Author's Notes: So, I finally updated my email account for ffnet, and that means it'll be easier to reply to reviews! I know there's probably a lot of you out there who expect replies, and maybe thought I didn't read or appreciate the ones I've received. But that's not the case, at all! I wouldn't even bother updating on here, if people weren't leaving such wonderful reviews.
Book Four News: Thanks to my friend and co-conspirator, daughterofthestars, there is now a Book Four Fan Club and Comic on deviantArt. The links are in my profile. Check it out!
Shout Outs: Here's just a few of the reviewers who really made me smile:
Raven Wolfmoon - Anybody who takes the time to review every chapter as they read is just plain AWESOME in my book. Thank you!
Nom D. Plume - For printing a hard copy of the story to read when offline! How many pages was it, anyway? Haha…
The deviantArt Crew - You know who you are! Thanks for all the support here and on dA. You guys rock like Toph!
And now, on with the story!
The White Dragon
Appa let out a low grunt of exhaustion and Suki gave him a comforting pat, keeping one hand on his reins. "We're almost there, Appa. You're doing great."
The ocean stretched on around them for miles as far as the eye could see, but Suki had Sokka's maps and Katara's aerial knowledge of the Fire Nation to guide them. Hawky flew at Appa's side, occasionally giving cries of encouragement to the sky bison.
Suki watched the messenger hawk take a dive toward the ocean and she turned back to look at the waterbender. "How much farther do you think it is? Appa's getting tired."
Katara's face was lit with the soft glow of her waterbending as she passed a hand over her brother's bandaged chest. Sokka, for his part, was sound asleep and had been for most of the trip. He claimed he was merely conserving his energy for the fight ahead, but the girls weren't fooled. The healing sessions were taking a lot out of him.
The same could be said for his sister.
Katara brushed sweat from her forehead and cast a critical eye over the blue expanse. "There." She pointed and Suki saw the first hint of a large volcanic island on the horizon. "Head straight for the palace. If everything's under control, that's where Zuko and Aang will be."
"And if everything's not?" Suki asked, keeping her voice low, though she wasn't sure who she was trying to spare. Appa's ears flattened and Toph stopped lounging against the edge of the saddle, looking attentive for the first time since they'd gone airborne.
Katara glanced from the earthbender to the Kyoshi Warrior and sighed. "We'll figure that out when we get there."
Suki nodded and watched as Katara finished up the healing session and pulled her brother's tunic closed. Sokka's sickness and injuries had taken a heavy toll and it was easiest to see in his protruding ribs and sunken waistline. But he was alive, and Suki still couldn't believe how lucky they'd been.
"How's he doing?" Toph asked for the fifth time that day, trying to sound nonchalant. In the air, her blindness was absolute and Suki could tell the young earthbender hated not knowing exactly how Sokka was faring.
"You can come over here and see for yourself," Katara said. "I'm not going to bite."
There were no guarantees that she wouldn't, but Toph took the invitation and scooted toward the Water Tribe siblings. Toph and Suki had both been on their best behavior around Katara, knowing that they were still on thin ice despite Sokka's attempt to smooth things over.
It had made for a rather quiet ride, minus all the snoring from the sleeping warrior.
Toph slid her tiny hand over Sokka's and Suki turned back to adjust Appa's heading. Eventually, Suki knew that she and Toph were going to have to sit down and have a talk. It was an awkward position for both of them to be in, and it didn't help that Sokka seemed oblivious. Suki had known about Toph's crush since the first time they met, but she'd never anticipated how much the young girl's feelings would continue to grow, despite their one-sided nature.
"His pulse is strong," Toph said, and Suki could hear the smile on her face.
"Yes, it is," Katara said and then lowered her voice almost to a whisper. Suki had to strain to hear her over the wind. "That helps, right?"
"Helps what?" Toph asked, matching Katara's near whisper.
"Helps you see him," Katara said, sounding apologetic, "with your earthbending."
"Oh, yeah it helps. The pulse creates vibrations that I can sort of turn to images and shapes in my head."
"How clearly can you see him? I mean, I can get a sense for what's going on inside someone with my waterbending. But I only had a few lessons in healing and… well…"
Toph was silent for a moment and Suki glanced over her shoulder to see the younger girl place her free hand on Sokka's chest, directly over his heart.
"It was a lot easier with some good ol' earth under me," Toph said, "but I can tell he's getting better, and his heart and lungs feel fine."
"Fine," Katara said, and let out a shaky laugh. "I mean, that's great. I'm trying everything I can think of to encourage his body to heal itself, but it's not as easy as it sounds."
Toph snickered and Suki couldn't help but smile at the joke she knew was coming. "Encouraging Sokka to do anything is a chore."
Sokka snorted mid-snore and startled himself awake. He blinked blearily and the two girls slipped out of his space, pretending they'd been doing other things as he yawned and stretched, stopping short when something besides his joints popped. "Ow."
Katara picked up his old shirt and started sewing one of the many tears as though she'd been doing it all along. "Afternoon, sleepy guy. How you feeling?"
He smacked his lips. "Hungry." He rolled his head to Toph who relaxed, extra hard, against their supplies. "Please tell me we've got some meat in those sacks."
"Did we have any the last ten times you asked?"
"No," he said, not seeming to get the point.
She reached into the closest bag and tossed him some fruit. "Here, have an apple."
Sokka caught it with his good hand and pulled himself up, taking a huge crunching bite as he scanned their surroundings with heavy-lidded eyes. He scratched his back, chewed, took another over-sized bite, and then finally noticed the Fire Nation mainland looming on the horizon.
Chunks of apple even hit Suki in the back of the head as he sprayed his mouthful in surprise. "I told you to wake me!" He grabbed his sword and lunged for his gear, throwing his walking brace into Katara's lap. "Put that on while I do the rest!" he ordered, frantic, and when Katara only blinked at him he flailed his arms like she was the one acting crazy. "Put it on me, not you!"
"Sokka, chill." Toph's no-nonsense tone snapped him to his senses, but he continued his preparations.
"We need to be ready for anything down there," he said, sliding his wolf mantle over his head. "We're going in hot! Weapons, bending, everything!"
"Sokka, we've got this," Katara said but Suki gave her a pleading look and the waterbender continued, awkwardly pretending she had more to say, "great plan."
He turned to her, oblivious as he was suspicious. "What great plan?"
Katara gave him a nervous smile. "Uh, Toph, tell Sokka about our great plan."
The earthbender leaned back and put one hand behind her head and shoved a finger up her nose. "Oh no. I am not bailing you out of this one."
"Leave the planning to the plan guy, Katara." Sokka held up a hand to forestall any argument. "We're going to work in teams. Suki and Toph will go in first and we'll cover the rear."
Katara sighed in defeat and annoyance and didn't pay too much attention to what she was doing as she lifted Sokka's broken leg to slide the walking brace under it. Sokka yelped and grabbed the wooden railing to keep from falling back.
"Katara! Would it kill you to be gentle, or are you just trying to kill me?"
Katara managed to keep her mouth shut as she tightened the straps on his brace, one by one, with exaggerated care. Suki mouthed a silent "thank you" to the waterbender and began double checking her own gear. It would have been better if Sokka agreed to sit things out, but Suki knew from recent experience that it was pointless to try and take him out of a fight.
Appa cleared the lip of the giant volcano and the Fire Nation capital stretched out before them. Sokka pulled on his wolf's head helmet and stared over the edge of the saddle. "Uh oh."
Katara looked up from filling her waterbending pouches with their remaining drinking water. "Uh oh?"
"Something's not right," Suki said and Katara took a look at the city.
"Where is everybody?"
"Take us lower," Sokka said, though Suki was already on it. Appa descended with an unhappy grunt. Tired as the sky bison was, even he could tell that something was wrong. The streets were empty and buildings were boarded up and deserted.
"It looks like the city was abandoned," Katara said and Sokka shook his head.
"Not abandoned, evacuated. Like they did on the Day of Black Sun."
"You think they all went underground again?" Toph asked.
Sokka rubbed his chin and squinted off at the palace. "It's possible. Take us down, Suki. We need to investigate."
Suki and Katara exchanged glances, but neither of them could think of a reason not to go along with Sokka's orders. Appa touched down and Sokka grabbed his crutch and swung his bad leg over the side, ready to dismount with all his old carelessness. Katara caught him by the elbow before he fell. "Toph?"
The earthbender might have been blind in the saddle, but she wasn't clueless. She leapt to the ground and rose up on a platform of earth a second later, arms crossed, looking bored. Katara helped Sokka to Toph and the three of them descended together into an empty courtyard.
"What do you feel, Toph?" Sokka asked as he leaned into his crutch.
Toph put her hand to the cobblestones. "It's as dead as it looks," she said and then frowned. "No, wait. Over there!" She got up and pointed down one of the side streets before rushing off toward it. Katara hurried after her with one hand on her bending pouch and Sokka limped after them as fast as he could, hopping every few steps for added speed.
Suki urged Appa forward and the lumbering sky bison had no difficulty keeping pace with the wounded warrior.
There was a muffled cry from the alley and Suki jumped off Appa's head and sprinted past her boyfriend to catch up with the benders. Toph had someone pinned to a wall with earthbending and Katara was already returning her water to her pouch. If there had been a threat, it was over, but judging from the look of the man, there hadn't been one from the start.
"Please don't hurt me! I'm just a shopkeeper!"
Suki snapped her fans closed and glanced back to make sure Sokka was still managing. He was panting by the time he made it into the alley with the rest of them and Suki could see a hint of frustration in his eyes as he caught his breath.
"I didn't do anything, I swear!"
"He's lying," Toph said with a smirk. "I caught him looting."
Sokka stepped forward purposefully and the heavy leather of his walking brace made an intimidating clunk against the rough stone. "We just have a few questions and then you're free to go," Sokka said, and the man turned his fearful eyes to the wolf armored warrior. "Where is everyone?"
The shopkeeper licked his lips. "Gone. Hiding. Anybody with money to spare has fled to the countryside or Ember Island."
"There was a… a battle," the man stammered. "I don't know what happened but everyone says Ozai is back."
"And where's Fire Lord Zuko?"
The man's face paled. "Gone."
The word rippled through the four heroes until the silence was broken by the clattering of Sokka's crutch against the stones. He lurched forward and grabbed the man's collar. "What do you mean, gone?"
"Just gone! Nobody knows what happened to him!"
"And what about Aang?"
"The Avatar?" The shopkeeper blinked in confusion.
"He was supposed to be here!"
"I don't know! Please, all I know is that word got out from the palace that there was trouble in the Royal Family. Anyone who valued their lives has cleared out until things get settled."
Sokka threw up his hands. "So everyone's just going to sit back until someone comes out on top?" He pointed his finger in the man's face, making him go cross-eyed. "That is so Fire Nation of you! Don't you understand what Zuko's been through to try and fix your nation? And then you all just abandon him when he needs you?"
Suki put her hand on her boyfriend's shoulder. "It's alright, Sokka. We'll find Zuko and Aang."
Sokka continued glaring at the Fire Nation citizen until the man started to sweat and finally blurted, "Everything happened at the prison! That's all I know! I swear!"
Sokka nodded once and shuffled out of the alley. "Let's go."
Even from the air it was obvious there had been a sizable battle at the prison, but the outcome was anyone's guess.
They flew in a wide circle over the area and Sokka leaned toward the tiny earthbender, pointing over Appa's saddle at a large rock formation that could have been a product of earthbending. "Does that mountain look natural to you?" There was a long moment of awkward silence and he shifted toward his girlfriend instead. "Does that mountain look natural to you?"
"Not, really? I guess?" Suki said, unsure, and Sokka sighed.
"Toph, are you sure you can't just reach out with your earthbending?"
"What, like this?" She reached out with her fist and nailed him in the jaw, managing to make it look like an accident. "Oops, sorry. Didn't see you there, Fuzzface."
"Ow. Yup, I deserved that." He grinned at her from ear to ear, cradling his chin.
Toph blushed, feeling his eyes on her. "What? I can hear you smiling like an idiot."
"Nuthin'," he said and went back to scanning the land around the Fire Nation prison. "Just nice to know you aren't taking it easy on me anymore."
She puffed her bangs out of her face and turned away so no one could see her own smile. A gust of wind blew by and Toph sniffed and then sucked more air into her nose. "Do you guys smell that?"
"Bad Appa." Sokka poked the sky bison while Katara and Suki both took experimental sniffs.
"I don't smell anything," Katara said and Suki shrugged.
"I smell smoke," Toph said. "You guys are too distracted looking for signs of our friends." Taking another sniff, she pointed off to the south. "Smells like it's coming from that direction."
"Your nose is imagining things," Sokka said, squinting down the line of her finger at a few gathering clouds.
"Is that a smoke trail?" Suki asked and leaned forward, staring intently. "And an airship?"
"I don't see anything," Sokka said, "and I've got eyes like a messenger hawk. Right, Hawky?"
The bird made a pass overhead with a high-pitched cry and flew toward the south. Katara pulled Appa around to follow him. "That's definitely an airship."
"No, it's not," Sokka maintained as he pulled his spyglass from a pocket. "It's just a cloud." He put the piece to his eye and extended the telescope, paused, and extended it again. He switched eyes, switched back, and finally lowered the device, totally mystified. He covered his left eye and then his right. "I don't believe this. My vision used to be perfect and now my left eye is all blurry!"
Suki raised her eyebrows and touched the side of his face, bringing him around to face her. There were a few lingering bruises from his accident with Boomerang, all on the left side of his face. A hard blow could damage an eye, and there was no doubt he'd been hit hard by his flying weapon. He hadn't even been able to open his eye for days from all the swelling.
He winced and probed his cheek, coming to the same realization, and Suki squeezed his shoulder. "Maybe Katara could focus some healing and fix it?"
Toph patted him on the back, half-joking. "Don't worry, Sokka. I couldn't see the airship either."
"Doesn't matter," he said, shrugging off their sympathy. "The important thing is, there's an unknown airship that's clearly been damaged in a battle. Our answers are there." He snapped his spyglass shut. "Katara, bring us up behind them, but stay in their smoke so they can't see us coming. We'll use it just like cloud cover."
Unfortunately, there was one major difference between smoke and clouds.
"Turns out smoke is made out of fire and air," Katara said, coughing and trying one last time to bend a pocket of fresh air around them.
"Not my best idea," Sokka said, speaking through the front of his tunic, "I admit it."
Appa rumbled a complaint and Toph raised her hand. "I'm with the big guy. Let's ditch this smokescreen and find another way to sneak up on them."
"I third that," Suki said, and stifled a cough. "It's almost sundown. We could hang back and wait for dark."
"Yes." Sokka rubbed his scruffy chin and dropped into his Wang Fire persona, deepening his voice and jutting his jaw forward. "We'll go in under the cover of nightfall." He continued stroking his goatee while Katara guided Appa out of the smoke.
Suki gave him a wry look. "You're not going to shave, are you?" Katara and Toph both snickered and Sokka regarded them with his most imperious expression and continued playing with his facial hair.
"I guess that answers that question," Katara said.
"It was more of an observation," Suki replied and the girls shared another laugh.
Sokka didn't seem to be paying them any attention. "We'll need dark clothes for sneaking on board."
"Sneaking?" Suki shook her head. "You're not very stealthy at the best of times," she said, pointing at his clunky leg brace. "You really think you could sneak up on anybody right now?"
"Hey," he said, dropping his hand from his face. "I don't see you coming up with any plans."
"I suggested we wait for night," she countered and Sokka waved it away.
"Yes, but I said it more dramatically."
Suki lowered her face and gave him one of her looks that seemed to say, "Don't push it, buddy." Sokka ignored her and crawled toward their supplies, helping himself to the last of their provisions while he went through everyone's spare clothing.
When he was finished outfitting them, the sun had fallen and they flew by the soft glow of the rising moon. The lights on the airship were easy to follow in the gathering darkness and silent anticipation fell over the four of them as Appa closed the distance.
"Okay girls," Sokka whispered, "stick to the plan."
"Sneaking really isn't my style," Toph said and flipped back the hood on her dark cloak. Sokka had tied a black bandana over her eyes, telling her it made her look more dangerous and somehow, it really did. "Why don't we just storm in there like we did the last time we hijacked an airship?"
"Shhhh," Sokka hissed. "We don't know who's on board. It could be a trap, or they could have Zuko and Aang captured."
Suki had painted her face black, at Sokka's insistence, and wore all her dark Kyoshi Warrior armor and clothing. "I'm with Sokka."
"Of course you are."
Suki ignored the blind girl's remark. "Better to err on the side of caution." And if they were careful, nobody had to get hurt. Or hurt worse.
"Here we go," Katara whispered as Appa came in low under the airship's external walkway. It took Toph and Suki both to lift Sokka and shove him up on the platform. He grabbed them, one by one, and helped them up after him.
"Stay hidden, Appa, but stay close," Katara whispered and the sky bison rumbled what they hoped was an acknowledgement as he and Hawky dropped back. Sokka had left his crutch behind and wrapped the bottom of his brace to muffle it. Suki could tell that Katara was having a hard time allowing her brother to take unnecessary risks, but neither of them were going to tell him he couldn't help. He seemed so confident and in charge, it was easy to forget he was still recovering.
He motioned Suki forward and then Katara, having designated them the advanced stealth team. Toph would cover their rear and be ready with heavy metalbending backup. As Katara passed the tiny earthbender she whispered, "Keep an eye on him."
The blindfolded blind girl gave her a thumbs up and Suki and Katara exchanged worried looks. There was a very serious possibility that they were making a mistake, but there was no turning back.
Suki lifted the handle on the airship's entrance and opened the door without a sound. Katara slipped inside, walking lightly over the grated floor, and Suki followed on her heels. After making sure the coast was clear, Suki waved the other two forward.
Sokka made his way with assistance from the railing, and managed to keep his thumping steps quiet. Toph came behind him with her hands in her pockets, looking bored despite the potential danger all around them.
They made it in to the bomb bay without incident and Suki signaled for the others to stop while she crossed the open floor and made her way up the ladder on the far side. She cracked the door and made sure the next hallway was deserted before giving the all clear signal.
Katara slipped across and was up the ladder before Sokka had made it halfway across the bomb bay floor. He stopped at the bottom of the ladder and stared at it like he'd never seen one before.
"What?" Suki mouthed down to him and he met her gaze, shaking his head. He stood there until Toph came up behind him and pulled him down to whisper something in his ear. He nodded, took a deep breath, and hoisted himself up. It was slow going as he couldn't bend his left knee properly and had to take it one rung at a time, but Toph waited patiently until he'd reached the top before she climbed up after him. Sokka eagerly accepted Suki's help to clear the ladder, but only shook his head when she gave him a questioning look.
Katara had been keeping an eye on the door and she waved, motioning for everyone to hide. They tucked up against the wall, holding their breath as Katara took cover behind a collection of empty water barrels.
A Fire Nation archer with a red facial tattoo stepped through the door, deposited an empty drum with the rest of the used containers and left. Katara crept out from her hiding spot and joined them, breaking into an intense nonverbal discussion with her brother that Suki could only watch, feeling both amused and impressed by the range of communication that the two could convey with facial expressions and gestures alone.
Toph grabbed the front of Suki's armor and pulled her down to her level. "What's going on?" she hissed.
"Katara thinks Sokka should wait here. He disagrees. And something about their grandmother and his fourteenth birthday and a barrel of sea prunes."
Toph paused. "You can tell all that from some hand gestures?"
"Remind me never to play guessing games against the two of them."
Katara finally exhaled through her nose and gave Sokka a measuring look, shook her head, rolled her eyes, and turned back to the door, peeking through. Sokka motioned for Suki to move and the Kyoshi Warrior let her stealth training take over as she slipped through.
The hallway went right and left and ended shortly both ways in a ninety degree turn. Suki went left and Katara waited until she reached the first corner before following. If someone came up on the right side, they'd be spotted.
Realizing the precarious position they were in, Sokka poked his head out of the door and looked left, then right, then left, and back to the right. Suki waved him forward and he did his best to be both stealthy and speedy.
Two steps into the hallway, his brace caught on the grated flooring. He didn't so much trip, as catapult himself directly into the floor, like a door slamming shut. His weapons and armor made a horrible clatter and even the non-earthbenders could feel the vibrations rattle through the ship.
The response was immediate. Voices, shouting, pounding feet. Katara and Suki rushed back to Sokka's side as Toph came forward and placed herself protectively beside him.
"Why not just hit the alarm next time?" Katara hissed as she tossed the bottom of his cloak aside and tried to figure out which part of his brace was stuck. One of the buckles had come loose and wedged itself firmly into the grating. Katara tugged while Suki and Toph prepared to fight and Sokka remained motionless, facedown on the floor.
Toph pulled a section of the metal plating off the wall and crumpled it into a giant ball. As the sound of running footsteps grew louder she tossed the heavy projectile and sent it ricocheting around the corner and into the oncoming soldiers.
"Whoa!" A very familiar voice called out in surprise and a blast of air filled the corridor, causing Toph's hood to blow back. There was a painful sounding impact punctuated with an "Oof" and another gust of wind.
"Oops," Toph said and Katara got to her feet, forgetting all about Sokka.
Both ends of the hallway suddenly filled with a mix of tattooed archers and face painted Kyoshi Warriors, all with weapons drawn. The three girls raised their hands and Sokka lifted his head to see what was going on and then put his face back to the floor, pulling his hood up in embarrassment.
"Don't shoot! It's us!" Katara pulled off her black mask and one group parted to let a short, bald figure through.
"You really need to teach me metalbending," he groaned and leaned into his staff, giving them all a weak smile. "Hey Toph. Hey Suki. Hey Ka-" Before he could finish, Katara bounded the short distance and threw herself into his arms.
"Aang! I'm so glad you're alright!"
Aang hugged the waterbender. "I was doing really great until two seconds ago."
"Yeah," Toph said, almost apologetic. "You should have just dodged it."
Katara pulled back and took one of Aang's hands. "I'm sorry I abandoned you. I promise I won't do it again."
He squeezed her hand and smiled. "Don't worry about it, Katara. I understand why you did." He looked past her and noticed the unmoving pile on the floor. "Um, is Sokka dead?"
The warrior's voice drifted out from under his hood. "I wish, Aang. I wish."
"Oh, hey Sokka."
Ty Lee stepped forward out of the gathering crowd of painted warriors and gave Suki a quick hug. "Glad to have you back, boss." Then she skipped over to the fallen warrior. "Need a hand, tough guy?"
"No, Ty Lee. I'm good."
Suki finished greeting her warriors and then knelt down to extricate her boyfriend. It was tricky, but she finally got him free and helped him sit up. He grimaced and massaged the top of his bad knee with both hands.
"Can you stand?"
"To be completely honest?"
He winced and Suki frowned in concern. "You must be hurt if you're not even going to pretend you're fine."
Katara and Aang came over and the waterbender put her hands on her hips. "I told you this was going to happen."
"Ouch, Sokka," Aang said, taking in the warrior's visible injuries. "What'd you do to yourself?"
"You should see the other guys," Sokka said and the boys grinned at each other.
Katara slapped the Avatar's shoulder, lightly. "No, not nice. You don't know what he was like when I found them. He's lucky to be alive."
"If he was lucky," Aang said, "don't you think he wouldn't have gotten hurt in the first place?"
Sokka aimed his broken fingers at the airbender. "That's what I've been saying."
Suki and Katara levered Sokka up to his good foot, supporting most of his weight between them. "Do you have somewhere we can take him?" Katara asked and Aang nodded.
"We've got an infirmary."
"Infirmary?" Sokka whined. "That sounds so… boring. And clean."
Aang laughed and led the way while Toph brought up the rear.
"So Aang," Sokka said between hopping, "what are you guys doing on board an airship?"
"It's General Iroh's."
"And who are those archer guys?"
"The Yu Yan. They were working for Ozai, but they're with us now."
"Ozai!" Sokka almost lost his footing and Suki and Katara steadied him, glaring sidelong at the distracted warrior. "Did you stop him? What happened?"
"That's kind of a long story," Aang hedged and pushed open a door, motioning them through into a sterile smelling room.
"But you saved Zuko, right?"
"Aang!" Sokka dragged the girls to a stop before they could deposit him on a bed with crisp white sheets. "We've got to help Zuko!"
The unnoticed occupant in the room leveled his uneven stare at the warrior. "Help me what?"
"Help rescue you," Sokka said, matter-of-factly, and then did a double take. "Zuko!"
Zuko swung his legs to the edge of his hospital bed and repositioned his arm in its sling, looking uncomfortable from the sudden attention. "Hi. Everyone."
"Are you okay?" Katara asked, dropping her brother into bed so she could go to the young Fire Lord's side. The half of Zuko's face that wasn't scarred was covered in bruises and scrapes.
"Yeah, buddy. You look terrible," Sokka said, and he couldn't have sounded happier.
Zuko glared across at the warrior as Katara checked his forehead for signs of a fever. "Have you seen yourself lately?"
Sokka shrugged and kept grinning as Suki set his weapons aside and removed his cloak and armor to make him more comfortable. "Don't burn the messenger."
Katara bent a glove of water from her pouch and held her hand over Zuko's shoulder. "It's nothing," he tried to tell her, but Katara was already soothing away his pain. Zuko relaxed visibly, with a sigh.
Sokka nodded knowingly at his reaction. "It's good, right?"
"Yeah," Zuko said and slipped his other shoulder out of his tunic, revealing a wrap of bandages around his abdomen. Katara pulled his shirt back and checked his injury.
"Zuko, this looks like a lighting burn," she said, focusing her healing on the tender spot at the base of his spine. "What happened?"
Zuko frowned. "Azula happened." Katara stopped and Sokka's self-satisfied smirk dropped as Suki looked over and even Toph tensed. "But it's not what you think," he continued. "She's… changed. Ozai had the Dai Li brainwash her…"
"That is just so…" Sokka trailed off as a look of pain crossed his face.
"Thanks, Sokka. It means a lot that you can care, even after everything my sister did."
Sokka blinked and looked at the firebender with clouded eyes. "What? No, I mean, sure. Azula. Right." He winced and grabbed the top of his leg with one hand and his gut with the other. "Oh man."
Suki grabbed a bucket. "Katara?" she said and a second later her boyfriend emptied the considerable contents of his stomach into the pail.
Aang jumped back and Toph pushed herself off the wall where she had been leaning. "Okay, that's our cue to exit." She snagged the back of Aang's robe and dragged the Avatar from the room. "C'mon Baldy, it's crowded enough in here."
Sokka burped and grabbed the bucket before sending another round splashing into it. Suki rubbed his back. "Just let it all out." He heaved a third time, but his stomach was empty. A long trail of sticky saliva hung from his lower lip and he growled and spit until it was gone. He pushed the bucket to Suki and flopped back on the bed, covering his eyes with a forearm.
Katara undid the wrapping and the buckles and straps on Sokka's brace. She peeled it away from his bandaged leg and gasped. "Sokka!"
"I know," he croaked.
"You should have said something!" Katara covered both hands in healing water and went to work. "Do you have any idea how dangerous this kind of swelling is? You could have lost circulation from that stupid brace!" Sokka could only nod and Katara turned to the other girl who stood by, ready to do anything. "Suki, I need a wet towel."
The Kyoshi Warrior turned around and Zuko pointed her to the supply cabinet. She dipped a cloth into a wash basin and returned to the waterbender.
"Cover his leg," she said and after Suki did, Katara took a breath and leaned over, blowing on the wet cloth. Ice crystals formed at the edges and the towel stiffened as it froze, perfectly wrapping the swollen limb. She grabbed a few extra pillows and Suki carefully lifted Sokka's leg so they could prop it up.
With the same efficiency, Katara scooped up the tangle of leather and metal, went to the windows, opened one, and tossed Sokka's brace through. His jaw dropped and Suki watched the thoughts flicker across his face, all to be dismissed as he realized Katara had him completely beat.
And she was furious.
"What were you thinking?" Sokka clamped his mouth shut and watched his sister pace dramatically back and forth at the foot of his bed. "Oh wait, I suppose you weren't thinking. Is common sense too common for you? Is that your problem with it?"
"Katara," Suki interceded and Sokka winced in anticipation, knowing it was a bad idea to interrupt one of his sister's rants.
"I get it, Suki," Katara said, holding up her hand to silence the female warrior. "I know you've been trying to keep his spirits up, let him think he's helping. But he's not helping anybody, least of all himself! Right now, the only thing he needs to worry about is recuperating." She rounded on her brother. "You're going to stay in that bed until I say otherwise! You got that, mister?"
She grabbed Suki's wrist and led her to the door, turning back once more. "Rest!" And then she faced Zuko, who flinched at the smoldering rage in the waterbender's eyes. "Same to you! Why are men so fragile, anyway? Huh?"
She shut the door with more force than was strictly necessary and the two battered young men glanced at each other.
Zuko coughed into his hand. "That was…"
"Awkward," Sokka finished with a grimace and settled back into his pillow for the long haul. "My little sister just grounded me."
"Well, hey," Zuko said, trying to sound reassuring. "Just be happy you have a sister who puts you together and not one that's trying to take you apart piece by piece with lightning."
Sokka thought about it for a minute. "Y'know, you're getting better at cheering people up." Zuko beamed and Sokka smiled back, innocently. "Is now a bad time to mention I really need to pee?"
"Katara?" Aang pushed open the door to the sleeping quarters and searched the shadows for the waterbender. Someone sniffed and sat up on one of the beds.
"Aang, what's up?" Katara did a good job covering it, but Aang could tell she'd been crying. He came into the room and sat down beside her, unsure what to say or do. Mastering four elements was so much easier than mastering the art of being in a relationship.
He wasn't even sure if they were still in a relationship. After their last parting, anything was possible, though she had seemed happy to see him.
"Katara, I-" Before he could finish, a quiet sob slipped from the young woman. Acting on pure instinct, Aang drew her into a hug and did his best to project his earthy side, all strength and comfort and safety. If she needed a rock, he could be that for her.
She cried into his shoulder and he held her, murmuring comforting nothings as he rubbed her back. It felt good to hold her, even if she was leaving wet spots on his robe with her tears.
"I was so scared," she said between silent sobs. "He could have… If I'd been too late… And what if you… or Zuko… And I can't be everywhere… I can't…"
It was something Aang had noticed about the people of the Water Tribe, and the siblings in particular. Emotions were their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. They just seemed to feel everything, the highs and the lows, to the extremes. If there was enough need, they could bottle their emotions and push through any kind of adversity. But that kind of pressure has a way of building up, and eventually it needs to find release.
"Everything's okay, Katara. You saved Sokka and the rest of us are fine. You don't need to worry."
She sat back, wiping her tears, and Aang's eyes had adjusted to the dark enough to see the embarrassment she felt for her display. She tried to smile as she brushed her hair loopies away from her face. "I'm just tired, really," she said, attempting to justify her outpouring. "I probably look like a mess."
"Not to me."
"I suppose I look like a silly, overemotional girl, then?"
He silenced her complaints with a kiss and when they finally drew back, he met her gaze and was happy to see softer emotions dancing in her eyes. "You look amazing, Katara. You always do."
Toph brushed her hand through Appa's fur and the big, fluffy sky bison grunted affably. They'd made a makeshift pen for him in the bomb bay of Iroh's airship, and even though Appa wasn't a fan of enclosed spaces, he was happy enough to get a break from flying. Hawky had made a nest for himself up in the rafters and hadn't come down since. Toph couldn't blame him. She hadn't flown under her own power all day, and she was still exhausted.
Momo dug through a pile of fruits and vegetables, occasionally tossing the biggest and juiciest pieces to his oversized and worn out friend.
"Life's pretty simple for you guys, isn't it?" Toph mused and Momo responded with a sharp, argumentative chitter. Toph had always been a little skeptical about how much their animal companions actually understood, but she couldn't deny that it sounded like Momo had something he wanted to say. "Well, it seems pretty simple from where I'm standing."
Momo hopped on top of her head and started lecturing her about all the ins and outs of his life while Appa rumbled in amusement and rolled onto his back.
"I thought I might find you down here." Toph hadn't noticed her old friend standing at the railing above her. Metal wasn't the easiest thing to see through and it didn't help that she'd been distracted, thinking. "Everyone else is resting. Shouldn't you be, as well?"
Toph sighed and started up the ladder.
"Something on your mind?" Iroh asked and Toph greeted him with a hug that the old man happily returned. "I was just on my way to check up on our young warrior friend and my nephew. Would you care to join me?"
Katara had all but frozen the door shut in her attempt to keep people from bugging her brother, but there was no way she could object to Iroh making a visit. Toph grinned. "Sure, why not."
They walked to the infirmary in comfortable silence and Iroh tapped the door twice with his knuckle. "May we enter?"
"Of course, Uncle."
Katara was nowhere to be seen and they stepped inside, closing the door behind them. "I just thought you two could use a cup of relaxing herbal tea before bedtime." Iroh didn't wait for approval before he set about, gathering tea supplies and lighting the infirmary's small stove.
A steady heartbeat and soft snoring was the only response from Sokka, but that didn't stop Toph from pulling up a chair and sitting at his bedside.
"I don't know how he does it," Zuko said. "He's got to be in pain, but he can still sleep like a baby."
"His body's working overtime trying to heal," Toph said, her voice half-way to a whisper. "He was fading fast when Katara caught up to us…"
Zuko let the weight of her words sink in. "That explains why she's being so protective."
Toph pulled out of her thoughts and managed to grin at the firebender. "She may not show it, but I could tell she was really worried when she first saw you, too."
"Yeah," Zuko said, scratching the back of his neck. "I kind of got that impression. But I'm fine, really. It's just a certain uncle of mine who won't let me get out of bed."
Iroh whistled to himself as he set the water to boil and Toph and Zuko both smiled. The old man grabbed a roll of fresh bandages, some surgical shears and two contoured strips of wood before joining Toph at Sokka's bedside.
He hummed as he snipped at the cloth wrapping Sokka's chest, shoulder, and right arm, where the dragon viper had done its damage. "He needs to let his wounds breathe, a little," he explained. The old general made a thoughtful noise when he pulled away the bandages, but whatever he was thinking, he kept to himself.
Even with her earthbending sight, Toph had no idea how bad Sokka really looked, as far as bruising and scarring went. And while it made no difference to her, she knew it would make a difference to him, and that, in turn, increased her curiosity to the point that she almost asked Iroh to tell her what he saw.
But the moment passed and Iroh handed her the roll of bandages. "Do you mind assisting me?" She slid off her chair and Iroh started cutting through the thicker bandages wrapping Sokka's broken leg.
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Toph kept her voice low but insistent. "I mean, the bones have barely started to knit together."
"I trust you to keep him steady. These bandages really need to be changed and I have some new splints that should be much more comfortable to him."
Toph set the fresh roll down and repositioned herself so she could keep one hand on Sokka's knee and the other on the bottom of his foot. With his pulse vibrating under her fingertips and all her concentration focused, she could see the broken bones as clearly as she'd ever 'seen' anything.
And Toph didn't like what she saw. Sokka had snapped both bones of his shin in two, and though Suki had managed to set them back together, their hold seemed precarious, at best. Toph would never admit it, but Katara had probably been right to throw Sokka's brace out the window. One wrong move and he would have been in a whole new world of hurt.
Iroh carefully slid the old bandages out from under Sokka's leg and then turned his quiet scrutiny to the injury. He gently laid his hands on the swollen limb and Toph couldn't help but feel nervous and protective.
"Don't worry," Iroh whispered. "I picked up many skills during my time in the military, and not all of them were bad." Toph tried to relax as Iroh inspected the break with careful hands and wiped away sweat and grime with a clean, damp cloth. "Those Kyoshi Warriors truly know their business," Iroh said. "She did a marvelous job setting our brave friend on the path to recovery and his talented sister has greatly sped up his journey."
"So he's going to be alright?" Toph asked, feeling a weight she hadn't noticed lift from her chest.
"He's young and strong. If he takes it easy, there's no reason he won't make a full recovery." Toph realized she was grinning from ear to ear and Iroh chuckled. Together, they lifted and wrapped Sokka's leg, adding the new splints for support.
When they finished, the teakettle whistled, and Iroh went to pour their tea.
"Can I havsum?"
As near as Toph could tell and judging by the slurring thickness to his voice, Sokka was still dead asleep, but it didn't surprise her that some part of his brain was on the prowl for anything consumable.
"Sure thing, Snoozles." She gave his hand an indulgent pat. "Just don't spill."
Iroh brought over their cups and Sokka, still breathing slow and steady with the same measured pulse of someone in dreamland, propped himself up on his elbow and accepted the tea. Toph was ready to help, but he downed the cup in one gulp and handed it back, licking his lips.
"Tha's good." And without further ado, he settled back into his pillow and started snoring.
"Always a pleasure to serve an appreciative customer," Iroh said, amused. He handed Toph her cup. "Don't worry, I made sure his was just the right temperature."
The three of them drank their tea and Zuko was nodding off within minutes. Iroh helped him settle in to bed and cleaned the tea things. When he was finished, he turned to Toph. "Ready to go?"
Toph shook her head. "I think I'll just stay in here tonight. In case the guys need anything."
She could hear Iroh smile. "Good night, Toph."
Aang woke up, feeling like a champion - a stiff and vaguely uncomfortable champion, but a champion nonetheless. He was careful not to move and disturb the sleeping form in his arms, even though he had gone numb from the pressure of her warm body. Under normal circumstances, he would have never been so bold, but somehow it had been totally natural to hold Katara until they both fell asleep.
She hadn't sent him away, and even Aang knew he was making some serious progress in the relationship front.
"What are you smiling about?" Katara asked, and he realized she was watching him through half-lidded eyes.
"I was just thinking about what a great day this is going to be, with everybody back together again," he lied, his words sounding smooth in his own ears.
Katara shifted and he let her go, reluctantly. "That reminds me, I need to check up on that idiot brother of mine."
Aang didn't let his frown of disappointment show. If there was some protocol for waking up with your girlfriend, he had no idea what it was, and all he could think to do was place a quick kiss on her forehead.
She smiled at him, but it was the same sort of friendly smile she gave everyone. "It might be a good idea to gather everyone for a meeting."
This time Aang couldn't keep himself from frowning. "You mean a war meeting."
"We all need to be on the same page. You and Zuko still haven't told us everything. And then maybe we can work things out together." She rubbed his shoulder and then got out of bed. "Come meet us in the infirmary when you're ready."
Aang smiled and nodded and watched Katara go. The other bed in the room was empty, and Aang wondered briefly where Toph had ended up for the night.
His first stop was to make sure Appa and Momo and Hawky were fed and watered, and then, with Momo on his shoulder, he headed for the bridge, greeting Kyoshi Warriors and Yu Yan alike as he went. After their defeat, the Yu Yan archers had become rather cooperative prisoners. They'd been used as a distraction and tossed aside, and none of the elite archers had felt any particular loyalty to Ozai, from the start. When Iroh offered them the chance to fight for a more worthy cause, the group had unanimously defected.
Aang wasn't sure, but he thought the flirtatious advances of the Kyoshi Warriors might have had something to do with the decision.
A mechanical sounding voice echoed from a speaker as Aang stepped onto the bridge, but all he caught was something about fire and smoke. It was still amazing to Aang to see the kinds of technology the Fire Nation had come up with during his hundred year nap. He had no idea how it all worked, but the dark haired girl at the communication panel grabbed the strange speaking tube with the same cool confidence she always showed.
"Shut down the second engine and increase the third to seventy five percent capacity, for now. We'll send someone down as soon as we can."
The tinny voice gave an affirmative and went silent. Mai turned to face Aang, her expression bordering on dark, but Aang knew her just well enough to know it wasn't aimed at him. Probably.
"We've got more trouble in the engine room."
Aang scratched his head. "Uh, yeah. Too bad none of us know anything about machines."
"I thought Sokka helped design the war balloons? Isn't that what he was always bragging about?"
Aang blinked. "Yeah, I guess. But really he was just playing with a toy balloon and a candle."
"Good enough for me," Mai said, and gathered up a few rolls of blueprints. "If he can make sense of this, that's one load off my shoulders."
"Do you know where Iroh and Ty Lee are? And have you seen Suki or Toph?"
Mai's expression soured. "I expect they're all in the same place. The place I have more right to be than the rest of them, and yet I'm stuck up here on the bridge maintaining order."
Aang forced a grin. "Well, I'm supposed to get us all together for a meeting anyway."
"Great," Mai said flatly. "Captain Zou, you have the bridge."
The silent Yu Yan captain nodded and saluted, fist under palm, as she walked past. Aang hurried in Mai's wake and caught up with her long strides.
"That guy still kind of creeps me out," he admitted, but Mai only gave him a sidelong glance and kept walking.
It sounded like there was a party going on in the infirmary. Laughter and the smell of delicious, sweet food drifted into the hallway. Momo perked up, on his shoulder, and Aang suddenly understood why Mai was in such a hurry.
They stepped inside and the general atmosphere of happiness and camaraderie permeated the air, spreading an instant smile across Aang's face.
Iroh was finishing up a story that had everyone in stitches. "So then I said, 'But miss, don't you want your dress back?' and she told me, if you can believe it, 'Keep it! It looks better on you!'"
Zuko and Sokka exploded with laughter while the girls rocked back and forth, hugging themselves, and even Katara, who seemed to be trying to maintain a bit of composure, had to cover her mouth to stifle her giggles.
"Ow, my ribs!" Sokka said, still laughing, and that made Zuko laugh even harder, which made Sokka laugh until he had to squeeze his chest. "Ow, hah, ow, ha ha, ow…"
"General Iroh, your stories are the best!" Ty Lee was in fine form, smiling brightly before spinning around to the tiny stove. Whatever she was cooking smelled wonderful, and Aang's mouth watered.
Sokka had his laughter under control and he waved at Aang as the young Avatar sat down at the foot of his bed, careful to avoid the warrior's elevated leg. "We're having a Fire Nation specialty for breakfast! Hot cakes!"
"And sweet cream!" Ty Lee added, cheerfully.
"I didn't know you could cook, Ty Lee," Aang said and Sokka scoffed.
"All women know how to cook, Aang. That's just part of the natural order of things."
"I can't cook," Mai deadpanned and Toph leaned back in her chair.
"Well," Sokka said, undeterred, "all women who aren't capable of defeating small armies on their own can cook."
Suki crossed her arms. "So you're saying you don't think I can defeat a small army by myself?"
"Or he's saying you can't cook," Katara pointed out, and the two young women gave Sokka their best intimidating stares until he withered under the assault.
"Well, I can do both!" Ty Lee said and skipped over to give Sokka the first plate of hot cakes, stacked high, with a dollop of sweet cream on top. "Dig in, you poor wounded warrior, you."
Mai rolled her eyes and dumped the pile of blueprints into Sokka's lap. "And when you're finished, figure out how to fix our airship."
Sokka choked on his first mouthful and looked from the blueprints to Mai. "You're joking."
"If I was joking, you'd know." Not a hint of expression crossed her face to give her away, one way or another.
"Mai, as you can see, I'm stuck in bed with a bum leg and your bum boyfriend for company." Zuko interjected with an indignant, "Hey!" but Sokka sailed right past. "So how exactly am I supposed to repair anything?"
Mai sighed, bored. "I don't know and frankly, I don't care. You're the closest thing to an engineer we've got on this stupid ship."
It didn't really sound like a compliment, coming from Mai, but Sokka puffed up anyway. Suki rubbed her forehead. "Oh, here we go."
"Yeah, Sokka," Ty Lee added, joining the conversation from her place at the stove. "You're like the smartest person on the whole airship. I'm sure you can come up with something brilliant."
Katara and Suki both shot Ty Lee dirty looks, but the acrobat was either oblivious or a very good actor. She smiled and flipped her hot cakes into the air, catching them in the pan.
"Well, you ladies do have a point." Sokka rubbed his goatee, preening. "I am pretty much a mechanical genius." He took another bite of his food and seemed to realize just how delicious it was, abandoning the conversation in favor of digging in with enthusiasm and making appreciative noises as he ate. "Mm-mmm! You know what would go great with these amazing hot cakes?"
"What's that?" Ty Lee asked, all ears and smiles.
"A big glass of milk."
The acrobat grabbed an empty bucket that Aang hoped hadn't been used by Sokka the night before. "The milk's gone, but I think I know just where to get some more." She pranced to the door and was halfway down the hall when Aang realized where she was heading.
He jumped off Sokka's bed with a yelp and stuck his head out the door. "Appa's a boy!"
"Ohhh," Ty Lee came back, giggling. "Oops." She turned to the warrior, totally apologetic, though Aang felt like he and Appa deserved the apology. "I'm sorry, Sokka. I could fresh squeeze you some orange juice, if you want?"
"That'd be great," he said, grinning his most annoyingly charming smile and Suki slapped him upside the back of his head to make it go away.
"He's fine with water," she said, and glared to silence his objections. "Ty Lee, you really don't have to pamper him like this. He's just taking advantage of your," she searched for a diplomatic word, "kindness."
"I don't mind at all," the other Kyoshi Warrior replied and gave Sokka a wink before dancing back to the stove to finish cooking breakfast for the rest of them. Suki looked like she had a lot more to say, but a big plate of hot cakes changed her mind.
After everyone ate their meals and the boys finished their seconds and Sokka finished his thirds, the mood started to shift to seriousness, but no one wanted to be the one to burst the bubble of contentment.
"So, Iroh, I bet you picked out a great name for your airship," Toph said. "If this was Sokka's airship, he'd probably just call it…" She paused and spread her hands theatrically. "Airship."
Everyone snickered at the warrior, except Mai, who just smirked.
"Hey, I've come up with some great names."
"Like Boomerang?" Katara teased.
"Or Hawky?" Suki said, with a giggle.
"Or Sparky Sparky Boom Man?" Aang added, grinning. "Though I actually kinda liked that one."
"Yeah," Toph joked, "it's a great name until you're about to be attacked. Oh no, it's Sparky Sparky BOOM!" She pretended to die from an imaginary blast.
"Ha ha," Sokka said, unamused.
Iroh chuckled at the exchange and poured himself a fresh cup of tea. "Actually, I do have a name in mind. Unfortunately, it would take a lot of paint to make the name really fit."
"Were you going to call it the Pink Pony Goat?" Ty Lee asked, clasping her hands in excitement, and everyone followed Mai's example and gave the acrobat blank looks.
"That is a great name," Iroh said, seriously, "but I was thinking more along the lines of," he lowered his voice mysteriously and lifted his eyebrows, "The White Dragon."
Zuko and Toph were the only ones who caught the significance. "You're naming the ship after tea?" Toph asked flatly, and Zuko shook his head.
"Why am I not surprised?"
"Not exactly." Iroh sat back, smiling in satisfaction. "They say the White Dragon bush was named after a wise old dragon who lived on a mountain top. Travelers often sought him out for his wisdom and advice."
"What kind of advice could you really get from a dragon?" Sokka asked, his voice layered with skepticism. "Except for how to swallow cow pigs whole?" He considered his own words for a moment. "Hmm, actually…"
"Dragons have all kinds of knowledge, Sokka," Aang corrected with a solemn look at his friend, and it took Sokka a second to stop thinking about meat.
"Oh sure, they know a thing or two about fire, but c'mon."
Iroh beamed. "Well, apparently the White Dragon knew a lot about tea!"
His declaration was met with the same blank looks everyone had given Ty Lee and then realizing they'd all done the same thing, everyone broke into laughter.
The small talk continued as Iroh sipped his tea and Momo curled up next to Sokka for a nap, and Aang decided it was his job, as the Avatar, to get down to business.
"So," he began, and all eyes turned to him expectantly. He still found it surprising that people were so willing to listen to him. "Ozai's back."
It wasn't news, but the declaration sobered the small gathering of world famous heroes. Something seemed to change in each of them. He saw fearsome warriors and powerful benders where moments ago he saw friends and loved ones, but the one thing that didn't change was their loyalty and devotion to each other, and him.
"While he was in prison," Aang continued, "Ozai was plotting and gathering allies. Some of them we've fought before."
"Long Feng and the Dai Li ran us out of Ba Sing Se," Toph said with a nod to Iroh and then she folded her hands in her lap, looking uneasy. "And I might have sort of unintentionally taught one of them how to metalbend…"
Everyone cringed and Sokka reached over and gave Toph's shoulder a consoling pat. "We've dealt with the Dai Li before," he said. "Who cares if they can metalbend? It'll just be a cheap imitation to the real thing."
Toph thanked him with a strained smile.
"Long Feng teaming up with Ozai is bad news," Katara said and Aang glanced at Zuko.
"It gets worse."
Zuko cleared his throat and looked from Katara to Sokka. "There was a Northern Water Tribe noble as well."
"What?" Sokka sat up so fast, half his pile of pillows fell on the floor and Momo screeched and hopped on Aang's head to get away from the agitated warrior. "Who? That's not possible! Everyone's loyal to Chief Arnook. I know those guys!"
Zuko might as well have suggested that the entire Southern Water Tribe had turned against them. Even Katara was glaring at him and he hesitated to continue. "His name was Hahn."
Katara's eyebrows shot up her forehead and she turned to her brother with a look of shock. Aang was the only other person who had an inkling of how much Sokka hated the pompous Water Tribe noble, and he watched the emotions on the wounded warrior's face draw back like the ocean before a tidal wave.
Everyone fell silent, sensing the dangerous shift in Sokka, but instead of exploding he slipped back onto his remaining pillows with his jaw clenched, staring up at the ceiling. Suki questioned Katara with a look, but the waterbender shook her head and Aang suspected the two of them would have a conversation later, in private.
Zuko eyed his friend sympathetically. He didn't need details to understand exactly what Sokka was feeling.
"There's more I have to tell you," Zuko said, and while he was talking to them all, Aang could tell he was aiming his words at Sokka. The warrior turned his head, though he barely seemed to be listening. "My fa… Ozai was heading south. Into Southern Water Tribe waters."
"What?" Katara blurted, but her brother was all action. He swung his good leg over the side of his bed and lifted his broken leg with both hands to bring it around. He was up and balanced on his foot before the rest of them even realized what he was doing.
"Katara," he said, and she knew exactly what he was thinking. She slid under his arm for support and the two moved for the door with matching looks of cool determination.
"Wait!" Aang said, blocking the exit.
"Aang, this ship is barely crawling," Sokka said, sounding surprisingly rational. "We're never going to make it down there soon enough to warn our dad unless we take Appa. Now."
"You can't go," Suki said, joining Aang. "Katara, you're the one who said Sokka shouldn't be out of bed. Do you want all your healing to go to waste?"
"We don't even know what Ozai is after down there," Zuko added. "Or where to look for him."
"If you leave," Mai said, "the rest of us are going to be stuck on this broken airship with no one to fix it."
"You'll need our help down there," Ty Lee said, pleading. "We can't all fit on Appa."
"Guys, guys!" Toph stood up, grinning like she'd just had the best idea ever. "We just have to send Hawky on ahead!" The others stopped and looked at the tiny earthbender, and even Sokka couldn't argue with her logic, though he looked like he wanted to.
"I'll go get some parchment for a letter," Ty Lee said and hurried from the room. Suki slid Sokka's other arm over her shoulder and guided the siblings back to his bed. He grimaced in pain as the girls piled his pillows and helped him lie back down, and Aang wasn't sure if it was more emotional or physical.
"I think that's enough excitement for now," Iroh said, breaking his silence. "Perhaps we should continue this meeting later?" Katara gave Iroh a grateful smile and the retired general herded everyone, reluctantly, from the room.
"Looks like you could use a healing session," Katara said to Sokka after the others had left.
Everyone but Zuko, who felt uncomfortable sitting in on a brother-sister moment and would have gladly left if his uncle had allowed it. He sat on his bed and couldn't help but watch as Katara covered her hands in glowing water and directed her healing energies to Sokka's injuries.
"Tell me where it hurts," she said, and he grunted when her hands passed over his chest. Katara focused her powers. "Wow, Sokka. That's a tangled mess of energy."
He swallowed. "Is that bad?"
"Waterbending healing works by directing chi through the body, but right now you're all wound up. I'm trying to redirect it, but your emotions just keep swirling your chi back up into a knot."
He sighed and Katara tucked her water away and squeezed his hand instead.
Zuko couldn't take it anymore. "I'm so sorry." Two sets of blue eyes turned to him like they'd forgotten he was there. "This is all my fault."
"No, Zuko." Katara shook her head and gave him a sad smile free of any hint of blame. "You're not responsible for anything that Ozai does. A man can only be responsible for his own actions."
"I should have stopped him," Zuko said, clenching his fists.
"He's your father," Sokka said, his voice tight. "You're crazy if you think any of us would expect you to bring your own father down, even if he is a monster."
"It wasn't for lack of trying." Zuko gave them a grim smile that accentuated his fresh bruises.
"We know, Zuko," Katara said.
Zuko looked into his lap and let his hands fall open. "There's something I haven't told the others. About Ozai." The two siblings watched him intently and Zuko met their matching blue gazes. "Katara, you were there when Azula snapped." The young woman frowned at the memory. "I think, maybe, the same thing happened to my… to Ozai. He was always so calm and collected before, but losing his bending and his throne… it broke something inside him."
Sokka ran his hand back over his wolf tail. "So, to top everything off, your evil, maniacal, ruthless father is now… insane."
"Pretty much." Zuko shrugged his good shoulder and grimaced. "It seems to run in the family."
"Alright, that's it." Sokka sat up and gathered the airship blueprints. "Katara, I need to get down to the engine room and fix this ship. And then we're going to hunt Ozai down and put an end to this."
For once, Katara had no objections.
Azula was only dimly aware of the events going on around her. Sometimes she was fed, sometimes she was bathed, though less and less regularly these days. Sometimes she slept.
And sometimes, if she was really lucky, she got to kill.
Energy crackled through her, now. Constantly. Waiting at a moment's notice to be unleashed. Her fingers itched to release the power, to watch a person writhe at her touch, to watch a meaningless life extinguish at her hands.
He brought them to her. Unworthy slaves. Insects.
"Please, my lord!" Another wretch groveled before his master. "We don't know where it went!"
Silence pressed in around her. Silence and displeasure so strong she could taste it, feel it in the very marrow of her bones. She tingled with anticipation.
Finally, he spoke. Slowly, carefully, his emotionless words thrumming in her ears. "How can you lose something that big?"
"We… we're not sure. It just, it just seemed to vanish, my lord."
The darkness danced and sang around the Phoenix King, and Azula knew it was her time. Chains rattled as she stood, and he met her hungry gaze with amber eyes lost in shadow.
"Azula, I have a gift for you."
"No, my lord! Please!" The offering scrambled to his feet but two skull masked guards grabbed the man by his arms and pulled him toward her. She strained against her bindings, desperate and waiting.
He would say it. He would say it because he meant it and she would show him she was worthy. She would do anything for him. He only had to speak the words.
"Your father loves you, Azula."
The man's screech of terror ended as pure, unadulterated power ripped from her fingertips. Whether he lived or died was inconsequential. Her father loved her, and that was all that mattered.
"Does he? Does he really?"
Azula twitched and turned, chains restricting her sudden movement. There, just out of the corner of her eye, light, a reflection in gleaming metal. And movement. Azula snarled, her words lost to madness.
"If he loves you, why does he keep you in chains?"
There had to be a reason, but Azula couldn't think clearly. Hadn't been able to for so long. So very long.
"He's never loved you like I do, Azula."
Azula stretched out her hand, crackling with electricity, toward the woman reflected in polished steel. Memory? Ghost? A mere product of insanity?
Her mother smiled sadly. "I hope you'll understand that, one day."
A/N2: Thanks for all the favs, but don't forget to review! Reviews help let other people know a story is worth reading. I don't need a two page critique or gushing praise, but if you like what you just read, how about letting me know? If you don't know what to say, you can always list your favorite parts of a chapter or just say, "I really liked your story!" Reviews keep me motivated to write, so go ahead and review those other chapters if you've got the time!