By Retad aka ardy1
Author’s Notes: I like Sokka-centric stories and I can’t find enough of them. So here’s one I threw together a few months ago, just after the season opener. So now it is very AU. But some out there might still enjoy it. It was inspired by a short drabble in response to a prompt on the LJ Zutara community:
“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Let’s be realistic here,” Sokka said to himself, as he rose from another grief-inspired nap as they headed towards the earth kingdom, “No one’s looking for me specifically, so I might as well keep myself busy”, and he let his mind wander on schemes to disable factories – with visions of blasting jelly; the design of strange machines to cripple to fire nation’s army – odd how many leapt to mind immediately; and various methods to sabotage the fire nation’s efforts that only a mechanical mind would run to. The thought occurred to him, “What else will I do while Aang is learning earth-bending…"
Disclaimer: Okay, I don’t own Avatar: The Last Airbender or its characters. Owell. I’ll get over it. So will you. In the meantime…
Since he knew he couldn’t draw to save his life, Sokka took a minute to savor the clean lines of the unknown draftsman’s images of the war balloon in various stages of construction. Even without the legends, which he could barely decipher anyway, the drawings could provide all the information necessary to build and operate a flying machine that would give the Fire Nation control of the skies. Sokka didn’t need his own familiarity with the machine to recognize this. Regretfully then, the drawings, too, must be destroyed. Now he concentrated on memorizing the engineers’ names noted in the legends, his real purpose in reviewing the documents in the first place. These were the individuals capable of reverse-engineering, and thus duplicating, the prototype stored in pieces in the hangar behind him. So they must be eliminated as well. Sokka felt relief that his task was merely to take advantage of the munitions stored in this newly completed factory to blow it, and its contents, to the heavens. He had no stomach for killing men whose only fault may be in being clever and working for the Fire Nation.
The factory consisted of a cavernous building, compartmented along one wall for storage, but primarily open to house the machinery to cut, weld, and tool each component of a war balloon and fit it together. Stairs led to an open loft all along the far end, used as an office by the army colonel spearheading the war balloon effort. Sokka was in this office now, having first covered the only window so as not to reveal his presence by his lamp’s glow. He was annoyed with himself for not having noticed the window earlier. While the factory was in a part of the small
He was still pausing over the drawings when he heard a strangely familiar voice.
“It seems thievery is a family trait.”
It simply couldn’t be. Somehow, someway, that jerk of a fire-bending prince had appeared at the top of the stairs in the loft.
“Honestly, don’t you have anything better to do than follow us around? I’ve seen the wanted posters for you, you know” Sokka growled. “The last place you should be is in a city crawling with Fire Nation troops all howling for your hide!”
“I could say the same to you, although I admit your particular hide is of no consequence to anyone,” the prince retorted. Slowly he began to advance. “I can’t help wondering what makes you think you will get away with stealing military plans.” His arms came up and smoke began to trail from the figure-tips of his left hand.
“Careful, Sparky,” Sokka grinned. “Perhaps you didn’t notice when you came in, but this place is one step shy of going boom-boom.” He gestured with the lamp over the railing at the dim reaches of the factory floor. “I appreciate the convenience of your army’s storage practices. It meant I didn’t have to bring anything with me beyond this lamp. Of course, a little flame from you and I won’t even need that to get the party going!” He thought perhaps smoke might be rising from his own ears as his brain burned furiously through all his available options. Then again, perhaps not. Given Zuko’s apparent hostility, there were very few options before him if he wanted to get out of here alive.
Zuko hesitated. Now his nose caught the scent of oil on the air, along with an acidic tinge from the barrels of blasting jelly. It wasn’t just thievery on the water-tribe boy’s mind this night. Ah, now that explained a lot. He had wasted precious time observing the dolt’s sister in the street festival after noticing that the boy himself had slipped away. The girl had made no move to withdraw from the public eye and Zuko’s curiosity had drawn him to investigate the brother’s activities.
Tracking the boy to this building after that had been largely a matter of luck. When Sokka left the circle of street performers, Zuko had seen him leave the plaza, heading towards the bridge that led to the block of properties restricted to the Fire Nation. Zuko almost assumed that he had made a mistake. If the tribesman were skulking off to join the avatar surely he wouldn’t be going that way! On the other hand, Zuko trusted his senses. Although he associated the water tribe pair exclusively with the avatar he admitted that there were other possibilities. So he had entered the Fire Nation zone himself, easily avoiding wandering patrols of guards, every sense alert for some sign of the other boy, some irregularity of appearance somewhere. A faint shifting in a patch of lesser darkness that defined an upper-level window in the otherwise blank façade of the largest building in the quadrant, a shifting that disappeared some moments later, was the only clue he received. More time was lost seeking entrance to the building itself, since both the regular door and the large bay doors at one end appeared to be locked and sealed. But there was yet another door on the far side that, although blocked by crates stacked inside, was not in fact locked. Once inside, he sought out the only light in the building, softly creeping up the stairs.
“Are you insane? If this building goes the resulting fire won’t just spread to the Fire Nation quadrant,” Zuko tried to keep his anger contained, and began to judge the distance between the two. Could he close it before the watertribesman could throw the lamp or draw his own weapons?
“Ah-ah. No closer, please.” He waved the lamp over the railing suggestively. “I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about how far the fire will spread,” Sokka countered. “After all, there is a full garrison just two streets over, the river bends nicely, cutting off the rest of the city from this sector, and half the city is out attending the festival. There will be no shortage of water or hands to control the blaze, and a good portion of those hands will be especially equipped to provide that control, courtesy of your own particular specialty.” Sokka bowed in Zuko’s direction with a flourish. After all, a lot of thought had gone into this effort, and not just by him! “Seriously, go away. Even you are smart enough to figure out that you can’t stop me before this place goes up in a blast you can’t contain alone. Do you really want to risk us both trying?” His voice had lost its mocking tone, and his look was grim.
Aang was bored out of his mind. What was more, he was lonely. He knew it was his duty to learn earth-bending, and he was thrilled to have his old friend as his teacher. But he missed Katara and Sokka. He missed Appa! Granted, they had only been gone two weeks, but what looong weeks! And worst of all was that he didn’t know but what they might need his help, while he was here safe in Omashu. Stuck again in lessons, maybe, but safe. Another very real objection? Frankly, this was no fun! Sokka and Katara were messing with explosive devices, secret undercover missions, strangers who could give them the kiss of death! Now that was living! Although what the kiss of death might involve Aang still had trouble envisioning…
Of course, the next thing he knew Bumi upped the ante on his earth-bending “exercises”, and he was nearly crushed in a landslide while attempting to create moving sculptures that interacted with passersby. So maybe he should focus a little more attention on these lessons after all. How annoying. Maybe they could discuss this at dinner – if he survived!
His allegiance was, of course, to Aang. But he couldn’t help but love the water tribe boy who, for all his complaints, still found the time to comb his fur for parasites, brought him treats of prime fruit – even out of season, if he could find them – and talked to him as if he might possibly believe Appa understood him, which of course he did.
When Aang and Sokka approached Appa about leaving Aang behind for an excursion beyond the mountains to the coast for a few days with just the water tribe boy and girl, and long days without even them for company, neither was sure Appa would acquiesce. But Appa had certainly noticed how unique he was now in the world, and vaguely understood that this was the result of some unnatural process. A process they were fighting, and it was only right he should assist in whatever way he could.
It didn’t hurt that he simply liked Sokka, and Aang’s adoration of Katara had not gone unnoticed by the great beast, either.
So he flew the pair to the banks of a river between cities on the northern
Iroh sipped at a final sake in the dim light of the tavern, wondering again at the turn of the wheel that had brought him back to this no longer sleepy port. The sake was the same, and he wouldn’t have been surprised to discover the tavern’s owner – and his accommodating daughter – to be also the same. But so much else had changed with time. Ah, by now no doubt the daughter was at least a wife and mother, he thought with a smile.
In his time, the port had swiftly surrendered to the onslaught led by a young, hot-headed general, whose fury was quickly quenched by the many pleasures on offer to a conqueror with a ready smile and light hand. Iroh’s fondness for the town had led him to invest in some of the more promising business ventures available. After all, he was fully aware that there was little real security in his position as brother to the Fire Lord, even given his promising military successes both for their father and then his brother. Besides death in battle or through assassination, the greater risks lay in court intrigue that could blind Ozai to Iroh’s loyalty, or divert necessary funding away from his military campaigns. Iroh had been careful to allocate a small portion of that funding as seed money on which to build his own fortunes. He knew he owed his formidable reputation as Dragon of the West as much to his financial acumen as to his military genius. But Iroh would have said you couldn’t really have the latter without at least some access to the former.
Dai Horishi had at least trebled in size since then, and the Fire Nation had brought industry to attract laborers to steady wages and soil its harbor and skies. Iroh had noticed a new, large facility in the Fire Nation Sector he had once carved out of the delta region on the river’s far banks, well away from the city proper. The city itself had crept up to embrace the very boundaries of that sector in an uneasy marriage of need, exploitation, and abuse. At least tonight the boundaries between the nations had disappeared in ancient celebrations of spring rites, the renewal of the land’s bounty.
Iroh had long hoped that exposure to the different peoples and cultures of the world during his search for the avatar would instill in his nephew the same longing for a harmonious co-existence that had finally stilled his own nationalist fervor all those years ago. But Zuko was cut from a different cloth than his uncle, his passions stronger, his will more focused. Or was he merely that much younger, and Iroh’s patience inadequate to the task? And where was Zuko now?
Still struggling with the revelation that his father was prepared to imprison him rather than allow him more time to capture the avatar, Zuko had allowed his uncle to direct their wanderings. If he was surprised at the course they took, or that his uncle was capable of tapping funding in strange places under names not their own, he gave no sign. Despite its apparent futility regarding his own situation, Zuko continued to absorb himself with the avatar. Knowing no other course to offer him, Iroh did not attempt to discourage him.
Zuko knew no one else had as much experience with the trio as he himself, and believed no one else was better positioned to trace their whereabouts. For months he had tracked their movements by reports of the great flying bison, and the idiotic lifting of morale in those areas he passed through. But after confirming the avatar’s presence at the North Pole among the water tribe there, after so nearly succeeding in his quest, all trace had been lost. The Fire Nation’s search for the avatar was too well-known, and he had ceased to travel openly.
It was no great puzzle that he had gone to the Pole to learn water-bending; he was only a child after all. Logic dictated that he would be seeking an earth-bending master now. Omashu or Ba Sing Sei? Or perhaps some remote village with a hermit master of the earth bending arts? The former cities were nearly impregnable, whereas the latter too numerous to search, even for the Fire Nation’s vast resources. Iroh’s smile broadened. Those resources were no longer available to the young prince, but his sister would find them of little help now either. So Zuko’s odds of success, when measured against anyone else’s, were at least better than even. But what about his odds against the avatar himself? One thing seemed relatively certain, the trio would steer clear of Fire Nation occupied territory,
It was quite possible that the inspiration of tracking the water tribe pair through music was nothing short of genius on Zuko’s part, although Iroh had yet to place confidence in it. Lacking Iroh’s scattered wealth, the avatar and his companions would need some means of earning income if they couldn’t count on local residents’ charity. Wandering musicians were a common sight throughout the world, usually accompanied by story-tellers, and good performances were a reliable means for earning a few coppers. Iroh himself played the suungi horn (and of course sang and wrote poetry, as any Fire Nation aristocrat must). It was certainly possible that any of the three could boast some musical ability. And it was of course likely that the water tribe had some specific musical tradition. But to then assume from there an individual song-trail that Zuko could track was simply preposterous. Wasn’t it? Mind you, that little ditty about the motivation behind the activities of highly visible members of the Fire Nation and the avatar – “can’t get no lovin’” (A/N: inspired by Wolfeyes’ Fanvid) was most amusing and extraordinarily original. True, they had run across it in the plains bordering the mountains of the northern air-bender stronghold, a fairly direct course for the avatar and his companions. But surely, anyone could have devised the amusing lyrics without real knowledge of the parties involved. Well, perhaps not, conceded Iroh with a low chuckle. But could children really be so, so knowing in their satire, even of themselves? Perhaps, in this case, Zuko had a surer hand on the pulse of his quarry.
He assumed that Zuko had gone to search for evidence on his theory regarding the water tribe pair’s musical travels among the performers in the city and its environs. Zuko had questioned every musician or story-teller they met regarding the origins of the pieces they played, sometimes even at the risk of making himself too memorable by his persistence. He had convinced himself the avatar was in Omashu, and fretted at Iroh’s insistence in giving the city a wide berth, keeping himself and his nephew constantly on the move. Iroh frowned. They had already tarried too long in Dai Horishi. He turned his brain to considering how best to locate Zuko if he did not return to the tavern by morning.
Katara strummed the final chords of the ballad, letting the notes die away in a plaintive manner appropriate to the lyrics. A few moments’ silence for the crowd to respond, then her hand began to beat a lively cadence on the belly of her instrument, and she grinned and looked around to tell her audience that it was time for a mood change. Another stringed instrument took up the beat with a wild dance air, and Katara gratefully stepped back into the small group of performers to take a rest. She had been playing virtually non-stop for well over an hour, at first with Sokka’s accompaniment, then with support from other members of the group when he withdrew, and finally ending with a solo.
Her performance seemed well-received, although there was a period fairly early on when she felt not all eyes were friendly. She shook off this vague fear as just the result of nerviness. How long had it been since Sokka left for the factory? How much longer before she should head for the river to meet him?
So far, everything had gone to plan. It had been simple for the two of them to fall in with the small group of itinerant musicians on the road to Dai Horishi, following the schedule of street festivals that formed the basis of their livelihood. Thanks to their father’s role as tribal story-teller and years of enforced idleness during long winter storms, she and Sokka were both more than competent on several instruments, and Katara’s singing voice was sweet and clear. While Sokka’s repertoire was greater, and included a range of his own compositions that caught the interest of their new friends, puberty had played fast and loose with his voice, leaving him an unreliable vocalist.
Members of the water tribe may not be often seen beyond the poles, but they were not so rare as to cause any real comment. After all, the war had made refugees of many populations. Without Aang, they were merely two more anonymous faces in a world of increasingly unsettled peoples. And that was exactly what they were counting on.
When they were invited to travel and play with the musicians at the next several festivals, they readily agreed. Several of Sokka’s songs were added to the play list, and they integrated themselves into the group’s performances over the next half dozen days. The group arrived in Dai Horishi a day in advance of the scheduled festival, and the siblings took advantage of the daylight hours to scout the object of their journey, the new weapons factory.
Operations had already begun at the factory, although manpower was still being recruited. Local opinion of the facility was ambivalent. It was well-known that the factory would be producing weapons for the Fire Nation’s use, but it would also provide desperately needed jobs. The
Rumor confirmed the intelligence they had been given as to the contents of the building. After the obligatory “songs for their supper” at the evening meal, Sokka and Katara met with a member of the local insurgent group that had provided the original intelligence on the factory to King Bumi. Arrangements were made such that a door would remain unlocked the next night, with the individual responsible ensuring his own highly visible appearance over the next twenty-four hours among highly-placed fire nationals by hosting a festival party.
Late that night, Sokka returned to the factory site and located the relevant doorway, hiding a lamp nearby and assuring himself that he could slip past the patrols and return undetected. The dry run set both siblings on edge, as much because everything was going so well as because the mission’s main event was nearly upon them. It all seemed too easy! Sokka’s customary pessimism screamed out warnings, and his mood blackened by the hour.
The day of the festival dawned clear and noisy. Katara couldn’t shut out the bustle of merchants and shoppers, and she envied Sokka’s long-practiced ability to sleep anywhere, anytime, under the most unpleasant conditions. Of course, he would need to be well-rested, so she didn’t begrudge him these last hours of slumber. Or, at least, not very much. He had objected strenuously to her presence on this trip, seeing no need to endanger both of their lives. But the reality was that she kept him focused, as well as mediated between his perpetual grumpiness and the more easygoing musicians they traveled with.
The musicians were sleepily gathered near the fountain in the center of the market plaza, discussing the previous evening’s carousings over breakfast. Most of the group was older than the watertribers, long-term troupers. A lifestyle of late-night performances, rewarded as often as not with food, drink, and the not-infrequent embraces of appreciative audience members, was not conducive to early rising.
However, since the early bird does in fact get the worm, as Katara joined them the topic wandered to where in the plaza they should set-up for the night’s performance. Strategic placement was important, since they needed to be far enough away from the potential noise of other exhibitions to not have to compete, and yet close enough to the main stream of foot traffic to attract an audience with pockets weighed down with coin. And then there was the consideration of adequate room for potential dancing. Well-briefed from their earlier explorations, Katara suggested the broad end of the plaza near the bridge spanning the river and leading to the Fire Nation Sector. After some deliberation and jockeying with other vendors, the musicians staked out their plot of hard-packed earth. Again the watertribers’ luck had held, the space being merely a few long strides from their ideal location. Lots having been drawn on timeslots of guard duty to maintain the group’s prime position, they splintered to attend to personal interests of grooming, appetite, and final snatches at shut-eye. While Sokka slept on she continued with their preparations.
Thank the spirits he was a genius. Condensing decades of earth-bending training into the space of a few short weeks would no doubt have been impossible for an ordinary master, no matter how talented the pupil. And there was the even greater problem of keeping that pupil interested in the training, given his state of distraction. Aang could also be lazy, and fall back on his air-bending to fake some of the effects of earth-bending. So Bumi had to be sharp. Yes, it was good to be a genius. Of course, he had his own responsibilities as King of Omashu to attend to as well.
Not that he would admit it, but over the years Bumi had actually managed to automate or delegate most of the functions of running his kingdom, which left him time to devote to things that interested him, like art, design, and messing with people. And, of course, his favorite, coming up with schemes to at least hamper the Fire Nation’s efforts at world domination.
They had been enjoying yet another feast since the return of the avatar and his friends to Omashu, this one attended by a large gathering of the city’s elite. For Bumi, the elite included craftsmen, artists, musicians and inventors. Of course, a smattering of merchants and aristocrats had to be included as well for the sake of politics.
Young Sokka, his stomach sated and usual gloom eased by good company, had been engaged in a friendly competition with one of the musicians, instrument held loosely but fingers flying. Katara’s eyes had rolled when she heard her brother baiting the older man on the quality of his playing, but she said nothing. Aang looked on gleefully, having placed bets around the room on which he had every expectation of collecting.
Bumi had been surprised at the young tribesman’s skill; it seemed out of character somehow. Still, the appreciation of music was universal. It flowed easily over all boundaries, even in the fire nation itself. And its practitioners were nearly as ubiquitous. They made good spies as a result, but it wouldn’t do for them to take a more active role.
Bumi was a firm believer in compartmentalizing the activities of his covert security forces. Spies gathered information. Analysts determined the best use of that information, usually with Bumi’s active involvement. The actual field work was accomplished by a stream of constantly rotated soldiers, individually chosen for each assignment for their particular talents. Bumi considered the odd bundle of talents displayed by his guests that night. Then he cast a more speculative eye on the young water tribe warrior, as a series of hitherto unrelated facts began to coalesce in his brain. That, of course, was the true nature of genius, the ability to see the possibilities!
While Aang had been hurt at his friend’s exclusion of him from the plan, Katara had been furious, and minced no words in telling her host what she thought of his machinations with their lives. Sokka himself had been dubious at first. Open battle he understood, and he was the first to protect home and family, but he wasn’t entirely comfortable with seeking out danger. On the other hand, he had a fine appreciation for a good plan, and he could see the obvious benefits to the plan of his combination of skills and knowledge. He was also stirred by a strong desire to prove himself, a factor Bumi had anticipated.
Two factors he hadn’t anticipated were Katara’s insistence on accompanying her brother, and the degree of anxiety inflicted on Aang by the absence of both siblings. It only made his job teaching Aang earth-bending that much harder!
Zuko grimaced. “You know I can’t let you do this.”
“Right,” Sokka sighed. “Gotta do your bit to help Dad conquer the world. Doesn’t matter that he’s decided you’re some kind of criminal. Believe me, I understand. Well, I guess I don’t really. But hey, no one ever listens to me, so why – oops, did I say the wrong thing?”
With a feral snarl, Zuko leapt at Sokka before he finished speaking. Sokka flung the lamp in a wide arc towards a stack of oil-soaked crates at the far end of the factory floor, swinging himself over the railing at the same time. He was rewarded by the sound of breaking glass and a hissing as flame caught at the oil. Happily, another stack of crates reduced his drop from the loft to a manageable distance. Less happily, in Zuko’s fury he unleashed a gout of flame towards Sokka as he leapt. The smell of burning hair warned him that if he survived this encounter Zuko would owe him for a premature haircut! Not that he would be able to collect, of course.
Sokka rolled as he hit the floor, scrambled to his feet and automatically ducked as the fire nation prince followed him over the railing. But Zuko held his fire – there were too many barrels scattered around the floor and he had already just barely survived a blast from only two such barrels! The flames on the far side of the room were growing, and it was only a question of time before one of those barrels ignited.
Sokka was fast, his instincts were good, and he hadn’t wasted his time in his travels idling. But Zuko was bigger and had the advantage of years of training by the Fire Nation’s best. In seconds Zuko had tackled Sokka, and the two boys rolled across the floor in a deadly embrace. Sokka graced Zuko with a few choice obscenities before a punch to the gut, and subsequent shortness of breath, reminded him that the last time he fought Zuko he had lost, pitiably. Chances for a repeat were looking pretty good at this point.
And then the first barrel went with a roar that deafened both boys and threw crates everywhere. Because he was on top, Zuko caught the brunt of a barrage of torn wood and metal, even as the pair was thrown across the room. Knocked senseless by a flying pipe riding the concussion wave, he fell over Sokka,. The younger boy, somewhat protected and still conscious, wriggled out from beneath the prince’s weight. Time and luck had clearly deserted him. He looked frantically to the doorway, but sheets of flame now blocked all access to it. Burning shingles and beams from the roof rained down, and the heated air was full of smoke and embers.
“Oh man! I am so doomed!” he moaned. Another barrel ignited and he dived for the floor, covering his head with his arms. By some miracle he was not only still alive but relatively unhurt. In the cacophony of sound he thought he could make out crashing masonry. Had at least some of the walls of the factory succumbed to the explosions? Coughing in the thick haze of smoke, he looked towards the source of the original blast. Yep, he could make out several openings in the far wall, easily large enough to get through. But he would have to cross a flaming obstacle course to get there. He had no other choice, and raised himself to his feet when his eye caught the unmoving body of the prince. Unmoving except, yes, Sokka could see the faint expansion of torso indicating that Zuko still breathed.
Sokka had had no qualms about leaving Zuko to die on the frozen tundra. He also had no doubts that Zuko would have happily killed him tonight. But Aang hadn’t wanted the fire nation boy to die, and Sokka’s stomach turned at the thought of being burned to death. He’d seen it before, and the memories still gave him nightmares.
“crap, crap and more crap! I just know I’m going to hate myself for doing this,” Sokka swore as he reached down to grab Zuko’s arm. Hauling the other boy upright, he slung the arm across his shoulders and wrapped his own arm around Zuko’s waist. Taking a deep breath, which only caused him to cough some more, he dragged Zuko across the floor.
It was a struggle punctuated by missteps and barked shins as he tripped over fallen equipment, still burning or, in the case of metal, hot enough to scorch flesh. At several points Sokka ruthlessly shielded himself from sudden backdrafts with Zuko’s body. Maybe fire-benders had tougher hides. Yet another barrel blowing up sent them flying again, but this time in the right direction. Finally they emerged into the sweet, relatively cooler air beyond the factory’s walls.
Here Sokka paused to assess the situation and fill his lungs. The roar of the conflagration prevented him from hearing the shouts he knew must be issuing from people rushing to investigate the explosions. It had been at least ten minutes since the initial blast, so he had to get out fast or risk being seen and caught. He knew which way to go, thanks to the previous night’s reconnoitering, but what to do about the prince? His presence, if found, would only confuse issues. Okay, so Zuko mustn’t be found either. Great, that meant bringing him to Katara.
Oh, yeah, that’s going to make her really happy too. We can all be thrilled together with how well this whole thing has gone. As Sokka hauled Zuko into the night he proceeded to swear at Bumi under his breath. So why couldn’t the genius have anticipated this particular problem?
With the first explosion people at the festival looked to the sky, anticipating fireworks. When none appeared, some looked around in confusion. After the second explosion the Fire Nation troops assigned to patrol the festival starting moving towards the bridge and the garrison. As the sky in the Fire Nation sector brightened with the light of the burning building, this movement became a run. Soon the whole plaza seemed to swell in that direction as more and more people read the signs of an emergency situation.
Katara had already left the circle by the time the first explosion occurred. She had slung Sokka’s and her instruments across her back and begun walking, at a strolling pace, towards the river. She had no desire to draw attention to herself. She flinched with the first blast, and had to force herself not to break into a run right there. She was well out of the plaza with the second blast, and allowed herself to move more quickly as she found her way along the riverbank. Near the river’s bend on this side there was a wide swath with no development. It was obvious that the area was subject to flooding, and city memory was old enough to avoid such danger spots. As a result, the whole area was cast in darkness, more stark after the artificial brightness of the torch-lit plaza and lit windows of surrounding buildings. She waited briefly for her eyes to adjust, and then plunged down the embankment.
A sandbar extended into the flow at this point, half-covered with partially-uprooted willows and snags that had drifted down with the current. Its size was not discernable from the bank above, and it was invisible from the bridge. Its single open area would accommodate a ten-ton bison, just barely. Earlier in the day Katara had stashed their packs among the willows. Now she walked out to the end of the sandbar, staring upstream at the far bank for her brother’s figure. He was a strong swimmer and should have little difficulty with the few hundred yards of fairly modest current, even at night. The darkness on the far side was complete, although she could make out the outlines of scattered buildings against the growing brightness of the sky. Would she even be able to see him at all?
By now the glow of the burning factory was apparent, and occasional explosions continued. Katara could hear the shouts of soldiers, and her anxiety grew at the possibility that those shouts might signal Sokka’s capture. Further upstream she knew the bridge would be crowded with citizens concerned at the potential spread of fire to the city. The whole area should be awash in chaos. Except that she had expected to see some sign of his return by now everything still appeared to be going as planned.
Long minutes crept by but still no sight of Sokka. She clutched Appa’s whistle spasmodically as her tension mounted. Perhaps he had been hurt, had misjudged his timing. Should she cross the river herself and investigate? Should she call Appa now? She pulled out their packs and dumped the instruments beside them, ready to load as soon as Appa appeared.
Just when she thought she could wait no longer she saw a shadow separate itself from the others on the far bank. But the shadow seemed too bulky, and it moved too slowly. There was none of Sokka’s lithe grace in the headlong tumble to the water’s edge, and she was dismayed at the level of splashing she could discern.
She waded out into the river, waist-deep, feeling the current’s pull. She could see the swimmer now, and saw he was not alone. Extending her power as far as she could, Katara began bending the flow around them, urging the water to support and move them across the reach instead of downstream and under. As they drew closer she recognized Sokka’s head in the active swimmer, but whose was the slack form he trailed behind him, and why was he there?
She waded out still further, reaching out to assist her brother in dragging the limp body out of the river and onto the sandbar.
Iroh was a heavy sleeper, and the tavern where they had found lodging was well off the main thoroughfares of the city and as far from the Fire Nation Sector as could be managed. Even so, the former general’s sleeping mind had no difficulty distinguishing the series of booms from fireworks, and he was awake instantly.
Donning his cloak with its concealing hood, he made his way to the fringes of the city plaza, carefully listening to the comments of the crowd around him. He maintained the appearance and gait of an elderly man, but moved with surprising swiftness. He was able to gather that the Fire Nation’s new factory was in flames and that the general concern regarded its further spreading.
The sky to the west was painted a lurid crimson, and there was no small level of panic among those residents who had brought families to attend the street festival. Still, a certain amount of order had been imposed, as most able-bodied men were already across the bridge lending assistance, while others herded women and children to the side streets and dispersal. There were very few uniformed soldiers in the plaza – Iroh assumed they were all on the other side of the river.
Iroh continued to wander the crowd, carefully considering the likelihood that his nephew would have any involvement in the evening’s affairs. It seemed implausible in any case, but the excitement would certainly put the Fire Nation troops on a higher level of alert, increasing the danger of their own detection. Some hours would be consumed in dealing with the fire and calming the city populous. Even after all these years under Fire Nation domination, the
And mayhem there was. It was obvious to Iroh that Fire Nation authority itself had come under attack here. Just why this target had been chosen, he had no idea. But he was sure there was some good reason. The loss of a new munitions factory would be a definite blow, both in terms of lost resources and prestige. Such losses in a war-weary society could have an impact on the tide of the war itself. And if there were something of particular importance in that factory, well, Iroh could imagine his brother’s fury and the scrambling that would occur in the war room to address the problem. He was just as glad that he had withdrawn himself from these affairs all those years ago. Mistakes would be made and heads would roll. Iroh had every intention of keeping his own head firmly on his shoulders.
The garrison and officers would be kept busy dealing with the fire and its immediate effects for some time. But Iroh knew that his compatriots’ sense of paranoia would have them searching for the arson’s culprits, and any strangers or travelers would come under particular scrutiny. This they could ill afford. He and Zuko must leave as soon as possible. This decided, Iroh continued to scan the crowd – not for Zuko’s face, for his nephew would take care to keep it covered – but for that all too familiar stance, the proud bearing that no amount of humiliation seemed to take from the boy. He made several full circuits of the place before giving up. Finally, he returned to the tavern in hopes of finding Zuko already there.
He was disappointed but not surprised. Zuko may not even have been in the city itself, and may be wholly aware of the tumult taking place in its heart. Even now he may be in a nearby town, searching out performers. Iroh heartily hoped the boy had, for once, allowed himself to be distracted, finding enjoyment in the music he followed. Perhaps, even, finding enjoyment in a musician or dancer, some sweet release.
But even as he considered the desirability of such possibilities he dismissed them. Unfortunately, Zuko was more likely to have blown up the Fire Nation factory himself than to find pleasure or distraction in another’s efforts.
So he gathered their few things together and settled in to await his nephew’s arrival.
“It wasn’t my fault, I tell you, so just shut up about it,” Sokka sputtered bitterly. “How was I supposed to know he would show up?” His face was streaked with wet soot, his clothing tattered and singed, and with the passing of adrenaline, he could feel the sting of burn blisters on top of cuts on top of bruises. At her insistence, he gingerly began to strip down so Katara could start healing him.
“I still don’t understand why you felt you had to bring him with you. Why not at least leave him on the other bank? And look at you, both of you are a mess!”
Zuko’s head, back and shoulders were openly bleeding from numerous injuries, including a major laceration across his right shoulder-blade that exposed the bone. They had decided to lay him down on his stomach even though they suspected at least several of his ribs were broken. At least his time in the river appeared to have washed his wounds free of any clinging dirt or debris. His breathing had become ragged.
“Now what are we going to do?”
“That crazoid Bumi said to avoid killing anyone if possible, remember? Unfortunately, I think leaving a jerk behind in a burning building would be considered ‘killing someone’. As for leaving him across the river, now there’s a thought! Found, one wanted Fire Nation prince, near the site of a major example of sabotage and resistance against the Fire Nation — Oh, go ahead, get started on him, he’s obviously worse off. Unless you’re prepared to let him die here. No? I thought not. Lay off on the head wound, though. We don’t want him waking up in any hurry.” Sokka shivered a little as a breeze whispered against his bare torso.
“No, think about it, Katara. If Zuko were found and in any way associated with blowing up that factory then the message portion of this mission gets muddled. You heard Bumi! Giving people the idea that there are ways to fight back is almost as important as destroying the war balloons. If people think Zuko - or any Fire Nation person - was involved, then control goes back to them, the Fire Nation. No. It has to be the resistance. Here, give me the whistle. I’ll call Appa.”
Katara worked over the prince, bending water from the river onto his more severe wounds, holding the various layers of tissue together with her hands and guiding her energy to heal them. Soon, even the copiously bleeding head wound was closed.
Sokka blew into the bison whistle as hard as he could. He felt foolish doing so, since he heard nothing and had no way of knowing if Appa had heard the whistle unless and until he arrived to pick them up. Katara probed gently at Zuko’s ribcage, breathing deeply as she realigned several ribs that seemed askew. At first, she worked without comment, ignoring her patient’s identity as she listened to her brother.
“I don’t know. First Aang, now you. Is everyone getting soft in the head where Zuko’s concerned? Help me roll him over now. I think he’ll breathe more easily, although his chest might be sore for a while.”
“Huh. You had your chances to kill him and didn’t. You’re not so tough either.” Sokka felt vaguely guilty for his actions, and sought something, anything, from his sister to ease his conflicted conscience. Her efforts to heal the Fire Nation prince gave him the solace he needed. He couldn’t tell her that, though.
“So. None of us could kill him… I think Aang believes he’s important somehow. You know, when he’s asleep he doesn’t look so dangerous. Like he could almost be nice.” She stood up and turned to Sokka.
“Pity he can’t stay asleep, then, isn’t it?” Flippancy was good. It was easy, and it made things come back to normal.
“Your turn, now. Come on, we’re both all wet anyway. This will be easier in the river. Now aren’t you glad I came along?” They waded back in the water so Katara could attend to Sokka’s injuries. “You were never supposed to be inside when the blasting jelly went off. I can’t believe you’re even alive!”
“Yeah, me either, really. You know, except for being convinced every second I was gonna die, actually experiencing the explosion was kinda cool. I mean, you should have seen all that crap fly around! And actually being lifted by the blast, well, now I know how catapult ammunition feels… Not fun.” He grinned suddenly, “But Aang would probably have loved it!”
By the time she was finished, Sokka was feeling substantially better and Katara was nearly exhausted. As they came back ashore she playfully stroked her hand across his head, smoothing back the stray locks that now hung across his eyes, their ends brittle with singe. “I wonder what the girls back in Omashu will think of your new look.”
“As if I care,” he grunted. “It’s not that bad, is it? You know, I owe it to Sleeping Beauty there. I’d return the favor if he had any hair left to cut.” Grabbing his spare tunic from his pack, he considered the shirt he had been wearing, finally deciding to discard it.
“Doesn’t matter anyway. I wonder what he’s doing here, don’t you? Bet he’ll be annoyed when he wakes up and we’re long gone.” She yawned. “Why don’t you try that whistle again. Appa may not be sure where we are.”
After pulling on dry clothes herself, Katara returned to Zuko, having decided to complete the job of healing the more modest injuries he had sustained. She left only the single bruise to the back of his head to his body’s natural recovery processes. If the irony of her efforts struck her, considering how recently she had thrown the full force of her bending to break and bruise his body, she gave no sign.
Before blowing the bison whistle, Sokka dug again in his pack, this time retrieving a flask. He opened it and took a long pull from its contents, a gift from their musician friends. He coughed a bit.
“What? Don’t look at me like that! Darn it, I earned this tonight!” He settled down beside his pack and picked up his instrument, running his fingers idly across the strings, adjusting the tuning, and then picking out some random chords.
Half an hour later Appa dropped silently out of the sky to the strange sight of Sokka working out a quiet melody, Katara curled up asleep beside him with one hand stretched out to rest on Zuko’s shoulder. Across the river smoke billowed in wave after wave as the fire, now spread to a few other buildings in the sector, continued to take its toll on the Fire Nation. No one noticed a ten-ton bison re-ascend some minutes later, and no one noticed the remaining boy on the sandbar, sleeping on into the night.
Zuko awoke with the dawn, and a splitting headache. A mild breeze playing across the water brought the scent of smoke and wet wood to his nose, and with it a rush of memory of the night’s events. He had had the Water Tribe boy pinned in the factory. There had been a sense of urgency, because something was going to happen that he couldn’t stop… Zuko sat up abruptly as he remembered the explosion and pain that had ended his awareness.
He looked around, only to find himself on a tiny spit of land in the river. Some rags in a pile to the side he recognized as the remains of his shirt, singed, bloody, torn, and showing evidence of having been cut from his body. He was stiff and sore, but he could find no evidence of the injuries that must have accompanied the damage to his shirt. In fact, beyond a sizable bump behind his left ear he could find no injuries at all! Not even a bruise. What could have happened?
As he climbed to his feet he saw trails of smoke rising across the river, and guessed that somehow he had been transported away from the factory and left here to recover on his own. But how, and by whom? Sokka, that dolt from the Water Tribe? Surely not. He was probably dead, killed in the explosion that had knocked him out.
But then, why wasn’t Zuko also dead? No, there were other rags in a pile at the waterline, filthy, scorched and nearly as blood-stained as the first, but still showing the tell-tale blue of the Water Tribe. And yes, depressions in the wet sand that must surely be the imprint of multiple sets of giant splayed hooves. Ha, the flying bison, perhaps even the avatar himself. So. Had Sokka survived and pulled him out when he himself left the burning factory, or had the avatar rescued them both?
But why save him? Why did he again owe his life to these damn children who were his enemies? The tribesman lacked the avatar’s naivete to suggest friendship between them. But he would still have had to put himself at risk, surely, to bring Zuko along with him this far. With his head pounding, it was impossible for him to fathom the motivation behind the other boy’s actions, let alone the mystery of his own lack of injury.
Zuko climbed the embankment, cautiously surveying his surroundings for any observers. His bare head and torso left him uncomfortably vulnerable and painfully aware of his status as a wanted man. Avoiding the main streets for the alleyways, Zuko snagged a blanket from a clothesline, wrapping it around his shoulders and draping it low over his head as he made his way across the city to the tavern where he had left his uncle. He felt some guilt for his thievery, but the blanket appeared to be of reasonably good quality and presumably its owner could afford to replace it. In any case, he would be sure to leave it with some begger before leaving the area as a sop to his conscience.
“Prince Zuko!” The edge in his uncle’s voice as Zuko entered their room spoke volumes. “The Fire Nation is already searching for the instigators of last night’s fires. We must leave before we are caught up in their net. Nephew, what happened to your clothes?”
“Ha,” Zuko laughed hollowly. “No matter what else they catch in their net, my father’s troops won’t find their arsonist. He’s long gone.” He cast the blanket aside as he pulled open his bag and dragged out replacement clothing. “As for my clothes, river rats will no doubt find use for what is left of them.”
Iroh raised his brows in silent inquiry, but didn’t press for further details as they left the tavern, quickly putting as many miles between them and Dai Horishi as they could.
It was with great difficulty that Bumi prevented his lip from twitching as Sokka told him off for not projecting the possibility of Prince Zuko interrupting his efforts at sabotage.
“My dear boy, if you wanted a fortune teller you’ve come to the wrong place—” he attempted.
“Fortune telling!” Sokka’s voice cracked. “What I’m saying is that if you’re such a great thinker you should have been able to include Prince Jerkface in your calculations. It’s not as if you weren’t aware of his obsession with Aang, anyway. It’s speculation, yes, but informed speculation, right? What are the odds of him turning up at the worst possible times? Gee, considering history, pretty darn good! I mean, I barely got out of there alive! And do you have any idea how exhausting it was for Katara to do all that healing stuff? Will she ever get any thanks from his highness? Ooh no! ‘Course not. She’s still yawning. Fortune tellers!” He fumed as he palmed his hair back off his face yet again. “We don’t need no stinkin’ fortune tellers!” He suddenly looked at his sister with some panic in his eyes. “I did thank you, didn’t I?
“Sokka’s not big on fortune tellers,” Aang mentioned sotto-voce at Bumi’s other side. He had listened to his friend’s recital of their adventure with a combination of envy, dread, and relief. Sokka may be grumpy, but his brooding silence of the previous weeks was gone, and some of his cockiness had returned. Aang had also been surprised to learn the lengths Sokka had taken to prevent his enemy from dying. He had made a point of justifying it rationally, but Aang suspected that Sokka was plumbing his own depths and discovering a few surprises there.
“Well, Katara, you didn’t get a chance to do any butt-kicking this time,” said Aang, “but that must have been some amazing healing.”
“I don’t think I will do very well on a battle-field, Aang.” Katara shuddered. “Zuko’s injuries were just awful, and there may have been internal stuff I missed completely. I may never know. He looked okay when I was done, anyway. I admit, it didn’t seem so bad since it was just him and I thought I could probably help him. It was even kind of interesting to see what lies beneath the skin.”
Sokka and Aang both interjected a disgusted “Ew!” at this point. Bumi grinned, and nodded.
“No really, I mean it. It made me wonder how different we are from them. I mean, I could heal him just like I could heal you guys, or myself. So what is the difference? Anyway, it was actually a lot harder healing Sokka.” She looked at her brother, who squirmed uncomfortably under the attention.
“Cause, you know, I knew it hurt a lot, especially all those burns. I don’t know how he did it all. Anyway, yeah, it’s really good to know I can heal that much, though I’m not sure I liked the learning conditions.” Her voice became fierce at this juncture, “I’ll tell each of you this right now. There is no way either of you are going on some air-brained escapades without me along. Got it?”
Aang laughed in delight. “Great, Katara, ‘cause I gotta tell you. I suspect Bumi is determined to kill off the avatar after all. He’s making me crazy with this training! He seems to think I have to learn to think as well as earth-bend!” Katara’s protectiveness warmed his heart. He knew she would never abandon him, unless perhaps for Sokka’s sake. They were all a family together.
“So, the factory and its contents were destroyed, we have the names of the engineers, and sources tell me that all the talk is of the daring of the
Katara looked at Sokka. He shrugged. “Okay. All that’s good. I did learn some new riffs from that troupe of musicians. And I got some material for a new song I’ve started working on. Dad could maybe turn it into a good story. I just wish I could have done some real damage to Zuko.”
It was Katara’s turn to laugh, a bit hysterically at first. “Damage? Damage? Sokka, you nearly killed the guy! I know, I saw the damage and certainly no one else did all that to him. And then you saved him. Trust me, Zuko knows to keep his eye out for you from now on. What more could you possibly want?” She tucked her arm in his.
Sokka relaxed. “How about dinner?”