1A/N: Alright, here it is! The beginning of my new chapter story! Man I hope it doesn't suck! I also want to give a special thanks to all the great folks that reviewed my oneshot, Plans and Surprises: Thanks to Aspexit, Mrs. Pierre Bouvier, Solembum 13, megi52, AYNAKOPO, Twilight Rose 2, SparklePants92, Nerf-or-Nothing, apie, FurubaInuyashaDBZ, Honors, Cows are my friends, and Laila's Revenge. You guys were all very helpful, and inspired me to devote more time to this first chapter!I hope it meets all of y'alls hopes!
Disclaimer: I kind of forgot this part in my last one, but I don't own or claim to own Avatar or anything else that might get me sued :-D.
Sokka of the Water Tribe:
This ex-Dai Li is our only hope.
Darkness shrouds him, like a cloak, in this pitch black inn room. His cloak is tattered, the gouged and torn insignia of Long Feng adorns his chest: remnants of a past life of secrecy, before his new one of fear. He built Azula's prisons, he was nearly killed, but he survived. As far as I can tell, he has no face other than his shaded rice hat, no identity other than the uniform.
My greasy palm grips the hilt of my sword nervously, as he rises to his feet.
"Everything you need is on the map. The prison's location, its layout, everything you need to take it," he says slowly, softly, around his gravelly throat. Then, he bows slightly, careful to never lift his hat, never show his face or identify himself.
I toss the rest of the money to him, and in a flash, he is gone. His footsteps are even, unhurried and collected, exactly what I would expect from someone who has survived pursuit for so long. They fade away, and I stand up, producing a match from the pocket of my tunic.
"So a map, huh?" Toph asks beside me, "Let's find this stupid chest and get this over with."
"Yeah," I agree solemnly, as the sparking flame ignites the lamp oil, "How was his heartbeat?"
She stretches, like a worn cat, before hopping on the worn, rusty bed. "Fast, like he was scared, but even. I don't think he was lying."
"Yeah, neither do I," I say, smiling suddenly. My staidness flees, as I blurt, "I think we've really got it this time! This is the break we've been looking for!"
She snorts pessimistically. "Don't get too excited yet, Snoozles, we haven't captured the place yet. Let's just get the map. One thing at a time."
A large, wooden chest sits on the floor. It's plain and unobtrusive, except for an ornate puzzle-lock system. Seven letters, reading "AAAAAAA", adorn it, set into the amber mahogany. The brutal slashes of a carving knife spell out a riddle in the wood beneath it.
"Here it is," I begin, "I am bigger than a mountain, yet smaller than a grain of sand. The rich need me, the poor have me, and if you eat me, you will die." I read slowly, logging each line in my mind.
"Jeez, I hate these things," Toph snaps, "Let's just break the dumb thing and take the map."
"Well, its wood, so you can't break it, and if I slice through it, I might hurt the map," I say. "This doesn't seem that hard, let's just take it line by line."
"Blah," she replies.
"Bigger than a mountain..." I begin, ignoring her, "What's bigger than a mountain?"
"I don't know, a bigger mountain?" Toph asks lazily, as her finger finds its way into her nose. Her answer irritates me.
"A bigger mountain," I repeat sarcastically, "How is a bigger mountain smaller than a grain of sand?"
"It could be a really big grain of sand," she shoots back, reading my annoyance, "Like the desert, that feels like one big grain of sand."
I can't help but roll my eyes as I say, "Ok, but what about the rest of it? The rich need me, the poor have me, and if you eat me you will die?"
"Hey, if you eat an entire mountain, you'll probably die. And the poor could have a mountain of debt, right? I'd bet the rich would love a mountain, especially a bigger one, so they could lord it over all the people with small mountains," she reasons. Every point is emphasized by a sluggish roll of her hand in the air. Little irritations blossom into frustration.
"The answer is not a bigger mountain!" I shout. Toph is the only person who gets me riled up enough to make my eye twitch.
"Well, how do you know? Why don't you try it, Ponytail, and when I'm right, you can beg my forgiveness!" she responds angrily, shooting up out of the bed.
"I can't try it, the answer only has seven letters!" I sneer at her, over-emphasizing my movements to be sure she's felt them.
"Well then figure it out, idea guy!" explodes from her mouth. Her blank, milky eyes remain unfocused, but the furrowed brow and scowl are there to let me know exactly what she's feeling.
"I would, if you wouldn't interrupt me with dumb ideas!" forces its way out through clenched teeth..
"Hey, don't push it, no-bending," Toph whispers dangerously, waving an admonitory finger at me. "Let's not forget who can punch holes through solid steel."
"Oh please, I dare you," I challenge, filling the phrase with masculinity, so I can follow it with, "But for now, let me think."
She snorts again, and resumes her lethargic position on the bed. I take a seat in front of the chest, and stare at the carving, as though it will tell me the answer. Bigger than a mountain, smaller than a grain of sand. Rich need me, poor have me. I allow the words to play in my head, as complete silence ensues. Its deafening.
Minutes pass, with no epiphany. I try linking them in my head, mountain to the needs of the rich, grain of sand to the wealth of the poor, but that doesn't help with the bit about eating.
"I can't think of anything," I mutter. Toph's sensitive ears catch it, and she's out of the bed in a heartbeat, and stalking towards me. So much for silence.
"Oh way to go, genius!" she spits, punctuating with hard jabs to my chest , "A bigger mountain was better than nothing!"
I straighten, the word rockets through my head like a thunderbolt. I smirk victoriously as Toph stares defiantly at me.
"No it isn't," I say enigmatically, "Because it's the answer!" I get a raised eyebrow out of her.
"What? What's the answer?" she asks moodily, "Spit it out, Snoozles."
"Nothing! Nothing has seven letters, nothing is bigger than a mountain, nothing is smaller than a grain of sand, the rich need nothing, the poor have nothing and if you eat nothing you will die!" I announce exuberantly. She gives me the Toph equivalent of rolling her eyes, a blank expression, letting me know she's not impressed.
I'm on my knees in front of the chest in a flash, rotating the letters as quickly as my clumsy limbs will allow. My reward comes in the form of a gratifying 'click' as the lock springs to life. The chest's lid opens slowly, and a rolled up sheaf of parchment greets me as I peer into it. I look back at Toph expectantly, waiting for the acknowledgement.
"Well, you never would have gotten it without my help," she sneers cooly, turning her back to me. "Now, we have the map, let's just get out of here."
I should have known it. Toph always wins.
Sokka of the Water Tribe:
I couldn't have been happier to leave the dingy, smelly bar. My breaths came easier as we stepped into the semi-fresh air of lower ring Ba Sing Se, and out of the Hog Monkey. The ground is muddy, and putrid, but at least there's not a constant odor of pee.
I force a smile to my face, as I reflect on things. We finally got the information we needed, we finally managed to find the lead that we weren't sure existed. Jianguo's prison! The prison where they're keeping Suki! We didn't know much, coming into things. Just that Azula had kept a secret prison, deep somewhere in the Earth Kingdom, where she held her most important prisoners, and that the whole facility was run by a former prizefighter, named Jianguo, who could supposedly bend fire so hot it turned white. That was its reputation. Finding concrete proof proved to be much more difficult.
Me and Toph have been here for over a year, and its been a hard one. Lots of work, lots of supposed 'leads' with very few results, and a lot of frustrated nights. Toph has been a trooper, plodding along with me through this nasty city, giving me some help while Aang and Katara are off in the newly liberated Fire Nation playing ambassador. I'll admit, I was shocked she decided to stay and help me, and didn't decide to leave. Pleased, definitely, but surprised. Toph's my best friend, and we've done more together as a team than I would have thought possible.
For some reason, I'm not as elated about finally being able to rescue Suki as I thought I would be. I guess the weight of the matter just hasn't sunk in yet. A year of work will do that to you.
We trudge through the slop of the narrow street, as crammed old buildings leer at us from overhead. Oddly, I don't feel relieved to be out of the inn. In fact, I feel very unsettled. The hairs on the back of my neck begin to tickle, sending chills up and down my spine, as my eyes glance furtively from side to side. Toph is staring intently, lines of concentration form upon her pale forehead, her walk is steady, measured and careful.
"You feel it too?" I ask, "What's going on?"
"We've got a tail," she replies softly, "He's ducked out of the alley behind the bar, and his heartbeat is nervous."
"Damn..." I curse softly, resisting the urge to look behind me. Thoughts spring to mind, the safest way to deal with him. How could he have found us? He must be a loyalist. Is he going to go after us, or is he just after information? Do we lose him, or do we take him?
"What are we going to do?" Toph asks solemnly.
"We're not going to do anything," I reply, "Let him make his move if he's going to, or else, let's lead him to our apartment. There we can get him inside, and find out what he's after."
"Right," she responds.
All thoughts of celebration and reveling in our success disappear, as I let my senses take over. The weight of being (or at least trying to be) fully aware swamps me. I read too much into the old woman staring at us, the gardener watering his peace lily, the salesman hawking cabbages at inflated prices.
It takes another deep, even breath to bring calmness. Master Piandou taught me the technique, and it may be a bit cliched, but it really works. The route is laid out ahead of me, I've got the human radar walking next to me, we'll be fine.
I truly admire Toph's ability to stay calm, all the time. She may be a bit prone to anger, but when it truly comes to a dangerous or terrible situation, Toph never has any trouble staying cool and collected. She scratches her face idly, blows a lock of raven hair from her face. No one would ever guess that she was in attack-mode, ready to strike. No one except for me, that is.
The sun begins to set, turning Ba Sing Se into an even dirtier color of shit-brown, as I plan our next move. We've been out through the city all day, my feet are sore, and I can feel the droopiness of my lids. Suddenly, my stomach rumbles angrily, reminding me of the missed meals of the day.
"I heard that," Toph starts playfully, "Did poor Sokka miss lunch?" Her impish little smirk, arrogant, self-assured, and annoyingly adorable has blossomed on her face.
I counter it with, "We can't all live off of dirt and rocks, Toph." She retorts with her favorite comeback: a hard punch to the arm. "Is he still following us?"
"Yeah, but he's way back now. I don't think he can even see us anymore. Why would he do that?" she asks, obviously bothered about having to.
I think about it. "Because he's not trying to keep up with us. He knows we know something, he's just trying to find an opportunity to get at us. Maybe he knows about you."
"So what do we do, just wait for him to strike? That seems pretty stupid," she informs me.
"No, we trap him. We'll lure him in, make him think he can sneak up on us, and get him then," I answer, speaking the plan as it formulates in my head, "But first, let's go get a bite. Sokka needs some meat!"
"When do you not, Snoozles?" she asks, exasperated.
Toph Bei Fong:
Ba Sing Se has got to be the worst city ever. Seriously. I can't even see, and I can still tell its nasty. It smells, its muddy, and it's always so darn noisy! Still, got to stay positive, at least we're almost done here.
Not surprisingly, Ponytail got hungry, and even though we've got some crazy Loyalist on our tail, he still wants to stop at a super-expensive restaurant so he can pig out on some steaks. 'For celebration', he says. I'm happy to oblige him, especially if he's paying, but I know what he's thinking. He's reveling in the fact that he's making this moron following us sit and wait, so proud of himself for being one step ahead.
That's Sokka for you.
"I want mine cooked so that a good vet could still save it," he tells the abashed waiter. I have to hold the laugh in until the poor little guy scurries out of the room.
"What's wrong with you? Aang would kill you for saying something like that!" I say, through fits of giggles.
I can only feel the vague image of him, but I can still tell that he's smiling. I really wish I could see it.
"But he's not here, is he?" he giggles, "So I'm gonna have me some meat! And damnit, I'm gonna have it cooked the way I like!"
I shake my head, and struggle to tear the smile from my face. He's such an idiot. I'd hate to stroke his ego by letting him know I think he's funny. My feet slide against the chilly marble ground, moving a little closer and getting a better look at him. He's enjoying himself immensely, of course, gesticulating wildly, and talking way too loud.
You know, I have to be honest with myself. This city really blows, but spending this last year or so with Sokka hasn't been too bad. We'd always been a team, he and I, but now we don't have to deal with Twinkletoes flirting incessantly with the Sugar Queen, or the constant flying, or nearly so much imminent death following us around. The work has been slow and frustrating, sure. Finding a hidden loyalist prison isn't easy. But the fact is, we've been doing it together, and a huge amount of the work has basically amounted to walking around through the city with him while we chase leads. Not too bad at all.
Course, I know how this is going to end. Suki's supposed to be held in this prison, and Sokka hasn't exactly hid his obsession with freeing her. He must really love that Kyoshi to chase after her like this, after so long. She'd better appreciate how lucky she is.
I know, I probably seem a little embittered, but I'm really not. Really. I've been a team with him for four years, and I know he doesn't love me like I do him. It's been tough, but so am I, and it's a thought I've been forcing myself to get accustomed to. It's either that, or get my heart broken when we find her, so I think I'll just enjoy the time that we get, and hope for the best.
"Man, Toph," he starts, suddenly ebullient, "Look at how far we've come. All our hard work, it's finally paid off!"
"Finally," I add, scratching the top of my head, "It's taken forever! I was beginning to worry I'd be stuck here with you forever."
"Ha, you should be so lucky!" he jokes, but his laughter ends with the falsetto sigh of someone wanting to change the subject. Sure enough, his muscles tense up, and I brace myself for the serious.
"But seriously, Toph," he begins, "I know I owe you a lot. It's been really good of you to stay here with me, I couldn't have gotten here without you."
Oh jeez. Why does he have to screw with my heart like that? Freaking idiot.
"Well, c'mon, Sokka, this is what we needed to do to start wrapping this war up," I stammer, angry with myself for the heat rising to my cheeks. I concentrate very diligently on sipping the warm tea from my little cup, but I can feel his eyes on me. I wish I could see them.
"We both know there's a little more to it than that," he adds. I know him, I know he's smiling wistfully, and the thought that that feeling is directed towards me makes my eyes droop and my face go even hotter. "I couldn't have done any of this without you. We make a really good team."
"Yeah, I know, we're awesome," I blurt, caustically and quickly. Here I go again, running away from the conversation that might actually mean the most to me.
He laughs, the sound rich, full of life and humor. He can always find the funny, except when he feels like he's screwed up. Every heave of his chest pulsates through the ground, through my feet, up my legs and into me. I swim in the mirth he puts forth, I drink it like an alcoholic, and curse myself for letting myself go. But what he says next makes me feel, for the first time in a long while, truly appreciated. Maybe there is hope...
His pointer finger aims at me, and he fires, "Somehow, I'm going to make it up to you."
I am Li, and there are a million Lis. Rags to disappearance, to infamy, I am the assassin. Cloaks and daggers are my trade, blood is my currency, the clink of coins and the promise of the next kill are my reward. I am the Reaper, I am the reason doors have locks and politicians have guards.
I have been perfectly still, perfectly, outside of the house, waiting for two hours. My dark cloak has merged with the cold stone wall behind me, light avoids my shallow frame like a child avoiding a wasp. My breaths are cool and even, my ears intent and aware, my mind prepared to finish the job. The Earthbender is my main problem, but her slumber is hers. She is only a girl, after all, and I have been trained through hell to become what I am.
My birth certificate said Li Peisung, when I was delivered into the squalor that was my early childhood. Gang fights caused a fire, my house burned, but I survived. I always survive. I rose through the ranks of the army at school, until I was noticed by the man who would become the legendary Xu. My services helped to keep Ozai in power, helped to keep the Fire Nation great, until the emergence of the Avatar. But I survived Ozai's death, and even Azula's death. I keep on, and I will serve Xu, the Emperor General of the Fire Nation Empire, until the end.
I can hear the foolish Water Tribesman snoring now, through the window. I fail to see how this rag-tag pair could have actually traveled with the Avatar, how they could possibly be as dangerous as Xu warned, but I will try not to get overconfident. The boy must be phenomenal with that sword. Too bad he will never get the chance to use it.
My steps are noiseless as I work my way to the window, peering into where the young Earthbender sleeps. I see her form, rising and falling, just like the slumber of a small child. I quickly disappear into the stone of the foundation, and slip softly through to the back window.
The glass cutters are from my satchel, and into my hands. The wind of the night muffles the scratching sound of the ruined glass, my arm slips through the neatly etched hole and unlatches the panes, giving me my entry.
I pull myself through, with all the grace and stealth of a leopard, coming to my feet on the wicker floor of the apartment. I have memorized the layout, I know where I am going. The boy needs to die first, in case the Earthbender wakes. My instrument appears, eight inches long, curved slightly, sharp enough to shave with.
My breaths are shallow as a leaf on the breeze as I enter his room, and see his hunched form on the bed. He lies facing away from me. I step softly on the ground, so as to remain invisible. I edge slowly, patiently, to him, reach carefully, ever so carefully, for his exposed neck.
A flash. Black steel pointed at my face. He is awake. He sees me. A stupid grin splits his cheeks. Shit.
I turn to flee, but somehow, the Earthbender is in the doorway, blocking my exit. Wordlessly I lunge, going for her throat.
"I don't think so, buddy," she taunts, and before I know what's happening, I'm pinned between two giant slabs of earth, lifting me from the ground like a fly in a vise.
"Good job, Toph," the boy says admiringly. I set my face. All assassins know of this possibility, all prepare themselves for the worst. I will say nothing, not to this scum.
That infuriating girl leans lazily against the frame of the door, while the boy walks in front of me, twirling his sword into its sheath, and tapping my forehead with the hilt.
"You, sir, are going to tells us who your superiors are, how you found us, and what you know about a certain prison in the mountains of the Earth Kingdom," he declares, his words dripping with the arrogance of the victorious.
I say nothing. I know this is the best defense.
"Well? Start talking!" He's getting angry.
"Oh boy, does this mean I get to torture him?" the girl bubbles excitedly, grinning like an eager schoolchild, and walking towards my defenseless body.
"Toph...come on," the boy says lamely, but she shoves him unceremoniously to the side.
"Nope! Man was I hoping you wouldn't talk right away!" she leers at me, her eyes disturbingly unfocused. I could swear her teeth were pointed, as she rubs her dirty palms together expectantly.
"It's amazing what a little pressure in the right areas can do to people," she narrates, reveling in her sick pleasure. Her weight shifts, suddenly, I can feel two pillars of earth squeezing the crux of my palm and the back of my hand together. Another movement, and yet another sturdy, but thin pillar of earth presses into my rib cage, another to the base of my neck, two behind my ears, four more into my feet.
"Oh good, you're scared!," this terrifying little psychopath deduces, "I can feel your little heart racing! Like a little lamb about to be slaughtered!"
'Like a little lamb about to be slaughtered...' Oh God.
"Wait, wait!" the words spring unbidden from my quivering lips, "What do you want to know? Please!"
"You've got to be kidding...you little coward!" She seems so disappointed. I can't stop the tide of relief that swamps over me, as the blue eyed strategist grins at me, and taps me on the nose.
"Let's start with who your superiors are."
Toph Bei Fong:
The prison carriage ambles away, spraying dust from underneath the cheap wheels as it speeds towards the Tower of Ba Sing Se. I am such a badass.
"Toph, you are the most evil person I have ever known! It's amazing you're not Fire Nation," Sokka says, stretching and yawning. He smirks. "I love that you've never actually had to torture anybody."
I let the smile flower on my face, as I clap him on the back. "Well who can blame them? I can be pretty darn scary!"
"I'll say," he agrees, as he rubs at his sore back, "If I didn't know you better, I would have been convinced. I thought that poor sap was going to pee himself."
"He almost did!" I reply, giggling slightly. He returns the laughter, until another yawn builds and escapes his throat.
"Well, it's Sokka's bed time!" he announces, as he walks back into the apartment, "We can open up the map, and talk about the information our good friend Li was kind enough to give us in the morning." I take one last second to enjoy the moment, then I follow him.
Now, I'm stretched out on the floor. I feel the fibers of carpet embrace my exhausted skin through my undershirt, caressing my back, and easing me to sleep. The earth speaks to me, gives me its awareness, but my single-minded brain immediately directs it towards the sleeping form of Sokka in the next room. He turns in his bed, his lips move back and forth, and I can feel his eyes twist and turn in their sockets, focusing on some hidden image behind their lids.
"Who are you dreaming about, Sokka?" I ask myself.
A/N: Well that's chapter 1 of my new story! Woo-hoo!
Coming up next: Everyone can look forward to meeting Aang and Katara, planning the attack on the prison, and a little more backstory!
With this one, I'm going to try and be diligent, and get a new chapter up once a week (seeing as how this one took me about that long), but I'll go ahead and warn y'all, finals are over the next two-three weeks and I might not keep up as well as I'd like. After that, though, I shouldn't have any problems.
Let me know what you think in a review! I tried, because I was writing in first person, to give Toph, Sokka, and Li (for the short amount of time he was with us) different personalities that fit them, so let me know what you think! I'll go ahead and warn you not to ask about what's going on in Sokka's ahead about Suki vs Toph, because if I tell y'all that, then it ruins the story, doesn't it? You'll have to find out!
Once again, thanks to all the reviewers and the favorite-ers (I have no idea how to say that), and I really hope this chapter lived up to y'alls expectations!