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The Book of Primal Illusion
The summer sunset made sure that the palace gardens were still buzzing even after dinner. Sokka had to admit that one of the main benefits of being an honored guest and personal friend of the Firelord was that the food was a lot better than scrounged trail fare. He was pretty sure he had eaten an entire goose-chicken by himself. And he was completely okay with that. Even if it did mean he waddled a little as he made his way out into the garden.
Princess Mei Lien was sitting by one of the ponds, obviously sulking. It was a good reminder of why they were here. Sure, Sokka had talked over strategy at dinner, but with proper beds and plenty of rich food it was a little hard to drag himself into believing this was really a crisis. After getting accustomed to danger meaning catnaps on Appa's back and campfire stew of who-knows-what, this all seemed rather lush. And he was absolutely sure that Toph was going to tease him about going soft.
The turtle-ducks swam in lazy circles in the pond, and the Princess sighed so hard it made her bangs flutter. Sokka slid down to sit beside her, pulling out a bit of a roll from his pocket. Immediately the turtle-ducks started to quack and happily swim over, begging. Silently, he offered half of the roll out to the Princess. The girl sniffed before looking at it, and then at him, and then finally taking it.
"Nurse says I gotta 'pologize t'you," she said, her tone very small.
"So I guess my hair's not so stupid after all?"
"Nah. It's still stupid. It's just that my hair's stupider," the girl said airily, tearing off a small chunk of bread and tossing it to the eager turtle-ducks. Sokka had to keep himself from laughing, but settled on shaking his head. Yep. Definitely Zuko's daughter.
"Yeah, well, I guess that's true," he teased lightly before leaning back and tossing another bit of bread to the turtle-ducks. The space seemed right to finally say something, and so he did. "Hey, I know you're worried about your father and everything..."
She gave another sniff before wiping her nose on her embroidered silk sleeve.
Sokka had been about to concede to realism and mention the slim possibility that Zuko wouldn't make it, but the pouting sadness on the Princess' face made him quickly reconsider. "You don't have to be so worried. Now that my sister's here, I'm sure he's going to be completely fine." As she looked up at him, her expression immediately brightened.
"Yeah, of course." Sokka grinned and gave a little shrug. "She's the absolute best healer." He gestured widely as he spoke. "Just give her a little time and I'm sure that your dad will be back on his feet out feeding the turtle-ducks with you."
The way her expression changed was almost miraculous, and she shuffled around in the dirt to look at him more properly. Around them the first crickets of the summer night started to chirp, languid fireflies swirling around them in lazy spirals. "You're one of Daddy's friends, right?"
"Oh, yeah, sure." Sokka looked out of the corner of his eye at her and gave a knowing smile. "We did a bunch of stuff together. There was this one time that he caught me sneaking off in the middle of the night, actually, because I was going to go rescue my father, but he wouldn't let me go alone..."
Even though Sokka had to occasionally go back and revise bits of the tale to make it seem more comedic and less harsh than actual reality, the Princess sat beside him, brown eyes wide, completely spellbound. It was a rare treat for her to hear a tale about not only her father but also her mother, and Sokka was happy to tell it. More importantly, the whole tale about the escape from Boiling Rock had a happy ending.
Sokka knew the look of a child in need of a happy ending when he saw it.
Fortunately her nursemaid seemed to recognize a good thing and let Sokka finish. By the time he was done, the sun had thoroughly set, and only lanterns and the soft glow of moonlight and fireflies illuminated the courtyard garden. Princess Mei Lien was rubbing at her eyes, and she didn't fight when the nurse picked her up and told her that it was time for bed. But Sokka felt oddly triumphant as she waved and sleepily called out "Bye, Mister Sokka!" even as the nurse carried her away.
The turtle-ducks were settling into their nests, a few still preening as they clustered together sweetly. The night jasmine was blooming, and Sokka looked up to see the moonlight pouring in through a window on a high spire. Perhaps it would make Katara's work a little easier.
In any case the moon was full enough for Sokka to carry out a little sentimental ritual he had picked up - one that Suki thankfully approved of. Gingerly, he pressed two fingers to his lips in a soft kiss before lifting his hand up to the sky, as if using his fingertips to press a kiss onto the moon as others would a cheek. It had been long enough that it didn't carry such a sting. And Suki was there to temper the sorrow, of course.
But he still liked to think that maybe Yue was watching - maybe even smiling -
Aang's voice made him jump, but the other young man was grinning even as he marched into the garden, arms full of scrolls. "You ready to go?"
Sokka's eyebrows knit in confusion. "We're leaving? But I'm sure Katara hasn't even -"
"Not everyone, just you and me! Toph's coming in a few days to help guard the palace... and she said something about screaming at Zuko until he woke up."
"...Yeah, that sounds like Toph. But where are we going?"
Eagerly, Aang grabbed one of the hanging lanterns with his staff, holding it awkwardly on the tip as he took one of the scrolls from under his arm and unrolled it. Sokka stood, dusting himself off and peering over Aang's shoulder. "The note the assassin left behind was written in this variant alphabet that the Air Nomads use. So it was definitely meant for me to read..." He spread out the map, pointing at it. "Here. We're going to head to the Eastern Air Temple. The note said that the poison used didn't have an antidote - the only known antidote was this type of lotus that used to grow near the Eastern Air Temple - but I know it's still there, I saw it!" He was grinning excitedly now. "So all we have to do is go there and go in this set of caves here to this underground lake where it grows..."
Sokka chewed on the inside of his cheek, and Aang blinked at him curiously. "What? Something wrong?"
"No. I guess it just seems too... easy?" He grimaced, scratching at his head.
Aang shrugged. "I dunno, something being easy for once would be nice."
"Yeah... but still. Doesn't it seem sort of like a trap to you?"
"There's only one way to find out. And we'd have to go looking there anyway - it's the only place the lotus grows."
"Well, I can't disagree with that logic. When are we leaving? In the morning?" Sokka yawned, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Nope." Aang grinned, pushing a few of the scrolls into Sokka's hands and motioning for him to follow. "We're following right now!"
"What? But - I mean - have you seen the beds in the guest quarters?" Sokka spluttered desperately even as he followed. "That's bigger than most tents! I'm pretty sure they're all bigger than my house when I was growing up! I could toss some blankets over the bedposts and charge rent! I mean -"
"The kitchen made us a whole basket of sandwiches. Really good ones, too. And there's another basket of jerky, just for you, if you come along!"
"...which way is it to Appa's stall again?"
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