Chapter Sixty-One: Spelunker.

Important A/N at the bottom.

The Guardian.

Caves. I've never really experienced caves before.

If that sentence strikes you as odd, then you've never gone and walked through caves before. It was actually really strange. I can't quite explain it, but it was. There was absolutely no noise, and the air was dry, and warm. It was stifling, but... not. I found, to my surprise, that I was actually fairly content.

Perhaps, once all this is over, I shall take a holiday, and go explore some other kinds of caves.

Suddenly, Toph froze.

"Hold up. Something's wrong."

"What?"

Her feet shifted, her stance widening. "I just felt earthbending. Up ahead. This tunnel's blocked off."

What.

Zuko blinked. "Can you...earthbend it unblocked again?"

"Sure, I- oh. No. No I think that would really be a bad idea."

I shared a confused glance with General Iroh.

"...Why, exactly?"

"Drawing attention to ourselves would be... bad."

And just like that, I never want to be near another cave in my life.

"Explain. No cryptic mumbo-jumbo or I'll cut your ears off."

"Badger-moles. Up ahead. Moving through the tunnels. We don't want to get their attention."

Iroh nodded.

"I think Toph has a point. Perhaps an alternate route?"

I nodded. "Yep. Let's go."

Pissing off ten-ton monsters is pretty high on my 'Do Not Try' list.

When we finally, after a lot of apparently completely random twists and turns, with Toph occasionally whispering that we had to turn back, decided to bunk down for the night, something occurred to me to marginally improve my disposition towards the situation.

I couldn't see anything. I didn't have Spectacular-Toph-O-Vision, and I couldn't make fire with my mind.

Therefore, I was going to actually get a full night's sleep.

I can't remember the last time I got a full night's sleep.

Oh, wait, yes I can.

It was a very long time ago.

The Assassin.

Another night around a camp-fire. I'm beginning to regret not staying in Chin. At least there there were beds.

Oh well. At least we're making up for lost time.

I busied myself with staring at the map. Up ahead, the path diverged, south along the coast and north through a wood. Initially, the plan had been to keep to the south road- it was longer, but safer. Now, however, Suki had suggested that since we were running late we should take the more northerly route. She figured that that way we could make up at least half a day's distance.

I didn't like the idea, and told her so.

"I really don't think we should take any unnecessary risks. There's a lot more Fire Nation presence on the north road, and if they're at all woodcrafty they'll be able to set up ambushes the entire way."

She wasn't impressed with my warning.

"And are the Fire Nation typically at all woodcrafty?"

I scratched my head. "Well... no, not really. I mean, Fire Nation tactics generally dictate that sneaking up on your enemy is cowardly, and the only way to really decide anything is with two armies all lined up and then everyone charges forward. There are exceptions, but that's the conventional school of thought."

She gave me an odd look, and I wondered if perhaps I seemed a little too knowledgeable about this kind of thing.

"So what are you worried about? I mean, if we're going to get back on schedule then we'll need every short-cut we can manage."

"I'm just saying that we shouldn't take more risks than are necessary. I really don't think that half a day's advantage is worth the risk. We're a small enough force already, we have to be careful." I realised that I was starting to raise my voice, and forced it down.

I think that Suki might be starting to get annoyed. Not good. If there's something that I don't want, it's to alienate any potential allies for Aang. And right now, I'm representing him in this conversation.

Okay, fine, I'll back down.

I sighed. "Whatever. You think it's worth the risk, well, that's your prerogative." I bit back the second half of that sentence- it's the lives of your people you're gambling with, after all. I reminded myself that I was conceding, not passive-aggressively trying to prove my point. "I reserve the right to say 'I told you so', though." I'll just have to try and make sure that no one gets killed, so I don't have to say it. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to sleep."

I left the camp-fire without another word. I think I may have confused some people, but whatever.

The Guardian.

"Mai, wake up. It's morning."

I staggered upright, and looked around.

"...How can you tell?"

Zuko shrugged. "Well, I kind of guessed. I mean, I feel more energetic now, and that might be because the sun is up."

"Or you might be imagining it. I vote we sleep for another couple of hours, just in case."

He might have chuckled. I thought that was rather unfair. Every time I attempted to be amusing around him, he just gave me that blank look that said he didn't get it. But when I'm being serious, apparently I'm a bundle of laughs. There's no justice.

And so, it's back to walking in a kind of paranoid hush. Who knows what foul things might be lurking in these caves.

It's a profound feeling of disconnect I'm picking up in here. I have no evidence to support Zuko's theory that it might be morning (I refuse to accept bender 'feelings' as evidence of anything), and that combined with a growing sense of claustrophobia is producing a very strange feeling, on a purely physical level a kind of prickling inside my head, like someone's switched my brain for an angry porcupine-weasel, and on a more cognisant level a horrible awareness of the odds that we could die here or go crazy or run out of food or get eaten by some giant monster, like someone had taken my personality and switched it for an angst-ridden obsessive-compulsive eleven-year-old's. The fact that if we talk too loudly we run the risk of attracting the attentions of giant earthbending monsters certainly isn't helping.

Wait a second.

I think I heard something.

The Assassin.

I stretch, yawning hugely as I get up. It was still dark outside, it seemed.

I had slept well last night, which on the one hand I was extremely grateful for, and on the other...

Okay. Train of thought getting into unfamiliar territory here.

I flop backwards, and put my hands behind my head. I guess it's time to sort a few things out, now I've got the time. I shall be practical, clinical, and rational. Let's roll.

First and only thing on the list, Ty Lee. Specifically, the parameters of my relationship with the aforesaid.

Let us first consider where exactly said relationship had been before everything kicked off. The aforesaid, for reasons I have yet to actually understand, decided that I was interesting, and as such began to visit me. She went as far as to ask Azula to grant me a little more freedom of movement, which she allowed. After a period of me being antisocial and rude, it dawned upon me that the aforesaid had considerably more patience than I, and this was one battle of attrition that I was going to lose. So I conceded, and we began to talk more often. This laid the foundations of what I would consider to be a rewarding friendship. Worthy of note at this juncture was the fact that she behaved at times in a manner that some might consider flirtatious. However, since the aforesaid is in fact Ty Lee, this may be something of a reflex on her part.

This continues for some time, until one day she fails to appear for some weeks, and I am informed by Azula that she left to join the circus. I was more upset by this than I had expected. Then the Avatar returns, and things start to happen.

We are briefly reunited before my final mission for Azula begins, and we meet again at Ba Sing Se. Briefly.

This is getting me nowhere fast, and the sun is rising. Time to change tack.

The Pros and Cons of Entering Into a Relationship with Ty Lee.

Pros:

Firstly, Ty herself. She's a caring, intelligent, fun, beautiful and (hello) flexible girl.

Secondly, well, I think I want to. I'm actually fairly certain I want to. I care a lot about her, and I want to spend time with her.

Cons:

Firstly, this is hardly the time. Really. We're in the middle of a war here, on the road with very limited privacy. Not ideal.

Secondly, I'm not sure what Ty's intentions are. More observation may be required.

So it's decided, then. I'll wait, and observe until such a time as I have more accommodating circumstances.

There. The cold steely embrace of logic triumphs yet again.

...I have to get up now, don't I?

The Guardian.

I'm quite certain I heard something.

I clear my throat.

"Guys, I-"

"Shut up!" Toph hisses, cutting me off. "I think there's people up ahead!"

Well, I was just going to say that when you-

Everything goes dark as Iroh and Zuko cut out their firebending, and I blunder into a wall.

Sometimes I hate the universe.

Everything's quiet and tense as we hear footsteps get louder. There's a muffled conversation.

"...been here for three days now. This was a bad idea." A scratchy voice. Unsure of gender.

"Look, stop complaining, it's not going to help." Definitely male. "...Are you sure you saw torchlight this way? …No, I'm not trying to question your eyesight, it's just that I don't see anything or hear anything, and..."

A light appears around a bend in the tunnel up ahead. It's coming from a torch held by a boy. About nineteen. Truly awful hair. Big chin. Swords.

Another guy. Younger. Paler. Big eyes. Sweet hat. Carrying a bow.

A frankly enormous man carrying what looks like an entire tree trunk. Choice of headwear seems to be a small child. Hmm.

And rounding off the group is a young... boy? Let's go with that. Short. Got swords in sheaths. Body armour. Even worse hair than the first guy.

What a troupe.

They see us. Instantly on guard. Okay, knives drop into hands, too closed a space to throw effectively, twist flowers in hands until they split into three, hold knives in between knuckles until they're impromptu knuckledusters, and I'm ready to go.

Let's make this quick. I have places to be, and parents to argue with.


IMPORTANT AUTHOR'S NOTE:

I make no apologies for the lateness of this chapter, either. However, I do have an explanation. Last week was Exam Week, and as such I have been really really busy. Now, with my exams over, you'd think that I have the leisure time to get this story done.

Sort of. I do have free time now, but less than you'd think, and if all goes to plan, I will be going dark for a while around mid August. So it's something of a race. Which brings me to my second problem.

This story has always been, in my mind, a fundamentally bad idea. It has taken a truly wretched excuse for a plot scenario, and made a whole-assed attempt to work a reasonable story out of it. So far, so good.

Then, the unthinkable happened. I had a good idea.

This happened less than a week ago, but already it has been drawing me in, it's siren call sucking in all my creative energy. What makes this idea more dangerous than the other good ideas I have had for stories while writing this one is how bloody similar it is to the general concept of this one- picking two second-or-third tier characters and following them through a universe that is fundamentally changed by one simple plot alteration.

And suddenly Knives isn't as fun any more. I know that if I abandon it, then I will almost certainly never be able to pick it up again as it stands. If I ever do, it will have to undergo one hell of a rewrite. And I do want to finish it.

So I'll soldier on. Maybe it'll get better. Or not. Either way, blackout probably mid/late-August.