AN: cries Terrara was especially hard on TP this chapter... I can only blame myself. Next time I am SOOO not going to wait so long before starting writing.
Anywho, enjoy... and don't forget to Review! =]
"When the fuckers are done unloading their cattle, I'll clear the gondola while you flip the reverse lever. Think you can manage that, Fire Nation?"
A small sigh at the title, but then he was nodding, leaning back against the warm stone of the outer walls. Sweat trickled down his brow. It was a consequence, he figured, of having a prison surrounded by boiling frickin' lava that the air would be hot and humid.
The dark and cold cell had obviously spoiled him.
Jet's profile was tense and coiled at his side, focused and intent on the conversation of the prison guards right around the corner, and their get-away-gondola that was approaching with all the speed and momentum of an elephantslug. The broken-off piece of chopstick he had been using as a substitute for his usual stalk of wheat bobbed and jerked against his teeth at every chuckle and self-satisfied smirk the men made; Zuko prayed to Agni that they didn't say anything too riling – Jet would most likely make them backtrack for a new chew toy if he snapped his current one in anger.
Thankfully he seemed to calm down some when the gondola jerked to a halt some twenty yards away – less feral, though dark eyes still eyed every movement beyond their wall with a sharpness akin to an animal stalking prey. Tan and callused hands fidgeted at his sides, and Zuko recalled the unusual hooked swords that had been more than for show as they had hooked his ankles out from beneath him in Ba Sing Sei. His own fingers twitched.
If only they could've found their swords, things wouldn't be looking quite so bleak.
He peeked around the corner to see the last of the war prisoners being marched onto the platform. The man was tall and fairly dark-skinned, with beads matching his eyes woven into long dark hair. Water Tribe. The eyes were enough of a give away, as Sokka and Katara had the only blue eyes he had ever seen. He was just wondering if maybe they knew each other when rough fingers encircled his wrist, tugging to remind him that yeah, they were trying to escape here, remember?
He followed swiftly behind the taller teen, ducking behind as many storage barrels as they could before the open shot to the gondola opening. By the time they got to the last one he was panting, leaning hard against their cover and hoping that Jet would have the mercy of a few moment's breath before breaking into the fray. Rationally, he knew it wasn't going to happen. His logic wasn't disappointed.
As Jet fought a path towards the gondola, Zuko darted for the large lever protruding from the ground. One of the guards threw a fireball at him, which he just managed to dissipate yards from his face. He tugged hard at the lever with one hand, the other extended wildly in case of a repeat performance. Suddenly the guard dropped, however, and the Water Tribe man was running beside him, a rock dropping from his fist when it didn't look like he'd need to bash anyone else's head in at the moment.
"Need a hand?"
Dozens more guards were sprinting across the courtyard, and Jet was screaming at him to hurry the fuck up from the gondola. Yeah, a hand would be nice. "Yeah, thanks." Hands nearly double the size of his own grabbed on either side of his on the lever and pulled hard enough to almost throm him all over again. As it were, the guards were on them almost immediately, flinging fire that Zuko had neither the energy nor time to deflect. He and his would-be rescuer dived behind more of the supply barrels, panting.
"You two don't seem to be having much luck," the Water Tribesman commented, leaning forward to hurl a handy rock at the regrouping guards. It seemed they had realized that this was the prince they were up against, and were a little more than nervous to have to attempt any sort of firebending brawl with the notorious bender. Granted, he could hardly bend his own breath at the moment, but they didn't have to know that.
"Somehow it sounded much simpler from the cell." They had been lucky enough when Jet had decided that he had been stuck there long enough and knocked out the man guarding their cell. Lucky that no one else had been around, that is. The trouble he had just locating the key to Zuko's chains should've been a sign that maybe brute force wasn't the best plan of action. By that point it had been too late to back out, though (and the freedom and lack of harsh metal against his wrists were enough incentives, regardless).
"Things usually do."
By now the guards had apparently come to the conclusion that they didn't really want to lose their jobs, and that en masse they could beat a scrawny teenager; the Water Tribesman was glancing around for something else to throw at them. Unless he threw the barrel they were hiding behind, their options were depleted. "After I throw this, run straight to the gondola. I think your friend's going to come and grab you personally if you don't get over there soon."
Zuko nodded to show he understood, and seconds later his cover was gone, being hurled towards the scattering guards. He ran towards the stationary gondola, realizing only belatedly that he hadn't managed to pull the lever entirely. Jet leaped off the gondola, face red and fists clenched.
"Fucking useful you are!" He swore, ducking an incoming guard's fiery punch and retaliating with a sweeping kick that sent the guard down hard. He grabbed Zuko's arm as he slid to a stop, shoving him towards the relative shelter of the gondola. "I'll get the lever, you keep the guards off our ticket out of here." Jet didn't wait for a response though, and Zuko was forced to back up towards the platform edge as several more guards lumbered forward to replace the one downed by the dark eyed teen.
The first guard ran forward with the wild abandon of an amateur bender. Even in his weakened state, Zuko only had to sidestep him and follow with a swift backhand to send the fool tumbling over the edge of the platform. He winced as the man's screams were snuffed out by the lake of superheated water below.
Guards two and three glanced at one another before separating to either side of him, hoping to corner the ex-prince. Zuko growled low in his throat despite himself. He would not be taken down by his own subjects. He sent the strongest fireball he could manage at the one to his left, hoping to provoke him to attack first. The scar marring the left side of his face didn't do any favors for his vision on that side, and if the man was going to attack, Zuko wanted to know when to expect it.
Exactly as expected, the man caught the blast with one hand, redirecting it with the other. His partner swung his arms around to join in the fight, when something brown struck the side of his head with a thwap.
Attention diverted, the guard turned to his new assailant, who stood ready, other prison-issued shoe in hand. "You're new here so you don't know how we do things. Put the shoe down and get back in line and we might decide to overlook these new discretions!"
"Overlook this!" The Water Tribe man hurled his other shoe at the guard, who incinerated the leather with a quick wave of fire, then returned a fireball back at the man. The Tribesman dodged around the flames nearly as well as Aangwould, delivering enough returning blows to keep the man busy.
Zuko ducked as a whip of flame cracked just above his head, his attacker apparently having decided that his fellow guard could handle the situation. He summoned two distressingly pitiful balls of flame in his hands, sinking into a low defensive stance, at the ready. A bead of sweat slid down his brow as darkness swirled around the edges of his vision.
Suddenly Jet burst into view, using the guard's back as a springboard to get to the gondola. "It's going, Princess. Move your ass!"
Princess? Zuko growled. Asshole...
"Azula's got Zuko!"
Perhaps blurting it out after a overheard semi-love confession wasn't the most tactful idea, but Aang justified that given the situation, speed outweighed subtlety. His friends didn't seem to see it that way, however. A short chorus of "what?"'s attacked him, before Toph – true to her nature – shoved Sokka aside and Earthbended the door shut to block the yelling from waking the rest of the group.
"What do you mean, 'she's got him'? Is Sparky okay? What happened?"
"I'm not sure what exactly she did, but I think she got to him after we separated for bed. She invaded the Sun Warriors and I think she was using us to try to learn about the dragons' secrets. They wouldn't let Zuko see them because they don't like his people. Then the Chief said that Azula took him to The Boiling Rock prison and—"
"Wait, Aang," Sokka interrupted, standing up as well. "Slow down. What's this about the Sun Warriors? I thought they were all dead!"
Aang threw his hands up in the air in frustration. Quit focusing on the small stuff. Zuko's in trouble! "Well they're not, ok? And neither are the dragons because that's how they teach people how to really Firebend. Fire isn't just destruction – it's life! But that's not important! The Sun Warrior chief only had enough time to tell me where they took him before Azula popped up and started throwing fireballs at me. I was hoping that you'd know where it is, Sokka."
Worry was flooding the Watertribe teen's features. Aang could only watch miserably as irrational anger jumped up to mask it. "So you just left him there? You're the Avatar – couldn't you have done something?"
"Shut up, Lover-boy." Sokka winced at the crude punch to his arm, shame making him blush but he offered no apology for his actions. "I get that you're worried for Sparky, but don't go dragging that Avatar stuff into it. Twinkletoes can't do everything. Besides, don't you listen?" A sharp tug to his ear. "Azula took him at night while Aang was asleep. What was he supposed to do after he was already gone?"
"I'm sorry, Sokka... I wish I could've stopped her, but at least we can try to help him now. But... how're we going to find The Boiling Rock?"
Those blue eyes lit up with sudden renewed spirit, and he didn't break his stride as Toph bended the doorway inches before his face. He seemed to tune out Aang's questions until he was digging through Zuko's bag, still tucked safely into the corner of Appa's saddle. "Zuko used a map to direct you towards the Sun Warrior ruins, right? I bet it has The Boiling Rock on it, too. A-ha! See, here it is!" He gestured wildly towards a small blip on the crinkled parchment.
Toph frowned but for once didn't point out how she couldn't see it. "Not to break up this rescue party, but what about the others? Katara'll freak if she wakes up and finds us all gone. And no offense, but I am not going to be the one left behind to tell your cranky sister the mess you've got yourself in."
Sokka turned to Aang with pleading eyes. "I have to go and help... I can't just sit here knowing that something bad could be happening to Zuko right now."
"Neither can I! I'm the Avatar – it's my job to help people... And Katara would be angry if she got left out, so why can't we all go?"
"You're the Avatar. Just think for a moment about it; we're going to be going into a heavily guarded Fire Nation prison, and you're their worst enemy," Sokka reasoned. "And Teo and The Duke aren't prepared for a situation like this, and no offense meant to the guy but I don't think that Haru could defend them if the Fire Nation found this place. I think we'd all feel better if there were a few benders here to look after the place."
Aang huffed and his arms came up in agitation all on their own. "I can handle myself, and Toph can stay here! Or we'll wake up Katara now so she can look after them..."
"Fine. Aang... My sister adores you. She does," Sokka repeated when the younger boy blushed brightly. "She'll take it best from you. Go run and let her know that we'll be back as soon as we can, I promise."
It wasn't a question. Still, as he followed Sokka's "plan," Aang had a sinking feeling that this wasn't very well thought through as he ran to go let Katara know they were leaving.
"Any way I could convince you to not do that?"
Jet glared up across his narrow isolation cell at the only other human presence within earshot. The Watertribesman was looking back at him with that same steady calm as the ocean stare that adults always leveled on him. Judging him a delinquent for the way he acted, just because they couldn't appreciate his lifestyle . He'd seen that look come from many men before his Freedom Fighters proved themselves worthy with their fists.
The little chunk of crumbled prison-rock tumbled around in his hand as he considered it, before bouncing off the locking column again with practiced precision.
Rough fabric rustled, the Watertribesman leaning his head back against the dip between two bars in his own cell. It didn't look comfortable, but Jet could tell – burn marks across the backs of hands, long but thin scar up the left side of his jaw, dried blood scrubbed into the dirt across his face – the man had experienced worse. "That is alright. I have a son, you know – about your age? Used to drive me crazy for the sake of driving me crazy. Always wanting my attention."
"I ain't no kid."
"I never said that," the older man replied calmly. "Although I would question why a boy your age is considered such a risk to land himself in the Boiling Rock over some of the lower-risk mainland prisons."
"You'd be surprised what a boy my age can do." Jet scowled into the dim emptiness, fingers tightening around the small rock hard enough to prick the skin. A certain firebender was to blame for everything. "I was trying to expose the Fire Nation prince to the Dai Li, but it turned out the fucking princess was in charge of them, too. Nearly killed me in Lao Gai before they decided to ship me off here instead. "
A conptemplative look crossed the older man's face, wrinkling the corners of his eyes and forehead. "That is strange."
"I know! How could everybody be so blind? I've never seen someone so obviously Fire Nation in my life! I almost believed him at first, too..."
"No," the man cut off his vivacity at finding another Fire Nation hater, "I meant that it seems impractical to take war prisoners when an execution is simpler."
Jet huffed at the perceived insult. I ain't no simple kill... "Then why'd they keep you alive, old man?"
The Watertribesman just chuckled, waving a pacifying hand in his direction. "I'm Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe. The Chief. That holds some amount of bargaining power, you understand."
Southern Water Tribe? Then... "Your son – his name Sokka?" At the man's flash of recognition and nod, Jet smirked. "I know him. Him and his sister, Katara. They stopped me from doing something real stupid a while back."
Hakoda peered back at him through one squinted eye; the heat from the lava outside permeated even the basement isolation chambers, melting his energy faster than the earlier failed fight with the guards. He knew that Hakoda knew it was more than just a simple mistake. He didn't think the man was going to press him for details though, either. Boiling Rock was a prison (which at it's essence held criminals) and Jet already had teenage bullheadedness against him. To assume the worst was probably for the best.
That didn't stop him from wandering into other dangerous territory, of course.
"Your friend... The firebender? He know my children too?"
If he hadn't had been so derailed by the thought of getting along with the Fire Nation scum, Jet might've cared more about the cautious worry in the older man's voice. However, being called such a blatant flame-lover quickly put him off the man and any concern for his kids. "He's not my friend. Bastard got me stuck in here, for fuck's sakes. Nah, I don't know what got Princey a one-way trip to the brig – and I don't give a shit – but I don't think your kids are with him. The guards talk. Would've heard something by now, I'm sure."
A frown tugged at the light wrinkles around Hakoda's mouth, hand stilling from where it had been unconcsiously rubbing the bar in his only outward show of nerves. "Prince? So that was the Fire Lord's son?" Jet shrugged in reply; he hadn't heard much about the circumstances of Zuko's imprisonment, and hadn't cared. "He was weaker than I thought."
He choked back a startled laugh. "Fucker's still Fire Nation. I've seen what pity can do to a person's defenses..."
"I don't pity him," Hakoda said. "Katara's told me all about this monster that has been chasing my children across the world, trying to capture Avatar Aang. From the way she described him, one would picture a seven-foot-tall behemoth. Safe to say he was nothing like what I had expected. ."
Jet said nothing. His own experience with the matter hadn't been the most valiant of heroes tales, and it wasn't something he was in a rush to share with the seasoned warrior. None of his business, either way. They sat for a while in relative silence, the slow drip of condensation off the walls the only sound in the air. After a time the other man broke it with an exasperated sigh.
"How was the plan supposed to work, exactly?"
"The plan wasn't the problem," Jet retorted, "The Prince was. It's not like I expected him to pass out on me or anything. Fuck! Look, he was supposed to get the lever while I did most of the groundwork. Once the gondola was moving, he'd stop any fireballs sent our way—"
"What would stop the guards from simply reversing the lever?"
"The plan included breaking it off."
"Then what if they cut the cords?"
"Then the gondola is made of fucking steel and stone! The steel roof would float at least, and we could use our clothes to stay off the hot metal until it floated out past the volcano. Look," he said, interrupting Hakoda's endless interrogation. The man may have been a chief and had plenty of experience, but he felt for the man's kids. "For what we hadn't thought of, I'm twice as good at improvising. If the Prince hadn't fainted on me and knocked me over, the guards wouldn't have been able to surround us that fast."
Hakoda nodded acquiescence, but still: "Looked like a losing battle to me, from the start."
"Then why help us?" he asked.
Hakoda didn't answer, and Jet's pride was still too bruised to push the issue.
"We in the Fire Nation yet?"
"Almost. Boiling Rock's near the edge, ironically enough. You'd think their leaders would be smart enough to keep their war prisoners further away from potential support, but hey. Whatever makes this easier is good news in my books."
Toph snorted. "You don't even read books."
"I'll have you know I've read plenty of books! Besides, what good does reading about the hunt do you? It's not like you're going to learn the fine art of tracking by ink and paper..." Sokka's weight slumped back against Appa's wide head, and she could tell he was glaring at her just from the huffy way he was breathing. "Hey! You don't read books either!"
"At least I have an excuse."
The temperature of the warm air rushing by them was rising slightly with the languid rotations of their ride's tail. She leaned against the solid edge of the saddle, feeling the sun on her face in the same muted frequency as her feet in the sand or someone's heartbeat against a metal door. It was nice enough. If you like that sort of thing.
"So," she said, dragging out the sound until she could feel her bangs flutter on the exhale, "we in the Fire Nation yet?"
A half-groan. "Toph. You just asked that. We haven't traveled twenty miles in the last minute. Quit. Asking."
"So that's a no?"
"Yes, it's a no!"
Meat-head's too easy... "Now that was confusing. Are we there? Or aren't we? Hard to tell when I can't feel the ground from here..."
"Toph, please." Her grin drooped some at the dejected sound in his voice. As much as she liked teasing the guy, a miserable Sokka was a boring Sokka.
She felt out the thick cord of muscle at his bicep, then promptly punched it. "You're no fun when you're all mopey. Cheer up. Sparky's going to be all over you when you rush in as his knight in shining armor... Matted mooselion leather, more like."
Another thick sigh, and she wasn't sure whether she'd rather pinch his nose shut and just make him appreciate the air he was breathing or try her hand at comforting again. She prayed he'd get over it on his own. It wasn't like she'd ever claimed to be a second Sugar Queen.
"It's not – Well, kinda... I'm not in love with Zuko, like you keep saying. I like him, sure. He's the only guy I've ever met that understands me, gets my sense of humor and doesn't want to drown a town full of people." For the sake of her own peace of mind, she resigned to asking about that when he wasn't so hung up in his Denial Mode. "And he's... It's not like he's not good looking or anything. He's got this body that's all lean muscle and sharp lines, even if he could stand to put on a few pounds lately. There's this scar, you know? Anyway, it's pretty noticeable, but his eyes... I don't think he can see out of his left, but his right eye is really light gold. He's just... Zuko."
If that wasn't a love confession, I don't know what it was. "Do you talk all poety-like to Suki too? Or is Mr. Golden-eyes the only one you'll get all emotional for?"
The soft quality vanished from his voice as his body weight shifted away from her. "Whatever, Toph. It's not like that, okay? I'd sleep with Zuko, I'll admit it, but I love Suki."
Well, he didn't seem to be lying; given the context, she wasn't sure whether that was a good thing or not. She personally didn't 'see' anything wrong with being in love with both, but if he was going to pull that manly crap... Speaking of which.
"I am so not going to be the one to deal with Aang and Katara when we get back 'cause we left them."
The second thing he noticed was that his head was pounding, slow and heavy like the Sun Warriors' drums, beating out all other thoughts until all he could focus on was the pain and the steady thrum of his pulse in his ears.
That was the second thing because the first was that he was cold – freezing, really – and the numbness of his fingers and toes and ears and everything in between was so complete, so pins-and-needles absolute, that it took a while for the pain to slither in between the cracks. But once it did...
With each new second of semi-consciousness, more sharp feeling worked its way into his limbs, reminding him in painful clarity that they existed, they were there, and that the congealing blood beneath the skin didn't appreciate the ice they were slowly being replaced with. The light behind his closed eyelids began pulsing in time with his heartbeat, but to acknowledge that his eyes were closed would be to admit he should open them. Didn't sound like a good idea.
It was white. Also, not a good idea. He blinked once, painfully. Twice. Slowly it dawned on him that he wasn't blind, just surrounded in thick whiteness. The fact that it was solid ice hit several moments later.
"F-F-Fuck!" He hissed, springing into a crouch away from the frozen wall he had been leaning against. Frost and small chunks of ice clung to his clothes and skin, and his numb fingers shook trying to brush them off. He huddled in on himself in the center of the frozen tube, grumbling and blowing on his fingers. He spotted the back of a head through the narrow window opposite him.
"Hey!" he yelled. The head didn't move, so he scrabbled across the short distance to beat on the frosty glass. "Hey, w-what's this about?"
The man jerked and spun around, groggy gold Fire Nation eyes meeting his own.
Probably fell asleep. Don't they know who I am?
Not that it really made a difference. With him locked up secure in his own little icy prison, he didn't blame the guy for sleeping on what was probably a boring job.
"You keep it down in there! Ain't got more than an hour left in my shift... Fuck with the next guy..." He accompanied his gruff voice with a scratch to the side of his fleshy face. The man made to turn back around and Zuko leapt forward, banging noisily on the glass again.
"Wait! Why am I in here?"
"Half-assed escape attempt, I guess." Jet's angry face. Blue eyes. Fire. Not being able to breathe... Right. No wonder he didn't remember anything. "Firebenders get the cooler. I'd recommend not fucking up again."
Zuko ignored the man's witty diagnosis and wrapped his arms closer around his chest to keep the body heat in. That didn't tell him anything he couldn't figure out by the cold alone. He couldn't care less what happened to Jet (hopefully fell in the lake and burnt up. But with my luck? Unlikely), but the wild-eyebrowed teen hadn't been the only one helping him in the escape. "What happened to the other two – the idiot and the Watertribesman? He didn't have—"
'Have anything to do with it', he would've said, had he not been breathing in so hard only moments after coming out of unconsciousness. The icy air swept through his lungs like sharp-knifed smoke; he could only bend over double coughing, praying to Agni for the strength to not make a bigger fool of himself in front of his scowling kinsman.
What would Sokka think if he saw how pathetic I am right now?
Better yet, why should I care?
But the guard was trying to get his attention – yelling at him to 'cut it out' in the strangest manner Zuko had ever encountered (nearly passing out or otherwise). "You gonna stop that now?" the man asked angrily. It didn't come naturally to him though, and instead of coming off the gruff and flat-affected guard, he looked young and positively shitting his prison-issued pants at the thought of explaining a prisoner's death to the warden.
Zuko tried to nod back at him. Hands clasping shaky knees, doing nothing but inducing more nausea. He swallowed past disgusting, dripping saliva. The banging and yelling was back full force; a whoosh of air and someone was tearing his hands away from his mouth, and they were coated in shiny, congealing red.
Coughing up blood again? But I haven't even tried to eat anything...
Then the ground was being pulled out from under him. Or, more accurately, he was being lifted (over shoulder like a fucking sack of wheat!) out of the cooler and into the relative inferno of the cement prison walls. He gasped in a gulp of steamy volcanic air, grateful for the sudden change in atmospheric pressure in his lungs. They still burned, granted, but his own element soothed them like no ice ever could.
"The fuck," the guard was muttering, rushing him down the hallways like something contagious. "They never mentioned this. The fuck am I supposed to do when they're dying? This is your fault, you know."
"Just put me down. I'm not an invalid."
He was promptly dropped down, and he batted away the meaty palms that circled his biceps, ready to grab him should he attempt to flee. It wasn't like he was in any condition for another attempt. Not after this week and whatever mysterious drug that he had been forced to ingest back at the Sun Warriors' with Aang...
The guard was looking at him funny, and he realized only too late that his thoughts hadn't stayed within his mind. "The Avatar," he clarified uselessly for all the difference it made in the man's sour demeanor. "Was he brought in with me? Or—"
"The threat of the Avatar was killed months ago by Princess Azula. It was all over the city flyers... Maybe you're more fucked up that I thought. Try not to go more loony until I get you to the infirmary..."
Thank Agni... Infirmary? Wait- "I don't need no fucking medic! Just get me back to my cell. Some sleep and I'll be fine."
The man grumbled under his breath, but turned them down a separate forking hallway past two female guards who were leaning on either side of an inmate's cell door conversing in low whispers. "Anyone asks, I punched you in the jaw, got it?"
Zuko groaned at the man's machismo, but nodded wearily and allowed himself to be manhandled past the girls now giggling at the way their male coworker strutted by. Sometimes it was easier to just accept defeat and his headache didn't scream for pride. Besides, at least he wasn't the one tarnishing his own honor this time.
"How could you have fallen for that? You should've tried to stop them," she fumed, stalking towards the center fountain in a subconscious attempt at calming through her element. Aang followed behind her helplessly as she waved her arms around madly. "And you didn't try to convince them not to go?"
"Katara!" Aang scolded, and the water in the nearby fountain rippled like a handful of rocks had been dropped into it's center. Why does everyone try to blame me? "Azula took Zuko! We had to go help him!"
"Exactly!" Katara retorted. "It's Zuko. A month ago you wouldn't have cared."
"But he's one of us now, Katara. You know that."
"It's dangerous... I just didn't want any of you guys to get hurt."
Aang sighed, meeting Katara's sharp blue eyes with his own more tired gray. Still so full of anxious energy, he had made it down to the main floor before he saw the speck of his sky bison flying away with his two friends. Then he realized that Katara had woken up from their screaming, and pounced on him when she discovered him arrived and them gone. Haru had sat up rubbing sleepy eyes, only to usher a skittish The Duke out with him upon learning what had transpired while they slept. Aang wished he could have joined them.
"It's just as dangerous inside the prison, and Zuko's facing it all alone. What if it had been Sokka that had been taken? Would you stay in our safe temple just because it might be dangerous?"
Katara looked away, refusing to hold his disappointed gaze. "You can't make that comparison, Aang. Besides, I don't like how he's already corrupting my brother. They left without you!"
"I trust Sokka's judgement and trust that he cares enough about Zuko to try and help." And is in love with him...? Aang flushed, trying to push his overheard conversation from his mind. That was Sokka and Zuko's buisness, and Aang had no right to do anything but be happy for them and appreciate love in whichever way it blessed them. "I'm not happy that they left without me. But there's nothing I can do about it now and... I understand why he did it. I don't like it, but I understand. I need to be focusing on how to stop the Fire Lord."
Subdued by the gravity of the matter, Katara sunk down onto the fountain edge, rubbing smooth hands over worried cheeks. "It's just... I don't want anything to happen to him. We've already lost Dad... and I don't understand. Even with Azula as evil and crafty that she is, Zuko's always gotten away before. He's like an armadilloroach, I swear. I guess it just scares me that she could've gotten so much more dangerous with the comet coming so soon."
But she hadn't gotten more crafty. Aang had seen for himself how run-down she looked – much like her brother had that first morning of their journey.
Gasping for breath, shaking hands... Blood running down his chin...
More than anything, Aang wished that he could keep Zuko's privacy, keep Zuko's secret, but he couldn't sit back and do nothing if it could eventually help ease the older teen's suffering. In his turmoil he earthbended a stool directly in front of her with only the smallest thought, and met her head on. Praying for her support.
"Katara... There's something I need to tell you."
Hakoda watched the gruff teen before him much like he watched everything else. Troops, animals, his own children... Everything eventually became clear if enough attention was put into it. It was a lesson born of unforgiving glaciers and wise old women that could give him no comforting advice when his wife had been snatched away and disappeared like a wraith one day during a raid. He had suspected that his young daughter had witnessed it, and after enough careful observation and subtle questioning, had come to a conclusion. Even if Katara hadn't actually seen the murder than had taken her mother away, she had watched – terrified and confused – as the Fire Nation soldier hauled her mother out of the hut and into the steel hull of the enemy's ship.
The teen was doing his damnest to stare at him while not outwardly seeming to look at him. Hakoda wasn't fooled. Sokka hadn't been so different the last time he'd seen him. For a moment he allowed himself to feel the grief of losing his kids yet again, before he pulled himself back together to watch Jet squirm against the rough stone wall.
Callouses padded his fingertips and palms, thicker around the thumb and index finger where one would grip the hilt of a sword, but they were on both hands. Ambidextrous or dual blades? It didn't matter, save for the fact that the kid was frequently armed and judging from the lack of any real scarring on his visible skin, dangerous. He ground his left molars together like he'd expected to be chewing on something that was no longer there.
A sticky bead of sweat slid down from his hairline into his eyes and he brushed his forearm across his forehead, frowning as his arm came away wet and a slightly darker brown than before. Penguinseal blubber is one thing, but Fire Nation ash is a completely different matter. Disgusting. Jet didn't seem to be having the same issues, and had moved on to scowling at imaginary foes through the wall as though the heat didn't effect him.
Ah. What it is to be young...
"So... Earth Kingdom?"
"Jet," the kid corrected sharply at the wall.
Hakoda nodded, saying nothing for the hypocrisy. "Jet."
He didn't look up, but the slightest twitch of his lip had him pegged as paying attention, which was all the same to Hakoda. He had weighed the pros and cons of asking in his mind. When in doubt, he always chose to go into something well prepared. He had to escape. If not for himself, than for his children. "How long would you estimate that they will keep us locked up down here?"
Jet chuckled darkly, the humid air solidifying his breath in a misty puff. "Last time it was a week. I was down here when those insurgents came to break out a few prisoners, you see. Otherwise I would've beaten a ride back out of them. It'll probably be longer this time, second disruption and all..."
"Insurgents, you say... Were they particularly famous or politically wealthy prisoners?"
"Nah, just the regular sort. Criminals and the like. You know, the kind that usually fill up prisons?"
He had the grace to ignore the sarcasm. "What nation were they from?"
"All of them, I think. I didn't see them leaving from down here, but the feisty girl from Block B's gone as well as a couple of Firebending older men that think they're too good to get involved in the fights that break out during meal times. Maybe another Water Tribe guy like you? I don't know everyone here; I just noticed a couple missing afterwards once I'd been told what happened."
Water Tribe... Hakoda prayed silently for the safety of whichever tribe member had managed to escape. Then he prayed that they would find and help Sokka and Katara. They were still so young to be facing the world at its worst on their own, and it didn't sit right with him.
When I do escape and fight my way back to you... I only ask that you forgive me for being such a horrible father.
A sudden burst of frustrated air from Jet, and he hurled the nearest rock at the far wall. "Fuck! I'm sure they want me to rot in here, you know. Get old and decrepit and miserable, all for the Fire Nation's fucking amusement!"
Hakoda snorted at the melodrama. "Somehow I doubt they garner much amusement from a prisoner on some secluded island."
"That Princess bitch was the one that sent me here," he admitted finally, frustrated at everything and nothing. "Seems she found enough amusement in my efforts at revealing her brother enough to let me live. I almost died down in Lake Lao Gai. Then she waltzes in with a few lackeys and a fucking smirk... Says she's going to repay my 'services' with a silent and miserable existence tucked away where no one will have to see me again. Whore..."
He didn't think the teen would be willing to hear any practical words of advice, so he remained silent, which was probably best because he didn't really want to be subjected to more of the kid's life story. Another price of being young, he figured. Always believing the world's problems are isolated to themselves. It's not like you're alone in this chamber, Kid. He couldn't remember being so self-centered when he was that age, but with the war, he couldn't remember much of a childhood that wasn't painted and armored in the preparations for war. Then again, when you're young you don't have the same perspective.
He never had these sorts of issues with his own children.
Granted, he hardly ever saw his children, so perhaps he was just out of practice.
Jet's harsh breathing stilled sharply, and in the air left behind he could barely hear the staccato shouts and footfalls of harried guards (or prisoners, perhaps) running by outside of their dim isolation chamber. Another moment, and the cement beneath them vibrated with a sort of energy that Hakoda associated on some deep level with bending.
Suddenly the ground shook harder as though it was growing closer and Jet leapt to his feet, Hakoda following only a moment after on sore and war-weakened knees.
"I think we've found our ticket out of here."
Jet flashed him a predatory grin, morale up with the evidence of Earthbending. First the door to Jet's small cell flew open with a strong kick to the damp-eroded joints. Then his followed it.
She couldn't say she was surprised. No one went from a single-minded hunter to a weak and domesticated dovemouse overnight – especially when that person was known for his untiring resilience in trying to capture the Avatar, of all people. So hearing that the so called reformed prince was now playing for a false sympathy card with their resident bleeding heart was met with less shock and more muted disgust.
She leaned back on her hands, leveling with Aang's concerned round eyes. "You're too nice, Aang. But trust me, there's nothing wrong with Zuko that a couple water whips to the head can't fix."
"That's not it! I mean that something's really wrong. I saw him, and he's seriously sick. Like... Like maybe dying sick."
He seemed to believe what he was saying, and for Aang's sake, she hoped Zuko wasn't pulling another lie over the younger teen, regardless of what that'd mean for the firebender. "Did Zuko tell you he was sick, Aang?"
"No. No, he tried to hide it, actually..."
Now, that doesn't make sense...
Growing up with an older sibling, she was ashamed of the jealousy that could fester whenever her dad would take Sokka out to teach him how to be a man. It hadn't been intentional – the unequal and unfair portions of the man's day that the kids would grapple over. Hours that she was stuck with the old women of the tribe, waiting for a father that would only sit and make awkward small-talk for twenty minutes before he'd give her a hug and shuffle off to his chiefly duties.
(She couldn't even blame him for that. Kya had been snatched away from her – away from them both – when Katara had been on the cusp of womanhood. Maybe Hakoda thought he was helping by leaving the women to instruct in what he knew little of. It was impossible to say.)
But more than once she had over-exaggerated symptoms, even creating them blindly on occasion to garner her dad's attention. He would drop everything and sit with her, telling her stories of her mother and tease her on her messy stitches adorning whatever Gran-Gran had given her to practice on. She could ask anything of him and he'd do it in a heartbeat if it'd make her happy.
If Zuko wasn't following her pattern, then that meant that she didn't understand what he was doing, which made him more dangerous than when he had been actively hunting them. Though, he could be playing for subtle to try to disguise his motives... She glanced at Aang, looking away quickly with a blush when she thought about her own feelings for the boy and how he didn't seem to have any clue.
Right. Like Aang could ever be observant enough to notice anything less than someone dying directly in front of him...
Aang didn't say anything about the pinkness to her cheeks, and she knew from his character what he thought of it. Of course he'd believe she'd immediately believe him and feel embarrassed. He clenched his fists and his knuckles whitened under the lightly tanned skin. "He started looking really pale after we left for the Sun Warriors' Ruins, so I kept an eye on him just in case. Then, when I woke up, he was already outside. He threw up, but it was really bad... there was blood, Katara. He didn't look like he wanted to talk about it, and I... Well, I didn't know how to bring it up again, but he was having a real hard time breathing when we were exploring the ruins too."
"Are you serious? Aang, that sounds..." Really bad, but her mouth wouldn't form the words. "I don't trust him – I can't, I'm sorry. Not after everything he's done. But if something's seriously wrong with him..." She swallowed the lump forcing itself up her throat as images from that first day returned to her. He had looked like a drowned rabbitfox, quivering and shaking and she had refused to listen. Back then she had felt justified by all the grief and frustration he had caused them. What if he had been sick even then?
He's Fire Nation. They lie... Cheat, steal, and take people's mothers away from them...
"If he's that sick, how is he going to be able to teach you firebending? The dragons could've only shown you so much," Katara said quietly, both to ease her own stewing conscience and appear firm in her resolve. She couldn't look her friend in the eye and see the disappointment she knew would be there. Still, she had to hold strong.
For Mom, she thought, and hoped Zuko wasn't really as sick as he seemed.
"Shit! Shit-shit-shit-shit-shit... Maybe this wasn't the best idea?"
Toph grinned insanely beside him, flexing her hands before her in a classic bending stance whilst deflecting two guards with stone catapults by her feet. He chased her through the third gigantic hole she had blasted in the prison's interior, trying to both keep up and parry arrows at the same time (breathing only when his lungs started to burn and he realized he had forgot). The blind girl seemed ecstatic. "It was a great idea! I haven't got to kick some butt in a while. Can't keep an Earthbender suspended off a cliff long before we get antsy."
"If this is antsy, I don't want to see you mad."
She laughed. "Damn right, you don't."
An unfortunate armored projectile joined his kin in a majestic arc, followed by a painful sounding thud. Ahead, two guards stepped forward into a Firebending stance. Their rough hands forming sloppy parodies of the smooth and deceptively graceful way that Zuko tried for intimidation. With him it worked.
(Probably because he didn't shake like a badgermole doing it.)
Sokka windmilled his sword to dissipate the first guard's warning flare, reaching back and unleashing Boomerang with his left hand. The trajectory wasn't perfect, but the rounded stone end still made solid contact with the guard's helmet. Good enough. Toph was yelling something – most likely an insult – trying to get his attention. She had been busy. The walls on all side for a good twenty yards were raised on Earth Kingdom-designed pillars, like cutting out the inner walls of a maze. Several startled guards and inmates swore and looked around nervously before chaos broke out. As planned.
"Meathead, move it!"
He chased after Toph's charging figure as several of the guards broke off to detain the inmates who were taking advantage of the situation to escape. He could only hope that those weren't murderers they were inadvertently freeing. Panting, he slid to a stop behind the girl. They had made it back into the walled-in area, ducking behind the nearest storeroom door and leaning heavily against it. Or, at least he was. To her credit, Toph stood strong and proud, grinning at her job in the operation.
"Told you that was a good plan. It helps when your accomplice is the world's greatest Earthbender. And you thought it wouldn't work... Don't doubt yourself so often." He was almost touched by her support, until she punched him in the arm. "Besides, you're boring when you overthink things."
"Hey, watch it! That's my thinking arm..."
She laughed. "I bet I know who you're thinking about when you're using it, too." He coughed and he lead them in sneaking along the corridor to hide his blush. He'd contradict her, but there wasn't much time or point when she could tell he was lying just by his heightened pulse.
They turned the corner. Ahead of them was yet another long corridor lined with doors. These doors, however, looked to be lined with something sturdier than steel bars and had a small glass window adorning the front of each one. A cold shiver traveled up his spine, and he peered into the first one they passed. An angry ugly face glared back, and he jumped back in alarm.
"Something's weird in here, Toph. I wonder why these cells look so different," he said quietly. Just because most of the guards were busy with the distraction they had created coming in, that didn't mean some weren't scouring the prison looking for those responsible.
Toph frowned and slowed her fast pace in thought. "Something in the cells are different, too. It's like they're... humming? Some kind of motor's going." She grumbled at even suggesting it, but," what do you see?"
He stopped in front of another door and steeled his nerves before peering in that one as well. Calm down, Sokka. You're the tough guy... It's not like they're going to pop out and eat you or anything. The man locked inside the cell was huddled in on himself, thick-muscled arms wrapped tight around his chest in an effort to keep warm. And Sokka could see why. Ice fully coated the insides of the small cylinder, thick enough to obscure even the metal lining it. As Sokka watched, the man's breath condensed like angry spirits with each disgusted exhale, eyes like pitch scowling back.
Hold on, Buddy. I'm not even your enemy...
Well, no use getting distracted. "They're some type of freezing chamber. The motors are probably keeping them cold. But why would...?" He watched disconnectedly as Toph laid her palm flat against the nearest door, a good two feet below the viewing window. For her benefit more than his own, he said softly, "What am I saying? This is a prison – of course the Fire Nation would keep its own traitors locked up in here. If I was a jerkbender, I'd probably hate being thrown in the cold, too."
"Sorry, Sokka. Looks like Sparky'll never wanna go home to meet the folks," she teased. He didn't dignify it with a vocal response, but stuck his tongue out at her despite her inability to see it. "So now that we're in, how do we find Lover-Boy? I might be amazing, but there's gotta be at least five hundred people in this place and Zuko's footsteps aren't sticking out in that stampede."
The girl had a point and he cursed his lack of foresight. He cursed his stomach too, as it decided to growl loudly in protest of missing what was probably breakfast by now. Might as well curse my bad luck while I'm at it – or is it Zuko's? Yue, help me..."No idea. Start knocking on cells?"
"I thought you were the Plan Guy. Come up with something," she ordered, but they turned the corner and she started bending open the doors to the mostly-empty cells on that corridor anyway. Those prisoners who hadn't been paying attention when the destruction had begun were suddenly taking note, and followed their cellmates down the hallway Sokka and Toph had just came from. Zuko wasn't among them.
For lack of any real better idea, he glanced in each empty cell as they past. Sometimes it was frustrating being the only non-bender of the group – not that he'd ever admit it. "My plans haven't exactly worked out for me well lately, so I'm playing the rest by ear."
"Well your ear sucks. It's too bad your sarcasm and stupid humor can't plan a rescue attempt."
Before he could defend his fantastic sense of humor, Toph stopped, raising her hands in anticipation of the hurried footsteps Sokka was just now noticing around the corner. He grappled for his boomerang, but the man who came around the corner wasn't a guard as he had expected.
AN: Haha, whoops. So it's been a long time... Sorry. I'll try to do better at that from now one. The near-constant slow flow of reviews went a long way in prompting me to update, though. I can't count how many more people added this story to their favorites or alerts without reviewing... You'll make an author sad, I swear. : P At least this new chapter is twice the length of the last one, so you may have had a wait, but hopefully it's been worth it. I've got some ideas as to where I'm going to take this now, and quite a few surprises coming, so keep the reviews coming for inspiration!