A/N: Still apologies. It's been a hectic and stressful time.
Thanks for: SLWatson's quick beta, and the concrit: Lunatique, who, among other things, noticed a huge problem with Aang in Ch. 17 being portrayed as unreasonable when he's actually in the right about FN imperialism (and Zuko being correspondingly Sueish); . .on; Minion of Set; Mari83; Rosie Luvs Choccie; FFFG; Q.Q; mafalda157; Veloren; and Asj Johnson.
Edits: the aforementioned Ch. 17; some cutting and rewording, especially in Chs. 15, 19, and 24; and a variety of other small edits throughout for grammar, voice, and clarity. I'm still extremely behind on making changes, and I'm not even sure I uploaded all the ones I did make. I'll probably be going through reuploading all the chapters in the near future.
Previously on BOTB:
Instead of leaving after crossing the Serpent's Pass, Suki stayed with the Gaang a little longer to help them look for Appa. Although unsuccessful, they encountered Ty Lee, whom Katara captured. Mai then held Aang for ransom at knifepoint in exchange for Ty Lee. Blue!Zuko pretended to capture Mai, in reality helping her and Ty Lee get away, and they held a secret conversation right after. Mai decided to do her own investigation of the Fire Nation's actions. Toph figured out "Blue's" identity from these events, and then figured out the true reason for the charade. Secure in her ability to tell when he was lying or plotting something, and in her ability to protect her friends, she decided not to reveal him to the others for now.
Shortly after, when Suki was on her way back to the refugee center, she ran into White Lotus members. They offered the Kyoshi Warriors an alliance because they'd previously seen the Warriors' good work with the refugees.
Upon reaching Ba Sing Se, the Gaang tried to warn the wall guards about Azula's drill, but got the brush-off. Toph in particular sensed something not quite right.
Jee and his friends had been busy organizing rebellion when they were forced to take a couple of spies aboard. Due to the high risk of their secret messages being intercepted, they decided to reroute what they could. For the rest, their communications officer (whom the messenger hawks were trained to seek out) would go along the shoreline on foot until it was safe to rejoin the ship.
The Blue Spirit told Zuko that to find his mother, he'd need to seek out archives inside the Ba Sing Se palace.
The hours-long ride trussed up and slung across the back of a mongoose dragon had left Suki very light-headed and sick to her stomach from the jolting. Half-squashed beneath An Kun, she could only pant shallowly, but that was nothing. Her sister warrior's hitching breaths tore at her. An Kun had never properly trained in earthbending, often joking about how she liked the Kyoshi Warriors' hall better. Pinned by knives against a tree, she tried to bend anyway. That firebender had batted flame at her like swatting an insect.
An Kun's blackened, blistered hands swung into Suki's view at every sharp turn. The smell of scorch hadn't gone away. All these hours later, it lingered.
Whenever they showed signs of moving during the ride, that Ty Lee girl jabbed them till they went limp again. So Suki could barely shuffle her feet while soldiers dragged her into the depths of a Fire Nation ship. An Kun and Lim – were being dragged in a different direction.
Suki struggled, calling after them. One of the soldiers jostled her hard. "Shut up, ungrateful scum. They're going to the infirmary."
Could it be true? They hauled the senile Fire Nation soldier that way, too, but... Suki was still disoriented and weak as they were all stripped of their clothes and weapons, scrubbed by strangers' hands of their warrior paint, forced into rough smocks, given scant privacy to use the facilities, and finally, shackled and roped.
As Suki began to regain her breath, what troubled her most was not the humiliation or the rough indifference of their captors. There were the sleeping pallets, and the way a guard bandaged up Suki's rope-chafed wrists before putting the manacles on - these made her realize that their captivity was meant to last.
Suki's feet were tied to a bracket beneath the thin, barred window, opposite the door. Nuofu was also in the bare metal room, on the left, pale and pinch-faced, and asking each guard about An Kun and Lim until Suki shushed her. Nuofu's on-and-off romance with Lim was currently off, as it often was because each girl would periodically declare that she was normal now. But they kept getting right back together, and Suki worried about how she could protect the two against the guards finding out.
On Suki's right, Haichen lay on the pallet, favoring her left side, face tight with pain. They'd tied Haichen entirely with rope. Perhaps they considered her less of a risk. If somehow one of them could get something sharp, their captors would regret that…
If they all stretched out as much as their restraints allowed, they might just barely touch fingertips. Suki had no idea where the infirmary might be, or if they'd find their friends there when they escaped. And what about Ruyi? She'd been taken to the loo quite a while ago now. Suki's teeth clenched at her own helplessness to find out.
Just as Suki was imagining the worst, a guard led Ruyi into the room and tied her down next to Nuofu, who nudged Ruyi comfortingly with her foot. Ruyi shuddered and lowered her head as if ashamed.
"We'll get out of this," Suki promised all of them.
Ruyi clamped her lips together until the enemy woman left the room, then whispered, so vehemently she was gulping for air, "How?! Suki, I tried, I swear. I tried to do something while in the bathroom. But all I managed was to hide away two of the rags they gave me under my shirt! It's not even enough to make a rope! I –"
"Don't you say you're sorry," Suki interrupted fiercely. "You're doing everything right. This is a real prison!" she gestured to the metal box they were stuck in. "We're not going to get out instantly, but we'll find a way."
Haichen spoke up hoarsely. "What if we don't?"
On the faces around her, Suki could see the same uncertain fear that she felt. She struggled to find the right words. "Our job is to stay alive and fight the enemy however we can. If they'd wanted to kill us, they would've. You know they wouldn't hesitate." Suki faltered here for a second, thinking of An Kun's charred raw skin.
"New rules, girls," Suki continued. She tried to make her voice strong, and surprised even herself at how confident she sounded. "We're in a bad position right now, so we don't need anybody going for grand heroics. What we do is gather our strength back. We watch. We take advantage of the tiniest thing, because it will all add up." She gave an approving nod towards Ruyi and saw the other girl's agitation settle into thoughtfulness. "They think they've beaten us, but –"
"They're dead wrong!" overlapped with "The fight's not over till we say so!"
"Right. And we already won. Appa's free, don't forget."
Haichen slammed a hand against the floor. "But there were only three of them!"
"Did you miss how this is the princess and her bodyguards? The best of the best of the Fire Nation, and us, just 'village girls with delusions.'" That got a laugh, however shaky. Yeah, people had badly underestimated them before. "We held our own. Never forget that."
The door opened. "Quite a stirring speech," the firebender sneered.
No, you don't. The other girls were just regaining their confidence. Nobody was going to mess that up. Suki held Azula's gaze, letting her contempt for the little brute show.
Azula circled behind her and something slammed into Suki's back. Pain jolted through her; bent her backwards. Her muscles seized, breath trapped in her throat. For a horrifying moment, she felt frozen that way. Even after, her muscles quivered. A thousand prickles stabbed her all over.
Nuofu immediately told her what happened. "Firebending trick. Looked like a little white flash."
Suki could only share her gratitude with a glance before Azula circled back to face her. "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm out of practice. Did I hurt you? I didn't mean to."
"Sure you didn't," Suki tried to say, but her lips wouldn't quite move properly.
Azula smiled airily. "You'll feel better in a moment. While we wait, do tell me where the Avatar went."
"Won't tell you a thing." Suki pulled together a normal expression and nodded reassurance to the three worried faces staring at her.
"You will." Azula said it like there was no other way. "You don't believe me, but that's just a lie you tell to comfort yourself."
Ruyi half-surged to her feet until the chains caught her. "You have no idea – "
"Ruyi, these people aren't worth wasting your breath on," Suki warned her. "Nothing she tries will change that."
"What are you so worried about?" Azula sounded almost scandalized. "Nobody can do anything to you without my approval," her voice had dropped right into dark satisfaction, then pitched up again. "Oh, never mind! I'm sure you're frightened. Well, I won't do a thing to hurt you. You'll tell me anyway." Azula stared into Suki's eyes with intensity. "You'll tell me because you're weak. You won't be able to help yourself."
Suki shook her buzzing head and fought down her fear of all the things Azula could do with impunity, then keep doing. Until they were all too injured and too weak to escape, and then it would just go on and on... No. If Suki were the firebender, she'd focus on breaking down the leader first. So the leader mustn't break. Her warriors trusted her. "Back home, we wouldn't hurt you either. We'd just dangle you out as bait for the Unagi a couple times. That'd make you lose your arrogance in a hurry."
The presumptuous girl acted like there was nothing to hear. Instead, she called out, "Mai! Ty Lee!" Those two appeared quickly. "Watch them until we get back to the base. Also, one of you go check on the other two every once in a while. Hmm." She tapped her mouth with one finger. "No, three. Take this one, too." she pointed to Haichen.
"But Azula!" Ty Lee protested. "That'll take all night!" at the same time that Suki said, struggling not to yelp, "Where are you taking her?"
"You can skip your beauty sleep just once, Ty Lee. This is important. I can't trust anybody but you."
Suki had to repeat herself twice before the firebender deigned to answer, "Oh, I don't know. Dangling her over the side sounds like it might be fun. I'm not in the habit of lowering myself to the level of peasant entertainment, but we'll see." To Ty Lee, she said, "Put her in solitary."
Suki swallowed back some choice names. The Fire Nation girl was clearly looking for an excuse to do it, or something even worse. The only thing she could do was give Haichen a look full of apology, and receive a nod of understanding, before they took her.
Azula stayed behind, subtly and not-so-subtly taunting her. Suki did her best not to respond. By the time the hangers-on came back, Azula had escalated to sneers, then to saying if Suki apologized, nothing more would happen to Haichen.
An obvious lie, but Suki realized she'd have to force out the loathsome words. At least, it would buy time before Azula's attention turned to the other girls.
She'd said enough for Azula's smile to turn gloating when Ty Lee suddenly leaned towards her. "Wow, your hair has some redin it! Why didn't I notice before? All that paint?"
I am not a zoo animal. "What's it to you?" Suki snarled.
Ty Lee said, too brightly, "Oh, sorry! It doesn't. The light in here made it look that way."
Azula grabbed a handful of Suki's hair and smiled widely at Suki's instinctive wrench sideways. "No, you were right the first time..."
Suki managed to spoil the fun by holding still and ignoring the snide insinuations about her family. (Ty Lee hovered behind Azula, looking apologetic). Azula finally got tired and left, saying that she had someone more interesting to interrogate first and that she'd see them in the morning. For a few minutes, everything was quiet. Then Ty Lee went to fetch something to sit on.
Mai crossed the room to squat nearer Suki, frustratingly out of reach. "You didn't tell Azula we met before. Thank you."
Suki shrugged, not sure yet why this was important. Back then, she'd deliberately faded into the background. Katara and Toph were handling the distraction part, but becoming distracted themselves in the process. So Suki had kept herself on backup, and given a couple of nudges when she could. It hadn't been worth much, but she'd gained some understanding of the enemy, which could prove useful now.
Mai said, "I'll make a deal with you. You keep on not saying that, if you can. I'll write to my uncle. He's the Warden at the Boiling Rock prison. You're not likely to end up there, but he knows all the other wardens. I'll tell him to watch out for you."
How stupid did Mai think she was? Of the many things Suki could say, she settled for a simple "No deal."
Surprise slackened the other girl's mouth before she regained an air of snooty aloofness. "Why not?" As Suki maintained a dignified silence, Mai elaborated, "I'm not even asking for a certain promise. Just for you to try. Azula will just use the incident against you if she knows. She can use anything. All the advantage is on your side."
"Oh, is that so? First you attack us, then imprison us, and then you think we'll be grateful for any scrap of charity from you? You're so wrong it's not even funny."
"It's mutual benefit, not charity."
Suki rattled the chain around her legs, barely holding in her anger. "It's a worthless trade for something obviously worth a lot to you. You get us free, then I might think you're serious."
"Our nations are at war. You can't ask me to commit treason, but it doesn't mean we can't –"
"That's precisely what it means."
Mai retreated to her post by the door, face blank and back stiff. Probably never been told 'no' in her life.
Ty Lee came back in with some cushions, but Mai sent her out again for food. Another few minutes of silence passed before Mai suddenly said, "What about letters? You must want your families to know what happened to you. My hawk is out right now, but I could borrow another."
Suki imagined for an absurd moment how such a letter would be received back on Kyoshi Island, and let the angry smile show. "No thanks."
Mai sighed loudly. "You think I want something again. I don't. The original deal is still on offer, but this is just to show you I don't mean you harm. I had some questions, too, about the Earth Kingdom's views on the war -"
Suki was tired of being baited, but she remembered in time how their last encounter had gone. Mai could be riled into making a mistake – and she got angry when her ideas of herself or the Fire Nation were thrown into question. "You're just digging yourself deeper. You nearly killed us. It's a bit late to pretend."
This time, the girl just went blank. "I see."
Ty Lee brought back food for everybody and declared that she'd checked in on the infirmary. An Kun and Lim were being treated well and would recover, though she hadn't been able to get a look at Haichen. This considerate gesture was completely unexpected. It unnerved Suki just how much she wanted to believe Ty Lee's words, even though Ty Lee could just be toying with her. She'd found Ty Lee strangely likeable from the first, and the friendship between her and Mai was so ordinary and warm, like they were regular village girls. But today, Ty Lee had shown herself to be just as ruthless as everyone else in the Fire Nation.
The food, served from a common pot, didn't seem like a big risk. The heavy spices sanded the tongue and rested uneasily in the stomach, but it didn't taste too bad. With little else to do, Suki ordered everyone to rest as much as they could.
Nuofu and Ruyi closed their eyes, but barely relaxed. Suki couldn't follow her own orders, either. Ty Lee wouldn't quit contorting herself and walking on her hands, which was quiet enough but still distracting to watch. Mai oiled and sharpened her daggers demonstratively. The lingering rasp of each stroke made for an irregular rhythm. It wasn't intimidating like Mai obviously hoped, but it was annoying. Suki couldn't help going over the fight again in her head – what they'd done, what they could have done, the enemy's strengths and weaknesses…
Also, another thought kept trying to worm its way in, after that strange offer of letters. Ruyi's parents were merchants, away eleven months out of the year. They wouldn't even know that the Kyoshi Warriors had left the island yet. Suki's weren't home much more often, her dad being a travelling repairman, and her mom running the only shop. An Kun, Nuofu, and Lim were orphans. Haichen's people were fisherfolk with not much time to spare for a daughter. That was the whole reason the Kyoshi Warriors were allowed to train all day. Nobody needed them for anything else.
At Full Moon Bay, they'd be missed when they didn't turn up for work. However, with no clues about their disappearance, Suki doubted that anyone would particularly care about finding them. The White Lotus people would simply think the Warriors decided against allying.
Suki knew she shouldn't let it eat at her. Easier to be brave when talking to the other girls than to herself... Ruyi looked asleep, finally, and Suki couldn't bother Nuofu for such a stupid reason. She watched the antics of the Fire Nation girls some more. Finally, she couldn't keep her snort of laughter inside. In a low voice, she said, "Your intimidation skills could use more polishing than your weapons."
Mai blinked up at her as if coming out of an embarrassing daydream. "What?" Lowering her voice, Mai said, "This isn't… I can see how it looks, but I can't go outside to do the job."
"So, displaying all your weaponry right now is just coincidental?" Suki heard muffled laughter from her left and grinned.
"I haven't had time to clean my knives before. You know that." Apparently still on the conciliating kick, she then added in slightly less haughty tones, "Surely you know what tree sap does to a blade. None of these are going to be quite right again, but with a lot of scrubbing and adjusting, I can still use them."
Suki's mind flashed again to An Kun, pinned and helpless. "Oh, that's such a hardship. Think of all the valuable time lost to buy new ones."
Mai's mouth pinched. "Even if my parents somehow did not notice the cost of multiple well-balanced knives, do you see a shop around here?" Lowering her tone again, she added, "And you know I already lost a lot of blades recently. Please, for both our sakes, try not to tell Azula about that."
Suki just shook her head. "You know, despite you threatening us back then, I thought I saw a smidge of a hint of some basic decency. Obviously, I had my head on wrong."
"Whatever. The offer still stands, you know."
Now Ty Lee interrupted, "What offer? Mai…"
"Do you want Azula to find out what happened during our outing?"
Ty Lee shook her head worriedly. "Mai, you telling them not to tell is just making sure they'll want to tell because they'll think you don't want them to tell!" Ty Lee caught her breath and turned to Suki. "Don't mind Mai. It'd be nice if Azula didn't find out, but it's really no big deal if she does."
Suki rolled her eyes. Mai glared.
Ty Lee suddenly lit up. "So you did go on a date! That's why you're so worried! Just –"
"Look, I really am sorry I got captured and interrupted it. You don't have to be so mean about not telling me, though."
"For the last time, we didn't exchange notes and we didn't set up a date!"
Ty Lee made a face at Mai, and turned to speak to the room at large. "Back me up here. If a girl goes sneaking off all evening with some weak excuse like 'headache', and then keeps taking more time than she should to turn up, and gets all embarrassed when asked, what does it mean?"
This was guaranteed to get Mai riled, so Suki smirked as she answered, "Boy trouble."
Ty Lee threw her arms up in triumph. "And her aura changed," she said with finality.
"Auras don't exist – oh, forget it," Mai said.
Naturally, Ruyi spoke up. "Shows what you know."
The argument which followed was so familiar, it was weird, especially since Mai was saying what Suki would normally say. As tempted as she was to jump in, she didn't want to even Mai's odds.
"Let me guess," Mai sighed, no longer able to hide her exasperation. "It's polkadotted."
Ty Lee said, "No, still grey, but a nicer grey. Lucid? Luscious? It's got that L sound."
Mai sounded like she was answering despite herself. "Luminous?"
Ty Lee giggled. "No!"
Ruyi offered, "Translucent."
"Yes! That's the one!"
Ruyi squinted at Mai. "But it's not; it's a solid whitish-yellow."
Ty Lee called Ruyi blind. The argument that followed was louder than any before, with more metaphysics discussion than Suki could follow. Those two, didn't they even consider that, given the situation, this was inappropriate? Suki shook her head, then caught Mai doing the same. Time to get this back on track.
"Who cares what her aura looks like? You know who she's dating? That Zuko guy!"
Mai bristled beautifully. "Just because he has a scar –"
"Nope," Suki informed her with satisfaction. "Nothing to do with that. Everything to do with how he burned our village down."
The expression on Mai's face was priceless. "What? Zuko wouldn't do that." Ty Lee nodded loyally. Did they work to be so willfully blind?
"Oh, yes." The three islanders filled Mai in on all the details of her boyfriend's rampage. Of course Mai frowned heavily throughout and protested, saying stuff like, "Well, you were hiding the Avatar."
"And a good thing too, because if Aang didn't get the Unagi to spray us with water, then we'd have nowhere to live in the middle of winter," Suki would remind her, and Mai would briefly shut up again.
By the end of the story, Mai was still shaking her head, but clearly troubled. "I guess he did change in some bad ways. He said so himself. Still, with the war on –"
Nuofu sighed with exasperation. "Kyoshi Island had stayed out of the war all this time. What right did he have to invade?"
Mai shrugged. "What right did you have to stay out?"
"My uncle has a lot of people like you in his prison. It's monstrously selfish, letting everyone else contribute and risk their lives and living large off their sacrifice."
Suki gestured at her sister warriors. "We've been training to defend the island our whole lives, and then when we saw that wasn't enough, we left to see where we could be more useful. That's why we're having this conversation. What amazing things have you done, by the way?"
Ty Lee jumped in, saying they didn't have to give their service to the nation before they came of age yet they... Mai just waved a hand. The conversation came to an awkward stop. Mai cleaned a few more knives, then leaned back against the wall and shut her eyes.
A long time passed in silence. Suki must've nodded off despite everything, because a whisper made her startle.
"Mai, that fog!" Ty Lee was looking past Suki – out the window.
Mai replied tensely, "Must be the moonlight."
"Really? Glowing like –"
Azula's voice interrupted loudly from outside, "Ty Lee! Get up here!"
Ty Lee moved fast. Mai's hand clenched around a knife as she stared out the window. After a few minutes, Mai jumped up like she couldn't sit still, and paced to the window. Very close, Suki heard heard her mutter "Fool" under her breath as she scanned the darkness outside. Yes, you are!
Suki threw her whole body at Mai's legs, like a flail. She fell, fingers already scrabbling inside the sleeve. Just one knife, just one that Suki could take during the fight. Suki lashed out hard, ignoring the bite of the rope, grabbing as best she could, but it wasn't enough. The weapons were too firmly secured in their scabbards and the enemy got free and scrambled away, back to sit by the door, just in time for Ty Lee's return.
Mai asked, like nothing had happened, "Well?"
Ty Lee shrugged. "Maybe it was just fog. Nothing happened, and I didn't find any chi concentrations to punch, either."
Suki, terribly curious about what was really going on, poked fun at them for being afraid of fog. Mai was obviously shaken, despite doing her stoic thing harder than ever, and said the fog was unnatural.
The door banged open once again before Suki could get more. Azula stood there, blazing with fury. "Were you watching at all?" Without pause, she turned on Suki, and Suki felt it like a blast to the face. "Were you in league with that traitor?"
Suki didn't answer, but it didn't help. After a few seconds, the pressure of that stare lessened, and Azula smirked. "I see – you weren't. You're working alone and no one will miss you."
Stung, Suki answered, "More people than would miss you, I bet." She regretted giving in to Azula's game immediately. "You don't know anything about us."
"I can read it all perfectly on your face," Azula tossed off indifferently as she turned to leave. "You, keep watching them, and keep an eye out for that man. He didn't vanish into thin air. We'll find wherever he's hiding. Not that it matters. I have his papers." She was practically licking her lips. "I'll flush out all the traitors one by one."
Mai and Ty Lee waited for long moments after Azula left, then turned to each other with identical questioning looks. Both shrugged. Mai waited a few minutes longer, then slipped out of the room. When she returned, she whispered to Ty Lee, too quiet to hear, but obviously about something interesting.
Putting together all the information she had, Suki knew it must be the Fire Nation soldier from earlier. She hadn't been in good enough shape to look closely at him. All she could remember was how small and old he was. The Fire Army could pick and choose, unlike the Earth Kingdom's desperate defenders. She'd wondered why he was a soldier at all. There was the strange way Azula found him – in the middle of a forest, she just stopped and said "too many birds overhead." They'd changed direction, and then there were flashes of fire and the stink of scorched feathers. Then the guy yelled nonsensically and rambled on in response to questions. When they'd searched him for ID, there was some kind of problem. That was when he was taken prisoner, and Azula had said something about "letters" then, too.
Then this guy was sending letters, by hawk, like Mai had offered. "Traitorous" ones, and all his rambling was an act, because he'd escaped. Nice to know even some of the Fire Nation guys were sabotaging this war. In fact, if their prisons were truly filled with people against the war, maybe they could all break out together and wreak some havoc. Suki had been completely focused on getting her warriors out as soon as possible, and it would certainly be easier to escape from here than from a dedicated prison. But just in case the worst happened, here was the question of where they could do most good...
An idea came to her, but she needed to know if it was even possible. To prevent suspicion, she started with the tried and true. "Honestly, I can't get over how you're all set on marrying your prince. Don't you realize one day, he might run out of innocent villages to attack and go for you?"
"I'm sure. Just as soon as the Earth Kingdom villages become innocent."
"That's rich, coming from people who keep inventing new ways to destroy us."
"Excuse me. I forgot that you come from people who like to ignore reality."
Blinding anger possessed Suki. "So the answer's yes, you're fine so long as you've got your murder happy prince and your throne. Piles of bones make good – "
Mai snapped. "Don't call him that! The proof is right on his face. And I'm not going to marry him, so quit trying to throw that at me." Barely holding on to her stoic, she explained about how Zuko tried to protect some soldiers, and got cruelly punished.
The tale made Suki feel sympathy for Mai as well as her boyfriend. The girl was trying so hard to believe the best of him. Suki had done the same with each guy she'd dated, until she met one who could actually admit when he'd done wrong and stop doing it. Then she didn't have to work at liking him; she just did. "That's a really horrible thing to happen. But it doesn't prove what you think. Sure, he cares about Fire Nation soldiers. Not anyone else. And all he's done was in order to get back from exile, right?"
"Yes, of course."
"If it were me, and I was sure I'd done the right thing, I'd refuse to go back to a place that treated people so unfairly. No matter what kind of cushy throne they offered me." She raised her voice and hurried on over Mai's indignant protests. "You know, we have names for people who suck up to those in power. You can understand why they do it! You can even like their other, better qualities!" Mai's mouth fell open, and Suki finished more quietly, "But that doesn't remove what they did."
After a long pause, Mai asked, "So you know someone like that?"
"Yes. My parents." A repairman couldn't make a living from just one village. Her father had a burn scar on his arm and limped after a beating. But because he still smiled and paid without protest, he could travel his route fairly easily. It was Suki who stayed behind, where it was safe. Suki who, when she finally left, decided they'd clear a blocked road instead of paying the toll or sneaking through. She understood he did it for her. But she'd worked her hardest to be a Kyoshi Warrior.
Mai looked at Suki with faint sympathy. "Is that why you don't want to write to them?"
The perfect opening. With a deep breath, she tried to put some 'vulnerable and quavery' into her voice. "Maybe… no, I don't even know where they are." She didn't even look over to the other warriors, knowing they would support her lies. "They're travelling merchants, you understand." A repairman didn't go as far.
Mai took the bait. "A good hawk might still be able to find them. You just have to tell it who to look for – names and distinguishing features – and describe a search area. Larger areas will obviously take longer, but a good hawk will search thoroughly for weeks on end. They're incredibly smart birds, and they can pick out somebody calling the right name from the other end of a sizeable town." She betrayed some uncertainty of her own as she added, "If it doesn't work, you're no worse off."
Suki nodded and blinked as if getting teary-eyed. When Suki said that she was too afraid of the Fire Nation finding out enough to capture her parents, Mai and Ty Lee even agreed to turn their backs. Apparently, the hawks flew too fast for anyone to follow. If there was some other way of tracking the hawk that they weren't telling, Suki bet it would do them no good. The White Lotus hid in plain sight and lived where a merchant could reasonably come. So she wrote down all the details about the enemy's forces and defenses that she could. When the hawk rubbed its head against her ear, she whispered, fiercely, "Yun-Min." Imprisoned or not, they would fight. Even this little bit of information should be useful, if the hawk really delivered.
Aang felt the glow of a job well done with all the animals happy in their new homes and people already enjoying the new zoo. The zookeeper even asked him if he'd considered doing this full-time. Too bad he couldn't. Katara was making final adjustments to the pool, and when she was done, they would keep on looking for Appa. But that would be such a fun job! Wait, that cat shouldn't be there…
"On second thought, you should stick to saving people," the zookeeper said.
Aang laughed nervously and wandered over to Katara. They'd all gone to the outer wall early in the day to wait for the drill and to meet up with Blue. But they met with failure on both counts, so they split up. He and Katara went to ask around all the pet shops if anyone knew something that'd help them find Appa. Toph went back because she still thought she could get something out of the soldiers. And Sokka stayed to distract Joo Dee while they all slipped away. Aang wasn't sure about the weird honking noises, but they were certainly distracting!
The day had been a long one. Shopkeepers and private owners all insisted they had no idea air bison even existed. In his dreams tonight, Appa was at the Eastern Air Temple, where he'd been born, upset but okay, and with a monk-like person helping him. He dreamt of Appa often, but this felt very vivid. When he'd shared his hopes it was real at breakfast, Katara had talked him into trying the sensing thing again. She promised they'd meditate together to get into the right frame of mind, and he really didn't feel as afraid of trying as before. Breathing with Katara was like sitting by the oasis at the North Pole – soothing and a bit otherworldly. She got him back on track each time he tensed with impatience and felt like giving up. For a second, he even felt that Appa was all right and very near. He couldn't get anything more, so he really hoped he wasn't just fooling himself, but he felt a whole lot better. As they kept going to the next shop and the next, it was hard to hold on to that feeling. The sad, cramped zoo had been their last lead. Now that the animals were well-cared for, they should go. Maybe they'd missed a shop or two…
Katara was sitting on the edge of the pool, looking towards the manta rhino. "Isn't it cute?" she asked as he approached.
Aang looked at the odd combination of a bulky, horned muzzle in front and thin, tapered feet behind. Not so much cute, but it splashed so happily that the spray misted over the two of them. In the city, all it had was a bathtub barely bigger than itself. "Erm. Yeah." He rubbed the back of his head. It didn't seem like Katara wanted to go just yet.
His breath caught at the smile he saw when she turned. "You did a great job, Aang. These animals will be so happy!"
He smiled back. "It was a good thing you were with me. It would've been much harder to find and help all the stragglers without you. How did you do that water wheel thing, by the way? You haven't taught me that."
She glowed visibly. "That's because I just invented it. It's a bit complicated, because the water you bend under the animal has to be brought forward again without –" and she launched into the full explanation.
Aang would never get tired of how amazing she was with waterbending. And he wanted to tell her that. What actually came out of his mouth was, "That's great! That's really great! You figured it out just on the spot."
"It was good, wasn't it?" Katara looked pleased with herself, but shook her head a little. "It wasn't much compared to what you did, though. There are so many kinds of animals, and you knew what every single one needs!" She paused, then added wistfully, "You know, at school, it was all 'ancient method' this and 'name all the possible' that. Like everything was already known and there would never be any surprises." She looked straight at him, smiling again. "I knew it couldn't be that way, and now I'm learning new things every day. I'm so glad I came with you."
He sat down beside her, basking in her words. "When were you at school? I thought you lived at the South Pole all your life."
"Really?! Didn't you notice that I already knew how they do things in the Earth Kingdom when we started?"
"I thought you were just good at figuring things out."
"That, too, especially as we flew north. Mostly it was Gran-Gran who taught us, but we used to trade with the Earth Kingdom before the men left. There are still a few settlements on islands near the South Pole. For a month or so each year, our tribe would sail to one of them. Our parents would sell the year's produce and buy supplies, and we'd be sent to the school. We -"
A distant shout interrupted them. "Aang! Aaaaang!"
Aang boggled at the two figures running up to them. "Smellerbee? Longshot?!"
"Am I glad we caught up with you," Smellerbee panted. "You gotta help us! Jet's been arrested!"
Katara hmphed and turned her head, muttering, "He deserved it, I bet."
It really didn't sound like Jet had done anything wrong, especially when Smellerbee finished the story by saying, "…then they said they'd lock him up for the night, but it's been days! And nobody at the jail is answering our questions. We haven't been able to do much scouting around, even after finding work by the gate – me and Longshot aren't any good at it, we didn't grow up on a farm like Jet, and they'll send us back if we don't fill the quota. So when we saw all the bending, we figured it might be you, and we ran as quick as we could. You'll help us, right?"
"Sure, guys, but what can I do?"
"Well, you're the Avatar, maybe they'd tell you where Jet is?" Smellerbee looked at him pleadingly. "It's all we could think of."
Reluctantly, Katara said, "Maybe it's nothing. Maybe they just don't want to admit he escaped, but... there's no harm trying."
Aang couldn't let them down. "Leave it to me!"
It was like a repeat of the morning, though. Nobody would tell them anything, though the officials spent a lot of time consulting with each other and insisting that they were unworthy of speaking with such an important person as the Avatar. Only the superintendent would do for "the Avatar," and only the superintendent would be able to access the information Aang needed. Supposedly, the superintendent had already gone home for the day. Nobody seemed to know when the superintendent would be back and nobody was "authorized" to say where he lived. Aang smelled an elephant-rat here.
Stumped for the moment, they retreated to talk over their options. Smellerbee wanted to charge in, Longshot apparently wanted to sneak in despite all the guards, but Katara got an uncomfortable look on her face, and quietly suggested Aang should use his sensing thing again.
Aang had to admit it made sense to figure out exactly where Jet was before either charging or sneaking in. With Katara here, he felt he could maybe do it again, especially since she assured him it couldn't be as hard as finding Appa. Jet could only walk, after all.
So he meditated, and breathed, and knew she was breathing right along with him.
As he reached out for Jet, the connection felt distant and insubstantial. It didn't go through his insides like before. At the same time, the direction he was sensing kept flickering out, as if Jet was only appearing for brief moments. He followed it in his mind's eye tenaciously…
And then he didn't know what to tell the others. It had to be the truth, didn't it? Swallowing, he saw everyone looking at him so hopefully. "I could barely sense anything…"
"But there was something?" Smellerbee asked.
"A lake. That's what I saw."
Longshot was on his feet in a flash, pulling Smellerbee up with him. Katara beamed. "So where's the lake?"
He nodded slowly. He couldn't put it off any longer. "I saw a lake. I didn't see Jet or, or anything more."
He saw that sink in, saw their various stunned reactions, and then Katara exploded, "No way. You just haven't had time to get skilled at this. Maybe you only got the general area, or maybe that much water interrupts the trail. Let's go there right now and look around!"
At the lake, he and Katara even tried pushing the water back in various places along the shore. They saw a variety of strange stone structures, but no clue about Jet.
So now they were back at the jail, Smellerbee was shaking, Longshot kept his back turned to everyone, and Katara was muttering, "No, no way. He didn't deserve that."
Abruptly, Aang couldn't take it. He whizzed past the guard on his air scooter, and dodged earth missiles all the way down the hall.
He glanced around frantically, trying to see everything before the guards caught up. There weren't many cells. Jet wasn't in any of them. There was a fancy door up ahead. Aang whooshed into the office with people hot on his tail and locked the door. Lots of papers covered the desk. Hearing the gurgle of waterbending only a short way behind him, Aang felt it safe enough to dispel his scooter, and that's when someone tackled him. Large hands tightened painfully around his throat.
With the last of his breath, Aang threw the guy off with a whirlwind. The stacks on the desk were caught in the currents. "Aagh! Papercuts!" the man cried, and scrambled back. Inspired, Aang kept the general whirl of papers going. With this shield around him, he snatched the papers one by one to examine, and let them go back into the whirlwind when he was done. The report he found was brief. It simply said, "transferred to Dai Li custody" and gave the date. Aang dropped his arms and let the papers settle to the floor. He felt disappointed, but at least the next step was pretty obvious.
The door opened.
"Avatar Aang," said a tall man as he came in and placed a hand on Aang's shoulder. "My name is Long Feng. You should have come to me at once."
Long Feng said that Jet must've been sent to one of Dai Li's city improvement projects. Community service was how they usually handled those who disturbed the peace. That was why Jet hadn't come back yet. Long Feng answered Aang's every attempt to poke holes in the story in a way which made Aang feel childish and unreasonable. He even explained that all the mystery about where Jet was in the first place was for a good reason. Prisoners often had enemies who must not be allowed to know where they were. The examples he gave of what happened when this policy was broken were hair-raising. Aang could agree that his own "high status" would've thrown people into a fluster because they trusted the Avatar, but still had to follow the rules. It was all possible, everything that Long Feng described, but still, where was Jet? Long Feng insisted they should talk privately, in his office, both to obtain Jet's records and for "another reason."
At the palace, Aang's spirits lifted again – finally they were getting close to the king! Their expert on the Earth Kingdom wasn't here, but Sokka was slouched in a chair by the green fire, so maybe Toph wasn't far behind.
Sokka wiggled his fingers in greeting. "Hi, Aang. They've made me wait here while they got you. Took a while." His voice was oddly flat and tired.
Before Aang could reply, another Dai Li guy entered with papers, and it was exactly like Long Feng said. Jet was at a water-pipe laying project. Long Feng tapped a finger at a date. "You see this? His work will be finished in two days. You will certainly see your friend again at that time. I will personally ensure that one of my people tells him of your search for him, and will take him to wherever you're staying."
He gave them all a stern look. "Where that is, now, is up to you. You have been a great deal of trouble, young Avatar. Just today, I and my men have lost many hours already, and will lose more, to repair the damage caused by the animal stampede and the reckless earthbending of your other friend."
"Say, where is Toph?" Sokka asked.
"She will be escorted back to the guesthouse as soon as she finishes her tantrum," Long Feng said dismissively. "You have done even worse. You have undermined our people's sense of safety by wild talk of attacks. Unfortunately, due to your status, we could not ask you to perform simple, honest work to atone. People come to Ba Sing Se because they want peace. We will provide it to them. From now on, if you mention the war, you will be expelled from the city."
Aang scowled a little. "That's fine. We don't mind staying elsewhere. We, uh," he remembered his manners, "we appreciate your hospitality, and we'd like to be good guests. But you know, if we could just see the king, we'd be out of your hair in no time!"
Long Feng stayed impassively polite. "We are doing all we can to speed up your meeting. The Earth King simply has too many demands on his time. You must be patient."
"This could be the most important thing he ever heard!" Aang argued.
Quickly, they all realised that the King was more of a figurehead than anything. Long Feng lost his temper for the first time as he listed all the dire consequences he expected to follow from peace being disrupted. Aang's eyes widened more and more as Long Feng went on. He'd never heard such fanaticism before, and he was horrified to realize just how far this man would go for his "peace."
He still thought that maybe Long Feng could be reasoned with so long as it wasn't about "peace." Right up until Long Feng said, in a conciliating tone, "I understand you've been looking for your bison. What can you accomplish alone, compared to the Dai Li? If there is any trace of your bison, my men will certainly get him for you."
Travelling the world since the age of five and getting into trouble all over had certainly taught Aang how to recognize a threat from an adult. He was used to sidestepping them with a smile and nod, but he was too full of anger to do that now. He'd do anything to get Appa back – but could he risk letting the Dai Li handle the drill, when they wanted to preserve secrecy far more? And even if they could find a way to stop the Firelord without the Earth King's help, shouldn't they at least still try that? Surely the King would be outraged to hear all that Long Feng had been keeping from him.
Toph panted as she slammed her way through multiple layers of rock. She emerged in a an alley and paused for a second to listen. Her pursuers were right behind her. That proved it. They could sense their surroundings through earthbending. Not nearly as well as her, or she couldn't have evaded them so long, but enough. She took off towards the nearest big street. The vibrations of many feet would mask hers.
A voice from the sky yelled, "Halt! Surrender yourself!" but since it was obviously magnified by a speaking trumpet, Toph knew they had no clue where she was. Snorting quietly at the idea of surrender, she dodged under a cart for cover.
A few buildings over, a crack in the wall felt small enough that no one could fit through without telltale earthbending – except her. With sharp swings of both fists, she punched through the ground all the way into the caverns, in the only nearby spot she safely could. A thick cloud of rock dust billowed out, and she waved her hands to spread it out. While everyone coughed and staggered around, she staggered just like them towards the crack. Like the badgermoles taught her, she got through, then went up the stairs at the slow pace of a regular person. At the top, she pressed her hands to the floor, keeping the rest of her body on the wooden stairs. The vibrations were muted this high up, but she could sense enough to track the movements below while her heartbeat slowly settled.
Most of the apartments were empty at this time of the day. Nobody was coming out into the corridor and nobody followed her. Instead, she felt thuds at the bottom of the hole she made. The voice in the sky boomed that damaging the streets was forbidden and she should surrender herself into custody. Concentrating hard enough to cause a headache, she made the ground shake far down the street. The effects could be felt all the way here. More people milled around, adding the chaotic vibrations of their feet to the mix. A large cart drowned out everything as it rattled like thunder down the street. It was followed by a crash, followed by a wonderfully confusing avalanche of vibrations, followed by running footsteps and a pained scream of "My cabbages!"
Toph hadn't meant to do that, and she winced for the poor merchant. Her family would pay for the damages, though. She had no doubt Ba Sing Se authorities would send them the bill, just like last time.
As she split her attention between the action below and scoping out her next hiding place, she didn't pay much attention to anything else, until the window frame at the end of the hallway creaked. She froze. On the windowsill was someone familiar, holding a large, already filled bag... the oddity meant she didn't bolt instantly.
"Toph?" Zuko's voice spoke very quietly outside the window. "You're the one causing all this?"
"Go away!" she hissed. "It's none of your business!"
He pushed at the window again. The crack widened with another loud creak. "It is when they've set up barricades all around this area and check everyone who goes through. I'm not getting caught because of your stupid antics!"
She could wrap him up in the rock from the walls, but that would be the same as yelling out her location. Why, oh why hadn't she noticed him before he noticed her? She opened the window for him; he was taking forever right out there in the open. "And I'm not getting caught because you're drawing attention to me!"
"You're the one with the citywide manhunt! Did you kill somebody or what?"
He felt curious more than anything. Toph checked again, but nobody else was coming near. "I didn't do anything! One minute, I was asking getting-to-know-you questions, and the next, several guards were asking me to come with them. They wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. Seriously wouldn't. Each time I shook off a bunch, I ran across another soon. They were even guarding the railcar stations."
"You're joking. Just for asking questions?" Disbelief, naturally, but also a faint concern.
She felt him hesitate. "So what, you're just going to run forever?"
"No, I have a plan." All she needed was to find the local underground Earthbending League. She could prove easily that she was the Blind Bandit. They'd know a smuggler or two, and they wouldn't blab to the guards. "I know how to contact people who'll get me past the Middle Ring gates. I can make my way to the guesthouse from there." His head twitched towards her with sudden interest. "They haven't said my name once, even though someone up the chain of command must know it. They're treating me like an anonymous fugitive. There, I'm an honored guest, with the Avatar for backup. I bet that'll make them back off."
"Where's the guesthouse? Which ring?"
He vibrated with suppressed emotion. "I know a way into the Middle Ring. I'll help you get there if you swear you'll get me into the Upper."
"Why do -"
"None of your business! Do you want help or not?"
Toph had another quick listen. The street below had settled into its usual hum of activity, but the distant tromp of guard boots was unmistakable, and it was true that people were clumped oddly at one end of the street. The earth was fragile here, mined and earthbent many times. By now, they would be prepared for her to try again in the obvious spots, and she wasn't going to risk collapsing the whole street by going through an unstable spot. Still, she could wait it out or fight and run. "You're awfully fishy with that sudden offer. I bet I'll get by further without your 'help'. Get away before they see you talking to me. No, wait. How did you find me?"
He felt frustrated. "I was just minding my business when they closed the streets. So I climbed up to get a better look, saw the explosion, and there was something human-warm going through a wall. Look, you're the truth-teller. I swear I'm not going to try kidnapping Aang if you help me. It's just there's a place I need to get to."
He did sound honest, but he was still holding something back. "What place? Are you going to assassinate the Earth King?"
He shook his head in amazement. "Absolutely not. Why would you even think that?!"
"Natural guess. If you're not after Aang this time, then you must be after some other way to defeat the Earth Kingdom."
He swore he wasn't stupid enough to try getting past the King's security. But he still wouldn't tell her the real story.
Instead, he continued pestering her to change her mind and join up forces. "Your hair, for instance, what's that supposed to be?"
Toph swiped a hand through the giant puff that sprang up whenever she took off her headband. "Disguise, genius."
He smothered a bark of laughter. "You certainly don't look like yourself. But – very distinctive. Not great for hiding."
Toph knew from the start that she might not be able to cover all the clues sighted people used. She'd done fine so far, though. He was being a jerk. "What do you suggest?"
"Here, you can make a kerchief from this." He pulled a bundle from the sack, unwrapped the cloth, and gave it to her. It smelled of tea and flattened her hair nicely. "And give me a few minutes." As promised, he soon came back with a robe. "I'll return it," he told her defensively, "so that's not like stealing."
"Yeah, yeah." The robe was a little large, but not enough to trip over. It should certainly help. Okay, she'd see what he had in mind at least. Zuko explained that he'd been secretly hitching rides on the railcars. Unfortunately for him, they were considered a plebeian way to travel, so no lines went into the Upper Ring, and all the carriages that did were thoroughly inspected. Getting past the guards onto the platform would be tricky, but Zuko thought that they'd be looking for one girl with wild hair, not two siblings. It only needed to work long enough for them to get to the maintenance tunnel. According to Zuko, it was neither guarded nor used frequently.
As soon as she was disguised, he went to the window impatiently. "Hurry up! I'm late as it is."
"Late for what? You do remember, the guys were hoping to see you today?"
"I work," he informed her. "I didn't have time to get all the way to the outer wall and back before my shift."
"Work? Doesn't look like it to me."
"Everyone's gone crazy over my uncle's tea. Business is booming. We keep running out of stuff, so I was sent to buy more. And with the whole rationing system, that took -" He suddenly jerked his head towards something in the corridor, when there was nothing there.
"What was that?"
"Nothing." He felt embarrassed and defensive.
"You know better than to lie."
He hesitated, angry, then gave in. "I've been seeing things for the past few days. It's always nothing. It'll pass."
"How about you keep quiet?" He gestured to the window. "It's a blind spot here, between two buildings, but with your annoying voice, we'll be spotted instantly."
"Wait," she said nervously, "are you planning to climb?"
He faced in her direction for long moments. "Obviously. How else did you expect to get past the barricades?"
"I don't climb. I make the earth lift me up."
"Well, you can't do that now!"
"I don't know how to climb a wall this smooth."
He sounded stunned. "Why not? You don't need to see to climb."
"I just never got good at it, all right?" She didn't enjoy being far from the ground.
He sighed. "Fine. Does piggyback suit your delicate feet?"
"Want to find out just how delicate they are when I kick you?"
She didn't like being carried along by someone else, either. Whatever vibrations transferred up to her through the other person's body were so muffled and distorted, she got dizzy from trying to sort them out. Dizzy was not a good thing to be when that person was not just climbing, but making a sudden crazy leap into weightless air. And then the impact. And climbing – up? Stopping at a strange angle?
"Keep going," she hissed at him.
"Got to wait for them to look away!" he hissed back. "This is hard enough without you."
Through the slow circles her head was making, she gradually realized where they were – hanging just under the roof of a building. How, she didn't want to know.
Eternal minutes passed before he finally judged it safe to move; then it was another stomach-churning, up-and-down moving experience.
"Maybe you really are a wolfbat, after all," she murmured under her breath when she finally planted her feet on solid ground, safely beyond the barricade.
His annoyance only increased. There was something heavy and resentful about it. His muscles were tight from the shoulders to the tips of the fingers, and not just from the strain of climbing. What was it with him? For a temporary ally, he kept snapping at her a lot. She wasn't thrilled either, but he'd suggested all this in the first place.
She punched him in the side in a friendly, get-over-yourself way. Instead of returning the jab, he whirled on her, shaking with anger. He struggled with himself before finally biting out, "You are just asking for it. Let's go before I change my mind."
Obligingly, she followed, but asked, "Where are we going?"
"Back to the teashop. With all the guards drinking out front, nobody will think to search the back. You can hide out till my shift is over. It'll be safer to travel then."
"Ooh, I wonder if Iroh will share some tea with me again." She really hoped.
"Who gave you permission to call him that?!"
Zuko clenched his jaw and slowly got himself under control. "Well, he's like that. But you shouldn't take advantage! And it's 'Mushi' now. If you can't be respectful, at least don't put him in danger."
"I got it. Sorry." She couldn't resist adding, "But you're not one to give me lectures about respect. I mean, the way you treat Aang, your reborn ancestor... whoo. I hear bad things happen to those who disrespect the ancestors." She wiggled her fingers at him, until hit with a wave of genuine bafflement.
"Are you out of your mind?! Where'd you get that idea?"
"Well, he's your great-grandfather, isn't he? Mother's side?"
He relaxed. "Common sense should tell you, Roku wasn't an unusual name back then. I've got three of them in the family tree."
She stopped. How was it possible he didn't know? "Common sense tells me that everyone talked so much about your ma's marriage because he was that Roku. Of all the notables, that was the only family banned from getting fat on tribute from the Earth Kingdom, and after the marriage, not only can they, they're getting the plum territories. Sounds like someone wanted her enough to sweep the past under the rug."
"That's nonsense. The ban was probably for tax evasion or something." There was tension in his shoulders as he faced away from her. "Your family got hold of some wild rumors."
"I had to memorize all that stuff, remember? I know it wasn't tax evasion."
"Well, I had to memorize my family genealogy all the way back to the first Firelord! Who wrote tons of dreadful poetry, by the way, all of which I had to memorize as well. I admit, I may not have been paying my best attention by the time we got around to my mother's side of the family. But that was because none of them did anything interesting. I'd have noticed!"
Toph doubted that, but didn't care enough to push. "You think poetry's bad? My family's ancestor built our fortune through the sale of turnips. He kept extensive records, so I had to regurgitate every 'incredible' deal he ever made, and each and every way his turnips got damaged, and his brilliant insights. 'Wrinkly turnips can be soaked in cold water to make them look fresher.' Just the sort of thing you'd never want to forget."
"At least that might be kinda useful, if you ever needed money yourself. There's no shortage of bad poetry that I know of."
Toph felt a lot better now that he was teasing her again. "I dunno. Since most people don't bother to remember bad poetry, you could handily pass it off as your own invention! Just make sure all your ministers have no taste, or at least not enough courage to speak up."
He went irritable and gloomy again. Fortunately, they arrived at the teashop then. Zuko told her to wait outside, but that was no obstacle to her hearing.
"Lee, where have you been?! Were you able to find everything?"
"I did, and I'm sorry I'm late, Uncle -"
A new voice interrupted. "You'd better be sorry! We're losing customers!"
Zuko raised his voice a bit. "- I ran into a girl who needed some help."
The owner's voice rose in outrage. "You think making eyes at a pretty girl is an excuse?!"
"Not that kind of girl!" Zuko said hastily. "An actual girl! I mean, a little girl!" Toph was torn between the desire to stick her tongue out at the 'little' and amusement.
"Oh, a 'poor orphan me'? Don't you know better than to be taken in by the little beggars?"
"I wasn't – oh, forget it. Uncle, can I talk to you outside a moment?"
The door opened, with the owner's voice floating out, "This is coming out of your wages!"
Iroh turned in her direction almost immediately. She could just feel the full-body smile of welcome. "Oh! It's good to see you again!"
"Likewise, old man." She tried not to grin too broadly.
Zuko quickly filled Iroh in, and she was swept into the kitchen's warm, damp, deeply-scented air. It only took a few words from Iroh to appease the owner. Tucked inconspicuously in a corner, Toph listened to the tramp of feet and clatter of cups. During the rare slow times, Iroh would come by, speak with her as long as he could, and pour her endless refills of tasty tea. While it wasn't the unhurried time together she'd imagined, it was great.
She didn't even mind Zuko slamming around and speaking to her in snarls if at all. But she was curious. "What's his problem?" she asked eventually.
Iroh paused significantly. "I was about to ask you the same thing. You had a big fight, yes?'
"What? No. I mean, he was snippy, but he was pretty good about avoiding a fight."
Iroh nodded as if she'd confirmed something. "Ah. A fight he couldn't have would be far more frustrating." She shrugged in puzzlement, so he elaborated. "I believe he's confusing you with his little sister, who he wasn't allowed to fight. It's not anything you've done."
Toph shrugged. "That's silly, but fine. So long as he keeps up his end, I don't care."
Iroh wrapped both hands around his cup. "Did he tell you why he's so set on going with you?"
She said no and Iroh explained, then added, "I don't like these… spirit promises to find what was lost. Even worse is that Zuko agreed it could be manipulation, but he doesn't care. For the smallest chance, he'll rush headlong into things."
Toph made the expected noise of sympathy.
Iroh suddenly focused in on her. "So you'll watch out for him?"
She spluttered. "What? What are you talking about?"
"I know you have no reason to be kind to us, but he'll keep his promise to you. The only thing he won't do is take account of the risks. So steer him towards safer things when you can. That's all I ask. Destiny is bringing you together for a reason. Please?"
Toph knew when she was being coaxed. But she couldn't ignore the real anxiety behind the sugarcoating. In the end, she found herself agreeing. Her skin was on the line, too, after all.
The shop finally began closing down. Zuko was washing the last mountain of dishes. Slower than before, tired, when they still had a long way to go. "You're such a slowpoke. Here, I'll help."
But as she reached for a cup, Zuko protested angrily, "Leave it!"
Toph flushed hotly and wanted to hit him. Instead, she grabbed the cup, rinsed and dried, and spun it around on her finger. All while keeping it away from his desperately reaching hands. "What do you know. The blind girl can be capable of simple tasks."
"Stop it! I'm sure it's great fun to you, but it won't be just me in trouble. You wouldn't do that to Uncle, would you?"
"I just showed you I can wash it!"
"I never said you couldn't!"
It didn't feel like a lie. "So, you just think I'm vindictive enough to break it deliberately."
Zuko nodded as if it was the most obvious thing, still fixated on the cup.
She put it down. "I wasn't going to break it."
He said nothing as they washed the rest in silence. After one last "Be careful" from Iroh, they went out into the street, mingling with the many other people leaving work.
Zuko finally unbent enough to say, "The announcer said you broke a lot of streets and houses and all." As apologies went, it wasn't one at all, but she got it.
"Hah, they would say that. Don't believe everything you hear."
They found the biggest crowd possible and slipped past the guardpoint in the crush. The approaching vibrations shook the platform. The railcar ground to a stop. The crowd began to move to the doors; they moved in it. Suddenly, Zuko staggered. His whole body turned, then snapped back. People's heads were turning towards them, and Zuko was still acting spacy.
She pinched his arm hard a couple of times before he came back to himself. By then, most of the crowd was gone and he started to steer her back to the wall. "We'll get the next one," he muttered with a scowl.
"Had your little spirit moment at the wrong time? What if it happens again?"
"I won't let it happen."
Before she could call him on the lie, she noticed three guards approaching. She elbowed him and pointed at them subtly. He froze, then hissed at her, "What do we do?"
"Pretend we forgot something?" she guessed frantically.
Immediately, Zuko scolded her loudly enough for anyone to hear for "forgetting it." She cringed and covered her face with her hands artistically. He said, "Fine, it's not the end of the world" and hugged her around the shoulders exactly as if he regretted snapping at her. Not coincidentally, that covered her face with his sleeve. She leaned into him as they moved towards the exit. They got around the corner and before the guards could catch up, Zuko swung her onto his back again, then climbed up on the roof. She pressed her hands against the clay tiles, feeling out the guards. They were searching, and they'd probably call in reinforcements soon.
"Good thing that you're a good liar," she sighed, "but this isn't working. Any more bright ideas?"
"I'm not a liar!" He was offended.
She raised her eyebrows. "I must have dreamed some other guy lying about who he was for weeks and weeks."
"That... that's a different thing. I don't lie unless I have to. I'm not good at it, anyway."
She snorted. "You haven't been caught. Apparently, you haven't even caught yourself."
His mouth opened, his whole body tensed for argument, but nothing came out. Finally, he slumped. "They're way too trusting, that's the only reason," he said, but it came out plaintive and uncertain.
"Oh, come off it," she told him. "Yeah, they do go easy on you because it looks like you're not right in the head, but that's all. Maybe you're not too quick to come up with a plausible lie, but you're so, so great at keeping one going. Awesome. Remarkable."
He scowled and changed the topic hastily. "We can get in. It's just going to be harder."
She sighed. Looked like it was up to her again. She felt out the building. What do you know, the maintenance tunnel clearly had an exit onto the street. Also a guard, though, and a lock.
Counting up the skills they had, she decided they could handle it. Zuko had his mask, of course, so he caused a disturbance, luring the guard away, then ran and climbed his way back. Even if the guards put this incident together with Toph's need to escape, they only needed it to work for a few minutes.
Of course, Zuko had to complain about not wanting anyone to realize there was a firebender in the city, but she pointed out he was being paranoid. The locking bolt hissed as he sliced through it. Zuko put his hand on her arm and tried to steer her around the molten drops on the ground. She shook him off. "Honestly, what?!"
"I thought you could only sense earth."
"Well, now you know."
He smiled. "Yeah."
The rest went off surprisingly easy. They shut the door and Zuko remelted the lock. If no one looked closely or tried to open the door, it would pass. At the other end of the tunnel, they waited till the railcar started moving. Many of the wagons had ledges on their ends for conductors to stand on, so they jumped on between two wagons.
"That's how you do it," Zuko informed her. The hitch in his breath didn't cover the smugness.
"You know we'll be picked up at the next stop," she replied, grinning. "So how are we getting off?"
"First, duck when I tell you. There are observers on the gates between the Rings, but the angle of sight between the wagons is bad enough that if we scrunch up small against the wall, they won't spot us. Then... well, you won't like this part."
"We jump before the station. I know a good spot, dark and secluded."
"Yep. Don't like it."
"Scared?" he challenged.
She laughed. "Just let me know when."
And that's what they did. The train slowed down at a curve, he grabbed her, and they jumped. She held on as he climbed down the long, long column which supported the rail, not nearly as disoriented as she'd been before. She was getting used to this.
Then it was her turn to lead him down the streets and towards the back of the University. The wall that separated them from the Upper Ring loomed high into the sky, but with a precise movement of her foot, a piece fell away, revealing the passage, just big enough to crawl through.
"Students don't like being told they can't go somewhere," she informed him. "They've made this hole a long time ago. And since the guards know that half the students have influential families, they don't try too hard to close it off."
"So how did you discover it?" he sounded reluctantly impressed as he crawled in behind her, moving a lot more slowly and awkwardly than her.
"By exploring, of course. I wanted to be free to go as I pleased, even if I had to get back in time for all the formal functions. Went through here so often that I actually ran into some students. But students are cool – I told them of a couple more interesting spots, and they told me about a couple I hadn't discovered yet."
"That's... well... I'd do the same," he admitted. His movements were speeding up a bit – Toph noticed him imitating and trying to match hers. "I did, actually."
"True." He felt a bit wistful.
Finally, they were out. Zuko nodded to her and walked away, heading straight for the palace without a backward glance. Toph was forcibly reminded of Iroh's words. Zuko wasn't in a state to be paying attention to details like, oh, palace security. "Hey!" she called after him. "So long as you're already here, aren't you gonna visit with the team? They missed you this morning. Worried that something happened."
He stopped, clearly wavering. "Tell them you ran into me and that work kept me away."
"How did you tell me?" she prodded. "You 'can't talk' and I can't see."
He paused to try to work it out in gestures. When he nearly overbalanced miming pouring tea and she couldn't help laughing, he sighed. "I guess it wouldn't hurt to stop in for a minute." He couldn't hide his pleasure at the the thought.
One house over from the guesthouse, he suddenly ducked sideways, dragging her along. "Someone on that roof," he hissed.
Toph focused, but the roof was wood and metal. From the peripheral vibrations of the entire house, she couldn't be sure whether the couple lumps on top were people or decorations. Now that she knew, however, it was easy to distract them even without any bending. A simple rock balanced just so on a neighbor's wall above a statue, a few steps around the house while it was teetering, and a quick silent dash when it crashed – and they were in.
The team had been worried sick about her, it turned out, and Toph could admit, just to herself, that the fuss wasn't all bad. Not like when her parents did it. Different. When she told them of the multiple escapes of the day, they were impressed, and they didn't want to pack her away like precious porcelain. They wanted her kicking butt every day, not just special occasions.
Of course, they were happy to see 'Blue' too, and she could sense a lot of emotions similar to hers from him. At least until the point that Katara said, "Blue, I've been thinking about how I might help you regain your voice and I have some ideas."