A/N: Answering a few questions - This story will eventually cover all three seasons of ATLA, but I plan to split them up so each book will be posted as a seperate fic on FFNet. There will probably be a break between each book as well for me to work on other writing projects. Re: Bluetiger's point that Sokka would be more use to Zuko if he rejoined the Gaang - this is true, but Zuko hasn't worked that out yet, and who knows if he will before the North Pole. The whole thing is a new enough experience for him that he hasn't really thought through all the ways he could use it to his advantage.
All three of them wouldn't fit onto the komodo rhino, so of course Sokka was the one who had to walk. That didn't stop him grumbling about it, but he knew better than to do it very loudly. Besides, General Iroh had been chained up for hours on end, which that couldn't have been comfortable, and he wasn't going to make on old man walk. That would just be disrespectful.
As they made their way back to the fork in the path, and then in the general direction Appa had been headed, he took the time to think over what he had done back at the scene of the fight. Picking up the rock like that hadn't really been a conscious action, but he wasn't sure that meant it was due to the weird hold Zuko had over him. He liked to think he would have helped out Iroh at least, even if he didn't particularly care what happened to the Prince. So far the General had been kind to him, and whatever the Earth Kingdom soldiers had been up to, it hadn't looked good. Still, it was hard to tell whether he had done it of his own free will.
Almost unconsciously, his hand went to his waist, where he was carrying his pelt wrapped around him once more. After what had happened last time, he wasn't letting it out of his sight again. He didn't even take it off to bathe, not that it was difficult, since on the ship all that meant was sponging yourself down with a bowl of lukewarm water. Katara might tell him he stank normally, but he thought she would be even less impressed now.
It was about an hour or two before they found the village. It was small and well hidden within the shelter of the forest, and was surrounded by a tall palisade wall. Following the komodo-rhino through the gate Sokka could see that it hadn't protected them too well; several buildings were destroyed completely, and others would need a lot of work before they were habitable again. Some kind of fight had gone on here, but between who? Aang and Katara? The Fire Nation? Surely not the latter here in Earth Territory. There was no sign of fire damage in any case.
There was a large building at the centre of the village that looked like some kind of town hall or meeting place, and Zuko rode his mount all the way up to it before jumping off. He strode up the short flight of steps and rapped hard on the door. There was no answer.
The Prince scowled, and knocked again, harder, before shouting out, "I know there's someone in there! Come out, or I set the whole building on fire."
There were footsteps, and then the door slid open a crack. An old man looked out, shaking slightly in fear. "Sir, please," he said, tremulous. "We are a poor village, as you can see. We have nothing to give you, please..."
"I'm not here for your money," Zuko said. "I want to know about the Avatar."
From the way the man's face paled, he knew exactly what the Prince was talking about.
They flew west for the Fire Nation with all haste. Appa was well rested and made good time, keeping a swift and steady pace. Suki lay back in the saddle and looked up at the sky already beginning to fade pale with the promise of morning. She felt... strange. Light, and stretched out, as though the air around them could pass straight through her. She could remember only bits and pieces of her time in the Spirit World, but she was sure it had something to do with that experience.
They didn't talk. With all that had happened no-one had gotten enough sleep, and since Appa seemed perfectly capable of flying in the right direction by himself, they took the chance for a rest. As she settled down in the saddle, protected from the wind by the carved wooden sides, Suki thought to herself about what had happened. She hadn't meant to anger the spirit, just distract it long enough for Aang to do... something. It had been hard, as the only trained warrior there, to sit back and let him face the kamui alone, but that wasn't an excuse. She should have had better discipline.
After she came back, walking out of that bamboo grove, it had been like surfacing from a dream. Aside from the sudden and slightly embarrassing urge to go to the toilet, she had been hit by a wave of hunger and tiredness. Whatever the nature of her captivity in the Spirit World, it had effects enough in their own world. She wouldn't pretend to understand how that worked. Maybe Aang would have been able to explain it, if he had been fully trained.
Finally her thoughts subsided enough for her to fall asleep. It didn't take long, exhausted as she was, and at first it was dreamless. When it came though it was strange, unlike most of those she normally had which tended to be about daily life, fishing and hunting and taking her turn at preparing dinner for the warriors, of repeating moves and katas if it had been a particularly long day at the dojo. It started with the sound of waves against the shore, and as the dream-her opened her eyes, she saw a beach at night, black sand beneath her feet, and the full moon overhead. She looked down at herself, and saw she was wearing her armour, and from the feel of her face, the full war paint as well.
She walked along the beach for a while. There was no-one around. To her left was the ocean, and to the right in the distance, high cliffs of what looked like ice. It seemed like a long time that she walked, but in a dream it was hard to be sure. When she looked down again, she had looped round somehow, and her own footsteps were clear in the sand before her.
"Is there anyone here?" she asked the empty air. There was something oddly familiar about all this. Perhaps she was recalling something about the Spirit World. There was no answer, and she didn't feel like going back round on herself again. She sat down on the rough sand and looked out over the sea and up to the stars. The constellations were strange too, nothing like the ones she saw at home.
"This is the solstice," someone said behind her. "The day when worlds are balanced. So I come to you."
She twisted round, surprised, but for some reason not alarmed. The voice had been calm, friendly and female. There was a woman standing there in white flowing robes that billowed around her, white hair tied up in a fancy style and decorated with an ornament made of a disk of smooth polished silver. Her face was covered with a veil, but Suki could tell that despite the colour of her hair, she was not old.
"I know," Suki said, cautious. "I suppose that means you must be a spirit."
The woman inclined her head. "You journey northward; all three will have a purpose. Yours is not yet known."
Suki frowned, not sure what the spirit meant by that. "Aang and Katara are going north to learn Waterbending, I know that, and I'm going because I need to make up for what happened to Sokka. I already know my purpose."
"Danger stalks your path; behind you, you bring the fire, one who knows my shape."
"You mean that Prince who has Sokka?"
"Older than that foe, and favoured by his nation. He shall wage war there."
Well, no-one said spirits would be clear about what they wanted. That had been half the problem with Hai-Bai, that they didn't realise he was angry about the destruction of the forest. "So what you're saying is that we have more than one person after us?" She sighed. "Thank you for the warning, great spirit." Cryptic though it might be, it would be a bad idea to show disrespect by getting annoyed about it.
The spirit smiled. "At the pool, my home. Keep him clear, his threat beware. Else black night befall."
With these last words the spirit, and with her the dream, began to fade away. Suki grasped for it, wanting to ask what she meant, but it slipped through her fingers and she woke, feeling the fuzz of sleep melt away from behind her eyes. Overhead the sun had risen, bright between fluffy clouds, though by its position it was still morning.
She did her best to remember what the spirit had said to her. Clearly it had been important, but as with all dreams it was hard to keep a hold of it in her mind. Something about someone else chasing them, about her purpose in going north, and... Something about a pool.
Sokka stood on the upper deck of the ship, near enough to Zuko to hear it if he shouted an order, but far enough away that he hoped he wouldn't be noticed. The Prince had the bit between his teeth now, and if sheer willpower could have made them go any faster, they would be flying like an arrow right now. Not that they were slow exactly. It was hard to estimate, but he was sure they were going faster than Appa could fly.
By the time they had returned to the ship, everything had already been ready to set sail. Apparently the lookouts had seen the Avatar's bison overhead, going directly west in the direction of the Fire Nation, and Lieutenant Jee had made sure to prepare to chase them as soon as the steamer had returned. Zuko had been happy about that.
General Iroh had finally found some clothes to put on, which was a great improvement in Sokka's opinion. He had joined them on deck not long ago, and was now watching the horizon with an expression that Sokka was already beginning to learn signalled that there might be trouble ahead. Quite what he couldn't imagine. They were sailing away from the Earth Kingdom, after all.
Liu Dan was also on deck, though not in any Sokka-monitoring capacity. Although she had her skull face-plate on, he could still tell it was her from the way she stood and the slightly altered curve of her armour that meant female, not male. From what he had seen, there were only three female Firebenders out of a squad twelve, but that was still more than he would expect. He wandered over a bit closer to her, hoping for an opportunity to chat. He wasn't sure he dared ask Zuko or Iroh what the Earth Kingdom men had been planning on doing with that hot piece of metal, but Liu Dan would probably know. Even though she was kind of spiky, and didn't seem to like him much, she had answered his questions readily enough in the past.
However before he could open his mouth, General Iroh took a slight step closer to his nephew and spoke to him quietly. "Sailing into Fire Nation waters... Of all the foolish things you've done in your sixteen years, Prince Zuko, this is the most foolish."
Sokka was still close enough to overhear what he said, and looked at them in surprise. Why would it be foolish to sail into the Fire Nation? That's where they came from, after all, and Zuko was a Prince. What possible trouble could he get into there?
"I have no choice Uncle," Zuko replied, glancing over at Sokka, who immediately tried not to look as though he was listening.
"Have you completely forgotten that the Fire Lord banished you?" Iroh said sharply. "What if you're caught?"
Banished? Zuko had been banished? But... that didn't make any sense. Banishment was serious. He had never seen it happen to one of the people in their tribe, but he had heard stories about it. His father had needed to banish one of the men once, though no-one ever said what for in his hearing. It meant throwing them out into the wilderness, without hope of help, able to take only the very basic things they owned. It was nearly a death sentence.
Although perhaps it was less severe in the Fire Nation. It probably wasn't as hard to survive on your own when you didn't need to worry about the polar weather, and for a Prince, 'the basics' seemed to cover a ship full of people and help from your Uncle. Iroh hadn't said anything about them both being banished. Still... It seemed hard to believe. What kind of crime would people like the Fire Nation think worthy of banishment anyway? It must either be something really really bad, or perhaps, knowing the way they thought, trying to be a decent guy in a nation of dicks.
He hoped it was the second option.
"I'm chasing the Avatar," Zuko said, turning to glare at Iroh. "My father will understand why I'm returning home."
"You give him too much credit," the General said, folding his arms. "My brother is not the understanding type." All things considered, Sokka was going to side with Iroh on this one. He might not know very much about how the Fire Nation decided who their chief – aka the Fire Lord – was, but he somehow doubted it would be someone nice. They were talking about people who wanted to take over the entire world here.
Zuko looked as though he was going to say something else, but his attention was suddenly caught by something up in the clouds. He darted over to the telescope and peered through it, and an exclamation of delight burst from his lips.
"There they are..." His eyes were eager as he turned to shout orders at the man in the control room, and Sokka's heart sunk. "Helmsman, full steam ahead!"
As the ship began to pick up the slightest edge more speed, Zuko headed for the ladder down to the main deck, Iroh quick behind him, looking disapproving. Sokka followed, wanting to keep an eye on what was going on. He might not be able to do anything for his sister and Aang, but he wasn't about to hide away and pretend nothing was happening. He could at least offer up a prayer to the spirits for their protection.
Plates in the metal deck slid open, and with a hiss something big slid up from the hold below. A catapult, Sokka realised, and one loaded with a rock covered in some sort of foul-smelling thick fluid that stank worse than skunk-fish. He wrinkled up his nose in disgust, and General Iroh produced a fan from somewhere, wafting it in front of his face.
"Ehh, really Prince Zuko. Couldn't you shoot them down with something more fragrant?" he asked, and Sokka completely agreed, although of course he would prefer it if Zuko didn't shoot them down at all.
The Prince ignored him however, and thrust his fist forward creating a brief flower of flame that ignited the slime, which burned merrily, and stank even more.
"On my mark..." Zuko said, holding his hand up ready and staring up at the faint shape of Appa in the distance. "Fire!" The soldier standing nearest the catapult swung his sword in an arc and sliced through the rope holding the throwing arm down. The burning rock shot into the sky, missing the bison, but coming far closer than Sokka was comfortable with.
"Reload," Zuko ordered, and as the arm was gradually pulled back into place, chains attached to a kind of winch were thrown down through another hole in the deck to the hold, presumably to get another rock. "How many shots do we have left?" the Prince asked the man who looked to be in charge of this. The soldier stroked his moustache thoughtfully.
"Enough for five more," he said, sounding regretful. "We've been travelling light."
"Then we'll just have to be more accurate..." Zuko began, but then he paused, looking out at the horizon, and his eyes widened. Sokka turned to see what he was looking at, and gulped. A long line of Fire Nation ships stretching out as far as the eye could see.
"A blockade," the Prince said, sounding almost nervous for the first time he could remember.
"Technically you are still in Earth Kingdom waters," General Iroh said, his hand going to stroke his beard in a gesture that was starting to be familiar after so many games of Pai-Sho. "Turn back now, and they cannot arrest you."
Zuko was silent for long moments before he said, "If the Avatar keeps on his current course, they're bound to shoot him down. He's not foolish enough to go on."
"Then let us see what he does and follow him that way," Iroh said, looking pleased to find a solution. Sokka was not so sure. From what that man had said back at the village, Aang was in a hurry to get to Crescent Island, and from the size of the blockade, it had to stretch a long way both North and South. Going out of the way might take too long for whatever Aang had to do.
Everyone was staring up at Appa now, tracking every movement as they got closer and closer to the blockade. Time seemed to stretch out as the anticipation grew. Prince Zuko wasn't exactly a patient kind of guy though.
"He's not turning around," he said, his hands tightening into fists.
"Please Prince Zuko," Iroh said, quick to forestall any typical Zuko foolishness. "If the Fire Nation captures you, there is nothing I can do. Do not follow the Avatar." To be honest, Sokka didn't know whether that happening would be a good thing or not. It would presumably mean that Zuko wouldn't be able to chase Aang anymore, but he wasn't naive enough to think it would mean he would go free, and he didn't know enough about what Zuko had done to him to know whether it could be changed to make someone else his 'master'. Maybe they would just kill him.
Yeah, that would probably suck for everyone involved.
"I'm sorry Uncle," Zuko said, and Sokka was close enough to notice the pained expression on his face as he made his decision. "Run the blockade!"
Zhao supposed it had been lucky after all that only one of his shots had actually hit the exiled little dragon's ship. Well, more of a boat, to be honest. It was a pathetic little thing, rather like its owner. It would have been nice to see it go down. He still felt the sting of humiliation from that Agni Kai weeks before. A lucky blow from a generally unlucky opponent, and then the mewling little cub hadn't even had the guts to finish him off. It seemed he had learned nothing since he had been banished.
However, despite the fact that he hadn't sunk that rusty piece of slag or managed to shoot down the Avatar, the smoke from the ship's damaged engines was providing a clear trail for him to follow. If anyone knew where the Avatar was going, it would be the Prince, Zhao thought to himself, watching them steam away, thick black cloud behind them. He turned to the Captain standing behind him.
"Go down to the brig and fetch me... oh, I think Xun will do for this job."
The man ran quickly to fetch the branded shifter. Zhao congratulated himself on the speed with which he went to follow his commands. He may not have been in this position for very long, but a few weeks were plenty of time to instil the proper level of fear in his subordinates. He had made it very clear that failure was not to be tolerated, nor weakness. Being soft and indulgent was not how the Fire Nation had risen to their destined position over the rest of the world, their rightful place, just as Agni looked down upon Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes alike.
The Captain returned before long, bringing the shifter with him, still properly shackled and naked aside from a short loincloth. The Earth Kingdom peasant was an albatross-hawk, and had both speed and stamina enough to follow Zuko and keep an eye on him. With the once-great Dragon of the West on board, Zhao was not foolish enough to estimate them. They would know he was following their ship, and if he remembered correctly, the exile also had a small steam boat on board.
Zhao strode over to Xun and reached out to tilt the creature's head up to look into its dull, dead eyes. Shifters became so very tractable once you burned the proper obedience into them. Of course, it stopped them acting on initiative, but who needed that in a dumb beast anyway?
"Follow the boat," he said, speaking slowly and clearly to make sure the shifter understood. "When the smaller boat leaves, follow that instead. When it lands, return and report to me."
The creature nodded placidly. Zhao motioned to the Captain, who unlocked its shackles and handed over the branded skin. The shifter flipped the pelt around its bare shoulders, and with a flap of its wings, the bird was in the air.
Xun was not the only shifter Zhao owned, although he had found it to be one of the most useful. Earth and Water shifters were not like the dragons; they were unintelligent beasts, little better than their kin who had never learned the secret of becoming human. The Fire Sages told that Agni himself had created the dragons to teach and help humans, and gave them the ability to shed their skins so that they could walk amongst them and give them the secret of fire. But only the Fire Nation had listened, and the lesser beasts had grown jealous of the dragons, and stolen the secret of shifting from them.
So it was clear to see that quite as the Fire Nation's destiny was to rule as the superior people and the superior element, it was also their destiny to put such creatures back in their proper place, subordinate to humans, as humans were subordinate to dragons. After all, no-one treated cow-hippos or chicken-pigs like people, and shifters were not human, even though they might look like it. It was foolish sentimentality to think otherwise.
It was late by the time they reached Crescent Island, but the sun was still in the sky, and that meant there was still time. Appa swooped down and landed on a flat piece of ground some way away from the temple, near the foot of a long series of steps that led upwards. At the top of the mountain, the volcano spat little bits of molten lava. It was making Suki nervous, although surely whoever was in charge of this temple wouldn't have build it here if there was any real danger.
They all climbed down from Appa's back, and Aang hugged him, arms barely stretching round his snout. "You did it buddy," he said, nuzzling him. "Nice flying." Appa let out a soft bellow, and flopped onto his side.
"Aww, you must be tired," Katara said, rubbing the short fur on his belly. Suki smiled. He really had done well. She couldn't think of many creatures who would have been that calm under fire, especially since he couldn't have been trained to it. Everyone said the Air Nomads had been pacifists, so there was no way they could have prepared their steeds for something like that. But Appa hadn't panicked or even complained much, he had just done his best evasive flying, and kept on going.
"You saved our lives out there Appa," she said, patting him gently.
"Yeah, isn't he amazing?" Aang said proudly.
"He is," Katara said.
"We should get going though," Suki said. "There isn't much time left before sunset, and it would be best if you get as much time as possible to talk to Roku."
Aang grabbed his glider and they headed for the stairs. The rock was strange, unlike any she had ever seen before, and the steps carved into it were well worn with years of use and many footsteps. However when they finally reached the top after a long slog that left her muscles burning despite her warrior's training, the place seemed deserted. She frowned.
"I don't see any guards. In fact, I don't see anyone."
"The Fire Nation must have abandoned the temple when Avatar Roku died," Katara said.
Checking the position of the sun in the sky, they couldn't have any more than an hour at most left. They hurried into the temple, trying their best to be quiet, just in case they had been wrong, and there was still somebody around to keep trespassers, especially non-Fire Nation trespassers, away.
"Wait," Suki said suddenly, holding up her hand for them to stop and straining her ears. "I think I heard something." It had been very quiet, and not like footsteps. Almost... rumbling.
It came again, from much closer this time. The three of them turned to look back the way they came.
"Oh no," Aang said. "Dragons!"
There were five of them in all colours from poisonous red, deep green, an almost golden yellow, and two in dark blue, one so dark it was almost purple. They filled the doorway, looming massively enough to block out nearly all the light. As Suki looked on, frozen to the spot, one of them slithered forwards and shifted back to human form. He was a short, elderly man, now naked aside from his skin still held loosely around his shoulders. He showed no shame in it but stood tall and regal. At first she couldn't tell where his human skin and shed pelt began and ended, but looking closer she realised this was because he was tattooed all over with the pattern of scales.
"We are the Fire Sages," the man said, his voice a low growl. "Guardians of the Temples, including that of the Avatar."
"Great," Aang said, perking up and stepping forward. "I am the Avatar."
The man's eyes narrowed. "We know." With a motion rather like he was stretching out his spine he changed back, and then the mouths of all five dragons were opening up and flames came roaring towards them. Aang yelled and darted forwards, his staff whirring and calling the wind. The fire splashed to either side of them harmlessly.
"I'll hold them off," Aang said, determined. "Run!"
Suki didn't wait for him to say it again. He was the only one who had even a chance against five dragons. She wouldn't have wanted to take on one. As she and Katara headed into the maze of corridors leading away from the entrance room, she heard the dragons roar, and she shivered. Whatever Roku had to say had better be worth this.
Once he was sure Katara and Suki were gone, Aang didn't stick around. These weren't nice dragons like the one who had shown him how to talk to Roku, even though they were guarding his temple. He didn't understand why they were doing this! If they were meant to be serving Roku, why were they attacking him? Why were they helping the Fire Nation to take over the world? It didn't make sense.
He ducked down a side corridor, hoping he was faster than they were. They were pretty big, but that didn't meant they were slow. He ran and ran, not really thinking about where he was going, but hoping that at least he would be able to find his friends again.
In the end he ran into them by accident, almost knocking Suki over. He couldn't hear the dragons behind him, but they couldn't be far away, and they still had to find a way up to the room with Roku's statue in it.
"Follow me," he said, and tore off around another corner.
"Do you know where you're going?" Suki called after him, as he nearly ran into a dragon's face. It was the yellow one, and it blinked at him in surprise as he yelled and dashed off back the way he had come.
"Nope," he said, grabbing their hands as he passed. "Wrong way."
Behind him the sound of the dragon's big feet turned into the noise of smaller ones, and someone shouted out to them. "Come back," the dragon said, chasing after them in human form.
This was really bad. At this rate, they would never reach Roku in time, and he wouldn't be able to ask him anything about being the Avatar. He couldn't wait for the next solstice to come around, and he could see now that coming into the Fire Nation like this again would be way too dangerous.
They kept on running. If only they could find some stairs, they might have some hope...
"No!" They had reached a dead end, and now with the Fire Sage coming after them, they were trapped.
"I don't want to fight you," the man said, holding up his hands, trying not to look threatening. He looked like he meant it, but... "I'm a friend."
"Firebenders are not our friends," Suki said, dropping into a defensive stance, and flipping her war fans open.
The Fire Sage knelt before him, head bowed. "I know why you're here, Avatar," he said.
"Yes. You wish to speak to Avatar Roku. I can take you to him."
It could be a trap. But he was a dragon, he wouldn't need to trap them. He already had them cornered, and he could just change back any time he wanted. Aang decided to trust him. Not all dragons were bad, and he was sure that meant ones living in the Fire Nation as well.
"How?" he asked.
The Sage got to his feet and reached out to a lantern on the wall nearby, pushing it aside and revealing a small hole. He placed his open palm against it, and with a deep intake of breath, pushed out fire. There was a mechanical thump, and a part of the wall slid back and to the side, opening up a hidden passageway.
"This way," he said. "Time is running out."
Crescent Island was volcanic. Zuko had neglected to mention this fact when he dragged him off on his 'stealth mission' on board the steamer. Not that Sokka could have refused to come along or anything, but he would have appreciated the heads up. This place looked dangerous.
Zuko brought the little boat in to a small cove hidden from the rest of the island by an overhang of rock. They had about an hour before General Iroh circled the ship round and came to get them, no doubt bringing this douchebag by the name of Zhao with him. Sokka had asked about the man once they had left the main ship, but Zuko had just told him to shut up and gone off to stand by the wheel and sulk. Bad blood between them, if seemed.
They left the boat tied up under an overhang of rock to keep it away from prying eyes. Overhead a bird wheeled, letting out a sharp cry. Sokka looked up at it nervously. Zuko led the way up from the bay and through the rough terrain. They picked thier way between boulders and outcroppings of stone that had broken apart into edges sharp enough to cut skin, as Sokka found out when he put a hand on one of them. He pulled it back with a yelp of pain, and watched the blood trickle down his palm.
"Be careful," Zuko hissed. "We're nearly there, and we still have to sneak past the Fire Sages."
"So we have to watch out for a couple of old shamans," Sokka said dismissively. The Southern Water Tribe had had shamans once, back when there were more Waterbenders, and people thought there was still something to be gained by communing with the spirits. But the local spirits of the South were not like those of the North, and either way, it hadn't stopped the Fire Nation hunting them.
"Those 'shamans' are all trained Firebenders," Zuko said, glaring at him. "Not to mention, dragons."
Sokka gulped. Great. More dragons. "So, uh, are you going to shift and go talk to them?"
Zuko went very still, and very tense. Then he said quietly, and through clenched teeth; "Did you miss the part where I am banished?" The air rippled with heat. Sokka shrank back, trying to make himself a smaller target.
"Sorry?" he said, trying to smile in an 'I'm not prey, honest' kind of way. Yeah, saying that had been a mistake.
Zuko snorted steam. "Come on," he said, turning his back on him, still way too tense for comfort. "There's an easier track up the south-west face, where they bring up supplies. And for Agni's sake, be quiet!"
The scorch-marks left by Suki's shinobi-style explosives seemed to do the trick. Katara watched from behind a pillar as the other four dragons joined Shyu and shifted back to human to direct their precision blasts at the door lock. The small bags of gun-powder might not have been as strong as their fire, but it seemed the soot they left behind looked enough like it to fool the Sages. The mechanism moved into place with a smooth movement, and the sanctuary doors opened.
"It's the Avatar's lemur," the head Sage said, sneering. "He must have crawled through the pipes. We've been tricked!"
Before he could make a move to shift back, Momo leapt at him, screeching and pulling the hide from his shoulders. Katara and Suki ran to two others and did the same thing, while Shyu took care of the final Sage.
"Now Aang," Shyu said, looking over towards his hiding place. No-one appeared.
"Aang, now's your chance," Katara yelled. Perhaps he hadn't been able to hear Shyu the first time. There was the sound of movement, and then...
"The Avatar's coming with me." It was Prince Zuko, and he had Aang's arms pinned behind him.
"No!" Katara started to run forwards, ready to fight him, even if meant leaving the Fire Sage unguarded, but someone stepped out into her path.
"I'm sorry Katara," Sokka said. "But I can't let you do that."
She didn't know what to do. Her brother was standing right there, dressed in Fire Nation red and brown, seemingly unhurt but being forced to help the very Prince who was keeping him captive. She felt wetness on her cheeks, and realised that she must be crying.
"Sokka," she said helplessly. "Sokka, I'm so, so sorry. I should have been able to rescue you by now."
He smiled, and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. He looked like he was about to say something, but at that moment someone grabbed hold of her from behind. Someone big. The dragon's claws closed around her, pinning her arms down, and the sinuous snake-like body wrapped in great curls on the floor, preventing her from running even if she had been able to.
"Sokka!" He was cut off from her, great crimson wings blocking him from view.
"Close those doors," Zuko said. "Quickly. Sokka, help me get the Avatar back to the ship."
"I'm sorry Katara," she heard her brother say, before his footsteps moved away, the sound echoing off the polished floor. She tucked her head in to her chest, trying to hide her sobs. He had been so close, and she had done nothing. That vile creature Zuko still had him.
But then... there were sounds of a struggle, and a strong wind appeared from nowhere. She twisted in the dragon's claws to see Aang leaping overhead, narrowly avoid a pair of snapping jaws, and flying through the great metal doors moments before they clanged shut.
"He made it," she said, hardly daring to believe it. If Roku could tell him about being the Avatar, perhaps even how to master his Avatar powers, then maybe when he came out again he could rescue them, and Sokka too.
It was just a matter of waiting. But now there was a chance they would get out of this alive.
The door was sealed shut with the Avatar still inside. He was so close to his prize, but it was just out of his grasp. Still, at least the Fire Sages seemed more concerned with the presence of a traitor in their midst than arresting a banished Prince who wasn't where he was supposed to be. Frustrated, he sent one last useless fireblast at the door lock before turning to look at the traitor, being held down by the other dragons. Zuko felt a sharp pang of envy just looking at them, but he quickly suppressed it.
"Why did you help the Avatar?" he asked the yellow-gold dragon, baring his teeth.
Duty, said the sinuous curve of neck and spine, the angle of the ears. It had been three long years since the Agni Kai, but Zuko was still a dragon, and his kind spoke through body language and touch of mind to mind. It seemed that for now this traitor was not going to shift back, perhaps still hoping that he could gather the strength to escape. He would do it before the end though – Zuko had heard stories of what Sozin had done to the dragons who betrayed the Fire Nation at the start of the war, taking their skins from them before he killed them. If they hadn't given it up of their own free will, then it flayed off them, and that was not a quick death.
"Yes, I am sure the Fire Lord will take your silence for an answer," someone said behind him. Zuko turned, his heart sinking. He knew that voice.
"Commander Zhao," the head Sage said, bowing. This was not good. He had come too far now to let this man take his prey out from under his very nose. Although, trust Zhao to be completely unaware of dragon-speech. What did he think he was going to do with the dragon-skin he so dearly wanted? He liked the sound of his own voice too much to learn that kind of subtlety.
"And Prince Zuko," Zhao said, nodding to him. "Who's your little friend there?"
Zuko glanced over at Sokka. If he just kept his gaze on the floor... But no. The idiot looked up, showing off those telling Water Tribe blue eyes.
"Oh, you've caught yourself a little seal pup," Zhao said, his tone mocking. "You know, I don't think you've taught him the proper discipline yet. There's too much fire in those eyes for that. Perhaps I should teach you a thing or two..."
"I want nothing from you," Zuko said, angry already even though Zhao had been in the room for less than a minute. There was no-one more able to get under his skin, except possibly his sister. He wondered if the two had ever met. "How did you follow us here?"
"Please, your little smokescreen trick was nothing more than child's play. Besides, you aren't the only one to make use of those creatures. I had a bird following you."
Zuko growled. He didn't like the way Zhao was talking about Sokka. The boy was annoying, yes, but he was his, and Zhao had no right...
"You're too late anyway," he said. "The Avatar is inside, and the doors are sealed."
"No matter," Zhao said, smirking. "Sooner or later, he has to come out." He turned to his soldiers. "Tie them up with the Avatar's companions. We are going to wait here for as long as it takes."
"Hi Suki," Sokka said, trying to be cheerful despite the fact that he was chained to a pillar. "I didn't realise you were travelling with Aang and Katara."
"It's my fault you're in this mess to begin with," Suki said, looking forlorn. "I have to make up for it somehow."
"I'm pretty sure I would still be in this exact same mess if I was with you guys," Sokka said. "I mean, we'd still be prisoners, right."
"I... suppose so..." Suki replied. "What's with that anyway? Even if this Zhao wants the credit for catching Aang, surely he needs all the help he can get. Why chain up Zuko too?"
"Zuko's been banished," Sokka said, wriggling to try and get in a more comfortable position. "Apparently. Who know why. But even if he wasn't, Zhao seems like a total creep anyway. I mean, talking about teaching me the 'proper discipline'..." He shivered. Just the way the man looked at him made him nervous.
"When we were in Haru's village – it was called Wuhan – his Uncle told us about a threat the Fire Nation soldiers would make to any of the shifters who they thought were misbehaving." She hesitated a little, and Sokka had to nod impatiently for her to go on. "They said they would... brand their pelts."
It felt like he had been dunked in polar water without his skin on. That... that was just sick. And now he felt sure he knew what those Earth Kingdom soldiers had been planning on doing to General Iroh. He thought of how he would feel if someone threatened to do that to Katara. No wonder Zuko had looked so angry! How could they call themselves any better than the Fire Nation if they had done something like that? How could any shifter do something like that?
Just then, there was a noise from inside Roku's Sanctuary. Zhao smirked, his amber eyes fixed on the doors. Sokka hoped Aang slapped him in the face with an Airbending slice. He hoped it happened over and over again.
"Ready!" The squad of Firebenders stepped into their stances, preparing to attack.
The doors slid slowly open. Inside nothing could be seen but darkness and a single pair of glowing eyes. "No, Aang!" Katara shouted from the other pillar, trying to warn him.
The flames engulfed the figure in a whirling ball, but as they began to dissipate, they could see who was standing inside.
"Avatar Roku," Zhao gasped. Sokka had time to see an old man in robes of Fire Nation red before Roku gathered the remaining fire in his hands and pushed it out. It sent Zhao's troops flying and Sokka braced himself for it to hit him, but when it reached them the chains holding them dissolved and they were free. Even Zuko, he saw, looking over at him.
He didn't have a choice, and he knew it. He had to go with Zuko; they had to escape the temple and get back to the steam boat. Even if Roku – who shouldn't even be here, since he was dead and all – killed Zhao and his men, Zhao's ships were still out there, and this was still the Fire Nation. They ran for the stairs as the temple shuddered all around them.
"Faster," Zuko yelled, taking the steps two at a time. "He's going to bring the whole temple down."
He didn't have to say it twice. Sokka ran.
Further A/N: Technically Tui shouldn't be in the Spirit World at all, let alone visiting people and talking in haikus, but it was kind of necessary for narrative reasons. Also Zhao = a massive racist. I actually enjoyed writing that bit because it gave me the chance to expand upon some of the FN propaganda that is being put about. And of course Zhao buys right into that.
I am afraid to say that the next chapter might take a bit longer, as I have exam resits, and only three weeks to revise for them, so my writing time will be limited. So we shall see how that goes. Also, I have a pic of Haru in tiger-deer form, I will post the link to it on my profile.