Katara pushes past the curtains that block off the bridge - they have got to get a new door fitted - and stops behind Toph's chair. "I take it we didn't drop out of hyperspace on purpose," she says.
Toph finishes cursing and slams both hands against the console. "That would be a definite no," she says, fingers flickering over the keyboard; Katara can hear the low murmur of her screenreader where it's pinned to her ear. "I don't understand it - we had the nav-fix on the Lanse Xing, it was perfect. Exactly the same as every other time we've ridden a tow." She spits another curse at the console, and taps the pad that swaps her screenreader's link between screens. "I'll try to see if I can track it down from here, but."
She doesn't even need to finish the sentence; Katara knows. She's been the captain of the Appa for almost three years, ever since the day Aang crashed it just outside the little lunar colony where she'd lived. Aang's good with computers, but not with simple mechanics, and the Appa had needed a lot of work.
The Appa doesn't have hyperdrive. Most smaller ships don't; but they've got to get between star systems somehow. The issue is mostly navigational - smaller ships can't support the kind of sensor system it takes to lock a destination that's thousands of lightyears away. So transports that are midsize or smaller have to ride a tow: get a big ship, a hyper-capable ship, to lock the long-range nav-fix, and then set their own nav-fixes on the big ship, and follow it through. It can be a little tricky to hang on to a nav-fix through a dimensional jump when you don't have a hyperdrive, with the wake and everything - but that's why they have Toph.
But if you lose your nav-fix halfway through, you're going to stumble back out of hyperspace. Like they just did. And the ship whose tow you were riding is going to be long gone. Like theirs is.
Katara sighs. Toph's going to do her best, of course she is, and Toph's best is very, very good. But they had about a million-to-one chance of fixing on their tow again in the first second after they fell out of hyperspace, and that chance gets exponentially worse with every additional second that passes.
Of all the luck, Katara thinks grumpily, banging back down past crew quarters and toward the mess. This is the first run they've ever made with passengers, the first one where it definitely matters when they get where they're going - not that it didn't matter that time they had a hold full of ostrich horses, but that was mostly because of the smell; livestock dealers on the galactic rim are usually a flexible sort. But passengers have schedules to keep, precise ones. And this time, of all times, they lose their tow.
Suki's in the mess when Katara comes in, shaving down a crystal for one of her laser fans. They function on the same set of principles as laser knives, but Suki likes them better - more graceful, she says, but Katara secretly thinks she just likes the look of surprise on people's faces when she flips the handles out of her belt and thumbs the switches, and fans flare out instead of knifeblades.
She picks up an arc micrometer to measure the change in the parabolic curve she's adjusting - Katara made the mistake of asking her about it once, and now knows more than she ever wanted to about laser blade upkeep - and, eyes still on the crystal, says, "Lost our tow, huh?"
"How'd you know?" Katara says. It's never happened to the Appa before.
Suki shrugs. "Felt the shift. There are pilots in the Confederation fleet who make Toph look - well, even better than she already is. We used to sprint for the head at the slightest hint of it, because if you weren't quick enough-"
She stops abruptly, but Katara knows better than to make a big deal out of it. Suki was a lucky find for them; there aren't a lot of ex-Confederation military floating around. If you don't last long enough to make admiral, it's usually because you die in the service. But Suki was a peacekeeper on Kyoshi. Katara never saw it before the orbital bombings, it's pretty far out on the rim, but she's heard that it used to be beautiful.
Anyway, they don't pry into Suki's past much.
"Yeah, it got away from us," Katara says, like there was never any pause. "Toph's going to try to catch it again, but odds are we're going to be late."
"Really late," Suki says, "unless another fleet happens by. Where'd we come out, anyway?"
"Not all that far from Pohuai Station," Katara says, trying to remember exactly what it said on Toph's screens. "If we have to, we can sub-light there, and wait for a ship."
"Wait?" Suki says, skeptical. "The ansible's still working, isn't it?"
Katara sighs. She knows what Suki's about to suggest. "But he'll gloat," she says unhappily.
"He wouldn't be Sokka if he didn't," Suki agrees, "but the longer we take, the more we have to discount the fare, and we could really use a new-"
"Aang can take care of it," Katara says.
"-set of dishes, I was going to say," Suki says. "Although, come to think of it, the port compression coil could use replacing. Aang can't do anything for the mechanical stuff; you know that."
Katara does. Aang can do anything with a technological problem - programming errors in the processor core, faulty subroutines, even the occasional electrical routing issue. He doesn't even know how he does it; just puts his hands to the panels and asks with his mind. It creeps her out a little, the way his eyes fog over, but the Appa hasn't needed its core reset in all the time she's been on board, when most ships can't go a full six months without getting fouled up somewhere.
But ships aren't just computer cores with wings, and Aang can't think away purely mechanical problems.
"But he'll gloat," Katara repeats helplessly.
Suki slides the crystal back into its seat in her fan handle. "I can distract him for you," she says, her innocently helpful tone at odds with the grin on her face.
"... Please stop talking," Katara says, and puts her hands over her ears just in case. There are some things about her brother that she doesn't need to hear.
Passenger quarters are next to the hold, eight on either side, and two levels; before this run, they mostly put junk in there, or used them to hide things they technically weren't supposed to have. Jet's quarters are back here, too; he's crew, but he likes to keep to himself, doesn't like the thought that people could poke through his things. He's on the port side, though, and they've only got three passengers, so all of them can fit in the starboard side. If they make a run with more passengers, Katara's going to have to have a talk with him, which should be exciting. Jet likes to swing his shock hooks around when he's hearing things he doesn't like.
But they have to make it through this disaster of a trip first; so when the catwalk splits over the hold, she heads to the starboard side.
They picked a pretty quiet bunch - or maybe passengers are always like this, it's not like Katara knows, but either way all three of them have mostly stuck to their rooms. The young guy's like Jet, keeps to himself except for his uncle; his uncle's been polite and cheerful to Katara every time she's talked to him, but he always seems to be cutting himself off, holding back things he's just remembered not to say. And the girl, Yue, is the same way: polite, sweet, but not especially talkative. She doesn't look much older than Katara, but her hair is pure white all the way through, every strand.
Odd group; but not bad. At least, not yet, Katara thinks. It's possible this unanticipated change in schedule might ruffle a few feathers.
She knocks politely on the doorframe closest to the stairs - the old man's room, she remembers, a moment before he slides the thick paper pane aside and blinks at her curiously. "Captain," he says.
The knock and his voice rouse the other two, and a moment later two more doors slide open. "Uncle Iroh? What is it?" the young man says.
"Is there a problem, Captain?" Iroh says.
"A small one," Katara admits. "We are - unavoidably delayed, I'm sorry to say. I realize this could be a considerable inconvenience to some of you, and of course your fares will be appropriately discounted-"
"How much?" the young man snaps.
Katara makes herself take a deep breath. "The final percentage will depend on how great the delay is," she says, very calmly.
"You mean you don't know how long we'll be stuck wherever we are," the young man says, scowling.
"I'm sure it won't be long," the young woman says, and Katara smiles at her appreciatively, even as the young man shoots her a look of disbelief. "Is there anything we can do? If your crew will be busy fixing the problem, I'd be happy to take care of something else - cleaning, or-"
"Hopefully, that won't be necessary," Katara says, instead of bursting out laughing the way she wants to; the young man's eyes look like they're about to fall out of his head.
"No, really," the young woman says. "I insist," and she starts rolling up her sleeves.
"We would also be glad to assist," Iroh says, cheerfully ignoring the way his nephew is glaring at him. "Tell me, Captain, is your ship's kitchen stocked with tea?"
Zuko glowers down at the bowls left over from lunch, and wishes he had just a little more conviction, enough to throw one at Uncle's head.
Nothing about any of this is going right, not one single thing in the last three years. In the entirety of his life, to be brutally honest. Perhaps before Azula was born, things had gone well for him; but somehow he doubts his father liked him even then, though of course he doesn't remember.
His father may be Lord of the Armies of the Galactic Confederation of United Systems, but even he couldn't declare Zuko a criminal for simple stupidity that had broken no laws. So he hadn't. The table had been very cold on Zuko's cheek, the whine of the laser charging very loud in his ear; Zuko supposes he should have been grateful that his father had aimed the shot down and forward. It only seared his eyelid, instead of cooking his eyeball in the socket.
Zuko left Huojia of his own volition; he knew his father would grant him no opportunities to compensate for his moment of weakness at home, so his best chance was, and still is, to try another star system. If he can win some great glory nearer the rim, perhaps his father will take him back.
Uncle had offered to come along, and much as he sometimes irritates Zuko, it is pleasant, to feel a little less alone.
Precisely the kind of weakness Father hated him for, Zuko thinks angrily, scrubbing at a particularly stubborn grease mark. He should know better, by now.
The other passenger, Yue, is cleaning the floor of the mess; she swept it first, but wasn't satisfied, and now she's rubbing a wet cloth over the thin wooden boards that cover the metal plating beneath, and humming gently to herself. She comes to the sink to refill her basin with clean water, and Zuko shifts aside grudgingly to give her space.
"Where are you from?" she says, holding the basin under the tap.
"Near the core," Zuko says, brusque; he's learned that if he's sharp enough, people stop trying to talk to him.
But Yue only smiles a little. "Me too," she says. "Tarrisiku. I am traveling out to marry."
She doesn't say it the way he's expecting, like she thinks he owes her a reply in return now that she's told him something. Which is why he says, "To marry?" instead of ignoring her.
"I have never met the man," Yue says, glancing at him a little somberly. "His name is Hahn. There is a hypertunnel between his homeworld and mine - very fast, living things cannot stand the compression, but we trade in other goods. Our marriage will make our people very happy."
Zuko stares at her as she reaches to shut the tap off, basin full once again. "So it is your duty," he guesses; she doesn't look happy at the idea of it, and yet she talks about it like there's no other option.
"It is the right thing," Yue says, "which makes it my duty. If my father told me to marry a man so that many people could be killed, it would likewise be my duty to refuse. How could I do otherwise?"
"How indeed," Zuko makes himself say, and keeps scrubbing.
Jet might be trouble sometimes, but he's a pretty good cook, and with the mess freshly cleaned and all the dirty dishes finally out of the sink, dinner feels more like a party than like being stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Well, stranded is a bit of an overstatement; their sub-light engines are working just fine, and Toph's got them headed toward Pohuai. Of course, at lower than light speed, it's going to take them a while to get there. They'll have time to bond emotionally, Katara thinks wryly, and smiles to herself.
"Come on, hand me the dumplings," Toph says, making grasping motions over the table. "I know they're out there somewhere, I can smell them."
Jet snorts, and picks up the basket of steamed buns instead; but Toph barely touches it before yanking her fingers away and putting her hands on her hips. "I said dumplings, Jet, you got water in your ears or something?"
"How'd you know?" Jet says, shaking his head.
"You gave me a basket, not a bowl, and it weighed about half as much as it should have," Toph says. "Plus, it's you."
Aang laughs and passes the dumplings over, nudging Toph's arm with the dish, and she grins, takes the bowl, and sets it in her lap protectively. "But they're all mine now," she says to Jet triumphantly, and then, to Aang, "Thanks, Twinkletoes."
They eat until they're just about bursting, and Iroh plys them all with drinks - he makes a mean cup of tea, Katara has to admit. By the end of the night, even his nephew - Zuko, Katara remembers - is almost smiling, eyes crinkling at the corners. They dim the lights, and Suki does an exercise with her laser fans in the open space next to the table, wide green blades blazing in the dark.
Finally, Katara stretches, and ticks through her mental list of things she needs to do before she can let herself sleep. "System check?" she says to Aang quietly, and he smiles at her and steps over to the nearest console, which is hidden behind the panel in the wall.
He does his usual thing - sets his hand against it and stares out into the middle distance, and his eyes fog over with blue. He's got tattoos, on his arms and legs and head, blue arrows; traditional on his old homeworld, he told her once. They get a funny shine to them when he's talking to computers, and it's a little more obvious than usual with the lights turned down.
"The platter, Zuko?" Iroh says behind her, and she glances over her shoulder; Zuko is looking back at her, eyes startled, before he abruptly turns back to his uncle.
"Yes, Uncle," he says.
She frowns a little, but then Aang pulls his hand away from the console, shaking his head as his eyes clear back to brown, and says, "All set for the night; shouldn't be any problems," and, in the end, she thinks nothing of it.
Zuko manages to keep his reaction down to a little tremor in his hands until he's back in his quarters, and then he slides the door panel shut and slams his fist into the wall at exactly the same time, so that the sound is covered up.
The Confederation government's been hearing rumors coming in from the rim for years - people call them all kinds of things, technopaths and wirewitches and codebenders, but what doesn't vary is their ability to manipulate technology directly with their minds. It was one of his father's side projects, trying to hunt one down; the odds were incredibly low, his father told him once, but if even one of the rumors were true, it would be an unimaginable advantage. Rebel worlds' own weaponry arrays turned back on them with a single thought from high orbit, armies of mechsuits brought down with a quiet twist to their programming - it had been his father's secret dream to have someone who could do such things under his control.
But he's not sure yet, Zuko reminds himself. He hardly saw anything. It was dark, there was a little glow; he can't be certain it was the kind of thing his father was always looking for.
It'll be weeks before they get to Pohuai Station, and for the first time, Zuko's glad of it. He'll have plenty of time to catch the guy doing it again.
Katara sighs, and flips the switch that activates the ansible. Suki's right, of course she is; but Katara's still not going to enjoy this.
The video link lights up, and she enters the Taikong Jian's code designation into the query field. It's not the most impressive ship in the world; but Sokka got it dirt-cheap and fixed almost the entire thing up himself, piece by piece. And, most importantly, it's on the larger end of midsize, which means it has a hyperdrive.
It takes a minute, but the connection goes through instead of making her record a message, which means he must be relatively close by - if he were too far away, it wouldn't even try for face-to-face, because the lag time would make a decent conversation impossible.
When Sokka's face finally comes up on the screen, she makes a note of the time in the little box in the corner: twenty-four seconds for the one-way trip, which is on the long side. He must be at least a handful of lightyears away. "Hey, Sokka," she says right away, and waits out the forty-eight seconds.
"Hey, sis," Sokka says, and laughs. "Got dumped out of hyperspace, huh?"
Katara huffs a breath out her nose and scowls. "Yeah, well. Not our fault, Toph says; something went wrong on the other end."
Another forty-eight seconds; she scrapes a little crusted dirt off the frame of the video link with her thumbnail.
"Mmhmm," Sokka says, mock doubtful even though Katara knows he's not stupid enough to not believe Toph. "Well, you know the drill: you have to say it."
Katara sighs. "I knew it," she says, "I told Suki you were going to be like this." She grits her teeth. "Fine, okay; I need your help."
Forty-eight seconds later, Sokka's unfocused, patient expression twists into a grin, and he laughs again. "See, that wasn't so bad," he says, and then, a little awkwardly, "So, how is Suki, anyway?"
Katara's halfway through saying, "If you just come and get me, you can see for yourself," when Song, the Taikong's medic, comes up behind Sokka on the screen and rolls her eyes, and Katara has to finish the second half of the sentence through her giggles. Sokka tries pretty hard to pretend he's not utterly gone on Suki, but it really doesn't work very well - not on Katara, and evidently not on Song, either.
Song sweeps away past the range of the screen, and Katara laughs a little harder, because by the time Sokka sees her giggling, twenty-four seconds from now, Song will be long gone, and Sokka will have no idea what she's laughing at. Thinking about ansible lag makes Katara's head hurt sometimes.
And, sure enough, after forty-eight seconds she sees Sokka's expression turn puzzled, and he shoots a suspicious look over his shoulder at the now-empty corridor. "Yeah, all right, fine," he says, "no need for that. You should be glad we're so close. We're between systems, we were just getting a couple small repairs done at an intersolar outpost. Haru's good, but he's not Toph, I'm not going to tell him to aim for you guys; but we can meet you at Pohuai no problem."
"Great," Katara says, and she doesn't have to make any effort to get her voice to sound relieved. "Perfect." She smiles at the screen for a second, at Sokka's blankly waiting face; as much as she might groan about it, it'll be good to see him. She was almost as proud of him as he was of the Taikong Jian when he finally got it spaceworthy, but she misses him now that he has his own ship. "Thanks. I owe you one," she admits grudgingly.
"Yeah, you do," Sokka says forty-eight seconds later, and grins.
The boy's name is Aang; Zuko finds that out from Uncle Iroh. But the captain told them it might take a full week for them to reach the station where they'd be hitching a ride, and Zuko can't just follow the guy around for a week waiting for him to touch a console again.
"You have not touched your laser swords in months," Uncle points out gently. He is engaged in a quiet game of Pai Sho against himself, with his favorite teacup by his knee, steaming gently. "It would not be a bad time to practice."
Zuko stops pacing and scowls down at him. "I know," he says, "I know; if I'm ever going to be as good as Azula, I can't afford to get lazy."
Uncle Iroh sets a stone down on his unfolded board, and then looks up. "In some ways, nephew," he says, "I think you already are ahead of Azula."
Zuko stares at him, confused. He's never beaten Azula at anything; Uncle knows that.
Uncle just looks at him for a long moment, and then sighs a little, and lowers his gaze back to the board. "But it's true; Azula is certainly a formidable opponent. And you should not let yourself get out of practice."
"And who am I going to fight?" Zuko says. "The air in the hold?"
"Suki," Uncle suggests. "The security officer. That was a complex exercise she did for us with the fans, at supper. Perhaps she would spar with you."
"There's only five people on the crew, Uncle, can you really call any of them officers?" Zuko says scornfully, to cover up the fact that the rest of Uncle's idea actually makes sense.
In the end, it's easier than he expected - he doesn't have to barge into her quarters or go searching for her on the lower decks. When he goes looking, it only takes about two minutes to find her, because as soon as he reaches the catwalk leading forward, he can see that the lights are on in the long, flat room over the hold.
There's a short ladder to the side, rungs riveted to the wall next to the door into the hold, and it takes only a moment to climb up. He wonders whether it was already a practice room, or whether she set it up herself; but either way, the floor is made of thin boards over the original metal grate, done the same way the kitchen is, and there are long thin mats over that. She's in the middle, doing something quick and whirling, fans deactivating with a flick of the thumb as she swings them close, and humming to life again when she curves her wrists away. Uncle was right, she is skilled - Zuko's only been watching for a few seconds, and he's already seen a dozen moments when she might have seared herself if she had been an instant slower deactivating a fan blade.
She looks right at him at least once, but doesn't stop right away, finishing the full sequence before she slows and thumbs the fans away. "Something you need?"
"I - was wondering if you wouldn't mind-" He pauses, not sure how to ask, and then thinks he might as well keep it simple, and switches his own blades on, yellow light buzzing out in the shape of swords.
He's afraid she's going to just stand there looking at him and force him to actually make the request; but she doesn't. She grins instead, and lifts her fan handles. "Sure thing," she says. "Jet's a fan of shock hooks; I haven't fought laser swords in a long time." She stops for a second, and her face goes smooth. "Confederation," she says.
Zuko glances down at his sword hilts, both stamped with the stylized flame seal of the Galactic Confederation of United Systems. "Black market laser swords usually aren't worth the money," he says, because there's no way he's handing over the real answer to her non-question.
Suki feels her jaw relax. "True enough," she says, because it is. She's heard horror stories about the kind of stuff people have ended up with when they try to sidestep Confederation monopolies, laser pistols that explode while they're charging and swords with miscalibrated blades that take off hands. "And I suppose technically I stole these when I left my unit, so I can't really point fingers." She tips her fan handles sideways, so he can see the matching stamps they bear.
"You're Confederation military?" Zuko says, startled.
"Not anymore," Suki says, trying to keep her tone from going as icy as it wants to. "Recruited from Kyoshi, but I ... decided I didn't care for the way they conducted themselves." She switches both fans on, because she'd rather this conversation got cut a little short. "Ready?"
Zuko just stares at her for a moment, mouth open, and she's not sure why; but before she can ask, he visibly remembers himself, snaps his jaw shut and raises his swords. "Yes."
They slow after about half an hour; Suki's starting to get thirsty, and she's guessing it's been long enough since the last time Zuko fought anyone that it's taking him some time to reach his second wind. "Okay," she says at last, ducking under a sharp slash, "break time," and gets in one more block before she breaks away from him and shuts her fans off.
She's about to ask him whether he wants water, too, when she's interrupted by a storm of clapping.
"That was great," Aang says from the end of the ladder, hopping up to the floor of the practice room with wide eyes. "You're really good with those."
He already knows she can handle her fans well, and he's looking at Zuko, but it still takes Zuko a second to catch on, eyes darting back and forth between the two of them like he can't figure out why nobody's talking. "... Thank you?" he tries at last, and Suki can't stop a chuckle from escaping.
"Very graceful," she says teasingly, heading toward the ladder down. "You'd think you'd never gotten a compliment before in your life. Want some water?"
There's no answer for a moment, so she looks back over her shoulder: Zuko is staring at her, brow faintly wrinkled, like he doesn't quite understand the question. But then he blinks, and nods his head shortly. "Yes, that would be - yes."
"Then I'll bring the pitcher," Suki says, and does a flip down to the catwalk instead of using the ladder, just for the fun of it.
"Seriously," Aang repeats, "really good. How long have you been using those?"
"Since before I can remember," Zuko says. It comes out sort of brusque, but Aang's not going to hold it against him. Some people just aren't talkative. Aang got stuck doing a job with Jet once; by the end of that one, the sound of his voice was starting to annoy even him a little bit.
"Not those exact ones, though, right?" Aang says, laughing a little at the thought of a toddler Zuko trying to handle two three-foot laser swords.
Zuko stares at him.
"I mean, because they'd have been a little long when you were a kid?" Aang tries.
Zuko glances down at them - the hilts, that is, because he's already switched the blades off - and then back at Aang, with a vaguely dubious air. "I suppose," he says.
Make better jokes, Aang notes to himself, and then glances at Zuko's face, the wary slant to his gaze accentuated by the scar around his eye. Actually: don't make jokes at all.
"So," Aang says. "How'd you end up here?"
Zuko eyes him. "I might ask you the same question."
"You might," Aang agrees. "Wouldn't get much of a story, though. It's my ship, actually - I crashed it on the moon where Katara and Sokka used to live. By mistake, really, but it worked out great for me." He grins. "So now Katara's the captain, and I help out."
"It's your ship, and she's the captain?" Zuko says, sounding bewildered. "But why would you-" He cuts himself off, like he's not quite sure how to say what he's trying to ask.
Aang shrugs. "She's better at captaining than I am," he says honestly. "No point in insisting that it be me when I'm not much good at it. I mean, I could do it if I had to." He takes a moment to imagine what it would be like, and frowns. "But I don't think I would enjoy it very much."
Zuko looks uncertain, so Aang steers the conversation back to its original course.
"Anyway, what about you?"
Zuko hesitates. "I - couldn't be at home anymore," he says, "I needed to go."
"Me too," Aang says. "That's why I left Lho Rlung - I needed to go, to see other places," and he can't help smiling at Zuko. It's nice to find out that somebody understands you.
Aang beams up at him, and Zuko can't help wishing these people would quit smiling at him all the time. It's almost cruel, when they can't really like him even if they want to, because they don't know him - when they wouldn't want to like him, if they did.
It's a relief when Suki comes back, balancing the heavy pitcher neatly on her head with one hand so the other's still free to climb the ladder, because it means that soon he can start fighting again, instead of talking.
The first two days go great, and Katara's starting to think they might actually get out of this without strangling each other; the thought that something entirely unrelated might go wrong isn't one she's really been concerning herself with, so it's a surprise when she gets pitched out of her bunk in the middle of the night.
It feels like she's falling straight down, so when she hits the opposite wall of her quarters, and then almost immediately falls to her feet on the floor, she knows there's something wrong.
And, sure enough, halfway up the collapsible ladder to the corridor, she starts feeling like she's clinging to the ladder from below, and she hears something fall behind her. A second later, it's more like she's doing a pushup just holding herself away from the rungs, and her mattress slides off her bunk - the bunk's bolted in, like the other sparse furniture in her quarters, or she'd probably have been flattened the first time she fell.
But then everything steadies out, and she takes advantage of the opportunity and rushes up the rest of the ladder.
Toph's there already, hurrying toward the bridge with one hand braced against the wall - not so she can guide herself, her screenreader has a built-in object scanner, but in case of another shift.
"Artificial gravity controller," she yells back to Katara over her shoulder, "something's borked," and then they're falling again, and Katara twists just in time to land on the ceiling on her shoulder, instead of her head.
"Yeah, I'll say," she mutters to herself, as they start sliding toward the wall.
Most of the large things on the Appa are like her bunk, secured, because you never know when a landing sequence might go awry, and if that happens, you need to concentrate, not get stuck running around trying to tie things down. But she can hear some bangs and thuds from the rooms around her, loose tools and boxes and stacks of clothes.
She manages to reach the wall with her feet pointing the right way, and she's just started to steady herself when all the vents start spewing mist.
"There's something wrong with the water recyclers, too," she yells to Toph.
"No kidding!" Toph shouts back, crawling along the wall a little more slowly - the mist must be obscuring her scanner, Katara can hear her earpiece saying, "Obstacle status uncertain," from all the way over here.
Jet's coming up from the stern. He's looping his deactivated shock hooks through the handles of locked panels, and it's working pretty well; he's got a grip no matter which direction he falls next. "Help Toph!" Katara yells at him, and hurries past him, toward Aang's quarters, feet skidding on the wet metal as the gravity changes again.
When she climbs up the floor to pull the hatch over his room open, he's only a few feet away, crouched on the wall and rubbing his head mournfully; but he grabs her hand when she reaches for him, just in time for her to pull him up before another new gravity setting can drag him down to the opposite wall. "Come on, come on," she says, and she's already scrabbling to open the nearest console panel with one hand as he climbs up.
When the panel finally swings open, Aang presses his hand against the glowing keypad beneath it, which is already slick with mist; but almost as quickly, he yanks it back. "There's something wrong," he says, "something in there that shouldn't be-"
"You have to get it out," Katara says. "Whatever it is, you need to get it out - if it gets to the airlock controls-"
Aang turns to stare at her with round eyes, and swallows. "You have to keep me from falling," he says, and she forces her feet - still bare, she didn't even have time to get her boots on - into the wide slanted grate that forms the floor of the corridor. One hand's still wrapped around the panel handle, and she curls the other around the lip of the panel frame.
"You got it," she says, just as the gravity changes again, and he sets his hand against the screen and slumps back into her shoulder as his eyes film over with blue.
By the time Yue manages to fumble her way to the bridge corridor, whatever's gone wrong has hit the environmental controls, and everything is covered in frost - every time she slips her way through another change in gravity, she leaves streaks of bare metal behind her.
The mist was clearly here, too, because when she looks up at what used to be the wall, Katara is there, hanging half from the floor and half from a panel, and her hair is rimed with ice, looking almost as white as Yue's own. Aang is caught between her arms, against the wall, and his eyes and tattoos are blue and bright as a welding flame. He twitches, a helpless unpleasant motion, and then his brows draw together in a frown of concentration; Yue is watching so intently that the next sudden swing in gravity catches her by surprise, and she almost slams into Katara's back.
She hears a bang behind her, and turns; the last change evidently caught Zuko off-guard, too, and he hit the corner where the corridor leads out toward the hold and caught himself with his forearm. Nothing looks broken, though, and he is clearly far more interested in gaping at Aang, openmouthed.
It is suddenly at least a hundred degrees, streams of water wending down the walls, and Katara's frost-coated hair turns dark again, now dripping wet. Yue remembers herself, and kneels down beside her, ready to brace her - but the artificial gravity hasn't shifted in nearly fifteen seconds, now. A moment later the air suddenly cools to a more ordinary temperature and goes dry as sawdust, the environmental settings struggling to soak up the excess water; and a moment after that, Aang's hand slips from the panel, and he lolls back against Katara's shoulder, eyes closed.
"Is he all right?" Yue says, hushed, as Katara eases him away from the wall.
"I don't know," Katara says, equally quietly, and she lays a careful hand against Aang's forehead. "He's never done anything like that before - never so much at once. Then again," and her voice goes dry, "that much stuff has never gone wrong at once before, either." She stares down at his face for a long moment. "I should go check with Toph - see whether she's figured it out-"
"I'll take him," Zuko says.
He's come up behind them along the corridor, gazing down at Aang pensively before he meets Katara's eyes.
"I can carry him down to the infirmary. Stern, starboard, keep going instead of turning toward the passenger quarters."
Katara sucks in a breath, and nods.
It makes her uncomfortable, to leave Aang behind; but, she reasons, it's not like she's just dumping him on the floor and wandering off. Zuko knelt down and slid an arm around his shoulders, slow and careful, and he's carrying him away down the hall now, easy, like he weighs nothing.
She makes herself turn around, and takes the steps up to the bridge two at a time, shoving the curtain brusquely out of her way.
Toph made it to her chair successfully, and Jet's standing behind her, one fist on his hip, idly tapping the shock hook in his free hand against the wall as he frowns down at the displays in front of her.
"Well?" Katara says. "What was it?"
Water is seeping uncomfortably down her back, and she's started wringing her hair out by the time Toph grunts. "Virus," she says, "somebody slipped my system a virus, the-"
Katara cuts her off before she can get the curses flowing. "How? We haven't been near anybody in days. Who could have transmitted it?"
"I don't know," Toph says, "give me a second to finish tracing it back." She taps twice on her screenreader's pad, frowning out absently at the ship's front viewport as she listens. "It got into - navigation first, it sounds like. I had to re-fix our course when I got in here, we were suddenly headed to Qinwu by way of Seok-Sang-Kwai. Which is a completely ridiculous route," she clarifies, when Jet pokes her in the shoulder. "It must have been a sleeper, set to activate at a specific time: middle of ship's night, and a few days after we got it."
"But where from?" Katara reminds her, shifting closer to Toph's chair so that Jet can slip out of the bridge behind her.
"The nav-fix," Toph says. "I don't know why - I can't think why anybody on the Lanse Xing would've given it to us on purpose, so maybe they got infected someplace else and just passed it on by accident. For all we know, they just had exactly the same problems we did, except a thousand lightyears away and somewhere in hyperspace."
Katara shivers to think of it - if the virus attacked their navigation systems, odds are it did the same to the Lanse Xing, and if their nav-fix to regular space gets disrupted, who knows where the fleet might end up. Everybody knows the story of the Ming Daopian, how a miscalculation led it and the fleet it was towing into the middle of a star; only the ships on the furthest edges escaped destruction, hundreds of thousands killed in an instant. "But it's gone now?" she says.
Toph nods decisively. "Not that I won't be double-checking," she says, "but I'd be surprised if Aang left anything behind."
"I thought you said it was cheating to code with your brain," Katara says, elbowing Toph's shoulder.
"Well, it is," Toph says. "Doesn't mean it doesn't work, though."
Yue still isn't sure exactly what happened, but she can piece together a bare outline for herself: something went terribly wrong somewhere in the Appa's computer systems, and Aang repaired it. Precisely how he did it is beyond her, but it's obvious that it was difficult for him - he's still and quiet in Zuko's arms the whole way down to the infirmary, not so much as fluttering an eyelid, and the only reason she knows he's still alive is because she can see his pulse speeding in his throat.
Zuko sets him down carefully on the bed, and Yue helps unhook his knees from Zuko's elbow. It's funny; he's not that much younger than she is, or all that much shorter, but he looks odd and small lying there. Fitting, Yue supposes. Before, even circled by Katara's arms, with his eyes and tattoos blazing and that determined look on his face, she wouldn't have been surprised if he had stood up and been twice her height.
She only knows the basics, but she does what she can; checks his pulse, his breathing, looks for visible injuries. There aren't any, so she decides to wait. If there is any damage, she suspects it will prove more mental than physical. Whatever he did, it was not the kind of thing that would break something as trivial as bones.
"You saw it, didn't you?" Zuko says quietly. "His tattoos, his eyes?"
Yue looks at him; he is staring down at Aang's face, his expression somewhere between desperate and ill. "I did," she says. "It was an extraordinary feat; I hope he didn't hurt himself badly. It would be a poor reward for saving us all."
Zuko's gaze leaps up to her face when she says it, and she almost shakes her head - what, does he disagree? What does he think happened back there?
"A poor reward," he echoes after a moment, evidently in agreement, and then sighs. "Well, it is his ship," he says.
"Do you really think that's why he saved us?" Yue says, startled. She'll readily admit she doesn't know Aang all that well, and perhaps Zuko's seen something in him that she hasn't.
But after a moment, Zuko shakes his head slowly. "No," he says, "I suppose I don't." He looks down at Aang again, this time in consternation, and Yue can't help but grin; it's a very peculiar reaction to being reminded that your life has been saved for its own sake.
"Hey, back off," someone growls, and Yue turns around to see Jet, the man who's always carrying those hooks, crowding in through the doorway. "What're you doing in here?"
"He's the one who carried Aang down," Yue says, but Jet's expression doesn't change a jot.
"Yeah, well, you're done now, Confederation," Jet says, and swings a hook up. Zuko's resting one hand on the edge of the infirmary bed, and the curve of the hook just brushes the side of it; Yue realizes what Jet's about to do only a moment before he does it, and she's too late to stop the line of blue sparks from coiling up the hook and spitting out over Zuko's fingers.
But she kicks anyway, and Jet has to duck away from the hook as it comes whirling up toward his face, deactivating it with a sharp curse.
Zuko has already bitten out half a cry and yanked his hand away; but he looks all right now, shaking his hand out and glaring at Jet.
Jet is crew, and Yue only a passenger, so she restrains herself. "That was unnecessary," she says, as politely as she can manage.
"Extremely so," Suki says from the doorway behind Jet, and even before she turns her head, Yue can hear the hum of her laser fans igniting. "I realize you're busy, but do you think you could have your little attack of the paranoids somewhere where we aren't trying to make sure Aang stays alive?"
Jet sneers at her, but only a little; he's been on the ship long enough to know better, Yue surmises. "Fine," he says, "but I'm not the real problem here."
"Right this second, there's only one guy waving a shock hook around in the infirmary," Suki says. "Out."
It takes nearly a full day before Aang wakes up, and Zuko can't spend the whole thing standing over him dourly in the infirmary, even if Suki seems willing to let him. He needs to stop talking to Yue, because every time he does, she says quiet, innocuous things that hit him like a slap in the face; and she isn't even doing it on purpose like Azula would, she's only telling him what she thinks is the truth. His muscles are still aching from his first round with Suki; there's no way he's going to talk to Jet on purpose after that little display last night; and Uncle's calm stare is wearing on his nerves.
Technically speaking, they've never been told that, as passengers, they should stay off the bridge, but Zuko still feels a bit like he's trespassing when he walks by the crew's quarters and up the stairs.
Of course, that feeling pretty much goes away when he realizes that the curtain that forms the door is patterned with giant fluffy mole-monsters.
"Badgermoles," the pilot says - Toph, that's her name.
Zuko looks up, and blinks; the pilot's turned her head to the side, over her shoulder, but she's not looking at him. Can't, judging by the pale film over her eyes. "How did you-"
"You walk loud," she says. "Or, you were; and then you got to the top of the stairs and moved the curtain, and then you stopped. It was just a guess that you were looking at it - but it was a pretty good guess, huh?"
Zuko frowns. "Why are you - I mean, they've got optic implants on your world, don't they?"
"Sure, sure," Toph says, "and they work great for a lot of people." She shrugs, pressing a finger to the little gadget clipped to her ear and typing something on the keyboard with one hand. "But I don't need them."
"Don't need them?" Zuko says, unable to keep the doubt out of his voice.
Toph turns and grins in his general direction, sunnily. "That's right," she says. "I listen." She reaches out and slaps a hand against a box wired to the back of the console, unerring. "Set this up myself, for the sensors. The screenreader's pretty good, but sensor displays are usually pretty pictures, and it's not as helpful as you might think, having this thing read off constantly changing coordinates for ten little dots at once. And speakers are no good; no sound in space. But Huisheng here," and she pets the box fondly, "she takes the raw data and matches it up with a noise - something appropriate to the size and composition, or ship type, whichever it is, and modifies it to account for speed and distance."
Zuko gives the little box a dubious look; somehow it doesn't seem impressive enough to handle something so complicated.
"It took a lot of experimentation," Toph admits, "but I've got her running pretty smooth now." She smiles. "So I hear everything." She strokes the box - Huisheng, Zuko reminds himself - again. "Sweet rig, huh?"
Zuko looks at her, and tries to imagine what his father would have said to a blind daughter, one who insisted that she didn't need optic implants, didn't need to see, because there were other ways. And then he tries to imagine what Toph would say to his father in response, and has to work to strangle the urge to laugh. "Yeah," he says, clearing his throat. "Sweet."
"I hope I'm not interrupting."
Iroh lets himself take the time to lay one more tile before he looks up; it's Yue, not the captain, who's standing over him, and she looks faintly concerned. He moves to stand, but she sits before he can so much as get a knee under himself.
"No," she says, "please, don't bother." She glances over the Pai Sho board. "May I?" she says, and when Iroh nods, she reaches over to the sack of tiles on her side of the board and places one.
It is a fine move - a lily tile next to a white dragon tile is a nicely harmonious combination. Iroh smiles down at the board, and then looks up at her again.
"I only wished to ask whether you are well," Yue says, a little shyly. "The malfunctions must have woken you, but I didn't see you upstairs - I trust that if you'd been hurt, you would have gone to the infirmary."
"I would indeed," Iroh assures her. "I remained in my quarters - there were things there that I did not wish to leave at the mercy of last night's whimsical gravity." Specifically, the beautifully glazed tea set that was the last gift Lu Ten ever gave him - but Yue doesn't need a old man maundering at her about things he cannot change. Iroh managed to save the cups from an untimely death; that is the best he can do now. He considers the Pai Sho board, and places a tile himself.
Yue smiles, beatific. "I'm glad," she says. "I think it would have been very difficult for your nephew - not to say that it wouldn't also be unpleasant for you, of course." She slides another tile onto the board; a boat. Neatly done. She has pushed one of Iroh's jasmine tiles into a disharmonious pairing with a rose tile. It will take several moves to fix.
"Of course, of course," Iroh says, and ponders for a moment. She is a friendly girl, open - she does not have Zuko's well-earned tendency toward distrust, and she has no reason not to answer his questions. "My nephew has spoken to you, then?"
"A little," Yue says, sheepish. "Mostly I've been speaking to him. He's not very talkative, but he always looks so-" She searches for a word. "Uncomfortable.Like if I let him, he'd just stand there glowering, and never relax."
Iroh can't help chuckling. "An apt description," he says. "He must say something to you."
"He told me you were from near the core," she says. "We talked about where I'm from, and duty-"
"Duty?" Iroh says, surprised. The subjects don't strike him as intrinsically related.
"I'm - not traveling only for my own sake," Yue says, fiddling with a white jade tile. "He asked whether I thought of it as my duty."
Iroh leans forward, intrigued, instead of placing his next tile. "And what did you tell him?"
"That it was my duty to do things I thought were right, and to refuse to do things I thought were wrong," Yue says, shrugging a little; and then she looks at him, uncertain. "Was that - stupid?"
Iroh realizes that he is staring at her, a smile somewhere in his head instead of on his face, and shakes his head gently. "It was the truth, wasn't it?"
"Well, yes," Yue says, "but sometimes the truth can be stupid." She rubs a thumb over the carved face of the tile in her hand. "Wood is wood, but that doesn't mean it sounds especially wise to say so."
"Unless you're saying it to someone who has never touched a tree," Iroh says, and laughs.
"I don't like him."
Katara sighs and pushes the panel closed. "You said exactly the same thing about Suki," she says. "Confederation! Can't be trusted! She'll turn us in!" She levers herself up, and her knees both pop at once. All consoles should be at chest height, she thinks grumpily. "And look how that turned out? You beat each other up, and now you're best friends."
"Are not," Jet says, "she's just less stupid than most," but he doesn't argue the rest of the point.
Because he can't, because Katara is totally right. She turns to face him, and folds her arms.
"Look," Jet says, "I'm just saying. Something's off about that guy."
"Okay, and I'm just saying, don't do that thing with the shock hooks again. I know this is the first time we've ever taken passengers on, but I didn't think it needed saying before this: we don't attack people who are paying us. He hasn't done anything wrong."
Jet twirls a hook resentfully. "The time to put a hook in his head in the middle of the night is before he does something, not after."
Katara leans forward, into his space, so that he has to take a step back. "This might be Aang's ship," she snaps, "but I'm the captain. You kill one single person on this boat, and you're asking to take a walk outside with no suit."
Jet goes away grumbling; but at least he knows the score now. She likes him pretty well when he's not being a paranoid jerk, but right and wrong have never been his strong suit.
But, in the end, he's crew, and Zuko's not. As far as she knows, what she told Jet is true: Zuko hasn't done anything to hurt anybody. But she supposes it can't hurt to keep an eye on him - if nothing else, it'll help her argue Jet out of doing something irrational like installing a camera in his quarters.
She's not going to stalk him all day - he spends a fair amount of his time sparring with Suki, anyway, and it's not like he's going to start causing trouble if he's hanging out in the practice room. But she makes sure she ends up next to him at dinner, and sets the steamed buns on her other side. It might not make a huge difference, but if he interacts with her first, maybe it won't be quite as suspicious when she starts talking to him.
Suki's gone to check on Aang, but everybody else is there and hungry, so they start eating; it only takes about ten seconds for Zuko to turn to her and ask her to pass the bread.
"Sure thing," she says, and holds out the basket. "So, you're from the core, huh?"
He shoots her a wide-eyed look, like he's expecting to get zapped again, but she keeps her expression on the friendly side of neutral, and after a moment he takes the buns. "Huojia," he says shortly.
Katara blinks. That's not near the core, that is the core - not in a literal, astrometric sense, but certainly in a political and military sense. Huojia's star system is close to the center of the galaxy, and neighbors the star they built Lianmeng to orbit, so the Galactic Senate could meet somewhere no one had any particular claim to. It's one of the most powerful systems in the Confederation; it might be second to Ba Sing Se, but Ba Sing Se lies a little further out, and Katara's heard rumors that it's starting to lose touch with the Senate.
"Wow," she says succinctly, and tilts her head. "So what are you doing buying passage out toward the rim?"
"Just traveling," he says, which is not at all an answer.
She's just opened her mouth, ready to pry a little further, when Suki hurtles up the steps and says breathlessly, "Aang's awake."
Toph's scanner is great when unexpected stuff is happening - like the other night, at least before all that mist made it freak out. But it can be a little overzealous sometimes, and right now, it's insisting that she'd better watch out for Aang's infirmary bed.
"Yeah, I know it's there, I'm standing next to it on purpose," she mutters, and moves a little closer so that she can drop a hand onto the bedrail - sometimes that helps, when it realizes she's touching things and therefore knows where they are. And, sure enough, it reluctantly shuts up.
"I could totally fix that for you," Aang says weakly, and Toph grins and aims a light punch approximately where his shoulder should be.
"We've talked about this," she says, "that would be cheating. How're you feeling, Twinkletoes?"
"Actually, pretty okay," Aang says thoughtfully, and Toph hears Katara blow out a breath in relief. Katara always worries so much. "I mean, I'm hoping I don't have to do that again, but I don't think I actually hurt myself."
"No, of course not," Suki says, "you've been unconscious for almost a whole day because it's fun." By the tone of her voice, Toph's pretty sure her arms are crossed.
"I was just tired," Aang protests. "Usually I just - touch the computer system, see how everything's working. And I've done that a million times. Fighting off a virus somebody planted takes a tiny bit more effort."
"Wimp," Toph declares.
"By which she means to say we're all glad you're okay," Katara says, and Toph can tell by the sound of her voice that she's smiling. Toph would object, but it's pretty much accurate.
"We are indeed," Iroh says.
"Glad, yes, of course," Zuko echoes awkwardly next to him, and Toph rolls her eyes. He's so ridiculous.
Aang takes it easy for the next day or two - or Katara makes him, anyway - and everyone relaxes; the rest of the trip to Pohuai is so quiet it's almost unbelievable. Toph would never have known anyone had messed up her systems if she hadn't been there herself, everything's so clean and glitch-free. Even her console switches seem to be sticking less, though that might well be her imagination.
But even on quiet days, she loves being at the Appa's helm. She likes the Appa the best out of all the ships she's ever flown; maybe it's because the core's never been reset, but there's something about it that makes it feel like a ship, not just a bunch of pieces of metal welded together. Like it's more than the sum of its parts, somehow.
She gets an alert when Pohuai Station comes up on short-range, her screenreader's cool voice saying, "Destination closing," and reeling off coordinates and velocities. She switches Huisheng on - strictly speaking, there's no serious need for her, but Toph likes being able to hear the thrusters firing when she docks. It makes it smoother, somehow.
She contacts the station, and a woman on the other end of the video link directs her to a docking arm on the far side - Pohuai's ring-shaped, she knows that from the sensors. She thinks that whatever Aang did must have made the thrusters a little more responsive, because there's no lag at all when she switches them on, and they cut off the second she eases back; it's one of the prettiest docking maneuvers she's ever done.
Her video link plays a tone, and then her screenreader reads off the contact number, and she grins. "Accept," she tells the computer.
"Hey, Toph," Sokka says. "Haru saw you coming in, he says to tell you nice landing."
"Thanks," she says. "But don't tell him that. Tell him he wishes he could pull that off."
"I do," Haru admits, faint; he must be somewhere off to the side. "I really do."
"So, when are we leaving?" Sokka says.
"I'm not sure," Toph says. There's a thunking of footsteps on metal behind her, but she figures it's Katara, and she's not listening closely when she says, "We might need a few things from the station - our fuel cells are in good shape, but maybe some more food-"
"No," Zuko says from behind her, and Toph stills in her chair. She's listening, now, and that's the buzz of laser blades - something longer and thinner than Suki's fans, by the way the sound changes when she turns her head - and somebody's sharp, too-hurried breathing. Somebody who's not Zuko.
Toph reaches under the console and flips the intercom switch. "Oh?" she says.
"Now," Zuko snaps, "we're leaving now, unless you want Aang's head rolling around under your chair."
"Ooo, evocative," Toph says.
"Toph-" Aang says, but then the laser-buzz shifts, and he falls silent.
"Shut up," Zuko hisses. "I said now - tell them to head back to the core. Huojia."
"I won't do it," Sokka says, tight and angry, and Toph turns her face back in the general direction of the video link.
"I get it," she says, "I'm mad at him, too; but I kind of like Aang's head where it is."
There's a clatter behind her, shoes on metal; everybody heard all that, over the intercom. But it's too late, Toph's pretty sure. Zuko's not going to let Aang go now. He's acting stupid, but it's a different kind of stupid than that.
"What in the world," Katara says, tromping up the stairs, and then she pulls the curtain aside and goes quiet. There's an odd scraping sound - Zuko turning, and dragging Aang around with him.
"Tell him to do it," Zuko says.
There's a long silence, and then Katara says, "Sokka," in a tone that clearly conveys to Toph just how much she wants to strangle Zuko right now. "Sokka, please."
Toph decides to take matters into her own hands. It's not unusual for her to be typing; but she turns off the volume for a second, so that when she actually sends the message, nobody on the Appa will hear the little bing noise on Sokka's end. She presses the capslock key. IMAGINE I AM YELLING THIS AT YOUR FACE. DO LIKE HE SAYS. SUKI WILL BEAT HIM UP LATER, BUT RIGHT NOW, AANG NEEDS TO NOT DIE.
"Fine," her screenreader murmurs in her ear; Toph doubts it has managed to capture the sulkiness Sokka probably keyed that in with.
She unmutes the video link.
"When we get there, I'm going to kill you," Sokka says - to Zuko, Toph freely assumes - and then the link terminates with a soft tone.
The sensors pick up the Taikong Jian easily enough, and Toph listens through Huisheng as the bigger ship eases away from the station. Toph disengages the docking locks - it feels a little silly, considering she only engaged them about a minute ago - and swings out and away from Pohuai after them.
"Navigational fix successfully locked," her screenreader tells her, and she rides the little jolt into hyperspace with the buzz of Zuko's laser swords loud in her ears.
"Back up," Zuko snaps when they're finally in hyperspace, bringing the blade of one laser sword even closer to Aang's neck; and Katara reluctantly does, glaring unrelentingly.
Everybody else is crowded behind her on the steps, Suki and Jet and Uncle and Yue, and Zuko keeps his blades crossed under Aang's chin and reminds himself that he's doing the right thing. He must be; he can't let himself doubt it, if he's going to pull this off.
Jet looks like he wants to kill him, splatter his brains across the corridor right there, and the death grip Katara has on his arm as she backs out of Zuko's way is probably the only reason he doesn't do it.
"Zuko," Uncle says, very gentle. "Zuko, my nephew, don't do this."
"You know why," Zuko spits, frustrated. Nobody else here will understand, he knows that; but Uncle should, at the very least. "I made a mistake, and I've learned my lesson from it."
"The wrong one, I think," Yue says quietly.
Zuko doesn't look at her, only pulls the swords closer to Aang's throat. "Clear the way," he says. "The empty crew quarters, at the end; the door lock will be engaged, and if there's so much as a hint that you're trying to cut through or reprogram it, I'll kill him. I'll give you proof of life through the video link, however often you want it, until we get there."
Katara doesn't want to do it, he can see that on her face; but she wants Aang killed in front of her even less, and she drags Jet back against the wall.
"All of you to that side," Zuko says quickly. He doesn't want to have to maneuver between them if Jet's on one side and Suki's on the other.
He keeps one sword tipped down over Aang's shoulder and one pointed back at the other end of the corridor when Aang climbs down the ladder into the unoccupied room, and then he drops down himself before any of them can rush him, and swings the hatch shut.
Aang stumbles almost all the way to the far wall when Zuko shoves him, but doesn't complain; it's not exactly unpleasant, not having those swords right at his throat anymore.
Zuko switches one sword off and shoves it in his belt so that he can engage the lock, eyes on Aang the whole time, and when Aang moves as though to come a little closer, Zuko raises the sword in his free hand warningly. "Not a step," he says. "I know what you can do."
Aang hadn't even been thinking about it, but it's true; if he gets a hand on the hatch console, he could probably unlock it. And somehow he suspects Zuko's not going to believe him if he says he won't do it.
So he stops and moves back, sitting down and leaning against the wall.
These quarters are completely bare - never been occupied, and barely even used for anything except maybe storage now and then. It's just a floor, empty walls, and the ladder up to the hatch.
Aang taps his fingers against the floor.
Zuko's still watching him, sword out.
"Come on," Aang says, "are you going to do that the whole way there? It'll take at least a day or two, even in hyperspace, and your arm's going to get tired in about two minutes. Even if you turned it off, you could still probably switch it on and run me through before I could get to the hatch."
Zuko glares at him, still holding the sword at the ready; but after a long moment, he reluctantly thumbs it off.
"So, help me out here," Aang says. "I'm still a little confused. Why are you doing this, again?"
"You thought I was like you," Zuko snaps, "but I'm not. I had to go, because - because I couldn't stay, not because I wanted to. But you - what you can do-" He stops abruptly, shaking his head sharply. "It doesn't matter, you don't need to know."
"But I want to," Aang says. Then, on a hunch, "It has something to do with your eye, doesn't it?"
Zuko glowers, and says nothing.
"That scar," Aang clarifies. "How'd you get that?"
Zuko deliberately turns away, and gazes pointedly at the side wall instead.
"How'd you get that? How'd you get that? I wonder how many times I could say that in two days," Aang muses. "We could find out together-"
"I made a mistake!" Zuko shouts, slamming a fist sideways into the wall beside the ladder. "I told you - I made a mistake."
"Okay, but what kind of mistake?" Aang says. "Self-imposed exile seems like a kind of excessive reaction to a cooking accident."
He's honestly curious, but somehow he's not expecting the answer to be that bad, until he sees the look on Zuko's face. Zuko angry, Aang is becoming increasingly familiar with; but Zuko quietly unhappy and just a touch uncertain is a new one. "Suki, she - she was on Kyoshi, she said," Zuko says.
"She was," Aang says.
Zuko stares into the middle distance for a moment, and then visibly remembers himself, glancing at Aang and then away. "I was too stupid," he says, and it sounds like a complete non-sequitur, but Aang makes himself wait. "The meetings my father had, with the Military Council of Lords - he talked like they were everything. They were everything," Zuko corrects himself. "Everybody looks at the Senate like that's where the real power is, but they're wrong. My father knew the truth. And I - I wanted so badly to be there, I begged him. But I was too stupid to understand. It had been everywhere, all the newscasts on the ansible - the terms of the truce, the length of the negotiation period-"
Aang suddenly suspects that he knows where this is going, and there's a feeling in his stomach like he just ate a rock.
"-and I couldn't understand that it had all been a lie. I thought-" Zuko breaks off, and shakes his head again. "I thought they didn't realize there was a contradiction. My father-" He stops there, but one hand drifts up, touches the scar-red skin around his eye, and Aang is abruptly certain that he really doesn't want to hear the rest.
"I thought I'd never be able to go back," Zuko says. "But the things you can do, my father - I have to take you back to him. I have to," and he looks at Aang almost pleadingly for a second, like he wants him to say that he understands.
And he does, a little; it's not the right choice, but he can see how it looks to Zuko like the only one there is. So Aang says, "I understand," as gently as he can, and then looks away.
It must be at least an hour later that Aang's woken by the beep of the video link activating; he remembers staring at the wall for quite a while before he fell asleep.
Zuko, across the room, sits up with a start - Aang's pretty sure it's not because he was sleeping, just because he was deep in thought - and then scrambles to his feet, pulls the link frame free from the wall, and accepts the transmission.
Katara's face appears; she still looks angry, and maybe a little tired, so Aang decides not to jump up and wave at her. He stands, though, just in case this is one of those proof-of-life checks Zuko was talking about earlier. He doesn't want Zuko to haul him off to some core planet and hand him over to his angry eye-burning father, but he doesn't really want Jet busting in to cut Zuko's throat, either.
"He's fine," Zuko says, "alive and well-"
"Good to know," Katara says, dry. "There's a transmission coming in for you."
Zuko hesitates. "A transmission?"
"We'll transfer it down," Katara says grudgingly, and turns to someone off to one side. "Okay, now," she tells whoever it is - Toph, Aang guesses - and then her face disappears. The video link goes blank for a second, and then a new face fills the screen.
Aang dares to take a few steps forward so that he can see Zuko's face clearly: he's staring.
"Azula," Zuko says.
Katara doesn't even need to tell Toph to leave the transferred link open and shut off the microphone; they all crowd around her little screen, and watch this Azula person laugh delightedly.
"Zuzu," she says warmly. "It's been so long!"
Toph flicks a switch, and the next screen over displays Zuko's face. He looks like Azula's just told him she'll kill him in the night with no warning, not given him an apparently kind greeting. "How did you get here?" he says.
Azula laughs again, and then smiles indulgently at her screen. "Oh, come now, Zuko - you don't really think Father would let you keep wandering the big bad galaxy alone and unprotected, do you?"
"He didn't seem too upset by the idea the last time I saw him," Zuko says guardedly, but even as Katara watches, something in his face is thawing.
Azula flaps a hand dismissively. "All right, so you had a little disagreement," she says. "That doesn't mean he wants you dead. Be reasonable. He sent me out to find you, and gave me a lovely new ship besides - the navigation system's a little experimental, but it's working wonders so far. After all, we found you in the middle of hyperspace, didn't we?"
"So you did," Zuko agrees. "What do you want?"
"To take you home, Zuzu," Azula says, like it's obvious. "Look at you - heading out toward the dregs of civilization on some glorified garbage scow."
"Oh, she did not," Toph mutters, head cocked close to the speakers; but then she pauses and frowns. "Wait a second - how did she know that?"
"How did she know the Appa's a garbage scow?" Jet says.
Toph rolls her eyes. "He is not," she says. "And I meant that we're headed toward the core now; so how did she know we weren't before? She didn't just find us - she's been keeping tabs on us for a while."
Katara frowns, because Toph is right. It's possible Azula could have found out by checking docking records - but why would she have done that if she hadn't already been looking for them? Either way, Azula hasn't just stumbled across them.
On the screen, she's still talking. "-forgiven you, Zuko, and he wants you to come home."
Katara can't help staring, because Zuko's face looks like it belongs to an entirely different person; his expression's softened into pleading lines, like he wants to believe Azula so badly he almost doesn't care whether she's really telling the truth.
But before he can say anything, Aang's bare head pops up in the corner of the screen, looking deeply dubious. "He's forgiven Zuko? For what? Who fried whose eyelid, again?"
"Shut up," Zuko snarls, one long yellow blade humming to life in front of Aang's face; but he's scowling, distrustful all over again, and Katara's oddly relieved to see it.
Azula keeps smiling for a long moment, but Zuko's glare doesn't waver; and then she drops the pleasant grin, like it was a stone weighing her down, and sighs. "I always hope you'll take the easy way, Zuzu," she says, "but you never do learn, do you? You're just asking for me to take the other eye."
"I can't believe I'm saying this," Toph murmurs, "but I'm drastically re-evaluating how much I dislike Zuko right now."
"No kidding," Katara says, hushed. She can't even conceive of a situation where Sokka would say something like that to her and mean it. An hour ago, she wouldn't have thought things could get much worse. An hour ago, she thinks wryly, she was kind of stupid.
Azula leans forward. "But it's all right," she says, and if Katara didn't know better, she'd think Azula's tone were kind. "We can do it the hard way. That works for me." She crosses her arms, and smirks into the link. "I'll vaporize these ships and everyone on them if you don't come aboard. Actually, let's make that all of you - you, and that boy, and all the rest of them. No point leaving them if I'm just going to have to find them again when it's time to clean up." She eyes Zuko for a moment. "I'm going to take a leap of faith, and assume you aren't stupid enough to think I can't do it; but you can have your pilot run a scan, if you want to be absolutely sure."
Toph's hands are on the keyboard before Azula even finishes the sentence. "It's true," she yells, and on the screen, Zuko glances to the side, toward the hatch - now he knows they're listening in, but he also knows not to hope Azula's bluffing.
Azula just waits, without making any kind of response - the link microphones are pretty terrible, Katara knows, so odds are she didn't hear Toph. Zuko evidently realizes it, too, because he tips his chin up and says, "That won't be necessary."
"Maybe you can be taught," Azula says, generous. "Ty Lee will transmit coordinates; tell your lead ship to drop out of hyperspace there." She smiles again, confident and a little wicked. "See you in a little while, Zuzu."
"So," Azula says. "This is the technopath."
Aang shifts his weight uneasily. Song can sympathize - she'd be uneasy, too, if Azula were looking at her like that.
They'd picked up Azula's ship on the Taikong Jian's sensors almost right away, massive as it was, but they hadn't thought anything of it at first. Ships did pass sometimes in hyperspace, though not usually so close. Sokka had told Teo to keep an eye on it, and then maybe ten minutes later, they'd suddenly gotten a link from a sour-faced Toph, growling out half an explanation and telling them to drop out of hyperspace on the mark she was about to send over. They'd followed her directions to the letter, every one of them conscious that their lives were on the line; and then the second they'd docked, a security team in Confederation red had dragged them up here, to a small room behind the bridge.
Song's had a fair number of adventures since she joined Sokka's crew, she's been shot at and concussed and stabbed, and, memorably, burned; but this is the first time she can remember feeling really afraid.
Teo inches forward, wheels silent on the smooth floor, and squeezes her wrist. "We'll make it," he murmurs, very low, "as long as Sokka doesn't say anything stupid."
"Great, we're going to die," Song mutters back. But it helped; her heart isn't pounding quite so hard anymore.
"What do you want with him?" Katara snaps, and strides forward three steps so that she's standing half in front of Aang.
"I'm not sure yet," Azula says, thoughtful. "Experimentation, genetic manipulation, vivisection - there are so many options."
Aang shudders visibly, and Zuko takes a step forward, frowning. "I thought you were here-"
"For you?" Azula laughs. "Oh, Zuko." She reaches forward, and gently pats his cheek. "You still don't understand. You just aren't that important." She steps back, and puts her hands on her hips. "I lied - I wasn't even looking for you, not really. It was just good luck." She shrugs one shoulder in a graceful arc, and looks at Aang again. "You, on the other hand - you left a trail. Nothing dramatic; only a few stories, an offhand comment here and there about an old junker that runs smooth as silk and never needs its computers reset. It was quite a lot of work to catch up - I wasn't going to lose you to the rim."
"You got that virus set on us," Toph spits.
Azula smiles. "Oh, yes," she says. "The captain of the Lanse Xing was most helpful - he might not have done it for money alone, but money and the chance to keep his hands attached to his wrists was just too much for him to resist. He fed you Ty Lee's virus; he had your nav-fix shaken; and he alerted my agent at Pohuai, just in case you survived."
It's a bewildering amount of effort to go to, Song thinks, just to snare Aang; and a trickle of cold snakes down her back. They're not going to be able to talk their way out of this. If Azula's already gone to that much trouble just to get Aang, she's not going to let him go without a fight.
"And now I have what I want," Azula continues, "which means all there is left to do is clean up."
Song's not sure what she means by that, but she's betting it's not good, because Azula is reaching for the handle of the lightning whip coiled at her hip.
Zuko jerks, startled. "But you said-"
"I said I wouldn't blow them all up," Azula says. "I never said I wouldn't kill them some other way." She tips her head to the side a little. "Not that it should really matter to you - I'm not going to kill you."
Song is far enough to the side to see that there's a really awful expression on Zuko's face, and when Azula's whip snakes out toward the white-haired woman standing to Aang's left, she can tell that for a second he's not sure which direction he wants to go.
But before the blow can land, he's managed to decide, and the spur at the whip's end buries itself in his shoulder.
"I wasn't planning to, that is," Azula says conversationally, and thumbs the button that makes blue electricity flare down the whip's length.
Zuko screams through clenched teeth, dropping to his knees like he can't help it, and the white-haired woman shouts and wraps a hand around the whip's end, yanking it out with a jerk. Song winces, because she knows what that motion probably did to Zuko's shoulder. But she also knows the woman couldn't help it - she can't even unclench her hand from around the whip, now, with the electricity coursing down it.
Azula had their weapons taken from them, but Song knows that On Ji keeps spare laser knives in some pretty terrifying places, so it's no surprise when she pulls one from somewhere, switches it on, and darts across the room, slicing through the whip maybe a foot from the white-haired woman's twitching hand.
"Mai! Ty Lee!" Azula shouts.
The door to the bridge swishes open, and a woman with a long braid pauses in the doorway, obviously startled, before she hurries forward. For a second, Song's confused, because it doesn't look like she has any weapons; but then Song sees her hands.
"On Ji, shock gloves!" she shouts, and then rushes over, because the old man who was standing behind him is trying to cover the wound in Zuko's shoulder, and he's doing it wrong. "Here, come on, let me do it," she says, and the old man gratefully does.
There's a lot of yelling and crackling behind her, and the occasional flash of light, but Song keeps her eyes on what she's doing. Azula unnerves her, sure; but concentrating in the middle of a fight is something she knows how to do.
She gets Zuko responsive and upright, and the white-haired woman is clutching her hand but otherwise fine, so she looks around: Toph is tapping furiously on a console, and Aang is yanking desperately at the hatch next to it.
Song pulls Zuko over, letting the white-haired woman steady him when he stumbles, and grabs the handle next to Aang's hand - Toph hits the console again, a light somewhere on the panel changes from red to yellow, and the hatch reluctantly groans open.
"Back to the hatch!" Teo yells somewhere behind them.
But they aren't all going to fit through there at once, Song knows, and they're going to need a few seconds for Haru to get Teo on his back and fold Teo's chair up. She grabs Aang's shoulder, and pulls until he's staring at her with wide eyes instead of at the hatch. "Distract them," she shouts.
He turns and slams his hand onto the console an inch from Toph's fingers, and all the lights in the room go blinding white.
Toph crawls out of the hatch tube, and immediately turns around to help Haru and Teo out behind her. They managed to get the hatch on the other end closed and sealed again before Azula could recover, and Toph left them a little present when she locked it; but the internal sensors will be able to tell Azula exactly where they are, and there have to be other routes to this corridor, even if they're a little longer.
"This is not good," she says; mostly to herself, but she hears someone turn.
"The docking bay's not that far," Sokka says.
"Azula's not an idiot," Toph says - maybe a little more acidly than necessary, but she's very slightly stressed right now. "She'll seal the decks between here and there, if she hasn't already-"
"But will they stay that way?" Aang says, rhetorical and just a little wobbly; and then Toph hears the swish of at least three nearby doors opening.
"Well," she says. "Maybe we'll live after all."
She knows approximately where the docking bay is; she had her screenreader describe blueprints of Azula's ship model the second she scanned it, and she counts her strides almost reflexively when she's somewhere unfamiliar. They get caught a corridor away by a security team that's obviously been called up to the bridge to help chase them down - Toph trips one who comes thundering toward her and finds Suki's laser fans stuck through his belt, and once the fans get into Suki's hands it's all over.
Suki shoves the fans in one security thug's face, and the woman wisely chooses to keep her nose where it is and tell them where to find the storage room the rest of their weapons were thrown into.
Azula's sealed both their ships into dock with a lock that needs a captain's override - a captain's override or a little sweet-talking from Aang, that is. He takes an extra few seconds, making the panels thrum against Toph's hands, and screws with Azula's navigational systems; Toph can hear the subroutines flailing, it's beautiful.
"She won't be able to come after us for a good long while," Toph confirms, and Aang takes two lurching steps away from the panel and then tumbles sideways into somebody's arms.
"Aang-" Katara says.
"Okay," he murmurs - from somewhere near Katara's elbow, Toph judges. "Just whirly."
"Right," Katara says soothingly, and she and Jet carry him the rest of the way on board.
Toph just about sprints up to the Appa's cockpit, and she's already starting the boot sequence before she's even all the way into her chair, her screenreader chattering rapidly in her ear. Haru is only a hair slower, and she fixes on the Taikong Jian as it peels away from Azula's ship.
A beep from the link lets her know Haru's calling, and she accepts. "Okay, I'm winging it - three, two, one," he says, still a little breathless over the link, and riding smooth over the hitch into hyperspace feels like a bolt sliding satisfyingly home.
Zuko tries to sit up and immediately groans; it feels like his shoulder's just been set on fire.
"Ah, nephew," Uncle says somewhere above him, very gently. "You are awake."
"Careful," Yue adds, nearby. "If you move too much, we'll need to recalibrate, and the regeneration will take twice as long."
Zuko forces his eyes open: there's some kind of smooth white machine curving over his shoulder, and the feeling in it is settling down to something more like pins and needles.
"We dropped out of hyperspace for a minute so Song could come over and set it up," Yue says, "but we really shouldn't do it again for a few more days, until we're further away."
"What happened?" Zuko says blurrily.
Uncle beams down at him. "You did your duty," he says.
Zuko stares at him, and then a flicker of memory comes to him. "Your hand," he says to Yue, without entirely meaning to. He must be drugged with something.
Yue smiles, and lifts her arm; there's a faint, branching redness over the skin, but it looks fine otherwise. "The current wasn't too high," she says, "and it wasn't going through me for long. Song says I was very lucky."
"Did my duty," Zuko repeats, belated. He's definitely drugged, he thinks resentfully. "The right thing."
"The right thing," Yue confirms softly. "Now go back to sleep before you hurt your shoulder again."
"Don't want to," Zuko says, but his eyelids have never stopped feeling heavy, and he's got a sneaking suspicion that it's not up to him.
"It's all right," Uncle says. "Go to sleep, nephew." Zuko's eyes slide shut, but he can still feel the hand Uncle smoothes over his hair. "I am very proud of you."
Like that means anything, Zuko wants to say, because Uncle would say that even if Zuko were a beggar on the rim; but he can't make his mouth move, and a second later he slips away into the black.
"Any sign of them?"
"Not a thing," Toph says confidently, and Katara lets out a sigh of relief. "Aang must have mucked their systems up pretty badly." She taps a key, and then turns her head. "He's still okay?"
"Sleeping," Katara says, and Toph giggles; Aang's been sleeping for about a day and a half now. "But Song checked him out when she came by to set Zuko up, and she said he was fine."
"Yeah? And how's the scarred wonder doing?"
"All right," Katara says, and tries not to let it come out too grudging. Azula was already after them, so it isn't quite fair to say that the whole mess was Zuko's fault; but he certainly didn't do them any favors. Except saving Yue - she's still not sure why he decided to do it, but she's glad he did. "Yue says his shoulder's coming along well."
"Good," Toph says decisively. "I want him in good shape when I punch him in the face."
Katara laughs. "Not too hard," she says, "that regenerator's on loan."
"I'll only make him bleed a little," Toph says, tone benevolent. She presses a few more keys, and her screenreader mutters in her ear. "Still at least a week until we reach Namh Lin."
"Well, let me know if anybody else hijacks us," Katara says.
"Aye aye, Captain," Toph says, laughing. "You never know, it could be boring this time."
Katara reaches out and strokes a hand along the console. "It never is," she says, and smiles.