They’d travelled as far as they could on land. Zuko wanted to take a ship the whole way. It would be much smaller than the one he’d travelled on with his uncle, despite his new status, but it would be comfortable. It would be familiar. Alas, Toph complained the second her feet disconnected from the solid ground.
But eventually he’d had to coax Toph on a ship, convince her to cross the ocean against her wishes. And here they were, pulling into a port that smelled familiar.
Zuko had made the crew swear three times over that they weren’t flying any Fire Nation symbols. He trusted them not to disobey his orders, but his trust didn’t extend far enough that he wasn’t light on his feet, alert and ready to sense any oncoming attacks.
But docked without issue and the crew left him and Toph, off to do whatever it was people did when they weren’t around Zuko. He let his shoulders down and walked off the gangway, swaying a bit on the rely solid ground.
Toph sighed and her body hit the ground as soon as she stepped off the gangway behind him. “Ah, sweet sweet Earth. How I missed you.”
“How long is this going to take?”
“Be quiet, Sparky. I’m sure you’d understand if your bending got taken away every time you stepped on a boat.”
“Can’t you just feel through the metal?” Zuko asked.
“It’s not the same. This earth here is so much purer. So much deeper.”
“Yeah, it’s also the dirt of a major city’s port. Do you know how gross that is?”
“Ugh, way to ruin the mood. Let’s just go where we’re going if you’re going to be like that,” she said with a purposely exaggerated groan.
Zuko began to walk through the bustling dock. He’s been practicing with his bending, learning how to sense the dozens of bodies and creatures and stones that littered a city. Children yelled to his left, a merchant haggled with a street seller to his right. People breathed out warm air and created cool pockets when they breathed in. Warm figures dotted the street, carrying boxes of stinking fish and fresh fruit, heavy and sweet.
It was much quieter once they left the docks, though the streets of the lower ring were still loud with creatures and the voices of people. It was a different kind of sound, a sedentary kind that promised a fresh day in stale circumstances.
“Where are we going again?” Toph asked, tugging on his sleeve.
“The Upper Ring.”
“And you’re just going to walk there? Take the train?”
“Of course. That’s the only way to do it.”
Toph laughed and cracked her knuckles. “You really don’t know anything. Come on. And avoid the Dai Li.”
“You’re absolutely helpless,” she muttered as she pulled him down into a cold tunnel. It seemed old, the ground unsteady beneath his feet. A thin layer of water splashed onto his legs with each step, and Zuko wasn’t sure whether it had soaked up from the ground or dropped from the ceiling.
Sound echoed around him, and he began to lose track of where he was. Each stone felt familiar, each time like the one before. He focused on Toph’s heat ahead of him and pretended he wasn’t afraid of what would happen to him down here if he lost her.
They walked through the seemingly endless web of tunnels for longer than Zuko was comfortable with, but eventually Toph pulled him up a ladder and back into the sun.
“Here, come on,” she said, pulling him away from the spot he’d rooted himself in beneath the sun’s rays. He needed that energy, just like she needed the strength of the ground. “Let’s get some food before we start looking for whatever you’re here for.”
They found a small bakery that smelled warm and Toph ordered two of every bun they had, just so they could sample them all. And because she said Fire Nation food wasn’t as good as Zuko claimed. He scoffed at her claim but couldn’t deny the pleasure of biting into a perfectly smooth steamed pork bun.
As they were walking out of the store Zuko heard a familiar voice. It couldn’t be this easy, but Zuko wasn’t going to push his luck and deny what was near him.
“Belo?” Zuko turned towards the voice and was crushed in a massive hug.
“Li, I thought you were dead.” Belo shook a bit as he held Zuko, but Zuko let him stay there. It was nice being back around his friend, even if that title was shaky, just a normal kid who wasn’t wrapped up in the future of the world.
“I’m sorry Belo. I meant to come back, I meant to explain.”
“It’s okay. Come on, both of you can head home with me. We can talk there.” Belo’s breath shook. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”
And so they stayed with Belo. A week later Belo’s father had loaded them down with food and their hosts had accompanied them back to the ship. It had been a joyous week, catching back up with Belo and Mio, avoiding talking about the Fire Nation and the Avatar. Toph answered any questions she could and showed off her metalbending skills, something Belo still insisted must be a magic trick. Belo’s mother had made a metal sheet quiver, though, so Zuko suspected he was beginning to believe.
Toph complained the whole first day they were back on the ship. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t stay in Ba Sing Se. They had a good thing going there, they didn’t need to ruin it by getting back on one of those floating coffins.
But she’d eventually calmed down, spending her free time bending the walls of the ship into faces and other things that scared the crew enough to bring the issue up with Zuko. There wasn’t anything he could do, of course, but he was glad he didn’t have to see the supposedly horrifying creations Toph was leaving for everyone.
The air was chilly up here in the North. Zuko’s coat was heavy but the cold still creeped in, piercing his arms and legs and sending his teeth chattering through his skull.
Toph had crept below deck an hour before and huddled next to the fire powering the ship. He could feel her down below, soaking up the heat. Everyone else on board was giving him space. He wanted to tell them they didn’t need to fear him as Firelord. They didn’t need to, they shouldn’t, but it gave him a moment of quiet. For that he was grateful.
They weren’t going to the Northern Water Tribe itself. Zuko wouldn’t be well received, and anyway it just didn’t feel appropriate. Too many chances for a diplomatic crisis. Zuko wouldn’t risk the future of so many people just to make himself feel better.
So here he was, his legs dangling over the edge of the ship, miles away from the nearest settlement. The cold metal dug into his thighs as he carefully ran the dagger between his hands. His dagger, his uncle’s dagger, Asoko’s dagger.
After he’d left Ba Sing Se he’d tried to keep it hidden away, out of sight so he wouldn’t have to think about it. But he couldn’t do that anymore, not after everything that had happened.
The air was cold and the dagger was colder. He almost wanted to hold onto it, to keep it a moment longer, but instead he let it drop into the water. It fell for a moment before it splashed into the water.
It wasn’t where Asoko died, but she’d died in the sea. This was as close to her as he was ever going to get again.
He swung his legs back onto the ship and pulled the hood of his coat up, yelling to the crew to turn the ship back towards warmer waters.
He found Toph where he’d last sensed her, crouched next to the flames. With a nudge to her shoulder he sat down and joined her.
“You okay?” Toph asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “I think I am.” Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t, but it wasn’t good to dwell on such things.
“Good. Now, I have a list of places Katara, Sokka, and Aang won’t shut up about.”
“But you can’t write.”
“It’s in my mind. Obviously.” She said the last word like it didn’t need to be added.
“Okay, what’s on the list then?”
“I want to go back to the Earth Kingdom. Ditch the ship. The Avatar Day Festival’s soon, the one with the unfried dough Sokka still complains about, and then after we could go to Kyoshi Island.”
“I don’t know how well I’ll be remembered there,” Zuko said, rubbing his neck.”
Toph punched him in the shoulder. “All the more reason to go.”