40. Making an Impression
He's back! Toph thought as she hurried deeper into the forest. I can't believe it! He came back! He actually came back!
Toph couldn't keep an eye on on her and Flicker's secret meeting place all the way from the Beifong estate. She had gotten into the habit of checking in on it whenever she got the chance, but that wasn't as often as she would've liked. She couldn't afford to disappear daily, especially right now; she would rake up enough odd disappearances when the Rumble season started. It was better to be on her best behavior.
Ironically, Toph had learnt of the dragon's return from one of the guards who were supposed to make sure she stayed out of harm's way. Apparently a rumor around town had it a dragon had been spotted flying above the mountains in the morning dew.
Of course any lady worth her education knew that dragons were not native to these parts of the world, and that they were extinct to boot. The guards clearly believed the rumor was just peasant superstition, a milkmaid's tale of a weird cloud that looked like a dragon if you squinted at it from the right angle.
True or not, the rumor made for a good story to tell kids; an exciting but harmless tale you could share even with the sheltered daughter of the Beifongs without upsetting her delicate sensibilities too much.
Toph had wanted to ditch her guards right then and there, but she also didn't want anyone to detect a pattern to her disappearances. Although it had sucked to just sit on her hands all day, Toph had waited until after bedtime to make her escape.
She was close enough to the clearing now to have her hopes confirmed by her feet. The dragon is back! And not alone. There is a human with him. I wonder if that's good or bad.
Toph wanted to run over to his friend, but she paused to take a better look before going in.
Well, they aren't fighting, that's for sure. Just sitting around a small campfire. I suppose Flicker could be his prisoner, but that seems really unlikely.
Toph took a deep breath. She was a bit nervous; it had been over a month since she had last seen Flicker the friendly dragon.
"What's up", Toph said, and casually leaned on a boulder. She was pleased to notice she had gotten the drop on both the man and the dragon.
The man got up, dusted off his clothes, and said: "Ah. You must be the renowned Toph Beifong. Zuko told me you would find us here. I see his faith in your earthbending abilities was not an exaggeration."
The man sounded pretty old, but not worried or judgmental. He knew who she was, and they were expecting her, so it was pretty clear he was friends with the dragon.
He seems cool, Toph decided.
The short, stocky man bowed at her. "Allow me to introduce myself: I am Iroh, though you can call me Uncle. Almost everyone does."
Uncle? Toph narrowed her eyes. Not Flicker's Uncle, right?
Speaking of the dragon, Flicker seemed a lot less at ease than his mystery friend did. The dragon got up, but he didn't come over to greet her, like she had expected.
What is he waiting for, an invitation? Toph thought. Then she noticed how gingerly the dragon had climbed on his feet.
Toph pointed in the dragon's direction. "You're hurt. What happened?"
That seemed to finally snap Flicker out of whatever had been holding him back; the dragon opened his wings and disappeared from Toph's line of sight. After what Toph assumed was a short glide, Flicker landed next to her. She had seen this coming, so she didn't flinch.
The dragon communicated: 'Hi Toph. I'm sorry to drop in on you unannounced like this, but I am glad to see you're well.'
Toph laughed at Flicker's politeness. "What are you apologizing for? Coming unannounced? This isn't the Earth King's court, and you can't exactly send a messenger by my house. You're a dragon: who did you think was going to announce your arrival?"
For some reason, Flicker still didn't relax. The dragon glanced behind himself at the old man.
"What?" Toph asked, now a bit more serious. "Is it your leg? Is it that Iroh guy? You know I can take him on, if need be."
'No! There is no need. Uncle is a friend', Flicker communicated hastily.
"Then what's got you tangled in a knot?" Toph asked bluntly.
The dragon sighed. 'Toph, there is something I need to tell you. I haven't been entirely honest with you about who I am.'
Toph was a bit confused by that. "What could you possibly have lied to me about? You told me almost nothing about yourself. Is Zuko not your real name?"
The dragon winced. 'It is.'
A dreadful thought occurred to Toph. "You don't want to be my friend anymore."
'No, that's not it! I want to be your friend. I like you, and spirits only know I don't have many friends. The thing is, I didn't come here just to make sure you're okay. I'm actually here to ask you for a favor, but I fear that when you find out who I really am, you might not want to be my friend anymore.'
Toph still felt confused, but also irritated by Flicker's roundabout explanations. She crossed her arms. "Okay. Out with it."
'...It's simpler if I show you.'
Toph expected the dragon to show her something with his weird dragon powers, but instead Flicker broke the connection and took a few steps back. Then something strange happened; Toph could feel warmth radiating off of the dragon's direction, but it wasn't warm enough to be fire. It didn't dry up the ground under their feet like regular fire would.
Toph couldn't feel Flicker's weight against the ground anymore.
He took off? How is that supposed to clarify things for me? Somehow though, Toph didn't think it was that simple. If this is just Zuko breathing fire and floating in the air, why are all the hairs on the back of my head standing up?
Also, there was definitely someone standing in the not-fire.
The warmth disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived, leaving behind just cool night air. The dragon was gone, but there was somebody standing exactly where Flicker had been a moment ago.
Toph's eyes widened in realization. "No. Way."
"Hi Toph", the newcomer said in unsure but friendly voice. "It's me, Zuko. I'm the dragon, though not really. I mean, not full time, anyway. I didn't tell you that before, so, um... Sorry?"
Toph wasn't sure what to think. She decided to go with righteous fury.
"Ow! Hey, watch it. Not the arm!"
Yep, he was definitely Flicker. Toph stopped pommeling the boy with pebbles. Instead she walked into his personal space, and pointed a finger at his face. "You are really bad at this 'being friends' thing, you know that?"
The boy before her took in a deep breath and admitted: "I have a lot of explaining to do. You've earned that much."
"You think?!" Toph yelled, although she could feel her anger calming down a bit already. All in all, this wasn't the worst possible secret Zuko could have sprang on her. At least there was no evil Fire Nation kidnap plan on the way.
After a small silence, the man called Iroh pitched in: "It is indeed a long and eventful story, best told over a nice cup of tea. Lady Toph, Prince Zuko, if you would be so kind."
Prince Zuko? And Uncle Iroh. For all Toph knew, Iroh could be a popular name in the Fire Nation, but it was probably no coincidence that a certain General Iroh sprang to mind from her history lessons.
The Dragon of the West is offering to have a nice cup of tea with me, and he means it, too.
Toph was old enough to have stopped believing in spirit tales, but perhaps she shouldn't have. At this point, it probably would have served her better to suspend her disbelief and assume every crazy nursery rhyme she had ever heard was at least partially true.
"After leaving the Northern Water Tribe, we didn't have anywhere to go. You were the first person I could think of. I can fly, so the distance wasn't a problem, although it took us a while to get here, since Uncle wanted us to fly only during nighttime, so we don't draw too much attention to ourselves. And now, here we are."
The banished Prince of the Fire Nation finished his tale of spirits, avatars, court intrigue, and dragons, and not a word of it had been a lie, as far as Toph could tell. With Zuko, she was pretty sure she would've known if the boy was lying. Zuko was easy to read. Kind of like Flicker.
Exactly like Flicker, she supposed.
"Okay." Toph tapped her foot on the ground. "Have you now told me all the secret stuff you didn't tell me before?"
Zuko nodded. His cup of tea was still sitting before him on the ground, untouched and undoubtedly cold by now.
Iroh put down his own, empty cup, and said: "There is a good chance that I am still wanted for treason for my actions at the North Pole, so we're trying not to run into any Fire Nation troops. Should the Earth Kingdom Army find out who we are, I'm sure they would give us trouble as well."
These guys sure didn't try to sugarcoat things; Toph liked it.
"So you guys will be leaving again soon?" She was not going to be sad about that.
The firebenders exchanged worried looks.
"Um", Zuko started. "Actually, we were hoping to stay here in Gaoling for a while, but if you think our presence would place you, your town, or your family in jeopardy, we will of course be on our..."
"No!" Toph yelled. "Finally something interesting happens in my life, no way I'm letting you take your destiny and spirits and incredible bending battles, and go bother someone else with it."
"You want us to stay?" Zuko asked, stunned.
Of course Toph wanted them to stay. Hanging out with these was almost she herself was part of the rest of the world, and going on cool adventures, just like the rest of the world was.
"I'm still kinda angry at you for not telling me any of this before now, so don't think you're off the hook just yet." Toph paused and shrugged. "But this is the single most amazing thing that has ever happened to anyone, period."
"Hold on." Zuko sort-of crossed his arms. "Have you been listening to a word I just said? I am the Prince of your enemy Nation, I worked tirelessly to capture the Avatar, I fought the Ocean himself, and I'm wanted by two different nations."
"Mostly likely by all three", Iroh corrected his nephew, smirking behind his refilled cup of tea. It was kind of cute how those two bickered all the time.
"Man, I wish I could have been there", Toph said.
Zuko frowned at both of them. "I'm cursed, probably literally. Trouble finds me wherever I go, and you still don't have any problem inviting me to stay over?"
Toph shrugged. "You've made some questionable choices in the past, but you don't want the Fire Nation to win the war, right?"
Zuko closed his eyes and bit his lip. "No. I don't."
The calm expression on Iroh's face did not change, but Toph could feel his heart beat faster. She'd ask him about that later; now she kept her attention on the teenager sitting next to her.
"Then I don't see any reason why we couldn't hang out. So long as you tell me the truth from now on. And don't run off to chase after the Avatar and leave me behind."
Zuko was thoughtful for a moment, but eventually he said in a quiet voice: "Thank you."
Toph punched him on his good arm. "That's what friends are for."
"We are most grateful for your hospitality", Iroh chimed in.
Toph frowned. "Yeah, about that. I know it would be lame of me to ask you to stick around, and then not invite you to stay at my place. I'm just not sure how to spin all this to my parents. As far as they know, I don't have any friends I might want to ask over, and I don't think they would react well if I told them about all my secret escapes and whatnots. They might think you guys are a bad influence on me. Not to mention, you know, Fire Nation fugitives."
Toph's parents weren't political or anti-Fire Nation; they wanted the war to end soon, but mostly because it was bad for business. That said, they would never let someone they thought was dangerous get anywhere near their fragile daughter.
"I have some ideas about that, actually", Iroh said innocently. "I'll have to run them by you, of course, but I believe that with your help and a bit of deception we can make a good first impression on your parents."
That piqued Toph's interest, especially because it was clear from Zuko's reaction that he was not in on whatever plan his Uncle had cooked up.
"You have a plan to get us invited to stay at Toph's house?" Zuko asked, frowning. "When were you going to tell me that?"
"Yeah", Toph put in, and turned to look at Zuko. "It really isn't nice to keep secrets like that."
Zuko had the decency to blush.
Toph turned back to Iroh. "Let's hear it."
"A letter has arrived for you, sir. It bears the symbol of the Chu family of Chu province." A servant bowed at Toph's father, Lao Beifong, and presented the rolled-up letter to him.
"The Chu family?" Lao asked. "We haven't had any dealings with them in the past. Did the messenger say what it was about?"
Toph's parents were seated in large chairs at the reception hall, drinking their morning tea. Toph was sitting in a normal-sized chair across them. She tried to keep her face indifferent, although her heart was doing its darnest to stammer out of her chest.
"We did not see the messenger, sir. He must have come by very early. We found the letter at the doorstep."
Toph hid a smirk. She had been the one to deliver the letter.
Lao nodded at the servant, and excused him. He broke the seal, unrolled the paper, and started to read.
"What is it about, dear?" Toph's mother, Poppy, asked in a calm and demure tone. She was always calm and demure; a proper noblewoman, something Toph herself could never be.
Lao frowned. "Two members of the Chu family are visiting Gaoling, and they want to have an audience with us."
"Perhaps they hope to do business with us in the future?" Poppy suggested.
"It would seem so." Lao concurred. "But Chu province is on the other side of Earth Kingdom. I wonder what brings them this far south?"
What Toph's parents were leaving unsaid was that Chu province was a Fire Nation colony in all but name, and had been for decades; the cession of Chu province was one of General Iroh's first great triumphs as the head of the Fire Army.
The Chu family had made a deal with the Fire Nation. They got to keep their lands and titles, and the province didn't have to send men to fight in either army, though they did pay taxes to the Fire Nation.
Toph's parents weren't outright dismissive of the idea of being associated with such a family. They did not like the war, but Gaoling wasn't exactly famous for its patriotism, either. They had mostly stayed out of the war.
Maybe Uncle's plan will work.
Her parents would want to do asking around before getting into an arrangement with new people, but they would have a hard time finding anyone among their business associates who openly associated with the ruling house of the Chu province.
Toph's father appeared to have come to the same conclusion. "Well, we'll find out exactly what they want soon enough. They arrive this afternoon."
"So soon?" Poppy said, sounding genuinely surprised, though she collected herself quickly. "Yes, dear. I'll let the servants know we'll be having guests over for dinner. I expect they'll want to stay the night as well, having come such a long way."
Toph smirked. So good so far.
Iroh had been right about Zuko; the boy could play the part of someone who came from high society. He didn't flinch at servants, or scoff at all the ceremony, like a peasant pretending to be a noble might have. Zuko acted like he had every right to be here. Like he belonged.
It really shouldn't have come as a surprise, Toph thought. Him being a Prince and all.
Yet it did.
Zuko and Iroh had cleaned up nicely; Toph couldn't see what they were wearing, but it must have been something presentable and appropriate for the occasion, since her parents hadn't given them any pause when welcoming them in.
Zuko had been reluctant to accept money from Toph, but he had to eventually concede that they needed new clothes and things if they wanted to pass for nobility. Buying supplies using Toph's Earth Rumble winnings was a far better way of getting new clothes than having Toph steal something from her parent's closets at random.
Not like I ever get to use my victory money for anything, anyways. I just keep it stashed next to the championship belt.
"Mushi, it is a great honor to have you and your nephew as our guests," Poppy commented over the dinner table. Her parents were well aware that the Chu family was of a higher rank of nobility than the Beifongs were, although the disparity was somewhat evened out by the fact that the Beifongs were so famously rich.
It was still a compliment to have them as their guests, or it would have been, if Zuko and Iroh were actually from the Chu family. Toph almost laughed when she thought of the looks on her parents faces had they known their guests were in fact royalty.
"And we are honored to have such gracious and hospitable hosts", Iroh returned the compliment.
Zuko, now going by Lee, had been quiet but polite all evening. Toph could feel the tenseness radiating off of him, but her parents either hadn't noticed it, or they put it on him being in a difficult age. A lot about Zuko's behavior could probably be explained away with 'he's a teenager'.
Poppy turned to address Zuko. "I'm sorry to hear about your arm. We have sent word to our personal physician, and he will come by first thing tomorrow morning to take a look at it."
"That's very kind of you", Zuko managed.
"What happened to your arm?" Lao inquired. He sounded like he was only asking out of politeness, but Toph could tell he really wanted to know.
"I fell off an ostrich-horse on our way here", Zuko lied, and looked down at his food again.
"You rode on the back of a horse? Not in a carriage?" Poppy sounded shocked. "We would never let Toph do something so dangerous."
"Um", was all Zuko managed.
It seemed there were notable differences between what was expected of Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation nobility; from what Toph had gathered so far, the latter were way more hands-on. Most Earth Kingdom noble houses did not send their members off to fight in the war, for one. That was what peasants were for.
Uncle sighed emphatically. "I did try to warn him, but my nephew insisted that he wanted to 'travel light'. You know what young people are like, valuing appearance over comfort."
Poppy laughed politely, and they went back to eating in amiable silence.
After a moment, Lao wiped the corners of his mouth with a napkin, and asked: "And the scar? Was that another accident?"
Toph's eyes widened. Zuko has a noticeable scar? Where? Must be on his face, what other part of him could my parents see.
Zuko froze in place, but Iroh came to his rescue once more. "Indeed, what a terrible accident it was. Lee was too young to remember it, but there was a fire at the nursery. Terrible business, truly. My sister-in-law was beside herself with worry for weeks."
Toph blinked. Zuko has a noticeable burn scar on his face? People really need to start telling me these things.
"Sounds like you've been through a terrible ordeal", Poppy put in amiably. " Then, and now getting here. I hope you'll stay as our guests for as long as it takes for you to feel up to traveling again."
Poppy's offer took Lao by surprise, but he went along with it after only a moment of hesitation. "Of course. Be our guests, for as long as you need it."
"You are far too kind", Iroh said and bowed.
"Uncle. This was the worst idea ever." Zuko raised his good arm dramatically, and flopped down on his bed. "Why did I let you talk me into this?"
Iroh and Zuko were finally alone at the guest quarters. They could finally speak freely, without the fear of being overheard.
"I thought the dinner went rather well. I don't think they suspect we are not who we claim to be, and the food was yummy." Iroh smiled widely and rubbed his belly. The food had been delicious.
"That's not what I meant", Zuko muttered. "I don't understand how these people can live this way."
Iroh lifted an eyebrow. "And what way is that?"
Zuko closed his eyes and sighed. "In denial. Under all the good manners and fine clothes, it's all make-belief and wishful thinking. I finally understand what Toph was trying to warn me about: nothing about this place is real."
"Zuko", Iroh said seriously. "You were raised at the Fire Palace."
"I thought your upbringing would have made you well prepared to accept the idea that things are not always what they appear to be."
"It did, and I have", Zuko said, exacerbated. "Or I had. I don't know anymore. All I know is that this place makes me feel trapped."
Zuko got back up to a sitting position. Uncle came to sit by his nephew. "Zuko, I'm sorry that this is hard for you. I had not considered how returning to a place such as this, after all these years, might affect you."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "I don't need protecting. I don't like it here, but that doesn't mean I can't manage."
"Even so." Uncle let the conversation die down, but he stayed by Zuko's side, offering what little comfort his nephew would allow.
In many ways, Iroh and Zuko's life on the sea had been more free than the life of a prince usually was. It had been free of pretense, gossiping, and back-stabbings; in other words, free of court life. It was understandable that it would take Zuko some time to readjust.
Zuko woke up to a feeling of being stalked.
Zuko turned to lay on his back, and nearly jumped out of his bed when he realized there was someone standing in the doorway.
"Shh", Toph hushed, and motioned for Zuko to stay quiet and follow her.
Zuko got up and snuck after Toph. On his way out, Zuko glanced to where his Uncle was sleeping and listened. Uncle was still snoring, and Zuko would leave him to rest.
Toph lead Zuko into a moonlit garden. It was just one of the many gardens in the walled expanse that was the Beifong estate.
Toph stopped, clearly listening in a way only she could. She must have deemed the garden empty, because she visible relaxed, and smiled at Zuko. "Sorry for creeping up on you. It's just easier to get some time to yourself when everyone else is asleep."
Zuko nodded. "It's okay. We didn't really get a chance to talk earlier."
And Zuko did want to speak with Toph, but he was also quite nervous. He had spent much time worrying about what he would do if Toph didn't want to be his friend anymore, but he hadn't had time to worry about how awkward things might get even if they remained in good terms. Now he just didn't know what to say to her.
"So", Toph drawled out. "Sounds like you've had a pretty interesting time since last we met."
Zuko nodded. Toph started to walk leisurely around the garden, and Zuko trailed after her.
Suddenly Toph turned to face him. "Man, it is weird that you are human now."
"I guess", was all Zuko managed as a reply.
"I still can't think of you and Flicker as the same person." Toph didn't look angry, just thoughtful.
Zuko really owed her an explanation. "I'm sorry I lied to you. By omission, if not explicitly. It seemed way too complicated to explain who or what I really was, but I should have still tried."
Toph nodded, looking serious. "Yes, you should have. But I get it."
They started walking again, but the silence was still a bit awkward. Zuko knew he had to say something more.
"When I met you, I was really confused about everything. I had just turned into a dragon for the first time, and I didn't know if I would ever turn back to a human. I was in a really dark place, mentally, and I was lonely, and then you were there. I just… I couldn't risk that you'd turn your back on me.
"But I am still the same person you knew then. I mean, not same same, I've been through a lot since then, and I've changed and grown, but, um… Same enough?"
Zuko didn't know what else to say. He had only known Toph a short while, but she had always been nice to him. Talking to your friend after you had let them down - it was hard in a way Zuko wasn't familiar with.
Toph leaned on an old willow tree. She was wearing pastel green pyjamas. Zuko, too, was lightly dressed: he was in the same tunic he'd worn under his fancy new robes.
"Yeah", Toph said after a long pause. "I guess you being a human is not the worst thing, really. I mean no offense, but having a human friend is sort of even better than having a dragon friend."
"Um, none taken?"
Toph smiled a lopsided grin. "With a human friend, you can just talk and hang out and it's easier. No growling or flying lessons needed."
"Yeah, I guess", Zuko agreed, and rubbed the back of his head.
"You talk different when you are a human, you know that right?" Toph said.
I do? Well yes, Zuko knew that. He did act a bit different when in his dragon form. A bit more animalistic, and more open about his feelings. But he was still always himself; that was the big revelation he had needed to grasp to be able to transform at will.
"I know. I don't really have a way with words, no matter what shape I'm in. Especially when it comes to smalltalk", Zuko admitted.
Toph laughed. "I wasn't talking about your smalltalk skills. Flicker was all 'Fear not, hatchling, I have your back! Also, I will bite off the heads of your enemies and burn them with fire!'"
Zuko blushed. "I don't sound like that when I'm in my…"
"You do too!" Toph insisted, and grinned widely. "This new human you, though, you're basically just a big stick in the mud. Loosen up a little!"
Toph punched Zuko in the arm at her words. "Try to find some middle ground."
Toph turned and went across a picturesque bridge. Zuko couldn't see her face so he wasn't sure how serious she'd been, and she changed the topic before he had a chance to find out.
"So, you've actually met the Avatar, then. What's he like?"
How to condense everything Aang was into a short description?
"He's an airbender."
"Duh", Toph turned and rolled her milky white eyes at him.
"I mean that he is… Everything he does is… Maybe Aang is supposed to be the embodiment of the whole world, but really, he is the embodiment of air. He's carefree, and a prankster; but also kind, and believes the best out of everyone, and he genuinely wants to help."
"It sounds like you like him."
Zuko resisted his knee jerk reaction to deny any and all positive feelings he may have towards the Avatar, the number one enemy of Fire Nation. Toph was his friend. Zuko didn't have to pretend when talking to her. In fact, he had promised to do the opposite.
"Aang is imperfect. He makes mistakes, and those mistakes can have terrible consequences. But I guess that's true for everyone, and at least he's trying to do right by the world. He's okay, I guess."
Toph looked serious. "By 'terrible consequences' you mean what happened at the North."
Zuko nodded. He was still irrationally angry at Aang for what had happened at the North Pole, but he had had enough time to calm down and realize that Aang had probably just tried to help.
If I had known that Aang contacting the Ocean Spirit would result in a spirit monster rampage, I would have tried to stop him at the Oasis. But none of us knew what was going on at the time, Aang himself included.
As far as Zuko was concerned, Aang had made a terrible mistake, but it had been just that: a mistake. After living with the Avatar and his lot at the Northern Water Tribe Capitol, Zuko could no longer deny that the boy was human, in good and bad. All Aang could do was try his best, and even when that wasn't enough, at least he'd meant well.
That mattered. Intentions mattered.
"I could show you what he looks like", Zuko offered. He couldn't think of a better way to explain Aang to someone, and he was eager to do something, rather than talk about something.
Toph's eyes widened in surprise. "Show me, like the way you do when you're a dragon?"
"You can still do that as a human?"
Zuko shrugged. "It's not a dragon thing. I mean, it is a dragon thing, but not just. I could read people even before I could turn into a dragon. Uncle can't do it, though, in case you were wondering. Most firebenders can't."
Toph seemed to be thinking over his proposition. "Okay, shoot. Show me what he looks like."
Zuko had almost forgotten how brave and easy-going Toph could be in the face of strangeness.
Zuko showed her a short compilation of Aang. Most of the memories had Aang jumping around and dodging fire in different locations. That probably said a lot about their relationship.
Toph humphed. "That looks cool, but it won't help me recognize him if I ever meet him."
Zuko was a bit confused, so Toph went on: "You're not showing me any of the important things, like the way he walks, or how his feet touch the ground."
Zuko found himself smiling. "Actually, Aang's feet hardly ever touch the ground."
Toph smirked too. "I'm happy you're staying with us, even if just for a little while."
"Me too", Zuko said, and meant it, despite how much he had whined about this place to Uncle earlier.
Zuko still felt like he was trapped in a golden cage, but at least he had good company.
"Man, we're gonna get so much mileage out of your mindreading powers during your stay here."
"There was always something fishy about that woman, I tell you, and now we all know why: she was a Fire Nation spy." The old man waved his walking stick in a wide arc, and Sergeant Rang only barely got out of the way in time.
Rang straightened his uniform and asked skeptically: "So now she isn't just some random firebender, but a Fire Nation spy as well?" The Sergeant looked around himself. "What do you think she was sent here to spy on?"
In a remote village like this one, finding out the blacksmith's wife and children were firebenders was the news of the century. In Rang's experience, such a shocker could make well-meaning but simple people jump to wild conclusions, and blow things way out of proportion; Rang couldn't think of anything this village produced that would make it worth spying on.
The old man looked indignant, but was also unable to name a single thing in the village that would have been worthy of the Fire Nation's covert attention. "You weren't here when it happened, young man. You did not see what the rest of us saw."
Rang sighed. The villagers had sent word of what had happened to the Army, and he and his men had been dispatched to investigate. He would have to write a report about this anyway, so he might as well hear out all the crazy theories the villagers had come up with. "So, this thing you are referring to, that would have happened during her escape from the village, yes?"
The old man nodded, though he still eyed Rang coldly.
The Sergeant looked down at his notes. "I already talked to the head of the town guard." If you can call it that, I wouldn't. "He said the incident started when one of blacksmith Kato's children firebent at another child. After that Kato's wife, Sari, threatened the children and the neighbors with her firebending, and in the ensuing chaos, Kato and his family fled the village."
The old man shook his head. "That's just it: she didn't threaten anyone with her firebending. She didn't have to."
Rang frowned. "What do you mean by 'she didn't have to'?"
"I have lived a long life and seen many strange things, but never have I feared for my life the way I did when Sari took charge of the situation." The old man paled just thinking about it. "It isn't natural for anyone, let alone a woman, to be that determined. You write down that I said that. It wasn't 'Kato and his family' who fled the village; it was Sari and her family. She was the one in charge, the poor man was just along for the ride."
Rang wasn't sure what to believe, but he had a dreadful feeling that the old man was telling the truth, and the local 'guards' had made up the story about firebending battles to preserve their pride after they let a woman best them with intimidating words and presence alone.
Frankly, the old man's tale made Rang more worried than the guards' tale had. The coordinated way in which Sari had gotten not just herself but her entire family out of the village was… It was like she had done it before. It wasn't the panicky reaction of a scared colonist.
Talent in firebending is one thing, but talent in intimidation and coordination as well? Heck, maybe she really is a Fire Nation spy.
Rang thanked the old man for his information. His second-in-command walked over to him.
"What do you think, sir? A bunch of villagers getting wound up over a half-blooded bride?" The younger man quipped.
Rang was not in a joking mood. "I don't know exactly what happened here, but we better report this at the Sachi fortress at first opportunity. Something about this doesn't add up, and I have a feeling there's more going on here than meets the eye."
"Um, yes sir."
I don't know if Earth Kingdom nobility would have names like Mushi and Lee, but considering the rate at which Zuko has been taking on new identities, I figured the story would be easier to follow if Zuko and Iroh used their canonical Earth Kingdom aliases.
In case anyone was wondering if we've seen Sergeant Rang before in this fic, I can save you the trouble of looking it up and tell you that we have; he lead the Earth Kingdom soldiers who cornered Zuko at the Dragon Shrine back in chapter 9. I like reusing old NPCs where I can.
Thank you for all the encouraging reviews! Many of you were curious about Ursa's return, and most of you seem to be looking forward to Zuko and Azula's inevitable encounter. I, too, am excited about what's coming up next in the story.