Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender.

A/N: After a long absence from the field of writing, and a few push and shoves from the wonderful Artemis Rae, I have finally returned to writing fan fiction. Yeah, it has been a while, over six months, but I hope this little ditty might make up for it all.

This story is very much inspired on Artemis Rae's "Gauntlet" series. Don't know what I'm talking about? Check the original out. And, while you're at it, read all her stuff. She is a genius when it comes to writing. Puts my own to shame.

So, without further ado, I bring you the first chapter of "Darkest Before Dawn."

Darkest Before Dawn

Chapter One: Arrival

"How long will you be staying in Hi Do?"

Sokka glanced back at the innkeeper of the Dragon Scale inn. The man was rotund, squat in built, and extremely rumpled in appearance. A blotchy stain marred the front of his tattered shirt, which, in turn, strained over his plump belly. Grizzled hair crept across his chin and cheekbones, contrasting against his pasty, pockmarked features. Amber eyes, glinting in the half-light, marked him a citizen of the land of fire. He was a greasy, ill-kemp persona, with yellowed, cracked teeth, but commanded a wry, almost suspicious, nature that deemed him adversarial.

In a way, he was a living, breathing representation of the inn he commanded. The Dragon Scale, despite its mighty, almost legendary name, was a crude, tiny establishment, boasting barely edible food and cramped quarters. It was shoved in the lowest district of Hi Do, between crumpled apartments and abandoned warehouses, and gave off the air of a sick, mangy mutt.

But it was out of the way and safe for what he intended. No one would suspect this place as a base of operations. You looked at enemies in the open, the thieves and brigands, not the rats and filth of the poorest area of a large city. One could blend in, here, and never be noticed.

Besides, it was cheap. They would need to conserve their money for the journey ahead.

"Just a day or so. Three at most," replied Sokka. He floated into the concocted story he had prepared with ease. The Water Tribe warrior, attired in a thick cloak that shadowed his dark skin and blue eyes, patted the shoulder of his companion. She barely started. "My little charge and I are traveling to the southern coast."

"The ocean, eh? No doubt to avoid all this ruckus those damned rebels are causing." The man wiped his dirty hands on the front of his shirt. His golden eyes squinted as he took in the youth's 'charge.'

Sokka quickly diverted his attention. "Yes. Her father hired me to take her to the south, where it's safer. Doctor says the fresh air might help her health, too." He leaned forward and whispered, "Mute and blind, I'm afraid. She couldn't make the trip on her own."

"Hmmm, that so?"

The innkeeper did not look completely convinced. Sokka mentally made a note to watch himself around this nasty man. Ever since the new regime had come into power, enemies were varied and hidden. Thankfully, the owner of the Dragon Scale had been given nothing to chew on. There was no risk, as of yet, so long as they played their cards right and were careful around him.

"Well, far be it from me to keep you from your rooms, then. This way."

He led Sokka and his companion to the upper levels of the Dragon Scale. Their room was one of the larger quarters of the establishment, but that was the best of its qualities. It smelled of smoke and the walls, once a light color, were now peeling and unattractive. Two narrow beds were shoved against opposite walls, a single nightstand between them. A window revealed the lower level of Hi Do and the nearby south gate.

"If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask," said the innkeeper. His narrow eyes lingered on the pair for a moment. "I hope your stay in our fair city is a comfortable one."

His footsteps, thudding plods that echoed through the narrow corridor and then on the rickety stairs, slowly melted away. The slight din of the city outside replaced them. The silence, a welcome treat for the weary warrior, was broken by an irritated, equally wearied voice.

"Mute and blind? What the hell was that all about?"

Sokka sighed, kneading his brow, and turned to face his companion. Now that they were alone, she had thrown back her hood. A pale-eyed girl scowled in his general direction, though the gaze arched just over his shoulder, from where she sat on one of the beds. Her dark hair was pulled back in a half-topknot, half-bun, the ebony locks framing a face of a child just approaching womanhood.

"Not now, Toph," he muttered.

"The blind part I get," she continued, unabashed. "But mute? Mute? Not only do I have to play more of a helpless sap, I can't even speak around that sweaty ass."

The Water Tribe warrior sighed. "That is kind of the point."

She cocked a slim brow. "Uh…why?" she asked. There was a dangerous tint to her voice. The earthbending prodigy was no doubt upset with his decision to pass her off as a helpless child.

"Because, Toph," he said with exaggerated patience, throwing off his own hood, "every time you open your mouth, we get into trouble."

"That's not true!" she retorted fiercely.

"What about that little incident in Geta a month ago?" pressed Sokka. "You know, when you started a fight in the tavern after insulting some guy's mother?"

Toph's face lit up and she flashed a smug little grin. "Yeah. That was fun."

"No, it wasn't!" he cried, throwing up his arms.

He was quickly growing exasperated with his blind companion, not to mention a bit glad their room was out of the way and a perfect shield for such loud banter. It was yet another reason he had chosen it during surveillance the week before.

"You endangered the entire mission," continued Sokka. "We were forced to leave Geta because our cover might have been blown. If Appa hadn't been nearby, we probably would've been arrested, and the Agni Tachi would have us in their custody right about now."

Now she looked positively sulky, almost guilty. "I know, I know! Sugar Queen gave me the lecture. Save yours, Sokka." Muttering, she added, "It's not like I had a choice."

Sokka sat on the bed and tugged at his warrior's wolf tail. It was a habit he had delved into whenever he was especially agitated or thoughtful. The silence pressed against him. Now he did not find it so wonderful. Her glumness was distracting and he felt badly for shouting at her.

"What did you call that drunk's mother anyway?" he asked.

"Nothing your virgin ears can handle," Toph replied. A hesitant smile revealed itself.

His scowl softened and he let loose another breath of air. "The point is we have to be more careful this time. If something went wrong, if something happened…" The Water Tribe warrior almost added to you, but lost his voice and trailed off instead.

"Fine, fine," she said. "I'll be the mute, blind girl and you can be the big, impressive bodyguard. Stop worrying so much, Snoozles. Nothing's gonna happen."

"This is an important mission, though, Toph. We don't have any backup this time. The headquarters for the Agni Tachi are in Hi Do. The odds are pretty much stacked against us."

The earthbender, still small despite having gained three years since the end of the war, shrugged nonchalantly. She fell back onto the bed and stared uselessly towards the ceiling. Hands behind her head, and one dusty foot resting on a knee, Toph commanded a respectable air of confidence.

"That hasn't stopped us before. Seriously, Sokka, stop worrying. You're dwelling too much on the ifs. Ifs are skirting the issue, instead of facing the problem head on. You're no Twinkle Toes. Bad things might happen, they might not. Who knows? Let's just do what we always do and be done with it!"

Then, laughing, she added, "Besides, we're much better liars than your sister and that wussy boy Avatar. This mission will be a piece of cake. We'll be back home and eating seal jerky before you know it."

Sokka could not help it. He smiled. "Why are you always right?" he asked. Her good humor had restored his. She had a talent for doing that, when he most needed it.

Toph was quick on the uptake. "I guess I'm just that awesome." She turned on her side, towards him. "Are you feeling better now?" she added. Concern crept across her normally smirking features. For a reason known only to the Spirits, her blank eyes landed on his own. He fell into them.

"Yeah. I am."

"Good. Now go get us something to eat. I'm starving."

A/N: Yes, I know. It is terribly short. I have a busy schedule, however, and, most likely, they will all be like this. Hopefully this chapter enticed you enough to return when I update.

Sifu Toph