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The Words Get in the Way

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Libraries aren't for her, Smellerbee thinks. Scrolls don't interest her—she reads a little, but doesn't understand the appeal of having other people's adventures. She's skinned her own game, made Longshot's arrows herself; it's through the doing that she learns. Words, as Longshot knows, only get in the way.

But the Fire Nation palace has the worst library of all; it's only for tall people, apparently. The chairs are so high that her feet just kiss the floor; she moves her legs slowly, gently, like the way a rock on a string circles when you hold it still. Toph doesn't bother with gentleness, and Smellerbee has the bruises on her shins to prove it. But she's spent years living in trees, in the cold and the heat and the rain, with the growling of her stomach for company. In fact, the thump, thump against her shins focuses her mind on something essential: when playing Pai Sho with Toph, never, ever take your eyes off her thumb. 

"That was a White Jade when I played it," Smellerbee says. 

"Feels like a crysanthemum to me."

"You can't cheat a cheater, Toph."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Will you both shut up?" Zuko flaps the scroll he's reading from at them. "I'm trying to concentrate."

"So are we." Toph places her tile—a rock, naturally. "But it's hard with all the boring speechifying going on."

"Excuse me for letting my petty attempts to run a country ruin your game."

Toph tells him that his pettiness (or maybe His Pettiness) is excused.

Smellerbee contemplates the board. If you'd told her six months ago that she'd be playing Pai Sho in the Fire Lord's library, she would've punched you in the face. Perhaps she would've even drawn her knives—the ones she now uses to spar with his girlfriend in the gardens. But here she is with the guy Jet had sworn was a firebender, who she had sworn was not, and who turned out to be the Fire Nation prince. It feels like a betrayal of Jet's memory somehow, sitting at this guy's table with his uncle's Pai Sho board. And yet, she moves her lily tile to the right.

"...a new era of peace and rebuilding," Zuko says, and Smellerbee wonders what that even means. She knows how to hunt and steal and hide...and fight. Is there a place for lookouts and thieves in this new era? For warriors? ("Ozai's speeches were better," Mai had said by the turtle-duck pond, parrying her blade.) She suspects that the Fire Lord doesn't even know what he's talking about—what peace is. None of them know, not really, and she doesn't want to think about how much that scares her.

Luckily, she doesn't have time for that. "Yoink!" Toph snaps up Smellerbee's lily, puts it in the pot. Smellerbee swears under her breath. Toph swears a little louder—and a little better. Soon they're in a Kuai Ball match over hog monkey turds and saber-toothed moose-lion dicks until the Fire Lord tells them they are in a library and can't they show a little respect, for fuck's sake? It's only when her chest hurts from trying not to laugh that Smellerbee realizes that the Fire Nation has come into her head as if it lives there.

A new era of peace. A piece of hail in the pit of her stomach.

"The war's over, Smellerbee."

Her breath catches. "What?"

"Your move." Toph's leaning back in her chair, wanting to put her feet on the table and trying not to. "Are you waiting for another hundred-year-war to end or what?"

Smellerbee plays a wheel. She hadn't liked Toph at first, to be honest. "She's angry and she acts all tough," she'd told Longshot, "but she's really just—" He'd looked at her sideways then with a half-smile; although she'd clenched her fist, she'd known he was right. Okay, maybe Toph's favorite subject was herself (yes, it was great hearing about when she beat up Fire Nation soldiers while wearing their own door...the first twenty times), but she didn't treat her or Longshot—and most importantly, Jet—as if saying the wrong thing would shatter the whole world into a million pieces. And of course, she kept Smellerbee's spying skills sharp.

 "Saw that."

"Prove it."

Smellerbee can't help smiling a little. "You just did," she says.

Toph grumbles as she sweeps her thumb, and the jasmine becomes a wheel again; Smellerbee knows the grumbling is just a show of pride. Perhaps there's a place for lookouts and thieves here, after all. And maybe a place for fighters, too—even ones who talk too much about themselves. "Tell me about the airships again."

Toph only says, "You can't cheat a cheater," and smiles.

Suddenly there's a noise—Ugh!—and the smell of burning paper. "Setting a scroll on fire in a library?" Smellerbee makes sure her voice is loud enough for Zuko to hear. "How disrespectful." Toph snorts. Zuko storms by, muttering something as he passes them ("Such language!" exclaims Toph, clutching her chest and everything), and slams the door.

"Worst speech ever," Toph says, and they laugh.

Smellerbee thumps her heels on the earth-platform they're sitting on—the one Toph made for them, because this hall is only for tall people, apparently. The rhythm keeps her from thinking about Toph's parents; she can feel their disapproval from here. She tries to focus on Zuko, but a lookout's attention is a finely-hatched net cast wide. She sees happy marriages and strained ones, noblemen and regular people trying to look like they are. There are people afraid that the kid with the scar on his face will rule just like his father, and people afraid that he won't. These are the things you notice when you don't let words get in the way.

"...a new era of peace and rebuilding," Zuko says, and it's through the doing that Smellerbee learns. She's made fires, whittled sticks, hung komodo rhino skin from the branches when it rained. Smellerbee can do, can make things, can swim through the mire of peace (thick as the mud on the soles of Toph's feet) one stroke at a time.

It's not such a bad speech, after all. But she is getting hungry.