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July 4, 2012
Previously in Air
Aang has returned to Ba Sing Se in search of a healer for Katara. Meanwhile, back in the Fire Nation, Mai's suspicions will not be allayed. She has asked Sokka and Suki to dig deeper into Rozen's arrest -discreetly.
Chapter Twenty-Four: Lifeline
"Who did you say you were again?" Alana asked.
A servant placed a tray of tea on the small table between them.
Sokka and Suki exchanged glances.
"We're guards from the Palace," Suki said. "Our job is to protect the royal family."
"Oh." Alana nodded absently. She was a very pretty woman, much younger than her brother Rozen, probably only fifteen.
Sokka fondly remembered his fifteenth year; zipping around the world with Toph and Aang and Katara, saving lives, becoming the warrior he was today, slowly working their way towards defeating the Fire Nation...and, of course, meeting Suki.
Alana did not seem to be having such a fun year. Her eyes were glazed and she kept glancing about the room, as though looking for something and not being able to realize it wasn't there.
Sokka reached for a cup of tea. "Has your brother ever mentioned wanting to overthrow the Firelord?" he asked casually.
Suki elbowed him in the ribs. "Discreet, huh?"
Alana stared at them in open confusion. "No. Why would you even ask such a question?"
Sokka and Suki stared right back at her. "Didn't they tell you?"
Alana looked confused. "Who? Tell me what?"
The servant who had brought the tea gently cleared his throat. "If I may...?"
Sokka nodded at him.
"We were notified about the..." he glanced uneasily at his mistress. "The situation. I'm afraid Alana was quite distraught to hear the news. She hasn't been quite herself since."
They both looked at the girl with new eyes.
"The poor thing..." Suki murmured.
"Watch it," Sokka whispered. "She could be in on it! It could be a trick!"
Suki gave him a look.
Sokka held up his hands. "I'm just saying..."
Suki moved to sit beside the young woman. She took the girl's hands in her own. "Alana," she said gently, "We need to ask you some questions about your brother. Do you understand?"
Alana struggled to comprehend Suki's words. "...my brother? Rozen..." she frowned and glanced around the room. "Where is Rozen?"
Suki hesitated. "He was arrested, Alana. Do you remember?"
Alana's eyes darkened. She seemed to be fighting within herself.
"Yes," she said finally. "I...remember..." Her voice was distant and weak. "But why would they arrest Rozen?"
"He tried to assassinate Lady Mai," Sokka said softly. His frown was deep, wondering how a brother could so distance himself from his own sister...and whether they might be wrong about Rozen after all.
Alana thought hard. "But...that's impossible!"
The sudden cry made both Kyoshis jump.
"Rozen would never betray Firelord Zuko! He would never do anything to hurt him."
Sokka's suspicions increased. "Maybe you don't know him as well as you think you do."
Alana glared at him. Her anger seemed to draw her out of her despair. "I'm the only one who knows him." She deflated a little. "At least, until we met Admiral Jeong Jeong.
"Rozen and I were all that each other had," she said quietly. "Our parents died in the war. I was only a baby, and instead of enlisting, Rozen stayed home to take care of me. Growing up, we didn't have much." Alana shook her head. "Then, when Firelord Zuko assumed the throne..." She smiled. "He couldn't stop talking about the idea of the four nations living in harmony. Jeong Jeong found him one day, asking to work for food in the markets. He helped us, and once my brother started talking..." Alana laughed. "When he's passionate about something, Rozen just won't shut-up. But Admiral Jeong Jeong said he had more wisdom then half the Fire Lord's council. He asked if Rozen would like to learn to be an advisor."
Alana stared off into the distance, frowning as her memories began to piece themselves together. She shook her head and fixed Sokka with determined eyes. "No. It's impossible," she repeated firmly. "Rozen would never betray the Fire Lord and what he stands for, and he would never let Admiral Jeong Jeong down. Jeong Jeong's been a father to us these last years, even if he won't admit it." She froze as a horrible thought surfaced. "How could Jeong Jeong let them arrest them?"
Suki gripped her hands. "For what it's worth, Alana," she said, "Jeong Jeong doesn't believe your brother is capable of the treason he's accused of."
Suki glanced at Sokka. She was beginning to doubt it herself, the more she heard.
"Neither do the Firelord and Lady Mai," Sokka added. He figured it was true enough. "In fact, that's partly why we came."
Alana looked confused.
"We wanted to ask if you'd noticed anything different in your brother, to establish maybe if something happened to make him act erratic."
Alana thought hard for a moment. She shook her head. "No. Nothing. Only..." she frowned.
"What is it?" Suki pressed.
Tears brimmed in Alana's eyes. "Why did it take so long for you to tell me?" she demanded.
Suki frowned. "Alana, he was only arrested yesterday. I'm sure the Palace guard told you as soon as they could."
"But..." Alana's pretty features furrowed in a worried scowl. "I haven't seen Rozen in days. Nearly a week!"
"He's been at the Palace," Sokka said, confused. "There's been a... small crisis and he insisted on staying close by."
"But he didn't tell me!" Alana cried. "I've been worried sick about him, wondering where he was, and then that guard told me he'd been arrested..."
"Rozen didn't tell you he was staying at the Palace?" Suki demanded. "He didn't give you any indication, maybe sent a servant or a message?" This question was directed at the servant, in case perhaps Alana had forgotten something.
The servant shook his head. "Alana is correct; no one in the house had any idea where he was. We even sent messages to the Palace, but no response ever came."
Suki and Sokka exchanged a look, a look that distinctly said, Well, that's suspicious.
Appa moaned loudly as he soared over Oscree.
Behind Aang, in the bison's saddle, the healer slept. Aang had pounded down the door of the first waterbending healer he'd heard of, and told him in short what had happened. The healer was a kind soul, and the fact that it was the Avatar asking for help only spurred his inclination.
"Come on, buddy," Aang pleaded. "It's not far now."
Aang had only allowed Appa to rest once since Ba Sing Se. He was sorry to push his old friend, but Katara's time must be running short –if it hadn't run out already. Sorrow threatened to close Aang's throat. As he choked for air, he pushed the thought out of his head. No –no! She was still alive. She had to be. He nudged the sky bison, desperately coaxing him onward. Appa would get enough rest after they found her.
Aang himself was threatened with exhaustion. It had taken nearly two days to reach Ba Sing Se, but Appa made the journey with more speed. It was now the third since Katara had been injured. Aang had not slept at all, and he was afraid his body would shut down from fatigue, despite his efforts to stay alert, despite the constant pounding of his heart. To ensure he didn't fall from Appa if he should pass out, Aang had tied a rope around his waist and tethered it the saddle.
He followed Sensu's directions, guiding the bison down the road from Oscree, toward the surrounding mountains.
"It's not far now," he repeated, this time to reassure himself.
The night air bit at his face, cold and dark. Almost as cold as the fear eating at his stomach. Almost as dark as the shadow haunting his every moment. The shadow...It seemed to shift in his mind when he thought of it, uncomfortable at the probing. It was darker now, heavier. Its presence weighed not only on his heart, but on the scales of existence. It was getting worse, just as Katara had predicted.
Katara. If he lost her...
The shadow flickered. Pain stabbed at Aang's temple. He recoiled, dropping the reigns and grabbing for his head.
Appa faltered, moaned loudly. His head dipped, veering him off course.
"Avatar?" The healer's voice was muffled by the wind. "Avatar Aang, are you all right?"
But Aang could not hear him. As Appa began to pick up speed on his downward course, the Avatar's unconscious body slipped from the beast's neck. He bobbed at the end of his anchor, the increasing force of the wind tugging at his limp limbs.
Alarmed, the healer called out again. When there was no response, he steeled himself with determination. He was not a young man, but he still had some strength left in his arms. He wrapped his fingers around the lip of the saddle, gripping so tight his knuckles paled. Slowly, he shuffled forward, crawling the length of the saddle, his hands sliding along the lip to keep him from the wind's waiting grasp.
A thermal current caught the bison, leveling Appa's flight for the briefest moment before it carelessly dropped him back.
The healer yelped at the sudden plunge. His stomach churned with bumbleflies as his face turned a bilious shade of green. Still, he struggled forward.
"She's...she's not going to make it."
"No!" Aang cried. He shook his head viciously, could feel the sparks of anger and injustice flare in his chest. "Do something more." He lunged at the thin-faced man in the dark robes, seizing him by the collar and shaking him. "You're a healer; you have to do something! Help her!"
Panic tinged the rims of the healer's eyes, but he struggled to remain calm. He placed a soothing hand on the fist that held him. "Avatar Jyno," he said slowly, placating. "There's nothing more I can do. She's lost too much blood. Her fate rests with the spirits now."
Jyno's grip faltered. A shuddering sob lodged in his throat. Tears fell from his eyes as he sank to his knees at the foot of his wife's bed. Today was supposed to be a day of rejoicing, of celebration. He choked, wrapping his arms around his stomach, trembling violently. A day of life, he thought bitterly.
The healer touched his shoulder. "Go to her. She doesn't have much time."
Air whooshed past the healer's head, taking with it his sense of balance. Fighting the uncomfortable lilting of his stomach, the healer swung himself around. He slipped his legs through two holes in the saddle's lip, gripping tight with his thighs as he did on the back of his ostrich horse.
He made the mistake then of looking down. He jerked back, jolted by the terrifying sight of the blurred wilderness below, much closer than it should have been.
The healer allowed himself only an instant to recover. He closed his eyes tight and took a deep breath to prepare himself.
When his eyes snapped opened, they instantly focused on one thing: The Avatar's lifeline. He lunged forward and seized the rope. The weight of Aang's body pulled away from him, caught on an updraft. The rough rope tore at the healer's calloused skin, but he kept his grip. Hand over hand, he pulled the rope back, bringing the airbender down from the sky.
Jyno raised his head slowly. Not much time...But was it enough?
The healer's arms ached from the strain, but inch by inch he pulled the Avatar closer. When Aang was in reach, the healer caught hold of his arm and with the last of his strength pulled the unconscious man down.
Jyno's hand shot up. He grasped hold of the healer's forearm, clutching it tight.
The healer yelped when Aang grabbed his arm. Was he awake? No, the Avatar's eyes were still shut, though they danced madly under their lids.
The healer forced himself not to pull back in surprise. He could see the desperation in the Avatar's eyes, but a new horror dwelt there. "Will I lose them both?" Jyno demanded, his voice breaking. "Will I become a widower..."
"...as well as childless?"
The words were quickly carried off by the wind, but the healer knew he had hear them right. He felt suddenly drained. "She's pregnant?" he breathed. He clutched at the Avatar's arm, shaking him. "Aang. Aang! Your wife, she's with child?"
Aang's eyes fluttered open. Tears streamed from those sad grey eyes, sparkling in the moonlight. "I can't lose them," he whispered. "I can't lose either of them."
The healer felt the wind suddenly die down. The sky bison shuddered once, then beat his tail against the current, leveling his course. Now that the Avatar was awake, it seemed the creature was recovering as well.
"Avatar Aang," the healer said gently, never taking his eyes from the Avatar's, "I promise you that I will do everything I possibly can. For both of them."
Sokka and Suki immediately sent a message to Mai on their return, intent on rescuing her from her mother's frivolous whims. To their surprise, she didn't immediately excuse herself. When she finally did arrive, a small smile hovered over her lips.
"I'm beginning to think you're right about Rozen," Sokka said, right off.
The other Kyoshi Warriors blinked in surprise, but neither Mai nor her bodyguards reacted.
"His sister denies he could ever betray Jeong Jeong or Zuko."
"And she says he disappeared almost a week before he was arrested," Suki added.
"The entire week he was at the Palace," Sokka explained, "He didn't once tell Alana where he was."
"I haven't spoken much with Alana," Mai said, "But I know she and Rozen are very close. It doesn't seem like something he would do."
Sokka nodded. "I think he was trying to warn her."
Suki raised a skeptical eyebrow. "By not sending her a message?"
Sokka shrugged. "Sure!"
"Don't you think he'd try a coded message or something?" Ty Lee asked.
"Not if he thought he was being watched," Sokka said stroking his fuzzy beard. "Think about it: he's not the kind of guy to leave his sister hanging. If he can't straight out tell her something's wrong, what would be the best way to warn her?"
"To not send her a message." Suki chuckled, surprised that her husband's logic actually made sense. "He acted unlike himself so Alana would get worried. Remember, the servant even said they sent messages to the Palace to find out where he was."
"And no one ever replied," Sokka reminded.
"So Rozen was framed." Mai's voice was impassive, but her eyes blazed.
"It's beginning to look that way," Suki said.
"We need to find who told Kio they suspected Rozen."
They all looked at Sokka, stumped.
Ty Lee frowned. "How? We've already questioned everyone. It might be hard convincing them to go through that again."
"Well..." Sokka frowned. "We thought about going back undercover, but we figured guards wouldn't be very willing to share their gossip with the servants."
Ming coughed, quietly.
Mai and the Kyoshis turned to look at her in surprise, but the bodyguards pretended not to notice.
"I fondly remember my short time in the Palace guard under Lieutenant Tari," Ming said, gazing pointedly at the Kyoshis.
Lilly's features usually remained impassive. But at this comment, her lips twitched in a smile. "Oh?" she pressed.
Palace guards were sworn never to reveal any of their movements. Under the conditions, Ming knew telling them was the right thing, but her skirting around a direct answer was understood. Plus, this way she couldn't actually be accused of telling a civilian.
Ming glanced mildly about the room. "Sorry; did I accidentally mention that out loud?"
Mai nodded imperceptibly, giving her consent just this once.
"I'd arrive at the crack of dawn," Ming continued, directing her words at Lilly. "The guards' quarters were in the west wing, right next to that servants' entrance into the kitchen. I'd walk in just like I belonged. No one ever questioned me."
Sokka and Suki listened intently to the directions, amused at Ming's ease in riding the loophole. Sneaking into places was all about playing the part. If you looked liked you didn't belong, people got suspicious. Act like everybody else, they assumed you were one of them.
"I'd go straight to the far side of the room and into the changing room, where they keep the uniforms. Through the door on the left, of course, because that's the women's changing room. I never went through the door on the right. The men's changing room, you see.
"After we were all suited up, we'd grab a spear off the rack. All the guards were trained to use spears. You had to be specially tested for any other kind of weapon, so they could be certain you could handle it. People remember who totes around swords and bows and the like. But spears..." She grinned. "Well, everybody has spears."
Ming looked at Lilly. "Would you like to hear more?"
Lilly snickered. "I think that will do."
"That's it!" Aang cried, startling the healer. "It has to be!"
Appa circled over the farm, searching for a place to land.
"It looks like there's been a fire!" the healer shouted above the wind, pointing down.
Aang looked, and saw that half the barn had been burnt to blackened wood and ash. "Oh, no."
A single man worked to repair the wall. He watched as Appa circled.
Appa glided down from the air, landing gently beside the farmhouse. Aang leapt from the bison's neck, bending the air to cushion his land. The healer was left to his own devices, struggling to descend Appa without injuring himself.
The man he'd seen from the air was waiting for them. Aang wasn't sure if it was Sensu's father or not; he'd been too distracted to notice that night.
"I'm looking for my friends," he said quickly. "Are they–"
"You're the Avatar?" the man demanded.
Aang bit back an impatient remark about being the only man left in the word with blue arrow tattoos. His were clearly visible, as he thought the hat or bandanna would fly off in the air. "Yes," he said. "I'm the Avatar! Where's Katara?"
Sensu stepped out of the farm house, Momo perched on his shoulder. At the sight of Aang, Momo gave a delighted cry and flew toward him. The lemur circled over Aang's head a few times to check him over, before making for Appa. He perched on the giant bison's horn, animatedly chattering. Appa grunted in reply, shifting his weight.
The healer, still trying to dismount, was thrown off balance. He teetered on the edge of the saddle for a moment, then fell. A cushion of air caught him gently as Aang finally noticed his struggle. The healer was saved from a painful landing and deposited gently on the ground.
"Katara's inside," Sensu told Aang. "She's not doing well," he admitted, "But she's hanging on."
No sooner did the healer's feet touch ground then he raced for the farmhouse. "Lead the way."
Sensu nodded and led the healer inside.
Aang turned to Sensu's father. "Thank you," he managed before taking off after them.
The healer frowned as he examined Katara's wounds. There were several of them, the largest in the middle of her shoulder, blackened and oozing blood. Other, lesser burns had been inflicted by the smaller trails of the lightning. They were severe, but none of them were open.
Even hearing these descriptions made Aang weak. He sat down beside Katara, gently taking her hand.
"You can heal her, can't you?" he whispered.
"It will take time," the healer replied carefully. "The process will be painful." He looked Aang in the eye. "There's no guarantee it can all be done in time."
Aang nodded. He held his wife's hand tighter. "Do it."
- Ooh, the plot thickens...Actually, that was a contender for the chapter title.
- Sokka is discreet as ever. ;)
- Jyno is supposed to be the unnamed fire Avatar seen in the first episode.
- Ming is the same prison guard who was kind to Iroh while he was imprisoned, during one of her previously mentioned punishment stints to encourage her to 'cool off'.
Happy Independence Day!
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