The City Sleeps
[Part I; The City Sleeps]
"give me a moment please -
to tame your wild, wild heart."
They've just set up camp when Toph says she can feel someone coming their way. Katara touches the water skin at her hip and he feels the heat crawl up his arms agonizingly slow. A minute passes, and she bursts through the trees, a long piece of metal with dull edges and a charm hanging from the handle in her hand. A sabre-toothed moose rumbles after her, swinging its head wildly. He reacts instinctively, pulling her behind him as Katara's water whips freeze around the animal's legs.
"You okay?" he says, not looking at her. He feels rather than sees her nod.
"Yeah," she goes, fingers gripping the back of his shirt, near his tailbone. "I'm Kairi."
"Zuko," he says. Toph's rock barrier goes up and Aang sends the beast skidding back into a cliff-face. Her fingers stay pressed against his spine, even as Fire Nation soldiers come running at the sound of the commotion and the real fight begins.
Zuko knows better than to underestimate girls, having grown up with Mai, Ty Lee and Azula, but he can't help but be a bit surprised when he turns to take out a wave of soldiers and sees her pulling her weapon out of a man's stomach, all pink and lithe and so very frail looking. A wave of fire catches him from his right and brushes his shoulder.
In his defence, at least he didn't pull a Sokka and drop his swords.
"I'm Kairi," she says, wiping flecks of blood off her metal arm guards. Aang is eyeing her almost disapprovingly, and Toph is trying to guess what she looks like, Sokka shooting her down every so often.
Katara smiles at her and finishes healing his burn. "I'm Katara," she says, holding out her hand. "It's nice to meet you."
Aang is still biting his lip and frowning when Katara introduces her to him. Toph laughs when Sokka finally tells her that the person who eliminated Fire Nation soldiers without bending and barely breaking a sweat is a slip of a girl wearing a bubblegum pink dress under her steel shoulder pads who throws a piece of decorated metal around like it's nothing, and Zuko snorts quietly as well.
When she turns to talk to Sokka, he looks at the Avatar.
Aang blinks, relaxing almost immediately. "Yeah, Zuko?"
Zuko is staring at the blood under her fingernails when he says, "Pacifism doesn't win wars."
They both know Aang is lying through his teeth when he says, "I know."
Kairi got used to blood a week after the King sent her to a world out on the outskirts of the Universe. Sora had thrown a fit at the idea of her going anywhere alone, and Riku spent the better part of a month teaching her everything he could about fighting and defending and not dying on the battlefield. She set off in a Gummi Ship on the first morning of spring, and came back seventeen days later a less innocent and a little more hardened.
"I want to go back," had been the first thing she'd said when she'd entered the Throne Room. "Give me a week, and then I want to go back."
No one had asked why, but the blood on her Keyblade and the burn on her thigh had said wonders. When Sora wrapped a bandage around her leg and pushed a potion to her lips while Riku meticulously cleaned Heartschain, she leaned over and cried into his shoulder.
She finally understood what they were fighting for.
She went back to Ba Sing Se the following Monday.
That was two months ago.
"So, Kairi," Katara says over dinner, "what nation are you from?"
Kairi laughs. It's a nice sound, he thinks, better than Mai's harsh barks that were rarely heard. "Oh," she goes, smiling into her soup. "I'm actually not from around here."
Sokka raises his eyebrows. "Come again?"
She launches into a story of heart stealers and broken worlds and unlocking kingdoms. She talks about traveling and being kidnapped, and finally getting fed up with being the damsel in distress. She talks about two boys, her best friends, and an empty husk blonde who became someone a little bit more complete when she was fifteen. She tells them about the darkness and the core of their world, and how it's falling apart, and when she starts to talk about a man with fire in his blood just like him, her eyes get a little glassy and her fingers shake around her bowl.
"What happened" Toph asks, when Kairi stops and stares at the ground. "To your Sparky, I mean?"
Kairi's lip quirk at the nickname, but her eyes are tinged with sadness. "He… faded away."
"Well, that sucks."
"Yeah," she sighs, "it does."
None of them believe her, even after she becomes slightly withdrawn and barely touches her food, but when the creature with the yellow eyes and blackened bodies come crawling into their campsite, antennas twitching, Zuko begins to second guess his own beliefs and keeps Toph behind him because I can't feel anything you guys, what's going on, you're all crazy, I swear.
And when Katara screams as one of them sinks its claws into her back, searching, he knows it's real.
Kairi's weapon – a Keyblade, she'd called it – soars through the air and knocks the creature clean off of Katara. Both the creature and the Keyblade hit the ground and disappear in puffs of smoke, but only the Keyblade shows up in Kairi's hand.
"Are you okay?" she's yelling and running and fighting all at the same time, ponytail swinging behind her. Katara is on her hands and knees, clutching the dirt, and there's a steady stream of blood flowing from her back. Kairi fishes a vial of glowing green liquid out of the pocket of her dress and tips Katara's head up. "Here, drink this."
Zuko keeps a wall of fire going around them while Toph clutches at the hem of his shirt and Katara's skin stitches itself back together.
Then they search for Sokka and Aang.
(By the end of the night, they know she's telling the truth, and the gaping wound-turned-scar in Sokka's side never lets them doubt again.)
That morning is tense. Sokka is still recovering in the tent – Katara goes in to check on him ever half hour and refuses to move from the tent entrance for hours. Kairi ends up cleaning up the camp with him while Toph sits on a rock and stares at nothing.
Aang is the first to speak. "Did you bring them here?"
Kairi looks at him, empathetic. "No. I wish I had, though. Then I'd be able to lead them away."
Katara's voice is soft and quiet when she speaks. "What do they want?"
"Hearts." She pauses, refolds a blanket, and shoots Katara a pointed look. "Pure hearts."
Katara's shoulders slump a little. "Will he…?"
"He'll be fine," Kairi assures her with a smile, bangs falling into her eyes as she leans over and shoves Toph's blanket into a bag. "He just needs to rest."
They're silent again. Then, Toph finally moves, folding her arms over her chest and scowling in Kairi's general direction. "If you can't lead them away, why are you here?"
"I have to… lock this world, so to speak," Kairi says slowly, eyebrows furrowing. "Once I do that, this world will be safe… er."
Toph snorts. "I see you noticed there's a war going on."
"It's kind of hard not to," Kairi says, "when you're in the middle of it."
He walks next to her when they venture through the forest, Appa lumbering behind them with slow, heavy steps. "Hey."
Kairi glances at him from the corner of her eyes, Keyblade settled on one shoulder, and half-smiles. "Hi."
"Can I ask you something?"
She blinks at him, then shrugs. "Sure."
"How do you… lock a world?"
A flock of birds pass overhead as she stares off into the distance thoughtfully. "I have to find the heart of the world," she begins, almost hesitant. "To do that, I have to find a… key, of sorts. It's an object unique to that world that reacts with my Keyblade and allows me to access the heart of the world. Then I use my Keyblade and seal it up so the Darkness can't get in and spread." She grins. "It sounds way more complicated than it is."
Zuko frowns, confused. "How do you find this… key? Do you get clues, or something?"
"Not really," she admits, sheepish. "But, the King already knew where the key to this world was located – he just sent me to seal it up."
"And you've been here two months?"
His eyes narrow and something in him tightens in almost-fear. "Where's the key located?"
She doesn't look at him when she says, "It's the Fire Lord's crown."
A nearby tree bursts into flame.
Zuko is quiet the rest of the hike. He moves up with the rest of the group after the tree stops burning and Toph stops eyeing their general direction while Kairi stays behind them and fiddles with her necklace, a gift from Sora and Riku on her sixteenth birthday. It's a small, heart shaped pendant made of silver; the ends of it curl into the middle and the chain in thick – less chance of it snapping off in battle, that way, Riku had told her. She hasn't taken it off once in the year she's had it.
Katara is hitting Sokka upside the head for something he's said, and Aang is at the front, leading. His staff is twice his height, and he barely reaches Kairi's shoulder when he stands next to her, but she thinks he might be a great hero. She would know – she's had a lot of experience with heroes.
It's Toph who lags behind as dusk breaks over the horizon. "Hey, Princess," she says, and Kairi has to stop herself from thinking of bright hair and slanted eyes and fires. "What did you say to Sparky to get him all worked up?"
"He asked me how I was going to lock this world," she replies honestly. "I told him I needed to find this world's key, which would give me access to the world's heart, and when I told him the key was the Fire Lord's crown he… got a little upset."
"Just a little?" Toph snorts, motioning behind them. Kairi can still see a bit of smoke in the air. She bites her lip. Toph grabs her wrist and frowns into the distance. "Hey, don't get upset," she says, shuffling her feet along the ground. "Sparky's just really sensitive about his Dad and anything to do with him, including the whole Fire Lord thing."
"… why?" Kairi asks. She thinks of the scar on Zuko's face and the scars on Riku's chest that keep him from talking about his time in the Organization. "Did his dad give him his scar?"
"You'll have to ask him that yourself, Princess." Toph is scowling now, her fingers tight and pressing hard into Kairi's veins. "Because up until now, I didn't even knowSparky had a scar."
They walk together until Aang tells them to stop and set up camp, and when Toph lets go of her wrist, there are purple bruises already forming. Kairi helps Katara unload their stuff and doesn't think twice about healing them.
There is a fight at dinner. It starts with Sokka saying something about an eclipse that failed, then Aang mentions something about struggling with training and the Avatar state, then Zuko is telling him he needs to let go of whatever's holding him back, and Aang shoots Katara the most pointed look when he says he can't. Sokka and Zuko catch it, and there is a lot of yelling after that.
Kairi stays out of it, leaning against Appa's side as Katara yells. "He's just a kid!" she snaps, standing in front of Aang like a protective mother. "You can't expect him to carry all this on his own!"
Aang looks defeated. Zuko makes an unintelligible noise and exhales steam, while Sokka continues raving and swinging his boomerang around wildly. Toph, who Kairi assumes was listening in her rock-tent, pokes her head out and goes, "Why didn't anyone tell me Sparky has a scar?"
Everyone freezes. Kairi fists her hands in Appa's fur and hopes she doesn't mention her name. Zuko frowns. "It's not important."
"It's a part of who you are, isn't it?" Toph rolls her eyes. "I'm not trying to make a big deal out of anything; I was just wondering why no one thought to tell me. I can't see everything with my feet, you know."
"We didn't tell you because we didn't think to," Katara says. "It's not something you just… tell someone."
"Way to be subtle, Sweetness." Toph scratches her ear and disappears back behind the rocks. "I'm going to bed now, so if you all could just shut the hell up, that'd be great. Night!"
"Toph?" Sokka calls, after a beat, "who told you about Zuko's scar?"
"The only person who seems to care enough to ask questions, of course," is the reply, and Kairi feels her face heat up as everyone turns to look at her.
"I... thought she knew?" she offers, wincing. Aang cocks his head at her curiously, while Katara and Sokka shake their heads.
Zuko scowls at her necklace for a long time, then turns on his heel and walks away.
She finds him later, with fire swirling around his hands. She refuses to think of chakrams as she approaches him tentatively and says, "I'm sorry I accidentally told Toph about your scar."
"It's okay," he grunts, and aims a kick at a nearby oak tree. "She would've found out eventually, anyways."
Kairi pushes the toe of her boot into the dirt. "Ah, uhm, okay then. I'll… see you in the morning."
She's walking away when he calls to her. "You're the only one who talks about it, you know."
She turns halfway and blinks. He's staring at her hard and touching the tips of his fingers to the glossy skin of his ear. She swallows. "Is… that a bad thing?"
"… no," he finally says, features softening just a little, and turns away.