A/N: At this point, changes from canon plot start snowballing. Hang onto your seats, it's gonna be a bumpy ride….
"Where's Toph?" Katara wondered.
Sokka frowned, ostentatiously looking around and down for an aggravated earthbender. No Toph.
Which was just what he'd expected. Don't make me have to explain, Toph. Please? Katara's scary when she gets mad….
"She said she was going to see that jade-carver, Luli," Aang said, looking everywhere at once as they walked back through poster-strewn streets. "Wish I knew why. How often am I going to have to bend jade? It's not like it comes in pieces big enough to throw at somebody."
"Hey, your old friend Bumi learned to bend with his face," Sokka pointed out. "I think having rocks in your head makes you just a little bit crazy."
"Toph's stubborn, and she likes to pretend she doesn't have any manners, but she's not crazy," Katara argued. "She knows how worried we were the last time she walked off. She wouldn't stay out this long without a reason." His sister dropped her voice. "And I think we're being followed."
"We are," Sokka said practically, carefully not looking up to those shadows on the rooftops. Aw, spirits. I'm going to have to tell them. "I'm hoping that's a good thing."
"Um… how is us being followed a good thing?" Aang said, confused.
"Because if we're lucky, they're not following Toph." At the airbender's raised brow, Sokka sighed, and nodded at the crowds carefully parting around them, wherever they walked. "Look. Haven't you noticed nobody's talking to us? Not about anything important. I'm guessing they know we're in trouble, and they don't want to end up in the stewpot with us."
"Like Amaya," Katara growled.
"Not exactly," Sokka admitted. "Katara, think. Don't you guys say waterbending is about deflecting, and redirecting your enemy's attack?" Like Suki with her war-fans; oh, he missed her.
"Yeah," Aang nodded, glancing up at the roofs. "So?"
Sokka tried not to whack himself in the forehead. Subtle, Aang was not. "So, why would a waterbender come straight in and say she couldn't help us? And why would Toph, who loves to listen in on everyone and who's always nosy about places she's never been, just disappear while we're talking to somebody from the Northern Tribe?" Granted, it'd taken him these last few hours to figure all of it out, but Katara didn't have to know that.
"Maybe she just, well… kind of got bored?" Aang said sheepishly.
"You weren't bored when we were talking to Bato," Katara objected.
"Actually? I kind of was."
"Toph doesn't bore that easily," Sokka broke in, before his sister could get huffy. "If she's not with us, she's after something important."
"Finding flaws in rock," Aang sighed.
"Keep your voice down!" Sokka hissed. "You want to blow Toph's plan?"
"What plan?" Katara said pointedly.
Sokka sighed, hoping their watchers didn't have Toph's ears. "Amaya came to talk because we were Water Tribe, right? Why didn't she bring Lee?"
"Because she doesn't want to help," Katara bit out.
"I think she did." Sokka eyed both of them. "I think maybe Amaya was a distraction for the Dai Li. Did you see how Toph was when she did come back? Like she was waiting for something. Maybe, getting a chance to split up?" He frowned. "I think Lee was there. And Toph talked to him."
"And he knew where Appa was?" Aang pounced. But thankfully, kept his voice down. "Why wouldn't she tell us?"
Sokka winced. "She might think you still blame her for losing Appa in the first place. You were pretty blunt about that."
"He was angry," Katara defended Aang. "Anybody would have been. Toph knows he didn't mean it."
"I'm just saying, he never said he was sorry," Sokka shrugged. "And you know how Toph is about pulling her own weight."
"But this is different!" Aang insisted. "If she knows where Appa is, we've got to be there!"
"Aang's right," Katara nodded. "Toph's a little overconfident sometimes-"
The little menace could trash Earth Rumble benders with flicks of her fingers, and take out a charging saber-moose lion. Overconfident was not the word Sokka would use.
"-She could need our help," Katara finished. "Especially if she's with Lee. Who in the Water Tribe names their kid Lee?"
Okay, that was a good point. "But that could wreck Toph's plan!" Sokka argued. "If the Dai Li are keeping an eye on us-"
"Appa's more important than Toph's plan," Aang said impatiently. "Let's go find Luli."
"So… the Avatar didn't intend to destroy the fleet?"
Dark cloak over her robes, mask ready to go on at Zuko's signal, Toph considered the exiled prince's words very carefully. Half of an Earth Rumble wasn't bending at all, really; it was getting inside your opponent's head, so you knew how he'd move, how he'd flinch, and what would get the crowd pumped up and roaring.
He trusts me, a little, Toph thought, reading his footsteps as they made their way down farm roads toward the distant lake. A train would have been way faster, but she didn't need Zuko to tell her those earthbenders probably reported to the Dai Li too.
He's going to help. This time. But he's not just any firebender. He's Prince Zuko.
Aang had been raised by monks, who seemed to spend a lot of time contemplating the universe and otherwise answered to a council of elders if they didn't shave often enough. Katara and Sokka had grown up in a small village, where their dad was responsible for, oh, maybe a few hundred people. Zuko? He'd been raised to someday take over the whole Fire Nation.
Toph might not do maps, but she was a merchant's daughter. And she could feel how big Ba Sing Se was. Huge. Mind-numbingly huge. A quarter of a continent big.
And General Iroh had once held the entire city under siege.
The number of soldiers that must have taken made her head hurt. The number of people who had to be behind those soldiers, maintaining supplies of food, steel, new recruits… ow.
And Zuko had been taught to be responsible for all of them.
From what Katara and Sokka had said about the North Pole, Aang had wiped out years of shipbuilding. And who knew how much time and experience in the sailors and the marines on those ships. In one night.
Uh-uh. Zuko's question wasn't nearly as simple as it sounded.
"He wanted to stop the fleet," Toph said bluntly. "I think he'd have been happy if they just turned around and went away."
"They couldn't do that. Not under Admiral Zhao's orders."
"So, what?" Toph asked dryly. "Aang should have just grabbed a waterbending master and run away?"
"It would have been the smart thing to do," Zuko shot back. "There are islands. There are miles of coastline in the north, near the mountains. He could have trained on the coast, kept somebody on lookout, and just retreated behind the mountains any time Fire Nation forces approached. Move there out of sight - it'd be easy on Appa - and he could just fly back over to the coast when he was clear."
Oh. Now she felt like an idiot. Why didn't Sokka think of that?
"But that probably wouldn't have stopped the invasion," Zuko admitted reluctantly. "Zhao had… too much influence by then. Came close to catching the Avatar too many times. Did catch him, once. Why the hell was he after frozen frogs in range of Pohuai Stronghold, the idiot…."
"Frozen frogs?" Toph asked, curious. Sokka had complained about frogs a few weeks back, something about warts on his tongue. To absolutely no sympathy from Katara.
Definitely wasn't nothing. But Zuko had tensed up in a way that said she'd have more luck asking with hot knives and bamboo slivers.
"Zhao had influence, and he had a plan. The Fire Lord backed him. If the Avatar hadn't headed into Water Tribe territory, maybe… but he did." Zuko blew out a hot breath. "Nothing would have stopped the invasion then."
"You sound like you think it was a bad idea," Toph said, trying for casual.
"Well, it didn't work, did it?" The acid in Zuko's voice could have stripped limestone down to chalky water.
"You got in," Toph pointed out.
"Zhao didn't even know I was there," Zuko snorted. "He thought I was dead."
Say what? But Toph let that interesting fact slide, feeling the tension seeping out of Zuko's stride. Maybe he just needs somebody to listen. "Okay, Sparky. How would you have pried Aang out of all that ice?"
"With Zhao's resources? I wouldn't have used a whole fleet," Zuko said thoughtfully. "A few ships, to carry the people I needed… you've met Ty Lee."
"Uh, yeah," Toph said, startled. "How'd you know that?"
"My sister was chasing you," Zuko said dryly. "I found some of the camps she chased you out of. Only one thing makes master benders retreat that fast."
Toph gulped. "There are more people like her?"
"A lot more. They're not supposed to leave the Fire Nation in wartime, but Azula's never let little things like laws stop her…." He tapped fingers against his thigh, thinking. "Stealth teams. Sneak past the lookouts; they're looking for metal, red, and black, not small boats and people dressed like snow. They're not trained lookouts anyway. The Water Tribes don't have an organized military. More of a militia. They're trained warriors, they're good individually, but their command and control structure sucks. There are exceptions, like Chief Hakoda, but most of their leaders don't have a grasp on long-term strategy. They don't fight to defend their nation; they fight because you're an outsider, and you're there. The Northern Tribe is used to relying on their waterbenders and the ice. They hadn't suffered a determined assault in eighty-five years, which meant all their trained warriors had no one to fight but each other. And believe me, they did. Hereditary house territories and political alliances with upper-class families, that's where their weapons and bending training got focused. And that means when they put lookouts on the walls, those people weren't watching the Fire Nation. They were watching their enemies, the ones they'd have to live with after we were gone. And they assumed we would be gone - the last invasion didn't work, and this time they had the Avatar on their side." Zuko's bitter smile seared through the ground. "And because they couldn't forget about each other and focus on us, they huddled in allied groups. Which left gaps in the lookout coverage." He shrugged. "Make it in through the gaps, find the Avatar, extract him, and retreat. Let the Water Tribe think the Avatar's abandoned them. Again. That would break their morale right there. You wouldn't need to fight."
"Oh," Toph said, voice small. Swallowed hard. Well, you asked.
And when you felt past the scary shiver of realizing Zuko had thought about this… he'd told her the truth. Again. Toph frowned. "How long is it going to take us to get to this lake?"
"A while yet. Why?"
"You know I could feel anybody sneaking up on us way before we had to hide," Toph said confidently.
"Good," Zuko said warily. "So?"
"So, tell me what's happened since you started chasing Aang," Toph demanded. "These guys only mention things they think I need to know, and they leave all kinds of good stuff out! Katara stole a waterbending scroll?"
"She never told me that part! I had to hear it from Uncle." Toph bounced on her heels. "Tell me what you saw. How'd this whole mess get started?"
Tell me how I can get you on our side. Twinkletoes is going to need a firebending master, like it or not….
And if your sister ever wised up and gave you what you need to catch Aang, we'd be in big trouble.
Zuko swallowed, and drew a breath. "A hundred years ago, a ship's log recorded sighting a bison heading toward the South Pole…."
"Why would Healer Amaya visit the Avatar?"
Reading by lantern-light - handy as glowing crystals were, his eyes hated them - Shirong started. Glanced up at Quan, curious. "Nothing I can think of-"
No. He wouldn't.
"But?" Quan said pointedly.
"One of the Avatar's companions is a waterbender," Shirong said practically. "Amaya might want to discuss bending." All the while, his mind raced. Oh, spirits. Lee, tell me you didn't. "What's going on?"
"We should advise her not to do that again soon." Quan frowned. "Long Feng is… disturbed. The Avatar's Joo Dee has had to be removed from duty. Again. Currently the children are chasing their posters through the city, which is relatively harmless… but we've lost track of the earthbender."
Oma and Shu. He did.
Only long practice let Shirong keep his face neutral and interested. Inside he was torn between gut-wrenching terror and utter delight at Lee's sheer nerve.
He needed an earthbender to get to the bison. He found one. Oh, my…. "I seem to recall that the Blind Bandit's remarkably apt to vanish when she wants to," Shirong observed. "But she always shows up again. Usually with a new rock sample to bounce off her companions' heads."
"True," Quan acknowledged. "Well. At least you'll get a good night's sleep."
"Extra guard shifts?" Shirong raised a brow.
"Just a precaution." Quan regarded him levelly, just a fraction of an instant too long-
Smiled, and saw himself out. "Have a good night."
Shirong kept an answering smile on his face as Quan's footsteps retreated, feeling his heart try to freeze in his chest. Oma and Shu. They know.
No. They couldn't know. They might suspect something could be amiss, Lee hadn't exactly looked perfectly calm and contained heading out with Amaya, but they couldn't know. Or he'd be answering to Long Feng personally.
And not of my own will.
Spirits, no. I'd rather die.
Startling thought. Living was living, after all. He'd served Long Feng for years, darkening his soul as every Dai Li had to. Did it matter if he lost one more shred of himself?
Yes. It does. I won't be used. I won't betray my city to the whims of people who can't see beyond the Avatar's power to the heart of a twelve-year-old boy!
Shirong sucked in a breath, shaken by his own certainty. It burned, that sureness; warming and painful at once.
I won't be used. And I won't betray Lee.
Which meant he had to do the hardest thing of all. Nothing.
He broke into Pohuai Stronghold. He got into the North Pole. He can do this.
But the only way Lee would stand a chance was if Quan wasn't sure. If Shirong moved to help, if he moved at all - Quan would be sure.
There's nothing I can do.
No. Not quite true. There was one thing. And given the close shave he'd had with the haima-jiao, it wouldn't even look suspicious. Much.
Lighting incense, Shirong stuck the smoking sticks in a bowl of rice before the mini-shrine every Dai Li kept in his quarters, and clapped his hands to pray.
Oma and Shu, Tui and La… Agni, if you'll hear one who's cursed your people so thoroughly most of his life…. One of your children really needs your help.
I know he's a crazy, mixed-up kid. I know you're all probably staring at him cross-eyed, trying to figure out what to do with a Fire Nation waterbender - with a firebender uncle! - who can't turn around without tripping over a kamuiy. But he's trying to do the right thing. He's trying to help that other poor kid you stuck with the fate of the world. That's got to count for something.
I know I don't deserve any favors. I'm Dai Li. I did what I had to do. But… help him. Please.
Well. That was it. Shirong sighed, and lowered his hands-
For one heartbeat, the shrine glowed gold.
"Yes?" Zuko answered, half-listening as he scanned the dark lake for any sign of a boat. Toph could pick up anything moving on the ground, but they'd already had one near miss with a courier dead asleep on a canny old ostrich-horse standing in the middle of the road. Which had led to a tense, whispered explanation of how seeing with earthbending worked, and his realization that to Toph, the lake was one big black hole.
"I'm impressed." Said with the kind of finality that implied Toph just didn't do impressed, most of the time.
"Why?" Zuko looked at her, puzzled. "You know what my uncle did as a general. If the Fire Lord commands, you obey."
"And…?" Toph prodded.
Zuko rolled his eyes. "You know, that's really annoying." Useful, though. What he wouldn't give for a living lie detector to handle the court weasel-snakes.
Would have given, Zuko reminded himself. At least you should be able to avoid most of them, now. Not entirely, the plan might bring them in contact with who knew what… but they definitely wouldn't be around on a daily basis.
"Deal with it," Toph said cheerfully. "Come on. We both know you're not in this just to follow orders."
Can I trust her?
Does it really matter?
Zuko sighed. "Do you want Azula in charge of the Fire Nation?" He shivered at the thought. No doubt Toph felt it. He just didn't care.
The earthbender let out what would have been a whistle, if they hadn't been worried about getting caught. "Yeah. Yeah, that'd make me… pretty determined. If it was me." She smirked, and stomped; a lump of shaped rock rose to the surface, round door shedding water. "Guess that just leaves one more question. How can you fake it so well everybody in the city thinks you're a waterbender?"
Zuko smirked back, and raised his hands, palms together. "Watch your rocks." A breath, and he swept his hands apart and down.
Water sheeted off stone, slipping back into the lake like a silken curtain. Toph's jaw dropped.
"We don't want to leave wet footprints," Zuko said bluntly. "I'm not going to be able to do that inside. The Dai Li keep track of every bender in the city. If I use water, the mask won't matter." He hesitated. "Don't tell them. Please."
"Okay," Toph nodded, milky eyes still wide. "Nobody'd believe it anyway… how?"
"I drowned on dry land." Zuko shrugged, trying not to let it matter. "If… what I was told is right, the spirits are arguing over what should happen next. With Aang. With everything. Yue… she said I'd tried to bring some balance back. After that - Amaya got the water out of my lungs, and took me in." He snorted. "Want to know what's really scary? She and Uncle conspire on my lessons. There's nothing in any scrolls about bending fire and water at the same time, so they get to be creative. I swear I've caught them giggling." And that was really too much, he shouldn't have-
"I bet." Toph's face was one wide grin. "Can I at least tell the guys Lee's Fire Nation? We're going to be leaving anyway… and I have got to feel the look on Sugar Queen's face!"
Surprising himself, Zuko snickered. Wish I could see that. "Just say we're colonials. That's the story Uncle's been using." He let out a slow breath, shutting fear and laughter away. "Ready?"
"Right behind you." Toph crooked a finger, and the cover skated aside.
Focus on the goal, Zuko reminded himself. Forget you're helping the Avatar. Remember you're saving your people.
Determined, he descended into green-lit shadows.
In a way, the frantic pounding on Huojin's door was a relief.
Dai Li wouldn't pound, they'd just appear inside. The Guard hopped over one of Daiyu's stray wooden ostrich-horses as he headed for the door. He'd been about to head out for headquarters anyway, his fellow Guards knew where he was. They probably just needed an extra, early hand. Riot, fire, fugitive in the area, something like that. All of which, no matter how dire, had to be better than Dai Li on his doorstep. I really lucked out-
He opened the door, and had to look down.
Skinny kid. Shaved bald. Flying lemur on his shoulder. Airbender tattoos. Oh, and two determined-looking Water Tribe teens backing him up, one carrying a mean boomerang and the girl a waterskin and a glint in blue eyes that said she knew how to use it.
…I'm going to get you for this, Lee. Somehow.
"Where's Luli?" the airbender - the Avatar - demanded.
"Where's Toph?" the waterbender added, voice edged with violence.
"And who's this guy Lee, anyway?" Boomerang jumped in.
"Evening to you, too," Huojin drawled. Act like you don't see the threat, and maybe they'll get over themselves. "You can report missing persons at Guard headquarters." Might as well head there now, Huojin thought, stepping into the street past them and marching off. I want backup. Lots of backup.
"Report this, wait for that - everything here strangles in rules!" The airbender's staff struck the ground, and Huojin felt a familiar tremor-
He didn't move fast enough.
Okay, Huojin thought, up to his neck in rock and trying to hold his temper to a slow simmer, now I know why Lee's so snarly.
The Avatar landed in front of him, gray eyes determined. "Where's Luli?"
Keep your temper, Huojin told himself, trying not to growl. Don't escalate the situation. "What the hell do you want with my wife?"
…Well, I tried.
"Your wife?" The Avatar blinked, and seemed to shrink a little. "Um… we just want to talk to her…."
"Rocks off," Huojin said flatly. "Then we can talk."
Earth rumbled back into the street.
Brushing himself off, Huojin looked at the kids and shook his head. "What is with you, anyway? Don't you know that's assault? On a City Guard? Trouble doesn't even begin to cover it." He eyed the oldest of the bunch, boomerang and all. "And you're all out past curfew. Toph would know better."
"She said she wanted to talk to Luli, and then she didn't come back," Boomerang stated, hands out to ease the tension. "It took us hours just to find you. We just want to know where Toph is."
"And who Lee is," the waterbender said darkly.
A kid with more guts than sense. "Toph was here earlier," Huojin said plainly. "I didn't see when she left." Or who she'd left with. The less he knew about Lee breaking into Dai Li headquarters, the better.
"Why was she here?" Boomerang said pointedly.
So one of them had half a brain. But given he'd asked that on the street…. Huojin sighed.
The teenager slapped himself on the forehead, and gave Huojin a weak grin. "Right! To see Luli. Why else? So… where is Luli?"
"Papers," Huojin said bluntly.
"You're underage, you're out past curfew, you assaulted a Guard, and you are definitely behaving in a belligerent and disorderly fashion," Huojin stated. "You think I'm going to tell you where my wife is when I don't know who you are?"
"We… don't have any papers," the waterbender admitted. "Toph did, but…."
"We don't need papers!" That obstinate look was back in gray eyes. "I'm the Avatar."
Huojin lifted a brow, arched with all the skeptical disbelief of a Guard who'd heard every drunk spirit-tale under the sun. "Sure you are."
Heh. This could be fun.
Well, if everything blows up in our faces, at least Sparky's having fun, Toph thought, grinning behind her mask.
It wasn't anything big. Other people probably wouldn't even see a smile. But there was a lightness in Zuko's step she'd never felt before. A fragile joy, as if all the lumps of confused prince had dropped away and left a flutter-hornet dancing in the breeze.
He's good at this.
Which was weird, for a firebender, given how much of this was listening and waiting to move. Silence and speed and silence again, moving in the gaps of guards' attention. He'd even held her shoulder, one unseen moment, and demonstrated a slight adjustment to her step that softened her footfalls even further.
And while all the rest of him was silent, she could feel his heart beating like solstice morning.
Or like the tournaments, Toph realized, following close behind. This is the real opponent. The good one. The one that's going to take everything you've got, and you still might lose.
But if you pull it off… man, you win it all.
On top of that, he was glad she was there. Her. Specifically. She'd felt tension seeping out of him as they'd walked, and she'd proved she was a better lookout at night than anyone with eyes. Felt him - not tense - but ready himself to watch what might be out in the water, where she couldn't see. Felt his hesitance as he adjusted her step, and his honest delight when she silently accepted the correction and did her best to mimic him, within the limits of her bending.
Zuko was glad she was there. That was… whoa.
So stay on your toes, Toph told herself, as they ghosted down yet another corridor of mostly-empty prison cells. Don't screw this up. Her eyes widened, and she stopped, hand out close enough to feel the heat radiating from Zuko's shirt. "What?" she murmured.
"I don't believe this," Zuko breathed, peering into one cell. Wrestled with himself, and sighed. "We have to get them out. You'd better do the talking."
"Why just them?" Toph asked pointedly.
"I don't know why anybody else is here. These three, I do. Damn."
Okay, she could work with that. Zuko eased the lock open, and Toph stuck her masked head in enough to hear the differences between a young girl, a skinny guy, and a guy a little more heavily built than Zuko. "If you want out of here, follow us, and stay quiet."
Feet thumped the floor, startled. "I'm Jet," the more muscled teen said; voice trying for confident, but ragged at the edges. "They're Smellerbee and Longshot. Who are you?"
"You don't want to know," Toph said bluntly, aware of Zuko's silence. "Less talking, more sneaking."
Around and down, following Zuko's earth-shimmering steps. Toph felt a chamber beyond the wall, the vibrations of too-still bodies, the earth-shadow of a partly open door.
"I'm Joo Dee," a man's voice said calmly. "Welcome to Ba Sing Se."
"I'm Joo Dee," dozens of women said in unison. "Welcome to Ba Sing Se."
"We are so lucky to have our walls to create order."
"We are so lucky to have our walls to create order."
There are hundreds, Amaya had said. Toph felt chilled. And angry.
Some of that was smoking off her partner in crime; she could feel heat drifting through the air. She couldn't blame Sparky one bit.
I don't care what Aang thinks. The Fire Nation wants this city? They can have it.
But that wouldn't be fair to people like Luli, and Huojin, and Amaya. People just trying to get by; people who knew something was wrong with their city, but didn't have the power to fix it.
I'm not sure even Aang can fix this place.
"That - they tried to do that to us, they-"
Smellerbee grabbed Jet's arm, and Longshot clapped a hand over Jet's mouth, shaking his head no.
Oh boy. Toph's stomach headed for her ankles. We're in for it now….
"Shirong hasn't moved?" Long Feng asked coolly. Juggling a myriad interlocking plots in his mind, calculating and recalculating the moves that would need to be made to maintain control of the city and the Earth King. Calculations the Avatar was making needlessly complicated.
He's twelve. He should sit still, keep his mouth shut, and let those who know better decide what is right.
If only he dared bring the Avatar down here….
Too risky. If that blunderer General Fong is accurate, the Avatar State is triggered by extreme emotions. We can't afford to lose all we've built here.
"He's been quiet," Quan reported. "Reading. Praying." The agent met his gaze. "Sir, I admit he's acting… oddly. But we've all had bad days after spirit-injuries."
"So we have," Long Feng acknowledged. "Coming close to death… it shakes a person. But that is precisely the point. I know you're his friend, Quan-"
"It will not prevent me from carrying out my duty. Sir."
"Of course not," Long Feng said levelly. "But friendship can soften any man's judgment." He frowned darkly. "He arranged to see Amaya and Lee unwatched, and then she arranged to see the Avatar. One of whose teachers is now missing."
"Coincidence?" Quan offered.
Long Feng cast him a look askance.
Quan bowed his head. "There are no coincidences." He breathed out slowly. "Sir, Healer Amaya has been a reliable asset for years…."
"But she is now Lee's master," Long Feng stated. "And Lee… troubles me."
Reluctantly, Quan nodded. "It wasn't obvious at first… but no one with that level of weapons training should have avoided military attention. Elderly uncle as a dependant or not."
"Yet that's apparently precisely what he has done," Long Feng observed. "And the haima-jiao. I've read the reports. They are disturbing." He shook his head. "How does a half-trained bender throw off a spirit that sucked in his own master whole? A spirit that drew strength from water, and was only harmed by light and fire?"
Quan inclined his head, acknowledging the unanswered questions. "Lee is certainly suspect. But we have no reason to believe Shirong has… strayed."
"None yet," Long Feng started.
Running feet, and a junior agent was panting in his doorway. "Sir! We've found Bei Fong!"
Or rather, Long Feng realized as he and Quan broke in on the fray, she'd found them.
And she wasn't alone.
The three Yunxu questioned about the haima-jiao, Long Feng realized. Conscious, still defiant - but a minimal threat, given they were unarmed aside from a few hastily-grabbed shards of stone. Insignificant, in the face of a rampaging Toph Bei Fong. And it was indeed her, despite that ridiculous mask. No other earthbender could disintegrate stone fists without even looking, and swat Dai Li agents across the room with pillars of rock.
That's the known danger, Long Feng thought dispassionately, waiting motionless as he sized up the form behind the Blue Spirit mask. Right height, the right build, dao… a pity he'd been right about Shirong….
The intruder slashed stone from the air, and fire lashed out to blast agents away.
Too many of them, Zuko thought grimly, blasting to pieces the stone glove on the back of Toph's shirt before it could drag her away. Trying not to glance behind him, as Smellerbee and Longshot kept their leader from strangling him.
I give up. Jet's not just an idiot. He's insane.
A passing thought, flitting around the taut focus of working with Toph to keep them all alive and free. There were just too many Dai Li….
At least, too many for nonlethal tactics.
I don't want to kill them. I know some of these people. All we want is to get the bison and get out. If we just had some cover….
He was moving before he could think it through, blades clicking together, free hand diving into his shirt to pull out a bag and scatter its contents in one furious toss.
Dried leaves fluttered. For one instant, he saw Long Feng's startled look.
The fire-wind blazed, flames whipping around to block them from the Dai Li's view.
Benders can't hit what they can't see.
Except for Toph, who laughed as the missiles stopped coming and slammed up walls just beyond the fire. Cracked her knuckles, and yanked a square door open in stone. "Come on!"
He dove and rolled, Smellerbee and Longshot yanked Jet through, and Toph slammed the wall behind them.
We're being stalled, Katara thought darkly, stalking through the pre-dawn twilight toward the Wen house. At least it had better be the Wen house, after the time Luli's husband and his fellow guards had spent denying the Avatar right in front of their faces.
They did it on purpose. They knew who Aang was. Everybody knows!
Ooo, she would have liked to freeze them all to the floor. Especially Luli's husband. Something about him just set her teeth on edge.
This had better be it, or I'm freezing people solid.
"Maybe Aang should knock on the door," Sokka spoke up behind her.
"Right," Katara bit out. "Because that worked so well last time."
"Okay, maybe I should."
She rounded on him. "Oh, like you did any better, the way those Guards stalled us!"
"They're scared," Aang said quietly.
"That's no excuse! We're trying to help them!"
"And we want them to help us," Sokka pointed out. "They're not going to want to do that if you turn them into ice cubes." Face set, he pushed past her and knocked on the door.
A long minute passed. Katara listened hard, catching a murmur that sounded like arguing behind thick wood.
The door opened, and a well-dressed woman about as old as Toph's mother swept a green gaze over them all. "Can I help you?"
"I'm Sokka," her brother smiled, and gestured toward them. "This is my sister Katara, our friend Aang, and Momo-"
The lemur trilled, cocking his head endearingly.
"We're looking for a friend of ours, Toph Bei Fong? She said she was going to see Luli, and we hear she's here. At the Wen house? Unless we have the wrong place, and in that case I'm sorry we woke you up…."
If she hadn't been watching, Katara would never have caught the flicker of the woman's eyes toward the rooftops.
"I'm Meixiang Wen," the woman stated, standing aside from the doorway. "Luli's still asleep; the children wore her out. But I may be able to answer your questions." A slight smile touched her face. "And my daughter Jia would never forgive me if I let you get away before she's up. You're still the talk of her poetry class."
"Really?" Sokka preened.
Boys! Katara fumed. But held her peace until the door was closed behind them. "Look, I'm sure Sokka would love to stick around, but we need to find Toph."
"And Appa," Aang added. "Please, could you just talk to us? Toph could really be in trouble!"
Meixiang looked over them again, and sighed. "She already is." She shook her head. "But she has help. It should be enough. And I know if you go after her, you will likely all be imprisoned. Or worse." She didn't give them time to gasp, green eyes fixing on startled gray. "Avatar Aang. What harm has my family ever done you, that you bring the Dai Li to our door?"
"You can't blame Aang for that!" Katara objected.
"They're following us," Sokka pointed out. "She kind of has a point." He frowned at Meixiang. "Are you going to be in trouble?"
"My husband is a professor of archaeology, a teacher of history from the time before there were Dai Li. Long before they claimed the reins of power as their own. We live in danger." She looked at Aang again. "I told you, Toph is not here. She found someone who could help her, and she's gone to find something you lost. I suggest you find somewhere Toph can find you, and wait." She frowned. "And then I suggest you leave Ba Sing Se, and go where you stand a chance of helping our people."
"I have been helping!" Aang protested. "I'm trying to save the Earth Kingdom! Why do people keep telling me to leave?"
"You…." Meixiang flung up her hands in frustration, and called upstairs. "Tingzhe!"
A startled, graying professor Katara vaguely recognized from the university appeared at the top of the stairs, still wrapped in sleeping robes. "Meixiang?"
"I need to force-feed this boy a map!"
One brow went up, and he peered at Aang. Shook his head, and sighed. "Second set of shelves, two down, right hand side. And try not to scar him before I get there, hmm?"
"Sokka has plenty of maps," Katara started.
"Then he hasn't been looking at them," Meixiang stated, opening the door to a scroll-strewn study. She picked her way down the shelves, took out three scrolls, put one back, and spread a map of the Earth Kingdom on a small table. "Look. We're here." She tapped the massive double oval of walls that marked Ba Sing Se. "The Fire Nation has invaded here-" her hand swept over the western peninsula and coast "-and while no one tells us of the war, they've probably moved to invade the other water route, into Chameleon Bay and the two lakes."
"They're cutting you off," Sokka nodded. "That's why we have to be here."
"No!" Meixiang shot him a look of mingled anger and impatience. "That's why you shouldn't be here!"
"She's right, you know." Professor Tingzhe walked in behind them, robe tied. "In Chin the Conqueror's time, Ba Sing Se almost fell before Kyoshi defeated him-"
"You mean killed him," Aang said, disgusted.
"And what would you have had her do? Invite him to a tea ceremony?" Tingzhe regarded Aang with a level look. "The city almost fell, true. But Chin had far more solid a grip on the continent than the Fire Nation has yet managed. And Kyoshi was not within these walls. That led Chin to split his forces, and that itself might have led to his defeat even if she had not acted." His gaze went to Sokka. "I've been told you have some small grasp on tactics… so long as Avatar Aang is inside Ba Sing Se, the Fire Nation can concentrate their forces. Which allows them to develop the simplest and shortest supply lines possible, and…." Seeing their looks of confusion, he grimaced. "Earthbending, Avatar. Think of the Earth Kingdom as a mighty boulder. What is more likely to shatter it? Scattered, small strikes? Or one massive blow?"
"What are you doing?"
Katara jerked her attention to the aghast teenage boy in the doorway. Taller than Sokka, earth-green eyes, face dark with not-yet-shaved morning stubble. "You can't be talking about this!" the young man went on. "You know what can happen. You know what happened to Bai Xiu!"
"I do know, Min," Tingzhe said soberly. "But I also know to do nothing against evil is not a neutral act." He glanced at Aang. "A mistake your people made, centuries ago. The Earth Kingdom has long memories. It cost you. Dearly." He looked back at his son. "I have done nothing because there was nothing I could do. But the Avatar is here, and our fate is already in the Dai Li's hands."
"Not if I can help it," Meixiang said grimly.
"This is crazy," Min breathed, looking between his parents. "You're crazy. You can't- you never would have done this before he showed up!"
"Who's he?" Katara pounced. "Lee?"
From the flare of anger in Min's eyes, she knew she'd hit home. "Get out," Min snarled at them. "Get out of here, before you get my family killed!"
"Min!" Tingzhe said sternly. "You will not behave so to guests. Even uninvited ones."
"Nobody's going to be killed," Aang said stubbornly. "Just tell me how I can help. I'm the Avatar. Helping people is what I do."
"You can't help," Min growled, turning on his heel and stomping off.
"Min, wait," Katara said impulsively, running after him to the foot of the stairs. "If your family's in trouble, we can do something!"
"You're kids," Min said dismissively. "What are you going to do, hold off a thousand Dai Li single-handed? I don't even know why Mom let you in! She knows what this could do to us, what this could do to my brother and sisters. And Dad's helping her…." Fists clenched, he shook his head. "Go. Just - go."
"You can't give up," Katara said, determined. "Maybe we're strangers here. Maybe we can't do anything. But they're your family! There's got to be something you can do."
"Yeah," Min said, half to himself, eyes dark. "I guess there is."
They could have used the door, Zuko reflected. But Toph was having way too much fun.
Bits of rock crumbling in every direction, they tumbled into a chamber that smelled like hay and thick fur and outside. Chains clinked, and he looked up at a massive shape of white and tan and sharp black horns-
"Appa! Hey, fuzzy!" Toph ran straight for a furry foreleg. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry…."
Are you crazy? Zuko spun and leaped, trying to get between her and furry death. That thing is-
His glove touched an arrow of fur, and the world wavered.
Half-light of dawn fell over a grassy mountain meadow, and Aang was chuckling as he scratched under dark horns. "Don't worry. Appa's a vegetarian."
The firebender snorted. "You've never seen komodo-rhino calves born, have you?"
Dawn went out like a candle, and Zuko took a hasty half-step sideways to keep from staggering. What was that?
That never happened. I know it never happened.
So why did it feel real?
"Appa?" Jet finally quit fighting his friends, though he glared at Zuko. "The Dai Li had the Avatar's bison?"
Still have. Unless we move. Zuko tapped Toph on the shoulder while she was wiping her eyes, pointed up to the grate closing off the skylight. It'll be tight, but it's big enough to fly out.
"Right!" Straightening, Toph waved to the freedom fighters. "Climb on!" Dropped her voice to a whisper. "Um. Can't see in the air, how are we going to-?"
"You know how many times I've watched Aang fly away?" Zuko murmured back, unlocking the first massive manacle. "We can do this."
Toph scooted around to hit the locks on the other side, and Appa's wide head moved back and forth to watch them both. Turned toward Zuko again as he reached for the last metal twist-key-
Sucked in a breath that spiraled, lifting the key half clear.
"Smart," Zuko whispered to the bison, untwisting it the rest of the way. "Don't get caught this way twice." He leapt up to perch on the back of the furry neck, and latched onto Toph's hand, pulling her up-
Rock surged, sucking in the bison's feet. Appa bellowed, tail flailing with a mighty wind.
"Struggle all you like." Long Feng advanced through the open door, ranks of Dai Li behind him. "You're going-"
"Trust me!" Zuko hissed, and swung Toph down.
Her feet hit rock, and she twisted her toes, stone dissolving into sand. "Yip yip!"
Zuko pulled even as Appa launched, a solid lump of earthbender driving the breath from him in the wake of Appa's wind.
Grate's coming up awfully fast-
Toph punched, and they soared free into dawn.
"Yes!" Smellerbee caterwauled, dour face stretched in an incredulous grin.
"Why?" Jet demanded, voice full of hate. "You're a firebender. Why are you doing this?"
"Because not everybody in the Fire Nation's crazy, you blockhead!" Toph yanked off her mask. "I'm Aang's earthbending teacher. And he's a friend."
Agni. Longshot can talk.
"Yeah. And he can't get caught." Toph leaned back next to Zuko. "Now what?"
"Follow what I do," Zuko murmured. "The Nomads didn't always use reins." Taking her hand in his own, he pressed near Appa's left horn. The bison obligingly banked.
I wish we could go slower. But there's no time.
He urged Appa up and over the Outer Wall, dodging blocks of stone hefted by started guards. "Now, that's just rude," Toph complained.
Zuko snorted, guiding Appa down at least an hour's ride outside the Wall. Pointed at the freedom fighters, and swept a hand toward the ground.
"You're just going to leave us here?" Jet burst out. "We've got nothing!"
"We're out of Ba Sing Se," Smellerbee shot back, jumping down. "That's not nothing."
Silent again, Longshot yanked Jet off.
"Here!" Toph tossed a coin-string Smellerbee's general direction. "I'm Toph Bei Fong. And one of these days, you're going to pay me back!" She patted Appa's head. "Yip yip!"
"Can you afford that?" Zuko asked, keeping his voice low as they climbed skyward. "You're going to need to run-"
Toph waved it off. "Hello? Earth Rumble champion? I'm good. Besides, people give Aang stuff. We'll be fine."
"Like Azula," Zuko muttered under his breath.
Toph frowned. "Um, Sparky? She's almost as short and bouncy, I'll give you that. But why would you think Aang's anything like her?"
"Everything's easy for her." Heading back over the wall too high for boulders, Zuko swallowed hard. "Look at him. Twelve years old, and he's a master. A few months, and he could waterbend. Don't tell me he's not getting in days what took you years." He looked aside. "And everyone helps him. Everyone says he's doing the right thing. Agni, even the spirits want him to win."
"I kind of want him to win too, Sparky."
"At least you're honest about it," Zuko said tiredly. "I wish I could stop the war, Toph. I really wish I could. But I can't. Because you know what will happen if it stops? They'll come for us. The Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes… you have no idea how much they hate us. They'll come. And what will the Avatar do then?"
"…Aang wouldn't let that happen. Not to anybody."
"Don't lie to me, Toph," Zuko said angrily. "Sozin destroyed everything Aang knew. Everything. You haven't been to the Air Temples. I have. I've seen them all." Taking her mask and his own, he threw them into Lake Laogai. "The North Pole was just a warm-up!"
"Just get them out, Toph. Get them out." He took the cloak off her shoulders, preparing to reverse it from dark to a pale green to hide the Blue Spirit's outfit. "Drop me in the Upper Ring. I'll tell you where. And then, this is what you do…."
"Sokka, we've got to go back and help them!"
Keeping a good grip on yellow and orange, Sokka kept walking. "I think we've helped them enough, Aang." Hit the Fire Nation from behind. Like sending a decoy hunter to strike the tiger-seals, and drive them the way you want them to go. I should have thought of that. Why didn't I think of that?
I got caught up in "I must defeat the Fire Lord", that's why. And maybe the spirits do want Aang to take him one-on-one. Crazy as that sounds. But big and evil as he is, Fire Lord Ozai's just one guy. We've got whole armies to worry about.
Still. The Wens didn't know about the eclipse. They had a chance to knock out the Fire Lord and his main guys in the Fire Nation. They had to take it. But in order to do that, they had to see the Earth King, and get the generals on their side.
And for that, we need Toph. I hate to say it, but it looks like the only way we're going to get anywhere is start knocking down walls-
"Sokka!" Katara grabbed his wrist, startling him into letting go of Aang. "Look!"
Sokka's jaw dropped. White and brown with a patch of green clinging for dear life, flying north, then east, south, west, and back around the rough square-
"Appa!" Snapping his glider open, Aang hurtled into the air.
"Oh, boy," Sokka breathed, pulling out his boomerang as Katara flicked open her waterskin. The green shadows on the roofs were heading for the streets, and the moment those stone shoes touched earth-
Appa swooped down, Aang holding his staff out so they could grab on, sucking them up with a friendly wind.
Stone gloves crashed through empty air, and they were flying.
"Appa!" Aang was clinging to the bison's head, tears running. "Oh, I missed you, buddy…."
"Toph!" Katara grabbed the white-faced earthbender, pulled her back to anchor between the two of them. "You're all right!"
"Hey," Toph said breathlessly. "Hope you didn't leave anything you can't live without in the mansion. I just took out a dozen Dai Li, and boy are they mad."
"The Dai Li had Appa?" Aang yelped.
"It gets a lot worse than that, Twinkletoes." Toph tried to put on a brave face, but she was shivering.
She can't see anything, and we don't even have a saddle to grab onto. Sokka hand-walked a few inches closer, making sure Toph was wedged up against Katara. "Let's land somewhere and talk."
"Not in the city!" Toph gulped, and clung tighter. "There's an island. Out in the lake. Should be safe for a while."
"Toph," Katara said, worried, "how do you know there's an island over there?"
"Lee told me," Toph said practically. "He gave me a letter for you, Sokka. You better read it."
Sokka traded a glance with Aang. The airbender looked ahead, and nodded. "One island, coming up!"
They tumbled off Appa's back onto gritty sand, and Toph shook out cramped fingers. Grimly, she drew folded paper out of her robes. "Here." She whipped a finger toward Katara before his sister could speak. "And no questions! Not until after Sokka reads it."
"Okay," Katara said, one brow raised dubiously. "Sokka?"
Sokka unfolded neat creases, and even Aang stopped scratching Appa to listen.
Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, neatly inked characters read.
If Toph hasn't already convinced you to get out of Ba Sing Se, leave. Now.
This isn't Omashu, or any of the other places you've been. The Earth King is a figurehead; a political center everyone can refer to as the ultimate authority, even though they know he's nothing of the kind. The real power in Ba Sing Se is the Grand Secretariat, Long Feng, head of the Dai Li. The generals know this, and are in willing collusion with him. They know what the Dai Li do, but they rely on them to keep order in the city while they battle the Fire Nation. By any means necessary. They know the Dai Li warp people's minds. They know the Dai Li make some people disappear. They know, and they permit it to go on.
Ba Sing Se is a trap.
Refugees are drawn here by the hope of escaping the war. Once inside, they are told there is no war in Ba Sing Se. Those who cannot accept this, disappear. Those who can and are not broken usually fight on the Wall. Those who break - and many do - work in Ba Sing Se, living a lie. Whatever the original purpose behind this policy, it drains the countryside of potential pockets of resistance, keeps the city itself controlled by fear, and fosters an enduring - and because it is unspoken, irrational - hate of the Fire Nation. I'm sure Fire Lord Ozai would approve.
People who use these tactics are not your allies.
If none of this convinces you, consider why Long Feng had the bison. He has reports from General Fong on the Avatar State. He knows the Fire Navy was shattered at the North Pole. He, or the generals, have decided this is a viable tactic to wreak destruction on the Fire Nation.
The philosophy of the airbenders was that all life is precious. If you want your friend to be himself, and not a living weapon - get out.
It wasn't signed.
It was weird, though. Something about the words was familiar. Like Sokka could almost hear the voice to match them, if he just remembered-
"Lee gave you this?" Katara said skeptically. "Why didn't he just tell us?"
"That does seem weird." Aang scratched the back of his neck. "I mean, Monk Gyatso always said the Water Tribes weren't great letter writers… not that that's a bad thing! It's great that you like to talk to people face to face. But you can kind of lose track of someone if they don't visit."
And we couldn't visit the Northern Tribe, being raided all the time, Sokka realized. They just… stopped coming. We got raided for years, and they never sent help. Until Aang broke the Fire Navy for them.
They had reasons. He was sure. But-
"Three reasons," Toph said bluntly, shaking him out of his grim thoughts. "One, we were being watched. Two, we had to go in to get Appa, fast, and I think he was worried he wouldn't get back out. He hasn't been waterbending that long, and he couldn't under the lake, or the Dai Li would know who he was. Three… he didn't want you guys to see him because he didn't want to wind up full of icicles."
"What?" Katara said in disbelief.
Sokka looked at the letter, and the phrasing, and winced. "Lee's not Water Tribe."
"But he's a waterbender," Katara started.
"He's Fire Nation." Toph angled her head toward Aang. "He wanted to help, but he was scared. He's heard about the North Pole. A lot of people have."
"A Fire Nation waterbender?" Katara looked like someone had slapped her with a saw-dogfish.
"He said something about being from the colonies." Toph didn't take her ears off Aang.
The airbender seemed to shrink in on himself. "I didn't mean to do… that." He tried to smile. "He's really Fire Nation? Wow, that must be weird-"
"You don't get to dodge this one, Twinkletoes." Toph crossed her arms, immovable as granite. "Maybe you didn't want to. Maybe you didn't mean to. But you did it. And everybody thinks you're going to do it again. Long Feng. The generals. The whole Fire Nation." She shook her head. "You should have heard Lee. He felt awful. Here he is, with the only waterbender he can find who doesn't care where he came from - and you show up. If he doesn't get you out of here, the Fire Nation smashes Ba Sing Se to bits and he's got nowhere left to go. If he does get you out, he's helping the guy who killed thousands of his people. Talk about a rock and a hard place!"
"Well he should feel awful!" Katara flared. "After everything the Fire Nation's done to the world? To us? To Aang? He should feel so horrible he should just - just crawl away and die!"
What the heck is with- oh. Sokka saw her fingers touch her necklace, and grimaced. It's that time of year again. When we lost Mom.
"Katara," Aang started patiently.
"You take that back!" Toph's fists clenched, sand hardening under her feet into solid stone. "Lots of people help us because they want to. Because they know Aang's the Avatar, and they think he's gonna stomp the Fire Nation and stop the war. Lee didn't! Lee doesn't like Aang! He doesn't want anything to do with Aang. He helped get Appa back because it was the right thing to do. Because he doesn't want Aang to ever hurt the way he did at the North Pole again! You take that back!"
She's crying? Sokka realized, jaw dropping. Toph was too tough to cry.
"Toph." The rage faded off Katara's face, swept away by worry. "What's wrong?"
"Lee told me," Toph said, voice thick with angry tears. "He told me, and I didn't want to believe him. He said even if the Fire Nation stopped the war, you'd bring it right back to them. That I didn't know how much the Water Tribes hated the Fire Nation. He helped me, he's a waterbender, and all you want him to do is die?" She swallowed hard. "Aang, how are you going to stop the war?"
Aang paled. Gulped. Gripped his staff, and shook his head. "I'm going to defeat the Fire Lord, Toph. You know that already."
"And then what?" Toph demanded. "We're going to use the eclipse. We're going to kick Fire Lord butt. But you're going to need more than us to do it! Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes - and there they're gonna be, right in the middle of the people they hate! Then what?"
"We'll figure it out after we get the Fire Lord," Sokka said forcefully, as Aang wavered. "Aang's the Avatar. People will listen to him. Right now, we need to figure out what we're going to do now."
Katara bit her lip. "Sokka, if Lee's telling the truth-"
"He is!" Toph stomped a foot.
"-Then what we saw at the party, all these weeks of trouble…. Long Feng is in control of the city. I think we should just keep flying and leave this horrible place behind us."
"I'm with Sweetness!" Toph chimed in, relieved. "I've seen enough of Ba Sing Se, and I can't even see!"
"But we escaped from the Dai Li. And we got Appa back. We're on a roll," Sokka said confidently. "We should go to the Earth King now and tell him our plan. Before Long Feng can get to him."
"Maybe Long Feng already got to him," Toph objected. "I heard them making Joo Dees under the lake. They just… make these ladies so they'll say what the Dai Li want them to say! What if they did that to the Earth King, too?"
"Then we have to go to him, so Katara can heal him." Aang looked between them all, full of that sureness that everything in the world could be fixed if they just tried. "If he knows the truth about the Dai Li and the war, I know he'll help! It's the right thing to do." He glanced up suddenly, and raced to the lakeshore.
"Aang, what's-" Sokka looked out into the water. Earth Kingdom ships. "Um… how many Dai Li did you say you squashed?"
"There were a lot of them." Toph touched a toe to the water, obviously unhappy. "They're out there?"
"Probably. So…." Sokka turned to Katara, sure of what she'd say. Mention healing, and she was all over the situation.
Katara nodded once. "Let's fly!"
Iroh sat in their new apartment with a cup of fragrant jasmine tea, watching his nephew sleep the sleep of an exhausted infiltrator. But only sleep. No sign of the deadly fever that would mark a break of his father's loyalty. Not yet.
But it will come, Iroh reflected grimly. I have tried to balance him on a knife's edge… and he is slipping.
The Avatar. Why here? Why now? Was the spirits' plan so desperate it could not have waited another month? Even another week?
Our flight weakened us. Amaya and I have done what we can… but I do not know if he is strong enough to survive. If his loyalty breaks now….
Fingers wrapped around his tea, Iroh tried to hold onto hope.
It slipped through his grasp like ashes.
"…The Council of Five and the military are loyal to the Earth King, but the Dai Li remain loyal to you, Long Feng, sir."
Long Feng smiled behind walls sheathed in steel, considering plots upon plots and options the Avatar's little group of troublemakers had never dreamed of. So the Earth King had proved easily swayed? Then he would be as swiftly swayed back, once given information that rather than fighting against the Fire Nation, the Avatar's allies were agents of the Fire Lord himself.
Poor little Bei Fong, by now trapped and unable to dispute his Dai Li's evidence… especially given her little friends were now scattered to the winds, save for one overconfident waterbender. He'd seen benders puffed up with their supposed mastery before. Katara could easily be neutralized. The Kyoshi Warriors were a less predictable factor… but they'd offered their services to Full Moon Bay to fight in the war. They should be easily convinced it didn't matter who was in charge in Ba Sing Se.
And once Lee had given up his firebender contact - and been convinced to give evidence of his conspiracy with the Fire Nation and Shirong, so the Earth King would see only a rogue Dai Li at fault and not his most trusted advisor - these steel bars would be but a memory.
Min Wen will make a fine agent, indeed.
A/N: Okay, did anybody else look at what was found in Long Feng's office and think, "Trap!"
We know Long Feng's a plotter, and has been for decades. Information related to the Gaang, that those generals could find in his office? That just happens to get his latest enemies-slash-annoyances scattered to the four winds, with two of the three powerful benders out of the city entirely?
Azula piggy-backing on the opportunity to get in was probably the one thing Long Feng didn't see coming. But then, she was born lucky.
Assume most of "The Earth King" happened as canon, minus Appa's tooth-marks and Zuko's hallucinations. Poor guy. He'd probably prefer the hallucinations, compared to what's coming.
And unfortunately, this is the last of my already-written chapters. I'm working on chapters 21 and 22, and hope to have 21 up sometime next week. Unless Murphy's Law kicks in. Given this is Zuko... well.