A/N: So, clearly when I say next week, I mean next year. :P I believe the phrase I'm looking for is "author FAIL."
Having calluses on her feet thick enough to qualify as a layer of the earth's crust was something any earthbender would value, but it wasn't until Toph began travelling with the Avatar that she really began to appreciate them. After miles and miles of hiking, while the others pissed and moaned about their poor, tender feet and the blisters that plagued them, Toph would lounge easily on a rock and smile. It wasn't like she didn't feel for them or anything- just that she was so, so glad she was literally made of tougher stuff. Blisters must suck.
"Oh, my feet," Sokka wailed for the thirty-sixth time. "I can't wait to get these boots off!" He peered up at the overcast sky. "It should only be another couple of miles to the next camp- maybe Katara will be at that one."
Toph smirked to herself. She couldn't see the sky, but she could always tell the weather, feel the pressure of an incoming rainstorm or the change in wind temperature that preceded a clearing sky. Even the quality of the light was tangible. The edges of her 'vision' from the earth's vibration became crystal clear on a bright, sunny day, and just a little hazy around things when it was cloudy. So to see Sokka peering up at a sky that left everything fuzzy in her vision was hilarious, because she knew good and damned well there was nothing to navigate or tell time up there by other than fat, ominous clouds. "Which direction now, Captain Boomerang?"
He paused, looking left and right before sneaking a furtive glance up at the sky. Stupid clouds- he had no idea, other than to use the camp they'd left behind hours ago as a rough directional. "Straight?" He cleared his throat. "Yeah, I mean straight. Just a couple more miles."
The smirk widened as she asked innocently, "It was supposed to be ten miles on a north-northeast line, right?"
"Yep." Sokka adjusted his pack and curled his toes inside his damp boots. Stupid blisters. He couldn't wait to settle down, light a fire, and dry himself out. "This way, Toph."
"Are you sure?"
Sokka frowned. Toph had her 'I'm too innocent to be laughing at you' smirk on, and it was at full power. "Look, I've spent my whole life hunting and tracking and, you know, doing this stuff. If you don't trust me, you tell me where we're supposed to be going, oh Master Tracker."
She turned her head in the direction of her companion, who was huffily stomping away from her- on a due north course from the camp she could distantly feel behind them. "Was it something I said?" she called after him with a too-sweet lilt to her voice. Toph grinned to herself and followed the cursing Sokka. She'd wait until he calmed down to tell him he was headed in the wrong direction- the correction was sure to provide her with another hour of amusement at his expense. After all- her feet were doing just fine.
For the fourth time in as many minutes, Tom Tom tried to climb into her lap. "Up," he demanded in his toddler's voice, a happy smile on his face.
Mai grimaced lightly, shifting her leg as he once again attempted to haul himself up by her pants. "Mother," she sighed, arching an eyebrow.
Jian Ling curled an easy arm around her young son, drawing him onto her own lap, where he curled up and studied his sister. "I wish you would exhibit more enthusiasm for the arts of home and family, Mai." Her voice, cultured and genteel, nevertheless managed to convey disappointment. "You are a beautiful, intelligent, well-bred young lady with an unlimited potential for advancement. Why you insist on treating your prospects with such disdain is entirely beyond my comprehension and, dare I say, likely beyond Prince Zuko's."
Oh, now that was low, even for her vapid mother. "I've told you, Mother. Zuko has defected and been rebranded a traitor. I'm well rid of any attachment to his name."
Waving a hand lightly, Jian Ling absently broke off a piece of her lychee tart and fed it to Tom Tom, who squealed in delight. Much like his sister at his age, he had an insatiable appetite for fruit tarts of any and all varieties. "Zuko is not the only option, Mai. I'm sure you know why your father summoned you home."
A sharp nod was the best Mai could do. How utterly predictable. "Which venerable family does Father have in his sights now? The Chengs? The Shius? Or maybe some petty former Earth Kingdom princeling that he wants to quell peasant revolts?" A trace of her true feelings bled into the final words.
This argument was not new territory for mother and daughter, and while she could appreciate her daughter's feelings, wealthy Fire Nation women were bred for politics and advancement, not love matches. She had never pretended otherwise with Mai, and her mild rebellion now surprised Jian Ling to no end. "Your father has gone to great lengths to identify ideal suitors, Mai- none too old, or cruel, or stupid. In that, you are spirits-blessed. Many fathers would sell you to the highest bidder, or the one with the best connections, not worry over whether the future groom is well-suited to his daughter's likes and temperament."
The urge to fling her glass of lemon-beet juice to the floor in a fit of pique was tempting, but Mai merely lifted it for a measured sip. "I understand, mother, but I disagree. Given the shifting state of Fire Nation politics these days, delaying a marriage contract would be far more logical. We wouldn't want to align ourselves with a family that might bring future disgrace, would we?"
Humming in agreement, Jian Ling made an exasperated gesture with a well-manicured hand. "Your father makes these decisions, Mai. You are fully aware of that, but if you want to broach the topic with him, do so with my blessing. I only want your happiness, daughter."
If that were true, Mai thought as she rose to leave, shaking out her overskirt, I wouldn't be treated like a particularly plump moose-mare at auction, and you would do more than offer me empty platitudes, Mother. Silently, she exited her mother's solar and headed for the back staircase to the training grounds. She needed to fling daggers and needles at targets for some time before she'd be calm enough to speak with her father. Somehow, though, she knew she'd get no farther with him. They were bound and determined to marry her off and get rid of her. After all, she'd never been the saccharine and shiny daughter they'd wanted, and now they had another child to fawn over. She was nothing more than a failed experiment, something to clear out to make room for the new.
Ozai sat on the raised dais behind the Screen of Eternal Flame, legs folded gracefully beneath him as the daily audience wound down. How he despised these peasants, kowtowing and groveling before him to resolve their petty, worthless problems. Vermin, the lot of them.
His fingers itched with the urge to shoot flames at the particularly irksome old crone kneeling before him, her shrill voice scratching across his senses. He would be having words with his steward later about this ridiculous farce- he was the Fire Lord. His people would respect him without the tiresome daily sessions, and if they didn't… then they would fear him. Amusement traced a smile on his mouth and turned his eyes a molten shade of gold. He'd always found fear more reliable than veneration and love, anyway. Electricity crackled at his fingertips, begging to be loosed. "Silence!" he intoned, knowing the imposing figure he cut from the shadows and flames of his throne.
The old woman raised her wizened face to the Throne of Eternal Flame. The Fire Lord's judgment was the final authority of the land, and if anyone could force her vicious neighbor to return the animals he had stolen, it was the Fire Lord. She had made her case, presented her evidence and several witnesses, and was confident in his anticipated verdict.
"Denied," Ozai said clearly, without even a shred of conflict over issuing a verdict without having paid the slightest attention to the petitioner or her tedious arguments. Let the fates decide. There was a fifty percent chance his verdict was the one she had sought.
Tears obscured the crone's already failing sight as a palace guard ushered her unceremoniously from the throne room. Without those fire chickens and panda-cows, she'd have no way to provide for her grandchildren past what she'd stored for the monsoon season.
Azula's eyes observed all of this carefully from the shadows of a hiding space she'd occupied as a child, though her poisoned honey eyes held no more compassion than her sire's. His verdict, in many ways, made her plan more achievable- after all, a heartless ruler was always easier to depose and replace than a beloved one. And coups… well, coups were best executed by the tactically and strategically gifted.
A sentiment another occupant of the throne room shared whole-heartedly.
Oh, La, her feet hurt.
Katara grimaced, gave her small pack another absent heave that never actually seemed to shift the weight or lessen the infernal ache between her shoulder blades, and trudged on. Zuko was leading the way, and had been since they'd left their little hideout at dawn, but he seemed to never tire, never stumble or feel the weight of his much larger pack. That, for some reason, annoyed the spit out of her. Katara stuck her tongue out at the erstwhile Fire Prince's back and felt better for the childish act.
Glancing up at the sky, she gave a gusty sigh. The clouds that had begun as a misty haze had thickened and were threatening rain. If the humidity that had been settling over them like a wet blanket was any indication, that rain would be falling within the day, and Katara sent up a desperate wish that they'd be settled at her nearest camp by then. Despite her healing sessions, her endurance seemed to have disappeared without a trace.
In what she was certain was a horrid joke by the spirits, a fat drop of water landed on her head and trickled down behind her ear. It was quickly followed by another, and then several more after that. Oh, great. The skies, without further warning, opened up, and a deluge began to fall.
The spirits were clearly laughing at her.
Zuko stopped for a moment, closed his eyes, and used his chi to locate the sun behind the impenetrable wall of rainclouds. He nodded in satisfaction. Without a visual of the sun in the sky, it was much more difficult to keep them on the strict west-southwest route that Katara had identified as the most direct path to one of her secret camps. "We're about three miles out, I think," he rumbled, swiping a hand across his nose to stop the infernal rain that dripped off it like water torture.
"You think?" Katara whined behind him. She was soaked to the skin, and the pack had started feeling like a boulder on her back about an hour earlier. She was so ready to make that camp. "You can track Aang halfway around the world, but you're not sure how much farther it is?"
Wincing at the strident complaint, Zuko stopped and turned to face his very waterlogged companion, trying to keep the amused smile off his lips at her appearance. She looked like a wet ferret-cat, all streamers of sodden hair straggling around a thoroughly annoyed face. He wanted to know why she hadn't tied it back in that braid thing she'd worn when he first met her, but was afraid to ask. Pissing off a waterbender in the early stages of a monsoon was lethally stupid.
"Well?" she demanded. He was just standing there, dripping, blocking the path, and trying not to laugh at her, which just made her even more annoyed with him.
"I'm doing the best I can. Until we hit the Gwa River, I can't know for certain exactly where we are in relation to your camp." He swept a hand around impatiently. "In case you hadn't noticed, navigating through this mess is a little difficult." Yeah, a little difficult. Like she was being a little pissy. Understatement city.
It wasn't really his fault- she knew that, but she needed something to vent on, and there stood Zuko with a giant proverbial target pinned to his pale chest. "Well, try harder."
He snorted- he just couldn't help it. "Yes, mistress. Zuko will do his best to please her Highness."
"Ugh!" She lurched forward, sweeping past him to take the lead. They were going to make that camp in the next hour if she had to waterbend his annoying ass the entire way there. She stopped suddenly, sending Zuko careening into her back. "That way, right?" she asked sheepishly. After all, it wouldn't do to storm off in the wrong direction.
Nodding, Zuko bit back his grin until she'd turned around and stomped a few feet away down the poor excuse for a path they were following- more like a gecko-goat trail. Say what you would about the waterbender, at least she was interesting. For the sake of his continued good health, he really hoped he'd been as accurate in his directions as he thought.
Hu was incensed. What the princess had done to his son was unacceptable, and if not for the intervention of that acrobat girl, Muji would be scarred and he'd likely be executed for high treason. The keys attached to his sword belt rattled, and his hands clenched. If he hadn't wanted to free Iroh and topple the Fire Lord's family from power before, he sure as the spirit world did now.
"Good morning, Corporal Hu," Iroh said solemnly as he came down the hall.
The old man seemed different, like he'd been sick. He'd lost weight, that much was clear, and there was a light sheen of perspiration on his face. "Good morning, General Iroh. Are you feeling okay?"
Iroh smiled mysteriously. "I suppose that depends on if you're speaking of the body or the soul. An old man has many aches." He accepted the cup of tea Hu passed him through the bars with murmured thanks. "But yes, I'm feeling well enough." As he drew a long sip from the cup, his eyes roved over the guard. "I do not mean to pry, corporal, but I am curious. Why do you treat an old man, a high traitor, with such regard? I have never met you, nor met any of your family, and I would think my brother would have taken great care in choosing guards for me that are well known for their prowess and loyalty to the House of Agni."
Ah- he'd thought the Dragon of the West would bring this up one day. Given the events of the previous day, his rage over Princess Azula's treatment of a mere child, the decision to share his story was made with little conflict. "I have been a corporal for many years now- though I am a loyal soldier, I do not have the gift of politics that my superiors do. I have always been little more than a talented warrior." He smiled grimly. "Years ago, I was on the front lines of the Battle of Ba Sing Se- not a part of your army, of course. General Hao was my commanding officer."
"A fine soldier himself," Iroh replied solemnly. "His death was an unfortunate loss."
Hu nodded- the general had been a strict, but good, leader. "My unit was the one that encountered the Dai Li ambush beyond the southern wall." His eyes glazed over, battles of a day long past haunting him, screams rising from the ashy graves of memory. "I was injured- gravely injured, and was taken to the rear guard for the physicians to attend to. They said I was going to die- that I'd lost too much blood, and I was left on a cot in an unattended tent with other soldiers in similar circumstances."
Iroh set the cup down and gave the guard his full attention. Such memories could injure as fatally as the wounds that first damaged them. "War is a terrible mistress."
"Yes." Mechanically, Hu passed the old general his bowl of rice. "Many were unconscious. Many more had wounds so fearsome that it was hard to identify them as men, and above everything lay the stench of death." He drew in a shuddering breath. "But some of us were alive enough to moan or cry or just try to talk to anyone who would listen- a last grasp at passing on thoughts and love and memories that would otherwise leave with our souls as we passed. Those that could still move tried to comfort the ones that couldn't." His brown eyes shimmered. "There was one that came to me. His name was Lu Ten."
There was no hiding the sharp intake of breath- Iroh stared at his jailor. "You knew my son?" he whispered, his own eyes filling.
"Only for the space of an hour." Haunted eyes met haunted eyes, spirits of the dead flittering around them. "He listened to me, and tried to comfort me despite the horrors of his own wounds. He swore that if he lived, he would see that my words made it back to my family." Hu's voice caught in his suddenly tight throat. "I passed out from the pain and… and when I woke, he was gone." Twin tears trickled down his cheeks into his beard. "He had passed to the Spirit World, still holding my hand. Still trying to comfort a fellow man."
The words brought joy -and sorrow- to Iroh's heart. His beautiful boy. How he missed him so. He made no effort to hide his own tears.
"I recovered, to the shock of the field physicians. They'd come to clear out the dead, to make more space for the soon-to-be dead, and found me. The only one still alive in my tent. The surgeon said that if I had made it two days on my own, then I would probably recover." He stared at the wall, his eyes seeing not stones and mortar, but a scene long past. "I've never spoken of that tent before, General Iroh. The departed deserve their peace, and their dignity, two things that we were not given in an abandoned tent of death. Two things your son gave to me."
Silence reigned for a very long time as two old soldiers thought of their fallen comrades and friends and family.
Aang woke with tears on his cheeks.
He'd flown as long as he could before landing Appa on a rocky barrier island- he was either in Fire Nation territory now, or very close to it. Deciding last night that it was far better for them both to be fully rested, he'd gathered grass for Appa and curled up next to his friend, falling asleep to the soothing rumble of the sky bison's chest.
He hated being alone -sure, he had Appa and Momo with him, and Appa was his first and best friend, but the solitude echoed in his ears. He'd become used to having a loud, boisterous family of friends around him, always. He missed Sokka's crazy schedules and his bad jokes, missed Toph's good-natured teasing, Katara's constant hovering. He'd always appreciated them, but it wasn't until they were gone that he realized just how central they'd become.
The sky overhead was threatening to open up, heavy grey clouds bearing down on everything. "I know how you feel," Aang said softly, climbing to his feet.
With a soft fwoop, Momo landed on his shoulder and offered him a moon peach. "Thanks, buddy," he replied, worried eyes fixed on the western horizon and a ball of anxiety clenching in his belly.
Kuei was awake to greet the dawn. He'd woken to the fading stars and clambered out of his blanket with the vague idea of preparing breakfast.
It wasn't until he stood in the courtyard with a dozen banana onions and a chipped earthen bowl that he realized he had no idea how to get the juice from the fruits.
Bosco nudged his arm as if to say, "Get on with it!" and the little bird that had taken up residence in the hip pouch he'd made for it tittered sleepily.
He eyed the fruits with renewed resolve. He could figure this out.
Pathik watched with approval from afar.
"There!" Zuko stopped in the middle of the river, cold water swirling at his chest as he held his pack overhead to keep it dry. If he had a free hand, he'd have pointed, but had to make do with jerking his chin upstream. "Look, it's up there. Camp ho." His eyes gleamed with victory. "I told you I'd get us here."
Katara smirked at him from the near side of the river before raising her hands gracefully, drawing the water up and into an ice bridge that she stepped onto with aplomb. "Yeah- good job."
Zuko almost dropped his pack. "I… you… that's a… son of a whore!"
She leaned down over the side of the ice bridge and gave him a sweet smile. "What's wrong, Zuko? Damp? Wish you hadn't made that crack about what use a waterbender is if she won't keep the rain off you now?"
He scowled at her fiercely, chucked his pack at the opposite shore, and snaked out a quick hand to lock around her ankle.
"You wouldn't dare," she breathed, eyes wide.
He pulled, lips stretched wide with a smile. "Oh, I dare." The splutter she came up out of the water with made him feel just a little better.
Until she bent the water over his head in retaliation, of course.