stupid! She breathed heavily, trying to will herself to move so she could warn him, but her body resisted. Nearby footfalls told her she was not alone and she hoped it was an ally.

"She dead?" a male voice spoke, his words hushed so only she and his companion could hear him. She vaguely felt the sensation of rough hands at her neck, feeling her pulse. They craned her head back and forth, jabbed at her ribs and moved her numb limbs lightly to see if had any ability to move them on her own.

"No," came the answer, another male, much older than the first. "Looks like the drug has affected her system. Her body is completely out of her control for now."

"So she's passed out then?" the young man queried. His voice held the inquisitive tone of someone still learning all the dirty tricks of the trade.

The old man chuckled, "She's quite awake. I assure you. See how she still blinks now and again. Probably the only thing she can do on her own, other than breathe mind you. She is completely incapable of moving or screaming for help. We've made up some remarkable concoctions indeed. Only took a little forced blood and sweat to get there."

Toph could hear the young man shuffle his feet, his voice tittering on the edge of excitement when he spoke again. "Do we kill her?"

The older man moved away, towards his companion, "In due time. She is a secondary priority. We just had to keep her waylaid long enough to reach our main target. The Avatar will be none the wiser without her warning call. He's an easy target now, and those fools here with them will not know a thing is wrong until morning. By then, they'll have two corpses and our master will have his just cause to propel him forward. So, once you have eliminated him, I'll let you decide the method in which this one goes. If that doesn't sate your bloodlust, you can do away with the rest of them. The master doesn't care at this point how much blood is shed as long as the deed is done. Even his traitor son is viable collateral damage at this point."

"Just think about it," the young man said, barely containing his thrill. He crouched beside her, his hot breath at her ear. "Think about it girl, how I will sink a blade so deep into the heart of your Avatar that he won't even have time to gasp before the life is out of him. It's all thanks to you. Your allies are so convinced that you would alert them to danger that they will be careless this night. No worries, you won't have long to live with the shame. I promise you that."

"Time to go," the older man mentioned casually, "The last of them, besides the watch, should have turned in by now."

Toph listened intently as they retreated from her side. She could feel a fury building in her that she'd never known before. These aren't like the Bandits we've known before. They aren't here to make a show to anger the populace. These are people on the inside who know the whole truth. These are the most dangerous kind of men. She felt the rage beneath her skin, prickling at her. She focused intently, hot tears burning at her cheeks as she tried to reign in control, at the very least, of her voice.

She felt it, gobbed up in the back of her throat, trying to break free. One thing she knew, being an earthbender, is that sometimes sheer force worked. She swallowed hard, forcing the block from her throat. Her voice emerged, a hoarse whisper, a moment later. "Aang."

Aang sat in his tent, mulling over one of the books he had brought. Hard as he tried, he couldn't focus on the story. He was too distracted by his own thoughts. He pictured Toph, sitting next to him on that rock, the last fragments of light fading as they had their first real conversation in weeks. He had wanted to turn back after he'd left her side, to be in her company just a little while longer, but it had already felt like he'd overstayed his welcome. Better not to push his luck. She was willing to walk with me and talk with me, but I don't want to be overbearing like Jae-Suk.

The thought that Toph would treat him like she treated the Gu Yong leader made him shudder. Aang didn't dislike Jae-Suk, he just didn't care for how he pushed his company on Toph. Aang knew well enough that if she wanted company she would seek it. Even then, she'd rather the focus be on her bending skills than on romantic flatterings.

He sighed, wondering exactly how he was supposed to feel. He didn't want to let his one sided attraction make things awkward between them. He should be nursing a broken heart right now. That same heart that currently fluttered at the thought of someone new. Then again, he had no intention to fully understand the way that love and attraction seemed to work in his life. He turned his attention back to his book, shifting himself closer to his lamp so he could put his focus on the pages and not on the thoughts that were plaguing him.

Momo chittered in his lap. The lemur had been curled up there since he returned to his tent for the night. Aang scratched him behind the ear to sooth him, but now the lemur was wide awake after being rattled about. Momo stretched, crawling from his lap towards the secured flaps of the tent. He turned back to Aang, as if asking permission to be let out, though the airbender knew he could easily slip underneath if he so wished.

Aang set aside his book, crawling to the other end of the one man tent and untied the closures. He held them closed for a moment after, and looked pointedly at the lemur. "Stay nearby, stay out of the dried fruit, and don't cause any trouble."

Momo gave him an innocent look as Aang released the flaps and the lemur bounded away into the night. He would come back when he was ready, and Aang didn't worry too much about him despite the comments he had made. Only now did the lemur have any freedom. This time of night he had free reign of the camp. Most people were asleep, aside from a small watch marching the perimeter. The lemur was much less noticeable in the dark. During the day he had to stay snuggled in the pack on Aangs back or perched in the bed of the wagon by Toph.

Thinking of her again made Aang smile as he curled back up in his bedroll with his book. Despite his unsurety that what he was feeling for her was right, he was glad she was here. He didn't know how he would have managed the trip without her. Would I have gone alone? Would I have let Katara come along? Zuko? Would I even be here at all if not for her? I'd like to think I would have uncovered this plot on my own, but maybe not. She has discovered many things with her skills that I would not of. He felt a small pang in his chest, realizing that at the end of this adventure, she would storm out of his life just like she had whirlwinded back into it so many weeks ago.

His life would be somewhat like it had been before. Back to council meetings and routine. The difference would be Katara. He would have to face her, perhaps with a little more courage and understanding than he had before. There would be no more running away. He would have to find the strength to wish her well with whoever had come into her life and earned her love. The thought of this hurt too. Despite the budding feelings he had for Toph, he still deeply loved Katara. He always would, he knew, in the way that a first love lingered in one's heart. And unlike with Toph and Yasuo, where the absence of the other party eased the pain of the loss, he would need to face her with confidence regularly.

Though their romantic relationship was at an end, he was resolved that their friendship would remain firmly intact. He would strive to move on as she had done. Somewhere in his heart he heard it whisper: with Toph. The thought made him feel foolish though, as he reminded himself that what he felt must only be one sided. He admired the earthbender for her kindness and her bravery; for her humor and her beauty. He tempered these thoughts with the reminder that she did not show any inclination of reciprocal feelings. If anything she had distanced herself from him since these feelings had grown in his heart.

Perhaps she sensed this and wanted to spare him the pain. If anything, she's more likely to be interested in Huang Ze than in me. Aang bristled at his own thought. The two shared similar upbringings, but seemed to have little more than a platonic relationship that was built upon those similar experiences in their formative years. He groaned, his mind tired of thinking about things. It really did not good to ponder what she might feel about any person because at this point it didn't matter. Toph had made it clear, many weeks earlier in their trip, that she wanted to be done with everything and go home again.

He didn't blame her. In the months they'd been together, she'd been forced to open up old wounds and relive heartache she had buried in her past. He regretted that she had to suffer that way. Toph exuded confidence and portrayed an exterior that was as tough as the earth she could bend. Behind that mask she was tender-hearted in a way few people were allowed to see. That heart, he knew, was scarred. It was unlikely that she would so easily let someone in again. Even if that person was me. It was a deeply discouraging feeling.

He harrumphed, picking up his book from his lap and leaning back into the lamp light. He could think in circles about the subject and not get anywhere. It was better at this point to lose himself in the story until he felt tired enough to sleep without thinking again of Toph..

Toph had found her voice, however weak it was. From there she had set upon to move her fingers. It was full of sweat-filled effort, but after a few dragging minutes, she felt the tips twitch in the dirt where she lay. She wiggled the tips until the fingers moved and from the fingers to the hands. The hands to the forearms, from there to the upper arm. At that point she had to stop from the painful effort.

Her arms still felt like putty when she moved them, and they ached at the joints. She panted, laying there and catching her breath. Her voice was still weak, but she made an effort to speak her thoughts aloud, "When I get my hands on those two, I will throw them off of a cliff."

She and Aang hadn't wandered far from the camp earlier, but that distance might as well be the distance from Ba Sing Se to the Fire Nation to her. She flexed her hand and took one arm, flinging it over her body, grasping out with both hands now at the dirt beneath her. She managed to get herself rolled onto her stomach, her arms beneath her. She pushed out with her hands, reaching a short height before collapsing down again. Her breath stirred up dust into her face, "How the hell am I this heavy?"

She tried again, but still could not lift herself fully. Still, the sensation of feeling was slowly creeping into her shoulder blades now. The assassins were foolish to think she would just stay where they left her, so the could come back and off her. The remarks of the young man echoed in her his intent for Aang. Whatever they did to her was trivial. The world had just gotten used to having an Avatar again, she could only imagine the upheaval were he to die.

She pushed the thought away, focusing on her task to get moving again. If she could not lift herself to stand, then she would drag herself if need be. She lashed out at the ground in front of her, knowing that if she had her full voice she would be grunting at the effort. Her currently useless legs dragged behind her. It was slow going. She stopped often to keep from passing out. Her ability to sense was also off kilter from whatever drug they'd gotten in her, and it was like she was trying to see a world where the ground was made of shifting sand. With each agonize limp forward she was that much closer to camp and even if she didn't make it to Aang, the night watch would find her.

"Just...keep...moving." she whispered in a mantra, "Don't...stop."

She wasn't sure how much time had passed since she the assassins had left her side and now. Each minute was a minute too long for her, but she kept persevering. She would not go down without a fight. Even if it meant struggling forward until their first bloody deed was done and it was time to bury the knife in her. Her legs were still not useful, but her torso had begun to thaw, and she went from crawling inches to feet. The faster she went the more ambitious she became.

Then she heard it, the crackling of their campfire. A distance from that someone snorted in their sleep. She was so tantalizingly close. The guard would see her and sound the alarm. As long as her foes had not struck yet, there was a chance for success.

"Look, the little peach thought she might still play hero." the familiar whisper of a voice carried from nearby. The young man emerged from behind a nearby tent and kicked her arms from underneath her. The drop knocked the wind from her."Seems we underestimated this one old man. Can we kill her now? Before she ruins the fun?"

"Let me deal with her. You have a job to do," his companion stated authoritatively. The young man must have gestured his agreeance to him, because he left without another word. The older man rolled her over again, a foot firm on her chest as he grasped at her wrists. "Scream and I'll slit your throat here and now, pet."

If her legs worked, she would have kicked out, but they were still useless hunks of flesh. The man forced her wrists together as he bound them in a rope, before he straddled her and clamped a rough hand around her jaw. She tried to cuss him out, but the words were still the faint whisper they had been before. "Such filth from such a pretty mouth. What would your prissy noble mother say?"

He ran his thumb across her bottom lip and she tried her damnedest to bite it off. He got the appendage away quick enough, but the action angered him. The hand went quick to her throat, applying enough pressure that she was sure there would be bruises. He wanted to make it known that he could kill her with just as much ease as he teased. "Do you know how much I would enjoy strangling you right now? I wouldn't push me any further."

He eased up a moment after that, and drug her across the dirt by her bound wrists back to where he and his companion had been hiding before. He propped her up against against a nearby rock, but did not bother gagging her. Her voice was still too weak to carry. He knew this and so did she. Toph grimaced. I was so damn close! I need to think about what to do now. She banged her head against the rock in frustration.

The older man was not paying close attention, too focused on keeping watch for his companion. She had to think of a way to cause a disruption somehow. If she tried to escape, she wouldn't get far without him noticing. She was also too far from the nearest tent to collapse it and wake the sleeping inhabitant. She sighed heavily and banged her head again. She heard a small familiar fluttering, a quiet chitter as a warm presence filled her lap.

"Momo," she called out in her hushed voice. The lemur responded to his name, nuzzling into her and generally seeking her affection. He paused when she did not acknowledge him like he had wanted. He nuzzled her hands, and she used them to coax him up close to her. "Okay furball. Time to prove your worth."

He looked at her with puzzlement, as if assessing the scene. While he tended to be a needy pet, he also could sense something was wrong. Toph always gave affection. Her heart raced and she wondered if he could sense her rising feeling of panic. "Get the bad man, make lots of noise, and I'll let them give you your fill of the dried fruit rations."

He seemed to understand, nuzzling her a final time before leaving her. She could sense him climbing a nearby tentpole, taking a great leap off of it. Once he was airborne, she was at a loss, but from the sounds of his shriek, he got the message she was relaying. The older man was in a state of panic and she could vaguely tell that the lemur took the surprise initiative to bite and claw at him before deftly getting out of his reach.

His hysteric screeching did the job she needed it too: rousing nearby sleeper and alerting the night watch. Even if they came only to silence him, she would be discovered and so would the assassin coming for Aang.

Aang had dozed off reading his book, but the sound of a lemur crying out in the night made him wake with a start. He wasn't sure what was going on, but he could hear the scrambling of the Gu Yong as they too were woken from their slumber. He wondered if Momo had been caught red-handed in their goods again or if he'd picked a fight with an indigenous mountain creature. Either way, Aang knew that it would be his job to end the fracas so they could all go back to sleep. Aang set aside the book that lay mussed in his lap and quickly rose from his bed. The tent flaps were still untied from when he set the lemur free, making it easy to step out into the cool night air. He ran straight into an unfamiliar figure, whose wide eyes bespoke surprise. The jostling motion knocking a vial from the man's hand.

Aang watched it crack open on the ground before he caught the glint of a blade in the other hand. He moved to deflect but it was too late. All he felt was a sharp pain dig into his side as he stumbled away from the man. The figure turned on his heels, running in the opposite direction. It would do him no good. The Gu Yong had him cornered a moment later. He cried out something unintelligible and downed another vial he produced from a pocket. The young man collapsed a moment later, a bloody foam trickling from his still smiling mouth.

Jae-Suk ran forward, torch in hand. Aang could see him mouth something to him, but all Aang could hear was a ringing in his ears. He was sure that he must look confused and unsteady on his own feet. It was certainly how he felt. He braced himself against the frame of his tent as he teetered again, reaching out to the source of his agony. He felt it, the blade buried hilt deep in his side. When he drew his hand back, he was almost shocked to see his fingertips stained in his own blood. Jae-Suk saw now what had happened and screamed something into the distance. The words were lost in the ringing that kept getting louder.

A moment later, two Gu Yong were at either side of him, with Jae-Suk ripping his own shirt from his back to press against the wound they were all so aware of. Aang was feeling barely lucid at this point as they guided him towards the campfire where they could see much more clearly. Their figures now were little more than a blur running by them. He was not the only one in need of such tender care. The only person who did not blur sat as motionless as he did just on the other side of the fire. He could just make out the ebony edges of her hair, caught the sparkle of her eyes in the firelight just as he had seen only a few hours earlier. It felt a lifetime away now.

His lips managed to form her name, just as the blackness peeking at the edge of his vision took over, "Toph?"

Toph had never been so glad for that damned lemur as she was tonight. His blitz attack on the older assassin had bought her enough time to use her teeth to pull loose the knot that held her wrists bound. He'd also woken every soul in camp. After that it was not long before someone found her there, still unable to walk of her own volition. Huang Ze had been with them, and had unceremoniously whipped her up in his arms when she hoarsely told him what had been done to her.

The old assassin, she heard, had fled the camp and leapt to his death. The young one poisoned himself. She hated to admit that this pleased her, though she would have preferred to have doled out the punishment herself. She'd been carried back to the campfire, a blanket dropped on her shoulders until a Gu Yong came to stitch up her arm and examine her neck where not long ago hands had been crushing her windpipe. Huang Ze was on the other side, forcing a bitter mash into her mouth and forcing her to chew.

She could hear commotion on the other side of the fire, but with so many people running back and forth, and her senses still off-kilter she wasn't sure what was happening. Is all of this for me? I'll be fine in a few hours. A Gu Yong came to summon Huang Ze away and he muttered that she had to chew the mash to help negate the drugs in her system. He was not away from her side for long.

"Bandages...stabilize...wound!"

"Leave it in!"

"Bleed...death!"

"Real doctor?!"

In front of her, Huang Ze snapped his fingers to get her attention, "Toph, can you hear me now?"

"What's wrong with Aang?" her voice cracked in response, her voice almost back to normal. "He'd be right here unless something happened."

"We're taking care of it." Huang Ze stated matter-of-factly, with no pretense to hide that something was wrong.

She grabbed him by his shirt and shook him with the little strength that had returned to her, "That's not what I asked."

"You need to sit still," He explained cooly, bypassing her comment entirely, "That drug could have made you a blithering, drooling fool in the right dose. Let that mash run it's course to clear it out."

She scrambled to her feet, unstable and wobbly as the feeling had barely come back into them. He was here and Twinkles was not. That fact did not sit right with her. She'd find out on her own if she had too. Clearly seeing that she had no pretense of backing down, Huang Ze helped her with her footing to the other side of the fire.

She wrestled her way into the crowd of mercenaries, but Huang Ze stopped her short of breaking through. "Can you handle this?"

"Handle what?" she growled, pausing in the crowd. They had begun to notice her now and parted ways to allow her through. Jae-Suk was in the thick of them, and barked an order for them to scout the area for anyone else and to stop gawking. Many of them retreated save for the few fervently at work.

"He's hurt. Badly, Toph." Huang Ze explained in a level voice. "There's a knife buried in his side. If we take it out here in the field, he will bleed to death."

Toph pushed away from him, dropping to her knees by Aang's side. She had gingerly put a hand on his bare chest. His shirt had been cut away so they could see the wound. She could smell the blood and the sweat. She could feel how his heartbeat was going against it's natural pattern. It would thunder extremely fast, then slow down...too slow, just moments later.

She stood and was on Jae-Suk before the man had even noticed. Her voice dripped venom when she spoke, "We brought you here to help protect us. You touted your skills. Yet this has happened. If I didn't have further use for you, I'd send you off the same cliff as that assassin."

"I make no excuses," Jae-Suk stopped in the middle of what he was doing. "I am completely at fault for underestimating the situation and take full responsibility for the outcome of my carelessness. I will do everything that is within my power to see him safely cared for and returned to peak health. If not, I would gladly accept death as a reparation for my failure."

If she hadn't been so angry, his honesty might have made her sympathetic, but she knew that he was not the one to blame. No. I AM. I let them believe I was infallible. I let them become weak and distracted. Whatever happens here is because of me and no one else. She pulled away, if only to let one of the Gu Yong work to make Aang comfortable for the time being.

"The knife was not laced with anything," Huang Ze offered in attempts to console her. "I checked it and it was clean. The man was going to, but he dropped the poison vial instead. We found it shattered by his tent. If Aang's damned lemur hadn't made such a fuss, a great many of us would be dead I think."

"Let's be clear about one thing," she turned to him, feeling adrenaline coursing through her veins, "I currently have no qualms about unleashing a fury that will level this mountain atop your father and his town should anything happen to Aang."

Aang's condition was able to be stabilized, but it became painfully clear to all of them that it would not stay that way for long. The knife in his side remained, staunching the blood to keep from a bleed out that could kill him. The best they could do at present was brace it with bandages and apply pressure to the wound. Still, it would bleed and stay that way until the knife could be removed and the wound sewn shut.

Toph listened to this all in silence, letting the medics words echo in her chest as he explained the dire situation. The medic did not think any vital organs were damaged, but he could not know without taking the knife out. He also made it painfully clear that despite their extensive training and while they had prepared medical supplies, they had not anticipated this type of injury. They had brought items for traveling ailments, not for field surgery.

"What now fearless leader?" she taunted Jae-Suk, "Go pull out one of your magic books and tell me what it predicts we should do now."

Jae-Suk turned away, half in shame and half in attempt to help her comments roll off of him. He pretended to go over information in one of the very books she mocked him for.

"The town across The Chasm," Huang Ze told her, placing a friendly hand on her shoulder. "is called Ningdan. It's one of the oldest towns on this mountain range, set right off a fruitful summer pasture. I know of it because their goods are a major import to Zhai. Fresh farmed vegetables are a necessity for my fathers growing army. He hasn't been terribly kind to them, barely leaving enough for the families to survive on, but the one good thing is that he has made sure there is a trained doctor there. One who was trained to deal with battle wounds but also to deal with farming injuries, such as those done by scythes and other tools of the trade. Le Wei Guan wanted to make sure there would be no cause for a shortage in supplies. He can help with this, I'm sure of it."

"You forget, prisoner, that we can barely cross that passage in daylight without harm, you would have us do it at night with an injured man to carry?" Jae-Suk snapped from the pages he was ruminating over.

Huang Ze puffed out at the name-calling, "Do we have time to wait until morning, when it is safer?"

"Not according to my medic," Jae-Suk told him, "Even though we've slowed the bleeding, it is still bleeding. Factor that with how much blood loss he has already suffered doesn't give us much time to play the waiting game."

"I can do it," Toph piped in, tired of the back and forth, "I can get through that pass with no problem. I can see any pitfalls or dangers and can steer us clear. Just send me, the medic, two of your fastest men and Aang on a makeshift stretcher. I will get us there."

"It's not like you've been unscathed by all of this either," Huang Ze stated coolly, trying not to be combative with her, "You're still coming down off of that drug. Are you sure you can manage?"

"Aang will not die because of me," she responded, "End of discussion."

"The rest of us will follow after as soon as we see sunrise," Huang Ze told her.

Jae-Suk grumbled and spoke up, "You're not the one in charge here."

"Neither are you." Toph said soundly, "I am and I agree with him, as so far he's the only one with any useful input here.. I also want to make it blatantly clear that whereas Aang was keen to sit by and let you lead, I am not so favorable. Do as I say or I'll make sure no one will ever comission your services again."

"Yes ma'am." was all he could croak out before both he and Huang Ze bowed in deference to Toph.

Toph held up a hand in the darkness and spoke calmly, "Wait."

She took a stance and firmly planted her feet to feel out ahead of her. "It narrows again here. Single file only and hug the inner wall. Everybody take a moment to prepare."

They had set out almost immediately after her confrontation with Jae-Suk and Huang Ze. She would not hear any other option. Huang Ze had made her test her steadiness and her surety of reading their surroundings before he was fully behind her on the matter. Still, he'd made her chew the mash again, and take several flasks of water with her to be sure. She didn't like his hovering, but it reminded her fondly of Katara's mothering when they were younger. Katara would never have let this happen though. She shook the bitter thought away and backpedaled a few paces to check on Aang, mostly to reassure herself that he was still breathing.

"The condition is unchanged," the medic told her, "We also have him sedated so he won't wake up and jostle the knife. We can't keep dosing him much longer though. The drug was not meant for long term sedation and it could hurt him more than it is helping if we use it too long."

"We're close though, maybe another ten or fifteen minutes until we reach the edge of the city." she told him. Both Huang Ze and Jae-Suk had explained the path again: detailing how long it would take to get across and what she should watch most carefully for. She'd also made sure to remind them to be suspicious of everything from here on out and to assume that they were always being watched. Toph took a drink of water from one of her many flasks as she thought about it, and then motioned her group onward towards Ningdan.

It was still dark when the crested the last rise in the path at the outskirt of the town. It was quiet, with only a whispering wind moving through the town. She turned to her men, "We need to find where the doctor is. Bang on doors and wake people up if you have too. I have no time for courtesy."

The two men who had been carrying Aang set him down gently on the ground and took off. Toph snapped her fingers at the medic. "You too. I'll stay here with him."

The medic hesitated, but her assertion of power back at camp had not gone unwitnessed by the Gu Yong. They knew better than to disobey her direct order. Toph sighed, running her fingers through the hair that had come loose from the hold. She protectively put a hand over one of Aang's, where they had been gently laid on his chest. "I'm so sorry. This is all my fault. I promise that if you pull through they will never hurt you again. You're a survivor. You can do this. I mean, you spent a hundred years in an iceberg, this is nothing right?"

She sighed and waited and waited. She could hear the commotion caused by the Gu Yong as they roused the townspeople from their beds. It wasn't long before a small night watch appeared with her men alongside them. They were rushed to the door of the doctor, who quickly ushered them all inside. It didn't take him long to realize who his patient was. After that everything seemed to move by imperceptively fast. The medic and the doctor rushed Aang to a small surgery room. The Gu Yong were left to guard the inner door.

When Toph was sure that the very best care was being taken of Aang, she slunk out the front door and shut it behind her. There she slid down the door to her bottom and pulled her knees up close. She buried her face between them. Hot, sloppy tears broke free at last after that, and silent sobs wracked her whole body.