The dawn was sluggish, cold, and foggy. Light took a long time to reach the bottom of the ravine, and by the time it did it was second-hand and lukewarm at best, sifted through a thick canopy of mist and trees.
"Okay, how many fingers am I holding up"
Azula sat up with a groan, clutching at her head as Sokka scrambled back to make room for her. Everything hurt, and what didn't hurt was numb and cold.
With a fleeting rush of effort, she pushed herself to her feet.
Iroh. All her plans, all her schemes, every sacrifice she had made, everything she had snatched back from him, and it hadn't been enough. He simply walked back into her life, and tore it all away.
She had been so sure. So sure that finally, she had found a place to stand. Ground from which to fight back. A way to stop running. She should have known better.
Azula scanned the sky, squinting upwards into the mist. Surely the Avatar would soon-
"They left," Sokka said, abruptly, eyes downcast. "Pretty soon after we fell. Flew off south."
There didn't seem to be anything to say to that.
He hadn't slept. That much was obvious. Bags hung under his eyes, every time he blinked it took him longer to open his eyes again, and he was even more slouched than usual. It was draining just to watch him.
He wouldn't last. Not an insult, but- who could" Who could keep going, after all this" He was going to need help, and he was going to look to her.
The thought was almost horrifying.
She saw him turn to face her, in her mind's eye. Saw the inevitable question curling his lips. What now" What's the plan"
He was going to ask.
And she wouldn't have an answer.
She couldn't even begin to think. What were they going to do" ...Something, obviously.
It wasn't the mantra it had been. The fire was gone from the pit of her stomach. And she couldn't muster up the energy to care.
And what would Sokka do, then" When he asked, and she didn't answer" How would he react to that"
It looked as though she was about to find out, as Sokka appeared back in view, affecting a slope that very nearly masked his limp.
He turned towards her, and there it was, the look. What now" What do we do"
And suddenly he blinked, and set his shoulders, peering upwards, towards the treeline. "Okay," he said, abruptly. "We're gonna be following the river 'til we hit the coast. If I remember right, there's a few fishing villages around the south coast, we can get a boat there to the mainland, right" I mean, they do have, ferries and stuff" Right" But, uh... guessing all the, you know, conspicuous blue clothes are kind of a giveaway, huh." He stroked his chin, apparently deep in thought.
"Okay," he said, punching his open palm with sudden determination. "You get some rest, and I'll..." he gestured back towards the cliff, and Azula noticed suddenly that they hadn't been the only ones to fall. Among the rubble were occasional flashes of red.
For a long moment, Sokka froze, arm still outstretched, and the shadow of something terrible crawled across his face. Then he shivered, and shook his head. "Okay. I'm just gonna go check out what we can get from... you know... those guys."
He talked as he worked, a steady mutter of running commentary that Azula wasn't sure she was supposed to hear.
" ...Okay, that's not too- oh. Oh that's gross. Okay, not wearing that, ever. How about the- yeah, they're okay, though. Kinda big. Still, s'better than kinda small, huh" Huh. Okay, so now we just need- aha!" He pulled a cloak from the wreckage, miraculously undamaged, with great aplomb. "One tent." He considered this for a while. "Guess I'd better go get another one, huh."
Eventually, he had amassed an entire costume. None of it fitted perfectly, and he would never pass as a soldier under any kind of scrutiny, but at least nobody would instantly look at him and see Water Tribe.
"The club's not too much of a giveaway, is it" Actually, yeah. I guess it is."
"How can every single spear be broken" Why is this happening" Why does the universe hate me"
"I know how to use a spear! I'm good with a spear! One time I killed a bull leopard-seal with a spear! How can there be no spears!" For a moment it looked as though he was about to start to cry, but then he breathed deep, and went still. "Okay. Fine. Swords are okay, I guess. You hold one end and hit people with the other. It's really just a question of which end's which. It's just a big machete anyway."
"Okay, first stop, river. If we can find that, we can get out of here. Come on, we'd better get moving."
Azula followed. What else could she do"
The bison flies due south, on my advice. Due south puts the greatest expanse of water between us and Iroh possible while still taking us toward civilisation. The waterbender tried to move, during the flight, but was persuaded to take some herbs to make her sleep- one of the few medical items I was carrying.
It is an unpleasant journey, a full night and day spent over water. I try not to sleep.
I fear I have made an enemy of the Lady Ursa.
I mean, I don't think she's going to try to slit my throat in my sleep, but I haven't made it to almost-forty-three by taking unnecessary risks. Honest.
A mountain scowls up at us, a white-capped island in a sea of pines. Toward the flatlands, half-covered by the edge of the forest, a collection of firelights indicates a town, and I suggest we make our descent.
It's strange, to look at the land from this angle. Useful, though.
I take charge before anyone else can take the opportunity, directing the Avatar to stay and conceal the bison. I gather the waterbender into my arms as gently as I can, and clamber (slightly awkwardly, but it's not as though I have much experience with this sort of thing) down off the tail of the beast. The earthbender moves to follow, and I let her.
"We will find a healer," I tell the Lady Ursa and the Avatar, "and come for you as soon as we can." I'm about to turn to leave, when a thought hits me. It's slightly awkward, trying to reach into my pack without jostling the unconscious waterbender, but I've shouldered heavier people. I manage, and throw the Avatar a hat.
He barely catches it, and stares at it like I just handed him a dead rat.
He'll figure it out, I'm sure.
Night is drawing in, as we hit a dirt track into the village. The earthbender at my side is quiet, her face set in a frown of concentration. I see no reason to break it, and concentrate on walking.
The village, when we come to it, is small and ordered. I don't have the patience for finer details, and bear down on the first person I see- a stall vendor, closing up his business for the evening.
"Good evening," I introduce myself, and he almost leaps out of his skin. "There will be time for pleasantries later. Does this village have an apothecary"
He blinks heavily, and gibbers a little. I don't have time for this, and am about to start being rude, when my companion intervenes.
"Hey!" she barks, yanking him down by his lapels until they're eye to (I suddenly notice) unseeing eye. "He asked you a question! You guys got a medicine man" A herbalist" Somebody who knows what a skeleton looks like" It's okay if you don't wanna answer, as long as from now on you don't wanna-"
"The inn!" the man cries, finding his voice at last. "The innkeeper's a healer!"
"Thank you," I tell him, as the earthbender releases him, and we are on our way, moving in the direction he pointed out.
"It's all how you ask people," she says, with not a little pride.
The innkeeper answers her door quickly. I suppose she must be used to being woken after dark.
She would have been tall, in her youth. She stands bent almost double now, but her arms are long, and held tucked almost under her chin. Her fingers are long, and curled, twined together and resting upon the head of a walking cane. Almost-closed eyes squint upwards at us, and when she sees us her mouth splits apart in a wide smile.
"Good evening, travellers, welcome to-" she takes a little while to register just what I am carrying, and when she does, her face sets. "Oh. One of those sorts of visitors. Well, bring her in," she says, briskly. I comply.
We're whisked into a dining area, rather than a dedicated medical bay. This does not fill me with confidence. Sure, she may be healer enough to set bones, or cure a cold. I'm becoming increasingly concerned about her ability to help us.
She places a hand over the girl's forehead, and her lips purse.
"She's lost a lot of blood." Well, yes. She's wearing most of it. As diagnoses go, it doesn't fill me with confidence. "Best set her on the table, quickly now." Still, it's not as though we're flush with options.
Something's not quite right.
She hasn't gone to fetch any kind of equipment. She doesn't seem to be in a rush to, either. She diagnosed the waterbender by touching a hand to her forehead- yes, it wasn't a surprising diagnosis, but it's the action that was important- and, though her eyes are grey and faded with age, there's still a suggestion of...
"I apologise," I say, making a show of attempting politeness, "I should have asked your name."
"...Hama," she answers, guardedly, after a seconds' pause, and everything clicks into place.
Water Tribe. The woman is Water Tribe. All the way out here. Well. That changes things a bit.
"Hama. A pleasure. My name is Piandao." A gamble, but hopefully a small one.
"Piandao" she repeats, brows raised. "I remember that name." She smiles to herself. "Well, well. The Defector under my roof, in the company of Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes. Isn't that a thing." She laughs, and with one hand reaches behind her. A plume of clear water snakes through from the kitchen, and coils around her wrist like a snake. "Well, you share your secret, I suppose I can share mine. Makes this next bit easier, in any case. I was trying to think of a way to make you sit outside while I worked."
The waterbender will live, although it may be a while before she is well enough to travel. Hama has graciously agreed to allow us room and board, and has been persuaded to take payment for it.
The Avatar finally looks as though all the sleep he's been missing has caught up with him. The Lady Ursa has retired already. The earthbender has been sitting in a large chair by the fire for the past twenty minutes. I think she may have already fallen asleep.
Hama catches my eye. She nods askance at me, and I follow her outside.
"You said she was stabbed" she asks, low and serious. I nod. "Hmm. Well, she was very lucky, then."
That gets my attention. "Oh"
She nods, and her voice takes on a conspiratorial air. "Oh yes. One inch lower, it'd have been in her stomach. As it is, the worst hurt was from the blood loss."
Is it like a member of the Royal Guard to miss a stationary target" No. As much as I'm of the opinion that they're a group of pompous fools that can't get over the fact that they get to wear the fancy helmets like that means something and spend more time with their lips stuck to Iroh's backside than they do in the training ring, no. Well. Maybe she was just lucky. Either way, I'm not likely to ever know.
So. We have a place to stay, at least for the moment. The children look as though they need it, too. We can trust Hama, I think. At least not to give us away. If I can find a way to contact the Order, I can afford to stay here for a little while.
Long enough, I hope, to answer the big question: