Epilogue – Beginning of the End
"Eeow! This tea is nothing more than hot leaf juice!"
Of all the things he could have complained about, somehow it didn't surprise Song that it was the tea that upset Iroh.
She swallowed with difficulty. It truly was awful tea.
"Uncle, that's what all tea is."
It also didn't surprise her that Zuko still couldn't distinguish between the former and the latter. Mind you, his tea was typically so bitter it could turn your face inside out.
"How can a member of my own family say something so horrible?" Iroh hurled the tea out of one of the front windows. "We'll have to make some major changes around here."
A girl appeared in the doorway of the teashop, a crooked smile on her face and an apron over her arm. Her dark hair was coiled in a bun at the back of her head and secured with a set of three well worn hairpins, each with a small wooden flower at each end. Two had seed pearls missing from their petals. Song noted her eyes as the light caught them; hazel, the left with the tiniest fleck of blue at the outer iris.
"Watch it with the hot leaf juice there," she said, smiling now at Iroh and flicking tea leaves from one corner of her uniform.
"My apologies," Iroh said, beaming. He bowed. "I am Mushi; this is my nephew, Lee and our traveling companion, Song."
"Nice to meet you all. I'm Pao's waitress, Aneko."
Song watched as Aneko took them in. She never hesitated over Zuko's scar, but her eyes flickered curiously when she say the faint sadness in Song's. This girl was perceptive.
"You're new to Ba Sing Se, right?"
Iroh nodded gravely. "We are."
Those terribly perceptive eyes took them in for a second time as she went about pulling chairs down from tables and laying out teacups. The crooked smile came back.
"You'll be fine," she reassured them. "Its good that you've got jobs now. And once you get settled, the city's not so bad."
Zuko spoke for the first time, his face and voice sullen. "Sure," he muttered, "Because everyone's so safe in Ba Sing Se."
Aneko paused, gazing at him, suddenly serious. "Only fools and children really believe that," she said carefully. "You don't look like a fool and none of us are children anymore." She exhaled sharply and went back to the teacups. "You'll want to put a lid on the attitude too; the Dai Li don't take too kindly to that kind of talk."
Song tilted her head, curiosity getting the better of her. "Who're the Dai Li…?"
And so, it began.
It was ending.
Jin's hood covered her face, shielding the world from her gimleted eyes as she stood guard in the hallway of Song's apartment building. In her hands the little jade fox turned over and over, over and over, while silently Jin's worries did the same in her mind.
It was ending.
Dear spirits, please let me be doing the right thing…
With quick, efficient movements, Aneko picked up an under blouse, folded it and laid it in the bag beside a pile of other clothes. Across the room, Song was going through her closet, pulling things out and throwing them on the bed to be packed. When she suddenly stilled, Aneko looked up and followed her gaze.
She was staring at a pair of new traveling boots. Aneko went to her, standing close and taking the other girl's hand. She was still holding Zuko's dagger. Song spoke.
"I'd forgotten I had them," she murmured. "I bought them our second day here. I thought – I thought maybe we wouldn't be staying long, that I should have a pair just in case." She turned to look at Aneko. "I suppose I'll need them now, won't I?"
Aneko nodded. "Brave girls wear boots," she said without thinking.
"Oh." She shook her head. "It was just something my mom told me, before we moved to Ba Sing Se. I had to wear boots for the journey, when I'd never really owned a pair before. Mom told me we were going on an adventure and that…that brave girls had to wear boots to go on adventures."
Song smiled briefly, then held up the dagger in her open palm, looking down at it with shuttered eyes.
"Do you think Uri will be okay?"
Aneko closed the other girl's fingers over the dagger.
"I hope so."
She ran as hard and as fast as she could. Her feet beat against the road in time to her heartbeat, in time to the blood pounding in her ears, in her wrists and throat, in time with the rage coursing through her.
When she could stand no more, when the angry tears began, she threw back her ragged head and screamed once to the cold stars overhead.
Idiot for running, idiot for coming, idiot for staying. Idiot for loving them, for thinking him a brother. Idiot, idiot, idiot, oh Zuko you utter fool…how could he have done this. How could he have let this happen?
"Zuko's our friend. We trusted him – and now he's decided he's just going to abandon us (and Iroh!) to follow this will-o-the-wisp, wild hog-monkey chance of capturing the Avatar. The Avatar for crying out loud!"
She flew into her and Aneko's apartment, furiously swiping away her tears. Dee-Dee came to meet her, meowing plaintively. She spared him a quick pat and a handful of dried meat before whirling away into her bedroom, throwing clothes haphazardly into her old satchel.
"He wants to go home, Uri, and he sees capturing the Avatar as the return ticket."
"That's it though! This is home now – I'm happy here, why can't he be?"
Jin had said they weren't safe here anymore. Uri knew it was true, had helped to explain it to the other girls. Azula was vindictive, always had been, had been trained to be that way ever since she was small…and Iroh had said it himself; Song was important to Zuko, they all were, and if Azula thought she could get even a small reaction out of her brother by hurting his friends she wouldn't hesitate.
"Because there's a crucial difference between you and Zuko; you ran away, but he was banished. Boiled down, you chose this…he didn't."
Yes, he chose. Chose to help Azula murder the Avatar; murder Aang, who had been twelve, with grey eyes and a sheepish smile and the hope of the world on his shoulders. And yet stupidly, Uri thought of Zuko, thought of him pandering to his sister's destruction and all she wanted to do was protect him.
A flash of something crossed her eyes; a memory older than the one's that had touched her in her anger.
She remembered being twelve, being even smaller than she was now and terrified yet determined as she crept through the bamboo scaffolding of the amphitheatre. Above her, the crowd had roared with some emotion she couldn't identify. She had crawled until she'd seen a pair of boots she recognized. Her father's as he sat with that man, that Admiral who had come to see them. He had looked at her and nodded at her father, saying only, "She'll do."
And now, here they were, to watch the royal Agni Kai. The prince, up against someone…someone…no one had said who… All she had cared about was eavesdropping on her father's plans for her after the Academy.
More roaring and ominous silence.
She heard the sound of a boy's voice, though she couldn't make out his words. Then a man spoke and Uri peered, horrified, through the gaps in the seat covers.
Ozai looked down with cold eyes upon his kneeling son. "You will learn respect and suffering will be your teacher."
When the flames had burst to life, Uri had shut her eyes and covered her ears. She still heard him scream. Later, when she felt brave enough to open her eyes, Zuko had been a shivering creature upon the Agni Kai grounds, his uncle rushing to his side. Uri had looked away and into the face of Princess Azula.
All that could be seen…all that could be found on that girl's face was cruelty and joy.
Here, now, Uri stepped away from the satchel on her bed and backed slowly out of her room. She lifted her wrist and stared unblinkingly at the pendant of yellow jade that rested, Dragon Blossom side up, upon her pulse point.
She had a plan.
For the first time since her family and its orphans had settled here, Ba Sing Se felt quiet to Aneko. There were no night markets, few teashops still open, many streets darkened without their lanterns lit. She wondered why for a moment before something occurred to her.
It had all been done on purpose. The authorities coordinating with the Dai Li. Keep them inside, they must have said. It's too dangerous to be out in the dark tonight, so don't light the lanterns, and don't allow any markets…keep them all inside…for their own safety.
It was only a very small movement, barely perceptible in the dark, but Aneko felt her lip curling in barely restrained disgust.
Turning her gaze away from the darkened city, she took in her companions as they were upon the station platform. Song stood a little way away with Shan, her forehead bowed to his chest, his arms holding her against the horrors tonight had brought. The already angular plains of the healer's face where made harsher by his solemn expression. Beside Aneko stood Jin; both girls were black-eyed in the near-lightless night, sisters shoulder to shoulder in their deep grey cloaks and stone-carved expressions.
Still, it was Aneko who first spotted Uri.
She came bounding up the station steps, only one bag bouncing upon her shoulder and no Dee-Dee in sight. If that alone hadn't been enough to set off a warning bell, Uri's face did it.
"Something's wrong," she whispered.
Jin's head snapped around, predator look back in place. Before she could ask, Uri was in front of them, Song and Shan following. Uri eyed the healer.
"Hi, what're you doing here?" she asked. Tact of a sledgehammer.
"Shan's helping. He's acting as an escort to get us out of the city. He knows people who can help us get away." Her eyes narrowed at the little firebender. "What's happened? What's wrong?"
Uri ducked her head taking a few shuddering breaths. She looked up again. "I'm not going with you."
Song made a sound of pain. There was a sharp inhalation that came from Jin. Aneko felt the blood drain from her face.
"I have to stay," Uri told them, determination gathering in her face. "Even though – even though he helped Azula – even though he helped her kill Aang…" Her breath hitched. "He's still – he's still someone I care about and I – I don't believe he did it without some sort of reason, however stupid or foolish or…" She choked and seemed unable to continue.
Without speaking, Aneko took both Uri's hands in her own. Uri kept going.
"Zuko's a boy. He's not as bright as us. He'll – he'll need to be protected, even if it's only from himself. That's why I'm staying." She shook her head, black bangs flying. "Don't argue with me on this, guys."
Aneko felt her throat close, thickening with tears. Her breath rattled and she gasped softly. This couldn't be happening. Her best friend…her boss…her brother…
But it was happening, it was happening right now, and it had to happen, because Uri was right; Zuko wasn't as bright as he should have been. He was a boy. He was damaged. He wanted things, things that clouded his judgement, would make him vulnerable. And even though it hurt…
She moved forward, wrapping her arms as tightly around the smaller girl as she could. She felt Uri hug her back. There was a soft blur of movement and then Song was there at Aneko's left side, her arms around both of them. Jin was next to Aneko's right. They bent forward over Uri, Jin and Song's forehead's touching, forming an arch of warmth.
They stayed like that for what felt like an eon and no time at all. Tears ran down every cheek. Every third breath was ragged. Though it remained unsaid, each knew that something – someone – was missing.
"Be safe," Song whispered.
"Be careful," Jin added.
"Be brave," Aneko finished.
As the train pulled in, Uri handed Aneko her bag. Aneko wordlessly took one of her three hairpins, the one with the red coral centre, from her hair. Uri's hair was still too short and ragged for pins, so Aneko tucked it through the collar of her tunic. It sat like a broach, its seed pearl petals winking in the starlight. It looked like it belonged there.
She leant forward, pressing a kiss to the little firebender's forehead.
"We'll find you," she breathed. "Promise."
And then, in a whirl of dark cloth and whispers, they departed.
It was late when she finally got back to the apartment.
Dazed, she moved through its rooms. Nothing had sunk in. Not really.
Silently, she began packing things, digging out the packing crates from the communal storage down the hall. She put away the rest of Aneko's things, labeling each crate with her parent's address. In one, she wrote a short letter of explanation, hid it in Aneko's jewelry box and buried it deep in a stack of winter clothing. They would be sent tomorrow, if she had time.
She packed her own as well, leaving out enough to pack into her satchel and to change into the next morning.
Upon the stripped mattress, Uri curled up with her puma and waited for sunrise.
In the early hours of the morning they moved through the city.
Shadows cast by the watered sunlight hid the litter, the curled shapes of the homeless and the beggars who crouched waiting in the alcoves and closed doorways. What little foot traffic there was parted for them, eyes darting away from the scared boy in a waiter's uniform and his silent Dai Li escort.
They had moved steadily down from the middle ring, and since then, Zuko had been a creature of great and terrible rage.
Song wasn't there. The apartment had been empty of human life, and Song had been gone along with a comparative scattering of her possessions. Her clothes…her treasure chest…his dagger.
He wondered if she'd found his note. He wondered how she would react when she found out. He wondered if she would hate him for what he'd done.
As he knocked hard on Uri and Aneko's door, he comforted himself with the rage, the thought that if anyone had taken her, harmed her, there would be hell to pay and he would be the one to extract payment. He waited for someone to answer, waiting minutes, then beat upon the door again, calling, "Uri! Aneko! Open up, guys!"
From inside he heard soft shuffling, almost inaudible footsteps. The door slide wide and there was Uri, wild-haired and rumpled in yesterday's clothes.
When she looked at him, he felt something curl up inside him and shake.
"Where's Song?" he asked.
She gazed back at him, and he saw her own anger moving like a ghost behind her eyes. "Gone," she said.
"Gone where, Uri?"
"Away, somewhere." She shrugged. "Somewhere safe. Away from Azula."
Zuko seethed. "Uri, Azula isn't a threat anymore, she –"
Uri gave him a disbelieving look. "Are you really that stupid, Zuko?"
His fists clenched at his sides. He breathed hot gouts of steam from both nostrils and grit his teeth.
"Just tell me where she is."
"I don't know. I didn't ask and they probably wouldn't have told me if I had. You shouldn't worry. Aneko's with her, and Jin and Shan. She'll be fine. Jin seemed to know what she was doing." Uri's amber eyes inspected his face. "She knew about us, you know? And Iroh. She didn't blame us for keeping secrets. She wanted to protect us girls – even me, if I'd let her."
Zuko felt his ire melt away, leaving incredulity in its wake. "…you could have gone with them?"
Uri nodded. He stared at her, perplexed.
"Why stay, then?"
She stared back at him, her expression inscrutable. "I have something to take care of," she said softly.
He looked away, mind and reason scattering as he wondered what to do. There was little point in going after Song if…a fist closed around his heart…if she was afraid of him. A little voice called from far away inside him, and said, yet everything you've done, you did to protect her.
Never give up without a fight.
This time he had to.
He found Uri's eyes again. "Come back with me," he said earnestly, "to the Fire Nation. We can…we can finally go home."
"Zuko." She let out a rough sigh and dragged one small hand through her short hair. "Its not…it's not my home anymore. Besides, if I do go back my father with just trap me again and force me through some farce of a marriage…"
Zuko shook his head. "No, no he won't. I won't let him. You can stay at the palace and he won't be able to get you and…and I won't allow him to marry you off." He gripped her shoulders, smiling for the first time in twenty-four hours. "I can do all that now, Uri. I – I have it back. My honour as a prince is restored."
She stared at him with flat eyes before nodding slowly.
"Okay," she said softly. "Just let me get my things."
AN: Thus endth Brave Girls Wear Boots. I've had some mixed feedback for this one, and honestly I'm not sure if I'm willing to put time and effort into a sequel for it (what is it with me and Avatar fanfiction?). Its all starting to feel like a bad rehash. If you guys still wanna see what happens I'll try and put together some oneshots later in the year. Thanks for reading, leave a review on your way, if you feel thus inclined.