A/N: I'm back again, after a long and reluctant hiatus. If you're following this or any of my other stories, rest assured – I'm going to be writing much more in the summer, once my thesis is done.
As for this chapter, it was inspired by Firefly, a fantastic show created by Joss Whedon that was canceled far too soon. Sokka takes another step on his road to finding the Order of the White Lotus, and the stage is set for all of the pieces to come together in Omashu.
Next chapter will be a big one – Brant and Zuko will reach Mai's court, where Zuko will reveal his diabolical marriage proposal scheme :) And Sokka will find out what Toph has been doing for all these years. With everyone in the same city, the shit is definitely going to hit the fan. Stay tuned!
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender
Sokka made his way swiftly through the maze of streets in the Pit, on the lookout for any Fire Nation patrols brave enough to venture so far from the barracks after nightfall. Normally soldiers would stay far away from Ba Sing Se's seedy underworld at night, when more disreputable types ruled the streets. But the knowledge that Sokka of the Black Sword was at large somewhere in the city had surely spread. That meant that there would be a reward for his capture, and greed would lure many soldiers into the Fourth District in the hopes of capturing him.
So he kept to the shadows, cloak pulled low over his face, and more than once he ducked into a side alley when he saw the tell-tale glow of torches in the distance. Sokka kept his scabbard conspicuously exposed, sending the message to anyone watching that there were better marks to be found elsewhere. Thanks to a combination of quick wits, quicker feet, and a good deal of luck, Sokka managed to reach Skully's Inn without being discovered or having to knock any heads.
Just as before, conversation died out for a moment when Sokka entered the tavern. He peered around the room, his eyes lingering for a moment when he recognized a familiar face. It was Tamlin, the footpad who had learned the hard way not to take Sokka lightly. The man wore a dark scowl, and turned away from Sokka to his tankard of beer. Sokka hid a smile.
Once the voices picked up again, Sokka approached Skully at the bar. The bartender eyed him with interest, going so far as to put down the mug he was drying. "You again," he said with a nod. "I'd ask what you're drinking, but I don't want you breaking no more of my wares."
"I apologize for before," Sokka said, taking the seat on the far right of the bar. "I lost my cool for a second… it won't happen again."
The bartender resumed drying his mug, focusing on it intently. When he spoke, his voice held poorly feigned disinterest. "Seems you have a powerful dislike of Prince Zuko. Any reason in particular as to why?"
Sokka sighed. "I can understand your curiosity. But my business is mine alone, and I don't take kindly to anyone nosing around in it."
"Fair enough," the innkeeper said. "As you said, just curious. Now unless I'm mistaken, you have an appointment here tonight."
"I believe so. Don't know the man's name, but he's hard to miss, what with the eye patch and all. You seen him?"
"Reckon I might've." The bartender pointed to the back of the room, where a set of rickety stairs led upward, out of sight. "We have a few rooms upstairs. Our mutual friend is waiting for you in one of them."
"I don't know if I'd call him a friend," Sokka said, slipping a coin onto the table with a nod of thanks to the innkeeper. "Thanks for your help… and your discretion."
Sokka left the bar, conscious of many pairs of eyes watching him as he approached the stairs. He turned and gave a cheeky wave before disappearing from view. The stairs opened onto a narrow hallway. The lack of windows or escape routes made Sokka feel acutely claustrophobic, and he moved quickly in search of the man he was supposed to meet. After passing a painting of a wrinkled old merchant with beady eyes that seemed to follow him, Sokka came to a door that was left open a crack. A pale, flickering light shone from underneath.
Sokka moved to knock on the door, when a familiar voice piped up from within the room. "It's open. Please, come in."
Resisting the urge to keep one hand on Sorrow's hilt, Sokka entered the room. He scanned the interior instinctively, first noting the window that could be used to escape if need be. They were only two stories up, so the fall wouldn't kill him. The rest of the room was small, but comfortable. There was a small basin for washing up next to the door, and a cot was pushed up against the far wall. In the center of the room was a wooden table, with six chairs arranged in a loose circle around it. Already seated was the man Sokka had come to see, the beggar who knew his name and held the key to finding the Order of the White Lotus.
He watched Sokka with a small smile, his uncovered eye twinkling. In his hand was a pewter mug, from which he took a long drink, and sighed in satisfaction. "Take a seat, young Sokka," the beggar said, gesturing toward the chair opposite with his mug. "Please, be my guest. It's only fitting, considering I'm spending your coin."
Sokka sat down, pushing the chair back slightly so the table's edge wouldn't interfere with him drawing his sword. Of course, his first move in case of trouble wouldn't be drawing his sword. Knives were much faster, and this close, a man as old as the beggar seemed to be couldn't dodge in time.
Sokka smiled at the self-proclaimed beggar, though his teeth ground a bit. "From what I hear, you have no need of my coin at all."
His mysterious host laughed shortly. "There's always a need for more coin. That was true before the Fire Nation became an empire, and it will continue to be true long after their rule has faded into memory."
Sokka had no patience for this philosophical nonsense. It was time to get straight to the point. "So why pretend to be a beggar? You do a good impression, that's for sure. But that soldier seemed pretty sure you were skirting the wrong side of the law."
The beggar raised an eyebrow. "'Skirting'? Is that what he said? I assure you I have never 'skirted' anything in my life."
"To be honest, he said you were responsible for half of the organized crime in the city."
The beggar placed his mug on the table, a grin spreading across his face. "That's more like it. Although that's only the half he knows about. Tien Zhou's tenacious, but he has a ways to go before he poses a serious threat to my interests."
Sokka growled under his breath. "So you do know that bullheaded soldier. And you saw him coming, but you left without a word of warning. So you lied to me about your identity, and then you left me to die on the streets… forgive me if I'm having a few trust issues."
The beggar looked at him as if he was stupid. "Of course I didn't warn you. What kind of a test would it have been if you saw the danger coming? I needed to know how resourceful you are."
Sokka opened his mouth, then closed it. What could he say to that, really? The beggar's complete lack of shame was difficult to argue with. He let out a heavy sigh. "So what do I call you? I mean, I can think of a few things I'd like to call you, but that wouldn't be much help."
"Call me Harn. I'll answer to that as quick as anything else." Harn extended his hand, which Sokka shook warily.
"All right," Sokka said. "Since I've passed your little test, how about giving me the information I need?"
"Ah, about the Order?" Harn adjusted his eye patch slightly to the left. "Well, first off, I used to be part of it."
Sokka raised an eyebrow skeptically. Well, it made more sense for a master criminal to have ties to the Order of the White Lotus than a random beggar, but it still didn't quite seem to fit. "And I'm supposed to take your word for it."
Harn shrugged. "Not much else you can do, I'm afraid. There's no way for you to know that I'm telling the truth, except for me to say that old Iroh was the Grand Master of the Order before his death. The Order and I parted ways before that, though. I wanted to be a little more… independent. And ever since the old graybeard kicked the bucket, the Order has lost what little spine it had. I could put you in touch with them, but I doubt you'll find what you're looking for."
Sokka crossed his arms aggressively. "And how would you know what I'm looking for?"
Harn looked at him as if he was an idiot. The old man's eyebrows waggled a bit, reminding Sokka of Uncle Iroh when the man was goofing around. "You're Sokka of the Black Sword, possibly the last living leader of the Resistance. Your forces have gone into hiding, and now you seek the Order of the White Lotus. It doesn't take a genius to guess what you want. And I can tell you, you're better off whistling than asking the Order to help you fight the Fire Nation."
Sokka's heart sank, but his resolve didn't waver. "I don't care if it's a long shot. Right now, it's the only chance I have. Are you going to tell me how I can find them, or has this all just been a colossal waste of time?"
"Easy there," Harn said, amusement clear in his voice. "You young folks never appreciate the importance of patience. Now, I'm ready and willing to give you the information you want. But then, nothing's free in this world. If you want what I know, you'll have to do me a little favor first."
"My gold wasn't enough?" Sokka asked wryly.
"I'm running a risk by revealing the Order's secrets to you," Harn replied firmly. "They don't like people messing in their business, especially people who try to get them to do what they don't want to. If it comes out it was me who told you, I could get in some trouble. The Order may not be what it once was, but they can still make life terribly uncomfortable for those who get in their way."
"Fine," Sokka said impatiently. Truth be told, he didn't care what the price was. "I'll help you out. What kind of favor are we talking about?"
Harn grinned like a shark. "Just a little… consulting."
"Just hold on a second." Harn went to the door and opened it wide. "Let me introduce you to the people you'll be working with."
Sokka heard several pairs of footsteps approaching the door. Then four of the oddest-looking people he had ever seen walked into the room.
The first was a giant of a man, his head even with the doorframe. Muscles bulged in his arms and chest, and his sleeveless vest looked about to burst. His rust-brown hair was cropped short, and he had two long-handled hammers strapped across his back. He ducked his head respectfully to Harn as he passed. "Hello, Boss. Good to see you."
Harn shook his hand. "Doran. Right on time." The big man looked Sokka up and down with a critical eye. Sokka stood up, but then wished he hadn't. Even standing, the difference in height between the two of them was remarkable. Sokka shifted a little, getting his balance adjusted. He wasn't intimidated, just… sensibly wary.
The second one to enter the room was a woman wearing a form-fitting outfit of mottled gray and black. She moved with the grace of a dancer – or a fighter. Sokka noted immediately the indents of weapons inside her sleeves and pant legs. She had pale blond hair, cut at shoulder length, and blue eyes like chips of ice. The woman passed Harn without saying a word, her attention wholly on Sokka. She sent him a defiant smirk and stood next to the giant.
The third newcomer cut a much less imposing figure than the other two. He was a shorter man, several inches shorter than Sokka, and his clothes were ragged and patched in a dozen places. The only things he wore that seemed of any value were his shoes – they made no sound as he advanced across the wooden floor. The man had shifty eyes, and as Sokka watched him, he thought the man's fingers kept twitching.
Harn clapped the man on the back. "Vetch."
The runty man gave him a gap-toothed grin. "Harn. The gang's all here. Looks like the fun's about to start!"
"This isn't a game," said the fourth and last to enter. He was a young man, probably no more than twenty (and when exactly had Sokka begun to consider that young?). He wore rough homespun clothes that appeared well used, yet well cared for. With his open, sun-tanned face and his broad, scarred hands, he looked more like a farmhand than a member of Ba Sing Se's criminal elite. He was currently glaring at the shorter man as if greatly offended.
"That's where you're wrong, Fulco," Harn said, shaking his head as if disappointed in the young man. "This certainly is a game. And we're going to win it." He surveyed the four newcomers with approval. "Well, what are you waiting for? Introduce yourselves to Sokka. He's the one who's going to get you through the night alive."
The giant spoke up first. "I'm Doran. Harn calls me whenever he needs a bit of heavy lifting."
After shaking Doran's hand, Sokka had to rub his wrist ruefully. Then the little man came forward, though he kept a wide distance between them. "They call me Vetch. I get into those hard-to-reach places where rick folks keep their valuables." He pulled out a few lock picks from somewhere within his loose overshirt and twirled them around his fingers.
The woman was next. "Livia," she said.
"And what do you do, Livia?" Sokka asked, although he had a pretty good idea.
Livia grinned at him. "I'm Harn's expediter. I make problems go away." Sokka returned the grin. He thought the two of them would get along just fine.
"And I'm Fulco," the youngest man said. He glared at Sokka as well, his lower lip sticking out petulantly.
"I see what they bring to the table," Sokka said, waving at Doran, Vetch, and Livia. "The big man could probably break my spine with his pinkie, for instance. I mean no offense, but you seem a little less… impressive."
In answer, Fulco stomped the ground, looking like nothing so much as an angry child. What Sokka didn't expect was for the stone washbasin against the wall to come flying at him like a cannonball.
He reacted instantaneously, rolling to the side and coming up in a ready stance. Sokka held out his hands, trying to forestall another attack. "My apologies, Fulco. I stand corrected."
Sokka took another look at the criminals – for they must be criminals, if they worked for Harn – and whistled. With an earthbender among them, those four were a formidable group indeed.
"These are some of my best people," Harn said. "When they're not behaving like children and throwing things around, that is," he added, causing Fulco to blush with embarrassment. "I've gathered them all together for an extremely important job. You might call it a burglary, or maybe a kidnapping. More of a re-kidnapping, I suppose…"
"Are you physically incapable of explaining things clearly?" Sokka snapped.
Fulco stepped forward, the young man's face pale and earnest. "It's my sister. She was kidnapped by a rich merchant. He owns the mines that support our village, and he came to inspect them one day, about three months ago. He caught a glimpse of my sister, and then…" Fulco shook his head, smiling in painful remembrance. "Riv always did have that effect. Too beautiful for her own good. I was working in the mines when they took her. When I heard what I happened, I left for Ba Sing Se immediately. Harn agreed to help me save her."
"He's skipping over a few things," said Doran the giant. "Like how he killed three overseers to escape the village, lived off the land for weeks, and would have assaulted the merchant's stronghold by himself if Harn hadn't found him first."
Sokka looked again at the earthbender. Fulco had thrown away his life to come here. A renegade earthbender would fetch a reward high enough to make a man wealthy. He must have known that the cost of trying to save his sister was a lifetime of running, of looking over his shoulder. But he hadn't hesitated for a second. That was something Sokka could appreciate.
"You're a man after my own heart, Fulco. I'm with you until your sister's safe and sound, and the kidnapping bastard gets what's coming to him."
Doran grunted in approval, but Vetch only grumbled, "Great, another bleeding heart. Boss, these fools might be willing to storm the castle to save the princess, but I expect to get paid at the end of this, all right?"
"Of course," Harn replied. He ushered them all back to the table, and unrolled two scrolls side-by-side on the table. One was a map of Ba Sing Se, laying out the streets in perfect detail for a large section of Second District. The second scroll was the floor plan for the merchant's home, each room on the first floor clearly labeled.
"This is where you come in," Harn told Sokka, gesturing to the maps. "With your military expertise, you can devise a plan to get us in and out while making sure that no harm comes to Fulco's sister. It won't be easy. The merchant in question, Lao Tsu, is extremely paranoid. He lives in a remote part of Second District, even though he has the money to stay in First District. He prefers to stay isolated, and instead of relying on the regular patrols, he employs an entire cohort of mercenaries to guard his mansion."
"With the floor plans," Sokka said, plans starting to take shape already, "we can get in. But unless you have a complete schedule of the guards' rotation, there's no guarantee we can avoid them. Which means that we'll have to count on it coming down to a fight, and with only five of us, the odds are not in our favor. Do you have any more men? Benders, preferably."
Harn shook his head. "No benders, unfortunately. But Doran can scrounge up as many as twenty strapping young lads in need of a good dust-up. And I can supply you with enough blasting powder to make a few sizable holes. All I ask is that you try to get everyone out alive – my people are not expendable."
Sokka was impressed. Blasting powder was strictly regulated by the Fire Nation, and its chemical formula was a highly classified state secret. "I won't ask you how you got your hands on that," Sokka said, grinning. "But I'll take all you've got. I can think of a few ways to put it to good use. And as for your men, I can't promise that there won't be casualties. We'll be outnumbered and facing some powerful firebenders, which is never an easy fight. But I've never viewed my soldiers as expendable, and I won't start now. Do we have a deal?"
"Deal." Harn spat on his palm and extended his hand. Sokka did the same. Then he rolled up his sleeves and turned to the maps. "I'll need small objects to mark our positions, a quill to write with, and every bit of information you've got on the mercenaries guarding Lao Tsu's mansion," he snapped.
It was time to get to work.
Sokka's target, the merchant Lao Tsu, certainly spared no expense in his pursuit of luxury. His mansion, though located in Second District, looked like a palace in its own right. A stone walkway cut through a lush green lawn, and split to move around a stone fountain. There were lanterns on tall posts lining the road, giving the place an otherworldly glow. Marble steps led up to the front entrance, which was guarded by four men wearing the red-and-black armor of Fire Nation regulars. Their torches made them easy to locate in the darkness, and it also ruined their night vision – Sokka made a note to keep on the watch for more cleverly concealed guards. It would be stupid to get killed because he assumed that all the guards would announce their presence by carrying torches.
Livia shifted next to him, changing her balance ever so slightly. The two of them were perched low on the rooftop of one of the houses nearest Lao Tsu's mansion, and even now, they were over one hundred yards away from the gate marking the entrance to the merchant's property. Sokka handed his spyglass to Livia, who took her turn sizing up the estate.
"What do you think?" Sokka whispered. "What's our best point of entry?"
Livia pointed to the right of front lawn. "Over there – see that walled-off section? That's the garden. It's located near the room we think Rivana is being held."
"Probably less guards to worry about, too," Sokka agreed.
The assassin grinned at him. "What, is widdle Sokka worried about the nasty guards? Just stay behind me, I won't let you get hurt."
Sokka decided not to dignify that with an answer. He moved like a ghost to the edge of the roof, let himself down carefully, and dropped to the cobbled street without making a sound. From the dark alley behind him emerged the rest of his team. Vetch the thief wore a suit of dark patches that made him blend seamlessly into the night. Doran and Fulco were decked out in full Fire Nation armor, and Sokka winced every time their booted feet came into contact with the street. Still, the disguises were worth the noise.
A small rush of air was the only warning, then Livia landed next to Sokka, graceful as a cat and just as self-satisfied.
"We're going over the garden wall," Sokka said, pitching his voice low. "Follow me." Getting to the wall was easy – although the front lawn was lit, the sections to the sides were not. Lao Tsu apparently believed that the thick walls he'd constructed, fifteen feet tall, would be enough to discourage thieves. Sokka blessed the man for his shortsightedness.
The four criminals – five, Sokka reminded himself, because he was certainly a criminal as well – skirted the main road until they were directly across from the wall. As they approached, Vetch began uncoiling a rope with a grappling hook attached to the end. Fulco made a sarcastic noise in the back of his throat.
"What?" the thief demanded, turning to the younger man. "You got a better idea?"
Fulco stepped forward, his eyes tightening with concentration, and stamped the ground with one foot. A platform large enough for all five of them slid out of the wall, quickly and silently as the wind. Sokka had to admit, it was an impressive display of control. Vetch looked from the platform to the rope in his hands, and back again.
"I reckon that'll work…" he muttered sheepishly. Doran clapped Vetch on the back, causing the little man to stagger.
"Don't sweat it, Vetch," the blacksmith-turned-enforcer whispered. "You're just not used to working with an earthbender, is all. I didn't know he could do that, either."
"No more talking," Sokka said, as they arranged themselves on the platform. He kept one hand on Doran's shoulder, because the bulky stone pots the man had strapped to his back were heavy, and Sokka didn't want him to slip. The amount of blasting powder the man was carrying was enough to blow a chunk the size of a small house out of the wall – Sokka had no intention of getting caught in the blast radius.
Fulco sent the platform slowly up the wall, pausing just below the top so that Sokka and Livia could look over. The garden enclosed by the wall was certainly beautiful. From the light shed by a single lantern hanging from a tree, Sokka could see flowerbeds and exotic plants from every nation. A man-made pond formed the centerpiece. The entrance to the house was at the far end of the garden, guarded by two Fire Nation mercenaries, their torches held high.
"Two of them," Sokka whispered. "Perfect. Livia, you and I will take them out. Fulco and Doran, stash the bodies and take their place guarding the door."
Doran grinned, looking extremely menacing in the insectile armor. "That pond looks deep enough to accommodate a few bodies," he said, hefting his spear a little higher.
"I don't know," Fulco said, eyeing the garden and its guards nervously. "There isn't much cover, and if the guards give the alarm, we're finished. You sure you can get to them?"
Sokka smiled, and noticed the same expression on Livia's face. The lantern in the center of the garden, which was the only light source aside from the guards' torches, was almost better than no illumination. There were shadows everywhere, cast by every bush and tree. Sokka was already picking out the path that would bring him closest to his targets without entering their line of sight. "I think you can leave it to us," he said.
"We're wasting time," Vetch complained. "I want to enough time on the inside to figure out where the merchant keeps the shiny stuff."
"You'll get it, you little vulture" Livia said fondly. "Come on, fearless leader. Let's see if you're more than just talk." She vaulted over the wall and disappeared from view. When Sokka followed suit, he lowered himself down with Vetch's rope, while Doran held it steady. He kept an eye on the torches, but they didn't move an inch, so the guards were oblivious to the slight motion at the edge of their vision. Then Sokka made his way to the first source of cover – a tangled tiger-vine bush one of the Fire Islands. He looked around, and the flash of motion near the pond told him where Livia must be.
The two of them moved between patches of cover with ease, stalking the two guards like viper-lions in the mountains. Finally they were close enough to make out the guards' faces, barely ten yards away. The Fire Nation soldiers were facing each other, speaking quietly. It was clear they didn't expect any trouble – Sokka was willing to bet they'd been chatting all night, instead of making the rounds of the garden.
He pulled out two throwing knives and signaled to Livia, flashing three fingers. Three… two… one…
His knives went flying, seeking the visor of the guard on the right. Sokka was moving as soon as the knives were released, ready to act if his weapons missed. But the slight hissing as the blades split the air drew the guard's attention, and he turned just in time for the first knife to sink hilt-deep in his eye socket. Livia moved even faster than Sokka would have guessed, snapping a long-handled whip forward toward the second guard. It wrapped around his neck with a sharp crack. He dropped his torch and scraped at the braided cord with his armored hands, but in vain. Livia pulled once, dragging him to his knees. She drew a knife from a concealed sheath and dispatched the second guard with ruthless efficiency.
Sokka retrieved his knives, while trying not to stare. Livia was good! He wondered how that whip would fare against fire-benders… maybe if it was made of chain-links, so it couldn't be burned up? He'd have to put some thought into that, but not now.
"Not bad," Livia said, coiling up her whip.
"Not bad yourself," Sokka replied, waving at the wall to summon Fulco, Doran, and Vetch. "It's nice to work with professionals again."
The three men arrived a second later, running through the garden without attempting stealth. Fulco looked impressed in spite of himself. Vetch nudged one guard with his foot, then stooped to rifle through his pockets.
"Really, Vetch?" Livia laughed. "The important stuff is all inside, under lock and key."
"Waste not, want not," the thief replied, holding up a small knife and examining it.
Doran carefully set down his two stone pots of blasting powder, and hefted the second corpse onto his shoulders. "I don't see why I'm the one who ends up with all the heavy lifting!" he complained, walking over to the pond. "Fulco, grab that other fellow from Vetch and bring him over for a nice, refreshing swim."
Sokka took one last look around the garden, reassuring himself that they hadn't drawn any attention. "Doran, you're in charge out here. You two have the easy job – stand here and look ugly. Vetch, when we're inside, you stay behind me and Livia. Take whatever you want, but don't fall behind. We need you to unlock any doors we come across."
"Read you loud and clear, cap'n," the thief said in a sing-song voice. Sokka frowned, but something told him that expecting Vetch to follow orders without mouthing off was an exercise in futility. He turned toward the entrance to the mansion, leaving Doran and Fulco to dump the bodies and resume their posts.
They moved quickly through the darkened corridors of the mansion, following the layout they'd memorized from Harn's map. Sokka worried that they might run into servants or guards working the night shift inside, but they didn't see a soul. From the finery on the walls, it was clear that the merchant enjoyed displaying his wealth. Every now and again, Vetch veered to one side, causing yet another valuable to disappear into his seemingly bottomless pockets. But no matter what he picked up, he still made no sound as he moved.
Sokka was puzzled when they reached the door that was most likely to open into Rivana's quarters. There were no guards blocking the door, which seemed out of character for the merchant, especially considering the girl was being held against her will. But the door itself was heavily bolted from the outside.
"Vetch, if you would," Sokka gestured to the door with an elaborate bow. The thief advanced, magically producing his lockpicks from somewhere beneath his outfit. The picks made tiny, metallic clicks, and Sokka looked around nervously, hoping no one was around to hear.
"Aha!" Vetch exclaimed in a whisper, as the clasp around the door's handle unlocked.
Sokka eased the door open and walked inside. The room was wide and spacious, and definitely intended for a female inhabitant. The carpets and wall hangings were brilliant scarlet and gold, and a bed with a gauzy white curtain surrounding it lay on the far wall. In front of the bed was a woman brandishing a poker from the fire place.
Sokka could see instantly why the merchant had been so captivated. Rivana was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her long, black hair cascaded down her shoulders, framing a heart-shaped face with eyes a man could drown in. Her silk nightgown didn't do much to hide a stunning figure, and with the poker raised threateningly she looked like a warrior goddess from stories – albeit a warrior goddess recently awoken from slumber. Sokka realized he was staring like a fool, and coughed apologetically.
"Rivana?" he whispered. "We're here to rescue you. Your brother is waiting outside."
The hope that came into her eyes was painful to watch. "Fulco's here?" she breathed.
Livia stepped forward, moving slowly to keep from startling the other woman. "That's right, your brother's here. The fumblefoot is probably going to get us all killed, but that's beside the point. Is there anything here you can't live without?"
Rivana shook her head, smiling through a few tears that threatened to fall. She shook them away impatiently. "Just let me get a coat and shoes." As she was turning away, she seemed to remember something. "Oh – what did you do with the guards?"
Whatever good feeling Sokka had disappeared faster than a sugar-lump down an ostrich-horse's gullet. "What guards?" he snapped, wheeling to face the entrance.
Livia beat him to the corridor by a split second. Rivana didn't need to answer – two guards had been approaching down the long hallway, both holding muffins in each hand. When they saw Livia and Sokka, they froze. One guard's jaw dropped, and a bit of half-chewed muffin fell to the floor. The quiet sound spurred them into action. The guards began running in the opposite direction, shouting for all they were worth.
"Help! Kidnappers! Defend the Lady Rivana!"
Sokka exchanged an incredulous glance with Livia. Real pair of fearless warriors, those two.
"No time to catch them," Sokka said, "and it's too late to keep the rest of the guards away. Time to move."
Vetch and Rivana joined them, the latter wearing sturdy shoes, a bulky coat over her nightgown, and a determined expression. "Let's go. I won't spend another minute in this damned house."
They ran for the entrance, but they hadn't gotten far when a shrill alarm split the air. Sokka cursed, then ran faster. They reached the entrance in seconds, where Doran and Fulco awaited them.
"Riv!" Fulco and his sister embraced, but Sokka pulled them apart.
"None of that until we're safely away!" he snapped at the younger man. "You're my earthbender, so bend already! Doran, get those fuses lit. We're about to have company."
The sound of men shouting from within the house grew louder. Rivana watched curiously as the former ironsmith set fire to two fuses, one long and one short attached to the stone pots he'd been carrying. "What are those?" she asked.
"A housewarming gift," Sokka said grimly. "Rivana, where does the merchant sleep, would you say?"
"His rooms are on the top floor, near the back," she replied, pointing.
"You heard her, Fulco," Sokka said. "Would you do the honors?"
The earthbender smiled in a way that wasn't very nice at all. "My pleasure." He stamped the earth, and one of the stone pots shot into the air. He punched towards it, and the pot went sailing away in the direction Rivana had indicated. A huge explosion rent the night air, illuminating the mansion like a firework from hell. The upper floor of the mansion caved in, and fire began to send its hungry fingers skyward. Doran let out a small cheer, and Rivana's blissful smile shined brightly.
"Nice shot, but the other one's still lit," Vetch pointed out nervously. "Shouldn't we be running away?"
"We should, at that," Sokka replied. The fuse was burning lower with each passing second. They took off towards the outer wall, leaving the pot of blasting powder at the entrance. Just as they reached the wall, the pot exploded, generating such force that Vetch and Rivana were knocked off their feet. The door and surrounding wall were obliterated, and the entrance to the garden became a flaming barricade.
"That ought to keep them off our trail," Sokka said with satisfaction. "Fulco, get us out of here." The twin explosions ought to be causing havoc for the soldiers trapped inside – especially if the first blow had managed to ignite the merchant's sleeping quarters. Sokka wouldn't shed a tear if the rich, kidnapping bastard was cooked in his sleep. He spared a second to hope that no servants would be caught in the blast, but as long as there were firebenders in the mercenary company, the burning house wouldn't be much more than an inconvenience.
Fulco created a small opening at the base of the wall, demonstrating power that Sokka had not yet seen from him. Fulco and Rivana were just about to leave, their hands clasped tightly together, when Livia whispered urgently to Sokka, "We've got company."
With a muffled curse, Sokka turned back to look at the entrance to the garden. The flames were still raging, but out of the heart of the conflagration came five armored figures. The flames veered away at their command, and they vaulted over the wreckage with impressive acrobatics. Sokka's curse was louder the second time.
"Fulco and Livia, with me," Sokka snapped. "Doran, take Rivana and Vetch and meet up with your boys beyond the wall. Get her back to Harn in one piece – we'll join you as soon as we've cleaned up the mess."
"No!" Rivana shouted. "Fulco, you can't!"
The young earthbender gave his sister a bone-crushing hug, but stepped away a mere second later. "There's no choice," he said firmly. "Don't worry about us. I've only just got you back – I promise I'm not going to lose you again."
Doran pulled her away, urgently but gently, and they disappeared into the night. Livia and Sokka nodded to each other, and took up positions between Fulco and the approaching firebenders.
"Keep them from flanking us, Fulco," Sokka called out, "and don't let them close with you."
Livia cracked her whip once, while Sokka loosened the ties to the knives inside his sleeves. They dropped securely into his hands, and he launched them at the two benders in the center of the enemy formation. They were forced to jump apart, three in one direction and two in another. Then Fulco displayed a surprising knowledge of tactics by earthbending a wall of rock between the two groups. He sent the wall moving toward the group of three, while Sokka and Livia charged at the remaining two.
The firebenders were caught by surprise – they must not have been expecting a full-on attack, especially when their opponents were outnumbered. Sokka kept the man on the right busy with a volley of knives, while Livia advanced on the second bender. He tried to fry her with a direct blast, but Livia ducked and rolled to the left, then brought her whip up and around. It wrapped around the bender's outstretched hand, and she jerked him forward and off-balance. Sorrow was already clearing Sokka's scabbard, and the black sword sheared through armor, skin, and bone, taking off his opponent's arm at the elbow. The man screamed in pain, dropping to his knees and clutching at his stump. Sokka lunged at the second bender without missing a beat, but he was forced to break away to avoid a trio of giant fireballs.
Livia approached him from the left, circling him like some hunting cat. The reason for the circling became obvious a second later, when a small, round stone came hurtling out of nowhere to hit the firebender's helmet with a clang. He jerked his head around involuntarily, and Livia pounced. The whip wrapped around his midsection, and Livia rushed in to finish the job.
Sokka moved to support her, his eyes scanning the garden for the other three firebenders who would doubtless have avoided Fulco's moving barrier by now. Sure enough, a firebender came flying through the air, thick bars of fire shooting from his fingertips. Livia just managed to jam a small knife into her opponent's open visor when Sokka tackled her, bearing her to the ground mere inches before the fire washed over their previous position. The hapless guard, who had just been stabbed, was now covered in flames, and his screams abruptly cut off.
Sokka rolled and came to his feet, throwing a knife with his free hand to keep the third bender from following up with another fire attack. Sokka was hoping for another distraction from Fulco, but nothing happened. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that Fulco was engaged in a deadly game of cat and mouse with one of the surviving benders, a women who dodged his earth attacks with surprising grace. The final bender emerged from the shadows, joining the one who faced Sokka and Livia.
Apparently the deaths of their comrades had taught them to be wary, because they approached Sokka and Livia as a team. They hemmed the two in with cones of fire on both sides, cutting off any possibility of splitting up. Livia charged first, lashing out with her whip to halt the benders' advance. They jumped to the side, and both reacted with short-range bursts of fire. Livia couldn't bring back her whip in time, so it was caught in the blast and charred to a crisp. She cast aside the useless handle with a grunt.
Sokka once again reached for the pouch in his belt, but instead of a knife he brought out a small brown pouch. He threw it at the bender closest him, who met it with a line of fire as thick as Sokka's body. When it the pouch, however, there was a blinding explosion that gouged a hole in the earth and destroyed everyone's visibility for a moment. Sokka threw himself forward with all his speed, executing a diving roll that brought him through the debris and within range of his target's legs. Sorrow lashed out in a tight arc, the miraculous metal shearing through the bender's legs with no more resistance than slicing through a bale of hay. Sokka finished the man on the backstroke, straightening so his return swing neatly separated his enemy's head from his shoulders.
The other bender was dead as well, one arm wrapped securely in… a whip of thin metal links, all connected to a black oak handle. Sokka raised an eyebrow at Livia.
"What?" she shrugged. "The leather whip handles better, but the metal one doesn't char if it takes a hit from a firebender."
"No argument here," Sokka replied. Then he took a second look at Livia's outfit, which clung tightly to the assassin's lithe body. "But where were you keeping it?"
She only grinned. "Let's save Fulco and get the hell out of here."
But as it turned out, Fulco needed no help. He was standing next to the pool, and his opponent was half-buried by a huge boulder. Her eyes had turned glassy in death.
"She was fast as a viper," Fulco gasped, breathless, "but I can be fast too."
"I see that, kid," Sokka said, ignoring the earthbender's annoyed glance. "I think we're done here. Let's get back to that sister of yours, what do you say?"
They left at a swift run, once Sokka wiped Sorrow and on the grass and resheathed it, and Livia finished coiling her metal whip. Sokka looked back once before he left through the gap in the wall, taking in the sight of the bodies strewn throughout the garden, and the great mansion in flames. He permitted himself a small smile.
Not a bad night's work.
Once safely back in Skully's Inn, Sokka was able to relax. Harn was waiting with a celebratory bottle of whiskey, which Doran wasted no time in opening. They moved to the room on the second floor, where everyone explained to Rivana how they had put together the rescue.
The thieves were wonderful about praising Fulco, and Rivana broke down multiple times while hearing of her brother's hardships. The earthbender's normally sulky face was wreathed in smiles, and Sokka was enjoying seeing the two of them together that he almost forgot about what Harn had promised him. But the Beggar King of Ba Sing Se approached him, a smile transforming his age-roughened face.
"I see now that your reputation is entirely deserved," he said, patting Sokka on the back. "You've brought all of my people back, and done some serious damage in the process. Not only that, but Vetch tells me it was quite a profitable night."
Vetch paused for a moment, putting down his drink long enough to flip a gold coin over to Sokka. "Your cut," he grunted. "Spend it well – on wine and women."
Sokka pocketed the coin with a word of thanks, but his attention was wholly on Harn. "So now we come to it," the old man said. "Your information about the Order."
Sokka leaned forward in his chair, his breath catching. After all his searching, had he found his destination?
"Omashu," Harn said, keeping his voice low. "That's where you'll find them. There's a woman lives down in the Smoke Quarter. She reads palms, tells fortunes and the like. Ask around for the Seer – most anyone in that quarter will know who you mean. Go in, ask her for your fortune, and show her your lotus tile. She'll put you in contact with the Order."
"A seer in the Smoke Quarter?" Sokka repeated. It was hard to keep his voice steady, and he burned to be gone already. But he had fought alongside these thieves and cutthroats, and he wanted to enjoy their success a while longer. Watching Fulco and Rivana reunited made him happier than he'd been since Katara died.
It was a reminder of what he was fighting for – all of the brothers and sisters who still had each other, the families whose freedom he could restore.
Fulco approached them, breaking Sokka out of his reverie. He extended his hand, and his wide grin drew a matching one from Sokka.
"I can't thank you enough," he choked out. "My sister is free because of you."
"Because of all of us," Sokka corrected. "And even if I hadn't shown up, you would have freed her just the same. I just… sped up the process a bit."
"I'll say you did at that," Harn added. "But I think what young Fulco here is trying to say is this: we're at your service. The next time you have a job needs doing, something requiring our particular skills, send word to Skully here at the inn."
"I just may take you up on that," Sokka said, and meant it. He could imagine a whole host of things which Harn's people could help him with – it was almost enough to make him drool with anticipation. Too bad he probably wouldn't be able to recruit them to his cause, but with a solid crew behind him, even if just for one job, there were many fascinating new possibilities.
He would have to think about them, when he was on the road.
Harn stole the bottle of whiskey from Vetch, and poured a round for himself, Sokka, and Fulco. "Drink up, my friends! Tomorrow, I'm sure, you'll leave us for your foolish journey, but for tonight we celebrate!"
Sokka raised his glass, when Harn cocked his head. "Oh yes," he said as an afterthought. "Make sure to give my regards to the Seer when you meet her. It's been a long time since we've seen each other." He gave a gruff bark of laughter. "Excuse me, that was imprecise. She's never actually seen me. She's blind, you see."
Sokka spat out a mouthful of whiskey straight into Fulco's face. Sokka spluttered just as much as Fulco. "Wait – did you say she's blind?!"
"That's right," Harn said, chuckling as Fulco wiped his face and glared at Sokka. "She's got these beautiful, dark eyes, but she can't see a thing. Didn't seem to slow her down, though – I swear, she seemed as spry as… well, as you or me. Thought she was faking it at first, you know? Pretending for the effect, see?"
To illustrate his point, Harn pulled down his own eyepatch and winked a perfectly sound eye at Sokka. "But it's true, she can't see a damned thing. Must have been blind all her life, to have developed her other senses so well."
Sokka gripped the sides of his chair with all his might, willing himself to remain calm.
It might not be her, he told himself sternly. There are a lot of blind women, and you don't want to get your hopes up only to be crushed when it's not her.
But the hope refused to go away, and Sokka knew he would not sleep a wink that night, too eager to be gone at first light. Omashu was where he would take the next step on his journey, and now he had more to look forward to even than the prospect of finding the Order of the White Lotus.
Sokka had watched many friends die over the years, and had many disappear, never to return. Only now, one whom he'd consigned to death might still be alive.
I'm on my way, Toph, Sokka thought, speaking silently to a girl who still burned brightly in his memory. Wait for me.