Part Two: Spring
Chapter Ten: Shattering the Chains
Your lungs scream for oxygen
But your brain begs for freedom.
Trying to escape the shadow of a life
That will never really leave you.
The blisters on your toes
And your heart collapses
Heels cutting into jagged earth floors.
Doesn't it hurt you?
Doesn't it kill you?
Knowing you will never be free
No matter how far you run?
The royal summons had taken longer than expected to get over with. After that, nobody felt the need to talk. The walk to the hideout was silent, and was accentuated with nothing more than the sound of footsteps on cobblestones.
It was a cool night, rare in the Fire Nation. The breeze was pleasantly soft, but it did nothing to alleviate the burden that weighed on their minds.
To Mai, her companion seemed especially vulnerable tonight. She had no doubt that Azula had a part in this, but knew that Ty Lee could easily tell the prisoner of Mai's assumptions. If she suspected something of the contortionist, it was probably better to keep it to herself.
Their feeble attempts at conversation quickly succumbed to the uncomfortable lull of silence. The two meandered down the empty streets, trying to pretend that nothing had changed at all.
"Mai," Ty Lee began quietly. "Um, do you think that joining will be hard?"
"Joining the rebellion?"
"Hmm." Ty Lee replied. "Do you really think they'll make us do something horrible?"
Mai didn't answer, knowing that something was wrong. Years of friendship had allowed her to pick up even the most subtle of signs. And tonight, as silence permeated the night air, she sensed that something had happened. Something monumental.
She had always felt a responsibility towards Ty Lee, a resolute desire to protect her. She knew that the acrobat was far from weak- not physically. She could take an army of men down without getting hurt. She could take bending away, could do unspeakable things to people. Mai knew that even Azula had been scared of her at times, because Ty Lee could strip a person down to their core, could take away what made them powerful and reduce them to nothing.
But Ty Lee was also so trusting, and saw the good in everybody. Azula was a goddess to her, the very epitome of perfection. Though Mai knew better, Ty Lee had always followed her heart, not her head. They had always been a little team of two, the circus performer and the beautiful princess, and no matter what, she knew that Ty Lee would never forget that bond.
An inner jealousy that had been masked for so many years began to emerge again. She felt disgusted at herself.
"Mai?" Ty Lee finally ventured, daring to break the silence. The other girl turned towards her, eyebrows raised slightly.
"What if the rebellion... sends you away by yourself?"
"What?" This caught Mai's attention, and she stopped abruptly, turning her full attention to Ty Lee.
"To the Earth Kingdom. Ba Sing Se," Ty Lee attempted, hesitating as well. "I- I mean, if that happened. They aren't going to do that, I don't think-"
"Why?" Mai pressed. Now that an answer had been coaxed out of Ty Lee, Mai realized that the chance of being sent away was very real. The girl had never been the best liar in the group, after all. Although she tried hard to mask the emotion behind her words, the older girl could sense the burden of truth in Ty Lee's eyes.
"I don't know, but what if," Ty Lee insisted, a hint of desperation tingeing her voice. "What if it was a really bad reason?"
"Looking after that stupid bear again?" she attempted, trying uncharacteristically to make light of the situation. Honestly, she could think of nothing that would be terrible. It might be a bore, but it would be a nice change from the norms of Fire Nation life. It would actually be refreshing to escape from Azula, after all.
But this was a hypothetical situation, wasn't it? Drawn back to reality, Mai realized that her companion hadn't said anything yet.
"Whatever," Mai finally sighed, realizing that Ty Lee wasn't about to say anything. "It's not going to happen. There's no point in asking."
"I know, but if it does... I don't know what I'd do."
They continued walking, Ty Lee's gaze fixed on the ground, Mai's eyes staring ahead.
"There's no reason they wouldn't send just one of us," she added as an afterthought. "They'd send us both."
A stony silence ensued, and Mai, regarding that as the end of the conversation, said nothing. She focused her eyes on the dark of their shadows, watching as their silhouettes glided over cobblestones and brick walls, derelict street corners and deserted buildings. She barely noticed when Ty Lee, unable to maintain her composure anymore, paused on the street for the second time that night.
Mai couldn't think of anything to console her. The look in Ty Lee's eyes was a mix of trepidation and suppressed desperation, and conveyed an emotion that simple words couldn't quite alleviate. The breeze billowed past obliviously as the two stood there, the full weight of imminent separation crashing down on them.
They hardly needed any words now.
"How do I help him?"
"You know him better than anybody else, Katara. Why has Aang lost his will to live?"
Silence. She knew the cold truth of it, and the weight of it all crushed her heart like a stone.
"I don't know," she finally choked, her voice quivering faintly. She was lying. She was lying, and Yagoda knew it.
The healer could see agony in the adolescent's eyes, and decided not to press the matter. Folding her hands, she sighed, leaning against the table.
"I have an idea," she started. "Some soldiers are being released from the infirmary tomorrow. I was thinking that they could visit Aang, if only for a moment." She paused for a while, knowing that Katara was unconvinced. "These soldiers rose to battle with hope in their hearts, with the knowledge that the Avatar was fighting alongside them. Aang needs to know the impact he has had on the world, however much he refuses to see it."
"It would help," she murmured, staring blankly at the carved table. "Yeah."
Yagoda studied her young pupil with worry in her eyes. Smiling slightly, she unclasped her hands and nudged the cup of tea towards the young Waterbender.
"Drink up," she murmured. "Your tea's getting cold."
There was no real maze in the Bei Fong garden. The tall, verdant walls that divided the walkways were more for show than for confusing visitors of the estate. Yet, the layout of the courtyard felt like a labryinth to Lao Bei Fong, who was running back to the manor with all his might. His fear of getting caught was the only thing that kept his legs moving; his fear of getting attacked was the only reason he left Toph behind.
In the same garden, his daughter was running headlong into danger. Adrenaline coursed through her veins, and although she knew the walls of the estate still held her in, she felt freer than she ever had been. She felt her mother's vibrations stronger with every step she took. She felt the faint pulse of Sokka's energy under her toes and knew, without a doubt, that he was truly near.
Poppy Bei Fong held back a shriek when she saw her daughter appear. Toph's dress was in disarray, and her hair was a tangled mess. Her hands were streaked with dirt, and her feet were bare against the rough stone paving of the walkway.
Then the reality of danger sunk in, and Poppy let out a terrible, frightening wail.
"Toph! Toph! Get away from here!"
Poppy's wrists were locked behind her with earthen hands, and she struggled against her bonds with a desperation that sent Toph's heart pounding. Instinctively, she scouted the area, trying to get a better understanding of the situation. Six Dai Li agents held her mother captive- three on both sides of her.
Piece of cake, Toph reassured herself, though her heart fluttered with anticipation. She flexed her toes and relished the feel of earth underneath them.
"What is it?" she found herself muttering, her voice foreign to her. "Are you guys that weak? Your friends couldn't even catch a little blind girl."
"Who's she?" An agent on Poppy's right barked, his eyes locked on the dirt-streaked blind girl.
"She's no one, please let her go! She's just a servant!" Poppy moaned, casting a desperate gaze on her captors.
"Is that so?" Came the cold reply. "What does a little blind servant…"
"I'm her daughter," Toph spat. Poppy could only stare horrified, as her gentle daughter…no…The Blind Bandit continued, "the one you knuckleheads probably came here for." The agents remained motionless, focused only on the girl before them. "I'm only going to say this once. I beat you all before and I'll do it again. If you want to live, let my mother go, let Sokka go, and never come back again."
When nobody replied, Poppy kicked at the ground and wrenched against her stone manacles, giving a pained shriek when they were tightened with one flick of a Dai Li agent's finger. "No! Don't hurt her! Don't-"
Without warning, two men shot out earthen fists at Toph. She countered swiftly, raising her arms and drawing two stone pillars from the ground to obstruct them. Without a moment of hesitation, the agents leaped into the air and slashed their arms across the air in a single knife-like movement, slicing the tops of the pillars and sending them flying towards the girl. Instinctively, Toph drew a long sheet of earth up with her hands and blocked the pieces that were hurtling towards her.
"What are you doing to her?"
Toph faltered, her concentration shattered. She cast her attention to Poppy, who was wrenching at her bonds with a ferocity that Toph had never seen in her mother before. She could feel the vibrations, though her view was obstructed by Dai Li agents and the pillars of earth that separated her from her attackers.
Her mother was fighting, and she was hurting herself, jeopardizing her safety, for Toph.
The split-second of hesitation cost her. Chunks of earth barraged her earth shield, threatening to send it crumbling down. The stone wall shielding her from the Earthbenders finally gave way, collapsing at her feet. With relief, she noticed that all the agents had left Poppy's side, realizing that the little blind girl was an actual threat.
Whipped back into reality, Toph glided forward, putting herself between the Dai Li and Poppy. She barely managed to sense the fleet, feather-light vibrations of the Dai Li before she realized that they were charging towards her.
Instinctively, she drew the rubble at her feet to shoulder level and sent the chunks of earth whizzing at the incoming attackers, hoping to pinpoint at least one of them down. These agents seemed to be swifter, deadlier. Toph could barely feel their feet on the earth, and had no idea where they were in relation to her.
Finally, they were within range. Judging by the silence, Toph could tell that her attack had missed. Now, though, they were close enough for her to hit with accuracy.
A slight smirk tugging on her lips, she bent the earth beneath her to her will, feeling the thrill of being herself again, feeling the exhilaration of battle in the air. The Dai Li were coming for her- she could feel the echoes of their footsteps beneath her feet, the whoosh of air that accompanied the quick blur of their movements.
A few feet closer... a few inches closer... perfect. She lashed out with everything that she had, relishing the brilliant shock that coursed through the veins of her attackers. They had no idea who they were dealing with. She was a fool to have overestimated them.
If she could be Toph the Earthbender, just for a moment, she had to make it worthwhile.
It was all second nature to her, as if she had spent a lifetime preparing for the moment. She felt her toes dig into the rawness of the earth and her hands poised to attack. It was like a muted dream, a brilliant, vivid dream, the earth rising and falling with every twitch of her fingers.
They were no match for Toph. Even Poppy could see it. She had given up struggling- her wrists were bloodied and torn from her efforts at breaking free, and she had since realized that it was an impossibility. She had even stopped shrieking, and soon, her fear became nothing more than a silent gnaw at her heart. But watching Toph fight, watching her push aside her captors as if it was nothing to her, it all had some sort of inescapable, indescribable beauty to it.
Poppy Bei Fong was livid- she couldn't deny that fact. But she was also stunned into silence, and some strange, unfamiliar emotion bore into her heart as she watched her daughter Earthbend. Toph was loud and brash and so, so powerful. Dust and dirt streaked her fine silk clothing and turned her into more of a savage than a lady. Her hair had come free of its tight bun and now swung around her shoulders as she lashed out against the men. And yet, Toph was as graceful as a dancer, earth wheeling and spinning around her.
Pillars of earth leapt from the ground and sent two men catapulting into the air.
Twin boulders collided with another two and crushed them into the floor.
Realizing the severity of the situation, the remaining two Dai Li agents, the only ones that still stood by Poppy's side, leapt to the aid of their comrades. Toph met them with the same confident air, the same smirk and sense of victory. It was like somebody else, somebody foreign, had taken control over the beautiful, graceful lady she had been for months and months.
No, she realized, the soles of her feet digging into the earth and her forehead coated with sweat and streaks of dirt. This is who I am.
She raised her arms and brought sheets of earth from the floor, sending them hurtling at the last two men with a simple, final thrust of her hands. She sent it crashing down on the men only inches away from Poppy, and smashed the last of the captors into the earth.
And then, as the last two Dai Li guards fell lifelessly to the ground, Toph's mother realized that her daughter, her weak, frail little daughter, was the strongest person she had seen in her life.
Hours later, Mai and Ty Lee had been welcomed to the rebellion. It was surprisingly simple to join, given the duo's alliance with Azula. Normally, females weren't allowed membership, but "special circumstances" evidently called for some exceptions to the rule.
"Special circumstances" also called for a party.
As usual, Mai had gravitated to the nearest corner, preparing herself for a night of pure boredom. From what she had seen, every 'rebel' was the same: young, airheaded, and prone to getting drunk. Shunning every opportunity for conversation, she had put a safe distance between herself and the general party, preferring instead to scout the room for signs of a threat.
Minutes passed, then hours. Nothing.
Ty Lee drowned her guilt in a whirl of conversation. She glided from one group of adolescent boys to another, smiling amiably when it was expected of her. A flask of flame wine had been passed around to commemorate the new members, and the overall mood was jovial, loud, and celebratory.
The main room was abuzz with conversation and accented with raucous laughter. The rebels seemed to be in a state of relaxation, with nothing but wine and Ty Lee on their minds. To anybody, they would seem to be a joke.
"Hey," Ty Lee greeted Mai after the festivities had droned down, ducking through a throng of laughing boys. Sensing her companion's evident disdain, the acrobat bit her lip and sighed.
"This isn't about before, right? Come on, Mai, look at them." Ty Lee gestured to the rebels sitting around the table, who were exchanging jokes that made the other girl cringe. "What can they possibly do to us?"
"Really?" Mai averted her eyes from the table and lowered her voice. "You expect that to be the rebellion? These teenage guys jumping around and pretending to be dangerous?"
"So? Everyone's having fun. Besides, it's our first day here, and they want us... you know, to feel welcome."
"Look." The older girl sighed, leaning against the wall. "Remember that day you dragged me here?"
"How could I forget?" Ty Lee replied. "That was the first day we toured this place."
"So you remember the other rooms," Mai went on matter-of-factly. "The men. And the weapons they had back there."
"What do you mean?" her companion responded softly, not quite getting the point. Mai rolled her eyes.
"The men are the real threats. Not their idiot sons."
"Well, sure. But there are some men celebrating, and they're not threats," Ty Lee pleaded, wanting Mai to play along. She felt doubt crawl back inside her, as much as she had worked to keep it away. "Look, we're fine. I guess I was wrong before. You know they need us both here, and they'd never send any of us away."
Mai said nothing, half of her hoping that Ty Lee's words were true. The other half of her held onto suspicion.
"Hey," her companion prodded after a moment. "We should just enjoy ourselves, alright? We shouldn't worry. Azula'd never let anything bad happen to us. If she puts her trust in this rebellion, I think that we should, too."
You forgot, Ty Lee, that Azula was the one who locked us up in prison. She was the one who'd let us die without a second thought. We're no different from anybody else she's ever manipulated.
"Whatever you say," she finally muttered in response, eliciting a small grin from her friend. They stood together, surveying the scene before them. Evidently finished with their round of crude joking, the rebels at the nearby table had settled into a wave of silence until one abruptly stood, raising his glass of flame wine in the air. This young man seemed to be quite popular, as everybody else stopped what they were doing to glance at him.
"I propose a toast!" He bellowed into the room, cheeks flushed with excitement. "To Fire Lord Ozai, our true leader! The supreme ruler of the Fire Nation!"
"To Fire Lord Ozai!" came the roaring response, accompanied with a clinking of glasses. Mai fought back a scowl, remembering what the man had done to Zuko.
"To Princess Azula!" The same man continued from where he stood, evidently pleased with the reaction. "May she rise again to govern our land and restore it to glory!"
"To Princess Azula!" Ty Lee watched with a smile dancing on her lips, but a faint anxiety in her gentle grey eyes.
The two stood in silence for a while, watching as the rebels clinked their glasses in another toast. It was hard to believe that the two adolescent girls were now part of this cacophony, this messy and brash group of men. Lost in thought, Mai didn't notice the rebel approaching until he was nearly in front of her.
This man seemed considerably older than the rest of the rebels in the room. Solemnity was etched into his face, and he showed no signs of drunkenness. Unlike the others in the room, who seemed to have nothing much in the way of strength, this rebel was well built. Probably knew how to fight well, too.
A jarring realization settled on Mai. This was one of the men who she had seen before, in the hidden corridors of the hideout. This man was a threat.
Ty Lee was evidently unaware of the approaching rebel, and was occupying herself elsewhere.
"Mai, I'm gonna go, okay?" She shot her companion a reassuring smile and then darted into the crowd, where she was swallowed by a sea of glaring red. The older girl was left alone again, though it was at an incredibly inconvenient time.
It seemed that luck didn't favor her that night. Glancing up, she seemed that the unusual rebel hadn't changed his route and was heading towards her quickly.
Instinctively, Mai felt for one of her knives. It lay secure in the lining of her sleeve, sharpened to a point. She watched Ty Lee mingle with the rebels, envying her friend's trusting nature. Ty Lee could just let her inhibitions fall anytime she wanted, when Mai had absolutely no faith in anybody.
"You're one of our new recruits," the man spoke before Mai could escape to the acrobat. "Mai. The knife thrower."
Mai nodded silently. She let no emotions through, though every nuance of her was on guard. It didn't take her long to connect the events. Ty Lee's trepidation, this foreign man who knew her name... it probably all led back to Azula. The princess couldn't be sure of any of her allies, not until their loyalties were thoroughly tested. And Mai, who had betrayed her not so long ago, would definitely be tested the most.
No hesitation marred her face, but she knew what was to come. Ty Lee had all but given her the answer a few hours ago, while they were walking to the hideout.
Ba Sing Se.
"Come with me," the rebel continued bluntly, as if reading her mind. "I've got special orders for you."
"Can I see Katara?"
Yagoda attempted a smile, but couldn't muster a response. The healing courses were cancelled for the day; the girls under her charge were expected to attend Waterbending lessons instead. Thinking of the great changes that had occurred so quickly in her home, the wizened healer couldn't help but hope that similar ones would occur in her patient's condition. His chi was completely stationary at some points, blocked, rendering healing efforts useless.
Yagoda tried not to frown at the boy. He needed all the hope he could get, and any doubt that he might recover would discourage him completely.
"Katara's sleeping," Yagoda finally managed, her voice soft. She gently drew a line of water down the boy's arm, noting with relief that his smaller wounds were healing. "She'll be up soon."
Outside, the faintest tendrils of dawn painted the skies in pastel hues. The light kissed the icy tops of the buildings and cascaded down, bathing the streets in the glow of early morning. An otherwordly hush had settled in the atmosphere.
Katara trudged towards the infirmary, using the footsteps of prior visitors as guides. Though she knew the route to the building well enough to do it with her eyes closed, she was too distracted by the previous night's events to do much thinking on her own. She bit her lip and tried to make her mind a thoughtless blank. It was too hard: sleeplessness blurred her head, and as soon as one thought was forced out of her mind, another agonizing memory replaced it.
He's lost the will to live.
She had known it all along, but it was staggering to have her suspicions confirmed by Yagoda. Katara had never really expected- no, she had never even dreamed- of an Aang that would give up on life. The Aang she knew embraced life. He was the embodiment of vitality. He had an inner drive that was astounding to her.
But that Aang had existed before the war had ended. He hadn't yet experienced the true brutality of battle and the full extent of pain.
Katara had spent the night wondering about Yagoda's idea. It was a nice one, she would give it that. Aang hadn't been able to see the effects of the war's end on the world. A simple visit could open his eyes to the peace that he had brought.
Yet, Aang blamed himself for everything that went wrong, even if he hadn't been the cause of the problems. The war soldiers could've sustained terrible injuries, and seeing them could only make the boy feel worse.
Shutting her eyes in exasperation and weariness, Katara told herself not to dwell on these things. Everything was beyond her control.
It was too early for most people to visit the infirmary, but Katara was the exception to that rule. The healers in the hallway let her pass without a complaint, and she meandered silently throughout the hallway, making her way to Aang's healing room.
"Does it hurt?" Came Yagoda's voice, muted behind the door. Katara hesitated in front of the room, realizing that a healing session was underway.
She didn't hear Aang's reply, and taking advantage of the silence, knocked on the door. She heard a shuffle of footsteps in the room, and seconds later, the door opened a crack.
The elder studied Katara with weary eyes. She had expected the Waterbender to visit, though she would have preferred her gone for the moment. "It's early, Katara. What brings you here?"
"I just wanted to talk to Aang for a moment," she replied, averting her eyes. "But if it's inconvenient, I'll come back later."
Something about the girl made Yagoda soften for a moment. Sighing, the healer glanced behind her and met the gaze of the Avatar. There was a flicker of hope in his eyes, a sign that he had caught the sound of Katara's voice.
"It's okay," he murmured to himself, not expecting anybody to hear. "It's okay with me."
A hint of a frown tugging at Yagoda's mouth, she turned back to the visitor hovering blankly by the entrance. "Just for a moment, then." She lowered her voice then, gazing intently at the young Waterbender. "I want him to be ready for the visitors. They'll be here at noon."
Without further comment, the healer opened the door to allow Katara through. She attempted an appreciative smile and stepped in, her gaze immediately darting to the boy on the bed. Aang gave her a small wave in lieu of a spoken greeting.
The door shut. Katara glanced back, expecting to see Yagoda by the threshold, but the healer was gone. They were alone.
"Feeling any better?" she inquired, tearing her eyes away from the closed door. Aang shrugged weakly, shifting slightly under the sparse warmth of his blankets. An awkward silence permeated the air before she stated, softly:
"You know, some people are visiting you today. Yagoda told you, right?"
Aang met her eyes, a puzzled expression on his face. "No..."
"They're war veterans," Katara continued swiftly, though it was probably against Yagoda's plans. "They're going to be checked out of the infirmary today."
"Why?" Came the sullen, uncharacteristic reply. Realizing the implications of what he had asked, Aang clenched his eyes shut, as if a great weariness were crashing down on him. "No, no... it's not like that. Never mind."
"Is it a bad idea?"
"No. Nothing bad." He attempted at a smile, forcing his eyes to flutter open. Katara's concerned face came into view, and he studied her through a half-lidded gaze."It's just that... I don't know if I'm ready. To see war veterans, you know." He paused for a second, contemplating the matter. "What would they think of me?"
"Of you?" Katara repeated gently, making her way over to his bed. He kept his eyes on her, watching her every movement. She smiled softly, stopping inches away from the young Avatar.
"I bet they'd think you were brave. Exceptionally brave. To take all of this-" She gestured to his injuries, trying not to flinch. "-All of this without complaining."
"I have complained," he muttered, his voice barely audible. "And I haven't been brave. Not like you think."
At a loss for words, Katara extended a hand to his left arm, letting her fingers glide over his scarred skin. He tensed slightly at her touch, her fingertips leaving tingling paths over the bandages that covered his wounds. His injuries stung behind the bindings, but the gentle caress of her fingers seemed to hold a healing quality of their own. She traced a path up to his shoulder, taking in the burns and terrible injuries he had sustained.
How much chi's blocked up there? She bit her lip, removing her hand from his shoulder reluctantly. It was difficult to sense the areas where blockage had occurred without the use of Waterbending, and she had a burning desire to check. Yet, Yagoda would probably disapprove of Katara tampering with healing methods, especially after she had worked so hard to maintain Aang's progress.
Instead, she knelt down beside the boy, her eyes locked on his. He didn't flinch or avert his gaze, but stared calmly back. He studied the colors swimming in her eyes, the deep azure blending in with specks of brown. Some hidden emotion lay in them, something he couldn't bring himself to ask about. He hoped beyond hope that it wasn't pity.
"You'll be here, won't you?" He found himself asking, imbued with a sudden boldness. "When the war veterans arrive?"
"If you want," she answered simply, letting her eyes wander to his other wounds. Gashes and burns and broken bones... they lay obscured by layers and layers of bandages. She was sure that no other war veteran had suffered as much as Aang.
"I... yes. I'll be here," she finally added. "Don't worry."
"Good," he replied, attempting at a small laugh. It came out much easier than he had expected, and it was enough to catch Katara's attention. She was almost startled by the sound; it sounded so foreign to her. Instead of responding, though, she folded her arms on Aang's bed and lay her chin down. His hand lay inches from her face, and she studied it with quiet nonchalance.
"Why exactly are you hesitant about them?" She asked suddenly, still unable to meet his gaze. "These people admire you. Honestly."
"I just..." He bit his lip slightly, casting his eyes to the ceiling. "It's hard. Seeing these people hurt, knowing they suffered from a war that went on for ages... all because I was gone for a hundred years."
"A war that's over," she contradicted softly, "Only because you were brave enough to end it."
"It's more than that," he countered, shifting slightly. "If these war veterans are just like you say they are- if they think I'm a huge hero and all- I... I just don't know. It's like part of me wants to be admired, and part of me doesn't feel like I deserve it."
"You're kidding," she murmured, lifting her head up to look at him. "What you don't deserve is this hospital bed, and all these injuries."
She paused for a moment, eyes locked on Aang. He stared at the ceiling, features unreadable.
"I don't know," he mumbled plainly. "All of this is confusing. I don't know what to believe anymore."
Katara smiled weakly, clasping her fingers around Aang's bare wrist. He stiffened at her touch, but she didn't let go. "So much has changed since the war ended. I don't blame you for anything."
"Thanks." He cast a hesitant look at her, not sure if it were the right thing to say. "It's just so strange. It's like I've known the entire world one day, and the next day, everything's all gone. Toph and Sokka are so far away, and nothing's like it was before. I just don't know how to think."
"Oh," she murmured, at a loss for words. "It's alright, Aang."
"I don't know what the world thinks of me, either. It feels like I've been locked up forever, and it's just strange waking up to a world that's completely changed. It reminds me of... I don't know." He shrugged weakly. "It's a little like getting out of that iceberg again."
"But this time, I'll be there for you." She lay a light hand on Aang's shoulder, and he blinked at her touch. "We all will."
"We? You mean Yagoda and the healers, right?" Aang asked quietly. "Well, I don't mind them doing their job, but... this is alright. Just talking to you's okay."
"It's nice. It's been a while since we've had a real conversation."
Aang's eyes flickered shut, and he exhaled softly, his breath coming out in a wisp of white.
She took his hand in hers, his skin cold against the warmth of her fingers. A flicker of hope, however fragile, danced in her soul.
"We've got to hurry," she found herself shouting as she ran over to her mother, the words a quick jumble in her mouth. "There's bound to be more of those guys coming. Dad's back at the house, and-"
Toph paused as she neared her mother. There was something strange about the vibrations emanating from where the woman lay. A pang of fear compelled her pace to quicken, her heartbeat racing with anxiety. "Mom? Mom, are you okay? Come on, we've got to get out of here!"
Poppy Bei Fong clenched her eyes shut, unable to look at her daughter. Pain shot through her forearms, and she gritted her teeth in an effort to quell it. "Help me," she whispered, the words barely audible. "Toph, if you can-"
"I've got it," the thirteen-year-old reassured her quickly. She ran over to where the woman lay, knelt down, and carefully pried the earthen chains apart. Even without sight, she knew that Poppy's injuries were terrible. If only Katara were here, she thought inwardly, biting her lip. She would know what to do.
She wiped those thoughts from her mind then, turning to her mother. Uncertainty pulsed in her veins. Was she going to get yelled at? Would she be lectured on good manners, as usual? The mere idea of a rebuke was unbearable.
Instead, Poppy remained silent. Toph hovered over her mother, anticipation gnawing at her mind, until the faintest of words escaped from Poppy's lips.
"You never told me," Toph's mother whispered quietly, groaning as Toph helped her to a sitting position. She cast a stricken gaze on her daughter, who was staring back at her with sightless eyes. "You never told me you could do this."
"That's because you wouldn't listen," came the equally soft reply, one that Poppy had to strain to hear. "You and Dad... you never listened to me. I could do this all along, you know. Even before I ran away."
"Why didn't you show us? During the Earthbending lessons, during the family walks..." Poppy shook her head in disbelief. "If you could do this all along, Toph, then..."
Her voice trailed off, and Toph took a deep breath, one that quivered in her throat.
"I had to honor the Bei Fong family," she finally spoke, the words foreign and uncertain in her mouth. "If I had shown you, you and Dad- you two would've been so disappointed in me. Remember that time I beat all those Earth Rumble guys- I mean, that one time I got captured?" Poppy nodded soundlessly, and Toph felt it, though she couldn't see. "You and Dad were ready to lock me up forever after that, but you just wanted to protect me. That's what you wanted to do all along: protect me." A faint smile played on her lips. "But you know I don't need it now."
"Why did you run away, then?" Poppy ventured quietly, almost afraid of the answer. "We didn't mean it as punishment, Toph, we just wanted you to be- to be safe. I thought you were happy here. We gave you everything you asked for!" Pain flooded her voice, and she shut her eyes. "And I was so proud of you, Toph. So proud to see you grow up and become a young lady… I just never thought you would be unhappy."
Guilt flooded Toph's heart, but she pushed it away. I shouldn't feel guilty, she told herself. She doesn't know. She doesn't know about me yet.
"Mom," she finally spoke, her voice unwavering. "You know that I'm not some fancy lady, and I don't think I can ever be. You saw me, didn't you? Just now? That's who I am." A quiet passion flooded her voice. "I'm good at Earthbending. It's the one thing in life that nobody can beat me at! And those times with Aang, Sokka and Katara... those were the best days of my life."
Not bothering to wait for a reply, Toph continued to speak, some unknown, hidden drive pushing her forward.
"I know this is really hard for you to believe, and I don't blame you. Before I left home, I had no idea what the world was like... what I was really capable of. I was able to do so many things, things I never dreamed I could do. I taught the Avatar Earthbending. I fought in the war, Mom. The front lines!"
Breathless, she paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. She sensed Poppy's disdain, and it took all the courage she had to keep on going.
"This is what I'd wanted all along," Toph finished. "To show people what I could do, and knowing that those same people wouldn't be disappointed in me. That's why I ran away. That's why Sokka and I were going to run away. But it's too late now, isn't it?"
Poppy didn't speak. Her eyes were fixed on her daughter with an intensity that was frightening to behold. Toph didn't dare break the silence, for fear that it would be another misstep. All the while, though, she was holding her breath, praying for acceptance, praying that her mother would let her go like her father had.
"Toph," Poppy finally muttered. Mute anger flashed in her olive eyes. "Toph, I can't believe this. Running away is enough, but fighting in the war... how could you?"
"But Mom," she protested weakly. Her voice took on a tone of desperation then, knowing that her mother would never understand. "Mom-"
"I thought I couldn't be more disappointed in you. The ball, the suitors, and now... now this!"
"Would you rather have me lie?" the Earthbender challenged without thinking. "Would you rather have me lie and say I love this life?"
"After we gave you everything, you went off to throw that all away, to fight in a war! It's unbelievable! Shameful!"
"I'm sorry," Toph retorted, tone heavy with frustration. "But the world needed my Earthbending. It needed me! When will you get it? When will you accept who I am and what I'm good at?"
"Young lady, I-"
"Earthbending isn't brutality. It's the way I see the world. I'm not weak if I have Earthbending. I'm not blind!"
"Toph!" Poppy clenched her eyes shut, unwilling to even look at her daughter. "Listen to me. I know who you are, and what you are capable of. I know that you can't stand high society. I know that you never want to set foot in this place again."
"No, it's not that," Toph began, the initial harshness gone from her voice. "It's nothing like that! I just want-"
"I need to know if you care, Toph. If you care at all about your father and me, what we've done for you."
"Of course I care," she muttered, though it felt like she was committing some great betrayal. "Why else would I have come back?"
"Then promise me, Toph. Never put yourself in danger. Never make us worry." Her eyes fluttered open and settled desperately on her daughter. "Never do this to us again."
Poppy's eyes were heavy with pain, and Toph was torn between pity and anger. Had her mother understood anything she had just told her? Had her mother cared about her? Mute with indecision, the adolescent took a deep breath and spoke.
"I can tell you that I'll never get hurt. I'll never make you worry about things like that. But I'll never, ever give up Earthbending."
Mother and Daughter walked back to the manor, the silence heavy and unyielding between them. Mother was reunited with Father. Amidst protests and cries, Daughter turned back and left, knowing that nothing stood in her way anymore. There was one more thing to take care of.
When they had returned from the hideout, the lull of midnight had already cast silence over the entire city.
Mai said her goodbyes to Ty Lee and walked back to her estate. No questions or comments marred the quiet. Just the sight of the parchment, tied with black and already crumpled in Mai's hand, was enough for both of them.
The knife thrower had observed Ty Lee the entire night. No rebel had pulled her aside to give her the same piece of parchment, the same instructions. It was final.
Ty Lee was not part of the operation.
The sixteen-year-old had let the reality sink in. As soon as she told herself there was no escaping her duty, the less it would hurt in the end.
The servants addressed her quickly as she stepped through the door. It was late at night- far beyond a proper lady's curfew- but if they were appalled at Mai's conduct, they were definitely making an admirable effort to conceal it. Mai told herself that she was untouchable, and there was nothing they could do to punish her.
She would be heading to the Earth Kingdom by morning.
Without hesitation, she shut the door behind her and headed briskly to her room. It would be a sleepless night, but she needed solace at the very least. Making sure none of the servants were trailing her, she made her way down the hallway, turned a sharp corner, and wrenched her bedroom door open with a swift turn of her wrist, shutting it with the same air of urgency.
Imbued in her thoughts and relishing in the open silence, she barely noticed the letter, tied with a ribbon of crimson silk, lying on her pillow.
As morning fell over the Earth Kingdom, a train flew into the city of Ba Sing Se.
Its destination was the Lower Ring, where the passengers would disperse and go their separate ways.
Its one passenger of interest was the prince of the Fire Nation.
Zuko couldn't glance one way without seeing the hard, scorning eyes of an Earth Kingdom citizen. All but scowling, he ignored the unpleasant scrutiny the other passengers were directing at him and cast his gaze out the windows, the blur of passing buildings a meager distraction from the tension in the air.
He had come to Ba Sing Se as a refugee before. That had been his first time riding on the train, and he had blent in perfectly. Nobody had paid any heed to his charred face- so many people had been hurt by Firebenders that it was a common sight. His dirty green rags had been enough to prove that he wasn't a threat, and with the ever-benevolent Iroh seated besides him, the prince of the Fire Nation had been reduced to a filthy, common peasant in the eyes of the world.
Now, Zuko sat in the lap of luxury. The seats were plush and covered in silk, shining emerald in the spring light. Rather than the musty, old smell of rotting wood or the constant wails of refugees, the cars that carried the wealthy and prominent into Ba Sing Se were spotless, stately, and awkwardly silent. The only sounds that marred the quiet were the rustle of silken robes and the occasional nobleman clearing his throat. And unlike his first time traveling into the city, where he had been hiding under the guise of a commoner, Zuko was fully clothed in Fire Nation regalia.
He was a sore thumb. A smudge of red in a world painted green. It was no wonder that all the passengers were keeping their distance.
"Prince Zuko," the escort to his left mumbled, breaking the silence. Though the other passengers feigned nonchalance, Zuko could tell that they were all on edge, listening and waiting for the Fire Nation prince to do something. "We should be approaching the Lower Ring in a matter of minutes."
If the passengers were anticipating an interesting response, they were abruptly disappointed. Rather than speaking, Zuko gave a curt nod in reply and fixated his attention back on the window, watching the world fly by in emerald hues. This did nothing to soothe his growing apprehension, however. The prince felt as if he were about to step into battle rather than face the ruler of the Earth Kingdom, and if granted the choice, he would've gladly chosen the former.
How could he face the Earth King, the leader of the very city he had crushed a year ago? How could he repay the city, apologize, when so many wrongs had been done and at least half of them hadn't been of his doing? Zuko was speaking for his nation, but his nation had a scornful voice. The Fire Nation still bitterly regretted losing the war, still considered their hold on Ba Sing Se their greatest military triumph. How was he to apologize for that? A growing dread grew in his chest, and Zuko resisted the urge to bury his head in his hands.
His only solace lay in the fact that Azula was a world away, locked up. Her malice couldn't touch him now.
A few more agonizing minutes passed before the train slowly screeched to a halt. The doors slid open, and the rest of the passengers stood and filed out swiftly, as if the air in the car was contaminated. Zuko watched the men and women drift away and whisper amongst themselves as they stepped into the station, probably relishing the thought of telling their friends of the morning's excitement.
I'm still the enemy, he reminded himself bitterly. Apologizing to one man- to the Earth King- wouldn't be nearly enough to convince an entire nation that he was truly sorry. People formed their own opinions, after all. Who was he to change their minds?
He watched as the remainder of the passengers dispersed into the throng of people at the station, spots of emerald blending into a larger sea of green. He wondered how long it would take for the world to heal, for those people to heal. Rich or poor, they had all been touched by the war, even though Ba Sing Se had been blind to the damage for so long. That only meant the city had hurt the most when it finally fell.
Zuko glanced up, and met the eyes of one of the Earthbenders that drove the train into the city. His hands were rough and calloused, and his face tan and weathered. Despite his rugged appearance, though, the prince knew that the man was as apprehensive as the passengers on the car had been.
"Prince Zuko?" The man pressed after a moment. "We've approached-"
"I know." He interrupted quietly. "The Lower Ring. Thank you."
Seemingly unnerved by Zuko's calmness, the Earthbender paused for a moment, studying the young man and the two escorts that flanked either side of him. Prince or not, the boy didn't seem like much of a threat anymore. Some sort of compliance hid in his golden eyes. Maybe he had truly been humbled by the defeat of his nation.
Still, Prince Zuko had been instrumental in the downfall of Ba Sing Se. One could never be too careful around him.
"Will you be coming down now? They've provided an escort to the Upper Ring." The man continued then, trying to mask his discomfort with an air of neutrality. "The Earth King has been informed of your arrival, and your request to have an audience with him."
"Has everything gone well?"
"I should think so. We recently received a message from the Fire Lord regarding your visit." The man cleared his throat, noting with displeasure that Zuko evidently had no intention of moving. "We've prepared for your arrival according to his instructions. You'll have the opportunity to speak with the king whenever you're settled."
"And living arrangements?" An escort asked before Zuko had a chance to say anything. "What have you prepared for us?"
"I don't know," the man replied, a faint impatience taking the place of his earlier apprehension. "We need to turn this train around soon, though. We'll be late for the next trip." Meeting Zuko's gaze, the Earthbender tried to hide his growing annoyance with a false smile. "I assume you'd like to get off now?"
Taking the hint, Zuko finally stood up, gave the man a nod, and walked off the car, weariness in his steps. His escorts flanked him on either side, drawing even more attention to the strange procession.
"Enjoy your stay," the Earthbender called after the prince, evidently pleased to have done away with him. Exiting the car and slamming the door shut, he sighed and turned to the faces at the station, waiting for the next ride out of Ba Sing Se.
The Lower Ring was still full of war refugees, and many of them were lined up at the station, waiting for a way out of the city. They wanted to get back to their own towns, their cities, their homes. Remorse tinging Zuko's thoughts, he glanced at the destitute men and women standing in order, some carrying wailing children. All of them had a look of relief about them, as if they had gone through too many pains in too short a time.
He caught the eye of one of the women, who scowled at him and his escorts. The man next to her, presumably her husband, shot Zuko an icy stare and spat at the prince as he walked away from the train.
I don't need this, an inner voice gnawed at Zuko's thoughts. I don't need this humiliation.
His escorts directed him to the carriage that was to take him to the Upper Ring. The driver of the carriage, who stood beside one of the doors, paused for a moment.
"Prince Zuko, I presume?"
One of the escorts managed a response, and nodding with some reluctance, the driver held the door open, unsure how to behave around his peculiar passengers. Meeting Zuko's stare, the driver abruptly looked away, and waited until all the men had boarded the carriage before turning back and slamming the door shut.
True humility is the only antidote to shame,Iroh had said. It was only now that he realized exactly what his uncle had meant.
It seemed like an eternity ago, when he had sought for his father's approval. He had been stupid, unable to see past his anger. He had allowed himself to be manipulated by his sister, had allowed himself to be blinded by her lies.
Zuko watched as the carriage pulled out of the station, catching a last look at the line of refugees as they boarded their train home. He knew that it was like this everywhere, everywhere the war had touched. The same faces. The same humiliation. The same hope.
And for an instant, Iroh's words seared through him like fire.
Send Uncle my greetings.
By this time you receive this, I'll probably be in Ba Sing Se. You remember what we did there. The people of the Earth Kingdom are strong-willed and stubborn. They never forget. This time, I'm a direct relation to the downfall of the city. I'll likely have a bad reception.
I don't know what you want to hear, Mai, but I'm trying. I'm guessing, but to be honest, it gets harder and harder. We're miles apart, and I've all but forgotten what we used to say to each other. I feel as if I'm treading with caution every time I write to you.
I guess I never really knew what to say to you, but I've never got a chance to know you. When we were together, I know that we were happy. I've forgotten why.
I know you well enough, though, to realize this. You need the truth about me. And it's made me realize that I need the truth about you.
After I reached the North Pole, I realized something. All those years of tracking down the Avatar and trying to capture him... they've blinded me to what's real in this world. Back then, I was selfish. I didn't care about anybody but myself. It took me three years to realize that I was wrong for doing all those things, and three years for me to realize that I needed to change. And I have. I'm making up for what I did wrong by apologizing to the people I've hurt.
If it's one thing I've learned, though, I've learned that love isn't about being selfish. And it's also made me realize that I was so selfish back then, when we were together.
I wanted affection. I wanted acceptance. My father and my sister trusted me, but it was you that loved me. Up until then, I had forgotten what that had felt like. I wanted you because it felt like you actually wanted me. I don't know if you still do.
I was happy back then. I was happy sitting with you, talking, going places, just being with you. But what if what I felt for you was nothing more than selfishness? What then? What if I was trying to fill some part of me that had been empty those last three years? What if I was just taking you for granted?
I can't figure it out myself. I never knew how to love, and I still don't know what it feels like. And I don't want to hurt you, never, but you can see past all those words and letters and... you need the truth.
I don't know what to make of us anymore. Did I need you? Did I love you? Was it selfishness or was it real?
I don't know. But I'm sorry, Mai. For everything.
One letter was gripped in one hand, sealed with black, crumpling under the weight of reluctant acceptance. One letter was clutched in the other, tied in the deepest of reds, quivering with the agony of suppressed emotions.
For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, Mai felt completely torn apart. She couldn't tear her eyes away from Zuko's words, couldn't bring herself to turn away. She kept reading, kept staring, until she had forced herself to believe the truth. He was, without a doubt, in Ba Sing Se. She was traveling there under orders to kill him. And there he was, so painfully oblivious, still trying to appeal to her, never believing that she would be the one person told to end his life.
It was a sick, sick test of loyalty. Yet, one could never expect anything less from Azula.
By the time Mai had finally collapsed into the black of sleep, the pain had already pierced every nuance of her being.
When he came to his senses, he smelled dank, musty earth. It took a while for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but there wasn't much to see. As far as he could remember, he had been dragged underground by something. Weariness tugged at his eyelids, and he found himself drawn back into the lull of sleep.
Appa grunted in the darkness, and then it all came crashing down on him again.
Dai Li. Ambush. Bei Fongs.
Sokka forced his eyes open, shock coursing through his mind. He had no idea how long he had been asleep- the entire estate could very well be under attack, and his heart leapt to think of it. A reassuring thought edged its way into his mind- how would some Dai Li agents, however many, manage to fend off the greatest Earthbender in the world?
He heard a faint shuffling on the ground above. He didn't know if the same Dai Li agent was still keeping watch, or if he had simply gone to join his comrades. The latter option wasn't too far-fetched. After all, the Dai Li agents he had met the other night probably thought escaping was inconceivable; there was no need for anyone to keep watch. Even so, he had to know. If Toph came to help and she got attacked...
"Hey!" he shouted into the silence, though it was against his better judgment. "Who's there?"
A short silence met his call. His heart raced in anticipation. Then-
"It's just me!" Came the muffled response. His eyes widened in shock, just as the voice continued. "Where the heck are you, Snoozles? We've got to get outta here!"
"Toph?" He called, voice heavy with disbelief. Before he could allow himself to feel relief, he remembered the Dai Li guards flanking the barn. A fierce anxiety gnawed at his mind, and he fixed his eyes desperately at the tiny crack on the ceiling. "Toph! I'm right underneath you. Hurry, you've gotta-"
Chains of earth shot out of the ground, winding across his jaw and binding his mouth shut. He tore at the confines and attempted at a shout, but his voice was nothing more than a muffle in the stifling silence. He could make out a faint, fuzzy outline above him- a Dai Li soldier, features obscured by darkness.
"Keep silent or the girl gets hurt," came the low, triumphant snarl. A boot forced Sokka's head to the floor, crushing his skull against the hard, frigid earth.
"Sokka?" Toph continued calling, oblivious to what had happened. "What do you mean? Where are you?"
She tensed as more vibrations ghosted the floor of the barn. There were so many of them, and it was incredibly difficult to pinpoint Sokka's. She recognized the fleeting, feather-light footfalls and scowled. More Dai Li soldiers?
"Okay, Sokka, I have a feeling things are going to get rough," she called into the emptiness. "So a bit of help would be great..."
Before she could listen for a response, the spidery vibrations settled into tangible solidity around her. Toph was surrounded by a circle of ten Dai Li soldiers- more than she had fought off before. Biting her lip, she assessed her surroundings and realized that it would be incredibly difficult to fend them off alone. And there was Sokka, hidden somewhere in the barn, unable to lend his assistance. Apparently, he was just underneath her. Underneath her?
So Sokka was underground. How clever of them.
"Listen," she called out, trying to buy some time. "I already wiped out half your team, so there's really no point in trying. Why are you here, anyways? I'm sure that Ba Sing Se's got plenty more stuff for you to steal."
A ripple of amusement coursed through the assembled men. Toph gritted her teeth- apparently, petty theft wasn't their motive.
"Isn't it obvious, little girl?" A solitary voice finally teased, a low, nearly inaudible murmur. She tensed at the sound, sensing a threat. "Two of the Avatar's friends, unguarded and alone at the Bei Fong estate? Would we really let this opportunity pass us by?"
"Yeah? What's your point?" She spat, her guard rising. "Azula's locked up for life. What do you think you'll get away with?" A menacing silence settled, and Toph could just envision the smirk on the soldier's face. Her fingers itched to Earthbend these idiots into oblivion, but she forced herself to stay still.
"Everything," came an amused chuckle. "Beyond this, the Resistance won't have a problem regaining what is rightfully ours. Victory will be imminent."
Sokka could only catch the faintest of phrases, but both him and Toph recognized the voice instantly. It was one they could never forget. The infamous head of the Dai Li. The traitor who once conspired with Azula to overthrow the Earth King himself.
Sokka knew that Toph was in danger. The Dai Li agent that guarded him was unyielding, though, keeping the adolescent rooted to the ground. His body ached for relief, but attempting to lift his head and scream only encouraged his captor to kick him back onto the floor. He struggled to breathe, the thin air barely filtering through his nostils. He was suffocating under the iron grip of the chains.
Why hadn't Toph found him yet? He found himself becoming more and more desperate as the minutes wore on. An uneasy silence was flooding the air, sending his mind reeling with anxiety. Toph! His mind screamed. Toph! Do something!
The Earthbender couldn't hear him, but the same feeling was filtering through her veins, sending the tips of her fingers trembling with suppressed energy. Mind set, she faced her opposition unflinchingly. "Alright, then," she found herself muttering. "I'd like to see you try."
As if on cue, five Dai Li agents barreled into the ground, tunneling under her feet at lightning speed. The remaining agents shot themselves into the air, drawing pillars from the ground and propelling themselves up with the force of the upward thrust. They simultaneously shot the pillars at Toph, attempting to crush her from all sides.
Reacting instantaneously, she drew a barrier around her and thrust the pillars away with her hands. She wasn't quick enough, though, to protect herself as the other five Dai Li shot up from the ground, knocking her to the floor as they torpedoed into her. She winced- Toph hadn't prepared for direct physical contact, and it hurt!
"You see, we've saved the best for last," came the taunt, though Toph didn't know where it came from. "Did you honestly expect to win against us?"
Clenching her teeth, she leapt to her feet, rooted them in the ground, and sent a giant wall of earth barreling at the Dai Li. It managed to knock a few Dai Li men down, but the rest simply jumped out of the way and landed, unfazed, on the ground. Aggravated, Toph halted the barreling wall of earth, whipped around to face the men, and drew tensed fingers across the air. The wall crumbled, and with a final thrust of her hands, the thirteen-year-old sent the pieces flying.
The attack wasn't quick enough to hit every soldier, though. Sensing the debris, the targeted Dai Li simply dove underground again, their vibrations nothing but muffled hums under her toes. With so many men coursing underneath the earth, it was incredibly difficult for Toph to pinpoint them. It seemed as if their agility was doubled underground, and seeing as the Dai Li were already swift enough, this wasn't a particularly good situation.
While Toph was left to fend for herself on the surface, Sokka was facing a different, more immediate dilemma underneath. The earth had been weakened by the Dai Li's tunneling, and he could see faint, branching cracks on the ceiling above. The soldier that had been ordered to keep him subdued seemed to notice the problem, but made no effort to correct it.
Realization hit the adolescent- the ground would cave in, crushing Sokka and forcing Toph to fall to the same death.
The earth trembled underneath Toph's feet, and she gritted her teeth, knowing that any attempt to uproot a Dai Li soldier might hurt Sokka in the process. If she was able to get the warrior out, she would have a much better chance at winning. Still, though, it would mean taking a huge risk- so many Earthbenders were down there, and she knew that the ground could collapse without warning.
She thought for a moment. If Sokka was underground, there had to be some source of air above that allowed him to breathe. She shut her eyes and tried to sense the layout of the barn, attempting to find an unnatural rift on the floor. There! A crack in the ground, only a few feet away from her!
Before she could attempt anything, towers of earth shot up around her, obstructing her movement. Five Dai Li soldiers jumped down from them and surrounded her, too close for her to Earthbend on. Without thinking, Toph shot a column of earth up underneath her feet, the upward force launching her into the air. Safely out of range, she thrust her hands together, forcing the pillars around the Dai Li together and crushing the men. Breathless, Toph landed swiftly on her feet and raced towards the rift in the earth, knowing that Sokka was underneath, Sokka was underneath-
And abruptly, the ground gave way.
She shrieked as the floor crumbled underneath her feet, sending her propelling into darkness. Chunks of jagged earth fell into the pocket of air underneath her, hurtling directly at Sokka and Appa. The Dai Li soldier guarding them simply tunneled away into the wall, leaving a terrified air bison and a wincing adolescent in his wake. Sokka clenched his eyes shut, not willing to look at the ceiling that was hurtling down at him, threatening to crush him any second-
But it didn't. The rumbling receded into silence, and he opened one eye, not even daring to feel relieved yet. He saw nothing, not even the faintest hint of light. In the seconds that followed, he also discovered that he couldn't breathe.
"Sokka? Sokka, are you okay?" Came the muffled shout, riddled with anxiety. He attempted at a shout, but remembered that chains still kept his mouth sealed. Appa took the hint, though, and gave a desperate, frightening groan. An abrupt square of light shot down from above, and the adolescent's eyes widened, seeing Toph's relieved face peering down at him.
She leapt down without a word. Muttering incoherently to herself, the Earthbender tore at Sokka's bindings with a primal swiftness, anxiety still pounding in her heart. Not knowing why she was so upset, Sokka focused on nothing but the sheer pleasure he felt at being free. Her deft fingers sliced the chains that covered his face, and he gulped down deep, dank breaths of musty air. Toph eyed him with impatience as he staggered to his feet, her voice still shaky from fear.
"Listen, Snoozles. I was able to shield you and Appa this time, but I can't do it again. We've got to get out of here before-" The two winced simultaneously as the ceiling cracked. "-Before everything really does crash down on us."
"But how did you- how-" He shut up, cowering at the frightening glare the Earthbender shot at him. "Okay, never mind, never mind."
Toph worked on Appa next, tearing down the juts of earth that locked his feet in place. She jabbed her finger at the bison, mind working too quickly for her to catch her breath. "We need to take him outta here. The earth's too unstable for us to tunnel our way out, so Appa needs to break through the ceiling for us. It's the only way."
"Appa?" He shot back, eyes wide with disbelief. "He's not strong enough!"
"Didn't he fly through the wall of the Western Air Temple that one time?" She challenged. "Sokka, I can't Earthbend us out without having everything collapse on our heads! If anyone can break through quickly enough, it's Appa. We need to get on."
The two clambered aboard the bison's saddle without a second thought. Sokka sat hesitantly, unsure of the plan but unable to think of a better one. Glancing back worriedly at Toph, he took a deep breath and shouted:
"Appa, yip yip!"
The bison gave a guttural groan and rose upwards, slamming his head against the ceiling. Sokka's eyes widened as the crack branched out to form newer ones, the earth above buckling with weight.
"Toph, you sure this is a good idea?"
"It's the only one I can think of! I'll try to deflect everything that falls down, but-" She bit her lip as the cracking intensified. "We just need to get out of here now, or we won't even have a chance!"
"Fine." He turned back to watch Appa, who was slamming recklessly at the ceiling. He held his breath, just waiting for everything to tumble down on their heads. How had they gotten themselves into this mess? What would happen if they failed? The ceiling buckled, and Sokka clenched his eyes shut, unable to look-
And without warning, the bison shot through the earth, rocky debris falling around the passengers like hail. He yelped as chunks of rock pelted his body, shielding his face with his arms. Toph simply deflected the pieces that came at her, much to his dismay.
"Hey!" He shouted. "Didn't you say you would shield us?"
"I only said I would deflect everything that falls down," she shot back. "And I am!"
"On you!" He complained. Yet, the barrage of rocks stopped as soon as it came, and he flinched at the sudden flash of light that met his eyes. They were ascending steadily upwards, leaving the barn far behind them, crashing through the roof-
"We just crashed through the roof," he confirmed, glancing down at the wreck that now constituted the Bei Fong barn. Toph rolled her eyes, the faintest hints of a smile playing at her lips.
"Yeah. I bet my parents really hate you now."
No words were exchanged when Toph and Sokka stumbled their way back to the manor. Nobody made an effort to break the quiet, but neither adolescent seemed to care. The silence made them feel at ease.
The spring breeze whipped across the garden, rustling the leaves that hung crookedly from the trees. Crinkled petals danced in slow ellipses at their ankles, quivering in the wind. They walked as if time had no end, their feet sore and worn against the cold of the pavement.
Sokka stole a glance at Toph. There was something pained in the way she held herself, as if there was an invisible wound piercing her inside. There was a certain heaviness to her step, a burden in her every movement. He was beginning to wish they had taken Appa instead of letting him rest on the outskirts of the manor.
But Toph was radiant, he noticed. Uncommonly radiant. Her cheeks were flushed pink, and her ebony hair hung loosely around her lithe frame. He caught the beginnings of a smile tugging at her lips, the closest thing to happiness he had sensed from her all day. She had missed Earthbending. It brought joy to her, a joy that could never be reciprocated in a life amidst high society.
They regarded each other for a split-second before walking again, feet falling on the ground in unison.
The two walked on as night fell, their footsteps beating a steady rhythm on the cool, dark earth. The manor was just before them, and Toph sighed, knowing that she still had her parents to deal with. No doubt they were infuriated at her for going out to save Sokka. It was alright with her, though. It had been worth it.
But something was wrong.
The realization of this sent a shock wave coursing through her heart. "Sokka," she managed. "Look ahead. Do you see anything?" She was hoping that her feet had deceived her, and that nothing had happened at all.
Bemused, the adolescent peered ahead into the darkness, saw nothing but the usual shapes of the manor. "Doesn't look like it. Why? Do you feel-"
He stopped short, his heart going numb. Before them lay an entire mass of Dai Li soldiers, using the shadows as their cover. The entire front of the Bei Fong manor was swarmed with them, and he had no doubt that there were more inside. He instinctively felt for his sword and boomerang, both carefully tucked into his possession after they had freed Appa.
"Sokka," Toph pressed, a new anxiety fresh in her voice. "What? Is anything wrong?"
He could only nod silently as he stared into the sea of emerald-clad soldiers, all poised to attack.
Dawn fell over the Fire Nation, painting the sky in hues of crimson and gold. A lone ship sailed away from the harbor. An adolescent girl, on the verge of womanhood, watched as the Palace City slipped from her view and became nothing more than a blur of color.
I'm going to go through with this, she told herself, agony constricting her heart and refusing to let go. I'm going to do this.
She let all traces of emotion fall like a stone, spiraling through the misty morning air and sinking, silently, into the depths of the frigid water.
End of Part Two
Author's Note: To Davis 51: you are my absolute HERO. If you liked this chapter, it's all thanks to him. Heap praise upon him, and remember him when he's famous.
To the readers I've neglected: throw virtual rocks at me next time I fail to update for six months. Pelt tomatoes at me and call upon Toph's wrath. Threaten me with badly-written Zutara fanfiction. ANYTHING to get me going again, to get me writing! I'm sorry for the huge wait, and while I can't assure you that it'll never happen again, you can probably figure out some ways to push my lazy self back to work.
I could never have finished Part Two without my ever-so-wonderful editor and you brilliant, indescribably amazing reviewers and readers. Thanks so much for being there!