The Brothers of Ba Sing Se

Chapter Seven: Interlude - A Very Special Episode #1

By DamageCtrl & Ebontien

*All Standard Disclaimers Apply: We do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender/The Legend of Korra.

Republic City, United Republic - Era of Avatar Korra

"C'mon, Bo! One more," Mako encouraged as he squatted beside his younger sibling, watching Bolin's arms tremble as he pushed himself up for what he felt was the gazillionth time. "You're almost there! Come on!"

"Almost...," Bolin's face was already red and covered with sweat. His patched up practice tank had sweat marks, but he was relentless. His brows furrowed with concentration. "There...!"

"Done!" Mako shouted as as Bolin finished the last push up. "You did it! You beat last week's record!"

A whimper seemed to escape Bolin's mouth as his arms gave way beneath him and he crumbled to the ground with a loud thump. Mako laughed and stood up. "I can' arms...," his brother murmured into the wooden floor.

"You did good, Bro," Mako assured him as he grabbed a towel hanging from one of the racks and tossed it over his brother's head. "Soon, you might just beat Korra's record."

Another groan escaped Bolin's lips. They knew she was physically strong, having trained almost all her life as the Avatar and what not, but it was quite a blow to both of them when Korra proved she could do more pushups than them.

What had sent Bolin off on a quest to beat the Avatar herself - a quest Mako thought was unnecessary, was the conversation with Korra had steered back to their favorite graphic novel and Korra argued that that Blue Spirit was clearly the most physically fit of the three. That started an hour and a half argument that went from warm-ups to practice to eating at the Nanook's until Mako ordered them to stop or he'd leave them to pay the bill themselves.

Still, Bolin was determined and thankfully, his brother was helping him. Bolin rolled over on his back and sprawled out on the hardwood floor of the exercise room. " long do think until I surpass Korra?"

"Hmm...," Mako leaned against the wall and took gulp from a flash of water. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before continuing. "If we go from how many she did last time...I'd say half a year."

"Half a year!?" Bolin wailed. He rolled into a sitting position and looked at his brother beseechingly. "I thought you said I was almost there!"

"Yeah, but it's not like she doesn't practice either. She's probably improved, too," Mako pointed out.

"Ugh...," Bolin slumped forward. "I'm never gonna beat Korra..." Mako chuckled and opened his mouth to reply when another voice filled the training room.

"Well, look who's here," a mocking voice seemed to greet as three large men entered. "The bumbling brothers." Mako's eyes narrowed as Bolin rose to his feet. The two other men behind the leader of the trio sneered before they dropped their bags on the floor and prepared to take over the area. "Get lost, you two. We scheduled the gym for the next two hours."

"Yeah, we know," Mako frowned as he tossed his towel into a worn bag. "We were just leaving. C'mon, Bolin."

The younger sibling huffed, but said nothing as he turned around and prepared to follow his brother back to their tower. A snide voice stopped them. "I don't even know why they let you numbskulls practice. It's not like it's going to do you any good."

"Yeah, well, you can argue that with our ranking," Mako grumbled, shaking off the words.

"Not fair if you ask me," another of the men snorted. "Seeing as they got the Avatar and all that."

"Yeah, but she's strong, but is just as bad as the rest of them."

"Korra is not bad!" Bolin shouted. Mako stopped at the doorway to the other hall. He just knew his brother was no longer following him. "She's a better waterbender that you ever will be!"

The three men putting on their training equipment paused and raised their heads to meet the black-haired young man. Bolin forced himself not to shrink back at their intimidating looks. "What did you say, kid?" one challenged.

"Heh," another smirked. "He wouldn't know a good bender from a bad one, regardless of how many times he's been knocked out of the ring."

"Yang's right. The ref's too easy on you kids. You're lucky, that's all."

Bolin bristled. He stepped forward, only to feel his brother's hand on his shoulder, holding him back. Mako stepped in front of him and narrowed his eyes. "We're not lucky," he said firmly. "We trained hard, just like the rest of you. Korra most of all and even considering this is her first time playing, Bolin's right - she is a better waterbender." His brother puffed up his chest proudly. "If you want to see first hand how good, wait until our next match," Mako glowered. He stepped back and turned around. "C'mon, Bolin."

"Yeah!" Bolin added before turning around and preparing to stomp triumphantly after his brother.

"Why wait for our next match?" a snide voice asked. Somewhere inside of him, Mako sighed. He knew where this was going. It wouldn't be the first time they'd been challenged. A lot of people, especially the more experienced teams, didn't like them. They were two kids off the street and if they'd done poorly in the ring, they wouldn't have gotten much hassle.

It was a basic rule; the less you stood out, the less you got yourself into trouble. Unfortunately, in order to advance in Pro-Bending, you needed to stand out. Mako took a deep breath. That was fine, he and Bolin just needed to ignore-

"Why do we have to wait for our next match?" his brother seemed to laugh out daringly. "Why don't we go right now and see who's boss?"

Mako's hand dragged down his face. "Bolin..."

"C'mon, Big Bro, we got this," Bolin urged. "We can take these guys."

"That's some big talk coming from a newbie," one of the men snorted in a gruff voice. "Besides, your big brother over there doesn't seem to share your confidence."

"Oh, he has confidence," Bolin assured them. "He's Mr. Confidence!" He elbowed his brother gently. "Come on, Mako, back me up here," he whispered.

Mako tried to take a deep breath to calm down. "It's not our ring time," he stated as he turned around and crossed his arms over his chest. "If you want a match, you'll have to wait," he asserted. Bolin's face fell.


"Heh, should've known they'd chicken out. After all, aren't they missing their precious teammate?" one of the men sneered.

"Come to think about it, I haven't seen her around lately," another mused aloud. "Maybe she gave up on you two dimwits."

"Hey, Korra didn't give up on us! We're a team and if she were here, she'd take it to the ring!" Bolin yelled. He headed towards the opposite door and Mako frowned.


"I'm tired of hearing this, let's settle it once and for all! On the platform!" the green-eyed brunette shouted. Mako opened his mouth to try to stop his brother, only to watch the other three men drop their things and follow after his younger sibling.

"Sounds good to us!"

"Let's finish this!"

The oldest of the brothers stood in place for a moment longer before letting out a groan and running his hands down his face.

He followed his brother and the opposing trio down the hall and out into the arena platform. A team was exiting just as they entered and Mako could hear one of the men telling them what was about to happen. Bolin only served to assure them that they'd get 'a show to remember'.

It was almost painful for Mako to put his uniform on and fasten his helmet. The other team's waterbender was sitting the match out, in order to make to 'give the boys a chance'. Bolin had tried to prod him into joining, only to have Mako grab his arm and drag him to the walkway.

"Don't make this any worse than it is," the older brother grumbled as the machinery below them rumbled and they were jerked forward.

"Don't sweat it, bro," Bolin assured him proudly. "We can take them, even with their waterbender!"

"We shouldn't be here anyway," Mako frowned. "I can't believe you got us into this!"

Bolin continued to smile, frustrating his older brother as they reached the platform. They took their spots as across the line. Someone was manning the control booth and and the lights. Players who were there to practice began to sit on the bleachers around them and Mako inwardly groaned.

The first alarm rang, signaling the start.

Mako could almost hear the announcer in his head announce "and they're off!".

Fire and earth discs flew towards them. Fire and earth discs were thrown back. Bolin stepped forward, using all he had. A disc came flying at him and he stepped to the side, only to find fire spiraling forward.

"Whoa!" He fell backwards and the buzzer rang.


"I'm fine!" he assured Mako. One section back didn't mean they lost. Across from them, another bender was pushed back. Bolin threw his arms in the air, only to feel a disc slam into him and shove him back another section.

People were cheering from either side of them. He grit his teeth and stood up, just as another disc hit him square in the chest.

"Bolin!" He heard Mako yell just moments before he fell off the edge and plummeted to the water. He could hear a small voice in his mind say, disappointedly, 'again, Bolin?'.

He pushed himself upwards, gasping for air as another buzzer filled the room. Above him, he could hear the yelling and see fire being throw this way and that before the buzzer went off once more.

Mako was saving them. Again.

"Whoo!" Shouts filled the arena as Bolin crawled onto the awaiting platform from the water. He looked over his shoulder as the last of the two opponents fell over the edge from the force of his brother's fire and slammed into the water.

"Mako!" someone shouted.

"Go Mako!"

The platform began to raise and Bolin's shoulders slumped. He could see his brother on the main arena platform, removing his helmet as he waited for the walkway to reach him.

"Hey, Bolin! Did you see that!?" someone called from the stands. "That's how you bend! You gotta watch your brother more often!"

"Same as always, eh?" another laughed. "Mako's always saving you!"

"Big Brother's always gotta step in, don't he?"

Bolin lowered his head as the benders jeered. He reached the upper level and stepped off the lift before slowly removing his helmet.

"Don't listen to them, Bo," he heard Mako's voice say behind him. The firebender stepped off the walkway and tossed his helmet to the side. "You did great."

Despite Mako's words, Bolin could only feel worse at the needless praise. He couldn't look his brother in the eye as he slowly began to remove his uniform. Great? His mind mocked. He was terrible! He was fumbling, his aim was off, he was too slow. He looked over at his brother as as Mako removed their practice uniform. Mako held his ground, he had great reflexes, and most importantly, didn't fall off the platform.

"Bo," Mako said, over the fading sounds of other benders' comments. He stood by the door and motioned his head out to the door. "C'mon. We still have to go get groceries for dinner."

"Right," Bolin muttered distractedly. He shook his head and finished putting the clothes into cabinet before following Mako out.

He was only vaguely aware of the comments going around them as he trailed behind his brother. He didn't bother to reply to the calls or the laughter. Bolin could only stare at his brother's back as they returned to their room.

"If we go to Mori's store now, the last of today's vegetables should be on sale. Mr. Yung said he'd hold some tofu for us for half-price since we signed that poster for his grandson," Mako was saying as he rummaged through his armoire for his money pouch. "I also heard that there is a new noodle shop off 7th that's offering a pack of their house noodles for buy one, get one free this weekend," he said as he fished out his money and began tucking it into his pants pocket. "What do you think, Bo? Maybe we can get some meat and do a hot pot..." His voice trailed off as he turned around. Mako's brows knit together, confused. "Bolin?"

The earthbender was no longer in the room. He shot down the halls of the pro-bending arena, rushing out the side doors as he choked back a cry.

It was humiliating. Not only could he not hold a candle to Mako - or Korra, for that matter - when it came to bending, but he'd been utterly useless and humiliated them. No doubt that Korra would hear about what happened while she was gone. She'd think him the weakest member of the team for sure.

The sniffling earthbender slowed down as he reached the street beyond the dock where the arena was located. He shoved his hands into his pocket and began sulking down the street, lost in his own thoughts filled with the sounds of fellow benders calling him weak and useless - things he couldn't deny after what had just happened.

He'd been training for weeks and compared to his teammates, he was still falling behind. Was there anything that could help him?

"You're the Fire Ferret boy." Bolin lifted his head as he heard the voice. He glanced around, finding himself in one of the busy shopping districts not too far from the docks.

"Who said that?" he asked, confused.

"I did. You're the earthbender, ain't you?" He squinted as he craned his neck towards a shoddy little store he hadn't noticed before.

The green-eyed bender wrinkled his nose and nodded slightly. "Yeah," he said carefully. He eyed the middle-aged man sitting behind a wooden counter. "What's it to you?"

The middle-aged man smirked and casually adjusted his circular glasses over his face as he let out a snort and shrugged. "Nothing, just thinking to myself. Looking at you up close makes me wonder how'd you get so far this season." He smirked as sharp eyes bore into the younger man. "Must've been thanks to your brother and the Avatar."

Bolin felt his face burning up. "Hey, I try to carry my weight, okay!?" he said as he stomped forward. "I may not be as good as Mako or Korra, but I'm not useless!"

"Please," the man sneered. "How many times as your brother saved you in the ring? And the Avatar? She got used to the game real quick, didn't she? The only one falling behind is you."

"I'm trying here!" Bolin exclaimed. "Korra's had a lifetime of formal training and was taught by the world's greatest waterbender! Mako's always been really quick on his feet! I just need more time and more practice."

"You think that's all you need?" the man scoffed. He leaned forward, his eyes narrowing. "Let me tell you something, kid, I've been watching pro-bending for years, and let me tell don't have that extra...'umph' to stay in the game."

A pained look crossed Bolin. "But..."

"But maybe I can help." A sly look graced the man's face as Bolin's brows furrowed.

"Wha...huh?" he asked, confused.

The man's eyes darted around before waving for Bolin to come into his store. "I got something that may give you at extra little 'umph' you need to step up your game, kid," he whispered in a low voice as he reached under the counter and pulled out a small paper wrapped package. He carefully unfolded it, making sure to keep an eye out. "Cactus blossom tea."

Bolin's eyes nearly doubled in size. "That's bending enhancing tea!" he nearly choked out.

"Shh, shh!" the vendor hissed, quickly covering the dried pink leaves with his hand. He shot Bolin a glare. "Since you know what it is, you know what it can do."

The earthbender grimaced. He shook his head and took a step back. "No," he asserted. "I'm not taking cactus."

"You sure?" the vendor asked curiously. He took out a stone mortar and placed the dried blossoms inside before starting to grind them. "A small packet isn't much...and think of the edge it'll give you."

"I don't need it!" Bolin said. He turned around and prepared to walk away.

"Alright, be I'm just'll be a shame if your brother and the Avatar have to lose because of you," the man mused aloud. "The weakest member of the team."

The next thing Bolin knew, he was creeping up the stairs to their tower, silently hoping that his brother had yet to return from grocery shopping. Carefully tucked in the pocket of his shirt was a small paper wrapped package with ground, pink powder. He peeked from the entryway, his eyes darting around the flat.

"Mako?" he called out carefully. No answer. "Mako!?" He called out, a little louder. Nothing. A breath of relief; Mako hadn't returned yet. Bolin quickly rushed into the room and headed for the stove. He began to heat up the water left in the kettle as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the small paper packet.

For a few moments, he stared at it. Bending enhancing tea wasn't exactly difficult to use. There was no way anyone could really trace it, but it was looked down upon and said to have some negative side effects.

At the same time, it wasn't as if he had to use the whole thing. Just a little to try it out...see what the fuss was about. If it didn't work, he'd stop. Easy as that.

Yet, he hesitated.

"Bolin! Are you back!?" a voice shouted from beyond the steps. A whistle from the kettle filled the air and the brunette jumped. He quickly snatched the kettle and pulled it off the burner before shoving the packet back into his pocket and reaching for a cup. Mako appeared from the stairs, holding a bag of food with some leafy greens sticking out. He gave Bolin a concerned look. "You okay, bro? You disappeared earlier."

"Yeah! I just got back from my walk!" he called over his shoulder. He poured himself some hot water. "Nothing like a brisk walk after some practice to relax, right?"

Mako raised a brow. "Um...sure...," he said. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah!" Bolin insisted as he began inching towards the bathroom. "I'm totally fine!" He turned around and quickened his speed. "I'll let you get dinner started. Call me when it's ready!"

Before Mako could reply, Bolin vanished into the room. The older brother raised a brow but turned to focus on dinner. He expertly cut the vegetables, turned the tofu brick into tofu cubes, and sliced some meat before readying the pot of boiling water. Nodding to himself that the food was ready, he looked over his shoulder and shouted.

"Bolin!" he yelled. "Dinner!" He carefully used a worn rag to carry the pot of boiling water to the table. "Bolin!" he shouted. "C'mon! Before it gets cold!" There was no answer. Mako moved the bowls of vegetables, tofu, and meat to the table and looked around. "Bolin!"

Frowning, the eldest let out a heavy sigh and marched to the room. Without knocking, he pushed open the door.

"Mako!" A horrified look was on his brother's face. Bolin was standing over the sink, holding a chipped cup in one hand as a small piece of paper finished dumping some powder was still held in the other.

Mako narrowed his eyes. "What's that?" he asked as his brother tried to avoid his eyes.

"Nothing!" Bolin insisted as he quickly tried to hide the paper. Mako continued forward and easily snatched the paper from Bolin's hands. He lifted the paper to his nose and took a sniff.

His eyes widened before narrowing and shooting a glare at Bolin. "Where did you get this," he demanded. Bolin swallowed a lump in his throat.

"Get what?" he asked shakily.

"This, Bolin!" Mako shouted as he held the paper in his hands. "This is apothecary paper and you're not sick," he hissed. "Where did you get it?"

"It's just tea, Mako!" Bolin insisted. "I just stopped by a store and there was some tea on sale-"

"Pink powder, Bolin? Do you think I'm stupid?" he growled. "This is cactus blossom! It's bending enhancing tea!"

Bolin's head dropped. "It's just tea-"

"It's illegal!" Mako yelled. He grabbed Bolin's cup and stormed to the window. With his free hand, he opened the latch and pushed the shutter open. "And with good reason!" He tossed the tea out the window. Bolin's paled face watched his brother fumed and turned back to look at him.

"I just wanted to try it and see if it helped my bending..."

"It's been banned from the arenas because the effects can overwhelm a person and make them violent, which leads to unrestrained bending! You can't control what you do when you're on cactus, Bolin! That's why it's been banned!" Mako insisted.

"I just wanted to try a little-"


"But you don't understand! You can't understand!" Bolin cried out as he shot up from his bed. "You're good at everything! I'm always struggling to catch up! I needed the extra boost!"

"Is that what the dealer told you?" Mako scowled. "Listen to me, Bolin - you're fine the way you are. You don't need that sort of extra boost," he insisted as he put his hands on Bolin's shoulders and tried to get him to calm down. "Do you honestly think that those drugs will make you a better bender?" he asked. His brother's eyes dropped. "I know you know better. You've seen what those things can do to people, Bo. I don't want that to happen to you."

The earthbender's shoulders slumped down and he sat down on his bed, dejected. "I just...I just don't want to be useless..."

Mako took a deep breath and knelt down in front of his sibling. "Bolin," he began gently. "Do you remember that special Brothers of Ba Sing Se comic? When the Green Ghost took cactus juice?"

Republic City, United Republic - Era of Avatar Aang

The enemy birds were chirping again. Sokka eyed them suspiciously from where they perched outside his office window. Everyday they would fly by, simultaneously settle down and right when he needed his concentration the most, they would burst into a chorus of chirps. He had yet to figure out which one was the ringleader.

Regardless, he pulled his eyes away from the window to his cluttered desk. Sokka could not remember the last time he saw what his desk actually looked like, but it was probably around the time when he first bought it and had it delivered here.

He was not gaining any ground. If he was done helping Katara with the development of the United Republic or rebuilding of the Southern Water Tribe, Teo and his father would burst in the door with a bunch of schematics he had to look over, make suggestions if needed and then give the approval for. It was that or vice-versa; a vicious cycle he had no hope of seeing the end of.

After a couple snarled cries of frustration, he grabbed his favourite bag and walked out the door for a much needed break. He didn't know where he was heading; all he wanted was to be out of that office. Every day, the city grew and even more new places and faces popped up in the bay area. Good for him in the fact that there were always new food places to try out. Sokka had resolved earlier to give most places a try in this melting particular afternoon however, he found himself in front of a bar named Sly's.

Despite the name, the bar looked new and clean-cut. Why not, he shrugged as he walked in. He might just love the place. Once inside, the Water Tribesman surveyed his surroundings for a good seat and settled at the bar.

"You guys are new here, aren't you?" He asked the bartender.

The man cleaning out a glass grinned back. "Yep, just opened up a month ago. You're not a regular."

"Not yet, but I could be. Show me what you've got." Sokka answered cheekily.

"I highly recommend the pork wings in tangy swamp sauce. Don't worry, it tastes better than it sounds. That's a growing favourite. Most regulars like that with our Sunset Swirl, a fruit juice mix that cools you off after the sauce. Leaves you rather refreshed."

"Hmmm. Refreshed huh? I like the sound of that. Give me an order of both." The other man jotted it down and slipped the paper over to the order window and fired it down the line.

As he waited, Sokka took out a couple of brushes, ink jars and paper to go over his Bros notes with. Wistfully he looked at his green bag, "I wish I brought it." By it, he was referring to the symbol of his new identity, his Green Ghost mask. "It would so match my bag."

His fellow Bros had made him leave the mask in Ba Sing Se, stating it wouldn't do him any good if he lost it in Republic City, but Sokka was onto them. They were just afraid of him having solo adventures without them. Like he would because unlike them, he followed the Code! His matching accessories had given him an idea earlier in the week about potential Bros merchandise, something he would have to speak to his publisher and Iroh on further.

Because he was so engrossed in thinking about potential merchandise - he did believe in the power of stuff - Sokka didn't notice what was going on behind the counter. If he had, he would have seen the barkeep at his large preparation area, pulling out the ingredients he needed alongside his boss, bar's owner, who was preparing a special request drink. The barkeep took out fresh knives and with them, neatly sliced a melon in half. He then turned his attention to the mixed palette of fruit in front of him, methodically slicing them before putting them through the press. The owner was going through similar motions.

That was when the barkeep noticed he was out of the little umbrellas and went to go get some from the back. The owner was about to pour in the secret ingredient when he found himself talking to a regular about the new food and safety regulations, something he had plenty to say about, but none of it good. He was about as mindful of his chatter as he was with pouring and serving his drinks as he gave away the one he hadn't prepared.

The barkeep came back in time to insert the umbrella before sliding the other drink down to Sokka who caught it deftly in one hand, the rest of him intently pulled into the world of the Bros.

He took a long sip of his drink and that was when things got weird.

For one thing, Sokka's eyes snapped open wider than was comfortable. He knew this taste anywhere as he frantically spat out what he could.

His arch-nemesis was back.

"Cactus juice," he garbled, his hand frantically grasping the bar. He tried to stand. Big mistake. Almost immediately, his legs gave out from under him.

"It had to be cactus juice," he deadpanned to the pink elephant in front of him. Yes, it was an elephant; not an elephant mandrill, an elephant rat; just an elephant. Weird. And it was pink.

The pink elephant gave him a wink and a thumbs up with its trunk before motioning at him to follow.

Somehow, they were in Ba Sing Se at night. The Water Tribesman was about to ask what was going on when he saw two figures in front of him. They looked like Zuko and Jet but something was off with them. The only thing that looked right about them were their scowls. Other than that, Jet was wearing the mixed garb that United Republic citizens were rather fond of. It was weird seeing Jet in anything remotely Fire Nation in origin.

Zuko was an even odder sight. Even as disheveled as he had been back when he was exiled and hunted, but still chasing Aang, Sokka never seen him this bad. The firebender was not wearing shoes, was barely wearing enough to cover himself and was that a leaf helmet?

They started walking away and Sokka felt a tug from his new rose-colored buddy in the same direction. His bag slung over himself, he followed the sturdy grip. Stumbling over something that felt like a threshold, but he righted himself as fast as he could. "Jet" and "Zuko" were talking, but he couldn't make out what they were saying.

"Hey, guys! What are you planning?"

The duo didn't even acknowledge him, just continued talking in the dark while walking. Sokka kept following them.

"What's with the new costumes? I thought we like the originals."

No response. They walked up ahead and no matter how Sokka tried to catch up, he couldn't. What was up with him being so clumsy today? There was no one in the streets and nothing to bump into but he kept falling over and stumbling. His big-eared pink buddy had also disappeared.

"Pinkie Pie? Where did you go?"

There was a screeching noise coming from the side as an unfriendly boulder was trying to stop his rickshaw. Sokka felt a gentle, but firm grip about his shoulder yank him out of the way. He was about to thank his rescuer when "Pinkie Pie" glared at him, yelling "Sokka! What are you doing? You almost got run over!"

The elephant suspiciously sounded like Aang.

Seconds later, his vision refocused and he found himself facing Aang. The Avatar had one decidedly arched brow of confusion mixed with a face full of concern. "Sokka...are you all right? What's wrong?"

The Water Tribesman was vaguely aware of the cactus juice effects wearing off. He still felt disconnected with his senses, his body but he could tell he had better control as he tested out taking solid steps towards Aang.

"Nothing's wrong. I just had too much sun today. It's been a while since I've had any fresh air." Sokka lied through his teeth. It had been such a tiny dose, probably nothing to worry about right? There was also no point in making a ruckus out of a rabbit-mole hill and worrying his friend further.

"Sure Sokka." Aang looked unconvinced, but he trusted Sokka. "But just to be safe, let's take you home."

Sokka wanted to protest but the random vertigos he was seeing told him it would be wiser to just go with Aang as he leaned more onto his bald-headed friend. "Yeah...that sounds like a great idea. Let's go home."

"Sokka! Get down from there! You're going to hurt yourself!"

This was not how the day was supposed to go. He was supposed to arise refreshed and energetic, finishing his Southern Water Tribe correspondence for the week and then forge ahead on his graphic novel.

Instead, he had awoken to dizziness and a slight ringing in his ears, a regretful reminder of the cactus juice the next morning. Everything was too bright or too sharp; his body felt unprepared for the sensory overload. By the time he had finished his morning routine, his muscles loosened up and he felt almost normal again.

Then the afternoon came, leading his relaxation to be sadly short-lived. Nothing he drank seemed to quench his thirst. He wandered downtown a bit, only to find himself in front of Sly's again. Against his better judgement, he made the same order as the day before but found himself sipping regular fruit juice instead. The cagey looking owner had defended that he remembered what the Water Tribesman had ordered the previous day and what he ordered was regular fruit juice when Sokka complained about his order.

It was then it occurred to Sokka that this bar was selling the cactus juice underneath the table. Mentally he kicked himself for that. Why was he even asking for the stuff? He berated the owner and his bar staff that they shouldn't be selling it at all; it was bad for people.

Unfortunately, when he stormed out, he still found himself thirsty. Sokka took a different route to the market before heading home, buying some fresh fruit to make into his own juice. That was when the karma person or thing, whoever's in charge of that kind of stuff, decided to make Sokka its personal toy for the next hour. Yes, he had prepared the drink correctly, but as he was downing his drink, he noticed something rather amiss with his cup. Near the bottom, uncovered from the liquid was a piece of cactus.

Which brought him to his present situation.

The Water Tribesman was balanced precariously on the roof of his building. Katara, who had dropped by to bring him leftovers, had found her brother screaming at the top of his lungs when she arrived. His neighbours had no idea what to do with the madman. The master waterbender took action, bending water from the nearby canal till she was able to reach the top of the building. It fell to her to coax her brother from doing anything stupider than the tales she heard from the building's tenants on her way up there.

"Sokka! I mean it! Let's get down from here!" She kept a reasonable distance from him since he was so close to the edge that one move to the wrong direction and she would know who her latest patient would be for months to come.

This time Sokka responded, turning around on his heel, with a crazed expression. "Oh, so you think you guys are better than me...being able to jump roofs and stuff! I can do that too, Jetko!"

"Who's Jetko?" Katara's face scrunched up in confusion. Then she remembered time and place and this was definitely not time or place to figure out things like 'Jetko'. "Nevermind, come over here and you can tell me all about it."

He continued to flail, but Katara bended a water whip from her pouch, having it latch to her brother's arm before reeling him in towards her. She froze the water around his arms next, restraining him and preventing him from taking her down for a tumble. She maneuvered another water slide to his apartment window and where she assumed he had made his earlier escape from.

"Really, what is wrong with you?" Now that he was seated in his kitchen, her healer training took over. His eyes were unhealthily dilated; the pupils swallowed up most of his irises. "I haven't seen you this bad since...well since that cactus juice incident years ago. Have you been drinking that stuff again?"

Sokka, like back then, was not listening. Instead, he crookedly twisted his head towards her, gasping. He was not seeing his sister; oh no, he saw instead a young maiden swathed in white with a billowing veil. Rushing past Katara, he haphazardly grabbed some inks, brushes and paper and began furiously writing notes. Looking over his shoulder, she couldn't make heads or tales of his writing. If Sokka's writing was chicken pig scratch before, she wondered if when whatever this thing was passed, would he even be able to read his own writing later.

He wasn't harming anyone or putting himself in danger, so Katara let him be. Quietly, she sat next to him at the table, pulling out some of her own reports and correspondence. Sokka kept writing at a frantic pace for another hour or so before his body gave out in exhaustion. His sister came back from the bathroom to find him knocked out asleep at the kitchen table.

Not taking any chances, Katara shouldered her brother, carrying him to his bedroom where he was less likely to fall off while snoozing. This had been easier when they were younger, as the man had bulked up a bit in the last two years. He was hardly a boy anymore. She managed under the weight, till she could let him lie on his bed, tucking him in. She then went to the closet for the spare sleeping bag she kept here in case she was ever in the neighbourhood.

One last check for her own conscience that her brother was not suffering anything dire, Katara fell asleep next to Sokka's bed on the floor. The day's events had quickly exhausted her, so she drifted off to sleep with ease.

She slept so soundly that she hadn't realized Sokka was up before she was the next morning. "How are you up so early? Usually a mating tiger seal call couldn't even wake you up."

"Please, someone as artistic as myself has to be up when inspiration hits." There he went again on his secret art project. During the first couple months, Katara had constantly pestered him about it since Sokka normally couldn't shut about his artistic endeavors and was not above shoving his latest masterpieces at friends and strangers alike, demanding that they acknowledge his genius.

"Are you ever going to tell me what you're working on? You've been unusually secretive about it."

"I'm sure you'll see it around town one day." Regardless of what had happened the day before, Sokka couldn't argue with the results. Not only had he written down a detailed outline of the next story arc, but he also finished the next chapter of his hit. After a bit of fine tuning, he probably could submit it into his publisher that afternoon.

Given his boisterous mood, his sister kept silent. Maybe yesterday was one of those travel fevers. Sokka had been going back and forth from Republic City and Ba Sing Se quite a bit. His immune system had to be taking a bit of beating.

She shrugged off her worry and decided just to keep an eye on him for the day. Katara cooked breakfast while her brother went over the reports she wanted him to look over for the Southern Water Tribe's urban revival plan. Everything was fine up until late afternoon when he became strangely finicky over what he was drinking. She tried juices, teas, milk, everything, but didn't seem to want any of it.

Sokka, of course, knew what was up. He wanted cactus juice. Two days in a row he had a stronger dosage than normal and look at how much he had accomplished! At the same time had very uncontrolled results depending on the dosage. Plus there was the problem of how to buy any without his sister finding out. Katara mostly stayed out of his way for the day, but she watched him like a hawk.

"Hey Katara," Sokka called out from the doorway, where he slung his bag over one shoulder. "I'm going out for a walk."

Before she could reply or even ready herself, he was gone; the door slamming in her face before she could reach it. Sokka made use of his head start, rushing to the street vendor he bought from the day before, stating he had enjoyed the extra something he bought yesterday. The vendor, pleased, slyly nodded, preparing him a sample to go while packing up Sokka's other purchases.

"Sokka, what is up with you?!" Katara, having caught up with him, spun him around to look him in the eye. He looked normal, albeit with a goofy smile on his face.

"Nothing is up with me." Her brother readjusted his bag to accommodate his purchases. "The only thing up is the sky."

Grabbing him, Katara forced his face up to hers. There were no immediate warning signs that he had been taking something he shouldn't have. Sokka gave her an annoyed look as he pried himself out her grasp. "If anything Katara, I'm wondering what is up with you. I'm fine. I've just been a little stressed out this morning, so I figured some fresh air was good for me. And look at me now."

He waved his arms in the air. "I. Am. Fine."

The waterbender would have believed him further if at that moment she didn't have to pull a water whip out of her pouch to extend her reach, just in time to keep Sokka from being trampled by a passing carriage.

"Hey buddy! Watch where you're going! I'm driving here!" The driver called back as his vehicle continued moving forward.

Sokka would have none of that.

"Well, I was walking here! And I had the right of way!" He screamed after the carriage. Turning to Katara, who was already dusting him off and fretting. "Can you believe the nerve of that guy? That's the kind of people we don't need moving into this city."

"Sokka, you didn't even bother looking both ways before crossing." She grabbed his shoulders and looked him square in the eye. "I'm family and you don't lie to family. You have been taking the cactus juice, haven't you?"

The tribesman shuffled his feet a bit, his eyes averted to them. Finally he sighed. "Yes. But it wasn't much-just a little. Don't worry, it won't happen again. I won't take anymore of the cactus juice that Republic City has to offer."

They walked back to the apartment in uneasy silence. Katara was tempted to lecture her brother but seeing his downtrodden his expression, it felt highly unnecessary. It was like yelling at Momo after he knew he had done something wrong but wasn't sure how to repent.


"Yes? What is it?"

"Would you mind if I went back to Ba Sing Se again? I know you don't like me taking so many trips there, but it's really relaxing doing my work in Iroh's shop. This place," he waved out his window. "Is starting to depress me. I never feel like I could get on ahead and I'm now resorting to that stuff."

His sister nodded. "I don't see how it could hurt, especially since Iroh's shop is really relaxing." Her hand brought his head to face her. "Just promise me you won't take anymore of that stuff on your way out."

"I promise. That's what big brothers are for right? Keeping promises?"

Katara would have been lying if she said she believed him, but she knew she had to trust her brother to make the right decision for his own sake. That night she helped him pack and the next morning, dropped him off at the station before returning to her own duties and projects.

The trip back to Ba Sing Se was not pleasant. While he avoided any further confrontations with moving vehicles, the slightest sound seemed to put Sokka on edge. Iroh noted how disheveled the young man was, but was too polite to say anything about the smell, the bloodshot eyes or the twitch. Wisely, he let Sokka follow at his own pace out of the train station and down to the Jasmine Dragon.

For his credit, Sokka hadn't taken anymore cactus juice until he left the United Republic, but his body was not in complete agreement with the decision. His eyes darted like hummingbees as if cactus juice would magically appear. Instead of once a day, he started taking the substance twice then thrice a day, telling himself over and over that it would be one little taste, just to tide him over. It would be his last one. He repeated the mantra so much, he wondered what was the point. Between the border of the Earth Kingdom to the walls of Ba Sing Se, he learnt quickly how to decode the signs of cactus friendly establishments. It was necessary! He couldn't let his fans down either if he fell behind on his next chapter now could he?

Unfortunately, as Sokka was nearing the tea shop, all he saw was man with a rain cloak and a wide brim hat selling treats in small brightly coloured satchels to some boys.

The tribesman snarled his impatience, huffing his way inside. He muttered his hellos to Zuko and Jet before sitting down. The table before him was already prepared with the various correspondence and notes the trio had gathered along with brushes and fresh ink. Iroh had arrived a few minutes earlier and set a tray of tea and pastries in front of him. A sip or two of the house blend seemed to have reawakened something in him with its soft, smooth taste. He didn't doubt this was probably one of the many reasons why Iroh's personal blends tend to sell out faster than some of the blends he had from other tea masters. That and the food did plenty to improve the tribesman's disposition.

"Something bothers me about all this." Jet and Zuko looked up from their respective sweeping areas at Sokka. He pointed at the notes. "Why aren't any of the people in the Upper Ring suffering from the food shortage? The Earth King is starting to feel strain given that he's donating his personal stock, but the Upper Ring doesn't seem affected."

Jet scratched his chin. "Now that you mention it, a delivery I made a couple weeks ago to dinner party was more than stocked with food. Then again, I wouldn't be surprised about those fat elephant rats keeping themselves full. They have the money for it. Most of us don't."

"No." Sokka shook his head. "It doesn't matter if they have money or not. That food has to come from somewhere. There's a chance they would have personal stores themselves, but even that has to be draining now. It's not like they can throw money into the air and it becomes food."

"You're right. They would have to get it from somewhere, whether they're buying it or something else." Zuko agreed. "The problem is where?"

"There's got to be an illegal market." Jet propped his broom against one of the tables before coming up to Sokka's side. Sokka was seated at one of the larger tables with notes strewn about. "Every large city has one. Ba Sing Se, with its size, would have one."

"That's great, but does anyone know where that is?"

It was then that Iroh came in, refreshing the tea on the table with a new pot. " Miss Suijin's brother likes to think he's very clever with his 'replica' art collection, but any connoisseur can tell why. Jet, would you be so kind as to accompany me later today? I have a delivery to make for the lovely young lady."

"Sure thing, Boss."

Iroh nodded his approval, as he refilled their cups. The three young men exchanged a look, punctuated by the unspoken question. Each said nothing until Iroh left the room again.

"He's the boss."

"He's Iroh."

"He's Uncle."

And they left it at that.

Later that afternoon, Jet went with Iroh to Miss Suijin's, where the young woman currently lived with her brother in one of the nicer areas of the middle ring. Miss Suijin was not immune to the former Freedom Fighter's charms and gladly invited Jet in for tea. Her brother was in residence and was more than happy to find another art connoisseur in Iroh. Both men talked at length about their favourite painters and galleries to frequent. Jet, nearby, made note of the locations mentioned.

In the evening, once regular people retired for the night, the three Brothers changed into their gear, but pulled cloaks over their clothes, weapons and other supplies with their masks hidden in pockets.

The hidden market of Ba Sing Se adhered to the idea of hiding in plain sight. While the Dai Li they had been fighting had abandoned most of their tunnels of old, just as unscrupulous folk found another use for them. Once the sun set, the tunnels started to fill with people. Luminous crystals were placed to give light but not too much for these people of the night world.

It was enormous. Other earthbenders had to have been called in because the tunnels were far more roomy than the last time Zuko had seen them years ago. If it wasn't for the shady nature of this market, he would have almost called the structures underground a village of its own, given the size. Some of the stalls were made to be temporary while others looked like they were permanent residences.

"You have to is a good way to make gold out of rocks." Jet pointed out as they hid in the throngs of people. Everyone looked the same, as nondescript as possible. Some wore plain clothing while others went out of their way to keep hidden with cloaks and hoods. He recognized a few faces from all tiers of Ba Sing Se society. Some people he was not surprised to find here, but others made him realize that you would never really know some people.

"The Dai Li are into everything aren't they?" Sokka muttered, his hands constantly fluttering beneath his cloak. Despite his nap earlier, his eyes were bloodshot and he seemed oversensitive to every sudden sight and sound. HIs voice deepened to what he approximated to be a foreboding tone. "They're everywhere."

Zuko rolled his eyes. "I don't think these are run by the Dai Li."

Sokka turned on his heel and got right into the firebender's face. "Everything's run by the Dai Li. We're in enemy territory!"

"We're in an illegal market. You're just being paranoid. Next you'll be-" Zuko never got to finish as Jet pulled them behind the stall as they recognized a group of people, all normal looking except for the rock gloves. Zuko pondered why they would keep such a distinctive feature on themselves when people now knew to look for them, but then again, he knew firebenders who kept alcohol on their person to have easy fuel to weaponize. Mai never went anywhere without her shurikens, no matter how cumbersome they might be in some formal wear.

Time slowed to an unbearable crawl for Sokka as the trio remained in position. He was so thirsty. He was pretty sure he had enough to drink before he left the tea shop but nothing seemed like enough. Iroh showed concern when he brought another teapot to his room earlier, deciding for once that water might be a better substance in Sokka's condition. The tribesman was pretty sure he drank enough liquids to survive for weeks in the desert at this point.

It wasn't just thirst but also fatigue. He had a nap earlier to catch up on his sleep but during his time travelling back to Ba Sing Se, his sleep had been fitful, making him more tired than he was before he closed his eyes. He really could use a burst of energy right now. It was for the mission.

"Hey, you two. I need to do something quick. I'll be right back." He didn't stay long enough to get his partners' confirmations. If they were in an illegal market where they could find anything, then he should be able to find cactus juice. Given the vendors he had passed earlier, it wouldn't take him much to do so.

Travelling down the many corridors created by the stalls, Sokka searched until he found what he was looking for, a stall with many types of desert plants, especially cactuses. The owner of the stall was more than happy to procure some juice from his prized plants, having prepared many small vials for the occasion.

"Are you sure I can't tempt you into some cactus tea?" The old man said as he waved the brightly coloured satchels in front of him. "Very good for the extracurriculars, if you know what I mean. They make people quite happy."

"No, just the juice." The last word came out more hissed than intended but Sokka just wanted his damn drink so that he could power through with mission and go back to bed.

The man didn't seem to take any offense. "Suit yourself. I can't harvest this stuff as much as they want it in the mixed city. They're pretty much lapping it up over there. But hey, if their policy is free for all, might as well chip in. I might make it big later on."

Sokka wasn't paying any intention, gulping down a vial and buying a couple more - just in case. He returned to his comrades more jubilant than ever, causing both Jet and Zuko to eye him with suspicion. Neither could decide if he was being happy or if he was just being Sokka.

"Where did you - nevermind. We think something's going down soon. The guy in the hat," Jet motioned with his heads towards. "Has been pestering different vendors. You were sort of right," he gave a sidelong glance at Zuko, who merely huffed. "Some of these vendors don't work for the Dai Li, but they do owe them."

The trio watched as the group of Dai Li stood at attention at various points with a single stall all in the view. The leader of the group was talking to stall owner. At first, the stall owner stood tall and proud, brimming with annoyance, but a few choice words from the Dai Li had him stammering and almost cowtowing in apologies. The group of earthbenders then proceeded to the next stall on their agenda, repeating the performance each time.

It was when Sokka saw them approaching the cactus stall that he had sinking feeling in his stomach.

"We've been watching the group. Nothing's ever exchanged and we can't get any closer to hear without getting caught." Zuko explain once the three crouched down. "I think they're enlisting favours from the vendors. Maybe the Dai Li not to bother them in exchange for supplies."

"It fits with everything else they've done. These Dai Li are not in it for the money. Money's never exchanged, just goods." Jet glanced in the Dai Li's direction. "And apparently services."

The two looked at Sokka expectantly, waiting for him to contribute his own observations, but the tribesman just gave them a lazy smile with unfocused eyes.

Zuko huffed in frustration. "Sokka! Are you even listening?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm listening." Sokka answered with a limp wave. Suddenly his eyes widened even further, something neither Zuko or Jet thought possible at this point. "Hey, I got a great idea how to get closer. One of us makes a distraction that will cause the Dai Li to follow them and the other two can get closer since it doesn't look like they're finished with their business at that stall yet. Told you it was a great idea! Let's go!"

"Wait-NO!" Jet made a grab for him but it was too late. Sokka was on top of a crate, his hood still covering most of his face as he began to sing.

"Nana-nana-nana-nana-Green Ghost!" Zuko's eyes crinkled up, unsure how exactly to feel. "Nana-nana-nana-nana-Green Ghost!"

"He's lost it." Jet said as he watched the Water Tribe "warrior" leap from one crate to another, spreading his arms out around him to allow his cloak tails to billow out like a cap behind him.

Zuko ran his hand down his face before reaching into his pocket with the other. "Just check out the stalls the Dai Li were questioning. I'll get him."

"Yeah, good luck with that," Jet slid his mask over his face and gave the other man a nod of his head before he slipped away. Zuko fastened his mask behind him and silently cursed Sokka before darting back into the shadows to formulate an escape route.

The Dai Li looked up at the hooded man, each with an expression of boredom or mild annoyance. Sokka sang louder. "Green Ghost! Green Ghost! Green Ghost!"

The leader of the group inclined his head in Sokka's direction as the two closest Dai Li moved in. "Someone stop him before he topples the stands over!" a gruff voice barked.

Sokka glanced down and saw several Dai Li coming after him and he gleefully jumped on to the next crate, miraculously dodging the pieces of rock bended at him. Everything was going according to his plan! With the Dai Li distracted, the others could now figure out what their sinister game was.

A small part of him congratulated him on his success as he wobbled with his latest landing. He shook his head. "Focus!" he ordered himself as he steadied his legs and prepared to jump on to the next available crate.

His foot missed the edge of the wooden box and he fell forward.

Zuko unsheathed his sword and darted forward, cutting the tethers to several temporary market tents to send them tumbling down as a distraction to Sokka's distraction. Yells shouted behind him as he squeezed past the tents, making sure not to get caught in the tangled mess of canvas and rope on his way to grab the blue-eyed idiot.

With the tents falling, the Dai Li took their eyes off of Sokka, which was enough time for Zuko to slip between the crates, grab the disoriented Water Tribesman and drag him into a partially open wooden crate.

Zuko lifted the green mask and clamped his hand over Sokka's mouth as he closed the wooden side. He narrowed his eyes and peered out a small hole in the panel, waiting for the Dai Li to pass them.

"Mmmph!" Sokka tried to speak from beneath Zuko's hand and the firebender gave him a glare as he kept the other man pinned against the side of the crate.

"Shut it or the last chapter of The Brothers of Ba Sing Se will be the last," the Fire Lord hissed in a low voice. Sokka's mouth immediately clamped shut as his body froze.

Satisfied, Zuko continued to look outside the small viewing hole. He heard a rustle of clothing and footsteps just before several bodies swept past them. As soon as the sounds had vanished, he let out the breath he had be holding in and turned back to Sokka.

"Are you insane?" he berated angrily. "You could've gotten caught and the Brothers would be over! Not to mention killed!"

"Relax," Sokka assured him. "The plan worked didn't it?"

"Was falling off the side of a shipping crate part of it?" Zuko snapped. He drew his head back and narrowed his eyes. "What's wrong with you recently? Ever since you got back from Republic City, you've been acting off."

"Off?" Sokka scoffed. "I'm not off! That's crazy - you're crazy."

"Whatever," Zuko frowned. He looked out through the little hole once more. "Let's just get out of here and meet up with Jet." He lifted the mask off his face and tucked it into his cloak before lifting the hood up. He looked back at Sokka as he pushed the panel open. "You, too," he growled.

"Oh! Right," Sokka beamed under his mask and quickly removed it, hiding it away before following after Zuko.

"No more stunts," Zuko added under his breath. "Jet's gathering info. We just need to give him time now."

"No problem!" Sokka agreed, preparing to step out into the main walkway of the underground market.

Zuko's hand clamped down on his shoulder and dragged him into a narrow space between two stalls. "We're not going out there. Let's observe from this corner."

"What?" Sokka frowned. "How are we going to gather intel like that! Nothing's happening here!"

Zuko rolled his eyes. He had planned on listening in to other vendors while perusing the stalls, but after Sokka's display, he had to keep the man grounded otherwise, they compromised their anonymity further.

"Just don't look obvious and listen to any conversations that may be incriminating," Zuko instructed. Sokka snorted and leaned against the side of a wooden stall. All he could hear was the vendor haggling some melons smuggled in from the west. Ooh...exciting.

He looked over at Zuko and found the hooded man with his eyes narrowed and listening to whatever was happening on his side of the alley. Wonderful, they'd gather info on fruit prices. Every time Sokka made a move to leave, Zuko would suddenly grab onto his shoulder and glare daggers at him until he quietly went back to his space.

It felt like they had been their for hours and with each passing moment, Sokka was growing more and more impatient and thirsty. His mouth was dry and he glanced around, wondering if there was a booth to get something to drink. He saw a small line forming a few booths away and glanced at Zuko to see if he was still watching him.

The scarred man stood up straight as another figure approached him. "Extortion," Jet said. "As expected."

"By the Dai Li?" Zuko asked in a low voice. Jet nodded.

"I overheard two vendors talking about how much providing the Dai Li with acquired goods was taking a chunk out of their black market sales," he reported. "I posed as another vendor and grumbled to several other vendors, who reported the same thing. The Dai Li get a portion of the good smuggled in - free, of course. In return, they don't crack down on the market."

"How many vendors?" Zuko asked, almost dreading the answer.

"I went down nearly three rows," Jet reported. "Any vendor here selling foodstuffs seems to have been affected."

"So that's how they're getting it," Zuko frowned. "They turn a blind eye as long as they're paid off."

"Speaking of blind eye," Jet said as he looked over Zuko's shoulder. "Where's the singer?"

Zuko whirled around. His eyes widened as he looked through the alley and felt his face fall. "No..."

Jet let out a heavy breath and grit his teeth. "What is with him tonight?"

"I don't know," Zuko said as he glanced around. "He couldn't have gotten far."

Jet knelt down checked the ground. Footprints on the dirt covered floor lead in one direction and he waved for Zuko to follow him. The two rounded the corner and nearly stumbled back as they almost collided with a large man in line.

The two followed the line to an unassuming wooden vendor's stall. It seemed to be run by a two middle-aged men, one running the front of the booth and the other gathering things together behind him. Hanging on a stick tied to one of the corner poles was a wilted bright pink flower.

Jet narrowed his eyes. Only those that drank it knew what that symbol meant.

"There he is," Zuko said as he elbowed Jet and then pointed to a young man standing a few steps from the line. Sokka was standing by another alley, looking in and unmoving. No one else seemed to pay him any attention.

Jet swore. "Don't tell me he's drank some," he said a low voice as he stalked forward.

Zuko tilted his head to the side and furrowed his brows. "What?"

"His weird behavior, his jumpiness and irrational behavior," Jet counted off as they neared him. "He seemed to have gotten worse since he took that 'drink'." He looked back at Zuko. "Get it?"

Zuko's expression went from surprised to concerned. He'd known Sokka for quite some time and knew that he was naturally curious, but didn't think that he'd fall into such a thing.

"Hey!" Jet barked at Sokka. "What are you-"

The blue-eyed warrior suddenly darted into the alley, prompting Jet and Zuko to rush after him, concerned he was going to do another irrational thing. They rounded the corner and stumbled to a stop at the mouth of the alley as Sokka tossed a large man aside.

"Get out of here!" he yelled at several children in tattered clothes. "Drop that packet! I said drop it!" he shouted. Terrified, the kids, probably barely reaching their early teens, emptied their hands of small, paper wrapped packages.

Jet narrowed his eyes. He knew what was inside.

"What's wrong with you?" Sokka growled as he turned to face the man who he had witness giving the children small samples of the cactus. It was one thing for this man to give him, an adult, cactus when he had "asked" for it earlier, but to tempt forcibly start the addiction. "They're just kids!"

"Better intervene," Zuko said as he swept in. He easily pried Sokka from the man.

"Beat it," Jet hissed as the man was freed and stumbled back. When the man looked as if he wanted to protest, Jet unsheathed a sword. "Now."

He took a few steps back before turning and running out of the alley. Jet turned back to Sokka, preparing to ask him what he was doing, when he found the other young man squatting against the cave wall, his face buried in his arms. He grit his teeth as he shook his head.

They were children. He was essentially encouraging the dealer who had given him the drug that it was okay to sell and now, kids were being offered the drug.

What was he doing? He was Sokka of the Water Tribe. He was a friend and confidant of the Avatar. He helped found a city! Now, in exchange for a quick high, he'd allowed and encouraged such a thing. If they were putting him in danger, what more would they for little kids? He remembered when he entered Ba Sing Se earlier of the man and his brightly colored packets.

Sokka lifted his head and narrowed his eyes. For a moment, his anger and frustration overwhelmed the cravings. He needed to stop. Not just stop himself, but the dealers.

Zuko put his hand on Jet's shoulder and shook his head. Jet clenched his jaw and took a deep breath.

"We gotta go," he told the man crouched by the wall. "That guy won't stay quiet. Violators here are quickly dealt with, so we need to get out before he calls someone to take care of us."

"Come on, Sokka," Zuko said as he stepped around Jet and bent down to grasp Sokka's arm. "We need to hurry up."

Shakily, Sokka shook his head. He tried to stand up, only to wobble. Zuko propped him up.

"They're coming," Jet said as he peered around the corner. "We nee to to go now!" He scrambled back into the alley and tugged up his and Sokka's hood, making sure to cover their heads before stumbling out with Sokka propped between him and Zuko.

Sokka tried to keep up them, realizing just how badly his motor skills were impaired at that point. Silently, he cursed himself for holding them back.

Somehow, by some miracle, they made it outside and hid up in the trees - no easy task with Sokka as he was - until the danger passed.

"You okay there, Sokka?" Zuko asked carefully from the tree branch they were perched precariously on.

Sokka closed his eyes and leaned back against the tree trunk. The other two barely heard his answer. "I don't think so."

It wasn't until later the next evening, when Sokka felt up the courage to confront his partners. The shop was closed for the night with Iroh doing light inventory and the young men helping with cleanup. All day, Zuko and Jet not once remarked or ignored him; there was no sign of their disappointment or displeasure. It was like nothing had happened the night before, just a standard reconnaissance trip.

"First off, I want to say I'm sorry. I let you guys down and-" He sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. "Look...okay...I mean." He took another deep breath before starting again. "What I am trying to say is..."

"You have an unconditional craving for cactus juice." Jet answered bluntly from where he was preparing tea.

Sokka's jaw dropped as he scrambled for coherency. "What, wait, how did you know?"

"Sokka, I have lived in the Earth Kingdom all my life. I wasn't always a Freedom Fighter, either. Dad was a farmer and when we went to the closest large market, you'd sometimes meet people who travel all over the Earth Kingdom. Cactus juice is popular for a lot of things. Some use it as a relaxant. Some use it to boost their bending or other marital arts." Jet grinned a bit cheekily at that last one, making Sokka wonder about things he didn't want to know about Jet's personal life. The man wasn't shy about sharing most of the time, much to both Sokka and Zuko's dismay.

"But," Jet placed the tea set on a tray and brought it over to the table. "Most people use a small amount, no more than a tear or a pinch. If you were a bender, you definitely would have kept to the small dosage for everyone's safety. Bending side effects. Anyway, it's not dangerous until you have higher doses than that. Most healers set a cap when they recommend it. It's like any other poison - not deadly until the limit and you, Sokka, have definitely gone past that limit and back a few times."

The tribesman looked miserably down at his teacup. Zuko's expression softened a bit as he put a comforting hand on Sokka's shoulder. "I've seen something similar in the Fire Nation. There are treatment centres for this kind of thing."

Jet gently grabbed Sokka's chin, tilting his face up. "I don't think you're that bad off Sokka. You've just had a few powerful doses. Nothing going cold pig on won't help."

"By going 'cold pig' you mean-"

"Not a drop of cactus anything. You're free to drink all the water you want to wash what is left out of your body. In about a week or so you should be back to normal. In about a month or so, the cravings will start to go away. After that, it's all up to you to stay clean. You really shouldn't be taking that stuff unless Katara or some other healer you trust told you to and stick to the amounts they tell you."

Sokka nodded numbly.

A shuffling behind the three alerted them to Iroh, who had entered the room unexpectedly. "Excellent work today boys. Jet, Miss Suijin left an invitation for us to cater for her party next week. The young lady seems rather insistent that you're to help. Oh, and Sokka, a letter has arrived here from Katara today. The messenger said it was quite urgent, but given that you were feeling under the weather, I felt Katara would understand a mild delay." He explained as he handed the rolled up scroll to Sokka.

Sokka deftly took the letter and unravelled it. Whatever was written must have been short because Sokka read it in a flash, his face growing redder in seconds, but whether that was from anger, embarrassment or something else, none of the others in the room could tell because no noise came out of Sokka's mouth as he opened and shut it. He was completely flabbergasted at whatever Katara had to say in writing.

"You know what guys?! I really should take a break from all this Bros business. You two were absolutely right. And look here: they really need me back in Republic City. Some crisis or other. The last train leaves in an hour right? I'll catch that there. Don't worry about my stuff; I have most of it at home. Bye." Sokka shouted the last as he zoomed out the door, still dressed in his Jasmine Dragon uniform.

Jet and Zuko were both too slow to react as they reached the door just in time to see Sokka's retreating back. They could only shout after him. "Sokka! What about the intel?!"

Weeks later, Sokka found himself back in the Earth Kingdom city, having to flee under strenuous circumstances that would not be mentioned further. At least until Katara showed up. Despite his assertion that Ba Sing Se was where all the action was for the Brothers, Sokka was pretty sure Zuko took it all with him when he went back to the Fire Nation. Then, when Iroh sent Jet after him, the former Freedom Fighter had taken whatever leftovers there were. Sokka was tempted to follow them but:

"Sokka, I'm counting on you," Zuko had stated seriously. "I need to get back to my people. I need to do my duty and protect them and if something happens here that may have an effect on them, then I'll need someone I can trust who I can rely on here." There was a pause. "Can I count on you?"

So he had to stay because of the code! It was his duty as a Brother!

Zuko and Jet, however, did keep their promise in sending any intel they gathered. With each new piece of correspondence, Sokka began creating an encryption for them. The letters were relatively safe by messenger hawk; however, a failsafe wouldn't hurt. For now, they had been using simple ciphers, but they were going to need something more complicated than that, especially if any of their correspondence fell into the wrong hands.

Iroh had a couple of ideas on the matter.

"Rings?" Sokka looked unconvinced of Iroh's suggestion.

"I had considered little scrolls you boys could carry with you," the older man took a long sip of his tea. "But the only problem with that would be how easy it would be for those to fall into the wrong hands. A pendant can be cut if it has considerable length to look at comfortably while wearing it," he pantomimed. "Now a ring with the right mechanism...your gloves would hide your hands easily since you three wear those anyway and I imagine your mechanist friends would revel in the challenge."

It was a good idea, but would require tweaking when they had time. For now, the intel sent back was a challenge in itself. There was stolen Fire Nation armor, which were possibly remnants from the Hundred Years' War. Sokka was vaguely recalled an old conversation in the Northern Water Tribe about the drawbacks of that. He was overcomplicating things. At the heart of it, there was a simple goal the Dai Li were striving for and if he could figure that out, he'd find the starting motivation of all their plans.

If he knew where to start that was. He'd have to be mad genius like King Bumi to figure out something like that unless...

He looked at his trembling hands.

Sokka had been really good these last few weeks. The Water Tribesman had made good on his promise when he went back to Republic City, publically confronting the owner of Sly's with a bit of help from Toph. However, he wasn't a fool. He knew he wouldn't be able to completely purge cactus juice from Republic City, but in taking out Sly's, it was one less place where it was distributed. The same could be said for Ba Sing Se. After that last trip to the hidden market, he knew where to get more of anything if he wanted to.

"No." He rubbed a hand over his face. Last time he took the cactus juice, he put Zuko and Jet in danger because he wasn't aware and thinking straight. They almost got caught in the catacombs keeping an eye on him. Sokka had gave them his word that he would not take anymore. He thought of those kids every single time he was tempted...and yet he had not gotten rid of the last of his stash.

Sokka paced around the room, trying not to think of the vial, but all that came to mind was how a small drink to calm his nerves, just a sip. Nobody would know. Couldn't he be excused for the stress he was under from all corners? If he didn't figure this out, he'd be letting the Bros down. If he didn't finish his latest correspondence from Teo, he'd be letting Republic City down.

The Water Tribesman had found a leftover vial of cactus juice in his room at Iroh's place and took it with him that morning with every intention of throwing it out. Then he started rationalizing that he was only keeping the vial as a test of his willpower: look, but don't use. At this moment though, all he had to do was reach inside his bag and mix it with his drink. No one would ever know.


He continued to stare at the vial. With a shaking hand, he uncorked it and began to pour it into the glass full of water he had been drinking.

What was he doing to himself? And to his friends and family who had been supportive of his problem, especially to get over this crutch?

He was Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, son of Chief Hakoda, brother of Master Katara and one of Aang's closest friends.

He was the Green Ghost of the Brothers of Ba Sing Se.

He would not falter.

Sokka grabbed the vial of cactus juice, the contaminated drinking water and threw open a window. Making sure no one was in the alleyway, he put his arms out, vial in one hand, water in the other and upturned both, listening to the emptying sound with satisfaction as their contents made contact with the ground.

A sound of hands softly clapping snapped him out of his reverie. Sokka swung around, startled to find Iroh standing in the doorway to the room.

Sokka licked his lips. "How long have you been there, sir?"

Iroh came up to him and pulled him into a hug with a hearty slap to the younger man's back. "I couldn't be prouder. I knew you could do it."

After letting him go, he back into the hallway to bring the tea tray that had been waiting to bring in. "Have some jasmine tea. It's good enough for everyone."

Sokka couldn't agree more as he took a sip.

A Public Service Announcement

A man was hunched over a large drawing table, an ink brush in his hand as he carefully drew a line across a piece of paper. He looked up, stretching his arms in the air before bringing them down to rub the lopsided gray beard miraculous adhered to his face.

"Ah, hello. I'm Wang Fire," he began, lowering his voice just a tad. "Creator, writer, and artist of the Brothers of Ba Sing Se." He rose from his seat and moved in front of his desk, taking a seat on the edge and leaning forward. "As you probably read in this month's issue," he continued, resting his elbow on his knee. "Drugs are serious business."

"No matter how fun they may seem," another voice interjected beside him as a tall young man with unruly dark brown hair and a bright red demon mask on his face appeared beside him. "The consequences can be dangerous to both you and those around you."

Another figure joined him while another two flanked Wang's left side. A man wearing a dark green belt with numerous pouches and a small green mask nodded. "So, the next time you're faced with a decision on whether or not to do drugs..."

"Don't do them," both the Red Demon and Green Ghost chorused.

A lengthy pause filled the silence and the Red Demon elbowed the stiff man dressed in black and a blue mask beside him.

"Huh? Oh...uh...Stay in school?" the Blue Spirit choked nervously. Behind his mask, the Red Demon rolled his eyes.

"And listen to your elders," the old man smiled kindly. Most of his face was obscured by his hood.

"This is Wang Fire."

"Lin Bo Li as the Red Demon."

"Wei Lai Xi as the Green Ghost."

"Le...Lee! As the Blue Spirit."

"And I am the Tea Master."

"Telling you," Wang Fire looked proudly before them. "To just say no to drugs."

The curtains fell across the stage and Sokka let out a groan. "Ugh! I knew I should've written your lines!" he pointed accusingly at Zuko.

"I didn't want to do this!" Zuko growled from behind his mask.

"Now, boys, calm down. I'm sure our good Police Captain was thrilled at your performance to encourage the city's children to say no to such things," Iroh placated them as they were ushered to the right wing of the stage. Behind the curtains, the pleased cheering of Republic City's children filled the air.

"You guys did great!" Aang beamed. "Thanks for helping with the city's public service announcements," he said earnestly.

"Yeah, no problem," Sokka said as he stroked his beard.

"So, are these guys the real deal?" Aang asked far too excitedly for an adult, fully-realized avatar. "Toph said you managed to get the real Brothers!"

"What?" Sokka laughed nervously as his eyes darted around. "The real bros...hah! Are you kidding me, Aang? Man, you are so funny. The real brothers...hahaha..."

Aang looked disappointed and Iroh stepped in, patting the Avatar on the shoulder comfortingly. "What he means to say is that the real brothers couldn't make it. They have crime fighting to do back in Ba Sing Se. We were just lucky enough to get some good actors."

"Oh...," Aang said disappointedly. "I heard a lot about them. I kind of hoped-"

"Okay, Sokka, you got to do your little public service ad," Katara's chiding voice reached them as she stalked forward, a few scrolls in her arms. "You promised you'd help with the eastside planning this afternoon!"

Sokka visibly winced. Iroh chuckled once more. "Katara, surely you can give your brother a moment to get out of his costume, yes?" he asked as he waved over a stagehand who was rushing onto the stage to dress it for a scene. The old man carefully plucked one flower from the vase the stage hand was holding before sending him away.

"Sorry, guys, but this is a bit urgent," Katara said. She did look more frazzled than normal. "Aang," she added as she reached them. "You still have those export documents to sign at customs to get those relics from the Southern Air Temple to the island. If you don't hurry, the customs office is going to close for today."

"Jeez, Katara, let him take a break," Sokka sighed as he carefully tugged off his beard. "Come to think of it, why don't you take a break? You've been working non-stop."

"Of course I have!" Katara shouted as she shoved several scrolls in Aang's arms before grabbing Sokka's Wang Fire beard and ripping it off his face. The Water Tribe warrior let out a howl of pain, but could only glare as he rubbed the sore spot across his face. "Who do you think is keeping this city going while you're off playing Mr. Artist and Aang and Toph are running around, doing public service announcements to grade schoolers?"

Jet was smirking from behind his mask, knowing he couldn't talk while Katara was there. He was sure she'd recognize him and Zuko, then they'd be chastised for 'letting Sokka drag you into his insane plan!'. He didn't notice Iroh slip the flower he had taken into Zuko's hand.

As the masked Fire Lord jumped in surprised, he lifted his hand to look at the flower. Iroh then casually bumped into him from behind, sending the slimmer man stumbling forward, in front of the master waterbender, flower in hand.

Her eyes widened as Zuko froze in front of her, as if caught in the act. A shaky hand was held to her face, seemingly offering the prop flower Iroh had given him. Katara seemed taken aback by the flower and in her moment of surprise, Sokka sprung.

"Katara, have you met the Blue Spirit?" he said as swept between the two, draping his arms around each of their shoulders and bringing them together. "Blue Spirit, this is Katara, my sister. Katara, this is the Blue Spirit, country bumpkin and one of the members of The Brothers."

Aang furrowed his brows. "But you said they were just act-"

"Shush, Aang, I'm talking," Sokka cut him off quickly. He plucked the flower from Zuko's hand, gave it to Katara, and beamed. "Listen, while we're hard at work, think you can take Lee here around the area? Show him around...treat him to some our fantastic seafood and what not? What do you say? Take a little break? On me?" He held out a small bag of coins.

Zuko couldn't decide if he was glaring at Sokka or looking at him in a state of panic. How was he going to get through an entire day with Katara when he couldn't even talk!? He frantically looked back at the waterbender and resisted the urge to drop his jaw.

She seemed to be holding back a small smile. "I suppose, I do deserve a small break...," she trailed off.

Sokka looked utterly pleased. "Great! You two kids knock yourselves out," he cheered as he nearly shoved Zuko forward. "I'll see you later, Katara!"

Despite his face being covered, it was clear to Jet, Iroh, and even Aang that the Blue Spirit was at a loss. He hesitated for a few moments before finally being called forward by Katara. As they headed towards the exit, Jet scowled.

"You could've let me go, too," he grumbled.

"Yeah, but I can trust Zu...I mean, the Blue Spirit with her," Sokka asserted as he gave the Red Demon a sideways glance. "Unlike some other guy..."

Iroh chuckled. "I did expect the Brothers of Ba Sing Se are quite popular with the ladies."

"Popular?" Aang piped, looking longingly towards where Katara and the Blue Spirit had gone. He turned back to Sokka. " guys wouldn't, thinking about another member would you?"

"I'll be the one who decides, as the creator, writer, and artist," Sokka reminded him. He crossed his arms. "But, hey, I'm always open to hear ideas."

Aang looked hopeful. "What do you think...about the Purple Phantom?"

A.N. - So our long awaited interlude is done! Next up, we'll pick up from where chapter six left off and welcome the next special guest on the Bros! For your patience, we offer up this little teaser:

The Brothers of Ba Sing Se

Chapter Eight: World's Finest

See you all next time! Same Brothers place! Same Brothers channel!