Title: A Collar of Pearls. Part 3, Chapter 5.
Disclaimer: Avatar does not belong to me, I'm not pretending it does, and anyway I have no intention of making money from it.
Warnings for whole story: Crossdressing. References to rape, murder, war crimes, and general unpleasantness.
Warnings for this chapter: Crossdressing and references to general unpleasantness.
Proper Summary: During 'The Serpent's Pass' Sokka jumped in the water to save Toph from drowning before Suki could act and from then on everything changes, beginning with them being separated from the group. Heading to Ba Sing Se in the hope of meeting their companions again Toph and especially Sokka find themselves on a strange and uncomfortable journey that leads them somewhere they least expected.
Notes: I know it's been ages. I am sorry about it all. Between uni, being ill, and being horribly busy with RL I've neither had much time nor motivation to write. Hopefully things will turn around soon. Anyway just to let you know, I really appreciate everyone who reads this and enjoys it. Which goes double for my reviewers.
The small, flattened cakes were supposed to contain egg-custard, though from the taste it was more likely flour, sugar, a bit of fat or oil and something to make them yellow. Turmeric perhaps. He shouldn't be surprised, considering the price, but a few months couldn't erase a lifetime of the food he ate being what he was told it was. It didn't matter, he supposed, the things didn't taste too bad, and the Water Tribe boy was eating his, tentatively true, but eating it, so it should be considered some type of victory. Still, this had to be a lesson against buying things five for four of the smallest bronze coins these people used and expecting them to be any good.
In truth he had been somewhat hungry himself, so eating the cake hadn't entirely been because it seemed to make the other boy less nervous if he did so, though that was the main thought that had prompted it. As he finished the last bite it occurred to him that at least he wouldn't feel any sorrow in letting the boy walk off with the other three when they separated.
Perhaps he should ask the boy his name, he couldn't keep thinking of him as the Water Tribe boy, and he knew Xue-Lien was an alias- though he still hadn't asked why the boy was travelling as a girl in the first place. Actually, that would probably be the thing he asked first when they made their way further down the alley and into the derelict building, the long minutes it had taken to actually purchase the cakes wiping away some of the memory of exactly how badly the whole place had smelt.
If- when he ever regained his honour and was accepted back into his home he was going to order servants to walk around in front of him carrying sensors full of incense or baskets of fresh, perfumed flowers, just so he never again had to experience to disgusting smells his life seemed to have become full of in recent times. He had also thought of banning tea from his private quarters if it ever happened. He was sick of tea.
He looked back over his shoulder to see how they boy was doing, the clack clack of those strange shoes on the stone of the alleyway as the boy picked his way along being the only clue he was still being followed. The boy had finished his cake and he didn't see the others- so perhaps he had put them in the pocket of that even stranger pair of trousers he had originally mistaken for a skirt, because even though the boy had been eating, the way he had been doing it seemed to have been too cautious for him to have finished the other three cakes in that short amount of time.
There was a part of him that felt like it was in danger of becoming completely overwhelmed with confusion, but he was doing his best to beat that down. It was a weakness he couldn't afford.
Seeing the empty window up ahead he hurried his steps, finding the prospect of standing in a room that stunk like a latrine that had been used by a thousand men with very bad aim, slightly better than that of walking through an alley that smelt like that combined with a very large midden heap, and probably a dead body or two rotting away somewhere down it. He made his way inside quickly and stepped out of the way, waiting for the boy, knowing that the boy didn't want his help and not sure what propriety dictated about offering it again.
He wasn't sure why he expected the boy to falter, to fail at getting through the window, whether it was the obvious cumbersome weight of the skirt, his frail appearance when dressed so, or if it was something that had crawled into his head from the night before. The idea that the boy was vulnerable, needed protecting. He didn't like it, whatever the cause. He needed to be careful, cautious, he needed to stay alert, not get too comfortable; the boy hadn't made any promises about not going to the guards after all.
He watched the boy ease into the room, getting a flash of white socks, black garters wrapped around the boy's legs just under the knee to hold them up, before the trousers were smoothed back down and the boy was looking at him with defiant eyes and flushing cheeks. "Why are you dressed like a girl?" he found himself asking bluntly, before tact could seize his tongue.
The boy froze, studying his face for a long moment before answering, his tone when he did bitter, the words bitten off and precise. "We ran into some trouble with Fire Nation soldiers by the Western Lake." He couldn't imaging the type of trouble that would lead to crossdressing, more importantly, if it had happened near the Western Lake that didn't explain why the boy was still dressed so. Obviously the hole in his story had occurred to the boy as well, because he hurriedly added "Everything since then seems to be conspiring to make sure I'm stuck like this." He didn't know how to respond, what to say, and the awkwardness of his uncertainty led him to make some ugly, noncommittal grunt in the back of his throat and fidget a little, unable to look the boy in the eye. After a moment the boy made his own little noncommittal noise and said "I suppose there's nothing else to say, not really, I don't know why we came back in here." That wasn't quite true, there was many things they could talk about, some a better idea than others, but the words seemed lodged in his throat.
"Yeah, I suppose so..." he trailed off, looking up at the boy, who was now gazing out the wreckage of the window at the piles of muck in the alleyway.
The boy must have sensed him looking, because he turned around and met his gaze, giving him a bitter little smile. "Goodbye Li," the boy said, before turning and climbing out the window.
Those shoes clacked against the stone of the alley as the boy landed and began to walk back down to the main street, as he watched him go he realised that he still didn't know the boy's name.
"Goodbye..." he murmured.
No one had stolen the cart. That was a good thing, a thing he should be thankful for. Not only had no one stolen the cart but he now had something, a rather bland and cheap tasting something, but something, and sweet on top of that, to pad out dinner. A something to give Toph to make up a little for his failure at taking care of her.
His skin was still crawling, awkwardness and embarrassment making his flesh prickle uncomfortably. It was the be expected, considering his situation, his clothing, and then spending time with and feeling grateful to an enemy- and adding to that Zuko's usual lack of social graces as well as the other boy's strange, almost careful, behaviour towards him. To be honest he was all rather confused and was actually, not looking forward to, but almost relieved at the thought of returning to the restaurant and making deliveries, because thinking about Zuko was just adding to the headache he could feel building at his temples. Zuko was more complicated than he wanted to deal with currently.
Maybe there were things they should have said to each other, maybe he should have made the other boy promise not to seek out Aang, maybe he should have threatened to go got the guards if Zuko and his uncle didn't leave the city, maybe. Except the only thing he could think of was leaving it alone. Zuko's presence didn't seem to be hurting anyone, in fact it had saved him, and part of him felt too grateful, too thankful to Zuko for the night before to want to get the guards involved. Part of him, a part that he wasn't too proud of, also felt too possessive of the other boy's presence, a thing he knew and no one else did, a secret from the horrible people in this horrible place. Not to mention that Zuko actually knew him. Not Xue-Lien.
When had he become so pathetic?
Suddenly the air was cut by the high pitched wail of a child in distress. He froze for a second, blood running cold, before he whirled around to find the child and rescue it, images of other children, children who looked like broken dolls, flashing behind his eyes. He could see nothing wrong, no distress or fear in the eyes of the locals, nothing. Eventually his gaze landed on a girl of about six, crying her eyes out as her brother threatened to rip the head of a dirty doll made of mismatched cloth with half its hair missing. As he watched a thin, careworn woman who seemed to be their mother snatched the doll from the boy and handed it back to the girl, her hand raised as if she was going to slap her son across the face. The woman hesitated, before dropping her hand and walking away, her face expressionless. The children cried out like distressed kittens and ran after her, falling quietly into step behind their mother. He watched them until they disappeared into the crowd, his hands shaking, a cold sweat soaking into his clothes.
He needed to sit down.
He sank back against the wall of a dingy shop, guiding the cart to rest beside him so he could keep an easy eye on it. He couldn't live like this, it was impossible. This whole city was impossible. He was sick of being hungry, frightened, tired and sore. He needed to find the others so they could get out. Escape. He let his head tilt back until it rested against stone, staring up at the cloudless sky through a hole in the canvas awning that extended from over the door to the corner of the building. Breathe in. Breathe out. He felt ill, scared, the sweat drying uncomfortably on his clothes. When they found the others, when they escaped, he was going home. This had more than proved that this war had no place for those that weren't Benders.