Chapter Ten.

Azula woke to the basket being jostled. She closed her eyes again and waited for Sokka to stop stirring, then felt his leg next to her arm. The basket was jostled harder, and she heard a low rumbling. She began to move and had opened her mouth to order the Water Tribe Boy to investigate, but his hand fell on her head. She understood it as a bid for silence, so she kept still while he moved like a glacier to peer out of the basket. When he lifted a flap of canvass, the daylight from outside shined inward, making her blink. He pulled back slightly faster and whispered directly into her ear.

"Polar bear dogs. Two of them."

She had only heard stories of the polar bear dogs. "What do they want? We don't have any meat," she retorted in a whisper.

"We are the meat," Sokka said, still talking low. "Food is scarce out here, and big animals like that don't play around."

"We need to drive them off," she said. "Unless you think we can get this balloon up with them around."

"We can't," Sokka said. He was quiet for a while but seemed to think faster as the nudging at the basket became more insistent. "Alright," he said finally. "I'm going to throw over the canvass and hoist you up. It'll hurt, but you need to throw fireballs. Got it?"

She sighed and prepared to put her weight onto her good leg. Sokka gave a brief count down and shouted "Now!" as he pulled the canvass away and pulled her up by hooking under her arms. The angle he had her up at was awkward, and she had to release a fan of flames above the dog's heads as they circled close to the basket. The larger of the two bounded away, while the the other backed up, growling.

Sokka shifted his grip, taking her around the hips and lifting her higher. She could feel the blood rushing to her leg, putting pressure and pain on it, but focused on singing the buttock of the braver, or hungrier, of the two polar bear dogs. It yelped and ran off to join its companion a respectable distance away. They nearly blended in with the snow, but their black eyes and noses kept turned toward the balloon.

"Told you they don't mess around," Sokka said. "Keep ready, they might get brave and come back. One's fat, the other is skinny, so that could mean they just hooked up and won't cooperate too well."

"Ow...what if they do?" she asked, her leg a searing distraction.

"They might come at us from opposite directions," he said. "They only need to hit us once, and we're probably done for. Come on, let's get the balloon up before they put that much together."

She waited while he found the long pole he had used to prop up a corner of the balloon and wedged it beneath like he had done before so there was an opening above their heads. She gave it a hot flame and like before, the balloon went billowing up and out. She concentrated on her breathing and the balloon filled out and rose up, taking the basket with it.

"Oh, crap, lookout!" Sokka shouted.

The pole went out of his grasp, and the balloon basket reeled to one side and tipped. She went sliding to side wall next to Sokka, who was swinging his boomerang at the skinny polar bear dog that had bounded after them as they rose. She saw its jaws had clenched into his arm and were pulling him over the balloon's edge. Without weighing her options, she engulfed her hand in flame and hoped up, slapping the dog's face with her burning hand. It yelped and let go of Sokka, who fell back into the basket, clutching his arm. Azula, ignoring the pain in her leg, put more heat into balloon, causing it to rise faster.

Sokka was rolling on the floor of the balloon, jostling it, until Azula slapped him. "Stop moving! How bad is it?"

He sucked in a breath through his teeth. "It mostly got my coat...agh..." He took off the coat, and she could see it was stained with blood. He held the arm up, and she saw the dog bear's teeth had broken the skin over his left tricep. "Man that smarts."

She searched for the doctor bag and slid it over to him as he took off his shirt. She sent up a hot blast of flame and held it for a while, making the basket lurch upward as their altitude increased. He was fumbling with rags and bandages when she slid next to him.

"Stop, let me do it," she said.

Two big puncture marks were responsible for most of his bleeding, and, summoning tiny flames to the tips of her fingers, she stopped it, making him yelp. Cleaning the wound as best she could with no water, what they had being reserved for drinking, she put the disinfecting balm over all the wounds and then proceeded to wrap it up.

"There," she said, tying a bandage off. "A flesh wound at best."

"Thanks," he said. "If it were winter, I'd say those dogs are a sure sign we're near the sea."

"Why's that?"

"They hunt tiger seals as they come up through the ice. There's more tiger seals farther south along the ice sheet in the summer when it's not so thick, but in the winter, the place gets pretty barren, and the polar bear dogs slink around the coast more. We could still be pretty close to the sea, though."

"We can't be far off," Azula said. "We've been traveling constantly at a good speed."

"We started pretty far south," Sokka said. "And this balloon is no Appa, or even an airship. I thought we were a day and a half away at most, but that was up there where the wind was faster."

"Well...I'm rested now, so give me something to eat, and I'll have us in the high-winds soon enough."

He fixed her another mushroom kabob, which he roasted on the fire she used to make the ascent. She ate it quickly, hating the taste and hating more the memory of the place where they grew.

"I notice you lost the pole we use to inflate the balloon," she said.

"Yeah, and I never fixed that problem with the hole at the top," he said. "Which means our next landing is going to be hard, and it's probably going to be our last."

"We won't stop until we reach the sea," she said, her gold eyes alight with determination. "You can build a boat when we get there, that should be safer."

"I can do boats," Sokka said. "I'm pretty much the boat master."

"Great, but what we need now is a balloon master who can figure out how to make our landings softer."

"I think I'm on board with that," Sokka said, and rested his chin in his hand to think.

-000-

Another day passed at high altitude, and, to conserve their energy, they spoke and did little. Azula kept up with the flames, and every so often, Sokka looked over the edge of the basket to track their progress. He shouted when he began to see more rocks and stunted shrubs. He shouted all the louder when he saw the thin sliver of gray on the horizon that marked the edge of the southern sea. At least he thought it was the southern sea. He had no idea how far east they had gone and it could be the South Eastern Ocean he was looking at. Either way, it was a long way north to where he'd left from on Appa's back, and that was assuming the resistance fighters were still there.

His elation at seeing the water was dampened by the thought of the journey he still had ahead of him. The thought of ditching Azula at some village occurred to him, and as his mind pondered the ramifications, he noticed something near what had to be the shoreline. As he squinted, Azula came up beside him, wanting to see water that wasn't frozen, perhaps.

It was too late to stop her from realizing what the orange speck was.

"Saved!" she cried. "Ha, ha, ha! Those are Fire Nation banners, Sokka. Looks like I win."

He had piled their supplies into two mats to be used as crash pads when they landed. From one, he took a spyglass. Looking through it, he saw it was indeed a Fire Nation camp near the shoreline, and it would not be long before he and Azula were spotted. His heart began to sink, but then beat faster when he saw a ridge of white fur mixed in with the fires and banner poles. He bit his tongue rather than shout his joy over seeing Appa.

As the balloon drew closer, and as Azula chuckled, he saw the bison was tied to a platform and being dragged up a hill by Fire Nation soldiers. He could see several boats behind them on the water.

-Alright, so they caught Appa...and rather than take him back to the Fire Nation, they brought him here,- he thought.

The bison looked dirty and disheveled and clearly had been abused. He set his anger aside and kept looking, noting the balloon was slowly beginning to descend from Azula letting the trapped air cool. He kept his eye on Appa and thought he was probably in good enough condition to fly, as they had taken the trouble of tying him down.

He tried his best to filter out his own knowledge when guessing how the Fire Nation would act. It was clear they thought Appa had something to do with the missing airship, and he supposed they wouldn't be able to make too many assumptions about his balloon when they saw it.

-But Azula will make it pretty clear to them what's going on the first chance she gets,- he thought. -Gonna have to think on my feet here, get Appa, get away.-

As he had no idea how he was going to handle the Fire Nation on the ground, he turned to inspect its princess, who leaned over the edge of the basket alongside him. Her hair had been tied back in a tail and looped in on itself so resembled the tail of a tropical bird, only it was raven black rather than brightly colored. Lack of sleep and so much time spent underground had left her skin sallow and dark beneath the eyes, but now her expression had brought a brightness to her face that Sokka did not find altogether unpleasant. She looked like any young girl who had sighted home after a long, hard walk in the darkness.

And then he caught the blaze in her amber eyes and remembered who and what she was, a coiled eel viper always in a position to spring.

"So," he said, loosening his boomerang in its sheath. "How is this going to end?"

First her eyes turned towards him, then her head. She seemed mildly surprised to find she still had a battle to fight. "What do you mean? Those are my people down there with your sky bison in chains. I'll let the balloon go down, and unless you learn to firebend within the next few minutes, we'll be on the ground, and I'll be saved."

"So I'll just take Appa and leave then?" he asked.

The satisfaction held by her facial features diminished somewhat, but its loss did not alarm or surprise her, and her eyes blazed all the brighter. "I'll see that you're treated as though you were a captured noble, not a low-life peasant. But you'll have to act appropriately and understand that there's a limit even to my authority."

Her last words sounded like an admission, and Sokka could not help but smile ruefully. "So all that mess we went through didn't change you a bit?" he asked.

"Nonsense," she said with a wave of her hand. "I plumbed the very depths of my potential as a firebender and personal resilience as a person. Once my leg heals, I'll be stronger than ever."

Her face and demeanor, despite being under duress from fatigue and injury, presented Sokka with a flawless stone surface. Flawless in appearance, at least. He sensed it was a veneer. A smooth, dark, brittle surface that concealed a vast hollow space underneath.

Sokka shrugged. "Well, I don't know what I learned exactly, but one thing I do know is that I'm not going down without a fight."

She tensed, ready but reluctant to fight him.

-She knows she could burn me pretty good, but she also knows one good bump on that leg of hers and she'll wish she'd never been born.- He felt mean and ugly for having such a thought, but something told him Azula might not have as much a say in his fate as she claimed, especially once the soldiers found out what happened to their comrades on the airship and who was responsible.

"I suppose I knew it would come to this," Azula said, backing away from him.

The balloon was descending, and from the corner of his eye, Sokka could see more activity among the Fire Nation expedition. He wondered what they were up to but dared not take his eyes off Azula. "You might think I'm just a crippled princess, but you'll soon learn better."

"Why don't you just relax?" he said, his hand resting on the hilt of his boomerang. Her palms had not ignited yet, but he knew they could in an instant. "Are you really that surprised that I'm not going to be taken prisoner?"

"Not really," she said, not relaxing. "You're the stubborn type."

"Funny, back in that cave, you sounded like you were ready to make me a prince," he said, smiling as he recalled her sad attempt to convert him when they were debating the merits of braving the caverns.

"Don't flatter yourself. You're a Water Tribe peasant, and that's all you'll ever be."

Her insult bounced off his furs like the cutting wind, and he shrugged. A worm of thought had begun to writhe in his brain, and while he wasn't sure about where it was headed, he knew the general direction and let it play itself out through his instincts.

"You'd have to admit, though, if I were just a common Water Tribe peasant, the Fire Nation would be in a lot of trouble," he said, pretending to brush some lint from his fur.

The balloon's descent continued, but it slowed as it was caught in an updraft and pushed gently at an angle away from the Fire Nation troops and towards a wide expanse of snow.

Azula laughed. "I think the cold has finally seeped into your brain," she said, shifting her weight uncomfortably. Sokka thought the least he would accomplish was wearing her out through talking.

"It hasn't," he said flatly. "The cold didn't get either of us. We didn't even get frostbite. We didn't starve, we didn't have to eat people, we didn't get eaten by blob monsters or polar bear dogs, and here we are, flying through the air in a balloon I built."

"That I've powered," Azula said, crossing her arms.

Sokka nodded and smiled. "Yep. You also kept us warm when I couldn't, and you helped fight off those blobs and polar bear dogs, but where would you be without me?"

"Comfortable and bored in an airship," she said, turning her head away.

"True, but this is war, remember," he said, rolling with her jab. "Oh, yeah, I flew to the south pole, intercepted your airship, and took it down. Oh, wait, you helped with that too, didn't you?" He was smiling now, hoping she saw the joke.

The corners of her mouth turned up, telling him she saw the irony of it all. "Is there a point to this speech?" she asked, looking at him sharply now.

"I just want you to admit that you'd be dead without me and that I've done a pretty good job getting your butt this far," he said.

"Is that all? You don't want to be set free?"

"You let me worry about being free," he said. "You've made it clear you'd rather have me under lock and key than out there, planning to take you down."

He thought he might have overstepped and revealed what he was doing. He wasn't sure what his plan was himself, but from the affronted angle Azula's chin and shoulders had moved, he could see she had taken the bait. "I see I'm not the only one who's gained a deeper appreciation for themselves," she said. "Though in your case, I might call it arrogance."

Sokka made a show of looking around the balloon. "Is there someone here you're trying to impress? It's just the two of us, princess, and we both know I'm not arrogant. Now, before we hit the ground, suck it up and admit that I've been pretty smooth."

-And smooth you'll be if you pull this off, old buddy,- he thought.

Her lips parted to speak more words of scorn, but they paused as her eyes narrowed, and she started to ponder him in earnest. To Sokka, it looked as though she were seeing him for the first time, and when her eyelids rose no more than a centimeter, he knew he had her, though what she would do now, he had no idea.

"Alright," she said slowly. "Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, I wish to formally thank you as a Princess of the Fire Nation for all you've done to help me. And while I won't pardon your attack on my airship, I will acknowledge it as a brave act of war, albeit from an enemy." Her tone held no mock formality; it was sincere, and she accompanied it with a small bow as far as her wounds would let her.

"Well, you're welcome, Princess Azula," he said, vowing to speak no more, lest he risk destroying what he thought he had built. If he'd built anything at all.

-If I'm reading her right, she'll appreciate me being a little smug. Helps that everything I said about myself was true...Somehow, I doubt I'll be invited to dinner, but if I can keep out of shackles long enough to get close to Appa.. Guess I'll have to play it by ear.-

The balloon was going down fast now, and Azula was looking at him with a kind of wistful expression. He had no illusions about how far she had been won over. He had been able to tell she already respected him in her strange way, and he dared not contemplate what twisted version of human emotions she was now forming in his direction. Thankfully, he wouldn't have to think about it much longer as the balloon was now definitely on a crash course.

"I think it's time we assumed crash positions," said Sokka, breaking the silence.

The supplies he had piled to cushion their fall did not look anywhere near so soft as they had before, now that the balloon was on its way down.

Azula nodded and went to the floor of the basket on her own, unable to stifle a pained cry as her leg suffered a nudge. Sokka remained standing as long as he could, watching the snowy ground grow closer and closer. It was possible they would hit and be dragged, thus taking some force from the landing. In that case, he would have a decision to make; either switch to his plan B or keep following plan A for a while longer.

He jumped to his crash pad and felt his stomach tighten. The impact was as hard as it had been the first time, only now it was accompanied by them being upended and dragged inside the basket. Snow came in on them, and their gear was sent flying all about while the world became a jumble of snow, cloth, and hard objects. He heard Azula cry out, but his head was promptly buried in icy snow.

When he pulled himself free of the snow and loose items he couldn't see, which told him he was trapped under the basket, he could distinctly hear Azula whimpering and reached out for her, still not sure if he intended to comfort or inflict violence.

She let out a snarl of pain and rage that made him recoil. For a moment, both were quiet, then the gloomy cavern filled with a dull blue light. He could see her face behind the fire, long and drawn, her eyes black. She was breathing heavily and clearly in agony.

"Very well, Sokka," she said, her voice pained. "Do as I say now, there'll be no argument..."

"I told you, I..."

"Silence! You listen. I've decided to spare you this once, so there'll be no question later on what you're owed."

"Thanks," Sokka said, feeling he was being rather gracious. "Let's get out from under this thing. I don't want to be trapped when your people get here."

"Stop," she said. "It's not that simple. You're going to take me hostage."

Sokka's voice caught in his throat as she suggested what his plan B had been.

She continued. "I don't have time to explain every angle of my thinking to you, so we'll leave it at this: I have to save face. When my men get here, you'll have your little dagger at my throat. It needs to be convincing, so don't act weak. Understood?"

He nodded, sensing now was not a time to argue, but he should still expect treachery.

-She knows that was my plan all along,- he thought. -She figures if she's in on it, she'll be able to turn it around on me. Okay, princess, you're about to experience some award-worthy acting.-

The balloon started to move on its own, and Sokka jumped into action, realizing he had somehow not heard the soldiers come upon them. He got behind Azula, who shrieked, and grabbed her by the coat. As the basket was heaved over, he stood, drawing his dagger and holding it in front of Azula's face where all could see it.

"Hold it!" Sokka shouted, touching the blade to Azula's throat.

The soldiers, about half a dozen in the first group, were only a few feet from him, while a larger group of slower men were a hundred feet off. They stopped, and Sokka trudged back through the snow, dragging Azula and making her moan in pain.

"You disgusting savage, I'll kill you for this, mark my words," Azula said between clenched teeth.

"Stop moving!" he shouted. "All of you, back off!"

The men looked winded from their run and bewildered, but they knew enough of their princess to recognize her in her current state and the peril she was seemingly in.

"Seize him!" Azula shouted. "He doesn't have the guts! He's bluffing!"

The soldiers hesitated but slowly began to move forward. Sokka bit his lip and lifted Azula's head by her chin, then pressed the knife blade deep into the soft flesh between chin and neck. She growled, but it was enough to make the soldiers stop their advance.

"Easy, kid, just let her go!" shouted the lead soldier.

He was three men back and raised his helmet's face mask. He wore a day's worth of stubble and looked tired to Sokka, who was sizing up each man as carefully as he could while taking note of Azula's struggles. She was a warrior and would know where and how to strike even from her current position, yet she wiggled and pulled like a true damsel in distress.

"Oh, you're dead," Azula said venomously. "You won't live another hour, I promise."

"Just shut up," Sokka said to her, still not letting himself give up the fear of treachery. "Listen up!" he shouted to the soldiers. "You're going to untie that sky bison so I can leave. When I'm on his back, you get your princess, and I go free. Got it?"

The men were silent, and all but the leader exchanged glances. "We'll untie it, but we can't control it," he said wearily. "We had a job capturing it, I'll say that."

"Is he injured? Can he still fly?" Sokka asked.

"That's why he's tied down," said the commander. "Is he yours? Are you the Avatar?"

"No, I'm not the Avat...quit stalling!" Sokka jerked the knife, and Azula squeaked.

"Don't do it!" she shouted to her men. "He's still bluffing. He doesn't have the guts to kill me, and if he did, then where would he be? You have the upper hand, so don't let him escape!"

Sokka tapped her injured leg with his foot, and she screamed. He pulled her in tighter and fixed the commander with the coldest stare he could.

"You know she's crazy," he said. "If you're afraid of her, think about what the Fire Lord will do to you if his daughter comes back in any worse shape than she already is."

The commander's eyes flickered between the two of them, and for a wild moment Sokka wondered if he might order them both killed. They were far from the Fire Nation, after all. The commander finally nodded his head and waved at the men behind him.

"Fine, we'll do it your way," he said. "Just leave her be."

"He's playing you," Azula said, her voice filled with pain. "I'll have you all executed for insubordination! Your careers will be over!"

Sokka only had eyes for the commander's face. He didn't know this man but knew his type. He wasn't a noble, but the lines on his face spoke of someone used to thinking who had risen in the ranks of the military as a commoner. He likely had a healthy fear and respect for the nobility, hence his presence in this place. And if he had any hand in capturing Appa, he was certainly no buffoon. Despite this, his gaze of uncertainty was bending towards malice, and it wasn't aimed at Sokka.

Azula had to have sensed this, he thought, but in the event she hadn't, she was dangerously close to pushing this man over the edge and making him do something that would bode ill for Sokka's survival.

Sokka took a deep breath and steeled himself, thinking it was quite possible it would be Azula whom he would alienate. He took her by the chin and pulled her head to the side. He pressed the tip of the dagger over her neck, above the hard line of muscle far from any soft flesh or artery, and drew a thin red line. He kept his face rigid, thinking about black snow. Still, he felt like the basest of scumbags.

Azula initially made no move, perhaps too shocked at what was happening, but a second after his blade left her skin, she screamed and sunk in his grip. "D-do what he says!" she stammered. "Release the animal! Do what he says! NOW!"

Her last word was a piercing shriek, and it set the soldiers in motion.

"Back. Off," Sokka said to the commander, who had stayed, and the man began taking long steps backward. The wind had come up over the snow, making the balloon billow and everything turn white for a moment. "Sorry," Sokka whispered into Azula's ear.

She responded with heavy breathing, and he could tell from how she moved that her leg was her main concern. He looked down at the wound he'd inflicted and saw it was little more than a scratch, something a thorn might have outdone.

The wind died down, and he could see the commander alone in the snow. The men were still running back to the camp, along with those who had brought up the rear, and Sokka nearly groaned, knowing how long he would be standing here in the snow like this, knowing these could well be the most important moments of his life.

"Let me down," Azula said, weakly, and he guided her as she slumped into a sitting position.

He got a look at her leg. Azula's luck had finally run out, and her shin was bent near the middle at a slight angle. Sokka thought perhaps she had reached a pain overload, which was why she wasn't screaming.

"Sorry about your neck," he said again.

"Don't apologize...weak," she muttered.

His eyes were now fixed towards the Fire Nation camp where he could see the men arriving. It was another minute before he saw Appa rising into the sky, and for a horrible moment, he thought the bison was leaving when he turned north. This was part of a circle, however, and Appa seemed to be trying to decide between escape and revenge.

"Appa!" Sokka shouted as loud as he could. "Appa, over here! Appa! Yip yip!"

He thought it was fortunate the sky bison had sharp ears and eyes, as the giant mass of fur turned towards him and came in low. The commander, sensing danger, conjured fire in each fist but held it, coming closer to Sokka and Azula.

Sokka twirled his dagger, and the commander stopped just as Appa came to the ground behind him, landing as though he were light as a fire hawk and not a multi-ton mammal. Appa seemed to have comprehended some of what was happening and merely bellowed a greeting rather than slurped Sokka with his tongue. Sokka hoisted Azula up, and she cried out, making the commander jump.

"Where are you going with her!?" he shouted.

"Someplace warmer but less firebendy," said Sokka. "Toss your little fireball if you want, but have fun explaining to the Fire Lord how his daughter got scars to match her brother."

Sokka went quickly up Appa's tail, and with practiced agility he had her in Appa's saddle, which had not been removed by the Fire Nation.

The commander's face was a wash of despair and horror, as now that it had come down to it, he had been left with no choice and no time to make even a bad one.

Appa did not need to be told "Yip, yip," and was moving through the air, albeit slowly and at a low altitude, likely because of his own hardships. Sokka lie flat on his back, letting himself believe that his ordeal was essentially over, aside from several extremely loose ends. He sat up after a moment and saw Appa had begun to circle back, not entirely towards the Fire Nation camp, but closer than Sokka wanted.

-Big guy wants to kick some butt. Can't say as I blame him, but it'll have to wait.-

He felt Azula's hand clamp down hard on his shoulder. She was behind him, near the rear of the saddle. Her breath whispered across his ear.

"It was nice getting to know you," she said and planted a dry kiss on his cheek. Sokka's body became as rigid as the bleak ice beneath the snow that ran on seemingly forever to the south. His brain scrambled to make sense of what she had done, but not for long. "And this is for cutting me."

He felt her fingernails sink into his neck as they raked backward leaving a burning bloody trail in their wake. Sokka shouted in pain and clamped a hand over his damp neck as he felt Azula's presence leave him.

Ignoring the stinging in his flesh for a moment, he turned to see that she had rolled over the edge of the saddle and down over Appa's hip. She went out of sight briefly before he saw her once more, falling. They were nowhere near as high as when the airship crashed, but Sokka did not see that as an improvement. When he saw blue jets shoot from her hands she had moved to an upright standing position so the force was slowing her fall.

Sokka winced, but he could not look away as Azula hit the ground. Even from where he was, he heard her piercing scream, yet her subsequent wails, if she was conscious enough to emit any, were lost in the snowy ether between bison and ground.

Feeling the mad urge to have Appa swoop back down and pick her up, Sokka's hand once again found his neck, and it came away stained in blood made sticky from the cold.

"Ugh, good riddance," he said and moved to take up Appa's reigns.

He steered the bison northward, and let him go at his own pace, merely wishing to be somewhere warmer. All he had on him were his boomerang and a dagger, but Sokka knew he could survive on that for now. He would have to get some supplies, perhaps from a Water Tribe village, but those thoughts were far away now, and he felt sleep creeping up on him, having sensed an opening.

Sokka sat and hung his head, feeling the weight of everything that had transpired bearing down on his shoulders. Sokka hoped Aang would at least be awake when he returned but would take not having to explain the danger he had placed Appa in as a silver lining to a dark cloud. The darkest cloud of all, however, had a round, brown face and bright blue eyes, and it swam before him now heavy with a storm.

Sokka had no idea how long he had been gone but knew it had been longer than what he'd told his sister and father to plan on. He could only hope they had the sense to stay around where they were rather than go looking for him right away, and in thinking of all this, he groaned aloud. He climbed out onto the back of Appa's neck and tugged affectionately at the bison's fur.

"How ya feelin', big guy?" he asked.

Appa responded with a hearty rumble, and Sokka sensed his speed had increased if not his altitude. The bison was tired and worn but glad to be in the air again, which relieved Sokka, as he had been loathe to nap himself if Appa was tired too.

"Glad to hear it," he said, patting the bison. "Let's go back to Aang. I'm going to take a nap."

The bison grumbled at the Avatar's name, and Sokka hoped he would keep north and avoid trouble for a few hours. His neck burned where Azula had scratched him, but he had nothing to bandage it with, as a cursory search of his coat turned up none of the healing salve they had used for Azula's leg or any bandages. His pat down did, however, reveal something rectangular and solid.

Hoplo's journal was almost tossed into the sea, but something gave Sokka pause. The journal had been the key to his and Azula's survival, and it was the last thing its owner could lay claim to having accomplished. Sokka thought he would tell someone of the creatures that dwelled under the icy mountains, but something cast doubt on that assumption.

-Azula will tell, of course,- he thought, but doubted that, even though he could not say why.

"Who would believe this anyway?" he wondered with a snort, knowing the journal was the only real proof. "What's the point?" -What if the things ever get out?- "They can't, it's too cold."

With another loud groan, he curled into a ball at the back of the saddle in his usual spot and for once rested without trying to formulate a plan. The journal, his family, the mountains, all these things would have to wait regardless. The pain in his neck had dulled, but he could still feel the spot on his cheek where her dry lips had touched him. He took off a glove to wipe his face and void the faint sensation she had left, but, after a moment's deliberation, he decided it was too cold to be gloveless and slipped it back on.

When his eyes closed, he found himself wishing that tonight there would be a full moon so that he might not feel like he missed Azula.

The end.

From the author: That's the end. First let's all thank Crazy4WritingB2, who offered to beta this story a little before Part II and made it much, much better, especially the ending. Second, thanks for all the feedback. As this is the end I'm anticipating some possible thoughts I might hear, so:

To those who did not know, the non-Avatar elements are all courtesy of H.P. Lovecraft. The rest was inspired by Jack London.

Any "Sokkla" fans who were left disappointed, hold your rotten tomatoes for a bit, a sequel is in the works. It may cause you hide nails in the tomatoes before throwing them, but there's still hope for Sokkla yet.