The sun was going down.
And with it, something inside of Iroh began to die.
The veteran soldier and statesman shivered within his tent. A brazier burned, and the thick folds of the canvas served to keep out any errant breezes. But although he could not see the horizon, an innate sense belonging only to Firebenders allowed him to perceive the fall of twilight. This natural cycle was accompanied by the diminishing of his breed's powers. The flame of life that burned within him was most fragile at night. Still, the approach of dawn would serve to strengthen him.
Timing was essential here. His defenses would need to be at their strongest for what he had planned. The Dragon of the West returned his teacup to its setting and once more retrieved his brush. Warmed now by his favorite beverage, Iroh wrote the last lines of his message patiently, and with utmost care.
I will not try to explain to you here the dangers that our family must face. If I am successful, whatever my own outcome, know only that you will be spared the same fate as your father, and mine, and even his father before him. It is for the sake of my brother's children that I must see this task through. What has been done unbeknownst to us, I would not wish even on your sister.
You may wonder why I do not tell you more, or considering the circumstances, why I would not seek the aid of the Avatar. But however cruel our family's history has been, we have never truly been the targets here. It has always been the Avatar who was in the gravest danger. I cannot ask him to risk himself any more than he already is. For all the four tribes, it has forever been the duty of the elders to protect the children. In my ignorance, I failed to do so for my own son. By this act, I mean to lay his spirit to rest. But you are alive. And in many ways, I feel that you are a better man than me. I believe that it is worth my life to see you reach your potential.
If you are reading this now, it means that I am already gone. I entrust the world to you, son of my heart. But even if that is the case, the principal danger I spoke of could still remain. Should I return, have the Avatar beside you when we next meet. Have him look at me, and believe anything he tells you, no matter how preposterous it may sound. If I do not come back, then you must never use the contents of this box. It is a tradition founded in evil, as is so much concerning my grandfather. But even he is not solely at fault here.
I go now to avenge all the fallen, who died without ever understanding why.
Live strongly, rule wisely. Love yourself and the ones who care for you. That is the best advice there is.
I love you, Zuko.
Your uncle and friend,
The old scholar laid down his writing implements. He blew sand over the page, to speed in the drying of the ink. When this was done, Iroh rolled up the parchment and slipped it into a red leather tube. He then opened a worn box from his personal affects. The contents of the box were an old letter and two balls of imperial orange resin, each about the size of his fist.
Iroh reached in, and withdrew one of the petrified lumps. Gazing into its dull amber depths, he weighed his decision once more. So many times he had pondered simply throwing the wretched rock away. It was a threat to him and all he held dear. But always he had arrived at the same conclusion. Disposing of them would serve no real purpose, as more could be made. But he was a soldier as well as a tactician, and he recognized a weapon's value. This was a double-edged sword he held in his hand. And ultimately, it was the only hand he had to play.
The game of Pai Sho was one that involved using your opponent's moves to your advantage. Victory could often come about from only one well-conceived play of the White Lotus tile. The masters of this ancient contest recognized the inherent value of a single piece.
And so it was that the Grand Master of the Order of the White Lotus slipped the deceptively harmless incense-bearer into his pocket, replacing the older letter with the missive to his nephew. Iroh safeguarded the yellowed paper in his tunic, next to his heart. Having the parchment there made it seem to beat more strongly. He then closed and locked the box, using his personal seal to make his mark in melted wax on the surface of the latch. The seal went into his pocket as well. Wouldn't do to have someone opening this and then duplicating his own sigil to escape detection. He was a careful man, after all.
Iroh picked up a small satchel, draping it over his shoulder. He then put on a heavy robe to disguise the bag at his side. The last lingering days of summer were proving to be a bit chilly. No one would begrudge the old general this extra protection on his nightly stroll, or even stop to question why he was wearing sandals suited for a long journey. No reason to arouse suspicion. The time of judgment was still three days off, after all.
The box he left prominently displayed on his table. The dark symbol of Fire Nation royalty charred into its surface made it clear that the contents were meant only for his immediate family.
Drawing aside the flap of his tent, the retired commander gave a gracious nod to his two guards. They returned the gesture, used to his routine. Iroh moved past them without comment, heading deeper into the camp. In a little over an hour they would notice he had not returned as was his custom.
By then, he would be well away from here.
Moving through the staging area of the White Lotus forces, the senior member made passing greetings to several old friends. He waved away any offers of company with a smile, replying only that he wished to partake of this evening's beauty alone. In just a few minutes, he had reached the edge of the perimeter. The sentries there let him by without question.
As he took his first step into the wilderness, Iroh shivered.
Far to the west, he knew the sun had finally set.
His solitary journey had begun.
Though well into his sixties, the firstborn son of Firelord Azulon possessed a fortitude that would have been remarkable in a man half his age. He set himself a brisk pace once out of sight of the sentries. It would be best to put as much distance between them as possible, to avoid detection by any members of the camp. While highly educated on a disparate selection of topics, Iroh had to admit that he was unfamiliar with the animal cognition of flying bison, or winged lemurs, for that matter. Were they to sense his chosen method of transport's arrival, it might serve to delay his plans. But only delay. His resolve would not be deterred. Still, as he knew, timing was important. There was too much at stake to waste time in explanation. And should Zuko or the young Avatar learn what he intended, they would assuredly try to stop him. Iroh had wisely chosen not to give them that chance.
Cresting a rise, the aged warrior felt a slight bit of guilt for his actions. This caused him to turn about, and gaze back on the campsite of the friends and allies he had spent a lifetime earning.
Already it was growing difficult to see. Darkness fell so quickly in late summer after the sun went down. The tiny campfires were standing out with great clarity now, and he could see shadows moving back and forth before them. Somewhere down there, he knew his nephew Zuko was already abed, exhausted by the murderous training session his uncle had insisted upon. That too was part of his plan. Aang had been taken aside by Jeong-Jeong and Piandao, ostensibly for counsel on combating Firebenders, but in reality to keep the flighty Avatar thoroughly occupied with lessons on strategy, history, and craft. By now, Iroh was certain their world's savior was bored out of his mind. The Water Tribe siblings, Katara and Sokka, were being thoroughly entertained by their new grandfather as he regaled the homesick pair with news of their family and loved ones. And King Bumi had been tasked with challenging the Earthbending prodigy Toph to a friendly contest of skill. Knowing those two, the collapse of the surrounding terrain was not an unlikely occurrence.
No one truly wishes to deceive their loved ones. His old allies were well aware of this. But they were as well-versed in life and history as he, and Iroh had not been remiss by placing his trust in them. The respective masters of their arts heard his explanations, and proceeded to give their consent and support. Thanks to them, his departure had been uninterrupted.
A few moments were all he allowed himself. Regrets could come later. It was time to leave. Thus resolved, the aged Firebender turned and made his ascent out of the bowl-shaped depression their tiny army had occupied. The bare rock and scrub that characterized this region of the Earth Kingdom was allowing for little in the way of cover. Now that he was out of sight, it was not the good guys that concerned him. Patrols of Fire Nation soldiers accompanied by renegade Dai Li Earthbenders were cause for concern this close to the capital. Even though he had sent out the call several hours past, one could not expect his ancient ally to arrive at break-neck speed. They were both quite old, after all. But, he reflected with a smirk as he scaled a rock face, not without resources. Should he run afoul of a patrol, he felt confident that he could hold them off long enough for his back-up to arrive. It might even be worth it, just to see their faces.
Almost an hour later, Iroh had still not encountered any difficulties. The time he spent in prison had definitely done wonders for his constitution, if you could believe that. By now he was far enough away from camp to thwart any well-intentioned attempts to locate him. Climbing up onto a flat plateau, the stocky traveler drew several deep breaths. As he did, he kept a close watch on his surroundings. There was no indication that another living soul was in attendance. The raised area was several hundred feet in diameter, but still somewhat lower than the surrounding rise of hills and obscuring atolls. Apparently he had been right to choose this place to reconnoiter with his friend. His nightly walks about the perimeter gave him the chance to scope out a terrain that would be best suited for their meeting. When having guests over, one had to take into consideration their proclivities, after all. Iroh was nothing if not a considerate host.
After a few minutes of cautious perusal and feigned weariness, the devious nobleman confirmed to his satisfaction that he was indeed alone. With a slightly lighter heart, he made his way to a spot about halfway in, and settled down with a groan. No matter how you tried, age did creep up on you, he reflected. Actually, considering all the travails and irritations involved with growing older, it was strange to think that he could wish no better future on his loved ones than a very long life, even with indecisive bowels and losing their hair.
Iroh chuckled at the thought.
"What's so funny?"
"Oh, it's silly," he replied. "I was just…"
His voice then died away.
He turned to look behind him.
Eyes the color of palest jade gazed languidly in his direction. They seemed to be rooted on a spot somewhere off to his left. Were it anyone else, Iroh might have thought the individual was staring in that habit of self-hypnosis some people possessed.
But he was a learned man. And so he knew that blind people could not be hypnotized in that manner.
Blowing a strand of hair out of her face, Toph Bei Fong stood up, walked the few paces that separated her and Iroh, and punched him hard in the arm.
"GAH!" the old one gaped at her in a very hurt manner, clutching the injured spot. "What was that for?!"
"For being sneaky!" she snapped. The human tectonic shift then assumed a very irate posture, tiny hands on hips, leaning forward with her chin jutting out sharply. "So, would somebody like to explain why I shouldn't roll him into a dirt ball and bounce him all the way back to camp?"
She'd do it too. Iroh knew Toph well enough to tell when she was kidding. Now was not one of those blessed times.
"W-well," he stammered, searching for an explanation and finding himself remarkably tongue-tied in the face of this humiliating prospect. "I was… I never… I don't think…Who's to say… I mean…"
A cone of dirt and rock suddenly shot up to completely encase Iroh just below the chin. The prison then shaped itself into a perfect sphere under the potent influence of a master geokinetic.
"The lips moved, words came out, but nothing made any sense," Toph spoke to herself as she turned away, like she was rehearsing her own lines. "At that point, I decided further communication wasn't going to help, so I just carried him back. Sorry, Zuko. Well, I'm off to bed."
"WAIT!!" Iroh cried.
The little girl's profile came into view. "For what?"
Seconds ticked away. Then the prisoner sagged as well as he was able considering his confinement, and a look of resignation settled over his features.
"Toph, you have to let me go. I am in no way being less than serious here."
At his words, she made a complete revolution. Though her gaze was still centered on his throat considering their respective height, he could see that his speech had given her pause.
"Will you tell me what you're doing out here?"
Iroh hesitated. At the way her eyes narrowed, he quickly came to a decision.
"Yes. Now would you please…?"
Apparently that was enough for her. The earthen shell crumbled away in a heartbeat, so fast that the detainee almost fell over. Steadying himself with one hand on the ground, he felt an immense and unprecedented relief. He had not wanted to try and fight Toph. Even without the excuses of it being night and having been enveloped up to his earlobes in granite, Iroh did not like his odds when matched against this twelve-year-old blind girl half his size.
It was not an experience he would care to put down in his memoirs, should he get the chance.
Toph was now seated cross-legged before him. She settled her hands on her knees, alert to any move on Iroh's part, and adopted a menacing scowl.
"It's late, and I'm not happy. This better be good."
Although he was cognizant of the impending timeline and threats, seeing her there made the old sybarite quite curious.
"How did you find me, anyway?" he asked.
At this, a very evil grin stretched the child's lips, and Iroh shivered.
Sitting naked in a steaming hot spring sandwiched between bubbling mud pits, the outcast prince of the Fire Nation gave a violent start, splashing water out over the rim.
"Careful, Hot Stuff, I don't want to get drenched."
Zuko's heartrate was at a distinctly labored pace. He turned to see Toph seating herself a few feet away from him, dipping her bare feet into the pool with a hearty sigh.
"Sokka said you wanted to talk to me about something." The pretty brunette settled back on her hands, casting a look over in his direction. Despite being perfectly aware of her handicap, the teenage noble found himself growing flushed at the reality of his unclothed state.
"After dinner," he growled. "I specifically told him I wanted to talk to you after dinner!"
"Suki already promised to paint my face after dinner," she replied negligently. "And Sokka also said you wanted to talk to me alone. We couldn't be alone then, and I did make the engagement with her first. It would have been rude to cancel. So I decided to come and see you now."
Some very ugly language he had picked up from Fire Nation sailors came to Zuko's mind, but he chose not to acquaint Toph with that particular area of his upbringing.
"Did he happen to mention that I was in the bath?!!"
"Duh!" she scoffed, kicking her feet lazily up and down. "How do you think I knew where to find you?"
"Toph!" the outraged royal snarled. "Now is not a good time!"
She cocked her head to one side in a guileless manner, voice all innocence and purity. Zuko could have breathed fire. No, anger was no longer a part of his firebending, he admonished himself. He was stronger as a result, more in control of himself. He was all about saving life, not taking it, no matter how good it might make him feel.
While he was restraining his worst impulses, Toph's eyes suddenly grew very wide.
"Zuko! Are you… naked?!"
All she needed was a change of wardrobe and a different eye color, and it would be Azula sitting there. For all the fact that she was an only child, Toph apparently had a little sister's cruelty down to a tee.
She's not evil, she's not evil, Zuko thought resolutely. It's not her fault she was abandoned at birth in the wilderness and raised by badger-moles. Just… stay… calm!
"Yes, Toph," he spoke in manner both soft and non-threatening. "I'm very naked."
At this, she smirked.
"I'm telling your uncle."
That comment brought Zuko back to himself. He turned about completely and laced his arms over the edge of the pool, settling his forehead onto them with a sigh. "My uncle…" he whispered.
"Zuko?" All teasing had gone out of Toph's voice. "What's wrong?"
It was the same question he asked himself.
"I don't know."
The lone warrior's head lifted slightly, enough for him to get a look at his companion. She might not know it, but Toph had a very expressive face. Perhaps it was an off-shoot of being blind, but apparently one thing she had never learned how to do was hide her emotions in that regard. He supposed that since she couldn't use other peoples' faces to discern their moods, Toph had never placed much importance on that aspect of social behavior. As a result, her own features were an open book. It wasn't an insult. Actually, considering her complicated and often acerbic character, being able to tell what the audacious brawler was feeling at any given time added to her appeal. Her words might deceive you, but her face always let you know the truth. It might not be intentional, but coming from a world that emphasized duplicity and closing off oneself, Zuko found this particular trait to be quite refreshing. Even charming.
And right now, Toph was telling him that she was sorry for teasing him, and she was concerned about him. It was this unconscious admission that allowed Zuko to give his own feelings full throat.
"I'm worried about Iroh," he admitted. "It's nothing specific, but since we got here, I've been getting the impression that he's hiding something from us."
"You mean he's lying about something?" the Earthbender hazarded.
"No. Never. My uncle wouldn't lie to me." He grinned suddenly. "And besides, you could tell right away if he did, right, Truthseeker?" She smiled back at him, and the sight made Zuko feel pleased with himself. "Actually, it's more the sense that he knows something awful, and he doesn't want to let us in on it, because then we might get hurt somehow."
Toph scrunched her knees against her chest, hugging them tightly. "He's not… sick, is he? Like… dying?"
The thought made Zuko wince. Actually, the idea of losing his indomitable fighter of an uncle to something unchallengeable, like an illness, hurt enough to almost bring tears to his eyes. He rubbed his palms furiously against them, determined not to give in to those useless fears. "I haven't seen any sign that his health might be failing." The great man's nephew was now thinking very clearly, at least in his opinion. "It's more a… perception of distance. Like he's keeping us at arm's length somehow. Almost as if he doesn't want us to depend on having him around when the final battle comes."
Toph's head bowed slightly. "It is his father's son we're fighting. Iroh's been there for all of Ozai's life. Maybe in the end, he just can't bring himself to raise a hand against his only brother in the whole world. Because he knows that when it's all over, he might not have one anymore. Sokka once told me that big brothers feel very strongly about protecting their younger siblings."
The firstborn son of Ozai tapped a finger uncomfortably against his forearm. "It's hard to give that theory much credit. My father hasn't even been approachable for eight years, much less lovable. And my little sister is the one I needed to be protected from. She once woke me up by smothering me with a pillow. She said it was just a joke, but if our mother hadn't pulled her off me, I might not be here today."
Toph fell flat on her back, kicked her legs up into the air and howled with laughter.
After several seconds of angry glaring at her flailing form, Zuko managed to mutter, "It's not funny, you know."
"YES, it IS!" she gasped in between chuckles. "The way you said it! And the way you're reacting now! It's PRICELESS!!"
When she showed no signs of stopping or expressing remorse for her own actions, it occurred to the scowling youth that, perhaps if it had happened to someone else, it would be funny to him. A brief mental image of Zuko suffocating Toph with a cushion at this time brought a smile to his face, and he was forced to chuckle. Then, drawn in by her contagious hilarity, he started to laugh as well. The two of them then proceeded to roar in unrestrained mirth for what seemed like forever, striking the ground with their fists. At one point, when their exuberance began to tamp down into wheezing chuckles, Zuko looked towards Toph at the exact same instant she stopped rolling around the floor and raised her head towards him. At this sight, he couldn't keep himself from bursting into a fresh round of uproarious guffaws, which in turn brought her back into the realm of delirious giggles. Uncontrollable hooting caused their stomachs to hurt, and tears came unbidden to both their eyes.
They laughed until they cried and anyone nearby must have thought for sure they were both mad. When it was all over, Toph had crawled over to Zuko and flung her arms around his neck, pounding on his back while he hugged her fiercely. They were both shivering and giggling in the others' embrace. It was the hardest either of them had laughed in their entire lives.
When they had both finally caught their breaths, huge grins still plastered on their faces like happy scars, Zuko was the first to realize the situation they found themselves in. Her, hugging him. Him, hugging her. Her, a girl. Him, a boy. Her, fully clothed. Him…
Apparently Toph came to this realization at around the same time. They both held very still. He could feel her clothes against his bare flesh, as well as pearly white skin over firm Earthbender muscles in some places. She noticed with vague distraction that the Firebender was extremely warm, like a furnace was inside him, and his hair was wet against her cheek. A feeling of intense heat in her own face caused the petite powerhouse to gently disengage from her friend's embrace. Zuko did the same.
"Heh," he mumbled, pushing a hand through his sodden mop of hair. "Ah…"
"Yeah," she murmured, features flushing scarlet. "So… did you… want to ask me for advice or something?"
Zuko found he was staring at her, and had to force himself to think clearly. They had gotten off track somehow, but Toph was kind enough to get their course set straight once again. "Toph… I wanted to ask you if you would please keep an eye on my uncle." When she turned back to him with a raised eyebrow, he quickly realized his slip before she could say anything. "I mean… in your own way, keep tabs on him."
"You mean spy on him?"
"No, not spy, per se. Just… you know how he wanders off every night. I get worried. It's a custom of his, but we're in enemy territory now. I'd feel a lot better if you would stay close to him at those times. Discreetly, of course."
She was making no attempt to hide her grin. And as much as he knew his status as her elder and a prince should cause him to frown right back, strangely enough an answering smile was what came to his features.
"So you'll do this for me, then?"
"Yeah, sure," she drawled, and got to her feet with a wave. "It's probably just you being prickly and over-sensitive, but I guess I've got nothing better to do until the fighting starts."
"Thank you, Toph." Equal parts insincere sweetness and sarcasm rolled off his tongue.
"Well, I guess I'll get going," she laced her hands behind her head and turned away from him. "Gotta go tell everybody in camp that I saw Zuko naked."
There was a splash, and warm sulfur water drenched the back of her pants. The rollicking adolescent squealed and jumped. When her heels came back to earth, a column of mud arose from the nearby pit and dumped itself on Zuko's head.
"THAT'S IT!!" he spluttered, rising from the pool, indecency forgotten. "I AM GOING TO DRAG YOU INTO THIS TUB KICKING AND SCREAMING IF I HAVE TO, LITTLE MISS BLIND BANDIT!"
"HELP!" Toph shrieked happily, racing away. "THE BLUE SPIRIT'S AFTER ME!!"
She was smirking now. And Iroh couldn't help but shake his head. Just a year ago the thought of Zuko being able to participate in such merry-making would have left him doubting his own sanity. Now it came as a most welcome and gratifying relief. The young prince finally knew what it was truly like to have a little sister.
The thought of siblings brought him back to their present situation. The former conqueror felt his mood diminish somewhat. Alert to his presence, Toph recognized this.
"Now that I've told you why I'm here, I think it's only fair that you do the same."
Iroh was prepared. He had used the interval gained by Toph's recitation of bathroom humor to ponder other ways of stalling for time, and now possessed at least six. First, appeal to her pride.
"If you insist. You'll have to give me a moment to collect my thoughts. I wasn't expecting any of you to evade my friends' efforts. Frankly, I'm quite impressed that you were able to outmatch Bumi. He has held the title of World's Greatest Earthbender since before I was born, and even with your remarkable talents, I thought he could at least hold you off all day if he had to."
"The thing about Bumi…" Toph sniffed and rubbed her nose, "He's an incredible fighter, no doubt about it. He's actually taught me, which is something no human Earthbender has ever been able to do. I learned a lot from him in just a few days. But there's one thing people tend to forget about Bumi after knowing him for a while. He's 108 years old."
"Ah… yes, I believe he is that old, actually." Her captive audience was momentarily at a loss. Just what did that have to do with anything? Surely she wasn't implying that Bumi was too old to have posed a challenge to her. The man could shift continents if he was so inclined, and his brain, while certainly not functioning on a normal level, was better described as genius than deficient.
"Yeah. Being old is rough, huh? You lose your hair, you have to gum your food…" Iroh couldn't help but glower a bit at those remarks, but she didn't notice, "… and your sleeping cycle changes. Did you know that Bumi goes to bed right around the time most of us are eating dinner?"
The old-timer winced. Blast! He had completely forgotten about the crazy king's bizarre sleeping habits! The man slept three times a day, never more than two hours at a pace.
"He put up a great fight, though," The blind earthmover continued pleasantly. "After about an hour he had me pretty worn out. If it was an Earth Rumble match, I gotta admit the judges probably would have given him the win. But in between one boulder and the next, he just started snoring. Standing up, even. I made him a soft dirt bed to lie in, and went underground for a while. That's how I travel when you and I go out together, even though you didn't know it. Maybe if Bumi had ever been awake on your nightly walks, he could have told you that I was tagging along below your feet."
"That's very impressive, Toph." And he meant it.
"Glad to hear it." She scratched an armpit. "And before you say anything else, I want you to know that if you try to put off explaining this trip one more time, I will wrap you up like a butterfly-snake in its cocoon and haul you back to Zuko for a lecture."
A detailed attempt to correlate Earthbending with Pai Sho died on his lips. The time for dissembling was over, it seemed. Clearly only something as urgent as the truth could save him now.
"I'm sorry to have attempted to mislead you." He noticed her clenched face soften at his honest admission. Toph was expressive in a variety of ways. "I had to set all this up in order to keep anyone from trying to accompany me."
"So you're not just abandoning us." He shook his head quickly at her accusing tone. No. Never.
"What I have in mind is too dangerous for young people like you. It is an expedition that can only be made by someone who has come to grips with their own potential death. I do not truly expect to survive this journey."
Her beautiful pale green eyes grew wide. "Iroh, you're scaring me."
"I'm sorry." Her gentle teacher reached out and laid a large hand on one tiny shoulder. The girl's stubby fingers reached up and closed about his wrist. As she did, Iroh noticed something off in the distance that Toph could not. He would have to make this short, he realized. His friend was coming.
"It has never been my intention to run from my problems. I did that once before, when I was feeling old and scared. I meant it when I told Zuko that I accompanied him into exile for his sake, but it was partly out of my own desire to get away from the threat that still hung over both of us. In truth, there was not a day that went by for the eight years leading up to that morning when I was not afraid. For myself, and for Zuko. Even when we were away from that place, I knew that one day, whatever the outcome of his quest, I would have to return and…face… that fear. But I also knew that I had to understand it. Once we were away from the royal court and all its intrigue and dangers, I felt certain I could contact my old network of friends and eventually learn what it was I sought. It was while we were living in Ba Sing Se that I finally uncovered the truth about our family. I permitted Azula to capture me in order to return to the Fire Nation capitol and retrieve something hidden there. The Black Sun offensive gave me the tools necessary to complete my final task."
"You're not making any sense. Stop talking all wise and mysterious, just come out and say it." Toph's head cocked to one side, and she frowned slightly. Apparently she could hear it, even from this distance. But there was no way she could guess what it was that was coming towards them. Being blind did come with some limitations, even for her. Iroh had been counting on that from the moment she appeared. He kept his voice low and soft, so that she would concentrate on picking out his words, and nothing else.
"There is a reason behind this war, Toph. One that has nothing to do with conquest or ideology. Subjugation of this world by the Fire Nation is only an outcome, not a true goal. The extinction of the Air Nomads, the hunt for the Avatar, the corruption and degradation of those charged with preserving memory like the Dai Li and the Fire Sages: all of this has been engineered with a single purpose in mind."
A wind began to blow over them. Toph shivered, but otherwise paid it no mind. Good. The less warning she had, the better.
"So what is that purpose, then?"
Iroh flicked a glance up, before settling his attention back on her.
"The destruction of the Avatar spirit cycle."
Her fair skin blanched. "WHAT?!!"
Then Toph finally seemed to register something out of place.
Just as an enormous shadow swept over them both.
Iroh sprang up and ran. The ultra-sensitive martial artist did not attempt to follow suit. If the old Firebender thought he could escape her somehow, she would just have to teach him why her father's guards had given her the half-joking and half-reverent title of 'Never-Trips Toph.' She knew exactly where everything around her was, felt each heavy footfall, and could sense the workings of his body through the earth to an almost divine degree. There was nothing in her environment that was not known to her.
She drew breath to plunge the racing escapee into a sinkhole up to his eyebrows, when the whole world jumped violently beneath her feet.
The experience actually lifted Toph off the ground. For just a moment she flailed, truly blind. Not Earthbending! Whatever had happened, it was not an occurrence shaped by her kind, she would definitely have felt that. So what…?!!
A split second later her butt hit the ground, and Toph got her answer.
Thirty feet away from her, a gigantic monster pawed the earth, radiating heat and power to an extent that the sightless wunderkind had never experienced. Toph could only gape in stupefied amazement at what her senses were telling her. It was over a hundred feet long from snout to tail. The muscle configuration in its body reminded her of both birds and reptiles, though clearly hundreds of times more powerful. Its skeletal system was oddly hollow in places, and in spite of dwarfing even badger-moles in size, it didn't seem to weigh as much as one might think. There were teeth, and scales, and a strange collection of lung-sacks throughout its entire mass that seemed to be filled with nothing but hot air, she realized fleetingly. The harsh smell of sulfur and reptile body filled her nostrils.
But the most amazing things of all were the wings. She could feel their incredible system of skin and bone crisscrossing over a width that almost rivaled the length of the beast's whole body. Tendons the size of her arm contracted with a force that she could actually feel through the ground, it was so strong. These vast pinions were apparently more than capable of lifting this sky-lizard into the air, for it was now clear to Toph that it had flown here, preventing her from sensing its presence until the last second. It was also clear that Iroh was making his way towards this thing.
Suddenly, a few things clicked in Toph's memory. Stories that her old nursemaids had told her in an attempt to scare the unflappable little girl into staying indoors. Aang and Zuko sparingly discussing their training with Firebending masters whose identities they could not reveal. The name of a Firebending form they learned. And a nickname she had heard Hot Stuff give his own uncle.
The Dragon of the West.
As she picked herself up, Shao the Blue Dragon looked over its shoulder and snorted curiously at her.
Iroh did not stop to explain either of them to one another. Before Toph could entrap him once more, he had already reached the side of his old Firebending tutor. The intelligent animal settled its bulk down, allowing him to find a foothold on its steaming hot haunch. As he had only once before in his whole life, the royal heir to the Sun Warrior's legacy then clambered aboard the dragon's back, settling in between the soft spines.
"FLY!" he shouted, letting loose a torrent of flames from his mouth. In response, Shao unleashed an answering conflagration skyward that put his own submission to shame. She flapped her wings, lifting dust and any loose objects into the air. One of the two last remaining dragons in existence then lifted herself off the ground, bringing her sinuous form back into its natural element. The night sky almost seemed to blaze with her majestic presence. Faster than anything alive, the queen of the sky then shot eastward, bearing her charge on his self-appointed mission.
As the whole world spread out below him, Iroh laughed and whooped happily. Even knowing that he might be heading to his death could not dampen the soaring enthusiasm and excitement he was feeling. There was truly no experience so life-affirming, no risk so thrilling, as riding on the back of a dragon. When he first laid eyes on them over thirty years ago, Iroh had known that he would never see anything more beautiful for the rest of his life. How anyone could bring themselves to kill such a treasure, he could not understand. No mere human prestige or accolades could ever fill one's heart to the brink of exploding the way these heavenly beings could just by looking at you. In their eyes was a recognition that spoke to the very basis of life within you. They were more alive and had greater awareness than the most long-lived of savants.
The Dragon of the West closed his eyes and spread his arms wide, exulting at the opportunity to experience this sensation for a second time in his life. Was there anyone throughout history who would not be humbled and grateful at the chance to dance through the sky with a dragon?
From behind him, there came a high-pitched scream.
Jolted rudely from his philosophical reverie, Iroh looked over his shoulder.
At first, he couldn't pick anything out. With the fall of night, and the constant up-and-down movement of his living transport, his admittedly diminishing eyesight could not locate the source of that cry.
After a few seconds of careful scrutiny, though, he realized there was something out of place.
Shao's tale was whipping up and down. The feathered deep blue tassel on its tip was like a banner against the twinkling heavens.
And standing out against that azure flag was a small blot of yellow and green.
As Iroh stared in dawning horror, Toph took a deep breath and screamed once more.
"GYAAAH!" her elder waved his arms in consternation, almost as though he were attempting to fly himself. Realizing their current situation, he then came to the most reasonable conclusion. They should land. Right now.
As soon as they did, Toph would be certain to put her prowess to good use. She might be terrified now, but Iroh felt certain that the merest touch of earth would bring her to her senses enough to try and trap both him and possibly even Shao. There was no guarantee that he could prevent the dragon from reacting violently towards anyone attempting to subdue her. The beast wasn't a domesticated pet, after all. And at any rate, they just didn't have the time. That settled it. There was only one thing to do.
Coming back around, Iroh drew breath and shot a stream of flame ahead of their course. Not diminishing her flight, Shao turned and gave him a quizzical look. Her admirer then spun a circle of flame from his fingertips, and maneuvered it against the raging winds back along her body until it bobbed over the small uncomprehending hanger-on clinging to her tail.
There was some truth in the legends concerning the superlative power in a dragon's eyes. If not in their hypnotic abilities, then at least in regards to their keenness. A hawk would be considered myopic by comparison. Shao's breed could see with perfect clarity from one side of the horizon to another if need be. So while the weight of her second passenger had been sufficiently slight as to escape her notice, Toph's presence on her tail stood out plain as day.
While seemingly inhuman in appearance, another of the dragons' more salient characteristics was their intelligence. A mere animal would have simply tried to dislodge the burden with a few well-placed shakes of the tail, to let it fly or fall on its own. But the royal lizard's brain recognized this as unnecessary. More importantly, her true passenger had treated this one with some consideration. It was no trouble for Shao to do the same.
With that, the dragon lifted its tail forward carefully, and dangled its plume before Iroh. Her old friend reached up and drew the terrified child into his embrace kicking and screaming, and the dragon continued on its course. He held onto Toph, speaking as calmly and softly as he was able considering their situation, telling her that it was all right, nothing was going to hurt her now.
After almost a minute, the trembling and screaming finally subsided. Her constrictive hold on his body lessened somewhat, and Toph drew away until he could see her clearly. At the sight of her tear-streaked helpless face, Iroh's sympathy and guilt increased ten-fold.
Then without even a change in her expression, she punched him hard in the chest.
Iroh grunted in surprise, but he kept his seat. Shao's back was sufficiently broad enough to prevent them from falling off, at least not without difficulty. Gazing into her precious gemstone eyes, the determined warrior suddenly found his previous good humor replaced with a very heavy weariness.
The best description of Toph's mood would be apoplectic fury.
She grabbed a handful of the front of his robe and yanked him towards her. Being blind and out of her element, she miscalculated their relative positions, causing them to collide foreheads painfully.
As they both rubbed their sore spots, Toph finally found her voice.
"IF YOU DON'T TELL ME WHAT'S GOING ON HERE RIGHT NOW, I'M GOING TO KICK YOUR FIRE-BELCHING ASS! YOU GOT IT?!!!"
With a rueful groan, the one-time conqueror accepted his defeat.
The dragon continued to bear the mismatched pair northwards, on a quest to right a one-hundred year old crime.
To be continued…