Title: No One Cares About This Story (Or the Stuff That Happened to Xin Fu and Master Yu After They Got Written Out of All the Important Parts of History)
Universe: Avatar the Last Airbender
Theme/Topic: N/A
Rating: PG for violence and mild swearing on Xin Fu's part
Character/Pairing/s: lightly Xin FuxMaster Yu (mentions of Toph and other series personalities)
Warnings/Spoilers: Spoilers from season two to the end of the series. Probably OOC because I don't remember much about either of these characters except that they are hilarious.
Word Count: 14,250
Summary: Xin Fu and Master Yu do many pointless and idiotic things while the world moves on.
Dedication: a mini-bang style encouragement fic for gaisce! YOU CAN DO IT! Also, special thanks to mousapelli for the lightning quick beta. 3
A/N: Yeah I don't know. Avatar fic is hard.
Disclaimer: No harm or infringement intended.

1. The Escape

"I have to go to the bathroom."

Silence. This is because Xin Fu is counting backwards from ten slowly.

"Did you hear me?" Master Yu asks, after another breath. He squirms uncomfortably; Xin Fu can feel the other man's breath on his face, coming in vaguely panicked, embarrassed puffs. He twitches. "I…"

"You couldn't have gone while we were in the city?" Xin Fu growls when he gets to one. Clearly the counting thing doesn't work; he ducks his head a little and abruptly leans as far forward as he can instead.

Master Yu sputters as the already tiny distance between them grows smaller still. "What are you… don't get so close to…"

Xin Fu ignores him; he angles his shoulder towards Master Yu's chest and pushes his weight into the smaller man with as much force he can muster in their confined metal prison.

"Ow!" Master Yu yelps indignantly, as he's suddenly shoved back against the iron wall. His head smacks against one of the uneven metal curves with a resounding clang.

The cage creaks and groans a little on impact, which is a relief; it means the structural integrity of the metal walls has been compromised enough by the Bei Fong girl's freakish abilities such that Xin Fu figures using sheer force alone might be enough to get the two of them out of here before Master Yu's high-pitched whining drives him insane and he decides to bite him to death.

Master Yu huffs in annoyance in the meantime, and Xin Fu is vaguely alarmed when he doesn't have to look at his companion's face to know exactly how it must look right now, all frowning and petulant in the way snobby spoiled brats get when they don't have their way.

The timbre of Master Yu's voice only confirms what Xin Fu is thinking. "What did you do that for?" he whines. "That wasn't pleasant. It's not my fault that we're…"

Xin Fu pushes against him again, and only partially because he's trying to get them out this time. Master Yu rattles the inside of the box a little harder than before on the second go round. The metal screeches more decisively on impact and Xin Fu smiles to himself, experimentally rocking his weight backwards the next time, slamming his own shoulder against the wall. The cage rocks and his muscles scream in protest on impact, but he grits his teeth and tells himself that it's worth the sacrifice. It has never been his plan to spend any prolonged amount of time within Master Yu's breathing space, and he's fairly certain that if they stay this way much longer his fate will be far worse than a bruised back.

Master Yu's voice goes high and panicky when their prison starts to sway ominously; the sound of it reminds Xin Fu of the yappy little dog his mother used to keep to scare birds out of the garden. He may or may not have tried to kill that stupid thing a few times too. It was also annoying.

"What are you doing, you buffoon? If you keep moving us around like that that it's going to come out!" Master Yu hisses under his breath, equal parts terrified and scandalized. Xin Fu can make out the way he's shifting his weight from foot to foot by the way their clothes rustle against each others. He really does need to go. Soon, too.

"If you pee on us it'll be the last thing you ever do," Xin Fu vows, and throws his weight backwards as hard as he can again, maybe a bit desperately. The cage rocks violently.

"Stop doing," Master Yu begins, but the "that" on the tip of his tongue seems to get snatched away at the last minute in favor of a shriek that sort of sounds like "Nyaaaaagh!" when the force of Xin Fu's last pitch accidentally sends the cage tipping onto its side.

Xin Fu scowls when he ends up on his back on the ground a few minutes later, Master Yu's face shoved up against his neck. Master Yu's hair tickles his mouth.

Master Yu's nose, Xin Fu also realizes, is wet.

A moment later, he discovers that it's not the only thing that's wet.

"Dead," Xin Fu rumbles, teeth clenched. He can feel the nerve on his forehead popping out as telltale moisture starts to seep into his clothes along his legs. "I'm killing you dead."

Master Yu winces, clearly mortified. "I told you I had to go," he mutters.

Xin Fu decides that he is not getting paid nearly enough for this.

They finally make it out of the twisted iron cage the next evening, after a steady stream of Xin Fu desperately banging his head against the wall until things cracked finally pays dividends. His efforts create a large enough hole in the metal that he can see the dirt on the ground beneath them through it, and he summons trails of earth inside to use on the weakened metal in lieu of his own skull. After that it's a simple enough matter of punching through the iron's stressed points with a steady barrage of gravel and a saint-like internal mantra of, I am ignoring the idiot trapped here with me until we are free and then I am shaking him until his eyes roll up into his head and he is dead.

Except there isn't been nearly as much of the shaking until dead thing as he'd planned on after they manage to free themselves because at that point, a Fire Nation platoon on the way to the city comes marching up over the distant hills, and in the interest of surviving (piss all over his legs or not), the two earth benders hastily draw up the dirt and rocks around them and make like two very convincing mounds of dirt while the soldiers had plod over them, thinking of them as nothing more than a couple of inconvenient speed bumps on the road to Ba Sing Se.

"I'll do the laundry," Master Yu offers sheepishly afterward, once the sun has set and coast is clear. By then Xin Fu is too tired and cranky and stepped on by Fire Nation assholes to do much more than mechanically set up a makeshift camp along the riverbank and think about their next move.

Master Yu takes their soiled clothes down to the river while Xin Fu builds a small campfire in the cover of the brush growing along the water's edge, and they end up splitting their rations while they wait for their laundry to dry.

"That little brat is a real monster," are the first words out of either of their mouths for a long time. Xin Fu tears at his jerky irately as he says it.

"My student certainly has a remarkable talent, though," Master Yu marvels more optimistically, and sips at a cup of tea he's managed to boil over their small, flickering flame. "This could change the tide of the war in the Earth Kingdom's favor, if she could only show the rest of us how…"

"Not the job," Xin Fu reminds him, grabbing another piece of meat and biting into it. "We don't get paid the rest of the money until we bring her home. And if there are Fire Nation soldiers moving towards the city, that probably means something inconvenient is going to happen in Ba Sing Se soon."

Master Yu sniffs. "I know that, but it's still a possibility," he answers. "She can still bend metal regardless of where she is when she's doing it." He finishes his tea and then crowds a little closer around the fire as the nighttime chill starts to settle over the riverbank. For a while, the sound of Xin Fu's chewing is all that's between them, mechanically finishing piece after piece of stale jerky until Master Yu frowns, the earth bending teacher's hands closed carefully over his cup with his back straight and shoulders squared like a disapproving school marm.

Xin Fu eyes him. He stops chewing. "What?"

"Don't eat too much heavy food before bed," Master Yu answers primly. "You know how you get indigestion the next day."

Xin Fu scowls. "That's none of your business."

A sniff. "It is when I have to spend the day traveling with you and your flatulence. You're not as discreet about it as you think you are, you know." Master Yu's face puckers at the memory like he's just eaten something particularly sour, before he shakes his head and finishes off his tea with a slightly imperious air. "We should go to an herb shop when we get back to the city. Perhaps they'll have some medicine that can help with that. I think it's a condition."

"This is where you stop talking," Xin Fu growls, and throws his last, half eaten piece of jerky back into his bag. It's more because he's lost his appetite listening to Master Yu's nagging than out of any desire to spare his companion's nostrils over the course of tomorrow's journey back to Ba Sing Se.

The memory of the Fire Nation's soldiers moving in the same direction disturbs him as well, a niggling thought in the back of his mind that tells him to give this endeavor up, but he manages to bed down for the night without too much trouble when he reminds himself that he isn't directly involved in the war in any way. All he has to do is avoid the Fire Nation's men long enough to snatch one tiny, insignificant, little blind girl from a vast city crawling with people when she least expects it. It's all for the money. The pretty, pretty money.

With that to buoy him, he turns and snuffs out the fire with a wave of his hand and a tiny mound of dirt before curling up on his side and closing his eyes.

On the other side of the fire he hears Master Yu do the same; before long the smaller man starts up that thin, reedy-sounding pattern of snoring of his that he always insists he doesn't do, occasionally stopping mid-snort to mutter unintelligible things about dumplings and horse stance. Xin Fu shuts his eyes more tightly and reminds himself that the sooner he's done with this, the sooner he gets paid and never has to see that idiot earth bending teacher ever again.

2. Chosun Village

Ba Sing Se is already lost by the time they get back on the road. A band of miserable refugees intercepts them halfway back with the sad news and invites the pair to travel with them to the nearest safe settlement they know of. "Too small and insignificant for the Fire Nation to waste time with," the leader of the refugees says, around a wary smile.

Xin Fu scoffs. "That means they'll probably just wipe it off the…"

Master Yu elbows Xin Fu in the ribs and looks forlorn. "You didn't happen to see a little blind girl in your haste to flee, did you?" he asks.

The refugee leader shakes his head. "Didn't see much of anything, to be honest. One second we were safe, and the next we…weren't. Damndest thing." Pause. Frown. "I'm sorry, was she your daughter?"

"No," Xin Fu says, at the exact same time Master Yu says, "Yes."

Xin Fu makes a face, while the refugees all slowly give them another look over.

"I see," the leader says eventually, and has this strange look on his face that for some reason, makes Xin Fu want to punch it. "Well, I don't know if it's any consolation, but I'm sure she's…alive. It really was the damndest thing."

In the background, both earth benders can hear it when a small child leans over to his mother and asks her in a whisper that might as well be a scream, "How do two men have a baby?"

His mother's answer is to cuff him soundly over the head and offer an apologetic smile to Xin Fu.

The boy looks as bewildered as Xin Fu feels.

"We should go," he says, when the ensuing silence just makes the whole world even more uncomfortable.

"Wait, but it's dangerous," the leader insists. "There's no way you'll get back in without being taken. The Dai Li has agents everywhere." He tries to put a placating hand on Xin Fu's arm, but the look Xin Fu gives him stays his hand. "Look, you can come with us. Your daughter might have gotten out with one of the other groups that managed to sneak away. And even if she didn't, you're no use to her if you're taken by the Fire Nation. Our only hope of going back to Ba Sing Se lies with the Avatar."

Xin Fu frowns. "Did the Avatar escape the city?"

Vigorous nods all around. "We're headed in the same direction. Hopefully he can protect us."

Xin Fu considers this. "Do you know where he's going?"

Less vigorous movements in response this time. "We're not sure exactly. But a vague idea is better than none at all, right?"

"Hmm," Xin Fu responds, trying to think. If the Avatar fled there's no doubt Toph is with him.

"Please," the man implores them again, "just come with us. It's the safest bet. And we don't mind at all."

"Yes! We take all types here, so don't worry," the woman who'd cuffed her son adds from the background, somehow even less subtly than her son. It must be a family thing.

It makes Xin Fu's jaw twitch. Master Yu just looks confused. "What do you mean?"

A moment of silence.

"You know…" the leader admits, after an anxious moment. "Types." He flounders. "Benders."

Master Yu blinks. "Oh. How did you know we were benders?"

The leader looks more and more uncomfortable. "Well, you know. We just…" he makes a vague side-to-side gesture with his palm. "It's kind of obvious."

Master Yu frowns. "That's not the proper technique for…"

Xin Fu slaps a hand to his forehead. "Stop talking," he declares, and shoves Master Yu forward before he can say any more stupid things. "Let's just go."

The refugee leader, whose name they learn is Jin Soo, is happy to have them aboard.

Their little party is attacked by bandits two days later, at a narrow canyon pass essentially ideal for ambushes.

Xin Fu and Master Yu deal with their attackers easily because Xin Fu is cranky and Master Yu likes attention; not five minutes after the robbery begins the two of them are dusting themselves off and causing the rock walls of the canyon to dissolve and then reconstitute around the robbers' limbs in smooth sandstone shackles.

"Wow, you guys are earth benders?" everyone marvels afterwards, thankfully.

Yu blinks. "I thought you said you knew we were earth benders." He looks exceedingly puzzled.

Xin Fu has a headache.

Chosun village is a shithole.

Xin Fu spies around ten medium sized hovels and a dozen or so downright small ones built around a single boulevard with an old, rundown well situated at its center. The dwellings are corralled by a shabby mud-brick fence and the naturally dense forest that the party had spent the better part of three days fighting through. The place smells like animal droppings.

"We made it!" Jin Soo says as they stand at the gate, looking self-satisfied in a tired, relieved sort of way.

The rest of the party is similarly enthused, and Xin Fu thinks the whole thing is ridiculous, which says a lot, given that his primary place of business had once been an underground cave.

"My feet hurt," Master Yu chimes in, right on time. Xin Fu glares sideways at him but he's already got a hand on Xin Fu's shoulder, using it to balance himself as he lifts his left foot up and starts to rub at it through his slipper. "I'm hungry."

The village elder, a bald, stooped uncle of Jin Soo's by the name of Kang In, welcomes the party with open, gnarled arms. Jin Soo introduces Xin Fu and Master Yu as the powerful earth benders who protected them during the harrowing journey here from the fallen capital.

Kang In gives both earth benders a long, slow look; one that has Master Yu unconsciously putting Xin Fu's body between his and the old man's.

Then, Kang In gives them a wide, toothless grin. "Well, we welcome all types here, boys. I'm sure we can have some of the Lee boys make up their barn for you." He leans in closer then, hand raised between Xin Fu and himself as he whispers, "More private on that side of town, you know."

Xin Fu's jaw twitches. "Have you seen the Avatar?"

Kang In blinks, then shakes his head sadly. "You haven't heard? The Avatar is dead."

Jin Soo's entire party stops dead. "No," he says, "that's impossible. Uncle, we saw the sky bison take flight over the city as we escaped."

Kang In sighs. "The Fire Prince slew him when he tried to escape. The news is everywhere."

"Then we're doomed," Jin Soo murmurs, looking genuinely mournful.

The townsfolk stop to consider this, hearts heavy.

And then Master Yu clears his throat. "Can someone point me in the direction of the bathroom?" he poses, looking sheepish.

Later that evening, after a communal dinner in the town dining hall full of strange traditional dancing and even stranger traditional songs detailing the exploits of all of Chosun Village's heroes of old for their two honored guests, Xin Fu and Master Yu are finally shown to the loft in the Lees' barn, which has been hastily swept up and prepared for them with fresh hay and one clean, warm-looking double-wide bed roll.

"If the Avatar is dead, do you think Toph is dead too?" Master Yu asks after a moment, before Xin Fu is about to claim the bed. Master Yu plops down in the middle of the bed roll in the meantime.

"Dead or alive, doesn't matter, right?" Xin Fu grunts, tying up his hair. "We just gotta bring her back."

Master Yu scowls at him. "No. Alive. He wants his daughter alive. I'm pretty sure we've gone over this already."

"Whatever. We start searching tomorrow. Now move."

Master Yu scoots over on the bed roll. Xin Fu glares. "Off."

A sniff. "Why? It's perfectly big enough for the both of us."

"I am not sharing with you."

"More for me then," Master Yu answers, and settles down comfortably on the roll. "Oh, nice."

Xin Fu glowers. Master Yu simply blows out the lamp and says, "Good night, Xin Fu."

Xin Fu stands in the dark glaring for a few more minutes before he sighs and slips onto the other half of the bed roll.

Xin Fu wakes up to the sound of giggles.

Eyes blinking open he sits up hastily, arms up in a defensive position.

He ends up throwing Master Yu off of him and face-first into a bale of hay. "Ow."

Two pairs of big brown eyes stare back at Xin Fu.

The Lee's two youngest daughters poke at him curiously. "Time to get up, sleepy heads," the older of the two twitters, as she peers over the top of the ladder at the two earth benders. "You two can't just laze around in bed with one another all day, you know."

Xin Fu sputters. "Excuse me?"

The youngest daughter nods sagely. "Momma says to ask if you two can help get rid of the big tree stump in the pasture. It's too heavy for Papa or the boys to lift."

Xin Fu glares, while Master Yu dizzily disentangles himself from the hay. "Good morning," he manages, after a beat.

The girls giggle some more. "Good morning," they answer in tandem, all good manners and smiles.

"We're not farm workers," Xin Fu answers in Master Yu's stead. "We have places to go."

The older girl tsks. "No work, no breakfast. Everybody pulls their weight if they want to eat," she recites, the words clearly a familiar mantra here at the Lee house. "That's the rules."

"Momma's making congee!" the youngest adds, throwing her hands up in excitement. "And if there's guests, we might get to take out the thousand year old turtle duck eggs!"

The girls look at the earth benders imploringly.

Xin Fu tries to scare them off with a glare.

Master Yu does not cooperate. "Congee does sound good," he muses out loud, and finally succeeds in getting the last few bits of hay from his hair. "And it would be rude to just abuse our hosts' hospitality by leaving without offering them anything in thanks."

"We could not kill their kids in thanks," Xin Fu suggests, grinning at the girls. He thinks it sounds magnanimous.

"Breakfast is in ten minutes!" the girls chirp, unimpressed. They skitter back down the ladder.

Thirty minutes and three bowls of congee with eggs later, Xin Fu finds himself in a field surrounded by fat, curious bull pigs, digging up the ancient tree stump of what must have been the biggest damned tree on the planet.

Master Yu stands nearby, trying to keep the Lee's three sons from braining him in their excitement to see real live earth bending. "Woooah that's awesome can he make it explode, what happens when you make a first like this and then do it like this, is that a real earth bending move? Can you teach me how to explode a guy's head with a rock? Can you send dirt up into his brain and control his body?"

Xin Fu ends up stepping in something soft and warm left behind by one of the bull pigs and still doesn't envy Master Yu his current job.

They spend most of the rest of the afternoon chopping up the stump for firewood. Mrs. Lee brings them kimbap for lunch and says she hopes they like hot pot, because that's what they're having for dinner.

"I love hot pot," Master Yu assures her, before Xin Fu can say, "we won't be staying."

The two girls tell Xin Fu to chop faster.

"What a delightful family," Master Yu muses out loud that night, after he and Xin Fu had managed to squeeze around the Lee's crowded dinner table with the rest of the family, squabbling over who had too much meat and who kept getting vegetables in the hot pot.

Xin Fu, inordinately full and starting to feel sore all along his back and shoulders from the long hours he'd spent wood chopping, just grunts inarticulately and falls onto the bed roll. Tomorrow, he thinks, the hunt resumes tomorrow.

Master Yu gives a disapproving sniff and pokes him in the ribs until he grunts and rolls over onto his side of the bedding.

The morning comes with Fire Nation soldiers, demanding tribute, demanding supplies, supplication, a list of names detailing every one of the village's inhabitants with any earth bending talent.

"Your new lord and king only asks for obedience. You will be granted your continuing freedom so long as there is that," the captain of the company, an oily looking fellow called Tsang, announces, smile smug as the komodo rhino he is riding breathes smoke threateningly at the cowering townsfolk.

"There are no earth benders here," Kang In assures the soldiers. "Only peaceful farmers."

"Lying is the same as signing your own death sentence," Tsang reminds Kang In mildly. "Are you certain?"

"Yes," Kang In repeats. "And you may take what supplies you and your men need. We are grateful for Lord Ozai's mercy."

Xin Fu thinks the old man is a fool. Xin Fu also thinks he can crush most of the platoon's skulls with a couple of well-thrown rocks, but those komodo rhinos are looking agitated and one of them could probably run the whole place into the ground if it got loose.

The soldiers take most of the livestock that aren't in the pastures, all of the preserved food stores the village has, and commandeers the bath house for the company's exclusive use for the day.

"We should go," Master Yu finally says, as he and Xin Fu both retreat back into the Lee's barn when the coast is clear.

Xin Fu is already packed; he shoulders his travel satchel wordlessly and leads the way down the ladder.

They almost make it to the southernmost edge of town when they hear screaming.

Down the central boulevard, one of Tsang's soldiers is pulling Mrs. Lee by the hair, a jar of pickled cabbage under his arm. "She was trying to hide this in the crawl space, sir!" the soldier reports, as Tsang has his beard shaved from a seat on Kang In's front porch, overlooking the town square.

Tsang eyes her distastefully.

"Please," she says, "I have five children."

"Tie her up," Tsang says, dismissively. "We'll beat her in front of the well as an example to the others."

"Sir!" the soldier responds, saluting smartly.

Master Yu stops to look at Xin Fu.

Xin Fu glares. "No."

But he just keeps looking.

Xin Fu snarls and drops his pack on the ground and stops down the middle of the street.

Master Yu drops his pack as well and moves to follow.

"Fire Nation scum!" Xin Fu shouts loudly, and strikes a pose not unlike The Boulder's as he nears the center of the square, where Tsang sits. He draws up the earth on the ground around him like armor. "Fight me!"

The Fire Nation captain's eyebrows arch. "What's this?" He stops to look at Kang In accusatorily. "I thought you said there weren't any earth benders here?"

Xin Fu panics. "Uh…"

"We have been following you and your men for days," Master Yu's voice cuts in, sounding snobby and irritating as ever except suddenly in a good way. Xin Fu huffs in relief. "We have come to take our revenge on you, Captain Tsang!" Master Yu continues, with perhaps a bit too much dramatic flair.

"Yeah. Revenge. We don't know these people at all," Xin Fu adds, jus to clarify. Master Yu gives him that look of his, the one that means he's probably calling Xin Fu not-nice-things in his head.

Tsang doesn't seem to notice as he stands, wiping the remnants of shaving cream from his half-shaven jaw. "I'm sorry, revenge? Have we met?"

Master Yu pauses for a second, briefly. "Of course. In Omashu. You must remember. There was that…fight."

Tsang blinks. "Omashu… you'll forgive me, I did many things in Omashu. I don't remember either of your faces though."

Xin Fu cracks his knuckles. "But you will."

When he opens his fists again, spikes of rock stab through Kang In's flimsy little porch.

"You're heroes to us all."

Xin Fu tries not to throw up in his mouth a little at the way the Lees and Kang In are looking at him, eternally grateful, like they hadn't just killed a bunch of Fire Nation soldiers because it felt like the thing to do.

"Uh, we should go," Xin Fu answers after a beat, and starts to pry his hand out of Kang In's bony ones. "They'll probably be wondering what happened to Tsang and his boys."

"Of course," Jin Soo agrees, though not without looking mournful at having to see them go. "We'll never forget what you two have done for us. That you sacrificed your comfort here to save Mrs. Lee." He reaches out to take Xin Fu's hand in his next. "You're really, really heroes."

"Uh, sure," Xin Fu says, and can't hide how creeped out he is by everything at all.

In the background, Master Yu tries to balance all of the provisions Mrs. Lee is insisting that they take with them in their wagon. "It's the least we can do."

"I do like those pickled radishes," Master Yu admits, and bows in thanks.

In the meantime, Jin Soo smiles and leans in closer to Xin Fu, whispering, "I'll admit, it was a little weird at first, but now I get it. You two really deserve each other."

Xin Fu looks down at their clasped hands. "Let go of me now."

Jin Soo laughs like he'd just realized what he was doing and blushes, releasing his hold on Xin Fu. "Right! Sorry. Wouldn't want to give Master Yu the wrong idea."

Xin Fu turns and walks away a little bit faster than he normally would have.

He climbs into the wagon as Master Yu finishes loading it.

"Wonderful people!" Master Yu twitters to himself again, as they take off down the thoroughfare. "Simply wonderful." He begins digging into a bag full of dried sweet plums.

Xin Fu watches him in disgust as he steers the rickety wagon onward, Chosun Village disappearing in the dust behind them.

Little do they know that at the next Chosun Village communal dinner, a new song and a new dance will debut. It will be called "The Tale of the Gentle Heroic Male Lovers" and will be performed for honored guests to the village for hundreds of years to come.

3. The Yuiko Effect

He sees her from a mile away, standing by the side of the road with her thumb out and a pretty smile on her face. She can't be older than twenty one, hair in cute braided buns on either side of her head with posture that suggests she has all the confidence in the world, that suggests she thinks the two schmucks in the rickety wagon will undoubtedly stop to oblige such a good looking young lady stranded out here in the middle of nowhere all on her own. They'd be absolute monsters not to come to her aid.

Xin Fu doesn't slow the wagon down.

And for a moment, he thinks he sees her pretty smile falter.

"What are you doing?" Master Yu demands the closer they get without losing velocity. "She might need help! You can't just leave a young lady at the side of the road like that! These are dangerous times we live in."

"I don't trust helpless looking young ladies anymore," Xin Fu responds, but curses and pulls up short when she practically throws herself in their path at the last minute.

"Hey!" she shouts, waving her arms at them. "Do you not see me or something?"

"Get out of the road," Xin Fu tells her. "You're in the way."

She pouts at him. "You're kind of mean, aren't you?"

Master Yu is basically half off the wagon already, happily offering her his seat and a snack before Xin Fu can tell her that if he was really mean, she'd be a bloody smear under their wheels right now and they'd still be moving forward. "I'm sorry about that," Yu begins to her instead, placatingly. "Please have a seat. Is there anywhere we can help you get to?"

She beams at him, and Xin Fu thinks there's something weird about the sweetness in that smile; it's kind of like the feeling you get when you're eating candies that have been made with those new-fangled sugars that aren't actually made out of sugar but something fake and saccharine enough to turn your stomach. It's still sweet per se, but not in the right sort of way.

It's not natural.

Rather, it's the sort of way where Xin Fu kind of wants to punch her in the face on instinct and then back the wagon over her body a few times just to make sure she doesn't get up again.

Except he can't do any of that because now she's suddenly sitting in the front seat next to him, all gentle laughter and introductions and too much talking much too fast. "I'm Yuiko!" she chirps. "I ran away from home a few months ago to follow my dream of joining the circus."

"Nobody asked," Xin Fu says, and earns a glare from Master Yu.

"I am called Master Yu," Yu says before Xin Fu can say anything else, "And the surly one with the bad manners is Xin Fu. We are…working together."

She gives them both a steady once over, the kind that Xin Fu is starting to associate with shenanigans and people getting the wrong idea entirely because apparently the world has more idiots in it than he'd imagined. He glowers at her from the driver's seat.

She giggles back. "Work together? What do you two do, exactly?"

"Bounty hunt," Xin Fu answers, at exactly the same time Master Yu says, "We're in the escort service."

Xin Fu gives him a look that is a mixture between shocked horror and I'm going to punch you in the throat you stupid bastard.

Master Yu ignores it and just sits up on the bench more primly. "We are on our way to retrieve a young lady of consequence and escort her safely back home."

Yuiko giggles some more. "Boy, sounds like I decided to ride with the right people then! I feel really safe, knowing that. I mean, you both look really strong and Xin Fu-sshi there has this really scary vee in his forehead that would probably chase away any bandits the moment they saw it…"

"Where's the damn circus?" Xin Fu asks suddenly, as he feels the vee in his forehead furrow deeper and deeper into his skin with each giddy word.

Yuiko lights up. "Oh, does this mean you'll take me? You will? That's great!" She pulls a map out of her back pocket that reads "Traveling Shinoda Brothers Circus" on the front and flips through the schedule thoughtfully. "Um, so it says they'll be performing for three nights in Hodoli Mountain Village starting tomorrow! That's where I was hoping to catch them anyway, but it might be kind of far for us to try and make so if we don't there's always the next stop the week after, which is…"

Xin Fu increases their speed. "We'll make it," he says.

Master Yu looks surprised. "Well, that's really very nice," he tells his companion, sounding well pleased at Xin Fu's sudden improvement in gentlemanly behavior.

He turns to Yuiko then, all smiles as he pats her hand gently. "This is rare, Yuiko! Xin Fu usually doesn't like anyone so much that he'd go out of his way to do a favor for them."

Yuiko studies him carefully. "His face sure is scary though."

"Yes, well, what I do is try not to look at it very often," Master Yu answers, indulgently.

Xin Fu imagines the blood stains on their wheels that would be there right now, if he'd only known what not hitting her would later subject him too.

In the meantime, Master Yu asks her about herself and why she wants to join the circus when someone as lovely as her should clearly be aiming for the theater arts. Xin Fu throws up in his mouth a little.

"I'm really bendy!" she answers good-naturedly. "And I'm not sure I'd like acting. You have to memorize all this stuff and do weird things with your face all the time."

Somewhere along the way, after she calls him "Xin Fu-sshi" for the fourth or fifth time, Xin Fu offers to help give her a face that would be perfect for a permanent career in the circus.

She doesn't get how her face has anything to do with the trapeze; that was why she didn't want to become an actress in the first place.

She does start to scoot instinctively closer to Master Yu's side of the bench after that, though.

They stop for lunch at Yuiko's behest by a small running stream hidden by a copse of trees. Yuiko and Master Yu (who she's been calling Yucchi for the past hour) run off to frolic with nature and refill the canteens, leaving Xin Fu to wipe down and water the ostrich horses by himself.

"Wow, Yucchi, you guys must make a fortune travelling across the world saving damsels in distress," Yuiko marvels as she digs into the last of the pickled herring Mrs. Lee and the other ladies of Chosun village had packed for them. "It's so romantic!"

"It's a living," he answers with an extra touch of romance in his voice, wearing this stupid grin on his face that makes Xin Fu lose most of his appetite. It figures a bumbling old idiot would take to an idiotic girl in less than half a day. They make a perfect pair of moron birds together like this. "We certainly have some incredibly wealthy clients. They do pay handsomely for our efforts," he adds, with a wink at Yuiko.

She twitters. "And I'll bet you have tons of adventure stories too! Tell me some of them, Yucchi."

Master Yu smiles back, wiping his mouth with the corner of his sleeve before putting his plate aside. "Well," he begins, chest puffing up, "there was this one time we encountered two dangerous criminals in the desert…"

Xin Fu is the only one who notices when Yuiko takes the opportunity to filch the rest of the fruit on his plate while he tells the story.

He's pretty sure she's evil.

"This should be a shortcut!" Yuiko tells them hours later, when they're stopped at a fork in the road and the ostrich horses clearly like the path to the right, with its wide open road and easy visibility and well-maintained lines.

So of course Yuiko is pointing left, to the road overgrown with trees and brush from disuse, fraught with hills and sharp curves. She's puzzling over the makeshift map in her Shinoda Brothers Circus pamphlet and scratching her head cutely as she lounges around in the back of the wagon, cushioned by their bed rolls, which she's unrolled and placed on top of one another for maximum comfort as she leans against the jars of supplies for support.

"She's evil," Xin Fu says in the meantime, under his breath. He's feeling magnanimous at the moment, and figures so long as Master Yu knows, he won't be too freaked out when he suddenly witnesses Xin Fu crushing Yuiko's pretty little skull between two boulders.

Master Yu looks affronted. "She's a very nice young woman."

"She ate all your fruit."

"I'm not offended."

"She keeps asking about money."

"She keeps asking about our jobs because she wants to hear stories about adventures, Xin Fu. Stop being paranoid."

Xin Fu scowls. "The ostrich horses don't like her."

A snort. "The ostrich horses like you because you feed them. I don't think that makes them good judges of character. Why are you so determined not to like anyone?"

A scowl. "Because I'm right most of the time. Something's not right about her. She likes you too damned much for one thing."

Master Yu gets a strange look in his eye. "Oh I see now. You're jealous!" he says after a beat, sounding amused.

Xin Fu nearly sputters. "What? No!" He punches Master Yu in the arm just because.

But Master Yu is too busy chortling at him to satisfy him by making his usual girly insulted noises at getting hit randomly. Instead he clutches at his arm slightly and endeavors to look superior. "You're jealous of how well Yuiko and I get along. She's hardly spoken to you because she finds me much more interesting."

"If I'm jealous of anything it's of your ability to be completely oblivious in the middle of a scam. Must have been nice growing up rich, huh?"

Master Yu latches on to the wrong part of that statement entirely. "Ha, so you do admit that you're jealous!"

Xin Fu punches him in the arm again.

"Are you two playing a game, Yucchi?" Yuiko asks after a beat, watching the two earth benders' exchange curiously from the wagon bed. "Is that why we're not moving anymore?"

Master Yu gives Xin Fu an expectant look.

Xin Fu glowers and steers the reluctant ostrich horses left.

Xin Fu knows without a shadow of a doubt that something fishy is going on when Yuiko declares that Yucchi is the manliest, most handsome man she's ever met.

"I don't think Xin Fu-sshi likes me," Yuiko pouts as they stop to make camp for the night. "Did I do something wrong?" Xin Fu can hear her whispering; it seems like she's not really trying to hide it anyway. Because she's evil. He takes a moment to glare at her over his shoulder while he tethers the ostrich horses to the ground.

She visibly retreats at that look, while Master Yu clucks in concern. "Don't be silly, Yuiko," he tells her gently, "You've done nothing wrong. Xin Fu is just like an animal. He only has to get used to you before he stops acting skittish."

Yuiko looks skeptically at Xin Fu, who's still glaring (though the effect is tempered somewhat by one of the ostrich horses getting playful and nipping at his hair). "I still wouldn't want to be left alone with him," she declares after a moment, before ducking to hide behind Master Yu a little bit more.

Master Yu ends up dragging Xin Fu off to the side of the clearing after that, looking stern. "If you can't be nice at least be civil!" he berates Xin Fu hotly under his breath, while Yuiko peruses the rest of their food stores and finds the handful of apricots Xin Fu had been saving for the ostrich horses. She happily digs in.

"Something is wrong with her," Xin Fu mutters back. "She's not right."

Master Yu frowns. "Something is wrong with someone here, but it isn't her."

Xin Fu snorts. "Something's wrong with you too."

Master Yu huffs and turns on his heel. "Just don't talk to her until we drop her off. You really are unbelievable sometimes."

"Yeah well I don't want to be left alone with her either, okay?" Xin Fu shouts after him, and it isn't until he's helping her help herself to the last of their jerky that he realizes how stupid that sounded.

He grumbles and eats his dinner next to the sympathetic looking ostrich horses and tells himself it's not his fault if Yu gets himself stabbed in the face in the middle of the night before Yuiko robs them blind and takes off with all of their supplies and leftover food.

He glares a lot.

At dinner, Yuiko tries to steal some of Xin Fu's fruit next, when she thinks he isn't looking.

If the rock he flings at her bruises her filthy stealing hand, it's not his fault.

Even if Master Yu shrieks at him and says that it is.

Xin Fu eats his orange and is determined not to feel bad while Master Yu wraps Yuiko's slightly scraped palm.

"We will be on this side of the clearing," Master Yu declares haughtily before they bed down for the night. "Yuiko requests that you please remain on that side of the fire. Which I can't say is really very surprising, given your awful behavior today."

"Good idea," Xin Fu shoots back. "The farther away I am, the less I'll have to listen to your snoring."

"I don't snore!"

Xin Fu makes a rude gesture at the other earth bender before turning his back to the two lovebirds and laying his bed roll out as far as he can from the fire.

He hopes she snores worse than Master Yu does.

She doesn't snore.

It's not because she's a dainty pretty thing either.

It probably has more to do with the fact that she isn't asleep.

Ironically it's the nervous shuffling of the ostrich horses nearby that alerts him to her movements; as he groggily becomes aware of his surroundings he blinks his eyes open and sees a shadow moving through the dim firelight, using quick, sure steps that make very little sound on the ground at all for how fast they're moving.

He blinks and slowly gets up to follow.

He watches her as she edges quietly out of the clearing, weight light and balanced on her toes. At that pace she makes it back to the main road before long, navigating through the dark skillfully. Watching her like this, Xin Fu thinks that her agility might mean she'd be fairly proficient on the trapeze, but if asked, he feels her skills seem much better suited for something more sinister than the circus.

At the side of the road she starts looking around in the moonlight, squinting her eyes and keeping them low to the ground until she comes across a rock about the size of her palm, with a sharp edge on one side.

Xin Fu thinks she's going to use it to try and brain that idiot Yu in his sleep.

He steps forward to intercept, except then she's moving again, scuttling a little further back down the way they'd come, stopping only at a small gathering of trees.

She pulls the fist with the sharp-edged rock on it back and slams it into the tree.

Bark chips off as she does it again, and again, and again.

Xin Fu scowls and strides forward.

He grabs her arm.

She screams.

Okay he maybe should have expected some misunderstandings and some general nighttime stupidity given the whole situation.

What he did not expect was for his partner on this whole lousy mission to nearly brain him with a homemade boulder to his skull.

"What the hell?" he demands, trying to blink through the stars he sees as he clutches his bleeding head in disbelief.

Beside him, Master Yu looks equally disbelieving, except more so for the finger-shaped bruises on Yuiko's arm from where Xin Fu had grabbed her. "Have you lost your mind?" he demands, and Xin Fu wants to kick him in the teeth for looking at him like that. "What could possibly provoke you to attack an unarmed girl?"

"She's… leaving signals! For someone to follow us! She's marking the trees!" Xin Fu exclaims, pointing to the tree that she'd been slamming her rock against. "Clearly she's a scam artist or something, trying to lull us into trusting her so that she and whoever she's working with can rob us blind."

"No!" Yuiko insists, when she hears, face streaked with tears. "No, I was just…" she motions to the tree, where a glistening trail of sticky-looking liquid bleeds from the wound she'd made. "Sap," she admits, sheepishly. "I thought…I thought I'd surprise Yucchi and Xin Fu-sshi with it over breakfast. It's really sweet and goes good with apples. My grandma used to make this for us when we were grumpy."

Xin Fu blinks. "Uh…what?"

The look Yu gives him when they hear that almost, almost makes him cringe. "Sap," he repeats, and makes the word sound poisonous.

Xin Fu scowls, rubbing his head. "It was suspicious, is all," he manages, after a beat. "Anyone with half a brain would have thought…"

"Enough," Master Yu interrupts, looking tired. "We're going back to sleep. Yuiko, that was very thoughtful of you, but wasted on men like Xin Fu."

Xin Fu sputters. "What the hell's that supposed to me…"

"Good night, Xin Fu," Master Yu says, in a tone that almost sounds dangerous.

He takes Yuiko by the hand and leads her back to their camp without another word.

Xin Fu watches them fade into the dark and tells himself he's not sorry and everyone sucks.

If he wakes up extra early the following morning to collect some goddamn tree sap and to cut some goddamned apples, it's because he feels like it and nothing else.

They finish breakfast before the sun is fully up and break camp in record time.

Master Yu doesn't say a single word to him the entire time.

And it's awesome.

Xin Fu steers their wagon back onto the road and wishes every day was as quiet as today.

Xin Fu thinks the silent treatment is some dirty pool.

He is pretty sure there are torture techniques more humane than this.

It's not his fault that he's a much more seasoned warrior than Master Yu, that he's more alert and suspicious and full of survivor instincts.

Tree sap. Who the hell eats tree sap with breakfast? That was disgusting. Possibly even morally wrong.

He eyes Yuiko in the back, where she's got her knees tucked up against her chest and is, for the most part, doing her best to look sad and pathetic while she keeps quiet.

Dirty fucking pool.

Xin Fu holds out until midday, as they're pulling up to the foot of Hodoli Mountain, in search of her stupid damned circus dream.

"Uh," he starts, and no one hears it over the creak of the wheels or the snuffling of the ostrich horses.

He scowls and sits up a little straighter in the driver's seat. "Uh," he tries again, louder this time.

No one says anything, but two sets of eyes turn to look at him. Master Yu still has that prissy look on his face that says Xin Fu reminds him of something he once had a maid empty from his chamber pot.

"So about last night," Xin Fu pushes on, because clearly no one is going to throw him a goddamned bone here. "I might have…"

Yuiko perks up from the back just as they go over a particularly big bump in the road; he can see her out of the corner of her eye as she inches just a little bit forward in the wagon bed, like she's anticipating something mind blowing is going to happen any second now.

"Yes?" Master Yu prompts, after Xin Fu trails off. He gives him a pointed look.

Xin Fu swallows the bad taste in his mouth and pushes on. "I might have jumped to some conclusions about stuff that was going on."

Yuiko looks downright excited at this point, go figure.

"So yeah. I guess what I mean is I'm so…"

An arrow whizzes through the air and imbeds itself in Xin Fu's thigh.

"…Ow," he finishes instead, and curses as several figures surround the wagon from all sides. "Shit."

"Yuiko, stay down," Master Yu begins, as Xin Fu snaps the end of the arrow off with a muffled grunt. He turns to address the robbers, struggling to keep his voice even. "Gentlemen, I assure you, we have no money with us at the…"

Yuiko kicks him in the head.

Master Yu falls sideways, against Xin Fu's shoulder. Xin Fu hisses when it jostles his bleeding leg.

"I knew it!" Xin Fu shouts, before shoving Master Yu off him.

Yuiko grins. "But c'mon, I had you fooled last night."

Master Yu looks stricken. "Yuiko? Why?"

She pulls a bounty poster out of her back pocket and throws it at them. When Master Yu unrolls it and examines it, Xin Fu isn't surprised to see a wildly inaccurate facsimile of their faces on it. "The Fire Nation high command is offering big money for two renegade earth benders that took out a contingent of soldiers last week. Thought I saw a resemblance there."

Xin Fu is insulted. "That looks nothing like us."

Yuiko shrugs. "Kinda? In the eyes maybe. I wasn't sure at first either, but then Yucchi there confirmed it for me when he told me all about your exploits in Chosun Village."

Master Yu pales. "So then…everything… you were marking the path for your men?"

She snorts and jumps gracefully from the wagon bed. "Nothing that simple. It was a message, Yucchi. About when and how to strike. Clever, right?"

"Ha," Xin Fu feels the need to emphasize, even if it jostles his leg and makes it hurt. "Just… ha. Tree sap for breakfast. Like hell."

Yuiko laughs at him. "Enjoy your victories while you can, I guess," she confirms, before nodding to her men, who pull the notches on their bows back. The points of twenty arrows are aimed at their throats light up on her cue. Xin Fu grins at that, because it means he gets to kick the crap out of some fire benders today.

Master Yu seems less thrilled. "Yuiko, are you really? Just…just like this?"

She shrugs. "The poster does say dead or alive. Dead is just easier."

She pauses to filch the last apple from their stores before getting out of the line of fire and joining her men on the ground. She bites into it cheerfully.

Xin Fu eyes Master Yu, who is starting to look less and less stricken and a little more something else the more he sees the evil that is Yuiko. Xin Fu feels himself grin a little bit. "Odds are ten to one, Yu."

Master Yu adjusts his sleeves. "Is your leg okay?"

Xin Fu doesn't deign to answer before he' s gathering the dirt from the road into a hand and using it to crush the bolt tethering the ostrich horses to the wagon.

The sudden explosion of splintering wood sends the two nervous animals stampeding forward.

After today, Xin Fu thinks that Yuiko and her merry little band of bounty hunters will learn a very important lesson about trying to take down any earth bender at the foot of a fucking mountain.

Afterward, when Master Yu is preparing to pull the arrow head out of Xin Fu's leg, he asks if this is really okay.

"Just do it," Xin Fu grunts, his words hard to understand as he growls them out from around the piece of wood he's biting on.

"Yes, of course." Yu's hands hover over his thigh for a few more moments, and Xin Fu has to fight back the urge to kick the idiot with his good leg. "Xin Fu," he begins instead, and looks down at the ground. "I just wanted to say… I mean, for yelling at you earlier, and for not believing you… well, I just… I'm s…"

Xin Fu gives in to the urge and kicks him. Hard.

After that, Yu yelps and ends up ripping the arrow head out of his leg in retaliation.

Xin Fu screams a little, kicks him again, and spits the piece of wood in his mouth out at him just to hear him shriek about how disgusting that is.

As far as either of them is concerned, everything is back to normal.

4. What do you Noh

The last of their money runs out approximately three days after the solar eclipse that Master Yu had spent a good fifteen minutes marveling at for no good reason.

"What good is taking a bounty hunting gig if we use all the money we get from it trying to finish it?" Xin Fu mutters darkly to himself as he looks at his empty purse.

"Well, there's still the other half that's waiting for us once we bring Toph back," Master Yu reminds him logically.

"Money we haven't earned isn't going to feed us today," Xin Fu answers, and the dark aura sliding off of him as he walks through the busy market streets of Han Mi Village is enough to deter even the most seasoned looking bargain hunter from his or her path.

Master Yu scuttles along behind him, giving the occasional apologetic look for Xin Fu's frightening behavior to frightened young women and wide-eyed children as they pass. His stomach rumbles occasionally as well, particularly whenever they encounter all the good smells from various food carts around the market. Before long, it feels like Xin Fu's menacing aura is starting to dissolve into a more pathetic one in the face of all these meals they can't currently afford.

Xin Fu stops in front of a display of barbequed fowl for a moment and looks truly mournful.

"We could send a messenger back to Gaoling and ask for an advance," Master Yu offers tentatively after a beat.

Xin Fu bristles. "We can't afford a messenger," he grits out, before remembering himself and starting to walk again. He supposes they could rob some people, but given the fact that they're currently wanted by the Fire Nation's occupying troop probably means that they should shy away from drawing any unnecessary attention to themselves, or things like Yuiko or worse will be biting them in the ass every time they turn a corner.

"Well then maybe we should get a steady job for the time being," Master Yu suggests next, like he thinks Xin Fu has ever had one.

Xin Fu snorts. "Where the hell did you get an idiotic idea like that?" he asks, right as Master Yu holds up a flier in front of his face. He frowns and swats it away instinctively.

"The local theater company is looking for help," Master Yu informs him. "It's just for a week, building sets for the premiere of their latest play."

"That sounds stupid," Xin Fu answers, just as they pass a vendor selling grilled fish skewers. He surreptitiously wipes at the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand.

"It should be easy enough work, and I for one, would like to eat," Master Yu sniffs. "Some of us have had honest work before, you know."

"Bounty hunting is honest," Xin Fu grunts. "Find someone worth something, kill them, and get the money. What's not honest about that?"

"That," Master Yu rejoins, "doesn't always provide a full belly." He straightens the flier a little, at the places it had become crumpled by Xin Fu's hand. "And I for one, would like to eat sometime soon. Preferably with money that won't land an entire platoon of Fire Nation soldiers on our front step."

Before Xin Fu can tell him they don't have a damned front step, he slips the flier into his sleeve and heads in the indicated direction of the town's traditional theater.

The next batch of fish skewers comes off of the grill at exactly that moment.

Xin Fu grumbles to himself and grudgingly follows.

The Yes-Noh Players, from what Xin Fu can tell thus far, are a bunch of limp-wristed, delicate-looking pretty boys who like to affect long-suffering airs and spend too much time preening in front of the mirror and pretending they're something better than they are.

"You'll be working under our set designer Foo Yun and the director, Master Shoon. Just do what Foo Yun says; most of your job will be the heavy lifting parts and the like. Seems like something you two can handle," the assistant who hires them explains later that afternoon, as he shows them around the inner workings of the humble theater, which is busy with the sounds of song rehearsals, idle chatter, and the occasional crash of choreographed fighting. "You might have to do some painting and a few artsy type things here and there, but nothing too complicated. The artists will handle the more intricate set pieces."

"I'm a very good painter. I even had designs of being an actor once before as well," Master Yu assures the man with one of those professionally obsequious smiles that had probably endeared him to the likes of Lao Bei Fong in the first place. Xin Fu thinks it makes him look even stupider than usual, but doesn't say anything out loud because he suddenly smells food.

The assistant—his name is Chan or something— doesn't notice that he's lost Xin Fu's attention completely. "Look, a quick word of advice, because I don't want you to end up like the two guys we just lost yesterday. Just so long as you do what Foo Yun says and don't talk back, you'll be fine. We keep having people quit because they can't take the abuse, but this is the theater, you know? Even if you're not on stage, you have to expect that you're going to get shit on a little bit." Pause. "There's also going to be quite a bit of overtime, consequently, since we're so behind. Too many people quitting too fast. We'll pay for the extra hours of course, and you two are welcome to sleep in the stands during your breaks."

"Hmmm," Xin Fu grunts, noncommittally. His nose twitches towards the stage, where all the good food smells are coming from.

"Crew's on lunch right now," Chan or something explains apologetically as they hit the backstage area proper, where two large buffet tables are piled high with inviting looking bamboo steamers, "but feel free to get something to eat with everyone else and afterward, I'll introduce you to the rest of the group."

"Lovely," Master Yu declares, in high spirits as a crash in the background abruptly sends the man scurrying off to do damage control. Xin Fu stares at the lunch spread and surreptitiously wipes the corner of his mouth again.

He's suddenly in such a good mood that he doesn't even cuff his companion when Master Yu turns to him with an arched eyebrow and a smug little smile and says, "Wasn't this a wonderful idea after all?"

"Dumplings," Xin Fu answers inarticulately, and strides forward to the buffet tables with the air of a conqueror that has just discovered his army holds the high ground in a virgin land full of primitive natives.

He shoves a pale actor with shaggy hair out of the way and promptly proceeds to clean out an entire tower of steamed shrimp bao.

"I'll take your drooling as a yes," Master Yu declares from behind him, as he takes his own plate and begins picking through the noodles for all the seafood bits covered in sauce. Xin Fu takes his scallops.

The actors wonder who the hell they are. Some of them marvel at Xin Fu's manliness; the shaggy-haired actor looks a little bit in love.

Foo Yun is crazy. Not as crazy as Master Shoon, but apparently directors are supposed to be the craziest of the crazies or they aren't doing their job right. At least, that's what everyone on set seems to take as the consensus, and Xin Fu figures they'd know crazy better than him because everything about theater seems loony and pointless.

"Bigger!" Master Shoon shouts at them, in hysterical tones that are growing as familiar to Xin Fu as the incredibly fruity dialogue he hears Min Ho and Jun Li, the actor playing the warrior prince, run in the background over and over again, hour after hour, during the past six days. "Everything must be bigger!" the art director demands hotly, stomping his feet like a child in the middle of a tantrum.

Xin fu sits in front of an unfinished piece of forest scenery and paints giant leaves on some giant bushes. The director throws his arms up in the air rapidly, like he's having some sort of fit. "Nature is a major character in this play and must be represented on a scale comparable to its importance! It is the haven in which the couple's love blooms! No matter the harsh environments they encounter, it is in amongst the elements in which their relationship is fostered and grows strong!"

"More color!" Foo Yun follows, arms careening in a similar, slightly less dramatic (but still dramatic) manner to Master Shoon's movements. "I like red!"

Xin Fu sighs and turns back to the red paint. He paints a flower.

"Five petals!" Foo Yun shrieks, when Xin Fu only paints four. "Don't be a simpleton, Xin Fu."

"How about I kill you in the face?" Xin Fu answers, though it's muffled through Master Yu's hand suddenly being clamped over his mouth.

"Yes, five is a beautiful number," Master Yu agrees with the director.

"It's an ugly number!" Foo Yun snaps back. "But life isn't always pretty. Sometimes life is jagged and cold and terrible. We have to paint realistically. Five petals! Nature is a capricious bitch!"

Xin Fu bites Master Yu's finger.

"It is our last day! There will be clay pot rice for lunch and then we will be given our paychecks," Master Yu hisses in his ear before he can throw his hammer at the sighing art director's head. Xin Fu grumbles and paints an extra petal on his stupid red flower.

In the background, his eyes narrow when Min Ho, the actor for the fairy princess (go figure), peeks shyly around a corner to watch.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Xin Fu barks at him, and startles him into disappearing behind the scaffolding with a yelp. "Get back to work, fairy!"

"He admires you," Master Yu shushes him, as he paints great, messy streaks of green through their forest scene. "You should have more patience."

"He looks like a woman," Xin Fu shoots back, one eye closed as he attempts to paint a yellow center in his five-petal red flower without smudging things.

"This is an all male theater troupe," Yu reminds him. "Someone has to look like a woman."

Xin Fu smirks. "You mean, someone other than you?" Too easy.

Master Yu just makes an unimpressed expression back at him and tells him his flower looks like a bunch of balloons. Xin Fu jabs him with the painted end of his brush.

In the background, he thinks he hears Min Ho sigh.

When Foo Yun returns from instructing the crafts people about how he wants the boat design to look for the fairy princess's funeral a little while later, he sees Xin Fu and Master Yu's finished forest piece and throws a tantrum.

"All wrong!" he screams, tearing at his hair. He kicks the base of the set piece as if the image depicted on it has personally offended him and his entire bloodline somehow. "We want impressionism, not romanticism! Weren't you listening to me?"

The other sounds of the stage cease abruptly, as artisans and actors pause to peer curiously from their activities to watch the art director in his latest fit of creative hysterics.

Min Ho peeks out from behind the curtain, while an annoyed looking Jun Li does the same, hand resting on Min Ho's shoulder.

Xin Fu is confused. "Five petals," he points out to Foo Yun, gesturing to the red flowers scattered about the forest floor. "That's what you wanted."

"Five ugly petals are as useless as four!" Foo Yun looks even more enraged at the thought; he kicks the base of the piece again. "Useless!"

The scenery gives a pathetic sort of groan.

Min Ho darts forward, looking at the enraged set designer fretfully. "I…I think they did a very good job, Master Foo Yun," he begins, in that soft, tremulous voice of his. "It's a very um, hip…new style?"

"You're a moron!" Foo Yun shouts back, still kicking at the base of the piece like he wants to beat it out of its ugly, horrible existence. "The only reason no one's killed you for your uselessness is because your face looks pretty in a wig and dress!"

"Hey now," Jun Li growls, striding forward in an impressive attempt to back up the man playing his lover, "that's uncalled for." For a moment, he really does look like a fearsome warrior prince.

"You're even worse, muscle-head!" Foo Yun yells, the vehemence and frequency of his kicks increasing the more he's questioned. "I am an artist!"

The scaffolding wobbles.

Xin Fu sees it and thinks that he probably shouldn't have let Master Yu do the hammering earlier.

"Um," he begins, while Master Yu attempts to go forth and intervene.

Xin Fu automatically grabs the back of Master Yu's collar, just as the scenery finally gives a last, protesting groan and tips forward.

People scream.

"How did this happen? What are we going to do?" Director Shoon wails some hours later, when Min Ho hobbles back to the stage with a broken leg and Jun Li returns with a similarly broken arm.

The bandages wrapped around Foo Yun's head don't seem to be holding him back.

"This is what happens when we work with amateurs!" the set designer raves.

"We're opening tomorrow!" the director shrieks back, going octaves higher than Foo Yun could ever hope to reach.

"We'll just have to open with the understudies," Chan or something suggests, tentatively. "Just for the first few weeks."

"I fired them, imbecile," Director Shoon snaps at him. "They didn't understand the characters at all, so I sent them back to their podunk village's dinner theater hall across the water." Pause. "Plus we couldn't afford to keep them on anyway. We're over budget!"

"That's because no one wants to see your hack work!" Foo Yun snipes.

"It's because we keep having to redo set pieces!" Shoon howls in reply.

"I hate you!"

"I hate you more!"

Shoon slaps Foo Yun. Foo Yun swipes back at him by hitting him in the chest a few times.

About five seconds later they're making out against the wall.

Xin Fu and Master Yu look confused. Xin Fu is also kind of grossed out.

Chan or something throws his hands up in the air as if this sort of stuff happens all the time. "No understudies and our two leads are out for the entire opening month. What are we supposed to do? We've already sold tickets."

Xin Fu snorts. "Can't be difficult to give those five people back their money."

"We've sold more than five tickets," Chan or something snaps back a bit testily. "In fact, the mayor is showing up for opening night." He looks distraught. "This isn't going to go over well."

Xin Fu shrugs. "Just go find a couple of gay-looking schmucks with good memory. Not like this stuff is hard. 'My father wishes to use the power of your kingdom to conquer his enemies but I love you too much to watch you fade away' blah, blah, blah. Anyone here's heard the whole stupid play so many times they can probably recite it backwards by now."

Everyone is looking at him funny at this point, even Master Yu. He glares. "What?"

Even Foo Yun and Director Shoon have stopped making out.

"Well," Min Ho offers after a moment, weakly, "He does look like he'd fit into Jun Li's costume."

Director Shoon offers them a lot of money out of his own pocket to just do the opening night show. "It'll take at least a day and a half to go and fetch the understudies from the island," Chan or something assures them, "but you definitely won't have to do more than one show."

Director Shoon dangles the money in front of them. It clanks in a happy, money-filled kind of way, and Xin Fu and Master Yu both realize that there's a lot of potential hot meals in that bag.

Xin Fu eventually snatches the pouch from Director Shoon's hands. "Alright, but we order barbeque for lunch too."

"Deal!" the director agrees, looking incredibly relieved.

Xin Fu pockets the money while Master Yu kind of just gapes at him. He shrugs. "How hard can this be?"

"I'm not gay enough for this!" Xin Fu protests seven minutes later, as a war helmet decorated in fake jewels gets shoved onto his head.

Master Yu just glares at him as he gets wrapped in his shimmery fairy princess costume. "I am very mad at you right now," is all he says.

Xin Fu scoffs. "Thought you wanted to be an actor once. Isn't this your dream?"

"It was not," Master Yu sniffs, "to be a fairy princess."

Xin Fu manages a grin, somewhere from under his ridiculous armor. "But you sparkle so bright in your pretty dress."

Master Yu ignores him.

"They have good chemistry," Foo Yun and Director Shoon both say in the background, and it is the first thing they have agreed on in months.

Xin Fu's eyes go really big about halfway through the first dress rehearsal. "This script has kissing."

"Oh so he can read," Master Yu huffs, in his pretty, pretty princess clothes.

Xin Fu looks at the rest of the cast very carefully. "I'm not kissing him."

Min Ho frowns. "But…didn't you say you already knew most of the story by heart?"

Xin Fu glares, making the young actor jerk backwards and blush all at once. "Yeah because we could hear you rehearsing from the back. It wasn't like I was watching this crap."

Min Ho blushes brighter. "Oh."

Chan or something looks like he's on the verge of having an aneurism. "What if we change it to a passionate embrace?"

Both Director Shoon and Foo Yun look scandalized. "It's a love story!"

"With all due respect, Director," Master Yu begins, "it's not going to look very much like one if I have to pretend to enjoy kissing Xin Fu."

"I…think it would be lovely," Min Ho pipes up, tremulously.

"This is why you disgust me," Xin Fu tells him, making him look comically heartbroken before he apologizes to Xin Fu instinctively.

"Just… try," Director Shoon insists. Pause. "We'll order extra ribs."

They do try, except by then, everyone's already lost their appetites from watching Xin Fu and Master Yu make horrible, stuttered kissy-face attempts to get their mouths within five inches of one another's and not reflexively strike out with a fist.

"Why the hell would you have a kissing scene in a play and only have men in the play?" Xin Fu demands around a stack of short ribs and a tall mug of beer. "Doesn't make sense."

Min Ho sighs.

"Pretend he's money," Director Shoon suggests.

"Or shumai," Min Ho adds, trying to be helpful.

"This is impossible," Jun Li mutters, as Master Yu sighs dreamily in Xin Fu's arms while somehow managing to wince all at the same time.

"I can see why you never did end up becoming an actor," Chan or something tells Master Yu as he starts to sweat more and more under the collar the closer it gets to curtain call.

"And here I thought you two were already together," Foo Yun sighs, hands on his hips. "Weird."

A moment.

"That's it!" Chan or something shouts suddenly, face lighting up with the relief of epiphany.

Everyone stares at him.

"UST!" he says, clapping his hands together as if in prayer. "The only way to make this love story even more gripping is to force the audience to imagine what we aren't showing them!"

Director Shoon looks at him skeptically. "Aren't you just supposed to pick up my laundry?"

"What does UST stand for?" Foo Yun adds.

"Unresolved Sexual Tension. It's about the anticipation of the thing, rather than the actual thing."

Director Shoon doesn't seem impressed. "Did you pick up my laundry?"

Chan sighs. "Just… this is all we have time for, okay?"

Director Shoon sighs. "Okay fine. Can you two at least give each other smoldering looks?"

"Yes, they can," everyone on set confirms for them.

Xin Fu hates them all.

The love scene changes into an intense stare off from across the bridge between worlds.

Throughout the play Xin Fu finds himself getting strangely into the character of the prince, feeling annoyed when he is annoyed, feeling confused and torn and impatient when the character does.

It's a strange experience, one that Min Ho had tried to explain in his halting ways during the rehearsals earlier, as Xin Fu had sneered at him and called him names for trying to share.

But that had been hours ago, under the scrutiny of the cast and crew, as the sounds of hammers and saws finishing the last of the set pieces had echoed around them as they'd practiced.

Now, with the lights down low in the auditorium and with all the props and effects in place, Xin Fu can see how this whole thing is actually kind of a rush after all, kind of like Earth Rumble VI had been, except with less blood and more shiny (if slightly less ridiculous) outfits.

"My father wishes to use the power of your kingdom to conquer his enemies but I refuse to watch you fade away," Xin Fu as the prince tells a shackled, dress-wearing Master Yu gruffly, as he begins to slice through the princess's bonds. "Get out of here, before he finds us. There's no time." His fingers feel tense as he saws through the ropes around Master Yu's wrists, almost like he's rushing, knowing that the man playing the king will appear any second now. It's strange, the rush of telling the story, of becoming some haughty prince willing to sacrifice so much for one person.

"I don't want to leave," Master Yu answers for the princess, voice high-pitched and warbling slightly. He stands forward in those flowing gowns, looking determined, challenging. Xin Fu can almost feel his breath on his cheek. "Your father will punish you for betraying him."

Xin Fu glares darkly and for some reason, it feels like his heart is beating faster in his chest when he hears those words.

They drift closer together involuntarily then, breathing each other's air, stubborn, heated glares between the two of them as Xin Fu takes the first step forward, as Master Yu takes the second. Xin Fu can see the bob of the other man's throat when he swallows.

He can also hear it when the entire audience, as one, slips forward to the edges of their seats, holding their breaths as the prince and princess drift closer and closer together.

The baying of the king's hounds erupts across the stage and makes everyone jump, prince and princess included. They stumble backwards, remembering themselves. Both look a little bit breathless.

And Xin Fu reaches out and pushes the princess backwards before she can say another word, urging her over the bridge and towards her kingdom. "Go," he growls, voice gravely and half-wrecked.

The audience shivers.

The princess disappears in the mist.

Xin Fu feels kind of gay.

In the dressing room afterwards, while Director Shoon and Assistant Director Chan are receiving their accolades from the mayor, Xin Fu and Master Yu sit down to remove their makeup.

"That was… an interesting experience," Master Yu begins after a moment, voice still slightly tremulous.

Xin Fu stares pointedly down at the washing bin he's scrubbing his face over. "Uh," he answers, and then dunks his face in the water again.

"You did surprisingly well, all things considered," Yu pushes, sounding like he's trying to act superior but really just coming off as kind of shy.

"Uh, you too, I guess," Xin Fu answers, and wonders what the hell kind of scrubbing it's going to take to get this black stuff lining his eyes off.

Master Yu beams. "Thank you."

The silence gets kind of awkward again.

Master Yu hands Xin Fu the eye makeup remover. "Though I maintain that you should never endeavor to become a professional actor," he finishes, after a beat.

Xin Fu grabs the bottle from him and glowers. "I'm not nearly gay enough," he shoots back, and finally manages to successfully remove the black gunk from around his eyes.

Master Yu snorts in laughter, and the silence after that is the way it's always supposed to be.

5. The Return

The end of a century long war also signifies the end of Xin Fu and Master Yu's employment under the honorable (and very wealthy) Lao Bei Fong.

The news comes with a dragon hawk the morning after the town they're staying in has held a particularly raucous freedom celebration, some days after the Fire Lord's defeat.

Xin Fu is violently hung over from the rounds of free drinks the local tavern had passed out upon hearing the news of Fire Lord Zuko's coronation but finds himself waking up to the light scratching against the window anyway; the groan Master Yu gives from the second bed tells him that he can't count on the big whiner baby to answer it for him, even if he's the one sleeping closer to the window.

Xin Fu rolls out of his bed and limps groggily across the room, throwing the shutters open. The dragon hawk squawks and flaps its wings once before Xin Fu reaches out and opens the carrying tube on its back.

He takes the neatly rolled piece of paper bearing the Bei Fong insignia and opens it.

He rubs his eyes tiredly and begins to read.

There is a bunch of formal random crap at the beginning, followed by one line that's the only one that really matters.

'Toph has come home. We will no longer be requiring you or Master Yu's services.'

Xin Fu stares at it the words for a little while longer, as if he thinks that his vision is somehow still blurry from drinking the night before and that if he squints a little or changes the angle he's reading a little, the words will fade and change before resolving themselves into something more appealing, something that has to do with a big fat bonus and the promise of double the wealth initially offered once the mission is accomplished.

"What are you standing there, staring like an idiot for?" Master Yu groans five minutes later, when the words on the paper are still the same despite Xin Fu's steadily growing sobriety. "Shut the window. The light hurts my eyes."

"Close them then," Xin Fu snaps back on instinct, and the unsolicited vitriol in his voice when he says it actually gives Master Yu pause to sit up and regard him curiously.

"Is something the matter?" he asks after a moment, rubbing at gummy eyes and smacking his mouth against the foul tastes he finds there after a night of drinking this small town brewer's homemade beer.

Xin Fu wordlessly tosses the letter to Master Yu on his way through the door and trudges outside to brush his teeth.

"I suppose," Master Yu says over a late breakfast that morning, "that this means I should return to teaching." He sips at his tea thoughtfully, looking better than he had earlier but still sporting a dazed sort of glazed-over look in his eye that suggests the hangover continues to linger.

Xin Fu shovels eggs into his mouth and says something incoherent about maybe investing in an Earth Rumble VII. "It's gonna have an obstacle course. With crushing."

Master Yu frowns and tells him to chew with his mouth closed. "You look like an animal."

Xin Fu glowers at his constant nagging and declares, "I sure as hell won't miss this."

Master Yu agrees with a small huff and finishes his congee.

They pack their things in silence. Xin Fu can't remember which food pack is his and which one is Yu's so he doesn't touch either of them, waiting for Yu to pick his up first.

They finish packing everything else before looking intently at the food packs laid out on the floor. After a moment of indecision Xin Fu decides to just take one.

Master Yu does at the same time, and of course they're both reaching for the leftmost one, of course.

"It's mine," Xin Fu says.

Master Yu hesitates, before withdrawing his hand. "Oh." He takes the pack on the right, shoulders it, and grabs his bed roll without another word.

Xin Fu isn't sure why he expects an argument; he feels oddly disappointed when he doesn't get one.

Master Yu just makes a few strange clucking noises and precedes him out the door.

"Stop following me."

Master Yu's ostrich horse is a few paces behind his on the road. "We live in the same town, Xin Fu."

Xin Fu grumbles in embarrassment. "I know that! It's still weird."

"We've been traveling together for over a year. I don't understand why this is strange."

"Just…stop following me. I don't know if I like the idea of an idiot like you at my back."


Xin Fu chances a look over his shoulder, thinking that Master Yu is pouting because now he's horribly offended or something.

Instead, the former teacher looks thoughtful, in a hesitant sort of way. "If you'd like," he offers, after a beat, "I could ride beside you."

Xin Fu's makes a weird noise in the back of his throat in response, one that he hadn't meant to make at all, but that Master Yu interprets as "Yes," anyway.

He pulls his ostrich horse up alongside Xin Fu's, they ride together in silence a little while longer, and eventually, eventually, Master Yu turns to look at him out of the corner of his eye and say, "I am pretty certain you have my food pack."

Xin Fu growls "Stuff it," in response, and just like that, the weird uncomfortable atmosphere of the morning is suddenly gone.

Halfway back to Gaoling, they come across a sign post at a fork in the road. On it is a WANTED poster, for a General Shinu, formerly of Lord Ozai's war council.

Xin Fu studies the likeness on the poster for a moment. "That's the asshole who wanted to bring over more occupying troops, huh?"

Master Yu nods, looking a bit put out at the reminder the picture serves. "We should move on," he reminds Xin Fu, as the daylight hours wane.

Xin Fu looks at the arrow pointing south toward Gaoling, and then to the poster, stating the General's last known whereabouts as Chin Village, to the north and west.

"Well?" Master Yu asks, sounding hesitant, almost hopeful.

It's enough.

Xin Fu grins and yanks the poster off the sign post.

They ride west.