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Cauterize

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Katara's with Suki.

Aang repeated the sentence to himself, in his head and lightly under his breath, trying to make himself believe it as they flew Appa toward the apartment. He was settled uneasily on the scruff of Appa's neck, hands clenching and unclenching into his buddy's fur as he scanned the Upper Ring beneath them. He heard Sokka beside him snicker, leaning over to wave at a scandalized Joo Dee. It wasn't every day they saw a flying bison. Toph nudged Sokka harshly, asking what was so funny, and Aang let his worry block out their conversation.

Just one speck of blue. That's all he wanted to see. Dark Kyoshi green would be nice, proof that Suki really was there, but Aang'd take blue if that was all there was.

Fear slipped down his back, crown of his head to base of his spine. Aang took a consciously deep breath, pushing it away. He didn't want to undo the guru's hard work – whatever that turned out to be worth.

He put Appa down in the courtyard right in front of their house, and Aang slid lightly to the ground, Sokka jumping down beside him. Toph landed with a pronounced thump and a happy sigh. Together they dashed into the house.

The interior was dark, unchanged but for the scaffolding installed to repair the damage Toph's little experiment with freedom of expression had caused. Aang cast about, looking for Katara.

She was nowhere in sight. Someone else was, though – and eager to see Aang.

"Momo!" Aang cried out as the lemur scurried up his body. He raised his arms, glad to feel Momo curl his tail around his neck.

"There's no one else here," Toph declared.

Aang gulped. He knew he shouldn't have trusted Bosco's animal instincts!

"Katara is in trouble! I knew it!"

"Oh no," Sokka said.

"Wait," Toph said. Aang's eyes shot to her. She pointed with a level, straight arm directly past his nose. Aang edged back slightly, eyes darting sideways to follow her finger. "There's someone at the door."

A loud rap sounded out at the door. Aang exchanged a look with Sokka. Toph was kinda freaky sometimes.

Toph smiled.

"Actually," she said happily, walking over to the door. "I know who it is. It's an old friend of mine."

She slid the door open to reveal General Iroh.

Aang brightened instantly. Right next to the door, Sokka squawked indignantly, wheeling his arms as he jumped back several paces.

"Glad to see you're okay," Toph said.

"So am I," Aang said.

He inclined his head respectfully to the old man, hands pressed together before him. They hadn't exactly parted with Zuko or Iroh after Katara healed the older man – since Zuko had vowed they would meet again as enemies and stuff – but Aang still remembered Iroh talking of becoming allies. His exact words had been something or other about sailors and wind, which Aang liked on general principle, and combined with Iroh's general good cheer, the old man had reminded Aang deeply of Monk Gyatso.

Iroh raised his eyes, giving a slight nod of acknowledgement to Aang. His face was furrowed and solemn, hands tucked into his sleeves as he stood before them.

"I need your help," he said.

"Wait a second," Sokka said, drawing the vowels out. He stalked forward, gesturing with the point of his machete. "How do we know you're not going to just take our help and run? Again?"

Toph kicked Sokka in the shin, and he cast a nasty, futile look her direction. He rubbed at his leg, balancing on one foot while he held his weapon steady on Iroh.

Iroh watched him blandly, bringing one hand up, index finger extended.

"Firstly, because it is not the kind of help I could take without offering anything in return. And second," he reached out, quick as an eel-hound, snatching Sokka's machete from him and leaving him to gape in shock. Iroh flipped the machete around his hand, grip landing in his palm, before he laid it out on his outstretched hands. He bowed, offering it back to Sokka, who took it hesitantly. "And second, you will just have to trust me."

"Yeah, okay," Sokka said with a deep gulp, sharing a wide eyed look with Aang.

Toph stepped up to Iroh's side, taking him by the arm and leading him further into the apartment.

"So what's the problem?" she asked.

The expression on Iroh's face was very grave. His eyes narrowed, sunlight glinting off his yellow irises. Despite his formal, Earth Kingdom robes he looked suddenly threatening in a way he never had on Zuko's ship.

"Princess Azula is here in Ba Sing Se."

Oh, not good, Aang groaned to himself. It wasn't exactly like he'd hoped she'd just shrug and go home after the drill thing… except that was sort of exactly what he had hoped. A distressing thought occurred to him.

"She must have Katara!" he exclaimed. He could see his vision again clearly in his mind. Katara, chained to a pillar, somewhere inside the palace.

Iroh nodded – although they hadn't actually updated him on the Katara-in-danger situation – and added, "She has captured my nephew as well."

"Then we'll work together to fight Azula, and save Katara and Zuko," Aang said. He felt determination settle over his shoulders, pushing aside his trepidation about Zuko and his queasy doubts about his unfinished Avatar training. He couldn't focus on that, not now. Not when it was so important. Not when it was for Katara.

Behind him, he could hear Sokka hmph in barely repressed suspicion. He turned, aiming what he hoped was a commanding glower back at his friend. Sokka rolled his eyes. Okay, so not commanding, then. That really wasn't Aang's thing anyway.

"We have to do this, Sokka!" Aang urged. "All of Ba Sing Se is in trouble. Working together is our best chance."

Sokka uncrossed his arms to gesture wildly at Iroh.

"Has it occurred to you that maybe this is a trap? Kinda their thing, you know. Trapping us!"

"Surely you have noticed the wanted posters for Prince Zuko and myself. We are no more welcome in the Fire Nation now than you are," Iroh said placidly. He frowned, and then offered a conciliatory shrug. "No offense."

"None taken?" Sokka replied with a half shrug of confusion.

Aang scratched the back of his neck. He had kinda noticed more wanted posters around, but that was usually in the vicinity of Fire Nation controlled areas. They tried to avoid those, and definitely didn't linger long enough to read the notices posted in the town square. Well, except that one time, and hadn't that taught them their lesson? The upshot was that he had the feeling that Iroh was telling the truth, but they hadn't actually seen the proof Iroh was offering up, and Sokka tended to be a stickler for proof.

"Why wouldn't you be welcome? Aren't you both princes?" Sokka asked. His tone of suspicion, however, was wearing down now into mere curiosity. "What was up with Azula fighting you guys, anyway?"

"It would take some time to explain. Family, you know?" Iroh shook his head remorsefully, before focusing those bright, amber eyes back on Aang. "Our time is short, and our loved ones are in danger. I am asking you to trust in me, and to believe. There is good in my nephew, I promise you!"

Aang nodded decisively, and even Sokka seemed persuaded. Toph clapped her hands together, dusting them off as if for a fight.

"Finally! So, what's our plan?" Toph asked.

"Well," Aang started, furrowing his brow as he concentrated, trying to summon up the hazy, distorted vision he had of Katara. She'd been in chains, somewhere inside. "We definitely need to go back to the palace. That's where Katara was in my vision!"

"And then what?" Sokka asked. "Where's Azula?"

Aang shook his head. His vision hadn't really covered that. It'd been pretty vague and unhelpful, altogether. Thanks, vision, Aang thought with a frown.

Iroh cleared his throat.

"I brought someone along who might be able to help us."

He walked back out the door, expecting them to follow. Toph was quick out the door behind him, followed by Aang. Sokka just hovered by the door, clutching the frame as he looked around it and the other newcomer. Captive, actually.

A Dai Li agent.

Aang's eyes went wide. He slanted a look between the bound and gagged agent and Iroh. How had he managed to carry the agent? Iroh wasn't exactly the most … er, fit guy around.

Less taken by the physics of the situation, Toph was already boxing the agent in on himself with jutting slabs of rock. He groaned beneath his gag, clearly uncomfortable with his position. Aang winced once in sympathy, before straightening his shoulders. This guy knew what had happened to Katara.

Iroh walked over to the man, reaching up to slip the gag from his mouth. Before Iroh couldn't even ask a question, the man started to talk, "Azula and Long Feng are plotting a coup. They're going to overthrow the Earth King."

Aang and the others shared an uneasy look. Sokka stepped forward, anger clear on his face. He brandished his machete at the Dai Li agent.

"Where is she? Where's Azula?"

The agent shook his head, much as he could, wedged between two huge rocks. His eyes searched Sokka's face in a panic.

"I don't know! She was in the palace when I left. She's probably headed to the throne room to capture the Earth King, but I don't know for sure."

"What about my nephew?" Iroh interjected. His voice was calm, but for the steel underneath. "Where is Azula keeping him?"

The agent sighed, happy to have a question whose answer he was sure of.

"In the crystal catacombs of old Ba Sing Se, deep beneath the palace."

Good enough. The urgency clear in his mind, Aang took for Appa at a run. He could hear the others behind him. They'd have to split up, from the looks of things, two going to the palace to face Azula and rescue Katara, and two going down into the caves to rescue Zuko. Ugh, he hoped the crystal caverns weren't too deep down. Who knew how long it'd take to earthbend down there and back, and if they were all going to be allies now, Aang could admit that he wouldn't mind having Iroh's fire power around for dealing with Azula. Zuko's, too, actually.

Aang felt somewhat buoyed by the thought. As he urged Appa into the air, he glanced over at Sokka, Toph, and Iroh, a small smile on his face. The situation was dire, and Katara was still in danger, but he was surrounded by friends and allies. They'd make it through.