Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.
Warnings: AU, Speculation, Spoilers up to Season Three
AN: For AtLA Land's bingo card writing challenge. Prompt was "Earth Kingdom."
Sequel to Farther Away.
They settle in Gaoling. It is a quiet place. Far from the war and any who might recognize them. It isn't strategic. Has no intrinsic value. Not too large that they'll be overwhelmed but not too small that they'll stand out.
Absolutely the perfect town to start a new life.
Jee and a few of the others choose to follow. They have no ties left to the Fire Nation. No reason to return. Which is why Iroh included them in the first place. They'd nothing left to lose. Many of them are just as tired of this war as him. Have lost just as much or more. Spouses and children and entire families.
Their ship was old. Practically ancient. It should come as no surprise that it and some of the crew was lost in such a terrible accident. The unofficial captain. The first mate and head engineer. Even the broken General Iroh and his banished nephew.
So sad. So tragic. His brother might even shed a tear of joy. Azula certainly will when she learns of their so-called fate.
But reality is a much more amusing and rewarding mistress. Zuko doesn't smile as they move into their new abode, but his gaze isn't as harsh. Three years, after all, is a long time. Too long for a boy bordering on manhood. Too long for anyone. Too long hunting for someone who no longer exists. And even if the he did find him, Zuko couldn't hope to defeat a fully trained and realized Avatar with a century more experience.
This way is better. Even if his dear nephew's still hesitant, still half-afraid that it'll blow up in his face at any second. But Iroh is patient. Time is on his side. He's already worn Zuko down once. Already persuaded him that there's a better choice. A better life. Here, in this town they now call home. Amongst people untouched by the war and uncaring for their pasts.
The days pass. Zuko goes from waking at the tiniest noise to sleeping the night through.
Then weeks. Iroh – it's Mushi now, he must remember – sees him almost smile at a customer and blush when the pretty girl grins back.
An entire season gone. His nephew initiates a hug on his own volition and doesn't pull away for several moments.
The winter solstice comes and brings celebration with it. A street vendor mistakes Iroh for Zuko's father, but his nephew doesn't even try to correct her.
Life is good.
If only he could persuade Zuko – Lee as he's called now – of the joys of pai sho. But there's time for that, too. More so now that they aren't aimlessly wandering the world in a never-ending quest. Here, they are only uncle and nephew. Master and apprentice. Running a quaint teashop that grows more popular with each passing day.
So popular that they begin to receive invitations to the manors that line the outskirts to the north and west. Offers to brew their beloved tea at private meetings or simply for the thirsty nobility.
It's well after dark when they leave the Bei Fong residence one chilly winter night, and it'd be even later if the lady of the house had her way; she did seem to love the oolong in particular. The streets are all but abandoned, and Iroh can see frost dotting the trees as they walk back to their house on the other side of the city. They pass one patrol of the guard but no more than that. It's still too cold for any sensible person to be out, and he ruefully thinks that it's too cold for thieves as well.
That isn't the case unfortunately. A fact that becomes apparent as they cut across a less than savory neighborhood and hear the echo of footsteps behind them. Those footsteps are soon joined by another set and then a third. A fourth and fifth. Even more.
They aren't dressed like nobles, but he and Zuko are in their best Earth Kingdom wear. That more than anything marks them as easy prey. Particularly since Iroh himself appears so unassuming and Zuko so young with his hair worn down and covering his scar.
And under normal circumstances, Iroh wouldn't be exceptionally concerned. They are both firebenders of the royal line, trained against assassins and their own family members. Trained to fight outnumbered and overwhelmed and without hope.
But they can't bend here; they don't dare. Not fire. Not in the Earth Kingdom. The only overt weapons they have are the knives Iroh has up his sleeves and the dao his nephew was too paranoid to leave behind.
This... This is bad. Very bad as would-be bandits emerge from the shadows into Tui's pale light. Even worse as the men – at least a half dozen – eye Iroh and his nephew with a predatory gleam. Zuko's dao only earn him disdain as he pulls them free; no one ever believes a boy his age to be anything more than an amateur.
Iroh sighs. And rises up to meet the first man with an open-palm strike to his belly. That is followed by a jab to the soft flesh above his kidneys and then too many other moves to keep track. Zuko is a constant presence at his side as they do their best to defend themselves but not cause a fatality at the same time; the last thing they need is to uproot themselves following a murder accusation.
They've managed to put down at least two attackers a piece when more footsteps approach the fray on the edge of his senses. Iroh is too distracted to give them more than a frown as he moves to block his nephew's side from a blade. He isn't as young or agile as he used to be, but Iroh still puts the man down efficiently and perhaps a twinge too harshly. Afterwards, Iroh turns to the brigand's closest friend, who is already moving in for the kill.
But then, he hears a distinct stomp, and the thieves go flying. It isn't their doing either. Not him or Zuko. Neither of them are earthbenders after all. They can't make the ground tremble and suddenly shoot up. Can't make it fling grown men around like a child's bounding ball. Can't twist the earth into sand and have them sink up to their necks as they spit blood. Nor can they make the stone beneath their feet shift and carry them to safety, to several streets over in the span of seconds.
Zuko's hands are white around his dao as his eyes flicker to Iroh, and in unison the pair of them turns to their savior. A second passes. Then, Iroh adjusts his head to gaze further down.
Such a little thing, really. This girl who stands boldly before them in her bare feet. Hands on her hips. Grin stretching her lips. Eyes green but cloudy. Obviously unseeing.
He takes a moment to clear his throat and listens to Zuko shift beside him. Still poised for battle. Uncertain in the face of such power and seeming generosity. Always looking for the knife in the back.
Iroh gives his best smile, hoping that she can hear it in his voice. "Thank you, dear lady, for assisting us. I am called Mushi, and this is my nephew Lee. And who might you be?"
The girl's grin becomes a smirk as she points a thumb at her chest. "No problem. I'm Toph." She cocks her hip to the side as if sensing their surprise. "The greatest earthbender alive, and don't you forget it."
Next to him, Iroh can tell that Zuko is remembering the quick carnage. The twitching bodies. The pained groans of the injured. Damage that was precise and controlled and never more than was needed.
Iroh sees his nephew fight the urge swallow hard as his hands tighten further.
"I don't think that'll be a problem," Zuko mutters.
Toph lets out a chuckle. "Is that so? You guys weren't so bad yourself. I've never seen so many people taken down that fast without bending."
She doesn't ask where they learned to fight like that, but Iroh can still hear her curiosity in her voice. Of course, he's equally curious in return but far more cautious. They are firebenders, and the Earth Kingdom is still technically at war.
"We are but humble teamakers, dear Toph," Iroh deflects. "No one of real interest."
She snorts then and rises to take the bait anyway. "Teamaker I can believe. But humble?" Toph shakes her head and gazes at him with unseeing eyes that somehow manage to peer into his very spirit. Her attention goes to his nephew and sharpens further. "Nothing about him seems the least bit humble or uninteresting. I can say the same about you."
He feels more than sees his nephew stiffen beside him, but something about the way she phrases it makes Iroh shake his head. She hadn't meant that as a threat, and it's obvious that she has secrets of her own. After all, why else would a young, blind girl be wandering the streets at night without escort? Even if she is a master bender. And one with clothes that are common but obviously made of expense cloth and other items of wealth on her person.
Young Toph is far more than she appears. Just as they are. Besides, Iroh has always been good at reading others, and even more than he sees her curiosity, he sees something else. Something that is all too fitting of a person all alone in the world.
And really, his nephew could use a friend, too.
"Perhaps," Iroh finds himself saying after a minute of silence, "we can repay your kindness with a cup of tea. I'm rather proud of the jasmine in particular, and it's the least we can do for your help."
Zuko coughs to his left, though it is more akin to a choke that he tried to cut off in the middle. But that only makes her smirk widen.
"Sure," she inserts with a flick of her fingers. "I've got nowhere to be. Besides, we don't want you guys being attacked again on the way back. I don't think Sparkles' nerves could handle it."
His nephew splutters, but Iroh has already clapped his hands together happily and gestured to the street behind him.
"Splendid. Shall we then?"
Toph beams and gives his nephew an affectionate elbow to the side as she passes him by. Zuko just gapes at her with one eye twitching, mouth working as if trying to recall how to speak. Iroh hides his amusement by turning away and offers his arm in true gentlemanly fashion. She takes it with a flourish and an almost snicker. They start down the street and are almost to the next one before Zuko finally catches up. He shoots them a narrowed look and murmurs something under his breath, but that only makes Toph laugh and elbow him again.
On the other side of them, Iroh smiles.
This looks like the start of a beautiful friendship. He can't wait.