Zhu Li Moon was on her way to the university when Varrick nearly killed her.
It all happened very fast, which she would later learn was how things tended to happen with Varrick. One moment she was walking, and the next there was a lot of yelling and she was on the ground with a man on top of her. It wasn't something she'd had to worry about much since leaving the Lower Ring, but old habits die hard, and so she'd used both legs to kick him off with enough force to send him sprawling into the wall of an adjacent building. Him, and the strange contraption on his back.
Only after did she notice that he'd smelled like peppermint and beeswax, wondered why she'd noticed at all.
"Well that didn't work!" said the upside-down pile of man, sounding very enthusiastic and not at all offput by their mutual near-death experience. He barely seemed to have noticed her at all, in fact. He was wearing finery all in green, but he wasn't from the Earth Kingdom. He looked like what she'd been told a member of the Water Tribe looked like, though she'd never seen a picture of a Water Tribesman with quite that style of moustache. With a great deal of wiggling he detached himself from the thing of wood and paper he'd been wearing, and rolled into a generally upright position, dusting himself off.
She was still sitting on the cobblestones, glasses askew, staring.
Were they all that tall in the Water Tribe?
"More height," he said, and he didn't seem to be talking to her as much as to himself, bending at the waist to examine the mangled mess, "that's what I need." She found herself tilting her body to the side to see past his, to see what exactly he was looking at. They looked – if she didn't know better – like wings. Ruined, now, but wings.
Some people thought that she was quiet because she was polite. Those people were incorrect. She was quiet because being quiet was easier than learning social graces. It was one thing when there were rules of etiquette that she could follow, and quite another when she was expected to make spur-of-the-moment interaction decisions.
It seemed like he had been trying to fly. She could ask him if that was what he'd been doing, but that would either be stating the obvious, or insulting his intelligence. So she said nothing, as she slowly brought herself to her feet, put her dress back into something resembling order.
"You!" he said, spinning on his heel with enough rapidity to send his robes in a sweeping circle, jabbing a finger in her direction. The widening of her eyes was her only concession to her alarm as she adjusted her glasses. "What's the tallest building in Ba Sing Se?"
Whatever it was, he was going to jump off of it. She was sure of this. "The Royal Palace," she said, "but you're better off using the Outer Walls."
He narrowed his eyes and came closer, which appeared strange when his hand remained exactly where it was, a fixed point as he came nearer. Uncomfortably near, in fact, face almost touching her own. She didn't try to get away from him, even though that was her instinct, because she hadn't made it to Ba Sing Se University by backing down when it was expected of her. It may not have even been intentional on his part. Maybe they didn't have the concept of personal space in the Water Tribe. "What makes you say that?" he asked, and she wondered what smelled like peppermints when his breath smelled like green tea.
"Less bureaucracy," she said, "and if that's not high enough then your design isn't practical." There was more she could have said, better explanations, more questions. But they were the only words that felt necessary.
His eyes narrowed further, that finger he'd been pointing at her finally moving as if he was going to poke her in the chin with it. "That," he said finally, "is a very good point. Let's do that."
Let's. Let us. Us. She had, inadvertently, become part of an us. This was not a thing that usually happened. Quite the opposite, in fact. Had her offering of information volunteered her?
"Come on," he said, suddenly withdrawing with such haste that she was practically drawn into the vacuum his absence created, "we're going to need to fix this before you can take me to the Outer Wall."
She had not agreed to any of these things. She had a lecture to attend. He was gathering his broken wings in his arms, and it felt like she'd been trapped in some strange bubble, that no one else was acting as if what was happening was strange. If she'd seen a man flying into a woman on the street, she liked to think she would at least have stopped to make sure everyone was okay.
Her back hurt. Her hipbones hurt. Her hands were calloused, but she'd scraped them on the cobblestones anyway, bruised her elbows. If he'd been injured similarly, he didn't show it.
"Here," he said, handing her the mess, "carry this for me, wouldja?"
Strangely, inexplicably, she did. And she followed as he began to walk away, a long-legged stride that suggested he had not even considered the possibility of her not following. She was being swept up in something, pulled along by his gravity, and she was not a woman who was often swept.
"You're a student?" he said as much as asked, and it seemed like he liked the sound of his own voice more than he was actually curious.
"Yes," she said, and nothing more.
"That's great," he said, though not attentively. "What are you studying?"
"Engineering," she said, and she waited for the standard response.
"That's perfect!" he said, this time with genuine enthusiasm, which was not the standard response. "Oh, man, you might actually be useful!" He clapped his hands and rubbed them together, which was not a thing that made him look trustworthy by any means. "Why didn't you say so earlier? Kid, you've got great timing."
She didn't see how accidentally walking beneath a man experimenting with flight constituted great timing, but that didn't seem like something he would be able to explain. They were walking toward one of the nicer hotels in the Middle Ring, and she wondered if this was the roof he'd jumped from. He'd made it a surprising distance, if so. It might not have been entirely imbecilic, his dreams of flight.
It was the kind of building that still made her palms itch. Nice, too nice for the likes of her, the guards would see it in her eyes and have her out on the street. She kept her eyes on the floor, on the shining backs of her companion's shoes, pressed her tongue to her teeth to scrape away the taste of her pulse. It was a relief to be in the elevator, but not by much. She started when the mustachioed man leaned sideways to put his face in her eyeline, his eyebrows a wave.
"You doing okay, kid?" he asked. "You're looking kind of pale." Then he snorted, standing upright. "Then again, who am I kidding? This is Ba Sing Se – everyone looks pale." He seemed to find this hilarious.
"I'm fine," she said, though without much conviction.
"If you're sure," he said, "but if you're going to vomit, try to keep it to yourself." The elevator stopped at a suite bigger than any home she'd ever lived in, and she began to worry that she might actually vomit. "Here, set it over here," he said, gesturing vaguely to a table. She gently set her burden into a pile of wood that she was not convinced could be rescued, even were its final form functional. Her limbs felt floaty without anything to hold, as if weighted down had become their natural state.
Stepping away, she watched as he began the process of unfolding the wreckage, like a puzzle. Her legs were starting to ache, some combination of the earlier incident and their more recent disuse. "Who are you?" she asked after a long stretch of silence, nothing but the sound of his hands at work.
He looked up with enough surprise that he may have forgotten she was there at all. She didn't blame him. She was good at that. "Do you not know?" he asked, which meant either that he was very important or only thought that he was. The opulence of his hotel room suggested the former. He came too close to her again, grabbed her hand and shook it with such force that her glasses were knocked to the tip of her nose again. "Varrick, Southern Water Tribe, head of Varrick Global Industries. Geeze, why didn't you tell me you didn't know who I was? You must have thought I was some kind of weirdo! Do you always go following strange men back to their hotel rooms?"
This was the first time she showed the slightest hint of indignation, yanking her hand from his with a strength greater than her size suggested, a hard set to her jaw. "I do not."
"Whoa, hey," he said, holding up his hands in what was neither apology nor pacification, "don't take it so personal, kid. I don't know your name, either. That's a pretty big sign of trust, you know, letting you in here. For all I know, you could be an assassin!" This seemed very unlikely when she had taken none of the initiative in their short acquaintance, but she did not say so. "Speaking of which: what's your name?"
"… Zhu Li." She clasped her hands in front of her, but the stiffness in her spine remained.
"Well, whatever," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand, turning back to the mess on the table. "I'll get it eventually." He tugged at a bit of wood that seemed like it was meant to be a hinge, and scowled. "I need the…" He snapped his fingers, wiggled them in a vague gesture while he searched for words. "The thing. The thing!"
It was a meaningless request. The hinge was held together with small hex screws, and so she made an assumption, grabbed a screwdriver that was nearer to her than to him and moved closer to place it in his hand. "Yes!" he said, triumphant, as if he had accomplished something. "The thing!" He immediately bent over the table to begin working at the hinge.
He didn't thank her. It didn't seem to occur to him that he should. She ought to have left right then.