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The Slow Path

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The building was well outside the borders of Omashu and set far back from the road; which confused him until he heard a rumbling crack and a hail of stone chips sailed over the walls. The complex was a single story, high walls surrounding an unusually massive courtyard, with the main building on the far end. Rather than the elegant stonework or geometric gardens of the traditional Earth Kingdom style the open space was bare earth, packed flat from the feet of the students moving in stances across it. A few of them stopped to look at him curiously, but thanks to his unassuming Earth Kingdom clothes, most ignored him in favour of their training.

The open room of the main building was dim and cool after the hot summer sun. The walls unadorned stone inset with evenly spaced doors that presumably lead to the living quarters. The one concession to aesthetics was the enormous seal that hung over the back wall done in green and gold metal. A stylized earthbending symbol emblazoned with the name of the academy. Below it lounged a very bored looking young woman behind a desk.

He had heard that the Sifu here had once taught only young women, offering them a place to escape controlling families and achieve independence. After a time a number of young men had proved themselves worthy to study under the master, but it was still know that any man who wished to assert his 'natural dominance' over the women of this school would quickly find himself buried beneath a landslide. That is, if he was lucky. Appearance could be deceiving, he was reminded, as he watched the girl whistle and pick absently at her nails.

"Come back tomorrow." She said as he stepped forward.

"I haven't even told you what I'm doing here yet."

She rolled her eyes at him. "The Sifu isn't here. She's never here at this time of the year. If you were expected you would know that. Come back tomorrow, she might be here by then."

"I'm not here to train - "

As if summoned by their conversation there was an uproar in the courtyard. Cheering and joyous cries of 'Master!' could be heard through the open door. The girl at the desk snapped to attention, on her feet faster than his eye could follow. He stepped smoothly to the side of the room, out of immediate line of sight, watching with interest as a figure appeared silhouetted against the slowly falling sun.

The woman stepped into the dim office and he actually felt his jaw drop. She was shorted than he had expected - though her personality had always been large enough to imbue her with a false sense of size - and thickly muscled enough that she would have been stocky if not for her slender waist and delicate features. Sunlight glinted off what looked like battle regalia; polished metal covered her shoulders and arms, bracers hid thin wrists and tall greaves covered her ankle to knee. One elaborate pauldron was formed to look like a winged boar bursting from the metal and the ceremonial buckle from an earth rumble championship belt decorated the sash high on her waist. Long black hair hung in a loose, shining braid down her back, swinging with the sway of unfamiliar womanly hips, but her bangs still hung forward to shadow fogged green eyes and her feet were still bare.

"Sifu Toph! We weren't expecting you for weeks." The girl stuttered. In the shadows he couldn't help but smirk. Tomorrow, huh?

"Sparky got some letter and took off like he was being chased by a herd of sabertoothed moose lions. I got him to give me a ride in that airship of his." She dumped her heavy looking pack with a thump against the desk. "And relax Kana, I don't ever mind you torturing new blood. Gets 'em used to it." Toph grinned in his direction. "So who is it this time? His heart's beating like a…like…"

There was a desperate pause, a hitch in her voice. "Aang?"

"Hello Toph." She spun on her heel, took two running steps forward and launched herself at him with the force of a boulder. "TWINKLE TOES!"

"TOPH!" He scooped her up and spun in dizzy circles. Home, home at last!

Toph had to make retching noises before Aang would let her go, which earned him a jab to the arm that had a lot more force behind it then he remembered. "Twinkletoes stop! Let me see you." Toph stepped back and stomped her foot against the stone floor, her head cocking ever so slightly to the side as she listened to the vibrations of the earth.

"You're so much taller Twinkles…" She reached out a hesitant hand and paused as though reluctant to touch him. Astonished to see Toph unsure about anything Aang clasped her small hand in his and pressed it firmly to his cheek. A smile broke over her face like a sunrise as she ran her fingers over the rise of his cheekbones, the ridge of his brow, the shell of his too-large ears and into the tangle of dark hair he hadn't yet taken the time to remove. "Where's the shiny head?" she asked him with the soft whuff of laughter in her voice. Toph moved her hand forward again, tracing the changed shape of his nose and coming to rest on the bow of his mouth. He smiled and kissed the tips of her fingers affectionately, causing her to jerk her hand away in surprise.

"Missed you Sifu."

Her eyes narrowed, though her expression remained inscrutable as ever. "Kana!" She demanded of the girl behind the desk. "The Avatar arrived while I was away didn't he?" "By a few minutes Sifu."

"Did you give him the message?"

"Ah, no Sifu Toph-"

"Well go on then."

"But - you're here now and... I can't give him that message he's the spirits blessed avatar!" The girl looked caught between utter panic and total annoyance. Toph simply stepped around the desk to the armour stand against the far wall and began to unstrap her heavy pauldrons.

"I'm waiting Kana."

The girl cringed away even as she approached him, like she was afraid he might unleash the elements on her at any moment. Aang tried to give her a reassuring smile, glancing at Toph to see if she was giving away any clues. Kana took advantage of his momentary distraction to bend a sizeable boulder out of the stone floor and pin him to the wall with it.

"Message from Sifu Toph Bei Fong of the Bei Fong Bandits to Avatar Aang of the Southern Air Temple," She pitched her voice to imitate the blind woman with uncanny accuracy. "Good to have you back Twinkle Toes."

"She's supposed to bend you into the floor until I get back, but as I'm here already…" Aang groaned and pushed the boulder back into the floor with a brief gesture. Kana bowed and mouthed a soundless apology that made her eathbending master smirk. He returned the smile before his brain caught up with his eyes and he jerked his head away, feeling his cheeks heat.

"Toph!"

"What?" She finished unlacing the pale green and yellow sashes that bound her mossy coloured waist wrapping together, pulling herself free of the ornamental layer and hanging it on the stand with her armour.

"What are you doing?" Toph stripped off her greaves and unbuttoned most of knee length sleeveless robe, exposing an emerald, midriff baring top. "I'm stopping here Twinkle Toes don't worry."

Aang felt his mouth go slightly dry. Apparently the elements had chosen to balance Toph's blindness by blessing her in other ways. Those curves were definitely something that hadn't been there before he'd left. Stop it. Aang reminded himself. You are a monk.

But he wasn't blind.

Closing his eyes he breathed deeply, concentrating on clearing his mind and slowing the beat of his heart. He was a young man; such reactions were to be expected. Besides, it was only Toph.

"That's better," Aang straightened unsure if she was referring to his reaction or her less restrictive clothing. "Come on Twinkles, I have to go check on my earthbenders."

All eyes turned to Toph when she entered the practice yard but she made no move to address the students so they soon turned back to their drills. He watched as she moved smoothly between them shifting and correcting stances, ruthless in her encouragement and stingy with her praise, but he could see how her pupil's eyes lit up when she offered them a benevolent nod. Aang had to admit she was scrupulously fair about the whole thing. No one received a dressing down in front of their peers, no one was humiliated by their failures. Toph simply made sure they knew that she thought them capable of more and that they damn well better quit questioning her judgment by not doing it. "Come on, you've got the stuff." She would assure them, with a pat on the back that nearly sent a few sprawling.

The phrase that had so thrilled him as a boy worked wonders here as well. Time and again a flagging student would regain confidence at those words. The desire to please Sifu Toph Bei Fong, it seemed, was universal.

When she had done a full circuit of the training yard she rejoined him on the steps of the main building. Letting out a piercing two fingered whistle she stomped her foot against the stones, sending up cuffs of earth that froze everyone in place. "Huddle up!" She yelled as the bindings vanished. "I can see how you've all gotten sloppy in my absence, and I promise to work you all into the ground for it, but today we have something a little different. What's the first rule of earthbending?"

"Listen!" Someone shouted. Toph nodded.

"Second rule?"

"Stand firm!"

"Good. Now I've told you that you won't always be fighting non benders or earthbenders. That's why we have Master Katara and her waterbenders come here for a week every year, and why the general comes to shoot fire at you when he's bored. But this time we have a special treat. Visiting us today is my very first student!"

A sharp rise of earth under his heels pushed him forward next to Toph and he pulled the wide brimmed hat off to expose the tattoos decorating his forehead. There was a collective gasp and frantic whispering began in the crowd. Toph bent a rock out of the ground and sent it flying over the heads of her distracted students, making them duck and yanking their attention back to her.

"Come on now he's not that impressive," That garnered a few scandalized giggles.

"I haven't had the chance to train my wayward student in quite a long time and I want to see how he's progressing," There was a certain anticipatory smile that began to appear on the students faces as Toph was speaking. Aang decide he did not like it one little bit. "So I think, as a student of the World's Greatest Earthbender-" all the children cheered the phrase along with their master. "We should give him the same welcome we give to anyone who has been away from training for a long time. Pupils!"

"Yes Sifu Toph!" She pointed at him with a wicked grin. Aang realized what she was about to say an instant before she said it but it was an instant too late. "Get that Avatar!"

The group of young earthbenders launched themselves at him. Stumbling back Aang threw up a rock wall to buy himself a few seconds. Reaching out he pulled the water from the rain barrels on either side of the small porch and set it to spinning in a ring around the air shield he'd summoned. Should have known better than to try and stop earthbenders with a rock wall, he reflected as his defense became a thousand projectiles. Launching himself into a current he flipped neatly over the heads of the attacking students and landed behind them. Six were immobilized in ice before they could turn to attack and he managed to freeze two more while the others scrambled to form a guard. The younger students were quickly surrounded by the more experienced, so they could be protected while they fired chunks of heavy rock at him.

She's taught them to fight as a team. Aang dodged thrusting pillars of earth that threatened to send him flying into the path of the projectile wave. The rocks were making this more difficult and he didn't want to hurt any of them. Spinning his glider staff he sent a shockwave of air that scattered the children like ninepins, managing to trap four more in the last of his water, sparing a few final drops for a wire to trip the stumbling students attempting to regroup. Choosing a different tactic a pair of the oldest fighters summoned heavy looking stone gloves and attempted to split his attention between them and leave him open for the others. Aang slid around them like a summer breeze, smoothly ducking and stepping in an intricate dance; flowing away from their blows while pulling small walls up around them to block oncoming rocks one by one as they flew towards him. His attackers realized too late that the constant circuitous dodging was having more of an effect than they had anticipated, as a wind began to rise in swirling circles around their ankles. He allowed himself a smug grin stepped into the center of the growing tornado, slamming the earth wall up to totally encircle the three of them and sending the spiral of air tossing his opponents across the training yard where they quickly found themselves immobilized by stone cuffs.

Swinging a clenched fist into the ground beneath him he forced the earth upwards into a shockwave that sent his ring walls exploding outwards. Most of the students managed to dodge the attack, but at least three were pinned by the sheets of stone. He was left with five intimidated youngsters and a trio of opponents who looked like they might be able to hold him off a little longer. Aang heaved in a breath and sent a burst of fire towards the group – ready to airbend it back in an instant if it looked like one of the children was about to be burned. He needn't have worried apparently. The older fighters threw up barriers or coated themselves in stone armour instantly while the younger ones pooled their powers to form an impenetrable looking sphere. That was my move against Ozai's fire. He noted, halfway between bemusement and remembered horror. Casting a hand to the sky, he felt static crackle as the air was suddenly robbed of its moisture. Pushing forward he iced the sphere over, keeping the youngest benders secure.

Pulling himself back into his basic airbender stance, he waited for his final three combatants. The way this group moved told him they had been training with Toph. They stepped lightly, lifting boulders from the ground and moving with them, accustomed to battling someone who listened closely to the sounds of the earth. Calling up ropelike twists of air Aang sent them out at the unsuspecting students, slicing easily through the heavy stones they floated before them, sending rock chips out in all directions. Moving in a circling blur of motion he caught the wind and spun it up and out, flinging the students backward with enough force to pin them to the walls of the training yard. He let the gale force buffet them for a moment before releasing, watching carefully as they slid into heaps on the ground. The Avatar stepped smoothly back into his beginning stance and released his control. With a few gentle motions the ice turned to water and a warm breeze blew the chilled students dry, the earth released them and currents of air lifted them back to their feet. Aang gave a respectful bow to the assembled group.

"You fought very well."

"I think you might be forgetting something Twinkletoes." The earthbending master hadn't moved from her place on the porch, she looked entirely unconcerned by the carnage around her and was grinning ear to ear.

"Are you looking for a fight Sifu T?"

"Well you haven't taken out the Bei Fong School until you take me down." He inclined his head, respectfully. Aang knew she could feel his heart pounding with excitement and anticipation. A fight, a real fight! Toph wouldn't hold back, she never did, and he wouldn't have to worry about seriously hurting her. "Earthbending only?"

She snorted with derision. "Don't want to make it unfair on you Twinkles. Besides I'm interested to see what new tricks you've picked up. Still doing that thing with the marble?"

There was a chorus of oohs from the watching pupils. Toph turned her head towards them sharply. "Everyone who wants to watch me beat the snot out of the Avatar sit against the back wall here," There was a mad stampede for seats. "Ziyi, Wang, you watch out, don't let anything touch them."

"Yes Sifu." The older students bowed in unison and took their places on either side of the rowdy group of children.

Toph stepped forward into the training yard and twitched her wrists sharply, bringing her palms flat and parallel to the ground. The movement was so small as to be barely noticeable but instantly the chaos of the training yard smoothed, boulders and rock fragments and sheets of stone melting back into the pristine looking space. "Impressed?" she smirked, quirking an eyebrow.

"Not yet."

"I think I can fix that." One bare foot slid forward and a furrow of earth sprang up. Aang sidestepped neatly only to jerk back as he realized it was not just one furrow in the ground, but a myriad, really to slide him off balance and make him easy prey. Bending he pushed off the ground into the air, sending a slicing gust her way. Her pupils gasped behind her, but Toph had already dropped into a crouch. Propelling herself with a pillar of stone she launched into the air after him, enormous chunks of rock following her. A kick from her powerful legs sent him rocketing back to the ground where he was forced to roll first to the left, then right and quickly spin himself back to his feet to blast away the boulders that rained down.

"And here I thought you'd mellowed!" He called up to where she was perched on a newly formed column. Aang blasted a blistering wave of fire towards her, forcing Toph to drop the spire down and bring them back to level terrain.

"Not with you Aang." The use of his actual name from her brought him up short. However pleasant her welcome had been, she was apparently angry with him. Not the hotheaded temper that could give him an edge though; something older and colder was sharpening the knife edge of her smile. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone. She blasted the ground beneath his feet off at two different angles, breaking his stance and sending him slipping back to earth where she brought up another spike, and another and another. Wherever he touched down it seemed like she anticipated his movements and forced him off balance again, keeping him on the desperate defensive as she began to simultaneously fling pieces of stone at him.

Searching for a way to regain the attack Aang sent another fire blast rushing towards her. Toph swung both hands up and across her body forming a shield of earth to deflect the fire. Using her momentum to bring herself into a spin she added her acceleration to the mass of dirt and stone she wielded and sent it flying at him almost too fast to dodge. Aang leapt back and pulled at all the water left over from his battle with the children, sending it to the ground, while he drew more and more from the air until the training yard was ankle deep. Toph stopped her furious barrage, trying to listen to the now muted vibrations of the earth.

"Why not with me?" He demanded. The knowledge that she was so angry pricked at him. Toph began to pull bricks from the walls around them. Aang moved back, ready to deflect, but instead of coming at him they burst simultaneously into showers of dusty sandstone. The dirt swirled into a cloud of choking dust, making him cough and forcing his eyes shut. Blind as her now. In answer he jumped into the air, freezing the water below him with a flick of his fingers. The sound of cracking ice told him that he hadn't moved fast enough, just as Toph appeared out of the dust, stone clad hands and a flurry of fist sized boulders forcing him to duck and weave, listening to the air currents desperately for any indication of where the next blow was coming from.

"Seven years Twinkletoes," He caught two of the rocks and flung them back at her, hearing her feet skid slightly on the ice as she paused her attack to knock them aside. "Seven spirits blessed years and you just appear on my doorstep?"

Aang took advantage of the split second respite to slam the swirling dirt back to earth. "I told you I was coming back!" He insisted, realizing too late that the dust on the ice gave Toph back her footing. He tried to call the air to him, swirling up a cyclone, but was abruptly cut off from the currents when she encased the two of them in an earthen dome which tightened to a few feet in diameter, limiting his range of movement and preventing him from air or firebending to the best of his ability. Toph threw a sharp jab which he managed to avoid coupled with a heavy right hook. Aang caught her fist in his own, bringing them to a momentary standstill. He saw her eyes widen in the faint light and knew that his raw strength had surprised her. We've both changed. "I gave you the necklace so you'd know I was coming back!"

Toph exhaled sharply, an expression of deep sadness flicking across her features so quickly Aang thought he might have imagined it. "I know. I always knew you were coming back eventually." Her tight fist splayed out under his hand and her other palm came up sharply causing a spike of earth to launch him through the dome's roof. "That doesn't mean I'm not going to beat you into the ground for being gone so long!"

He twisted in midair and sent a jet of flame down to fill the tiny shelter, struggling with the urge to curse when she simply bent herself backwards through the wall of the dome and threw up a shield as the structure exploded from the superheated air inside. Seizing on a plan for a decisive victory blow Aang liquefied the ice that coated the courtyard, spinning it off the ground into a whip thin stream while moving in the deadly terrifying forms that allowed a firebender to summon lighting.

Spinning the crackling blue white energy around himself he flicked the rivulet at Toph, surrounding her in a lattice of water. Smelling the crackle of ozone in the air she had come to associate so long ago with Azula, Toph dropped to a knee and wrapped the earth over her like protective blanket, hearing the sizzle snap of the lightning being fired she braced herself for an impact that never came. Aang had directed the lightning into the water, creating a sparking, flickering, deadly cage.

"Surrender?" He asked, breathless with the effort.

The smile on her face was eerie and beautiful in the electric light. "Never."

Quicker than his eye could follow a flurry of objects whipped out towards him. Toph's cuffs – Toph's new metal cuffs clamped down around his wrists, snapping his hands together behind his back and causing the water and lightning cage to crash to the ground just as the matching pair wrapped themselves around his ankles and dropped him to his knees.

They locked gazes across the training yard. Aang on both knees, Toph still on one, breathing heavily and dripping sweat; and in unison they both began to laugh.

"I have to admit I didn't see that one coming."

"That was amazing Twinkles! A lightning cage – brilliant!"

"You have gotten phenomenally good a metalbending!"

She whooped. "Spirits that was fun!"

There was an incredible cheer from behind her and Toph jumped slightly which made Aang snort with laughter again because she'd completely forgotten her students were there. She moved in a form he'd never seen before and he felt the cuffs release him as the still champion World's Greatest Earthbender raised one fist into the air in triumph. That gesture that reminded him so much of the tiny girl she'd been on the day he met her, it made his heart ache a little. Rising to his feet he faced her and they both bowed.

"It seems I still have much to learn from you Sifu Toph."

Stepping close she wrapped an arm around his shoulders and socked him firmly on the bicep. "Twinkles, was there ever any doubt?"

 


 

 

The one year anniversary of the defeat of the former Fire Lord Ozai was a massive celebration across the world. Even in the fire nation itself. Zuko had wanted to have a memorial day, a quiet advent of reflection for those lost to battle, for the humility with which the fire nation now acted. It was Toph and Sokka that convinced him that what the people needed after a year of political turmoil, assassination attempts and postwar disputes was a celebration. Iroh, as Regent until the Prince came of age, had agreed that the end of the war should be rejoiced; not as a defeat for the fire nation but as a triumph in retaking their honor, in finding their path. So the reborn nation hosted its former enemies in a gesture of peace and continuing harmony.

The young Avatar who had been Ozai's downfall was, naturally, the guest of honor. For a whole year Aang had traveled to world and helped it to heal. With his friends by his side he had presided over theelection of the new Earth King – Kuei still refused to return to his post, too enamored with the open road – and had helped to rejoin the Southern and Northern water tribes. He had freed political prisoners, ferreted out injustices and mediated at peace treaty negotiations. Slowly over the course of the year the team that had beaten back the Fire Nation had gone their separate ways. Zuko was called back home to study what he needed to know to become the new Fire Lord, Suki had returned to Kyoshi Island to train her warriors, Sokka to the South Pole and his father, followed soon after by Katara. Toph had till this point, continued with the Avatar, but her parents had been sending increasingly pleading letters asking her to return home.

Still, they had all made the effort to return to the fire nation to celebrate the boy who had brought them all together and the victory that had brought them all glory.

It had been a hell of a party. They had eaten until even Sokka was stuffed, danced and sang and ignored the customary rules regarding drinking and minors. Aang had been happier than they had seen him in a long while. He had done airbending tricks for the assembly, used all his outrageously outdated fire nation slang. He had insisted that Toph dance with him, building new steps out of dodging her attacks, and had stolen wicked kisses from Katara until her brother chased him with a breadstick.

And in the morning he was gone.

Iroh had read the letter that the Avatar had left out loud to the assembled group. Aang explained that the spirits of his past lives had come to him again. That there was a lot more about being the Avatar he needed to learn. They had told him there would always be something new to fight and that he needed to be ready.

Katara had begun quietly crying almost as soon as the first sentence was read. As though she had known all along this was coming.

I love you Katara, but don't wait for me. I don't know how long I'll be gone and you deserve every happiness this world has to offer. I know Sokka will look after you, even though it you don't really need it.

Sokka, for once with nothing to say, wrapped his arms around her, resting his chin on her hair as Suki leaned against his back supporting him with silent strength.

Toph, Sifu, I know you'll try and look for me but I'll leave you this so you know I'm coming back some day. I'll keep up my earthbending, I promise.

Toph sat ramrod straight, fingering the wooden beads that held the airbender amulet and refusing to acknowledge the tears dripping onto her clothes until Zuko pulled her close.

Zuko, keep our family together. Avatar Rokku says you have the potential to be the greatest of the Fire Lords and I know he's right.

I wanted to make all of you understand that no matter what, it was you that made me the Avatar. It was our family that taught me how to be a man.

I love you all,

Aang

They spent a long time curled on the floor clutched together in a tangle of limbs and half hidden tears; no one touched Iroh's tea.

Chapter Text

 

"So where is everyone else?" Aang finally broached the subject over a cup of tea in the academy's rough kitchen. "I tried the Fire Capital but Iroh sent me off to look for you in Omashu and they sent me here."

Toph was slouched in her chair across from him, feet on the table as she blew on her hot cup. "We all go away together for the first month of the fall season. Keeps us connected when we're so busy."

"Well I guess with Zuko being Fire Lord-"

"And Sokka's planning the city they're building in the South Pole, when he's not off with his dad for peace talks or learning Chieftain-y things. It's hard on Suki but she's not leaving the Kyoshis without a very good reason."

"I thought they might be married by now."

"Well they keep trying," She snorted. "One of them will ask the other and it'll be a perfect romantic moment and then Suki will mention how nice it will be not to have to make the trip to the South Pole to see him, or Sokka'll start talking about where in the new city he wants their house and it will all descend to bickering again."

"And Katara?" he asked, She could hear in his voice and his heartbeat how desperate he was for the question to sound casual. Toph quirked a wry smile. Seven years…

"Still pining after Sugar Queen?"

"Ah, No."

"Huh." He was flustered but he wasn't lying. Maybe she was reading him wrong. "Sweetness is happy. She's got a horde of lady waterbenders who've followed her down to the South. I think Chief Arnook is annoyed that so many young women have left the North Pole, but that's what you get for being leader of a chauvinist society. She's the Water Ambassador to the Council of Four now too."

The Council had been Aang's idea, but it had only been established for a few months before he'd disappeared. The intention was for the council to have one member elected from each of the races, mediated by the Avatar. Then the council would address any issues that they believe impacted the world as a whole, such as wars or natural disasters, to better maintain communication and balance between the nations. The representatives to the council could not be the ruling authority in their lands, but the council and the leaders of all nations would convene twice a year to address any major grievances. Aang – with advice from the other leaders – had suggested that to make up for the gaps in the Avatar's line of succession, a loyal sage from the temple of the Avatar's previous incarnation would mediate the council if the situation called for it.

Of course they'd only really paid attention to Sage Shyu's appointment when Aang had disappeared three weeks later. Should have noticed that.

Piandao was the Fire Nation's representative to the council. Bato had stood for the Water Tribes at first, but he wasn't fond of the position and had stepped down almost as soon as Katara came of age. The Earth Kingdom people had appointed General Howe as their voice and thus far the arrangement seemed to be working well. There were even a few minor groups starting to clamor for a position at the open council's meetings, such as the Sandbenders and the Waterbenders of the Foggy Swamp.

She told as much to Aang who seemed delighted.

"You'll have to grab your spot back for the next meeting," She reminded him. "But you might want to let them all know you're home first. Or don't, bet that would get a good reaction."

"I'd like to see Katara again." He mused. Toph rolled her useless eyes. Missing infatuated heartbeat or not, that boy always had Sweetness on the brain. She considered spilling the beans but figured that if they'd been waiting this long for him Katara would probably want to tell Twinkletoes herself.

"She should be back at the South Pole by now. And free for two weeks still. I told you Sparky cut our vacation short? Come to think of it Iroh probably told him you were back!" She slammed her cup down on the wooden table, ignoring the tea that spilled over the edge. "That sneak wasn't even going to tell us! You did the right thing coming to me Twinkletoes."

She could hear him chuckle softly but decided to ignore it. "Anyway, you should go see her – and Sokka, and Suki come to think of it. Not Zuko though, Avatar hoarding twerp."

That made him laugh uproariously and she was suddenly struck with the unfamiliar desire to see his face.

"We can set you up in one of the visiting master's rooms tonight if you don't want to take off right away." For some reason this seemed to pull all the mirth out of the room.

"You're not coming along?"

"Twinkles I've got responsibilities here. The older students need training and -"

"Come on Toph! I haven't seen you in seven years and you were just going to let me leave tomorrow morning?"

Ruthlessly squishing down the desire to shake him hysterically or burst into frustrated tears, she attempted nonchalance. "...Well, yes."

Aang reached across the table and snatched up her hand. "Your assistant said no one expects you for another two weeks. Please," He wheedled. "I'm turning twenty at the end of the month; this can be my birthday present!"

"I already have a present for you." She snapped back before she could stop herself. The Airbender's surprise was palpable.

"How could you -"

Sweetness is going to kill you ruin this. "Alright Twinkletoes, I'll come along to the land of ice and blindness."

"Really?" Toph let out a quiet breath of relief. He's still as flighty as ever.

"Well since you can't seem to do without me. Wouldn't want to let the Avatar down."

Aang's grin was so brilliant Toph swore she might actually be able to see it. "You never do."

 


 

"You are completely horrible."

"You didn't miss this?"

"How can you claim to be a force for good in the world?"

"Come on, it's just like old times!"

"I hate you. Go back to the sealion turtle."

Toph was sprawled on her back across Appa's cushioned saddle, dizzy from the lack of sensory input and trying her best to not throw up. The better part of a decade away hadn't helped her hard won Appa-travel tolerance at all. A cool calloused hand covered her forehead gently, easing away the beginning pinches of a tension headache. She hummed in pleasure at the feeling and heard Twinkletoes laugh above the sound of the rushing wind.

"That's a pretty neat trick."

"It's waterbending. I can chill the water in my blood slightly to lower my temperature. And..." The coolness was replaced by faint warmth as Aang slid heated fingers to her temples. "Firebending!"

"Hot and cold running Avatar," She mused. "Now that's gonna come in handy with the ladies."

He refused to rise to her bait, but Toph decided that was alright as long as he kept on soothing her worries away. Besides she could feel his heart pound and knew he was blushing.

"You want to set down soon? Appa's getting tired."

"I thought we were getting close?"

"Yeah, but we'll have to cross Whaletail Island first; and I'd rather not get there after everyone's asleep."

Appa touched down on the packed sand of the beach with a groan of relief that Toph echoed as she rolled herself down the flying bison's tail. The earthbender dug her fingers into the wet grains as she felt the whole shape of the land open up to her. Aang's light footsteps came to rest beside her head and he offered her a hand up. "I know the beach is nice but I promise there'll be rock inland."

She made a face at him but reached up to grab his wrist. He gave a yank and she literally bounded to her feet, surprised by Aang’s new strength. Stumbling, Toph braced herself against his shoulders too late to avoid burying her nose in his chest. She inhaled sharply at the slight pain but was immediately distracted by the smell of fresh air, rough soap and warm skin. Aang lifted her chin, gently tilting her head up.

"You alright?"

"Yeah," She stepped back sharply, rubbing the bridge of her nose, and picked up one of the packs that had hit the ground next to Appa. "Where to fearless leader?"

Aang found them a clearing not too far beyond the tree line, on top of a steep outcropping and the two of them began to set up camp. They moved in oddly perfect sync, wordlessly diving up the tasks as though they had done it every night since they were children. The ominous sound of thunder rolled in the distance and without being asked she bent a yurt-like earth tent big enough to keep them both dry. A flick of firebending, a waterbending tug and they had a cheery campfire and water to fill the stone pot Toph produced, but she pushed the food pack towards Aang.

"Not cooking."

"Unless you've turned into a food bender while I was gone, I wouldn't have let you anyway. I think my taste buds only just grew back from last time."

Katara had attempted to teach all of them to cook while they were training at the western air temple. Zuko and The Duke had actually gotten pretty good at it and all of them had learned to at least make rice without it burning to the bottom of the pot. But spices all look the same when you can only see the shape of the granules and Toph's cooking tended to be much too sweet or salty, or - on one memorable occasion - spicy enough to get her banned from cooking rotation and have them all cursing her name for the next day.

While Aang threw ingredients into the pot Toph unrolled the reed mat she'd brought to protect her from the ground's dampness and began to brush out her hair. She could feel his surprise at the feminine gesture and reached around the firepit to whack him with the flat of the brush. "I'm not thirteen anymore."

Toph would never admit it under penalty of torture but her slow slide towards the edges of femininity had begun as a way to connect with her mother. The letters she had sent home during their year on the run from the firelord had driven her father to distraction, but had given Poppy Bei Fong a new appreciation for her daughter. Now that she didn't have to push aside all her hopes for mother-daughter bonding because her 'precious delicate lotus' would never have a chance to be a properly established woman, Poppy had directed all her energy into finding common ground with her baby girl.

There had never been any point in trying to make Toph into something she wasn't, but the wife of Lao Bei Fong was a formidable strategist. She eschewed makeup, fine clothes and jewelry in favour of teaching her daughter the magic of shiny, brushed hair and clean nails; she set out to prove to Toph that beauty was a tool as much as earthbending katas. And that having someone else pick your toes for you could be even better than doing it yourself.

At nineteen the diminutive grand master had embraced her femininity as far as she was willing. She'd come to enjoy the sensation of a clean face and smooth hair, almost as much as she loved to thrash those that thought they could win her over with flattery.

By the time she had worked through the tangles the wind had knotted into her dark locks, Aang was passing her a bowl of delicious smelling congee.

"You want to borrow the brush Fuzz Head?"

Aang ran his fingers through the dark shaggy strands that almost hid his tattoo. "I've been meaning to shave it off. But this is as close has I've been able to get with airbending and I didn't really want to try to burn it shorter."

"It's kinda nice – Soft," She admitted. "Plus: good for keeping all that air in your head."

He reached out and twinned a few of her black strands around his fingers. "I like yours better, it's so long." Tugging gently he made her sway back and forth until she elbowed him in the ribs.

"Knock it off Twinkletoes!"

A strange silence settled between the two of them as they ate; the easy routine of earlier evaporating into the evening air. The awkwardness impressed upon Toph once again just how long it had been since they were together. She ran her fingers over the beads that held the airbender amulet around her neck. The camphor wood was worn shiny from her touch. Every time Aang had wormed his way into her mind she would reach for the necklace, as though he might feel the company of her thoughts. The weight of so many years seemed unbearable.

Irritated with her own emotions, she dumped the remnants of her dinner into the fire pit and stretched out on her mat, leaning away from her companion to trace shapes in the dirt. Aang seemed hurt by her dismissal but she had no idea how to comfort him without making herself vulnerable in turn. I need Katara. She sighed and rolled back over, her sightless eyes on the ceiling, listening to him move around their little camp doing all the work without complaint. Exasperated with his meekness, Toph sat up long enough to earthbend their food into a little pocket underground – keeping it safe from prying animals – and blast a garbage trench for him across the clearing. Then, yanking her travelling blanket free of her pack she resettled herself for sleep.

No rest was forthcoming, however. Not with Aang's presence buzzing along her nerves. At long last he lay down across the tent, sifting back and forth for a moment before propping himself up on one elbow and reaching out to pluck at the edge of her blanket.

"This is new."

"No its not," She smacked his hand away. "I've had this for ages."

"I meant it's a new thing – you never used to sleep with a blanket. It was always just Toph and the dirt." He explained.

She didn't turn her head, there wasn't really any point in looking his way, but she refocused her attention towards him. "Do you remember on cold nights when we were travelling together and we'd end up squeezed into the space of Sokka and Katara's sleeping bags? With Snoozels in the middle, with you trying to wiggle your way between him and Sweetness, and me trying to suck up all his body heat?"

"Then Zuko joined us and he'd be on your other side, facing out so he could wake us all up every time he heard a badgertoad croak and thought it was the Fire Lord." The nostalgic smile was evident in his voice.

"And Appa's tail as a big furry pillow." She finished. "It was …colder all on my own."

Toph held up the blanket like a shield between them, stripping the moment of its sentimentality. "So Suki bought me this. She said its water tribe colours and fire nation fabric, so it ought to be a good stand in for Sparky and Snoozels."

There was a long pause. "It was cold for me too Toph." There was a tentative tug on the reed mat beneath her. "But we could be warm again if you want."

Reason and distance and seven years of intervening experience told Toph that she wasn't a runaway girl in the forest anymore. That she'd worked hard to beat back the cold on her own and she was utterly self-sufficient now. But Aang's long missed vibrations sang in her bones, calling her, as he always had, to throw caution to the wind. They said leap and promised her protection from the fall.

With a huff that wasn't nearly as irritated sounding as she'd intended, Toph bent her sleeping mat over till it was flush against his. Aang didn't wrap his arm around her waist – they were still too raw with one another for such an intimate gesture – but he lay on his back, arms behind his head, and wriggled over till her shoulders pressed against his ribs, her head tucked under his elbow.

"I'm not sharing my blanket." She insisted; feeling rather than hearing his hum of agreement.

Outside the earthen tent rain began to fall.

 


 

After three days of travelling Kotta had finally begun to become less annoying. The young warrior had been taciturn to the point of rudeness when Katara had first introduced them, which had suited Toph just fine. But the northern Earth Kingdom had apparently astonished him in to speaking. Now it seemed he wanted to learn everything about everything and he was willing to question until she ran dry of answers.

Arnook had decided that after the isolation the Northern Tribe had undergone during the Great Fire War it was time to make themselves known in the world again. So rather than remain on their glacier dodging ice flows as a rite of manhood, young men would make the journey south on foot across the great expanse of the Earth Kingdom. Gaining knowledge of the wider world and connecting the southern and northern tribes together. Kotta was the first to attempt the rite, and Toph – who was bound for Kyoshi Island – was along as a failsafe. The Northern Tribe's elders had practically scoffed them out of the palace when it had been suggested, but Katara - in her very best sugar queen voice - had reminded them of what they had thought of women waterbenders only four years ago. It was times like that when Toph felt she and Sweetness really connected.

Tapping the ground with her feet she watched Kotta move around their campsite. It was winter in the Earth Kingdom and snow was falling, though not staying on the ground. She had let the inquisitive warrior pick their resting place, perfectly content to earthbend herself a tent and leave him out in the snow if he didn't find a spot to her liking. But Kotta had come through, and they were now holed up in a cozy shallow cave with a cheery fire crackling. Toph was lounging as close to the radiant heat as she dared and contemplating the next phase of their trip when he approached her and lay down near enough that they were touching shoulder to hip. She moved away, or would have, should have moved; but instead she stayed, attributing the inappropriate closeness as an idiosyncrasy of the water tribe – crazy people living on the ice – and enjoying the heat.

She knew Kotta was handsome, whatever that meant. The earthbender had heard the girls of the Northern Water Tribe cooing over his blue eyes and his dashing smile. He was tall and impressively muscled, her senses told her he was bigger and broader than Sokka, and lying next to him, closer than she'd ever been to a man not part of their little family, she was lost in the unexpected pleasure of feeling diminutive. Kotta's smell, his voice, tugged at her in a way she couldn't quite explain, causing a weird fluttering tension to coil through her body. The young warrior was talking about something, but Toph didn't notice until he'd stopped and she became aware that he was looking at her. Unthinking she turned her head towards him and stopped when she realized just how close they were.

His breath was a soft faint sensation against her lips and as though by previous agreement Kotta leaned down and she leaned forward and they were kissing.

She had been kissed before. But Chen's kisses had always been fumbling, sweet and slightly ridiculous. This was dark and passionate and heady, sending all her pent up, ignored hormones boiling to the surface. For the first time in a long time Toph gave up on rationality, wrapped her arms around his neck and completely lost her head.

Chapter Text

 

They woke up tangled together. Toph's leg was thrown over to lace between his, her head against his chest; his arm tucked firmly around her and his face buried in her hair. The slow steady beat of his heart let her know that he still slept, but she had to suppress a snicker when she shifted and found that at least part of him had risen with the sun. Never one to spare a friend embarrassment she shook him gently.

He let out a groan of contentment that she could feel as much as hear, and tugged her closer for a moment before unpeeling himself to stretch. Propping herself up on one side into an optimal position for mockery she felt the moment he became aware of his condition and froze in a paroxysm of embarrassment.

Toph let out a cackle of laughter. "Good morning to you too!"

Aang cringed and clapped his hands down over his face. "...Sorry Toph." He mumbled.

"Nah not at all, I'm taking it as a compliment." She stretched her arms over her head. "Unless this is new? Have you noticed your body changing Twinkletoes? Are you finally becoming a man?”

“I hate you.” He mumbled something that was too faint for even her to hear, so she simply tossed one of the packs his way. "Come on Twinkles, Sugar Queen awaits!"

 

 


 

The last time Aang had seen the home of the Southern Water Tribe it had been a collection of low snow and ice buildings surrounded by a not particularly impressive wall on a tiny island in the middle of a vast, icy ocean. Gaping down at it from Appa's back he had to admit things had changed.

Toph had explained that Sokka took it upon himself to raise the fortunes of the Southern Tribe, and decided that the best place to start was to build a city that would be the envy of the four nations. He wanted something as defensible as Ba Sing Se, as efficiently centralized as the Fire Nation capital and every bit as Water Tribe as the great fortress in the north. The result was a circular city, divided into districts like spokes on a wheel with the site of the original village in the great ring that formed the hub. The districts were separated by rivers that could be raised up as walls by waterbenders in case of attack, so that each area could be defended or ceded without surrendering the entirety. The individual sections of the city were on ice, but the central hub remained on snow covered stone - much to Toph's pleasure - and it was big enough that, should the occasion arise, the entire population could be pulled back into it.

Not that the population was particularly large at the moment. The whole Southern Water Tribe had fit into one district with room to spare, and even with the influx of kinsmen from the north and a swiftly rising birth rate people had barely begun to use the other areas of the city. Still, Sokka was adamant that the whole thing be constructed according to the original design. They were building for the future, he would tell naysayers, the long and prosperous future of the Water Tribe.

Most of the city had been constructed by Katara and her waterbenders, with them in mind, but 'The Village' as the inhabitants had affectionately termed the central hub, was obviously meant to be more accessible to foreigners. The foundations and interiors of the administrative and official buildings were comprised of stone, wood and metal in deference to the Earth and Fire peoples; and a clearly marked landing pad stood ready to receive air balloons. It was towards this space that Aang steered Appa.

The sight of a flying bison was an unmistakable one, and there was already a crowd waiting to greet them by the time they touched down. Toph was wresting her thin soled boots on when they landed, slipping and sliding awkwardly off the great beast's side and making her shout heard above the din.

"Sweetness! Snoozels! I brought you a present!"

"AANG!" The scream parted the crowd like water and he looked up to see Katara sprinting across the courtyard towards him. Taking a flying leap she caught him in a bone crushing hug, knocking him off Appa's head and sending them both to the ground as the bison bellowed his discomfort.

"You came back! You came back!" She kept exclaiming. Pulling away long enough to grab his face in her hands and look at him before yanking the Avatar back into her embrace.

"Let someone else have a turn!" Strong hands hauled them both to their feet and suddenly Sokka was there, looking older and more careworn but still with the same goofy grin. Aang held out his arm to clasp Sokka's but the older boy - man now - just rolled his eyes and pulled him into a hug. With a happy cry Katara threw her arms around them both. Even though he dwarfed her now and was almost of a height with Sokka, Aang felt like the boy from the iceberg again. Surrounded and protected by his family.

"Toph! Get over here!" Sokka demanded. She huffed in pretended annoyance, but squeezed them all back even tighter.

This, Aang decided. Is just about perfect.

 

 


 

Katara had become impossibly stunning in his absence. She was tall and willowy now; her face had lost the softness of childhood, but her blue eyes were still bright and sparkling as light on water. The robes of a waterbending master hung open to reveal a dress that reminded him faintly of the ones Yue had worn. She looked like a princess.

He had been so ridiculously in love with her when he was thirteen. The most beautiful girl he had ever seen, the most kindhearted and loving. It had almost broken his heart to leave her behind. Aang looked into her smiling face across the banquet table and remembered exactly how it felt to love her.

In some ways he still did, unreservedly.

But it wasn't the love that had led him on his first few trembling steps towards passion. Seven years of meditation and reflection had forced him to think, consider Katara and focus on her true self, instead of how he wanted to view her.

Katara was a creature of caritas, of deep and abiding unconditional love. It was this intensity of devotion, purified by the death of her mother, which had made her strong enough to watch over her brother and her village. Strong enough to believe in him. To support him and care for him when he needed it most.

But that love possessed a dark side he had never wanted to see. Once someone was under Katara's protection she would tear apart anyone who dared come near. The waterbender would have given up her life for any of them but he knew now that she would have killed Azula if there had been no other way. She would have slit Ozai's throat herself rather than let him get to Aang. It was a love that humbled and terrified at the same time.

During the war he had used Katara's love like a shield. He would never have to face the harsh realities of what they were doing, because she protected him.

It had never been his love for Katara that had stopped him from mastering the Avatar state. It was his reliance on the illusions that she represented.

They wouldn’t have been able to move beyond that, he recognized eventually. She would always feel the need to protect him from the world, and as long as he had her to hide behind he would never be strong enough to face the things that being the Avatar meant.

She caught his eye again, breathless with laughter at the antics of Toph and her brother, shining with happiness that made the whole world brighter and he loved her. Like a work of art; like a sister and a mother and a friend and a paragon.

But somewhere on that lonely island, lost to time yet again, she had stopped being his forever girl.

Katara reached across the table and squeezed his hand, her eyes full of unvoiced concern. He just smiled and squeezed back. Maybe this is even better.

 


The banquet had been very official and very delicious but Aang was happy it was over. He was dreaming of cool sheets and soft furs when an arm reached out of nowhere and yanked him into a side room with a grinning Sokka, a red faced and laughing Toph and a bottle full of icethorn South Pole vodka. Behind him Katara rushed in like a whirlwind.

"Did you grab – Oh Aang! Good."

"Get the glasses Sweetness?"

Sokka scoffed. "Glasses are for girls."

"So are ponytails." Katara retorted, tugging her brother's hair.

The two girls ignored Sokka's protests. "It's a warrior's wolf tail!" In favour of throwing themselves onto the room's enormous bed. Aang followed, slightly confused but happy to go along, settling himself in lotus near their feet.

The room was not precisely lavish – excepting the opulent bed – though the stone floor was covered in furs. There was a small, ornamental balcony which was smoothly iced over against the cold, like all the windows in South Pole architecture, flanked by heavy paneled curtains. The furnishings were simple and unadorned but there was a great deal of art on the walls. A large woodblock print hung over the desk, complimenting a brightly calligraphed scroll in high Fire Nation Style. There was even an elaborate watercolor of a contemplative mountain scene hanging over the bed. Aang whistled low in admiration. The Air Nomads might have eschewed personal possessions but he could certainly appreciate them.

"Is this an ambassador's room?"

"Nah," Toph waved the idea away. "The art's all wrong. If this were a room for visiting dignitaries all the art would be Water Tribe. The intention in a dignitary's room is to pick pieces that display the best of national culture in order to impress upon visitors the majesty and history of where they are and give them a greater appreciation for possible cultural exports."

The other three stared at her for a moment. Toph mimed hiding behind a fan, batting her long dark lashes coquettishly. "You all seem to forget that I am a Bei Fong. Also, Sugar Queen's underwear is on the floor over there."

Katara bounced up, laughing, and tossed the offending breast wrap into her wardrobe. "Pour us a drink Sokka, we have catching up to do. Now," She focused her attention entirely on Aang. "Tell us everything you've been doing while you were gone."

"Well… I spent a few years with the giant sealion turtle. He taught me more about energybending and the history of bending powers. I spent a lot of time in the spirit world, learning from the previous Avatars. It was kind of like being in the iceberg again, except I would wake up older and I'd fall all over myself while I tried to get used to longer legs or bigger feet." He laughed at the memory of trying to stand on coltish legs that had been idle much too long.

"Eventually the Lion-turtle took me to a temple hidden in the northern ocean mountain range that had been used by the Avatars for centuries, so I studied and trained and … well that's pretty much it."

Katara offered a slightly strained encouraging smile and Toph just rolled her pale eyes but Sokka snorted at him. "Aang, buddy, seriously? You meditated and trained on how to be the Avatar for seven years?"

"It took Avatar Rokku twelve." The airbender defended sheepishly.

"So you haven't fought any monsters?"

"Just the spirit trainers at the temple."

"Rescued any damsels?"

"No."

"Gone to any parties?"

"Nope."

"Never had a drink?"

"Not one."

"Still don't eat meat?"

"No!"

"You still a virgin?"

"Ah – I…" Red from his toes to his arrow Aang glared balefully at Sokka. "You know I am."

He crowed with laughter in a way unbecoming a future chieftain. "But I got you to admit it, and that makes it much funnier."

"Oh shut it Sokka." Toph punched the warrior hard enough to knock him off balance and handed Aang a drink. "We may all have crazy responsibilities now but since we're supposed to have the next two weeks free I think we owe it to Team Avatar to try to find Twinkletoes a girl."

"Woo, best mission ever!"

Katara vainly tried to stop a fit of giggles, composing herself into serious-mom-meets-waterbending-master mode. "Stop that. Right now. Our mission is absolutely not going to be 'get Aang laid'" He wondered, absently whether it was actually possible to die of embarrassment and downed his whole glass in one pull before he remembered that it was alcohol and the burn hit him like a brick to the face. "Zuko called for a convening of the council. There's real work to be done and-"

She was cut off by a mouthful of three-hundred thread count Earth Kingdom cotton as Sokka hit her with a pillow. "Tomorrow. There's work to be done tomorrow. There is a bottle to finish tonight."

"Here here!" Toph seconded the motion with a cheer and refilled Aang's glass.

 

 


 

"So then the platapus bear puts his paws up on Zuko's shoulders and just burps right in his face!"

"And," Sokka's voice had gone so high pitched from laughter he could barely draw breath to finish his sentence. "And Iroh j-just turns to the waiter and says –"

"I think that means compliments to the chef!" The three of them chorused together before dissolving into a helpless giggling pile.

"This is so undignified." Katara choked, her head dangling off the bed far enough that her long hair brushed the floor.

"Come on 'Tara. Team Avatar never needed dignity," Aang protested.

"Yeah we were all about… wassat? –gumption! We had gumption and luck."

"And me!" Toph cheered, punching a small fist in the air.

Sokka rolled over and wrapped her in a headlock as she squeaked and tried to smack him away. "Yeah. And very tiny elements of surprise."

"Hey," she insisted. "When I was little-"

"You still are little Toph." The airbender reminded her.

"But when I was even littler. I saved your elk-boar bacon all the time!"

"Hey I got us out of jail!" Katara whined. Toph snagged the older girl's ankles and pulled her back up onto the bed.

"Yeah, yeah. I remember, you sweaty, stinky genius you."

"Ladies do not sweat." She informed them loftily. "They glow."

"Well the way you 'glow' after a sparring match sis, you could be used as a new source of power for the firebenders. And I gave up my space sword to stop you from plummeting to your death. Doesn't that count for something?"

"Counts for a punch in the arm!"

"Ow!"

"Well, let go of me ya big bully!"

Aang reached to the table at the foot of the bed and pulled up the gleaming blade. "So how, exactly, did you get this back then?"

"No weapons while inebr – ine – while drinking!" Katara snatched the sword away, placing it under the bed with exaggerated care. Sokka watched her with intense concentration.

"I just know I'm never gonna remember where that is tomorrow."

"Sokka just wouldn't stop moaning about it. You remember?" Toph didn't wait for his confirmation before continuing. "So one day we decide to go looking for it, because well there was a pretty clear mark of where we ought to start searching."

"They cleverly followed the giant line left by fiery destruction." Katara was settling herself against the pillows, nodding sagely.

"We look and look and look but there's no sign of it in the giant forest – huge surprise – so one day we stop at a village for food and they start telling us about this heavenly blade. It appeared on the day of Sozin's Comet and they have all decided that it came from the spirit that saved their town from the fire. I tried to explain that it was my good friend Twinkletoes but they didn't seem to believe me."

"Maybe you shouldn't have called me Twinkletoes." Aang suggested wryly.

Sokka took up the reigns of the story with a great deal more enthusiasm. "But, But! They tell us that the heavenly blade is buried in a giant boulder where it fell. And they figure only the one 'Chosen by the Spirit!'" He struck a dramatic pose. "Can pull it out again. So they take us down to the spot and there's my lovely sword all stuck in a boulder. So Toph bends and I pull and ta da! Space sword!"

"Yeah that's exactly how it went." Toph snarked, folding her arms behind her head. "Right up until they realized we bent it out, claimed you were stealing from a spirit and ran us out of town."

Aang laughed, scrubbing at his eyes. "You guys are like two halves of the same brain."

Toph went completely still for a moment. Sokka watched her out of the corner of his eye with a awkward, half penitent look on his face. In an uncharacteristic display of gentle affection she tipped her body to one side, leaning towards him till their heads bumped together slightly.

She moved quickly back to her former position, reaching for a roll of paper on Katara's nightstand. "Here Twinkles," She shoved the scroll at him. "Read to us, it will be educational."

"The Scoundrel's Captive?"

"He'll never let her go, and she doesn't want him to – Katara what are you reading?"

 

 


 

"Why are you even with him Toph. He's not good enough for you."

"Chen is very good to me-"

He was the older brother of one of her earthbending students. He was a bender as well, though not a particularly strong one and he shared her love of dirt. Not precisely smart or handsome; not very exciting. Still, it was nice to be adored.

In retrospect though, it had probably been a bad idea to suggest he join the next group outing.

At least he isn't here.

"But he doesn't know you; doesn't know what you can do! He won't appreciate how cool your metal bending is, or get your Melon Lord jokes. He won't know how brave you can be-"

"That's because the only person who knows those things is you!" Toph screamed at the top of her lungs. Far way a flock of birds took flight and for a brief moment there was total silence, But Toph was very clearly Not Finished. "No one's going to get those things like you do! No one's been through things with me like you have! But you love your girlfriend and frankly I love her too and I deserve someone who at least wants to try to make me happy!" With a final shriek of frustration she spun on her heel and stomped off into the woods.

Sokka just stood there with his mouth hanging slightly open. Behind him Zuko let out a faint cough that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle. "Wow, you made her so mad she didn't even think to earthbend you. A new record Sokka, congratulations."

"Shut up." The Water Tribe boy replied in a defeated voice.

Toph said her goodbyes to Zuko and Katara before the sun had even risen the next morning. She brought Suki breakfast and a silent hug that the other girl wholeheartedly returned.

She let Sokka remain asleep while she disappeared alone down the mountain.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It had taken them almost two days of flying to reach the Fire Nation capital and Appa was utterly exhausted. Between Katara's apprehension and Aang's excitement the group had decided that the best course of action would be to sleep in the saddle and push on to the palace.

Sokka and Aang had snuck up on Toph while she was sleeping and hauled her bodily onto the bison kicking and screaming; which had led a viciously hung-over Katara to douse all of them and Appa in freezing ocean water and meant a horrendous smell had followed them the whole trip while the animal's fur dried.

Toph stumbled off Appa as Aang directed him into the stables and slouched against the wall for a moment trying to regain her equilibrium. "Sparky better have serious problems." She sent her vibrations out to where Katara was fastidiously combing and fixing her hair. "And they better not be in his pants."

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

"Of course you don't. Here, let me help." She reached out to the waterbender and in one swift move brushed Katara's hair back from her shoulders and yanked the front of her dress down far enough to expose the edges of her breast bindings. "There, perfect."

"Toph!"

"I asked the attendants to give Appa a non-seawater bath – Katara!" Toph snickered as she felt the Avatar's eyes practically pop out of his head taking in all the mocha skin on display.

"She pulled my top down!"

"Hang on to your heartbeat there, Airhead."

"While Katara is my sister and that's weird and gross, you should in no way stop doing things with other girls breasts Toph." Sokka insisted. "In fact Sukki – "

Three heartbeats shot up in tempo. Katara's in anger as she clapped her hand over Sokka's mouth, and the other two… Twinkletoes you little perv. "I'll keep that in mind."

They argued the whole promenade up to the palace about where Aang should stand to maximize the hilarity of Zuko's reaction.

"That scream is going to be tough to top Katara." Her brother teased. "Hey wait, what did Toph do?"

"I bent him into the ground."

"You two fought?"

"It's Toph," Aang shrugged. "I'd have been concerned if she didn't try to hit me."

"That reminds me, Sparky's gonna love your lightning trick."

"Lightning trick?"

"Katara!" The enormous gold plated doors to the fire palace opened with barely a creak and Zuko swept forward, utterly ignoring his honour guard and the herald that was trying to present their little group to him in favour of the lovely waterbender. Not obvious at all there Sparky. "I'm so glad you came. How on earth did you get here so fast? Sokka, Aang, Toph. Good this will be easier with all of you here; I was worried the messenger hawks might not have reached you." The young Fire Lord's voice was strained. There was weariness in the way he walked and apparently he was quite distracted.

"Come in, we can eat and discuss this properly. I know better than to try to get you to concentrate on an empty stomach Sokka. Though, I'm not sure there will be anything much that's vegetarian Aang, I don't know why I forgot."

"That's okay Zuko, I'm sure it will come back to you in a minute." The accompanying giant grin was actually audible.

Zuko got five steps back through the palace doors before very slowly turning and walking deliberately back. "Avatar."

"Fire Lord."

"Aang."

"Zuko."

Zuko placed his hands on the airbender's shoulders. They were almost the same height now, but Aang's lithe slimness still made him look young when set against his former teacher's more heavily muscled frame.

"You're back."

"Toph actually thought you already knew –urk!" His sentence was cut off along with his ability to breath when Zuko yanked him into a tight hug. The Fire Lord jerked back almost as quickly, as though suddenly becoming aware of both his position and location, brushing off the front of his robes with so much attempted dignity that even the guards were having trouble holding back a snicker or two.

"It's good to see you," He said as smoothly as any courtier. "If you would like to come this way."

 


 

Katara lasted almost three minutes into the lavish luncheon before she slammed her glass down on the table. "Zuko we didn't come here to eat." She ignored her brother's muffled sound of protest. "Half a candlemark ago you were so panicked you didn't notice Aang was back. What is going on?"

He abandoned his Fire Lord manners at her demanding question, slouching forward and dropping his elbows to the table, he rubbed the heel of one hand against his unscarred eye. "It's the Black Fist."

Toph snorted, loud enough to draw all of their attention. "Is that all? Don't worry about it Sparky. My Bandits have been chasing them up and down the Earth Kingdom for months."

"They've been moving from near the Chin peninsula to the outskirts of Ba Sing Se and then off to the north coast mostly haven't they? Raiding and pillaging. Bad but not really dangerous."

"You have better intel than I thought."

"I wish I did," He raised his head up. "It's a trick. They were sounding you out."

"What?"

"They hit three towns along the coast four days ago while the Bandits were in the north."

She groaned. "I'm going to kill them. Scratch that Suki's going to kill me first."

"They'll need help rebuilding first." Katara corrected her. "I assume that's why you called?"

"No they don't need help rebuilding. Almost nothing was damaged. These were precise strikes."

"Strikes on what?" Sokka was listening carefully now, the tactician in him superseding the call of his stomach.

"On Bending Academies. There isn't a single bender left anywhere along the south eastern coast."

"I need to go." Toph's voice was the first to break the silence; low and deadly serious. "Zuko I need to borrow a war balloon. You'll be able to reach me by messenger hawk." She was moving towards the exit before she'd finished the sentence.

Sokka caught her arm. "Wait Toph, we need a plan you can't just go haring off on your own."

"How many people managed to survive those attacks?" She demanded. "I’m not going to leave my students alone and defenseless."

Katara tried to soothe her. "There would have been masters at all of those schools Toph. Your presence might not make any difference."

"Except for a few of the adults who died in the fighting, everyone was just gone. That means that they're being taken alive for some reason." Zuko interrupted.

"Later on you can explain to me why that is a comforting thought."

"We dropped out of contact with a patrol boat of firebenders two days before the attack," He continued as though she hadn't spoken. "It was assumed they were lost at sea but now… It may not be just Earthbenders."

"There are so many with the ability in the Earth Kingdom," Katara said, thoughtfully. "If they need benders why would they start there and lose the element of surprise against the rest of the nations?"

"Well I guess the Water Tribe's are pretty seriously defended, and benders in the Fire Nation are almost all part of the military; but people who can bend are everywhere in the Earth Kingdom and after the occupation by the Fire Nation most of them are accounted for. The Black Fist would know exactly where to look." Sokka hypothesized

"We did keep records, but…" Zuko didn't say anything for a moment; he just watched them from the head of the table with a hopeless expression on his face.

"Oh spirits," Katara breathed. "It's worse than that."

"They're hoping the people will do the tracking down for them." He pushed a piece of paper onto the table.

"Does somebody feel like helping me out here?"

"It's a message," The water tribe warrior began to read the sheet aloud for Toph's benefit. "Propaganda from the Black Fist: Brothers and Sisters; too long have we lived under the thumb of these abominations. This corrupted power is what allowed the Fire Nation to take control of your lives, to steal our freedom and enslave us all.

"The goal of the Bender is to make himself the ruler of humanity. Wherever he comes, he destroys the work of the honest people. He is not a creative spirit, rather a destructive spirit; an oni upon our country.

"The bender has subjugated the land with his power. He has built our cities and made himself our ruler. Thousands and thousands of people have been made wretched by the bender. Reduced to poverty and enslaved.

"Care must be taken in our kingdom that this deadliest enemy is recognized, and that the battle against him is seen as the shining symbol of a brighter day."

"How can they say that?" Every earthenware plate and bowl on the long table broke at the sound of Toph's cracking voice. Tears were welling up in Katara's eyes. Aang forced his hands together so hard he could hear the knuckles grinding as he breathed in and out, a deathgrip on his control.

It seems I've been away too long.

"They'll take the Earth Kingdom," Sokka's words fell into the silence of the room like a stone. "If this keeps up it'll work. The Water Tribes will just retreat back into isolation and they'll use the resentment of Sozin's War to spark off another fight with the Fire Nation."

Zuko nodded. "I know. This isn't the first time something like this has happened. There's always been some resentment between benders and non-benders."

"What can we do?"

"I'll tell you what we can do. Sparky I want a battalion of your finest firebenders along with that war balloon. Them and the Bandits, we'll stop this right now."

"Toph you can't just do that!"

"Why? I don't care who these people are, or why they're doing this. I'm the muscle here; I'm the big bad tigerwolf, that's my job! And they are threatening my people!"

"Don't you dare make this worse because you're panicking!" Katara yanked the smaller woman back down into her seat.

For a moment Aang feared Toph was going to go for the waterbender's eyes, but she remained still for the split second it took Katara to clamp her hands down over Toph's ears and bring their foreheads together in a move that was more headbutt than affectionate calming gesture.

"We're not going to do nothing. We just need. To have. A plan." She punctuated her words by thunking the crowns of their heads together again and again. "They will be alright. You taught them well."

Toph brought one hand up to clasp the back of Katara's head for a moment, before yelling in no particular direction:

"Sokka we need a plan!"

"Doesn't anyone care what I had in mind? I have been going over this information nonstop for two days." On anyone who wasn't the Fire Lord the tone would have been a whine.

Katara looked up at him with hope shining in her eyes. "Oh! Zuko you had a plan already!"

He deflated like someone had popped him with a pin. "Well no," He admitted. "But I am in correspondence with the White Lotus. They're setting people in place to guard the bending schools Toph. Everyone will be fine."

"Perfect." Sokka smiled for the first time since Zuko had begun talking. "I have a few ideas but we are going to need more information. Between your Uncle and the Golden Peonies we'll be a lot less blind."

"I'll see if the Fire Lady is receiving then, and I'll make sure your rooms are in order."

Much happier now they had a plan to build a plan the two water siblings and the Fire Lord left to gather more information. Aang was left staring after them, halfway between impressed and bewildered. The whole conversation had taken less than ten minutes and his friends were firmly in control of solving an international incident. Katara had known the whole way here - the rest of them probably had as well - that this wasn't a vacation, it was a war meeting. The king, the diplomat, the strategist and the war leader. They were doing the job he should have been doing for the last seven years.

All at once he missed his empty mountain tower terribly.

It was a moment before he noticed that Toph remained sitting, frozen on her cushioned seat. Aang waited till the room was empty before moving around the table and sliding down next to her. She didn't acknowledge his presence and he found himself completely at a loss.

That burst of touch with Katara had been just what Toph needed to bring her focus back from its whirlwind of potential terrors, but he doubted it would be as welcomed or accepted from him. She wasn't one for heartfelt speeches or emotional reassurance...

So he punched her, hard, on the upper arm.

"Quit moping."

Her head snapped towards him, and even though she couldn't see he could feel her staring so hard he thought the arrow on his head might start to smoke. Don't cringe. Don't cringe. Don't cringe.

"Since when did you grow a pair Aang?"

It was quite possibly the least graceful thank you he had ever received, but it was exactly what he wanted to hear. Aang smiled, tugging gently on the end of her braid.

"So, let's go see Mai. Is she still kinda, you know...scary?" He asked, prodding her up and out of her chair. Toph heaved a theatrically gusty sigh, but seemed unconsciously infected with his enthusiasm.

"Mai is always scary. Why don't you want to go with the others?"

"Zuko said the Fire Lady..."

"Oh, no no, Mai's not the Fire Lady. She decided that marrying Zuko and doing exactly what she'd hated doing as a governor's daughter forever and ever was a stupid idea. We've really bonded." Admiration was clear in Toph's voice.

Remembering just how many times Mai's senbon had nearly turned them all to pincushions, Aang found this deeply disturbing. "They were going to get married... spirits it must have been four years ago. Zuko was off, looking for his mother and Mai was heading up the palace, sort of like Fire Lady elect – of course Iroh was doing most of the work because she found it boring. So she's training with Sparky's bodyguards and she points out that they don't have anyone stationed on the roof when Zuko is using the outdoor hot springs after sparring and wouldn't it be embarrassing if he were to be found dead and naked. Three weeks later Sparky's back in the palace and someone tries to kill him just that way."

"Someone's trying to kill Zuko?" Aang whipped his staff up in a defensive stance, as though masked assassins might leap out of the hallway's shadows at any moment.

"Someone is always trying to kill Zuko. I mean not so much anymore – which is kind of the point – but back when he was first crowned? Oh yeah. We were practically picking our teeth with the determined bastards." Aang boggled at her for a moment before remembering she couldn't see him, and very likely didn't care.

"The guards come back to Mai, begging her to help them defend the Fire Lord. She stopped four assassination attempts in six months singlehandedly and decided she'd rather be in charge of the Fire Lord's private army than be in charge of having his babies. She said there was no possible way to kill Sparky that she hadn't seriously thought about first." She chuckled like a proud parent.

"Well that's... is that good?"

"She says she's not bored. I think that counts as good. And Zuko's still alive; it’s a win-win."

"So he's not married?"

"Not yet. His ministers are practically foaming at the mouth about it too."

"Then who are we going to see?"

"His mother. Dowager Fire Lady Ursa."

 


 

Ozai had taunted Zuko with potential information about his mother's whereabouts for years, distracting the new Fire Lord with potential horrors when he most needed to be focusing on the troubles of his country.

Zuko had combed through every manifest of every penal colony, checked every record of banishment, visited every prison. The rest of the group watched the search consume him helplessly, until Katara had finally, miraculously convinced him that it was possible Ozai didn't know where Ursa had gone. That the cruel man who had scarred his own son and tried to burn the world might just be Phoenix King of Lying His Head Off as well.

It hadn't precisely pleased Zuko, but it was enough to draw him out of his spiral.

That had been mostly the end of it. Other than chasing a few leads in his spare moments the Prince abandoned the search until the day of his coronation when he turned twenty and reached the Fire Nation's age of majority.

That night, after the first day of revels, Zuko found a note on his pillow from his mother.

The next day Ozai was dead.

No one had seen a thing. The guards insisted under heavy persuasion that they had been watching as vigilantly as ever. But there was a dagger tang-deep in the former Fire Lord's chest and three parallel lacerations – rather like bear claws – across his face. The calligraphy on the wall above the body was a piece of art to rival any that hung on the walls of the Fire Nation palace; it held a perfect balance of dignity and expression, small and large characters complimenting one another in a way that bespoke decades of practice and unbridled natural skill. It was almost more poignant for being written in the dead man's blood.

Ozai, son of Azulon

Fiercely loved, fervently hated.

A very foolish private in the imperial guard remarked too loudly to his fellows that it was almost exactly what was written on Azulon's tomb. Zuko had him quickly promoted to the glacial sea outpost. Ozai's ashes were interred in the Imperial family's crypt with only those words above and two months later the public was quietly told that he'd died of a heart attack.

One week after the murder Zuko received a second letter from Ursa, this one written in charcoal on a piece of scrap and tied to the leg of a messenger hawk with an arrow through its wing. The former Lady had resurfaced too soon, and she was on the run.

Ignoring the warnings of his Uncle, and Mai's assertions that she wouldn't be able to protect him if she couldn't find him, Zuko donned the clothes of the Blue Spirit again and stole away from the fire palace in the dead of night. Katara was waiting for him when he reached the war balloon hangar.

"Iroh sent me a message when they found Ozai." She explained, gesturing to her own black clothing. "The whole thing has a kind of symmetry to it."

If it had been anyone else Zuko would have knocked them out cold and gone on alone. But she was right. Revenge and protection. So much of their lives that came down to the loss of the women who had born them. "Come on."

It was eerily similar to the whirlwind journey they had taken only a few weeks before the arrival of Sozin's comet. Neither one of them spoke, too ramped up by tension. This time though, the silence wasn't a thin sheet of stillness over roiling hostility, but a deep, still well of support.

When Bato of the Water Tribes had announced he would be stepping down from the Council of Four in favour of Katara eight months ago she had practically moved into the fire palace, tearing through the library of historical political and legal documents with a voraciousness bordering on panic. Zuko had been much the same. Counting down the months until he took the throne had been almost as nerve wracking as taking his father off it. As heir under the regency of his uncle he could relax knowing that no matter what he did the Dragon of the West would pull his fox-bacon out of the fire; now he was looking down from the lofty heights of the Fire Lord's throne and it was spirits blessed terrifying. Which was why he had been there every night of those long months, fighting Katara for books and scrolls, and trying to fill his head with as much wisdom as he possibly could.

The Southern Water Tribe hadn't been much in the way of formal education. As a people clinging to the edge of annihilation there had been more important things to think about. Just a few years ago he would have scoffed at the practically illiterate peasant girl, but so much time living rough with Uncle and the Avatar had given him a serious appreciation for how difficult it could be to survive with only your hands and the sweat of your brow.

She was dedicated though; far more so than either he or Azula had ever been. Katara was determined to earn the privilege of leadership rather than expecting it as her right. She was so totally focused that Zuko became concerned with how much pressure she was putting herself under. One evening, rather than delving into his own studies, he began a debate over the merits of different government systems in the city states of the Earth Kingdom, hoping to draw her into applying her knowledge and realizing how much she'd learned.

Their talks became best part of those stressful months. Katara was a quick study, and meted out her opinion very carefully. More than once Zuko was shocked to find himself as the peacemaker while she advocated harsher measures; whereupon she would quickly announce that he had won her over to his side of the argument and he would be left feeling utterly manipulated and grinning his head off.

Then of course he had ruined everything for a while.

Still, she was here and as they landed the balloon and headed for the location Ursa had relayed to him he remembered something else they had always done well together. Fire and Water wielded together in battle were a daunting combination.

The Imperial Assassins were one of those legends that always grew around the upper echelons of power, like the secret Earth Kingdom facility out in the desert or the rumors that every important historical figure was a member of the White Lotus Society. They were supposedly an elite cadre of no more than twelve of the best trained fighters in the world. The Imperials had been created by the first Fire Lord to eliminate a rebel general who threatened the peace of the newly formed nation; to be called upon only three times in the course of a Fire Lord's reign. They never ever failed. They could not be bought, bullied or begged off. Once an order was given the Imperial Assassins would carry it out no matter how long it took them; and they had been waiting a very long time for Ursa.

His companion pulled water into a delicate shroud of fog as they approached the campsite they had seen from above.

"Zuko," she said softy. "You know this is a trap right?"

There was a faint whirring whine. Hours training with Mai leant him the foresight and reflexes to yank Katara into a crouch just as the shuriken split the air where they had been standing. "I'm starting to figure that out now."

"How disappointing in a boy raised by the Dragon of the West."

Katara dropped the useless mist, revealing that they were surrounded by a dozen people; each dressed head to toe in a red that was almost black in the moonlight. "And his waterbender. Lovely." The voice that came from the lead figure was female and sneering. Zuko was reminded uncomfortably of Azula. "We were under oath to hunt down and destroy whosoever might murder Fire Lord Ozai. That was his first order to us. Do you know who the other two were?"

He and Katara were back to back now, close enough that he could practically hear the thundering gallop of her heart, but her breathing was even, measured. She was waiting for his signal. "The first one was the Sage who tried to thwart his appointment to Fire Lord. The second was my mother."

"Wrong boy," The leader's face was covered but the cruel smile tainted her voice. "The second was you."

Zuko waited for the fury, the inevitable sense of shock and betrayal that would swamp him like the oncoming tide and drag him into the depths of angry despair. It never came. There was not even an imagined relationship left to destroy.

"It seems, then, that I will go down in history as the only man ever to withstand the Imperial Assassins".

"Ahem."

"Sorry, we will go down in history."

"Enough of this foolishness!"

Zuko snapped into action, sending out low power but high speed blasts of fire to throw their attackers off balance. Forgoing her water skin Katara swept her arms outward drawing enough liquid from the grass for a whip tentacle version of the octopus form. Two of their masked attackers went screaming over the cliff face in an instant.

"Wait!" He'd missed the chance to stop those two but they couldn't afford to lose track of any more of the imperials. "Capture them!"

Out of the corner of his eye he saw her nod sharply and freeze a third against the ground, switching from offensive to defensive tactics in order to conserve her water. Zuko threw a sweeping arc of fire out towards the leader, making her leap back, but knocking one of her attendants sprawling. The Assassin countered with a blast of her own flame, deflected easily by a wave of his arm, but followed too closely by a spray of tiny daggers.

They were so sharp he almost didn't feel the knife that sunk right through the palm of his hand and pinned him to the ground. It was the instinctive move to jerk away that twisted the blade and made him cry out in pain.

"Zuko!" Katara's water invertebrate swished into one long whipping strand, cracking back at the assassins facing her as she took a leaping roll towards where had fallen. Somersaulting along the ground she came up right next to where he lay pinned and bleeding, and stepped one black-booted foot on either side of his waist; bracing herself defensively over him, the ribbon of water curling around her arms.

"Walk away girl." The leader advised. "We have no contract for you. We might be persuaded to let you live and spread our legend. Stay and you will die; you're almost out of water."

She looked down at him, strong and fierce in the moonlight. Leave me. He tried to say. Run.

Katara closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, letting her arms float out from her sides. "Tell me Assassin, have you ever heard of bloodbending?" Her fingers splayed out and her eyes snapped open. Shouts of panic filled the air as their enemies found their own limbs in rebellion.

"Zuko," Her voice was tight and high with strain. "You've got to get up. I can hold them, but there's too many for me." Feeling a nauseated rise in his stomach, he seized the hilt of the knife in shaking fingers and yanked it free, choking back a howl.

"Rope. Need something to tie them up with." He coughed, staggering to his feet.

"Allow me." A cool cultured voice rang out from the shadows. A flash of gold flew past them and struck the Imperial's leader hard in the forehead. She crumpled like a marionette whose strings had been cut and the golden disk rolled to land on the grass in front of them.

It was like a throwing star but blunted and shaped into a stylized peony flower. Zuko had barely enough time to register the trinket before a hailstorm of them flew out of the darkness and the assassins began to collapse all around them. With a sigh of relief Katara dropped to her knees and reached for his injured hand.

"Wait." He told her.

"It's all right." The woman who the cool voice belonged to stepped into the campfire’s circle of light. Mother!

"I promise you’re safe with me."

 

Chapter Text

 

Ursa's beauty had been famous through the Fire Nation when she married Ozai and the intervening years of learning and hardship, joy and sacrifice had, if anything only polished that girlish loveliness into an almost ethereal quality. When Toph and Aang rejoined the others they were sitting with the Fire Lady in a small receiving room, warm and full of homey clutter. Not the sort of room where one expected to find a stunning woman in a golden silk dress.

Yet there she was, an embroidery hoop resting on her lap discussing with her son and his friends how best to halt a propaganda driven fledgling army that threatened genocide and war.

"She was in hiding as a high master of the order of the Golden Peony." Toph was still explaining. "They're a sister society to the White Lotus. Mostly non-benders. Much more subtle. Their mandate is to protect from within a system rather than overthrowing it. The Golden Peony were the ones who got people away from where Ozai scorched the Earth Kingdom."

"When Mother and Uncle argue she likes to say that it was the White Lotus who retook Ba Sing Se but it was the Golden Peony who made sure there was someone left to retake it for."

"Spirits Sparky, you're such a momma's boy."

"Now, now Toph." Ursa chided with a laugh. "I have it on good authority that your relationship with your mother is better all the time. And this must be the great Avatar."

She stood and curtsied deeply, her skirts pooling around her like water. "I owe you more than words can say."

Flustered, he returned the gesture, careful to remember the fire nation variation of the motion. "Please," his ears were hot and he just knew that his earthbending master was going to be teasing him about this for ages. "I should be the one thanking you; it was your influence that gave me a firebending master."

Rising, Ursa gave her son a fond, proud look as she retook her seat. "I can’t take credit for that Avatar. My son is his own man. It is a pity that you have arrived at such an inauspicious moment; though an arrival at the eleventh hour has been the hallmark of your incarnation."

There was no trace of anger or resentment in her voice, the words were spoken the same way one might inquire after the weather but they were carefully aimed.

Aang had tried for so many years to come to terms with his guilt. To move past running and hiding and failing over and over. He had hoped to find absolution in ending Sozin's War but it had never come. The weight of it had simply grown heavier. As the Avatar he was one link in a great unbroken chain of protection and balance. As Aang he was a boy whose fear had cost many, many lives. He was the most inadequate of his incarnations, the greatest failure.

So he had left. Even after the sealion turtle had proclaimed that there was nothing left he could teach, Aang had stayed at the mountain tower, training and learning and trying to find a way to remove the scars on his spirit. It was a long time before he came to realize that he never would. That guilt was a part of him now, what was done could never be undone and he would just have to accept it.

But he wouldn't let anyone use it as a weapon against him.

"I have come to realize that the imparting of forgiveness by another is more about what they need than what I deserve. I am sure you have found much the same Fire Lady."

The detached courtly façade broke like a pane of glass and Ursa favoured him with a true smile. "You are wise beyond your years Aang," She said, using his name for the first time. "And at peace with yourself. That is an admirable quality."

He bowed towards her again. "The Fire Nation has given me no shortage of fine teachers Sifu Ursa." His use of the honorific prompted another gentle grin.

Zuko nodded at him slowly from across the room and Aang realized he had passed some kind of test. Sokka just looked exasperated by the whole endeavor but Katara seemed impressed, shooting him a winning smile before turning back to her tea.

Moving past him Toph placed her palm in the space directly between his shoulder blades for a moment. "You've got the stuff Twinkles." She whispered.

They both took their seats as the Fire Lady poured new cups of tea. "I suppose it would be rude just to ask who these men are and what you think is the best way to stop them?"

"It is never uncouth to be direct when decisive action is required Avatar Aang." Ursa looked pleased with him; he had a sense that if he had been handing in homework she would have put gold stars on it. She was obviously a woman that excelled at courtly double talk and intrigue. It was probably a huge relief to speak with people like Toph, Katara and Sokka who had no use for such dissembling. "The Black Fist is a group of pirates. Or to be more precise they were pirates, now they have a leader who thinks and they have become something altogether more dangerous." She dropped a scroll onto the table, Sokka managed to snatch it first.

"We haven't found much. The man calls himself Captain Zaofu and he believes that bending is an abomination. This is his first major strike, but a number of disappearances in coastal cities over the past year have added to the pattern. It is very likely that this is only the first abduction he is taking credit for. "

Katara hmmed thoughtfully, taping her forefingers together. "Fire and Earthbenders. Where could he be keeping them?"

"A very cold boat?" Sokka suggested flippantly. "This isn't the problem. Well I mean, it's a problem, but really it's a symptom. If we can bring Zaofu down fast, then hopefully this anti-bending sentiment will be easy to handle."

"But we don't know where he is." Zuko pointed out.

"We know someone who does." Toph's voice was chilly. "The Black Fist meatheads who're leading my Bandits on a merry chase."

"It's not a bad place to start."

"Now can I have the war balloon Sparky?"

"That's hardly a whole plan Toph and-"

"Beat information out of them; sounds like a plan to me!"

"If I may interject?" It really was remarkable that Ursa managed to still the whole room without raising her voice at all. Someday he would have to get her to teach him that. "There's still the matter of how three schools and towns full of earthbenders were incapacitated quickly enough to all be taken captive at the same time. In my experience there are only two things that can sever a person from their bending abilities and one of them is sitting right across from me."

Aang resisted the urge to duck his head as the attention of the room shifted towards him. His friends had never acted fearful when he explained what he had done to the former Fire Lord but he knew the concept unsettled them. Spirits, it unsettled him. His connection to the elements felt like a more real part of himself sometimes than his kidneys. Telling people that he'd severed Ozai from his bending was like admitting he'd chopped off the man's hands and feet.

Katara came to rescue him from awkwardness. "If they're all chi benders this is going to be next to impossible."

"We'll need to talk to Ty Lee and come up with some kind of countermeasure." You had to give Sokka credit. He was trying really hard not to seem pleased to have an excuse to visit Kyoshi Island. Though judging but Katara and Zuko's synchronized eye rolling he wasn't fooling anyone.

"You should pick up Suki and as many of the Kyoshis they can spare and meet me in the Earth Kingdom." Toph suggested. Zuko groaned and opened his mouth to disagree again but she held up a hand. "No, listen. I'm not being stubborn – well I'm not just being stubborn – we're going to have to split up and move fast here."

"Toph's right," Sokka sighed, rolling the dossier scroll back up. "There's no reason to believe this Zaofu will wait around. The longer it takes us to act the more confident he'll grow. We need to get one of us out to those villages and someone needs to track down the Black Fist."

"I'll go to the villages." Katara offered. "Zaofu is trying to make us look like heartless monsters; hopefully I can change their minds."

"I'll go with you."

"No you won't." Ursa said adamantly. "Zuko I know you wish to help but you are the Fire Lord. You cannot be risking yourself on the front lines of a conflict like this. Especially as you have no heir." There was enough guilt in that statement to make up for a decade of missed parenting.

"I'm not even supposed to be back in the Fire Nation yet," He countered. "Think of this as part of my vacation."

"Your visits to the -" Katara began to cough violently halfway through the Lady's sentence and Ursa looked strangely abashed. She poured the waterbender more tea with an apologetic expression. "Master Katara is more than capable of looking after herself."

"Not to add to the confusion, but none of us should really go alone." Sokka said. "We're big targets and you are all vulnerable. Toph if you're going to be chasing down the Black Fist you should probably have the big blue glow of doom on your side." Aang made a noise of indignation but Sokka ignored him

"I'll send the best firebender in the palace with you." Zuko promised Katara earnestly. The edges of Uras's mouth went tight for a second but her smile was back in place so fast Aang thought it might have been his imagination.

Sokka unrolled his map scroll across the table and began to trace out paths with his fingers. "Toph, you and Aang head for Omashu, since I know you're going to do that anyway, and tell Bumi anything he doesn't know already. Then head for the Bandits and the Black Fist. Katara can head straight for the Eastern coast. Hopefully there won't be much to do and you can get back quickly. I'll go to Kyoshi and figure out a way to counter the chi blocking. We'll meet in Omashu in five days."

 


 

You aren't ready.

He woke from a dead sleep with a gasp and Avatar Roku's voice in his ear. Or at least he thought it was Roku's voice. Years in the spirit world had given him a healthy paranoia when it came to prophetic dreams.

Completely awake he swung himself out of bed. The silence of the Fire Palace pressed in on his ears and dark thoughts swirled in his mind. With a cursory glance at his tunic and shoes Aang stepped outside, assuming that everyone easily shocked by the sight of a shirtless man would be in bed already.

The red, black and gold colour scheme of the palace was dark during the daytime but at night it was downright sepulchral. When he walked through the corridors Aang felt like a child again, searching the rooms desperately and finding only darkness, as though he was the only person left on earth.

It was not a new nightmare. Ever since he had found the Southern Air Temple empty, he'd had terrifying dreams about wakening up to find everyone gone; the world untouched, but utterly empty. That he was not simply the last of the airbenders, but the last man entirely. Travelling with the others had allayed those fears somewhat. He would wake in the night and hear Toph's soft snoring or Sokka talking in his sleep. Katara was rarely beyond the reach of his arm. When Aang woke in the night he could touch her warm dark skin, watch her shift in subconscious awareness and know that he was safe.

Years in the tower walking the line between reality and …not had made it more difficult to tell.

He ducked back through his rooms, opting instead to go out through the garden. All of them had been given rooms in the same wing. According to Ursa the east wing was for dignitaries, but the north wing was for family and much nicer. The balconies of the guest rooms faced inward onto a small courtyard full of flowering plants and low branched trees. Somewhere he could hear water but the source was hidden by the foliage.

Aang had been rather hoping for a chance to meditate in the fresh air but there were two people in the garden already. Though he couldn't see their faces, or hear them over the sound of the fountain, their being alone together at night in the garden suggested an assignation, so he chose the first open balcony next to his. It was very dark inside but the green robe tossed haphazardly over a chair told him that the room was Toph's.

The earthbender was not in her bed. Neither was most of the bedding. Craning his head around he saw her stretched out on the floor next to it. The heavy duvet was folded into a pad beneath her, the luxurious embroidered cover abandoned on the mattress. Scarlett sheets were twisted around her body, and her hair was fanned out across both pillow and floor like a spreading ink stain.

"You coming in?" He voice was soft but clear. She hadn't been asleep either.

"Why are you on the floor?"

"Bed's too soft." She explained. "Can't get even a little vibration off it. Makes me feel all drugged, like my feet have gone numb."

"All this luxury is hard to get used to." He agreed. "It's so quiet. I keep thinking I'm back at the tower and seeing you all again was a dream."

"You don't miss it there?"

He shook his head, wondering how he could possibly explain without sounding madder than a box of badgertoads. "It wasn't exactly fun Toph."

"Stay." She suggested. "You can have the bed. And if you get all panicked you can wake me up and I'll pound you until you remember not to wake me when I'm sleeping. Just like old times."

"Yeah …" He glanced at the bed but didn't sit. To his relief Toph didn't question him further, simply leaned back and closed her eyes. "Just like old times."

 


 

Aang was sitting on her balcony, his back against one of the ornamental pillars that divided the space from the bedroom proper. She could feel his heartbeat enough to know that his apprehension was mostly gone, but she still couldn't seem to relax. He'd been staring at the sky for the last half an hour.

"You're watching the stars aren't you?"

"Yeah."

In a fit of spontaneous sentimentality she asked: "What do they look like?"

He was silent for a long time. She hadn't really expected an answer. Over the course of her life people had tried, and for the most part failed, to explain things like stars or sunsets or clouds. Katara had taken the time to detail colour to her once - Blue was the feeling of cool water, grey was a still, wet morning, green was the smell of freshly chopped herbs – so she had vague associations, but there were certain things no one seemed able to describe to her. It was just a shame that most of them seemed to be things people liked to watch.

"Get up for a second Toph."

"What," She started out of her reverie. "Why?"

He tugged at her hand until she rose. "Just come lie on the bed where you can't see."

"Is this a practical joke? Because it's late and -"

"Trust me." He said softly. "Lie back."

Toph's perception of the world around her dropped away, the soft mattress absorbed any tremors that Aang might have caused. He was nearly silent as he crossed the room and then returned to her, she could barely even make out his breathing.

"What do you see?"

"Nothing." Normally this would have caused a rising tide of panic but he had asked for her trust so she forced herself to calm down. "I hate this Aang, it's all empty. Can I get up?"

"Wait."

Something pointed, though not sharp, touched her gently on the upper arm. The tiny point of contact causing a brief flicker of awareness and sensation before it disappeared. Then it was at her collarbone, then her opposite hand. Not enough to allow her to properly see, just a pinprick of alertness in the midst of swamping blank nothing.

"This is what stars are like." Aang's voice was barely over a whisper, low and slightly husky. "We see light in darkness the way you navigate emptiness through sensation. In the dark we're helpless and isolated just like you are now. Stars are tiny, tiny points of light, like this." He touched her again with the small blunt dot – a pen, she realized faintly. "But there are thousands of them – thousands of thousands - and they give off just enough light to let us know we're not alone."

"Wow…" She couldn't help the exhalation. Nineteen years of half phrased explanations, of holding in frustration when she couldn't understand and he had made it clear. Toph reached up to cup Aang's jaw, fumbling slightly over his nose and drew him down pressing her lips to his cheek lightly.

"Thank you."

Blind on the softness of the bed she couldn't tell whether he was blushing or teasing or totally mortified but there was a smile in his voice when he replied.

"You're welcome. Now move over and let me sleep."

 


 

"Hey."

"Hey."

"Hoping for Katara?"

"Yeah. Talking to Yue?"

"As always."

Zuko slid down on the bench next to the water tribe boy. The firelilies were blooming, the scent of jasmine was heady in the air, the fountain water was sparkling in the moonlight – it was a wildly romantic moment. Except that the person next to him was Sokka.

"Does she have any advice on how to deal with all this mess?"

Sokka laughed and jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow. "What mess? The fate of the world or your personal life?"

"The fate of the world might be easier."

"I hear you buddy."

Sokka tipped his head up to the sky and addressed the moon directly. "Can you believe this guy? Fire Lord and he can't get a date."

"Hey I could if I wanted to!" Zuko insisted. "Anyway you're one to talk."

"The one in a lasting, loving, healthy relationship?"

"The one who won't make a decision. Light it or stop puffing."

"Is that like the Fire Nation version of fish or cut bait?" He laughed, humorlessly. "Let's face it, neither of us are known for our clever decision making when it comes to girls."

Zuko patted his shoulder awkwardly. Suki and Sokka's relationship was probably the last thing the other boy wanted to discuss. "Hey now, there's still that megalomaniac trying to kill us all."

That seemed to perk Sokka up a little. "Impending doom is always a nice distraction. So you're going to sneak out and head to the Earth Kingdom with Katara?"

The young Fire Lord nearly fell off the bench. "You know about that?"

"Spirits Zuko, everyone knew. 'Best firebender in the palace' my ass. I thought your mom was going to haul off and smack you for a second there."

Zuko slumped further into the stone seat with a groan. "Can we please die on this mission? She's only letting me go so she can feed on my guilt when I get back."

"Hey think of it as karmic punishment for trying to kill us." Sokka suggested brightly. Zuko just glared at him through his scarred eye.

"Thanks."

The warrior stood and stretched until his joints popped. "Good talk buddy." Zuko snorted in response but Sokka magnanimously chose to ignore it. "Also Katara's my sister so you know if you-"

"Boomerang to the face?"

"You betcha." Walking backwards towards his room Sokka made a strange dismissive gesture with both hands. "Water Tribe."

Zuko remained on the bench looking at the moon, dreaming of dark hair and flashing eyes and sparkling water under her light. Years of waiting, still waiting… he decided to see if Yue had forgiven him yet.

"Am I crazy?" He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I just asked the moon if I was crazy, didn't I? I'm in so much trouble." For a moment Zuko could swear the wind moving through the trees held the sound of girlish laughter.

 


 

It was Sokka who came out into the snow to find her, tugging on his extra furry mittens as he went. The South Pole was at the peak of summer, but it still wasn't actually warm. Though it was late at night the sun still blazed over the tundra, dipping closer to the horizon every day as the darkness of winter approached.

Katara was out on the glacier at the edge of the village, folded into the meditative lotus that Aang had taught her, using miniscule forms of waterbending movements to build herself an ice castle. She and Toph were trying to convert the new, subtle earthbending gestures that Toph was creating to a usable form for Katara. As he watched the crystalline forms take shape around his sister, Sokka had to admit it was going pretty well.

Timing his movements against the shifting and forming of the wall he picked a moment and leapt, sliding into the newly formed structure just before it closed around her.

"That was pretty good." She acknowledged without opening her eyes.

Sokka brushed a fall of snow off his parka, with a rather smug look on his face. "I just can't be stopped."

Ice castle complete, Katara turned to him, readjusting her body so they both had more space. "So are you here in support or to talk sense into me?"

"Can't it be both?" He offered hopefully. She just sighed and bent a door in the front of her haven.

"Sokka, I don't care if sixteen is the traditional age, I don't care if it will cement relationships between our tribes, I don't care if La himself decrees it, I am not getting married. I saved the world last year; I think I've proven I don't need a man to look after me." The fight seemed to drain out of her, and she picked up a mitten-full of snow, tossing it fruitlessly at one of the walls. "I'm just not ready yet."

Dear Spirits he didn't want to ask the question, but it was hanging in the air like the stench off a week old fish. "Are you waiting for Aang then?"

She glared at him. "No I am not waiting for Aang. It's been eleven months Sokka, I'm over it."

"Is it someone else who's not Water Tribe? Is it Haru? That mustache was pretty impressive…"

Katara giggled and tossed another handful of snow, this one right into his face. "No I don't want to marry Haru. I want to teach waterbending." She began to trace patterns in the air with her hands, her gestures becoming more animated as she described her plans. "Grandpakku agreed to teach me at the North Pole when I proved myself worthy. But I could only do that because I'd been training so hard with Aang and I had that scroll. Water Tribe girls deserve better, they should have the same education the men and boys should be allowed to learn healing. So I'm going to teach them. When I get the hand of ice building I'm going to make myself a school and go North to bring back students. There are bound to be at least a few girls who want to learn and that will help relations between the tribes."

Sokka had to admit it wasn't a terrible plan. "I can't do that with a husband. Especially not one from the Northern Tribes; he'll just want me to cook and wash and have babies."

"But you're so good at washing."

"Sokka I'm serious. I don't want to have to leave my tribe like Gran Gran just so I can have my own life." She looked as though she might break into tears at any moment.

"Hey, hey…" The warrior grabbed her shoulder and tugged Katara close enough to put an arm around her. He waited until her breath stopped hitching with each inhale before he spoke. "I asked Suki to marry me."

Katara's face lit up. "Oh Sokka that's wonderful! When are you going to have the wedding?"

'We're not. I mean she's still got the betrothal necklace…. Earth Kingdom girls don't get married until they're eighteen and it was her birthday in March. It was absolutely killing me to wait. You should have seen it sis, when she said yes. She was just the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." He sighed. "But Suki is a Kyoshi Warrior. She's trained her whole life to protect her people, just like I have with our tribe and if she just gave that up to come be married at the South Pole with me… well she just wouldn't be my Suki anymore."

"Did you two break up?"

"No we didn't. She's keeping the necklace and she wants to be betrothed sort of… I promised to keep asking her until we find a way. But the point is that you are like Suki. You two won't compromise on what you want. I love her and I'm proud of you for that. Just promise not to avoid stuff because you think you can't have both okay?"

"Okay," Smiling, Katara snuggled closer under his arm. "Sokka you're a good brother sometimes."

"Hey, I am a great brother all the time!" He protested.

"I'm still not getting married."

"I already told Dad you wouldn't. You're too young and it's a stupid tradition. He's sorry you know, he's just worried."

"I know."

"Besides, you're not allowed to leave us yet. If I'm not married and Dad's not married we need someone to wash and do our mending."

"Sokka!"

Chapter Text

 

 

When he landed on Kyoshi Island Sokka hit the ground running.

"Lambietoes!" He called to Suki who stood alone on the landing pad, having cleared everyone away when she saw that the balloon was flying a water tribe banner. "Your conquering hero has returned."

"Welcome back dear." The coolness of her greeting was belied by the scorching kiss she planted on him the second he came in range. "I'm almost afraid to ask, but what exactly have you conquered in the last five days since you saw me?"

He huffed, pleased with the kiss but a little disappointed that she was still unwilling to fall into his manly grasp at the mere sight of him. Sokka caught a glimpse of the blue band he'd woven peeking out from where it was hidden under the collar of her green robes and decided that the private secret soft-side thing was just as nice as girly swooning.

He just hated to ruin it.

"Aang's come back."

Suki's face lit up for a moment before the expression popped like a soap bubble. After eight years together she can read him in an instant. "What else?"

They didn’t move from the landing area, settling instead on the dirt as Sokka explained about the attacks and the threatening propaganda and their half-baked imitation of a plan. "…The benders here will probably be safe for a while." He finished lamely. "I mean Kyoshi was never outright conquered by the Fire Nation, and there's no official bending school on the island so they'll be harder to find-"

"And you need our help." She concluded instantly, as if there was never any doubt that she would give it.

"They're obviously trained to fight earthbenders. Maybe we can catch them with their pants down."

Suki gave him a calculating smile, her commander's mind making the instinctive leap to his second idea. "And maybe Ty Lee can give you all an extra advantage."

A whole gaggle of Kyoshi girls loitered around the doorway to the barracks, watching and waiting for something to gossip about. Sokka would never ever impugn the deadly abilities of his lady-love's soldiers where anyone could hear him but the girls underneath the warriors were sometimes a little too visible for comfort. He scrutinized the painted faces for familiar ones, but there were fewer then there had been a month ago.

Most of Suki's original band had given up the fans after the end of Sozin's War, leaving one by one to build lives outside of duty and service. Ty Lee had said something about damaged auras once with a sad look on her face that left him battling disturbing thoughts about Fire Nation prisons. Suki never talked about her time as Azula's captive but sometimes she would wake in the night screaming or crying and Sokka would hold her and kiss every single one of the puckered red and white scars on her body, hopelessly trying to turn painful memories to pleasure.

His primitive, protective side wanted to sling her over his shoulder and take her far, far away from all the things that dimmed her sparkle. Instead he watched admiringly as her frustrations and worries disappeared under a smooth calm mask in the daylight. She refused to give up, to give into fear. Suki was a warrior born, endlessly dutiful and utterly committed. In the history of the Kyoshi Order she was the longest to have held command in time of war. Even the soldiers who had been with her since she took up the fans looked to Suki like she was Kyoshi herself.

The warrior-girls were moving in smooth choreographed katas under Ty Lee's watchful eye when he and Suki swept into the training house. If he hadn't seen them scurry away from the door half a moment ago he would never believe the serious young women capable of gossip. Suki watched them for a moment, hands folded behind her, the war paint giving her an imperious mien. The effort of maintaining perfect form under their leader's glare was quickly evident as the girls began to falter slightly; their movements loosing flow. Eventually his lady took pity and held up one hand.

"That's enough for today. Evening meditations will be at sundown. Dismissed!" She gestured to a few of the senior warriors who had been leading the instruction and drew them into conference as Sokka waited by the door, listening to the younger girls talk as they filed out.

"You know they took down the whole fire nation armada together?"

"I heard Warrior Suki surrendered to the Fire Nation just to see what it felt like."

"The ladies in the Earth Kings court had to take a special tea to resist his charm."

"Once he broke into the Boiling Rock prison to save her, and she broke them out."

"They've got to be the most interesting couple in the world."

He considered it nothing less than an act of heroism that he managed to hold in the laughter; but Sokka couldn't resist puffing his chest out a little bit. It was nice to be appreciated.

"They're all crazy aren't they?"

"I don't know," He snatched Suki up in his arms and bent her backwards for a ridiculously theatrical kiss, rather ruining the moment by chuckling against her lips when he heard pleased gasps behind him. "I think you're pretty interesting."

Suki was so pink it showed through her makeup. She reached up and brushed the traces of red and white paint from around his mouth. "You're ruining my credibility." She admonished, teasingly.

Ty Lee giggled. "I love it when you visit Sokka, Suki's aura just sparkles!"

The former circus performer did a smooth back handspring across the room and landed next to her commander. Older but no less limber, Ty Lee seemed to get bubblier every time Sokka saw her. Though she sometimes mentioned missing the Fire Nation, life on Kyoshi Island seemed to agree with her. Or perhaps it was the similarly minded warrior – whose name Sokka could never remember – and the three deliriously happy men that she’d taken up house with. He loved Suki endlessly but he couldn't help but wonder about the … permutations of such an arrangement.

Shaking his head to bring himself back to reality, he turned to the smiling gymnast. "Ty Lee I need to know everything you know about stopping benders with chi blocking."

"Well what's to know really? A couple of jabs here and there, I've been teaching the girls."

Suki crossed her arms. "And it's taken most of us years to develop half your skill."

Sokka gestured to the low table at one end of the room and sat to lay his maps out while the two girls joined him. "What I really need to know is if there's a counter to the block."

Ty Lee shrugged. "Not really. I mean, if you have the ability to clear your chakras quickly then it doesn't work very well but other than that you just have to be faster than me. Or be wearing really thick armour." She rubbed at her knuckles, soothing phantom pain.

"That's it then." Sokka said decisively. "Armour plating." We need to see you disabling someone so we can throw together a prototype."

Suki snapped her fingers. "Kal from the village is an earthbender, and he has a crush on Ty Lee; so he won't mind if she knocks him out a few dozen times."

"Perfect."

"I'm about to lose a friend aren't I?"


He and Suki watched Ty Lee incapacitate Kal the earthbender at least a dozen times over the course of the afternoon. She explained that she was using the lightest possible pressure on the lovesick young man, because the duration of the blockage was impacted by the strength of the hit. The pattern of the strikes was always the same: one strike to the shoulder, two against the opponent's side and one jab to a nerve center near the base of the spine.

Once he'd established the formation, Sokka started to add padding and then armour to the important parts of Kal's body. Leather proved to be about as effective as nothing at all and chain fared little better. Kyoshi splintmail dulled the effects a little but Ty Lee simply increased the power of her strikes and they were back to square one. The platemail seemed to be the most promising. He and Suki stripped the spare fire army garb that had been left on the war balloon down for parts and when one layer proved insufficient, cobbled together two pieces and then three. In the end the armour was almost half an inch thick before the chi blocker split her knuckles open on it. Kal took the opportunity to knock her off her feet with a tremor before he would take the contraption off.

"There's no way any bender will be able to fight in a whole chestpiece of that," Suki observed. "It's too heavy."

"We might be able to rig up a cuirass that's mostly leather or chain with just these pieces of plate."

"And if we cover the plate with the leather, the Black Fist won't know the benders are defended until too late!" She added triumphantly. "Ty Lee, take the warriors and buy, borrow or beg as many leather chestguards as you can. Every size, we're going to need them."

Sokka turned a scattered segment of Fire Nation plate over in his hands. "We're going to run out of this pretty quickly. I'll need to see a smith, but I think this might actually work."

"Sweetcakes," Suki leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. "If you can make armour for a flying bison I'm pretty sure you can make anything."

 


 

 

They had worked until the sun went down and all Sokka could smell was soot and molten metal. He was sore and starving, but too worried and adrenaline fueled to relax and eat. Instead he paced the small porch of Suki's little house, watching the crescent moon rise over the bay of the Unagi. A small hand on his shoulder stopped him in his tracks and Suki offered up a bowl of rice and what looked like stew. Sokka's stomach growled audibly and they both laughed.

She was back to plain old Suki, her Kyoshi makeup and armour gone. She looked younger without it, all at once less stunning and more beautiful. The woman under the warrior. Seeing her like this was commonplace for him now, but there was still a sense of intimacy in how easily he could read her expressions.

"So explain." She demanded, waiting until she'd caught him with his mouth full. He swallowed slowly and slumped back against a pillar.

"I'm worried," He offered. But Suki just kept watching him, waiting for elaboration. "I'm concerned because this is something totally different from anything we've had to face before. This isn't a coup or just a group of thugs. This is an idea, and it's one that actually bothers people."

She nodded ever so slightly, waiting for the meat of the issue. Sokka let out a gargantuan sigh. "It's one that bothered me."

"I mean don't get me wrong it's an incredibly useful ability. But the Black Fist isn't wrong. Having bending separates people and it does make non benders virtually helpless – Without a lot of training," He amended quickly. "Once Aang took Ozai's firebending away the man was next to helpless. You have to wonder if Sozin hadn't had that power, would he have even been able to start that war?"

"Yes," Suki said confidently. "A militarized nation like that needs to fight or its economy collapses. But I understand what you mean. Watching Zuko and Katara and Toph do the things they do it's astonishing."

"I was jealous," he admits pitching his voice low in the vain hope she won't hear him. "When we were younger. I still am sometimes. I feel like I'm useless next to them."

"Sokka," She reached out to cup his cheek. "Don't you see it's as much a weakness as a strength. They can't do the things you do. Katara can build a city from ice, but she can't design one. Toph can break down defenses, but she can't plan the assault. Zuko can fuel his air balloons, but you were the one who made them fly. We had to be smarter, faster, stronger; and they need us just as much as we need them."

He put down the bowl to brush her hair back over her ears. "I know that, logically I know. But that's the problem. Resentment isn't logical and this is a deep seated issue. Even if we manage to stop the Black Fist how can we ever solve the real problem?"

"The same way we solve any impossible problem," She kissed his cheek, handing the food back and settling herself against his shoulder. "One day at a time."

 


 

Toph spent almost the whole ride back to the Earth Kingdom tense and silent. For a while he had tried to engage her in conversation but as they got closer to her home she said less and less, until he eventually gave up. As Aang dipped Appa into a dive toward land she stood, shakily on the saddle.

"How far are we from the ground Twinkletoes?"

"What?" He asked without looking around. "Not more than thirty feet, why?"

But before he could finish the sentence she had leapt off the back of the bison. Appa groaned in warning and Aang reached for his glider before the scream could leave his mouth "TOPH!"

He swooped down past her, dipping the glider's wings beneath the earthbender just in time for her to fall onto the top, before a pillar of earth that was rising up beneath them caught the tailfin and sent them careening end over end off the edge of the newly produced platform. The glider snapped shut and they fell the last ten feet to the ground, landing in a heap of limbs and bruises.

Groaning Toph pushed weakly at the weight of Aang's body on top of her. "Oma, That really hurt."

Galvanized by the sound of her voice he sat bolt upright, seizing her by the shoulders and shaking her hard. "What in the name of the spirits is wrong with you! Were you trying to kill yourself? Thirty feet is far Toph! You could have broken your neck! Or your – your….. you know exactly how far thirty feet is don't you? You were dragging that pillar up and you were just fine – Argh!" He bellowed in frustration. "Don't ever do that again! You scared me into my next incarnation you idiot earthbender!"

Toph looked blankly at him for a second, then she snorted, choked and snorted again before breaking into peals of helpless laughter. She collapsed against his chest with something that sounded vaguely like "You thought I-" before her voice was overwhelmed by giggling. Still shaky with spent panic he began to laugh faintly himself. Finally getting a handle on his hysterical relief, Aang caught her face in both hands. "Have you tried that before?"

"A few times with Sokka and a war balloon, twice with Katara. Zuko won't let me."

"I knew that Fire Lord was smart." He muttered irritably, before focusing on her again. "Do not ever do that again."

Toph pushed a hand gently against his face. "Someone's bossy now that they're the grownup Avatar."

He wasn't sure exactly what her sensitive fingers could read in his expression but her face softened and when she disentangled herself and stood she held out a hand to help him up. "You used to trust me to take care of myself you know." Toph reminded him, the words almost a question.

Aang looked at the extended arm but didn't take it. "The training… in the spirit world. There were things that weren't exactly real… but they felt real at the time."

"I don't understand."

He debated tossing the statement off as nothing. Toph wouldn't push him for more information if he didn't want to share, but he was suddenly so desperate to have someone else understand - to have her understand - what was haunting him. "Have you ever had anyone ask you those impossible questions? Something is attacking a village and you can stop it but you have to kill a child to do it. The mother offers to sacrifice her life in place of her baby but it might not work – what do you do?"

Toph dropped to the ground in front of him again. "My tutors used to ask me those when I was a little girl. I always thought they were stupid."

"Well after I wouldn't open my chakras and I wouldn't kill Ozai the spirits decided I needed to be more….committed." He stumbled over his words a little memories both real and imagined flashing quickly through his mind, terrible enough to make him sick. "I've seen you all do things – I've watched you die Toph. You and Katara and Suko and Sokka and every time it felt so real."

"They made you choose."

"Yes."

"And did you sacrifice me?"

"Yes."

"Good."

"What?" His voice cracked in shock and she shoved him.

"Good! Twinkles – Aang you're the avatar, I would never expect any less. We were always ready to die with you and it never bothered you before."

"I was just a boy then!" He protested. "I didn't know what it would be like to watch all of you – I had to stab Katara! I had to hold her while she bled out and it wasn't real but I was still so ashamed. I couldn't face you all, not after that."

"Aang…" Toph's hand had flown up to cover her mouth when he mentioned killing the girl he had once loved. Her eyes shone with sympathy but she froze as his last sentence registered. "What do you mean you couldn't face us?"

"I didn't want to tell you about all this." He offered reluctantly.

"You're lying," Her reply was instantaneous. "How long were you really supposed to be gone?"

"Toph I didn't-"

She refused to let him finish. Her voice low and angry. "How long did you stay away?"

"I-"

"How long!"

"Two years!" He shouted, finally relenting. Toph reeled back as though he'd struck her. Shifting her body till she was kneeling away from him she pressed her palms flat against the earth, curling her fingers into the dirt ever so slightly. There was no expression on her face.

"They're alright." She clambered to her feet and started to run towards the school at the top of the hill, leaving him, raw with expressed secrets, trying to make the mental leap and understand what she was talking about.

"Toph!" Waving to a disgruntled Appa, Aang took off after her. He didn't have far to run. Toph skidded to a halt just outside the courtyard gate, readjusting her clothing and making a futile attempt to smooth back her hair.

It was strange to witness the hero's welcome she received from the other side. He himself got a few smiles and a tentative wave or two that he was happy to return. Toph barely paused to acknowledge the greetings, giving a cursory wave before she disappeared into the training house. The same girl – Kana, he remembered – was still behind the desk. This time talking to a venerable looking gentleman who looked to be keeping her quite entertained. Toph smiled faintly at him.

"Hello sir, have you been waiting long?"

"Not long Master Bei Fong. I have been trying to persuade your assistant to play Pai-Sho with me."

From somewhere in her clothing Toph produced a gaming tile with the stamp of the white lotus. "Those who train under me," she assured the strange. "Know that Pai- Sho is more than just a game."

"The White Lotus opens wide to those who know her secrets." He agreed. "Though if you hadn't already been informed of my coming here, I would reprimand you for speaking so freely."

She bowed her head. "My apologies Master Fung. Thank you for looking after my charges."

"No trouble, my dear girl, no trouble at all." Aang could see Toph bristling slightly at the condescending epithet, but she hid it fairly well. "It is good to see that the Avatar has returned in troubled times."

Aang bowed. "It’s nice to meet you Master Fung."

"Kana?" the young woman hurried to her Master's side. "Call in the older class please and have the children pack for a trip."

"Trip, Sifu?"

Fung smiled knowingly. "Omashu."

 


 

"We can't defend the school properly." Toph explained to an assembly of her oldest pupils. Master Fung had left already to check the roads and warn King Bumi of their arrival. "This far out of a town we're only a target. So it's time for a little earthbending educational journey. We'll lead the students through the Cave of Two Lovers; that place is defensible and we can't be ambushed. The Avatar and I will see you as far as the entrance but I'm relying on you to keep the younger ones safe."

The group nodded solemnly. News of the Black Fist's attacks had shaken them. Ziyi, the tallest of the girls had gone white as a sheet when Toph had explained the situation; one of the other young women was rubbing comforting circles on her back. Aang guessed she probably had family in the eastern villages. Toph gestured towards him without looking. "Avatar?"

"There are glowing crystals in the caves that lead the way to the center of the labyrinth and then back out so you'll only need torches if you're planning to camp there," Aang suppressed the urge to sigh at Toph's perfunctory attention. "We made it through in one day but that was mostly because of luck and desperation."

"Don't push the children," Toph interrupted to admonish her pupils. "You'll be safe in there and it’s better not to rush. I would rather they aren’t panicked by the situation."

"The only things you have to worry about in the caves are the badgermoles."

"Hopefully you’ll get to see them in action."

"They respond well to music."

"Wang, Li, Kana that's your area of expertise, but they ought to recognize fellow earthbenders."

"Remember there's no need to worry."

"My students don't worry," Toph's confident words and cocky grin were aimed at him but meant for the crowd of nervous teenagers around her. "They are steady as the rock."

"Yes Sifu Toph!" The chanted affirmation was loud and sure in the quiet room.

"Good," She smiled. "Go get ready."

The group of students scurried off to prepare themselves as Toph turned and headed for her room without so much as a glance in his direction.

Her space was a small chamber off the main room of the training house that gave new meaning to the term bare. Everything was made from stone, the bed the desk and every other piece of furniture rising smoothly from where it had been bent out of the rock. There was a window but no lights and no art on the walls. The only concession to beauty was the thin, but richly textured rug and an elaborately etched bronze washbasin. The rest was slim elegant stonework, the clean lines of form following function. Perfectly Toph.

She was pulling clean tunics out of the wardrobe and shoving them quickly into her rucksack on top of what looked like a pile of sage green silk when he cleared his throat.

"Not now Twinkletoes."

"So you are planning to speak to me at some point then."

The bag hit the ground and she had seized him by the collar without even turning her body, so fast he barely registered the motion. "We deserved better than that. We'd earned your trust, and you owe me so big. Way more than Zuko." She released her grip and pushed him backwards at the same time, so that he stumbled into the desk. "But right now I have a training house full of students I need to get to safety. After that I will make you pay."

Her hands tangled absently in the beads of the necklace he had left for her. After a moment's contemplation she pulled the long strand over her head. "Here."

"Toph no – "

"Come on Aang, it's yours. If you're going to stay you should keep it." Her neck looked bare without them, even though they had hidden mostly under her clothes. The beads gleamed with the patina of constant touch and he very emphatically did not want her to be willing to part with them.

"I gave them to you." He took her wrist and the necklace in both of his hands and folded her fingers back over it. Her skin was very soft.

"Sifu!"

The shout came from outside the building and snapped stillness of the moment like a twig. Toph spun on her heel and rushed out into the courtyard, the airbender necklace still wrapped around her hand. One of her students – Aang couldn't remember his name – had a messenger hawk perched on one arm.

"Twinkles!" She called back to him. "What does it say?"

He unpeeled the scroll carefully, revealing rushed scrawling script. Oh no. "They're on the way."

"What?"

"The Black Fist. Master Fung says they're headed this way; not more than an hour before they get here."

She took a deep breath and fixed her attention on the student in front of her. "Are you ready yet?"

"Yes Sufi." The boy looked panicked. "Who are the-"

"No time for questions. Get the others, you're leaving right now."

He sketched a rough, hurried bow and scrambled to obey. Toph headed back to her room long enough to snag her rucksack and returned, buckling her pauldrons into place. "Which way are they coming from?"

Aang checked the note again. "West."

"Perfect. Twinkles I'll need you to take the kids as far as the cave. It's barely two miles northeast, you shouldn't have a problem."

"Wait – I'm taking them? What exactly are you doing?"

She snapped the earth rumble championship title belt around her waist with a devious smile. "I'm going to show them what happens when they mess with the world's greatest earthbender."

Students were filing into the courtyard now. The word had apparently gone out that they were running from something. Many of the younger children looked frightened and there was an aura of apprehension over the whole group. Not wanting to upset them any further he lowered his voice to a hiss.

"You cannot possibly be serious."

"Come on Twinkletoes, it's a good plan. I might even be able to save the school."

"The school? You're doing this to save the school?" She winced as his voice rose and stepped closer.

"No I'm doing this to buy you some time. I'll hold them off. But you need to get moving right now."

"I can't let you risk yourself –"

"Stop, just stop." She insisted. "I don't really understand why you stayed away so long. I don't know what you saw me do in those visions. But this is not a spirit dream. I am sending you out because you can get back faster with Appa then I could on foot and I know this place better than anyone. I'm not asking you to make an impossible choice I'm just asking you to trust me the way you used to."

His doubts evaporated in the face of her surety and strength. "Alright Toph."

"Finally!" She swung around to address the watching crowd. "Alright earthbenders, listen up! You are headed for the Cave of Two Lovers, and through there to Omashu. The older students will be looking after you in your training groups, alright? Kana's in charge, but Avatar Aang is going to make sure you get to the caves safely. I want you to move fast and stay quiet. I'll see you in Omashu in four days. Understood?"

Yes Sifu Toph!"

"Good. Go."

She crossed her arms and stood, impassive as they filled out at a quick jog. Aang waited at her side until the last group was leaving. "You'll be alright?" He stepped in front of her and leaned down to peer into her milky eyes."

"Of course I will, stop worrying."

"Toph," He pressed his forehead against hers, hoping that some of what he was trying to say would simply push its way into her brain and he wouldn't be stuck fumbling for an explanation. "Toph it was never that I didn't trust you, it's just -"

"Just that you're an idiot sometimes Twinkles, I know."

Aang cupped the back of her neck and tilted her head up so he could press his lips quickly to the corner of her mouth. Toph tasted faintly of the tea she had been drinking that morning. Something he had no time to analyze tugged deep in his gut.

"Do not die." He told her firmly, and took off running after the earthbenders.

His last glimpse of Toph was a tiny dark haired shape dwarfed by the large empty courtyard around her as she waited and listened.

 


 

"Toph," Katara said gently. "I know it's in your price range and you're excited about it but are you sure you don't want to wait? This place is…"

"It's a hellhole." Sokka finished for her.

They weren't wrong. The building had once been a rather prosperous farmhouse, around the time of the airbenders. Now it was a moldering ruin. The large courtyard was full of rotting wood and animal droppings. There was a family of elephant rats nesting in one corner that had chewed their way through the broken door and into the main building at the far end. The only reason that it hadn't been partially filled with rainwater was that it sat at the top of a very tall hill.

"The view is nice." Suki observed. "But wouldn't it be easier just to level the place and earthbend a new one from scratch?"

Toph held up her hands. "Alright so it's not the prettiest, but who cares? Listen to those vibrations. I could live here till the day I die."

"That's because this place is a deathtrap." Zuko told her, just as a beam snapped somewhere inside and part of the roof came crashing down in a hail of terracotta tiles.

"Come on Sparky, where's your vision."

She could feel Katara wince. "Uh not to be rude Toph but – "

"We have ours, that’s why we're telling you."

Toph rolled her eyes and tugged at Suki and Katara's hands. "Come on you have to see the rest. Just try and look past the mess and imagine what it could be."

"What's that Toph?"

"It could be a home. A real home for me, and I could train benders here, you could all come and stay whenever you wanted. A place to call my own where I don't have to be what anyone else wants."

"No," Suki interrupted. "I meant what's that on the floor?"

Toph tapped out a vibration and the three girls looked askance at the strange, probably organic mass. "Ewww."

"You know Toph," Sokka said from behind them. "I think I'm starting to understand what you mean."

"Really?"

"No I think you've totally lost it." One sharp kick at the stone floor and the flagstone that held the unidentifiable goop was pinning Sokka to the ground. Toph grinned. This place was absolutely perfect.

Chapter Text

 

Toph's lips were tingling.

The moment she felt the vibrations of Aang and her students slip past the tree line she planted her feet firmly and let her whole being meld with the stone. She took a deep cleansing breath and felt the earth welcome her back like a lover. Toph stretched her awareness out as far as she could, feeling every pebble and pothole, every bird, beast and insect; before drawing herself back to the circle of land she knew like the lines on her fingers. Her home.

She raised her arms up and tilted her hands slowly, as though she might be able to cup all that territory between her palms. Moving the earth wasn't like moving water or air. Rock was stubborn, she'd always told her students, air was adaptable, water was patient but earth demanded. If you wanted results you had to pit your will against it and never back down. Obey. She commanded the stone beneath her feet. I am the greatest earthbender in the world and you will obey! Toph brought her hands down and out, twisting her wrists and pushing against an intangible force.

In a perfect circle all around the crest of the hill the ground exploded outwards. The shockwave sent a massive blast of debris raining down across the open space and dust rose thick in the air. An almost lazy gesture settled it back to the ground revealing the Bei Fong School and the top of the hill it sat on resting atop a stout pillar in the center of a massive crater.

The hollowed out space reached almost to the edge of the forest, leaving the training house well out of range of archers or spear throwers. Any attackers would have to cross the newly formed canyon and scale a now sheer cliff face to reach the building. Surveying her fortress Toph swung her arms out again, forming two tight fists and pulling them in against her body. A narrow strip raised itself from the crater's floor, reconstructing that path that had once led up the hill.

It would be better to have one controllable way in. She could pick them off, rather than forcing her attackers to bring out weaponry she might have trouble defending against. No need to compel them to destroy anything. Settling the path into place she shook her body out to keep herself limber.

For a few minutes everything was quiet. Toph bounced slightly on the balls of her feet, irritated by the anticipation. She wasn't much of one for meditating especially when she could smell Twinkletoes on her skin with every deep breath in.

Spirits damn affectionate people; she would never understand them.

Forcing her mind to calm she settled into a horse stance, listening carefully. There! Thrumming at the edge of her awareness was the sound of marching feet; closer and closer. Dropping to her knees, she spread her fingers across the flagstones. There were thirty, no forty men. Big and heavily armoured. Which meant they would be slow. Good. She could feel them carrying something, rolling it along on big metal wheels. It sounded like a catapult. Regaining her feet, she closed the main gate. Maybe they would think the school was deserted.

Outside, the Black Fist raiding party had stopped at the edge of her crater. They appeared to be milling around waiting for direction. She grinned a little. Apparently a giant hole in the ground hadn't been part of their briefing.

For the most part they were still. Only one man seemed to be moving, walking back and forth along the lip of the crater, pausing to examine the thin line of the path. Hello there, commander. Toph contemplated crushing him with a boulder or opening the earth to swallow him whole, but the distance made her 'sight' less clear than she would need for a precision strike and she didn't want to lose the element of surprise.

The catapult was being rolled forward, partially up the path to put it in range of the courtyard. Spitting on her hands, she rubbed them together eagerly. Toph had wondered what these Black Fist warriors possessed that would let them neutralize a whole town's worth of benders. The noise of the catapult was muffled somehow, but she could hear the air shift as its payload fell. The canister that came whipping towards her was metal and light. She halted its flight in midair and let it drop gently into her hands. There was liquid inside, she could hear it sloshing around, but not one fluid, two. The capsule had two wax seals interrupting its smooth surface and there was a pane of glass inside that must be keeping them separated. Sokka had been experimenting with things like this; he'd talked her ear off about them.

Gas bombs.

That explained how they'd gotten around the earthbenders. Tearing air jerked her back to what was happening. Toph rolled the caught canister carefully away and held up a hand just in time to halt a second bomb. Arcing her arm out she tossed it over the far side of the roof. There were more in the air now, multiple catapults on the same rolling platform. The vibrations of the small army on the far side of the crater created too much interference to pick out the capsules at a distance. Instead Toph kicked up a spar of stone, closing her hand around one end she brought it back to her shoulder like a bat and struck the gas bomb hard enough to send it careening over the wall.

The first bomb went wide to the left, far from the warriors gathered at the end of the path. The second and third she managed to lob neatly into the crowd, sending them scattering away from the contaminated air. The fourth one burst when she struck it, leaving her coughing and sputtering which caused her to miss the fifth. It exploded on the ground next to her and Toph hauled the flagstones that covered the courtyard up into the air, forming a protective roof over the open area. She tugged the band of fabric out of her hair and fastened it over her mouth and nose, cursing her own stupidity.

It was time she took the offensive.

Splaying her fingers out she sent the flagstones that shielded her flying over the walls, smashing the wooden catapult to splinters. Her aim might not have been precise at such a distance but the sheets of rock were heavy enough to crush more than a few of the Black Fist. She took a ragged breath. The gas was staying close to the ground; it was like soup to move though, much heavier than the air. Toph's head felt leaden, it was difficult to focus and her 'vision' began to blur. The sound of laughter on the wind made her blood boil. Whoever was leading this raid thought he had the Bei Fong School's earthbenders down, he was sorely mistaken. Thundering feet raced up the path. The thugs were trying to make a push for the school while anyone inside was incapacitated by the gas. A growl made its way out from low in her throat. Not a chance!

A rippling shockwave of thin pillars exploded from the ground along the makeshift roadway, the villains howled as they were tossed high only to fall into the deep open pit of the crater. Wasting no time, Toph switched to rougher, firmer motions and sent the metal studs that adorned the training house door flying like boleros at the men who had managed to keep their feet. They were close enough now for precision strikes and she took pleasure in aiming for as many foreheads as she could, feeling the earth laugh with her as her enemies collapsed. The rivets that missed their mark rained down like hailstones, causing the men to duck and yell and providing an excellent distraction from the enormous boulder she bent from the top of the path. She slid first one foot forward and then the other, setting back into her horse stance as she felt firm ridges rise on either side of the roadway. The leader below was bellowing something to his troops that sounded like a warning. With a strong shove she sent the giant sphere of rock tumbling down the incline, nodding in satisfaction as the edges she'd formed kept the boulder firmly on track despite any … obstacles. Almost as an afterthought Toph raised a hand and formed a high, solid wall at the base of the hill, preventing escape. The sickening crunch of snapped limbs and panicked screaming made her lips twitch in a smile.

The makeshift road empty again, she dropped the walls and left it open as both mockery and trap. On the wind she could hear the commander yelling at his remaining troops. Less than a dozen now, and afraid to get closer.

Wait!

Now that she noticed Toph could scarcely believe she had missed the sound of extra heartbeats far too near her own. Her head swam and she dropped her guard for a moment to press her fingers to her temples. They had come up the sheer face of the spire while she was distracted with the Black Fist thugs at the gate. She hadn't heard them because they'd been climbing ropes but they moved with the steps of a discipline she had only encountered once before.

Chi Blockers.

Six of them were scaling the outer wall. Toph reached out and twisted her hand sharply ninety degrees and the first of the blockers to reach for the terracotta tiles of the roof had them turn to dust under his fingers. One managed to make it over the wall only to find the ground turned to ooze beneath him as he landed. She let the mud solidify once he had sunk in as far as his neck. By that time the other four were on her.

Dropping into a low fighting stance Toph turned the solid ground of the courtyard into shifting, sucking sand, sacrificing some of her rapidly blurring vision to knock her attackers off balance. Everywhere she stepped the earth became solid again under her toes. As the Blind Bandit, Toph had rarely fought more than one person at a time, but traveling with the avatar and years of training with firebenders and waterbenders had honed her strange patient approach to combat well. The first flurry of jabs to her shoulder she simply flowed around, letting the tallest one's strikes connect with the attacker that had been edging close behind her. She twisted her foot to one side and the striker was encased to the shins in stone. One arcing rock to the back of his head and he went down like a ton of bricks. It was so hard to hear their movements over the roaring of blood in her ears that Toph was forced resolidify the ground. Turning just in time to narrowly avoid a crippling throat strike, she dropped to a crouch and kicked out with both legs to connect with the boulder she'd pulled up. The stone struck the unprepared chi blocker, sending him flying. Her eyes opened wide as she caught the vibrations of attacker number three and she rolled to one side just as he slammed his knee down hard enough to crack the stones beneath. Toph sent the shards of tile flying at him and staggered to her feet. Her movements were clumsy, fighting the cloying gas with every step.

She blocked a body blow with her elbows and kneed the attacker sharply in the kidneys, stepping around his falling body just far enough to readjust her stance and kick him hard in the side with her opposite leg before he landed. Spinning she turned her attention to the final chi blocker. Summoning up three spinning disks of stone she sent two to his left and one flying at the right side of his skull, providing just enough of a distraction for her to slip under his guard and seize him by the collar, slamming their foreheads together with punishing force.

Oh. Her head erupted in throbbing pain.  Poor choice.

But he went down and she remained, however unsteadily, on her feet. The man she had kicked was struggling to rise. Shakily Toph leaned down and ripped the mask from his face, exposing him to the gas that was slowly dragging her downwards, and punched him hard in the temple.

There was more work to be done.

Outside the gate the Black Fist was moving, cautiously, towards the training house. They were attempting stealth. Any other time she would have crowed with laughter and smashed them all into the ground but the gas was making things fuzzier every second. Toph tried but couldn't hold herself upright. She winced as she hit the ground much too hard. Earthbending from her knees wasn't easy but she had done it before. Vibrations echoed in her brain without resolving into any coherent picture. Scraping together the last of her strength Toph heaved a messy wave of broken earth towards the invaders. Someone was roaring for a retreat but she was too fast, they were buried beneath the swell of dirt and rock.

Toph fell forward onto her hands, listening hard for any movement. Everything was still. The ground settled back to its natural state and she let herself collapse onto the cool dirt; fighting unconsciousness. Slumped and exhausted she craned her neck towards one of the insensible chi blockers.

"That's what you get for messing with Toph Bei Fong!"

She couldn't even muster up the energy to spit at him. Time slipped away from her as she lay in the courtyard of the training house; her next clear point of awareness was a wave of fresh clean air that blew over her like the breath of life. Rolling onto her back Toph pulled the scarf away from her face and gasped weakly.

"Wow."

"D'I gettum?" She slurred, her tongue a dead weight.

Cool hands touched her forehead. "You got them."

"Wha'took ya so long T'inks?"

"Awe," the voice was full of laughter. "I thought you could use the practice."

She narrowed her eyes. "You gonna pay f'that."

"Sounds good Toph." Strong arms wrapped around her and she found herself pressed against a muscular chest.

"Twkles? Somfin funny in s'stuff. Makes m'lips all tingly."

She couldn't stay awake long enough to hear if he replied.

 


 

Katara had run an appraising eye over the firebender who had supposedly been sent along with her and immediately began to crack jokes. It was obviously Zuko in the plate armour. Same height, same build and he was wearing the full face mask that had fallen out of use since the end of Sozin's War. The waterbending master knew she wasn't the funny one in her family, or her group of friends, but after so many years she knew just how to push the young Fire Lord's buttons.

Leaning back she stretched her arms above her head, working imaginary kinks out of her back and neck. "Phew am I glad to get out of there. I mean I know he's the Fire Lord but he's a bit of a blowhard isn't he?"

She gave him a leering once over. "Not all that attractive either, he's like a long streak of nothing, all toothpick. Not like you… hmm you've got some muscle. Got to love firebenders, they're all heat."

There was a tiny sound of metal rattling as Zuko's plated hands clenched into fists. Katara had to turn away so he couldn't see her roll her eyes. Inside she was cackling her head off. How could he be buying this?

She decided to try a different tact. "And he's always going on about restoring the honour of Agni's line and blah blah blah. You know he used to go on and on about the Avatar like that?" She couldn't help smirking now. "Frankly I don't believe that story about punching a komodo-rhino in the face at all!"

"You were there for that!" Zuko fairly exploded with ire, tearing off his helmet and glaring as though he'd really like it if she would spontaneously burst into flames and save him the trouble of torching her. Katara dissolved into helpless laughter.

"Oh you are too easy!"

"I punched that rhino to stop it from goring you!" He insisted, petulantly.

She held up her hands in a defensive posture. "I know, I know."

"And then you told everyone I was lying!" He began to shuck off the pieces of his plate armour. "I told them I hit it and you laughed and said you didn't know what I was talking about!"

"It was two years ago Zuko!"

"And yet it's still funny. Hmm?" She reached over to unbuckle the breastplate and as he slid it off she move on to the shoulder guards with the ease of long familiarity.

"Oh Zuko It'll always be funny." She jerked the last piece of plate free with more force than necessary, making him stumble into the wall of the war balloon's basket. "But only because I wasn't horribly injured."

"Yeah well you're brother does enjoy threatening my life. I wouldn't want to give him the opportunity to actually kill me."

"Wise." She smirked, recapturing her seat.

"Speaking of wise decisions; I took your advice, on authorizing incentives for Earth Kingdom people living in Fire Nation colonies if they relocate here when the last ones are dismantled."

"How did that go over with your advisors?"

Zuko rolled his eyes. "Oh half of them are still angry we have to give up the colonies at all. Never mind that we're damned lucky that the Earth and Water rulers didn't insist on reparations."

"The council would have stepped in before that." She assured him

"It helped that you put your official seal on the letter."

Katara couldn't resist a dreamy smile. Ever since she'd watched Toph get four people and an unauthorized pet into Ba Sing Se with nothing more than a flash of documentation, she had wanted something to make bureaucrats soil their britches in fear. The seal of the 'Watertribe Representative to the Council of the Four Nations' was all she'd ever dreamed and more. "I love that thing. Sometimes I want to keep it on my bedside table to drive away administrative nightmares."

"A few years ago I would have called you a strange and terrifying person."

"And now?"

"Well I still find you strange and terrifying but I can totally appreciate anything that keeps paperwork nightmares at bay."

Katara laughed at that as she dug into her pack, tossing him one of the moon peaches she'd wheedled out of the palace kitchen that morning.

"No more government talk." She insisted. "Technically we're both still on vacation." Zuko saluted her with the piece of fruit and she watched as he bit into the soft pale flesh, licking the juice from his lips with gusto.

Moon peaches were his favorite.

She knew that without even thinking about it because it was Zuko and after nine years she knew him inside and out.

Katara knew everything about the people in her life. At the South Pole she had known because she had grown up around the same twenty faces day in and day out in a community that spanned less than a square mile. Once she'd made her way out into the world with Aang, Katara had discovered that she liked to learn about people and because of that people seemed to enjoy talking to her. New acquaintances would spill their whole life story within hours of an introduction.

She found it comforting to know exactly where every person around her could be filed into her mental catalogue; untrustworthy or loyal, help or harm, good or evil. Very rarely did her opinions change once set. Though she had always been determined to retain her optimism and belief in people, Katara learned early on to guard her heart well.

But not from Zuko.

She had studied him first as an enemy; a clever and relentless foe. But under the ruins of Ba Sing Se she had found not a personification of evil, but a hurt, scared boy. Fear and hope, hatred and redemption, the fire prince had tread up and down the corridors of her heart so many times she wouldn't really know it without him there.

Katara had always expected that love would rage through her like a tsunami. That when she met the person she was destined to be with a whole new universe would open up. She had loved Aang because she'd always thought she was meant to love him, because that was the fairytale; a boy and a grand adventure and the girl who would follow him to the ends of the earth. Instead, love had slipped through and tugged at her with the slow implacability of the tides.

Katara knows down in the hidden spaces of her heart that Zuko would face a thousand men for her armed only with his broadswords and his wits, though she would never in a hundred years expect it or ask him to. There are secret moments of passion in their history together; Stolen kisses, desperate caresses, like a current rushing under a calm surface. But for the most part love was overshadowed by duty and adventure. This thing between them remained a never uttered promise, a truth that neither one would speak.

Though no one would ever think to ask her, Katara would say that it kept her life interesting.

"Saving the world on your vacation? You know one day you're going to have to learn to relax."

"This from the man who had the idea to spend our one month's vacation each year doing hard physical labour?" She shot back. Zuko just shrugged and went back to his snack.

There was something unsettlingly arousing about watching him devour that poor defenseless fruit.

 


 

Two days out from the Fire Nation Katara awoke in the circle of Zuko's arm as he lazily spat fire into the boiler. Kicking the metal door shut with his foot he peered down at her with a gentle smile.

"I thought you might sleep all day. We're almost there."

Loath to leave the warmth of the firebender's body, she allowed herself to curl in close for just a moment longer. "Are you going to change?"

"I'll probably need help with my armour again if you don't mind."

Katara's eyes shot open, the temptations of warmth and sleep forgotten. "You want to wear your Fire Nation plate into a small, repeatedly conquered Earth Kingdom village?"

"Well I am the Fire Lord."

"Not today you're not," She shoved at him till she had enough room to haul her pack up onto her lap. "I am not walking into hostile territory and frightened civilians with the ruler of the Fire Nation." Katara tossed a pile of fabric in varying shades of blue onto Zuko's lap. "Strip." She commanded.

He held up the tunic with a look of distaste. "It's blue."

"It's Sokka's stuff. The pants might be a bit short, but they'll be tucked into your boots so no one should notice."

"I look terrible in blue."

"The topknot is going to have to go."

Zuko looked panicked for a moment, covering his hair with a protective hand. Katara just laughed and reached forward to snap the tie at the base free. "Come on, I bet you'd look so fun and perky with a ponytail."

"Are you going to turn around while I change?"

Katara arched an eyebrow at him, a look she had watched Sokka use for years before she'd mastered it herself, and said nothing. Zuko heaved a sigh of deep and endless exasperation and turned his back.

 


 

"I look stupid."

He grumbled for the millionth time since they're landed. Katara refused to look him over again. "It looks fine."

It was a little more than fine actually. Blue might not have been Zuko's favorite colour but it was an easy one to wear and the warrior's garb suited him. The dark blue shoulder and chest covering emphasized his broadness and warrior's half tail softened the fierce lines of his face. There was no hiding the large red scar, even if she had brought one of the water tribe wolf helmets but it wasn't likely to be as noticeable on a tribesman. Seeing Zuko like this gave her a giddy little thrill of ownership, he could almost be someone from her own village. Sokka and her father would have had simultaneous heart attacks if they'd seen him.

"You should actually be behind me a few steps." She reminded, not even bothering to hide her smugness. "After all I am the daughter of your chief. And no firebending, you are the pai sho tile up our sleeves here."

"Anything else Lady Katara?" He grumbled.

She didn't have time to answer. As they entered the village they were immediately surrounded by a group of angry looking men and women, all of whom were carrying weapons.

"State your business." The speaker was an old man with a face that looked as though he'd spent the majority of his life deeply displeased with everything around him.

She held up her hands, placating. "I am Master Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. The Council of Four Nations has heard that your village was attacked and I came to see if you need help."

The group surveyed them for a moment. Katara struggled to keep the smile on her face and felt Zuko step closer behind her, knowing without looking that he had both hands on his broadswords.

"You are trespassing Water Witch." There was a series of gasps from the watching crowd at the assertion. "You will be held for questioning."

The circle of warriors unsheathed their weapons and move towards her. She fought the instinct to uncork her waterskin and lay them out. "There's no need for that. I'm happy to answer any of your questions right here."

The leader seemed unimpressed. "Surrender or die where you stand."

Katara knew with no false pride that she was a master of her craft, the fire army, the dai lee, a hundred lesser warriors had fallen to her bending skill; and with Zuko at her back – even if he decided to forgo firebending – she was in no danger. But the level of immediate hostility from the villagers was absolutely bizarre. She needed more information.

"Zuko," She whispered, trying to talk without moving her lips. "Please don't do anything." Placing her wrists together Katara put her arms out towards the nearest warrior.

"Very well I surrender; on the condition that my guard will not be harmed."

The old man spat at her feet. "We accept no conditions from demons." He looked Zuko up and down, making careful note of his swords before addressing him. "Since you are not tainted you may remain, but do not try to interfere."

Zuko's golden eyes flicked to her before he answered. Please trust me. She tried to beg him without speaking. I know what I'm doing. Katara watched his hands flex for an endless moment. Then he bowed his head in supplication and stepped back.

She couldn't suppress a frisson of fear when heavy metal cuffs were clamped around her wrists.

Spirits I hope I know what I'm doing.

 


 

Zuko sat on the throne of the Fire Lord, the orange glow of the flames dancing around him created an otherworldly aura of power and ferocity that was completely ruined by the fact that he was moping.

Not that Toph could see the power and ferocity, all she could feel was mopey vibrations. That needed to stop right now. It would be completely ridiculous for the all powerful ruler of the feared Fire Nation to be caught sighing and pouting like a teenage girl. As a teenage girl herself, she found it offensive.

A rolling slab of rock put out the flames foot by foot and Zuko made no move to relight them. Toph sauntered right up to the throne, shoved a cup of tea into his hands and ensconced herself comfortably on one elaborately carved, gilt-covered arm.

"Hey Princess."

"You know I'm not technically a prince after my coronation. You'll have to start calling me queen or something."

Toph felt her brain freeze mid thought, then turned to face Zuko with a grin wide enough to split her face. He smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand and frantically tried to backpedal. "-no! I mean Lord! I should be …'cause I'm ….Fire Lord." The last words came out with the defeated sigh of someone who has resigned themselves to never ever living something down.

"Sparky my Queen, I'm afraid there's no getting out of it now." She cracked her knuckles loudly. "So who do I have to give the beat down too?" As though I didn't already know. "It's not a komodo-rhino is it? You did tell us you could punch those out yourself."

Toph snickered and Zuko glared at her. "Shouldn't you have been able to tell I wasn't lying about that?"

"Wasn't paying attention. Too busy thinking up jokes." She jostled him a little with her shoulder. "Drink the tea, Uncle made it especially for you."

"Why?"

"Because he loves you even though you are completely pathetic and ridiculous."

Zuko laughed into his cup. "I swear it’s frightening how much like Azula you are sometimes."

"So you going to tell me what's got your topknot in a bunch or am I going to have to beat it out of you?"

"Oh like you could, Shrimp."

"How about I bend that fancy crown around your neck and we'll see how good your insults are then, eh Sparky?" He shoved her hard enough that she fell off the arm of the throne with an undignified squawk.

"Yep," She could hear him smirking. "I think it’s Shrimp forever now."

'I'll drop Fire Queen if you drop Pipsqueak."

"Done." He answered without a second's hesitation. "I kissed Katara."

"Spark you dog!"

"Then we got interrupted and she never said anything about it. Now she's gone."

"Ouch."

Zuko looked at her sharply. Toph cursed herself for not remembering to sound surprised. "You know this already. She talked to you about it." She had just enough time to shove herself backwards as he jumped to his feet to grab her.

"Girl talk is privileged information!" She yelled back at him, dodging between pillars to avoid his grasp. "Sharing isn’t allowed. I can't be a good informant if she doesn't trust me!"

"You're not a good informant now!" feigning left, Zuko seized the back of her braid and tugged her back far enough that he could haul her up over one shoulder.

"Tell me what she said or I throw you in the dungeon."

"You've got nothing on me Sparky butt! I know where your baby pictures are!" Toph managed to land a kick to his stomach and they both toppled to the ground in a heap.

"Hey Sparky?"

"Yeah Toph?

"She didn't want to leave either."

"Thanks."

She propped herself up on an elbow just long enough to reach over and wallop him hard on the arm.

"Love you too Toph."

 

Chapter Text

 

Toph awoke to the sounds of angry shouting.

Sitting up to see what the problem was she fell immediately back down with a groan of pain when the hangover hit her like a brick to the forehead. Never go drinking with Sokka.

"...Wait, just Wait!"

"Tell us what you're doing here! Where's Toph?"

Ugh why could they not let her just die in peace? "I'm in here Aya, you mad screaming harpy!" She yelled in no particular direction, before covering her head with a pillow in a vain effort to make the pounding at her temples go away. It was nighttime. Very late, probably early. She could smell the dew that had fallen hours ago and the cicadas were mostly silent. She was just beginning to get a handle on her vibrations when the sound of rushing feet upset everything again. Earth take the Bandits! What could be so important that they all needed to come hurtling in ...here...

Toph jerked bolt upright in bed as everything came back to her. Taking quick stock of herself she realized she'd been stripped down to her training garb and her hair was loose and probably terrifying but she was otherwise unharmed. The heartbeats of her Bandits, however, were thready with exhaustion and panic.

"Report." She commanded, trying to retain a semblance of authority. Toph could feel them relax at the familiar sound of her barking orders

"Commander we've been running four days to get back to you and we find the students gone, the area destroyed and this person skulking in the kitchen."

"Skulking?" She directed her attention to the figure Shan was frog marching into the room. "Twinkletoes why were you skulking?"

"I was trying not to wake you up." Aang's voice was sheepish.

"Did you tell them who you were?"

"They surprised me!" He objected. "I thought they were more Black Fist."

Toph sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "You can let him go. Twinkles give us some light so they'll stop trying to kill you."

There was a whoosh of displaced air and a snap of heat as Aang produced a ball of bright flame.

"Son of a cat-ferret!" Lan cursed. "It's the Avatar."

"Nice to meet you."

Toph snorted, she just knew Aang was sporting his big ridiculous grin. "Alright enough! Go get washed and changed and make tea. I want you all in the appropriate room for a debriefing in half a candlemark."

Murmuring assent the Bandits filed out. To his credit, Aang waited until they were all out of the room before he began to fuss, shoving his way onto the bed so he could sit in front of her and running his fingers over her face. "You okay?"

Toph just groaned and dropped her head forward onto his shoulder. "Can I have a little of that firebending whammy? My head..."

Sweet blessed warmth bloomed against her skin and the throb of the headache began to subside.

"Did everyone make it?"

"They're halfway to Omashu by now. No one followed us." Aang assured her. "Looks like you kept them pretty busy."

She dismissed the attack with a weak wave. "Easy pickings. Those rockheads never knew what hit them."

"There’s a pair tied up out in the courtyard." He nodded in the direction of the main hall. "I fixed the hill by the way. That was really impressive."

The heat eased away, but he kept his hands where they were; his fingertips just resting on her hairline. "You were so still when I found you."

She turned her head a little, just enough so that her nose brushed against his collarbone. Aang's heartbeat was loud and steady. "That was the gas." She explained. "Strong stuff."

He hummed in agreement but said nothing; seemingly content to sit, barely touching and reassure himself that she was still alive. Toph lasted almost a minute before she grew restless and twitchy. She was rather proud of herself.

Gingerly extricating herself from his grasp she cast about for the rest of her clothing, stretching sleepy muscles and reaching for a brush.

"Let me." Aang snatched the handle deftly from her suddenly nerveless fingers and set to work on the tangled ends of her long black hair. Unable to think of a reason to stop him, Toph concentrated on the buttons of her vest; studiously ignoring his warmth behind her.

"I've been hearing about the Bei Fong Bandits since I left the tower." He began conversationally. "I was expecting them to be ten feet tall and armed to the teeth."

"Sometimes they are. Well, armed that is, they don't get much taller."

"They all started here?"

"No," Toph's eyes were fluttering shut against her will. "Most of the Bandits came before this place. They're..." She trailed off, biting back a noise that was almost certainly not ladylike. The long smooth strokes of the brush raised goosebumps on her arms and sent shivers down her spine. She tended to associate hair care with the rough tugging of maid's fingers as they tried to scrape and style her locks over weighty, uncomfortable headdresses, but Aang's touch was gentling to the point of soporific. Toph was having a difficult time stopping herself from collapsing bonelessly against him.

"Toph?"

"Mmm?"

"Are you alright? You stopped talking." The sound of his voice was like a bucket of icy water. Yanking herself out of range she wrapped a band around her traitorous hair, tugging it into a low tail where it couldn't expose further weakness. She strapped on her bracers and strode from the room with barely a "Come on." in Aang's direction.

Yanmei passed her a cup of tea as she entered the Dining Hall. As a war room it lacked the appropriate atmosphere, especially with Jia sitting on the table, but it did have the advantage of the kitchen right next door. Toph paced to the head of the table gesturing as she went.

"Twinkletoes, this is Yanmei," The oldest of their little group at twenty eight; Yanmei had lost her child to a robbery gone bad. She had destroyed the thief and most of her village in the process. "Brute force. You want a rockslide, and avalanche or an island this is your woman." The willowy redhead handed Aang a cup with a small smile. "Lan is our Sokka," Toph paused for a moment when her vibrations picked up something strange and reached out to pat Lan’s head. "What have you done with your hair?" The mischievous girl's usual tousled curls were pulled into tight ridges along her scalp.

"Don't you like it boss lady?"

Toph chose not to answer. "Lan spent her girlish days getting around security on a Fire Nation prison ship. The one who won't get off the table is Jai, she's the black sheep; a waterbender born from an Earth Kingdom family. Refugees." She explained.

Jai winked at the Avatar. "I'm all about ice."

Not bothering to suppress a snort Toph gave the girl a push off the edge of the tabletop. With skin a duskier shade than normally found outside the frozen poles and dark blue eyes Jai's looks had distracted many a thug at a crucial moment, but her sass did not need any encouraging. "Sugar Queen found her a little too rock-like, so I poached her back. The twins are Shan and Suyin. They got almost all the way out of a Dai Li prison on their own. For non-firebenders they are remarkably good at making things explode." The raven haired pair nodded in unison, first to Aang, then to her.

"Sifu Toph got us the last hundred yards. "Shan explained.

"Through fifty Dai Li agents." His sister finished.

Toph put one hand on the shoulder of the amazon standing near the head of the table. The girl was anxious, her heartbeat too fast for someone at rest, and glaring at Aang. "Kana's okay." Toph murmured into her ear, and felt the tension uncoil just slightly.

"Ayasha here was my first pupil. I picked her up about six months after you disappeared-"

"Picked her up?" Aang queried.

"I was an underground fighter," Aya explained. "In this illegal operation out on the edge of the desert. I was pretty high up the chain but kept losing to the big groups. So one night this high society looking lady wanders down into the fighters pits, comes right up to me and says 'you're never going to beat them without my help.' I realize not only is she blind, she's barely nine years old."

"I was almost fourteen." Toph interrupted right where she knew the pause would be. Ayasha told this story to everyone the bandits dealt with, claiming it helped to sell their legend. By now it was as well scripted and rehearsed as any play. Aang was leaning against the back of a chair, teacup cooling between his hands as he listened avidly.

"So say take a hike; I'm all fired up and as angry as a teenage girl can be and she asks why I'm fighting when I'm never going to win. I tell this fancy lady that I love to fight, and I walk away. This tournament liked to bring in new blood off the streets as a way to keep the audience interested in the same old fighters. So when the ringmaster starts asking 'who dares to face the challenge' who should stand up but this fancy lady.

"A tiny blind girl in a silk dress. She looked completely ridiculous."

"I liked that dress."

"Not your colour." Ayasha shot back.

"I was in disguise!" Toph couldn't have told her what colour it was but both Katara and Suki had praised her in it. She’d been more interested in the deep, hidden pockets.

"In five minutes she'd worked her way up six ranks of fighters to get to me. Took maybe thirty seconds for her to lay me out and in ten minutes more she was champion. Her gown wasn't even dirty."

"Oh come on Aya," Lan interrupted. "It was Toph. We all know the dress was dirty." Yanmei cuffed the girl lightly on the back of the head and the story continued as though no one had spoken.

"The girl takes the prize money and vanishes. I wander home, exhausted and forlorn to find someone sitting at my kitchen table, teaching my sister how to brew good tea. The same lady, in fighter's clothes and a stupid looking headband. And she said to me:"

"You’re having trouble with twenty men. I'm the Blind Bandit, and I'll teach you how to fight two hundred." Ayasha smiled and folded her arms behind her head. "I thought she was being a bit melodramatic, but I followed her to Gaoling anyway."

"She threw herself at my feet," Toph corrected. "And begged me to teach her."

There was a round of appreciative laughter, though most of the room had heard the story at least a dozen times. Toph surveyed the room with trepidation; it wasn't everyday your past and present collided right in front of you. "Bandits this is Avatar Aang."

"And what does he specialize in?" Suyin asked, her fact totally impassive.

Toph opened her mouth to reply, but he beat her to the punch. "Fire Lords mostly. But I have been known to turn into a giant sea monster and I make a really excellent nightlight."

She choked on nothing. The vibrations alone made she wish she could see everyone's face.

"Oh Twinkles I should have known you'd fit in just fine."

He bumped her shoulder with his as he settled down in the chair next to her. Toph rubbed her palms together. "Alright, enough pleasantries. Aya what happened?"

"It was a setup."

"An ambush," Jai leapt in. "They were trying to bring us down." Toph silenced her with a look. The Bandits were a loose enough affiliation that formality wasn't something she often enforced, but serious times called for respect among warriors.

"We were following the plan you outlined before you left. We tracked the Black Fist and engaged before they could reach their target village. Then they started varying their pattern, feinting around us, sending off smaller teams. We’d follow them to a village, run them off and the townspeople would be almost hostile towards us afterwards. It took a week to pin down their base of operations - Ganoshen, in the northern mountains - and when we got there it was gone." Ayashu swallowed hard. "Burned to the ground with our chop drawn up in fire and blood on the wall of the town hall."

Toph went cold. It was shock rather than any restraint or skill that kept her face utterly impassive. "The Black Fist has framed us for the destruction and murder of an entire town?" Her voice sounded distant and strange to her own ears; terribly, frighteningly calm.

"They tried." Shan explained, nodding towards the other side of the table. "Jai washed it clean and we blew it up." He knocked fists with his sister, their faces impassive.

"We barely made it out." Ayashu continued. "The Earth King's army was less than an hour behind us. We were meant to be found there with the knife in our hands."

The urge to bury someone for this indignity was so near the surface of her skin that Toph could feel her fingers flexing involuntarily. Four years the Bandits had roamed the Earth Kingdom, helping where they could, being a last recourse for those with nowhere else to turn. Now they were set up as rampaging murderers.

"Why?" Aang's voice was loud in the stillness of the room.

"That's what we're going to find out." Toph told them. "We have informants now. Shan, Suyin, you two are on warm up. Don’t overdo it, but make sure they’re nervous. Everyone else get some rest. You all feel dead on your feet." When the Bandits nodded and began to disburse, she put a hand on Aang's arm and tugged him toward the main hall. Out of earshot.

"Aang, this is something Katara, Zuko and Sokka need to know. If you head out now you could be at the eastern coast by the day after tomorrow."

"No."

"I'll help you pack a few things and meet you back in Omashu with everyone else - What?"

"I'm not leaving."

She crossed her arms firmly over her chest. They did not have time for him to be arguing with her. "And would you care to explain why?"

He was about to sass her, Toph could absolutely feel the smart remarks coming in his posture, but there was no mirth behind his voice. "Well firstly because it's the middle of the night and Appa and I are tired. Secondly because you called me Aang which you never do unless something is serious, but really it's because I can feel you lying."

That stopped Toph in her tracks. "You never had the fine control to read heartbeats."

"Amazing what seven years study will teach you."

"Especially when it should only have been five." She shot back automatically.

"Toph," He caught her by the shoulders, she could tell he was trying to look her in the eyes though she couldn't fathom why. "If this is about... If you want me to leave because I kissed you, I won't do it again."

Her jaw dropped open in shock. That's what he thought this was about? "No!" Partially flattered that he was still dwelling on such a perfunctory kiss, Toph was mostly furious at his audacity. In the middle of wide scale abductions, an attack on her home and a threat against everything she'd spent the last half decade trying to build for herself and he thought stuid signs of affection were her chief concern? Toph reached up, seized him by the front of his tunic and dragged his face down to her level. "I want you going because you absolutely should not be here."

Not kissing me won't be a problem. She thought. You'll never even want to speak to me again.

"Just go."

"What are you going to do?"

She let go of him and squared her shoulders. "I'm going to get all the information we need."

"You're going to bribe the prisoners?"

"I might start with that."

"You're going to torture them." She tensed in anticipation of the recriminations. Screaming, storming off. She'd only just gotten him back and she was going to lose him again. Toph felt her heart crack a little more.

"If I have to."

"…Alright."

"What?"

If Aang had told her he wanted to put on a pretty dress and dance the tarantella Toph could not have been more surprised.

"But I'm going to do it."

I stand corrected.

"What?"

"People are dying. We need to stop this right now and getting that information is the fastest way for us to do that. I'm the Avatar and it's my responsibility to restore balance and keep peace. I'll do it." The argument was a sound one. Excepting the Avatar part it was exactly what Toph had been planning to say herself. But those words out of Aang's mouth sounded blasphemous. "I won't let my friends suffer because I'm a coward." Oh Twinkletoes what have they done to you?

"You idiot. I am not watching you sacrifice your beliefs for no reason."

"This is my choice."

She stamped her foot against the ground, encasing him in stone all the way to his neck. "There, now you have no choice."

"Toph I can't let you do this!"

"Let me?" She smiled gently at the furious struggling Avatar. "You're the last good man Twinkles. I'm not taking that out of the world." And because she could never resist a joke when it was calling her name, she patted the pillar of stone that trapped him. "Stay here."

"Toph! Toph!"

She closed the front door, neatly cutting off the sound of his voice. The night air was cool and slightly damp, but the earth was beginning to wake again, it would be dawn in an hour or so. She reached down and placed her hands against the stone for a moment. Rocklike. She reminded herself. Stand firm.

There were only two captives, chained to a spike driven into the rock wall. One of them was a chi blocker, the other's vibrations were new, which meant he'd been far enough away that she couldn't identify him. Hopefully he was an officer. The twins were standing on either side of the prisoners, their posture impeccable. If Toph hadn't been able to hear their exhaustion she would have thought they could stand at attention all night. Suyin tapped her foot once.

When Toph had sent the twins out soften up their guests, she had expected them to drop a few obviously hints about what the Black Fist warriors were in for, talk up their fearsome leader so to speak. Something to keep the captives fearful and tense in their anticipation. Suyin's signal meant they'd carried out her orders and apparently it had worked. The chi blocker was angrier than she had expected but both their hearts were racing.

Toph Bei Fong knew, after nineteen years of life, that she wasn't the standard definition of intimidating figure. Despite her muscles she was tiny and Chen had once described her as sweet-faced. Still, she had found that a tiny, angelic looking girl with a cruel smile was its own special kind of intimidating.

Toph looked down at her captives and cranked her grin all her way up to demonic, just to hear their heartbeats jump. "I think you can leave us now," She turned first to Suyin and then Shan, deliberately moving her head to emphasize the fact that she was aware of them, despite her blindness. "Our guests and I are going to have a nice cozy chat."

"We’re not afraid of you, witch!" The chi blocker shouted.

"Oh yes you are," She said. "I can feel it. I can smell it. And you should be. Do you know who I am?"

"We know what you are."

Toph wagged a finger at the chi blocker, secretly delighting in his rage. The angrier he was the more likely he would spill something. "You shouldn't speak to your host like that. Now, "She began to saunter back and forth in front of them.

"If we were going to have to do this the hard way. If I were an extractor of information in a dark dungeon somewhere, I would probably be taking this moment to show you my tools. All those toys they use to spark off your lovely imaginations. I would be detailing to you my extensive knowledge of the field – and believe me boys its very, very extensive – and perhaps explaining what your body might go through if I were to be forced to use one or two of my favorite methods of persuasion. For example, I prefer crushing because you’d still be able to talk and I’d be able to feel your organs burst one by one."

She crouched close to the soldier, fighting to keep the terrifying smile and not ruin the intimidating manner by vomiting spectacularly at the idea. "But I propose we try something new. I will ask you any question I can think of and you will answer immediately. If you please me I might be persuaded to let you keep your miserable lives. If you don't I may kill you in a more horrible way than you can imagine, or I may leave you alive. A walking – well, maybe walking – breathing look at what happens when you cross the Blind Bandit."

"Don't waste your breath heathen bitch! Torture me for all I care."

A twitch of her wrist and the chi blocker was enveloped in a small cube of rock. She could still hear him shouting and cursing, but only very faintly through four inches of stone. Toph gave a theatrical sigh and turned to her second mark. "There, that's a bit more peaceful. I wonder how much air he has in there. Can't be much with the way he's shouting." She winked and gestured. The chi- blocker’s box got smaller. "Better talk quickly if you want him to live."

"No!" The terrified soldier was shaking so badly his voice trembled. "Please, I'll tell you whatever you want ju – just don't crush me to death! Spirits, please!"

"The Black Fist tried to disgrace my people. Why?"

"They want Omashu."

"How exactly does framing us help?"

"I don't know."

Toph seized the man by the hair and wrenched his head backwards. "Tell me!" She demanded.

"It's you! The Northern forces were supposed to disgrace your people and then kill you."

"Why?"

"Then Bumi would be forced to name a new heir – he's already in place."

"Then you kill him and you have control of the largest city in the southern earth kingdom." She refocused her attention on the man at her feet. He sounded close to tears and Toph wondered for the first time exactly what he had been told about her. "Why attack the school then?"

"I don't – they told us your students were the worst. The most infected. We were a rescue mission."

She snorted. "Armed with gas grenades and prepared to use lethal force. What are you doing with the kidnapped benders?"

"I don't know-" She narrowed her eyes and bent the ground up to encase his feet and ankles, slowly enough to emphasize the hideous grinding sound it made. "Please! I'm telling the truth! They w-were taken to Zaofu … but no one knows what he does with them."

"Where's his base?"

"I'm not sure."

"Don't you dare lie to me!" the rock snapped over his ribs.

"I've never been!" he screamed. "It's a long way from here. I know that. The officers call it Waking Mountain. That's all I know I promise!" She released her grip on his hair with enough of a shove that he twisted painfully against the rock that held him. “Please let me go.”

“No.” Toph closed him into another stone box.

"Can they really not breathe?"

"There's air vents underneath."

"I should have known you weren't really going to torture them."

"Don't make me something I'm not Aang."

"You're the big bad tiger-wolf," He nodded gravely. "I'm learning."

"Good." She stared fixedly at the prisons for a moment.

"How did you get out of there anyway?"

 

 


 

The whole operation had gone spectacularly well right up until the point when the man she'd thought was unconscious leapt up and held a knife to her throat.

Why did Toph's plans invariably end with someone buried, blown up or bleeding?

People always said that your life would flash before your eyes just before death; they never mentioned it would be so irritating.

It had been hard to argue with the idea when Toph had invited her down to the newly finished training house. Extortion was a nasty business and anyone who was enough of a bastard to run a protection racket on the temples of Gaoling deserved whatever punishment they could come up with

Ayashu had brought them the problem. A patron of the Earth Rumble had come to see the Blind Bandit's chosen representative and champion to beg her assistance and the scrappy fighter had brought the plea to her master, and because the lumber mill that poor excuse for a Tong was using as a base stood at the base of a waterfall, Toph had called her.

In retrospect they probably should have expected more resistance than the token force she, Ayashu and Toph had dispatched so quickly.

Katara felt the fabric of the mask that covered her face part thread by thread under the knife. She watched Toph from across the room. They were alone. Ayashu had gone down to the lower levels, hoping to knock out the struts that supported the building.

There was a line of senbon sunk deep into the meat of Toph's shoulder and bicep; her toes curled against the wood of the floor. She hadn't moved an inch since the assassin snatched Katara.

The water master cursed inwardly as she tried to summon her bloodbending. Only an earthebender would organize an attack on the night of the new moon.

"Hands on your head!" Katara's captor yelled, pulling head back so hard she felt tears prick the corners of her eyes.

Toph shifted slowly at first, then brought one arm up in a rush. A faint choked gurgle came from somewhere over Katara's left ear. It wasn't until a spurt of blood hit her face that she realized what had happened. The man's grip slackened and fell away, slumped to the ground with a knife hilt deep in his neck.

Katara collapsed forward, landing heavily on her knees and rubbing the shallow slice in her neck. Toph tugged the long pins from her arm and reached out to help her up. The proffered hand was shaking but there was no hint of expression on her face.

They finished the job and watched the mill crumble while the Blind Bandit congratulated her protégé enthusiastically on a job well done.

That night Katara didn't sleep. She held vigil for the darkened moon and waited.

And because she wasn’t sleeping she heard the sound of pacing outside her door long before the tentative knock came in those cold dark hours long after midnight.

It was easy to forget, under all the bravado and confidence and impossible skill, exactly how young Toph was … how young they all were. She gathered the crying girl into her arms and held her tightly whispering the only words she could think of to make it all better; over and over until the tears stopped and Toph fell into an uneasy sleep.

"Thank you." Katara repeated into Toph's dark hair. "Thank you."

Chapter Text

 

"You know I think that went pretty well."

Zuko lounged against the door, broadswords on his knees, looking back at her over one shoulder. His expression kept fluctuating between inexpressibly fury and amusement. Katara wanted to tell him that it made him look nauseated.

"Please be quiet."

She shifted, trying to find a comfortable position on the dirt floor with no success.

"Really, I'm curious. What exactly did you think was going to happen after they arrested you?"

Katara gave up the pretense of aloof meditation and opened her eyes with a disgruntled sigh. "I thought they were going to ask me questions or at the least put me on trial so I could get some information out of them." She sighed at the bars in resignation. "I admit big cage didn't cross my mind."

"Did the fact that they want you dead factor in at all?"

"No." She had been close to panic when the menacing guards had led her to the metal cage in the center of town and the Black Fist elder had explained in a cruel voice that they were lucky its last occupant had died only days ago. 'A sign from the spirits' he had called it.

"Hey," Zuko pushed a warm hand through the bars to cover hers. "Alright, enough. I'm getting you out of here."

His swords where half unsheathed before her hand tightened on his arm. "Wait," She insisted. "We're here already; you have to at least let me try."

He stared at her for a long moment. "I'm not risking your life."

Katara laughed with a confidence she didn't feel. "What risk? They didn't even take your swords."

"Since when does armed mean non-bender anyway?"

"Well you have to admit it is unusual. I mean other than Aang I've never seen anyone bend with a weapon."

Zuko relaxed dropping his broadswords back in their resting place. "We're meeting the others in Omashu in four days. That means you have three to figure out whatever the Black Fist had planned. Then I'm breaking you out of here." Katara nodded in agreement

"So have you talked to him yet?" He asked with a total lack of nonchalance.

"To Aang? Yes we talked a lot on the way to your palace." She replied archly.

"Any particular subject?"

"Oh this and that. We have a lot of shared history you know."

"Certain things in particular," He ground out.

Katara let out the dreamiest sigh she could muster. "Mmm, I remember. You know those tattoos go all over…"

"Katara you shouldn't know that! He was only thirteen when –"

Her brain screeched to a halt like a Ba Sing Se train.

"Wait!" She held up a hand. "Wait, wait, wait; I was joking – obviously - but how do you know where Aang's tattoos go?"

Zuko flushed. "No one," He said hotly. "Should ever use your brother as a role model."

"Ah you foreigners, you're all so prudish."

"Prudish! You spend your whole lives wrapped up in parkas."

Katara gave him a sly grin. "How do you think we bathe down at the South Pole?"

"The same way everyone else does," Zuko said. "You have washrooms."

"Now that we have skittish dignitaries we do," She explained. "In the official buildings. But in the Water Tribe we sweat-bathe."

Zuko stared at her for a second and then flopped down against the bars with his back to her and a noise that sounded like a bitten off groan. Katara stared at the nape of his neck and an image flashed across her mind of a small room where the ice walls sparkled in the light of a fire and she and Zuko lay on soft furs, tangled together and sweating in delicious unbearable heat.

Oh.

Was he..?

Well then. She bit her lip. It would be mean, Katara supposed to explain that bathing was segregated and more of an opportunity for gossip than anything else. Besides, if he was thinking what she was thinking, it was a fantasy worth preserving. One more thing to keep her entertained during boring council meetings.

Zuko coughed slightly and Katara was about to say something scathing when a bloom of mushy wetness impacted her lower back. She cried out, more in shock than pain, and whipped around just in time to have a spray of overripe fruit land on her face. Zuko was on his feet in an instant, swords out looking for the threat.

It was a group of kids hurling rotten fruit at her. Most of it bounced harmlessly off the cage bars, but enough of the spray came through that she was quickly becoming coated in the pulpy mess. The gang hightailed it when they saw Zuko them but her Black Fist appointed guards didn't so much as move until they saw him head towards the children.

"What do you think you're doing Water Tribe?"

The guards were heavily muscled and more heavily armed - the most intimidating of the Black Fist presence - obviously intended to keep Zuko in line as much as her. It seemed that his too convincing lie about how often he had to stop himself killing her hadn't been enough assurance. The taller one made as if to shove him, but changed his mind at the look on Zuko's face.

"They were throwing fruit at her."

"Yeah so?" the thug shrugged. "It’s good sport, serves her right."

His compatriot peered at Zuko suspiciously. "What do you care anyway?"

"Do you know how much water is in fruit?" Zuko jerked his head towards her and Katara quickly bent all the water out of the pulpy mess that covered her clothes and hair. The now dried bits sloughed harmlessly away and she set the ribbon of new water swirling in a lazy circle in front of her.

The guards gave an alarmed shout before Zuko could stop them there was a burst of pain as a dart buried itself in her thigh. The water splashed uselessly against the ground as Katara crumpled reaching for her bending before she lost consciousness.

 


 

"What have you done?!"

Zuko rushed over to the cage bars and nearly collapsed in relief when he saw Katara's chest rise and fall.

"Nothing," The guard shrugged. "She'll be out until that water dries up. Elder Gamen doesn't want her dead till he has a chance to make an example of her."

His fellow chortled unpleasantly. "Hopefully he'll give her to the chi blockers and then we can have her afterwards. One must not suffer such an evil to live, but I might be persuaded to suffer letting her do a few other things first!" He grabbed at his crotch just in case Zuko couldn’t crack his little code.

Zuko moved faster than lightning. In an instant both of the disgusting cretin's heads were rolling away on the grass, the cuts clean enough that he was able to sidestep the spray as their bodies attempted to force blood into a head five feet away. One swift slice had the door to Katara's cage open and she was in his arms. "I'm getting you out of here." He promised, kissing her forehead gently.

Someone smacked him heavily on the shoulders and he blinked the oh so appealing daydream away.

"What?"

"Elder Gamen wants to see you."

"I'm not leaving her." Zuko snapped.

The first guard shot him a nasty grin. "Ah don't worry scarface, she'll be out for an hour yet."

"Yeah," His companion chimed in with a laugh that sounded like a band saw. "And if she wakes up we'll keep her warm for you."

Zuko shifted his stance unobtrusively, prepared to fight his way free. Maybe he could convince the villagers that the guards had attacked him? He would have to risk it. A flash of blue in the corner of his eye caught Zuko's attention. Katara had opened her eyes just wide enough to wink at him as she drew whatever had been in the dart out of the puncture wound on her thigh. With a sigh of relief that he tried to pass off as exasperation, he nodded to the guards, indicating that someone should show him the way to this elder.

The town - Zuko hadn't been paying attention to the name when Katara had mentioned it - was almost identical to every other backwater he had ever seen in the Earth Kingdom, but the people seemed different. There was more hostility, more suspicion on each face he passed; people seemed reluctant to walk the streets alone, hurrying in knots of three or four. Black Fist banners hung from almost every building and the town hall they were approaching was festooned with dark bunting.

The interior had been divided into a labyrinth of tiny dim rooms, all of which seemed to be occupied with miserable looking people. One young boy elbowed his way past Zuko with an armload of towels and the Fire Lord couldn't help but stare at the strange contraption that was strapped to his chest. Bands of leather and metal held three protuberant iron disks in place against his bare torso; one dug into the hollow of his shoulder, a slightly larger one pushed in just under his ribs and the final one sat right above his belt line, the skin around it bruised purple with the force being exerted. The boy raised his eyes to stare at Zuko for a moment before jerking his gaze back to the floor. Not fast enough to avoid being cuffed across the head sharply by Zuko's escort.

"The new ones are always insolent." The guard explained. "All that evil trying to escape. Give him a few weeks and he'll be purged clean."

"Purged?"

"Of the taint."

"You're taking away his earthbending?"

"The taint," The man corrected sharply. Incredulous though he was, Zuko tried to nod as if such a thing was only natural. What in Agni's name was going on here?

He lost track of their rout through the myriad twists and turns but eventually he was ushered through a set of folding screens serving as doors into the presence of the man who had arrested Katara.

Elder Gamen, or whatever he was calling himself was seated on an ornately carved chair behind an expansive desk, managing to look both displeased and smug at the same time. Gamen was white haired, and dressed in the manner of a disciple of Kong Qui, voluminous sleeves hiding his hands and who knows what else. The man smiled at him as Zuko entered, a smile of great intelligence bent to unsavory purposes. Zuko was reminded strongly of his father.

"Elder, I was informed you wished to see me?" bowing to this man chaffed at Zuko, but he bent low at the waist and schooled his face into its impassive council mask.

"Ah yes the water witch's protector. What is your name young man?"

"Sokka," Zuko said smoothly. "Of the Southern Water Tribe." The real Sokka was going to kill him if they got out of this.

"I must say you don't look much like a tribesman."

"My mother was part Fire Nation."

The elder nodded just slightly. "My knowledge of the Water people is not as extensive as I would like."

Zuko considered his response, pondering how he might gain this man's trust. If Gamen was dressed like a follower of Kong Qui, maybe he’d respond well to the ancient sage’s proverbs? "I am not bothered by the fact that I am unknown. I am bothered when I do not know others."

"Ah," Gamen nodded again, more deeply. "A student of the master. I did not know there were scholars among the tribes."

The man's causal assumption that the people of the poles were ignorant savages rankled Zuko on behalf of his friends. The Water Tribes were far more hospitable than the Earth Kingdom had been so far. Fewer iron cages for one thing. "The way which the superior man pursues, reaches wide and far. Common men, however ignorant, may intermeddle with the knowledge of it.” He replied.  “We are isolated in the South. I admit I had no knowledge of this village or yourself."

"The superior man, though he may be all unknown, unregarded by the world, feels no regret.” Gamen intoned. “We are trying to keep our operation small while in its nascent stage. To let the minds of man become unclouded." Before Zuko could question this statement the Elder steepled his fingers and fixed him with a penetrating stare. "Tell me why you are traveling with the tainted water witch."

"Our chief ordered me to protect her."

"And why did he do that."

Zuko had the uncomfortable feeling that this discussion was leading him into a trap but he answered the question anyway. "Waterbenders are important to the tribe."

"So the tribe suffered when the-" He paused delicately over the name the way an indulgent parent might when introduced to a child's imaginary friend. "Waterbenders were taken away during Sozin's war?"

There were two possible answers to that question. The fortunes of the Southern Water Tribe had greatly diminished over the century of war. Losing their benders had crippled their ability to master the harsh environment in the way that their Northern brethren had. However after the last raid on Katara's village her people had, for the most part, been left alone. A tribesman of the real Sokka's age would not have considered the war as a whole, only the parts of it that had directly affected his family.

"Once the benders were gone the tribe wasn't considered a threat." Which was exactly the answer Gamen had been waiting for.

"And so," He said with the air of one concluding a magnificent saga. "Without the taint bearers, your tribe was safe. As the master said: Men's natures are alike, it is their habits that carry them far apart. But those who bear the taint are not like us; they are not like other men."

Zuko you must always remember that you are not like other men.

Gamen chuckled. "Indeed I would hesitate to believe that they are men at all."

You are above them. Ozai's voice echoed in Zuko's ears. A descendant of Agni's line. You are a living god!

"This power they flaunt against the laws of nature. Their intentions may not be wholly evil but they are capable of too much corruption.” Gamen’s expression was solemn but there was no pity in his eyes.

Zuko could almost see Ozai's form hovering about the man, as though Gamen was his reincarnation.

Those below you were made to serve. Their lives are less than nothing.

He blinked and forced himself to refocus on the Elder’s speculative gaze. Zuko's instinctive deferential nod to the specter of his father had, apparently been taken as agreement.

"Good man," Gamen said. "I can see you have thought on this subject yourself. The superior man does not wait till he sees things, to be cautious, nor till he hears things, to be apprehensive, hmm?"

"If a man has no humaneness what can his propriety be like? If a man has no humaneness what can his virtue be like?" Let the Elder assume he referred to the benders, Zuko vowed then and there he would see this man ground into the dirt.

"Precisely. Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors. And proving the Heavenly Master true, you have come to me, as others did before you. With their help I have changed this province." A gesture encompassed the map of the Eastern Earth Kingdom coast that was laid out on the immaculate desk. "With your help I may change the world."

This, Zuko realized, was the true face of the Black Fist. Zaofu was likely a capable leader and a strong warrior, it was possible that he shared Elder Gamen's beliefs and that he had begun this crusade himself in a series of small ways; but Gamen was the mastermind. He was the one engineering this spreading epidemic of hatred and fear.

It was like watching a mentalist work, the way he tried to draw on what would have concerned any Water tribe warrior the most – the survival of his tribe – and manipulated Zuko into admitting that the benders had been part of the reason, pushing responsibility for any damage sustained by the tribe onto a clearly defined minority that were already impenetrably separate from everyone else.

What he could not fathom was why.

Zaofu’s name marked him as Fire Nation. Which made sense given the worth placed on those with firebending abilities during the war. Zuko's own family was evidence of the favour showed to children with greater power. But in the Earth Kingdom bending wasn’t associated with the upper echelons; it wasn’t a way to gain more influence in society. It was a sideshow entertainment or a workers tool. Yet Elder Gamen was unmistakably Earth Kingdom.

If Gamen's only intention had been the destruction of society there were simpler and more effective ways to go about it. This was a precise and targeted course and there was a reason buried somewhere beneath it.

"Only by perfect virtue can the perfect path, in all its courses, be made a fact." It wasn't much of a response but Zuko was hard pressed to think of an appropriate quotation and he was not skilled at drawing words of wisdom from the ether like his uncle. It was part of why he had begun to memorize the teachings of Kong Qui. They were general enough that a listener could project almost anything onto them and hopefully reveal more than they meant to in their responses.

"Well said Sokka of the Water Tribe. Perhaps when you return to the South Pole you will have much to talk about."

"I shall, honored elder." Zuko rose and bowed deferentially. "Forgive my curiosity but on our way in we passed a boy with a metal contraption strapped around his shoulders."

"Ah yes the Tutor. It is the most effective treatment we have found so far; providing we reach them young enough. The Black Fist is presently engaged in finding a more permanent solution. They've come up with something rather unexpected and we have high hopes."

"It's a treatment for bending?"

"For the taint, yes." The correction was voiced simply, but there was an insistence behind it. "Something to do with stopping chi energies. I am not sure how it works." That, Zuko knew was a lie. Gamen had probably invented the spirits cursed thing. "The adults go quite mad after a little while, but the taint hasn't corrupted the children beyond salvation."

"Generous of you to house them here."

"One doesn't keep infected moose-cattle with the rest of the herd."

The elder nodded a dismissal and Zuko forced himself to leave calmly and not burn the place to a smoking pile of rubble on his way out.

 


 

When Zuko opened the missive that said Suki's father was dead, he was halfway to the armoury before it occurred to him to read the rest of the letter. He was so used to living day in and day out with war and conflict the idea that death could come naturally hadn't even crossed his mind.

Oyaji had been ill for the better part of the last year. He was an older man and time seemed to have caught up with him. He had died in his sleep, the letter explained. Zuko had cancelled all his meetings and left that day for Kyoshi Island.

The traditional mourning colour in all four nations was white, but each group marked the passing of a life in a slightly different way. In the Fire Nation death was a highly ceremonial event, the body was first laid out on a bier, then carried by a procession through the streets before it was cremated at a sacred site and the ashes were interred. Relatives were expected to wear pale colours and avoid certain activities for at least a season after the death.

Water Tribesmen funeral rites consisted of laying the deceased in a special canoe and sending them out into the ocean. Those who were closest to the loss would cut off their hair and families of the deceased would perform special rituals on significant days for one year after the passing of their loved one in order to help the spirit transition into the next life.

Zuko didn't know the customs of the Air Nomads, but the people of the Earth Kingdom – unsurprisingly – buried their dead. He wasn't sure if the simple ceremony was typical or a ritual of Kyoshi Island but the intimacy of it held surprising appeal. The village sages recited prayers for Oyaji to move smoothly into the spirit world and a few close friends made short speeches.

Suki sat in the front row but did not speak. Her Kyoshi warrior makeup over her white formal robes made her seem like a spirit herself, red paint streaking across her eyes like tears of blood. The whole thing was quiet, restrained and dignified and it was followed by the most monumental booze-up Zuko had ever witnessed.

Apparently it was also traditional in some parts of the Earth Kingdom, that the deceased's life be celebrated, to ease the sorrow felt at their passing and to toast their new life in the spirit world.

The alcohol had appeared almost instantaneously after the ceremony. For the most part Zuko stood confused on the sidelines as all of Oyaji's friends gathered around a central table and attempted to outdo each other with wild stories, in between sobering moments where one or more approached tears. Suki didn't join in the talk much, she hovered on the fringes, refilling drinks and listening with a watery smile on her face. Sokka had attempted to help her – Zuko hadn't seen him away from Suki's side once since his arrival on the island – until she sat him firmly down and pressed a mug into his hand. He was currently recounting an outrageous tale of all the ways Oyaji had tried to kill him when he'd taken up with Suki.

Toph arrived late, having traveled all the way from Gaoling, with an array of flowers that was almost larger than she was; condolences from Poppy Bei Fong. She looked pale and sad, which was odd considering she hadn't really known Oyaji. But not as odd as the way she immediately crossed to Suki and enveloped her in a tight embrace. Toph wasn't an affectionate person at the best of times but whatever she whispered in Suki's ear made the bereaved girl's ghost of a smile brighten just a fraction.

All too soon, though, that happiness had faded again and Zuko watched her slip away through a side door. Peering skeptically into his mug Zuko shrugged and downed the whole thing in one swallow before following her out into the cool night.

Suki whipped around in surprise when the door closed behind him with a thump, but she relaxed when she recognized who was intruding on her solitude.

"Thank you for coming Zuko."

"Of course." They stood next to one another in silence, elbows braced on the railing looking out over the sleeping village towards the bay where the statue of Avatar Kyoshi held vigil.

"Does it – "Suki cut herself off before she could finish the question.

"What?"

"I was going to ask if it got easier – not having a father I mean – but then it remembered…"

"That my father was Fire Lord Ozai." Zuko finished, sighing heavily. "Suki …. you want to know something I've never told anyone?"

She nodded, eyes wide.

"We… my family- we mourned my father."

"Really?" Suki's hand flew up to cover her mouth as soon as the exclamation escaped. "I'm sorry I didn't mean."

"Yeah you did." He rubbed the back of his neck. "And you were right… I mean Agni's balls my mother killed him  – not that she'd ever admit it. But, well, he was my father. And even after," Zuko gestured vaguely to his scar. "I hated him but there are some bonds you never escape. What I am trying to say very inarticulately is that yes it will get easier, but you have to actually mourn."

She shook her head in unconscious denial. "That's not it, he had a good life, I just need to be happy for that."

"No, no you don't. Let everyone in there be happy for him. You need to be sad for you." He insisted. "Just for a little while, bank the fire so it doesn't go out completely."

Suki lowered her head and said nothing for a long moment. Zuko was absolutely sure he'd managed to make everything worse. Why was Uncle never around when people needed advice on advice?

"I," Her voice was so small and broken sounding for an instant he thought he'd imagined it. "I'm an orphan." Tears made winding tracks through her thick makeup. He put a tentative arm across her shoulders and squeezed gently.

"Suki are you out here sweetcakes? Katara finally made it, but everyone else has gone home. Hey," Sokka stopped when he saw the two of them. "Stealing my woman jerk bender?"

"Yes dear, Zuko and I can't contain our burning sexual tension any longer." There was something about her deadpanning in a voice choked with tears that left Zuko torn between laughing and crying a little himself.

"Oh that's just so wrong." Toph said from the doorway.

Sokka caught his lady's hands up and pressed them to his chest. "Suki?"

"I miss my dad!" She managed, before collapsing into heart wrenching sobs. Cradling her to his chest, Sokka eased them both down to the floor. Zuko exchanged a wan smile of greeting with Katara before they bracketed themselves on either side of the couple; Toph kneeing in front and looking unsure whether to offer the piece of cake in her left hand or the handkerchief in her right.

They sat together on the balcony until the sun came up and Suki's eyes, though red and puffy, were dry again.

 

Chapter Text

 

Toph wasn't surprised to find Aang next to her in bed when she woke to the sun's rays warming her face, but her lack of surprise was genuinely shocking. Aang had been back for one week; this was the morning of the seventh day and by intention or sleepy drunken dogpile they had shared a bed every single night.

What's more was she hadn't tried to kick him, or taken all the covers, or rolled over and over until he was trapped against the edge of the mattress or any of the other things her previous sleeping partners had complained of. Her body had subconsciously made room for him in her space. Guess I missed you a little, Twinkles.

Deciding that the best course of action was, as always, not to overthink things, Toph simply reached her arms above her head and wriggled into a stretch, yawning wide and trying to crack every joint in her body.

"That can't be good for you," a sleepy voice said in her ear.

"If it feels good, I'm doing it." She flung back the blankets and sat up reaching back to tug his shaggy hair gently. Aang swatted at her hand the bed shifted and she felt him swing his feet out onto the floor.

"I should probably cut that off. You don't have a razor handy, do you?"

"Keep it," she suggested. "I like it."

Aang seemed genuinely pleased. "You do?"

"Yeah, it really brings out your eyes."

"I never thought of that – aw, Toph…"

"You walked into that one!" she tossed over her shoulder.

The smell of someone dropping onions into a buttery pan drew Toph out of her bedroom and toward the kitchen. Jai was cracking eggs into a bowl and Suyin was chopping something that smelled like mushrooms. Yanmei sat cradling a cup of tea in both hands, holding the warm mug against her forehead; mornings were not her strong suit. Knowing better than to offer to help with the cooking, Toph set about cutting thick slices from a loaf of bread.

The remainder of the sleepy group filed in slowly, making themselves useful – even Aang conjured fire at his fingertips to toast her bread slices – and soon they were enthusiastically wolfing down Jai's latest version of 'everything-left-in-the-bottom-of-the-food-packs plus eggs'. Once the eating had slowed to a pace that permitted conversation, Toph spoke up.

"First order of business; has anyone ever heard of the Waking Mountain?"

No one spoke up. She sighed, leaning her elbows on the table and propping her chin up. "Alright then. You are going to Omashu today, the Avatar and I will head to Ba Sing Se University and see what we can find out about this mountain. Then hopefully get back to you so we can take this guy out before the end of the week."

"Why a week?" Aang broke in, before any of her Bandits could voice their complaints.

"Because that's when my vacation is over." He snorted with laughter, which seemed to upset Ayashu.

"Sifu our place is at your side! We should be going along to Ba Sing Se."

"You're going to Omashu. The students are there and they need looking after. Besides, Bumi,” she gestured eloquently. “Is Bumi. We’re all there enough that you staying in the palace won't be suspicious," Toph explained.” The Black Fist is planning to assassinate him and get one of their puppets installed as King. You are going to make sure that does not happen."

"Can't we just let the Black Fist kill him?" Lan suggested. "Bumi is harder to wrangle than all the students put together."

"Remember that time with Flopsie and the ostrich-chickens?"

"I was trying to repress that memory, thanks."

"Anyway!" Toph interrupted. "Take our informants with you; at the very least they can be tried for attacking us. We're going to seal up the school and leave a warning for anyone else that might come looking – Shan that's your job." The boy nodded solemnly. "I want this underway before noon."

The Bandits nodded and those who had arrived too late to help with cooking began to clean the breakfast dishes.

"Come on Aang, time to get back on the road."

 


 

The trip to Ba Sing Se was long even when flying. Aang had made it a number of times in the year following Ozai's defeat, but every single time he couldn't help but think how happy he was not to be walking. He reached down from his perch and scratched at the base of Appa's horns affectionately. The great beast growled in appreciation and Toph laughed from her place lounging in the saddle.

"Hey," She called to him over the noise of the rushing wind. "Can you teach me to drive Appa?"

"Toph, you can't see."

"Really? Gosh Twinkles I had no idea!"

Aang rolled his eyes. "You hate flying."

"I don't –" She stopped herself before she finished the lie. "Okay fine I hate flying. But I still think I should know how. What if something happened to you?"

He bit back the urge to say 'nothing is going to happen to me,' knowing she wouldn't take that as an answer. "You can't steer him though."

Toph draped herself over the front of the saddle, close enough that the strands of hair that had yanked themselves out of her braid flicked over the back of his neck. "You don't steer him either, you two just…" She made a gesture that looked more like she was smashing rocks together than anything else. "You mind meld or something. Appa just knows where to go. Can't you teach me that?"

"Can I teach you how to form a life bond with a flying bison?"

He could tell she felt completely ridiculous for asking when he phrased her question like that, but Toph pushed out her chin and refused to back down. "Yes."

Aang sighed, shuffling further back on Appa's head to make room for her. "Come down here."

She slid over the bison's head and awkwardly clambered in front of Aang, reluctant to move any of her limbs off Appa for more than a second. Eventually, Toph settled between his legsand he took her hand to guide it to the reins. "Here you go. Pull back and he'll go higher. This way is left." He tugged gently at one elbow. "And the other way to turn right. There, you've got it." He slid his hands over hers and readjusted their direction. "Not far to Ba Sing Se now."

She hummed in agreement, experimenting with how far she could turn Appa left or right with just a flick of her fingers. Aang slouched back against the rise of the bison's shoulders. "So how long have you been Bumi's heir?"

Toph huffed in exasperation. "I am not Bumi's heir. The old coot is mad as a box of badger-toads." He waited for her to elaborate and she didn't disappoint. "It was a prank on Zuko. Sparky's ministers were encouraging him to get married – trying to decide whether to keep the royal line pure Fire Nation or marry him off to a foreign Princess so they could cement relations blah, blah. Anyway, Bumi and Iroh and I wanted him to just ask the girl he actually loves to marry him. So they thought … make the best candidate totally unappealing."

Aang gaped, swallowed big and choked, sputtering between gasps. "You're going to marry Zuko?"

"Oh Oma, not if he were the last man on earth," she said emphatically. He couldn't help but sigh in relief. Zuko wasn't good enough for Toph; no one was good enough for Toph. "But with my frankly astonishing dowry and the Bei Fong business empire behind me, I would be the ultimate catch for a political marriage if I were a princess. So Uncle Iroh offers my name as a candidate to the Fire Nation ministers. But Bumi…" She trailed off for a moment with a frustrated noise. "I'm not sure if he wanted to make it convincing or if he's just a complete rockhead but he signed the official papers and now I'm his spirits blessed heir!"

Aang smirked. He knew Bumi, and chances were having Toph run Omashu when he passed on had been his plan all along. You mad genius. "You don't want to be Queen?"

"Is that new hair growing into your brain? I run a school Twinkles, and a vigilante group on the side, I'm an unofficial Earth Kingdom representative to the Fire Nation and Southern Water Tribe and at the rate I'm reconciling with my parents I'm going to end up running my father's business empire one day as well. I don't have time to be queen of anything other than earthbending!"

"Wow." Aang knew his friends had come into their own while he was gone and he’d been impressed with Toph's commitment to her students, just as he'd been amazed at Sokka's drive to build up the Water Tribes, Katara's determination to keep the peace and Zuko's ability to govern an entire Nation, but to hear her responsibilities listed out… It was a wonder there was anything of the carefree Toph he remembered left at all.

"It was almost worth it to hear the sound of Sparky's heart when my name was at the top of the list for his prospective brides." She laughed over her shoulder, grinning at him. It was a wonder alright, but Toph had always been surprising.

Aang glanced out at the coast of the lake transforming into fields of green, gold and brown across the landscape below them and caught sight of the curving line that was the outer wall of Ba Sing Se. "Toph!" he called. "We're almost there. You better let me take over."

She shook her head emphatically. "No way, show me how to land this crazy beast." Appa bellowed, protesting the name, and shook his head enough to make Toph shout and grip his fur. Aang moved in closer behind her, running his hands over Appa to soothe him.

"You know she didn't mean it buddy, it's just Toph."

"Hey!"

"Are you really disagreeing with that?"

"No, but you don't have to make it sound so awful."

'You're not awful," he said. "You're just you. If you want him to descend, squeeze gently with your heels right here." Aang seized one bare foot and tried to move it to that spot just beneath Appa's horns where the bison could feel her directions but Toph gasped and jerked away when he touched her.

"What? What's wrong?" He scanned the sky for falling projectiles and her for injuries. Toph's cheeks were flaming red and she looked almost embarrassed. Which was ridiculous because he clearly recalled thirteen year old Toph belching loudly at a state dinner in the Fire Nation and simply turning to Sokka to discuss whether it was an eight or a nine.

"People don't touch my feet," she said shortly, the words almost a growl. "They're…sensitive."

Aha! When they were younger Toph had always reminded him of a pillar of stone, invincible, invulnerable; but… With a wicked grin he stroked the pads of his fingers gently over her arch, chuckling when Toph cried out, flinching away. That was an unexpected response. Before he could reach to do it again she hauled back on the reins with a strangled "Yip, yip!" and the sharp movement sent him tumbling back towards the saddle.

"Do not do that again!"

He snagged the end of her hair, tugging lightly. "Toph is ticklish!"

"No. I'm not."

He peered down at her, quirking an inquisitive eyebrow even though she couldn't see it. "Then why-"

"Twinkles I'm not going to explain the boar-swallows and the hummingbees to you," she insisted, muttering something that sounded like 'Seven years studying doesn't know a damn thing about girls.'

"Oh." Oh! "Uh… sorry Toph."

She grunted but didn't reply, urging Appa lower. Aang tucked his hands behind his head and stretched out across the saddle, feeling slightly embarrassed. Still, the awkwardness was almost completely displaced by helpless smugness. He might not know anything about girls and it might not be appropriate but now he knew how to make Toph squirm and that was pretty amazing. Something hard smacked him on the head.

"Twinkletoes!" Toph was readying her other bracelet to toss at him. "Quit grinning like that right now!"

"How do you even know I'm smiling?"

"It's so stupid looking I can hear it!" she shot back.

 


 

Ba Sing Se was a lot less crowded than he remembered. It seemed that the city of walls and secrets had become less appealing once it was no longer the last safe haven in a rising tide of Fire Nation territory. Many of the refugees from the lower ring had left to find better prospects. The lessening population pressure combined with the postwar economic boom the Earth Kingdom had been enjoying had created better conditions for those who remained. The lower ring, while still bustling, wasn't nearly the derelict shantytown it had been on his last visit. Privately Aang was delighted to see that the zoo he had constructed was still there.

His heart was in his throat as Toph brought Appa in for a landing just outside the palace of the Earth King. He had expected her to steer the bison down but instead she just dug her heels in where he had showed her and said, "Just land us in the first big open space you see." Appa seemed pleased she was willing to trust his judgment and set them down right in the enormous courtyard they had fought their way through so long ago.

There was an entourage waiting for them when they landed, led by a woman who looked suspiciously like one of the Joo Di's though her smile was not nearly as wide or terrifying. She was flanked by an entourage of staff, including a quad of soldiers wearing a modified version of the Dai Li uniform. Aang greeted them with a bow but kept his staff at the ready until Toph scrambled down on to the stone and didn't react.

"Avatar Aang!" the Joo Di woman exclaimed. "It is so exciting that you have returned to us. The Earth King was hoping you would grace us with your presence after your visit to the Fire Nation."

"I hadn't expected the news to move so quickly," he admitted.

"The Earth King prides himself on being well informed. If you and Princess Bei Fong-"

"Master Bei Fong," Toph corrected irritably. The woman smiled and nodded, but continued as though the diminutive earthbender hadn't spoken.

"-Will follow me, I’ll show you to your rooms and you can freshen up before your meeting with the king. If you would like to leave your bison here, these groomsmen will attend it."

Toph seemed to feel his apprehension, and she flashed him a small reassuring smile. He nodded at Joo Di. "Lead the way." No longer brainwashed or under the influence of the Dai Li, the woman was still incredibly creepy.

 


 

Aang wasn't sure what Joo Di really meant by freshen up; he didn't exactly have the option of changing into a new outfit. It was either what he was currently wearing or the strange ancient airbender robes he had found at the Tower. In the end he opted to pull one of the silk shirts from the wardrobe on under his yellow tunic and hope for the best.

He was grateful that he'd made the effort when he met up with Toph in her battle regalia just before entering the receiving hall. "Did I ever tell you, you look really impressive in that stuff?"

"Thanks Twinkles, you look good too."

Aang opened his mouth to reply to the compliment when her words caught up with his brain. "Toph-" He was cut off by the herald announcing their entrance.

"Avatar Aang of the Southern Air Temple and Princess Bei Fong."

"I am going to kill Bumi," he heard her mutter under her breath, just before they stepped into the throne room.

The great chamber was no longer echoing and empty as it had been when Kuei was Earth King. Instead, richly dressed courtiers from Ba Sing Se's noble houses lined the walls to the left and right of the great jade dais that held the throne of the Earth King.

The new Earth King had been appointed before Aang had left for the Tower, but there hadn't been much time to see him in action before he'd left for training. The 53rd Earth King had been born Puyi, a scion of a lower noble house who worked his way up through the viper's pit of convoluted bureaucracy under Long Feng until the invasion of the Fire Nation. On the day of Sozin's Comet Puyi had managed to free a number of the captured imperial guard and retake the palace.

Despite this daring move, Puyi was not a man of action by nature. He was a master of neutral jin as applied to the arenas of information and courtly intrigue. Anyone who assumed that the newest bearer of the Earth King title was a mere figurehead like Kuei would find themselves politically and financially dismembered in less time than it took to finish one of Puyi's famed banquets.

Under him the Dai Li were reformed with their power balanced, the people of Ba Sing Se were thriving and the Earth Kingdom was at peace; but merely being in the same room with the man had always made Aang twitchy.

Puyi was not a naturally imposing man. He was rather birdlike in appearance, thin with narrow features, made sharper by his neatly trimmed goatee. Not handsome but reasonably pleasant looking. He didn’t seem like a man with overmuch charisma, or someone you would ever need to watch your tongue around. Which was – Aang supposed – why he had been so good at playing the duplicitous games that the noble families of Ba Sing Se were so famous for.

Though he was flanked by advisors, two in particular stood out; an elegant dark haired woman on his left in an elaborate pale yellow dress embroidered with flowers and a scholarly gentleman with a red beard, dressed in white at the King's right hand. The two of them seemed to have deliberately coordinated their clothing to set off the green in the Earth King's traditional robes of state, making Puyi look even more vivid. Aang was sharply reminded how much this nonsense irritated him.

What he hadn't known until he saw the way Puyi looked at his earthbending teacher was exactly how much the King and Toph loathed each other. Her bow before the great throne was absolutely flawless, the perfect depth for a crown princess acknowledging a high king; there was a vaguely pleasant neutrality to her expression and she waited silently to be acknowledged, but there was something in the lines of her body - the way her stance was a touch too casual, her eyes narrowed ever so slightly - that screamed insolence and exasperation with the pageantry.

The king looked ever so faintly displeased with her, but nothing that could be called a real expression crossed his face. Instead he turned his attention to Aang and nodded, with all the respect one would afford a man of equal rank. All ready to return the congenial gesture, Aang was stopped by the angry spike of Toph's heartbeat. Apparently Puyi was trying to make him look a fool. He inclined his head ever so slightly - Aang might feel like a bumbling child in courtly situations but he was the Avatar and he bowed to no king.

There was a faint chorus of gasps from the assembly of courtiers that lined the walls of the receiving room, and he saw Toph smile out of the corner of his eye.

"Greetings Avatar Aang," Puyi began. "We are pleased to see you returned. What has brought you to our great city?"

Aang glanced around at the room full of people. Any one of them could be a member of the Black Fist or a spy for them. Toph looked like she was desperately holding back the urge to speak, and he decided that discretion might be the wisest course. "A search for information, your majesty," he replied. "We have come to make use of the library at Ba Sing Se University."

Puyi’s eyebrows rose slightly. "You have been dedicated so long to study, Avatar, we are surprised that more knowledge would be any use to you." The crowd around them was too well heeled to actually laugh at such a remark, but the smirking was enough to let Aang know he had been insulted.

"The study of history is always valuable when one is concerned with the future. Looking at your predecessors and past Avatars, for example." It probably wasn’t dignified, but Aang was not above reminding everyone that not only had he saved the life of King Kuei and put Puyi on the throne, but the last time an Earth King had challenged an Avatar, Kyoshi had formed the Dai Li and made him into little more than a puppet figurehead.

He felt Toph tap the floor gently with her toes in a quick flutter of vibrations that sounded like laughter.

"Of course we will provide the Avatar with anything he might need. A scholar will be assigned to assist you in any way you may require," the Earth King said. "And we will hold a great feast in honor of your return to us."

"I assure you that isn't necessary," Aang began, but Puyi didn't allow him to finish the thought.

"Of course it is. It would be an unforgivable breach of protocol to not have you dine at our table."

Which meant that he couldn't refuse the invitation. "You are too kind, your majesty," Aang replied, trying not to grit his teeth. Puyi nodded a cool dismissal without speaking and they swiftly made their exit.

Halfway down the corridor away from the unforgiving tension of the throne room Aang finally stopped to take a breath, but before he could open his mouth to speak Toph clamped a hand over it. "Come on Twinkles, you need a cup of tea."

 


 

The dry September heat wasn't the best weather for tea but the customers of the Jasmine Dragon didn't seem to mind a bit. The tea house was bustling, filled with the sound of laughter and the clink of cups. Former general Iroh was holding his own version of court in the visible kitchen at the back of the shop, shouting orders to his waiters and calling out greetings to the customers. He looked even happier than Aang remembered, perfectly at home in the steaming bustle.

"Uncle Dragon!" Toph called out as she stepped over the threshold.

Iroh stopped in his tracks with his back still to them and replied. "If that is the Blind Bandit she'd better get over here and give this old man a hug right now!"

Toph vaulted the waist high wall that separated the array of teas from the customers and threw her arms around the older man. "I swear you get fatter every time I see you! I'm not going to be able to get my arms around you soon."

"Bah at this point in my life I deserve my little indulgences." He scoffed. "And the cakes in this city are so good."

"I'll say you do," She grinned and gestured Aang forward. "I brought someone to visit."

"The Avatar," The words were a surprised breath. Aang stretched out a hand, grinning sheepishly.

"Hello General."

Iroh grabbed his hand just long enough to use it to pull Aang into a bear hug that crushed all the wind out of him. "Good to have you back."

"I maintain that he is not worth all this excitement."

"And why have you not put an apron on yet?" Iroh demanded, pulling away from Aang. "There are thirsty customers out there!"

"Hey, we're here as patrons!" she protested. "Are you going to make him serve too?"

"Of course not, the Avatar is a guest. You are trouble."

"But-"

"Oh go sit down. You can make up for it next time you’re here." Iroh waved them towards a half curtained in table near the kitchen. "I'll have someone bring you my daily blend."

Aang's stomach chose that exact moment to voice its displeasure at how long it had been since he'd eaten. Iroh looked at him, askance. "I suppose I better send out some tarts as well."

"Not that I'm not happy to see Iroh again," Aang began once they had seated themselves. "But why did we have to come all the way out here?"

"Because you can't pick your nose in that two-headed rat-viper nest without everyone knowing about it," she explained. "Those people are all backstabbing conniving pig-weasels. You were pretty smart with the double talking in there."

"I've been getting practice lately," he reminded her wryly.

"Oh Ursa has nothing on the Earth King. I wouldn't be surprised if he's working with the Black Fist."

"What!"

"Well I don't mean really with them. But Puyi is the type who would claim to be sympathetic just so they won't get in his way." She shook her head. "He's an Earth cursed bastard, but he'll keep Ba Sing Se strong and safe if he has to hold the stones up by hand."

"So we don't tell him what we're looking for."

"Were not telling anyone what we are looking for. Including that scholar he's assigning us. If the Black Fist can get someone poised to take the throne of Omashu, it's a fair bet they can find an impressionable student to do their dirty work."

"This is going to be just like trying to find Appa with Joo Di tagging along, isn't it?" he groaned.

"Ba Sing Se rots," she agreed.

A tall man came bustling up to their little table with a tray of assorted sweets and two steaming mugs. "Hello Miss Toph, good to see you again. And the Avatar, my, my it's been years. Welcome back." Aang looked up to thank the waiter and felt his jaw drop.

"King Kuei?"

The man looked abashed. He was dressed in the simple robes of the Jasmine Dragon wait staff, and if it hadn't been for the gold pince-nez on his nose Aang wouldn't have recognized him. "We try to keep the king part quiet around here."

"How did you end up working for Iroh?"

"Oh he's a friend of my lovely wife Jin. It's funny where people end up isn't it?" Kuei was quickly distracted by the sight of another customer waving him over. "Well enjoy your tea!"

Aang stared after the former Earth King. "Whoa."

Toph opened her mouth, likely to make a smart remark, when a hand reached out of the shadows and clamped onto her shoulder. Aang summoned up a fireball, but Toph rolled her eyes and waved him away. "Just come and sit down, Chan."

The red bearded man who had stood at Puyi's right hand tossed back his hood and glared at her. "You do understand that the Order of the White Lotus is intended to be a secret society? Besides, I'm not even supposed to be speaking with you since you antagonized the Earth King and made everyone's jobs more difficult."

"Come off it Chan, you pompous ass." A tall elegant woman slid onto the bench next to Aang, the same woman who had stood to the left of the throne, now without her fancy gown. "If you were trying to be stealthy you shouldn't have been so easy to follow. You White Lotus types go on and on about secrecy with all your little codes and games, but when the end of an occupation comes around you're tripping all over yourselves to take credit."

"As opposed to the Golden Peony, Lien? Who had their ace in the hole with Ozai exiled, their Earth Kingdom representative buried under the Dai Li's bureaucracy and exactly who looking out for the Avatar? Oh that's right, no one."

"Yes it was positively ridiculous to be looking after the people under the brutal war regime rather than waiting around doing nothing till the Avatar ended the war."

"Without the White Lotus the Fire Nation would still hold Ba Sing Se."

"They'd still be holding it because without the Golden Peony keeping control of the palace they'd have been able to retreat."

"We rescued you."

"We cleared a path for you every step of the way."

"You're being irrational."

"You can't handle an argument for more than a minute without trotting out the personal insults, can you?"

"Only when I'm dealing with someone who refuses to employ logic!"

"Boor!"

"Harridan!"

Aang coughed. Loudly.

Toph reached across the table to sock him hard in the arm. "Hey I was watching that!"

The two courtiers glared at one another before looking away and taking a moment to compose themselves. "I was sent to collect information," they said in unison.

"And offer my services," she added hastily.

"At the behest of the Earth King."

"But really for the Golden Peony."

Chan was talking over her before she'd finished her sentence. "On behalf of the White Lotus."

Aang looked over at Toph. "Well," she smirked. "They're not lying."

 


 

Toph could smell the seasons changing. The heavy, oppressive rains of late winter and early spring were giving way to warmth; the air was heavy with pollen and the promise of summer. She and Kotta had trekked all over the Earth Kingdom, from Makapu Village – where Kotta had picked her an armful of panda lilies - to the Great Divide – where they had camped for a week to let Toph train fighting canyon crawlers – and tomorrow they would reach the last stop on their journey: the ferry to Kyoshi Island.

Sokka and Suki would meet them there and travel with them the final stretch to the South Pole. Toph had been due back at her school last week, but she had decided to finish the last part of the trip anyway and perhaps stay a while with the Water Tribes, and Kotta. She wanted to spend more time with her lover.

My lover.

Toph smiled gently to herself. The name still gave her a giddy thrill, just like the one she got when she could smell him on her skin in the mornings.

The whole arrangement suited Toph perfectly. There was no hand holding, no silly plans; she couldn't sense any soulful staring across the campfire. By day they were fellow travelers, jovial in one another's company, and their nights were spent in pursuit of pleasure.

Not that there had been much of that lately. Kotta's ardor had cooled over the last week. He had mentioned being apprehensive about how long it had taken them to cross the Earth Kingdom. Toph had tried to reassure him but she'd been rebuffed over and over.

Today, however, he had awoken a new man. Laughing and enthused they had set a brisk pace and reached their intended campsite early in the afternoon. Kotta had disappeared with his hunting knife after an unexpectedly passionate kiss promising that he would bring back something worthy of a feast to celebrate their last night.

She sighed. It would be wonderful to see her friends again, but there was part of Toph that resented the intrusion of real life on their little world. With a shrug that no one was there to see, she levered herself up off the ground and began to unpack what they would need to cook whatever Kotta came back with. Dumping out the whole contents of her rucksack searching for their salt box, Toph began to dig through Kotta's things. There! Naturally it was at the very bottom of the bag, practically tucking into the liner. Had he unpacked the whole thing and put the salt in first?

The box, when she drew it out, was too light to be salt, and much more elaborately carved than the rough-hewn container. Curious, she cracked it open and ran inquisitive fingers over the contents. A flat disk of what might have been ivory, carved with the symbol of the Northern Water Tribe and affixed with tiny metal – silver – loops to a soft, elaborately textured, woven band. Toph knew she had felt something almost the same before but she couldn't recall…

The answer hit her like a rock to the head. Katara. Katara had one of these; she wore it all the time because it had been her grandmother's betrothal necklace.

It was a Water Tribe betrothal necklace!

Toph sat down very hard in the dirt. She wanted to throw up, she wanted to take the damned box and hurl it away as far as she could, she wanted to put it on right now. Kotta was going to propose. Kotta wanted to get married!

Oh Oma, I'm not even eighteen yet!

She ran her fingers over the soft band, the intricate carving and the cool metal and fell backwards onto the ground, holding the little box to her chest and smiling so hard her face hurt. 

Vibrations at the edge of her awareness made her leap to her feet, snap the box closed and hurl it back into the depths of Kotta's bag, frantically repacking and trying to remember how to act like a normal person.

She was lounging nonchalantly by the time Kotta stepped into their campsite carrying two steaming bamboo containers. "I found a little village near here and I thought, why waste our night cooking?" He placed the meals down near their fire and scooped her up into his strong arms, tossing her gently down onto their spread bedrolls and covering her small body with his own. "Let's make our last night one to remember."

Toph laughed in delight and kissed him quiet.

Chapter Text

 

 

Dear Spirits, captivity was boring.

Barely a day into her capture and Katara was ready to climb the walls in frustration. Outwardly she fought to maintain a picture of serenity, still seated placidly in a meditative pose, trying to draw every drop of groundwater within reach to pool in the earth beneath her cage. There was nothing in the cage she could possibly use to hold the water so Katara let it absorb back into the dirt, pulling it back towards her with each measured inhale. She could draw it back out again, if worst came to worst, but it would take more time and concentration than she might have in an emergency.

Heroines were forever getting kidnapped in those trashy romances she loved to unwind with, but the scrolls never mentioned the tedium. Probably because the beauteous protagonist was never in jail for more than half an hour before she had a lecherous but handsome guard make an attempt on her virtue, or she was rescued by her brave prince. Katara's own prince had disappeared hours ago and she was beginning to think he might need a rescue of his own. Muttering under her breath about ruined fantasies, she readjusted her position and tried to stretch out her legs one by one. She licked her parched lips and contemplated drinking her emergency cache. Her captors hadn't brought her food or drink since they'd shoved her unceremoniously into prison, and Katara was starting to feel desiccated in the autumn heat.

Closing her eyes, Katara reveled in the sensation of her muscles tugging gently as she stretched her arms. She remained like that, enjoying the sun warming her face until a shadow left her in darkness again. Sighing, Katara snapped her eyes open and could barely stop herself from recoiling in surprise at the sight of the dour woman looming above her.

She was tall, with a strong jaw, heavily muscled and carrying a hammer that looked like it could pulp bone. Her face was careworn but the fine lines that creased the corners of her eyes spoke of a pleasant disposition, despite her current ominous frown. She was also carrying a battered tin plate. Katara's nose caught the scent of food and her stomach growled at an embarrassing volume. The woman sneered and set the plate down just within range of Katara's hands. She turned without speaking to leave, and Katara noticed that though there was meat, cheese and bread, there was nothing with even a drop of liquid in it.

"Excuse me, Ma'am."

The woman rounded on her with a glare that could have flash frozen a firebender, but Katara would not be deterred. "I realize that this is going to sound rather suspicious, but might I have something to drink?" She could see the woman was about to walk off and kept speaking. "I promise, I'm only thirsty. I give you my word."

"The word of a snake like you means nothing," the woman snorted. "Or do you consider yourself virtuous witch?"

"I am not a witch," Katara insisted, forcing a leash on her anger. "Being a bender doesn't make me a liar."

"Are you saying all those with the taint are honest?"

"No," she thought of Azula. "No, we are not all honest."

"So you admit that 'benders' are dishonest by nature." Cruel triumph rang through the woman's voice.

Katara stared her down with the cool eyes of one used to hotheaded diplomats. "Are all non-benders honest by nature?"

The woman's face went tight with anger. "Why are you here?"

"I was told you'd been attacked."

"And you were here to defend the helpless villagers?" the woman mocked, holding up her massive blacksmith's hammer for emphasis.

"I am a healer," she replied shortly.

"And you came to win us over because you witches knew we were a threat."

"No one had any idea what was happening here."

"Then why bother with us at all?"

"Because, a long time ago I swore never to turn my back on people that needed me." Katara explained. "And I always keep my promises."

The woman stared at her for a moment and then left without a word. Two hours later a boy with the same dark green eyes appeared at her bars with a cup of tepid water. Katara gave him a wide grateful smile and was thrilled to see him smile tentatively back.

Progress.

 


 

Zuko remained unconvinced when he finally reappeared, looking grave and troubled. He explained what Gamen had told him and what was happening to the earthbending children.

"Katara, we have to do something about this. The man is a monster."

"I am doing something, Zuko."

"Sitting in a cage trying to make friends is not going to get us anywhere," he protested, completely ignoring her outrage. "It's too slow and too risky. We need to drag this out into the open. Once the people are free of Gamen's influence they will come to their senses."

"We can't just force change on these people. Then we're no better than that Elder. We have to present our side with as little bias as possible and trust each person to make the right decision. Otherwise it's not growth, it's tyranny."

"Each person – fine, if we had the time. But I am not about to trust people with your life. We need to dismantle this operation and prove to them that what is going on here is wrong."

"And what exactly is there to guarantee they won't turn on us for destroying a beloved leader?"

"They can't possibly like living with this kind of oppression."

"Well they certainly seem to believe in it. Are you planning to martyr Gamen for his cause and whip up even more support for the Black Fist?" Katara demanded. "If we destroy him we're only proving their prejudices correct."

"We can't allow an evil man to continue doing evil things because of our ideals."

"Our ideals?"

"Okay, okay, your ideals. I'm trying to grow some, they just seem impractical." Zuko seemed to suddenly remember he was in midstream of an argument. "He is torturing children, Katara. We have to stop him."

"I agree."

"I know you think we can't – wait, you agree with me?"

She quirked an eyebrow at him. "No Zuko, I'm for the continued torment of children."

"Well I obviously didn't think you were – I mean ...good," he trailed off lamely. "So the moon starts waxing again tonight. Do you think you'll be strong enough to fend off a few dozen guards?"

"You memorized the moon cycles?"

Zuko froze like a deer before a hunter and the tips of his ears turned ever so slightly pink. "It's important for you."

She leaned sideways against the bars so that they were touching shoulder to shoulder through the gaps in the metal. "Thanks. So we take out the guards in the dead of night, free the children and you spirit them away in the war balloon."

"I take them away? What about you?"

"I'm staying here. I think that I can fix this."

"Katara!" His shout of frustration was loud enough to attract attention from the opposite side of the square. "Who do you think they're going to blame when the children go missing?"

"Me."

"You!" Zuko cried, his gesticulations becoming wilder with every word. "They will blame you and then they will kill you! I cannot understand why you insist on putting yourself at risk like this-"

"Zuko!" She turned and reached through the bars to seize his face in both hands. "Keep your voice down," His head wave back and forth as she shook him slowly. "If we don't fix this here, the problem will spread and they'll be able to add stealing children to their list of grievances. These people don't care about the truth, they care about blame. Until we get them to stop blaming us, nothing will help."

His eyes flicked from hers down to her lips and she automatically darted her tongue out over their chapped surface. "Then what do we do?" His breath was soft against her face. Katara wanted him so badly she could almost taste it.

"We … ah, we have to win them over. At least one or two; and then we get Gamen to tip his hand."

"How."

She laughed. "Well first I have to not kiss you so we don't blow our cover. After that I'm not sure; I'm making this up as I go."

"Katara, you drive me insane."

"Short trip." She placed her hands on the bars and pushed herself away from Zuko and the emotionally charged madness he invoked.

He reached through the cage to wrap one hand around her wrist. "If we get out of this-"

"When, Zuko, when we get out of this. Now go scout, if we're going to break those children out we need a better plan than 'wait till its dark'."

"I thought you didn't like that idea."

"It never hurts to have a backup plan."

"One of these days I will finish that sentence," he warned her, rising to his feet.

Katara winked at him. "One day I might let you."

Zuko grinned in answer and stalked off. Katara allowed herself one long appreciative glance before smoothing her skirts and standing to pace the edges of her tiny cell, hoping to clear her head.

"You know, it doesn't look much like he wants you dead, Water Witch." Katara started at the noise and whipped around to see the female blacksmith she had argued with earlier, the edges of her face limned in red by the setting sun. "If that boy is planning to cross Gamen he's going to be sliced up and fed to the dogs."

"La only knows what he's planning. Sokka never tells me anything." Which was true, but not quite in the way that this woman might think. "Thank you for sending your son with the water."

"Don't. The boy did it on his own; inquisitive whelp. I should have tanned his hide." Her voice sounded so much like Gran-Gran going after the real Sokka that Katara had to stifle a giggle. "You are skilled at planting your thoughts in others' heads, I’ll grant you that."

"I worked hard at it."

"A tainted one with practice in manipulation, what a surprise," she remarked with enough sarcasm to make Toph wince.

"I'm a diplomat," Katara explained. "Part of the council of four nations."

"More of your people ruling and making decisions for the rest of us." The blacksmith set down the meager plate of food decisively.

"Actually, I'm the only bender on the council. Have you been to the council seat on Whaletail Island?" She asked, trying not to offend the woman with the large hammer. Katara knew it was infuriating to have everyone assume you were an ignorant peasant just because you were from a small village.

"No."

"Ah, well we’re trying to improve communication between the provinces, but the Earth Kingdom is so large…" Katara continued while the woman seemed to be in a mood to listen.

"The ancestors rest in heaven and the Earth King is far away." The Earth Kingdom saying was absently muttered, quiet enough that Katara could barely hear it.

"The council is one of the reasons I'm here. Our mandate is to improve the lives of everyone, no matter their nation or abilities." The woman's face was inscrutable and Katara decided to push at her just a little bit more. "I'd be happy to answer any of your questions. I am sure you teach your son the value of hearing both sides of an argument."

"Water Witch, I don't know you, and I don't want to know you. You are the enemy." The woman rolled her eyes and spat heavily towards the path.

Maybe a different tact. Katara had noted the woman's distended stomach, but the way she distributed her weight indicated that she no longer carried the child. "Congratulations," she offered. "Was it a boy or a girl?"

The woman clutched at her lower abdomen, a gesture of protection over something that was no longer there. "It doesn't matter."

"Oh." She lost the baby. "I'm sorry. Were you ill?"

"No," she choked out a bitter laugh. "I was 'bending' as you called it. Five months in rocks started to move when sh – when it kicked. The child was tainted and corrupting me."

Katara hoped desperately that she was misunderstanding something. "And you got rid of it?"

"Elder Gamen decreed that allowing the creature," the woman winced unconsciously when she said the word, "to live was a danger to the village. He and some of the men gave me ...something."

"That's... that's just beyond horrible." Katara felt as though she might be sick. "To force you - How could - I am so sorry. I wish I had been here."

"To defend a woman you don't know from something she might have chosen of her own will?" the blacksmith spat back.

"Would you have chosen it?"

"It... it was the right thing to do," she responded, the words flat, almost rote.

"It was not!" Katara was shouting now, unable to stop herself. "It was a terrible thing to do! I mean if it had been your choice or you were too ill, but because the baby was an earthbender? That's insane!"

"Shut up!" the woman cried. "Don't you dare speak to me, Water Witch. Your kind is to blame for this! If she hadn't been tainted, she'd still be alive." She wrapped her arms around her midsection, her eyes wet.

Katara wrapped her hands around the bars as though she could tear the metal apart, willing the woman to look at her, to listen. "She wasn't tainted," the waterbender insisted softly. "She wasn't evil. She was special. And they took her from you because they are afraid."

"I'm not listening to any more of your vile lies." The woman snatched up the plate she had dropped, food sliding away as she whirled around and stalked off.

Katara slid down the bars, letting herself crumple into a heap. She had let her anger take over, she had pushed too hard and ruined her best chance. Killing bender children in the womb. It was beyond comprehension. Twisting her anger and grief into power she pulled at the water absorbed into the dirt, creating a thin thread of liquid. The falling darkness was enough to keep her from being seen by the guards across the square and it wasn't as though anyone was getting close to her cage. Spinning out the stream of water she whipped it forward, slicing at the metal of the lock.

She was getting out of here; then she would find Zuko and she would freeze Gamen into an iceberg.

 


 

It took a long time to cut through the door with such a small amount of water but the guards were surprisingly easy to slip past. Katara had stripped off her pale blue outer robe, shivering slightly in the damp night air, and laid it across the bottom of her cell in the closest approximation of a sleeping girl she could manage. Hopefully it would fool a casual observer and the darker colour of her underdress would hide her better in the shifting shadows. Stepping beneath a laundry line strung across the gap between two houses, she snatched down a cowled cloak and covered her distinctive skin.

Carefully she picked her way from the square to the town hall building that Zuko had described and swore in frustration. The main door was lit up like midday by torches and a pair of guards stood vigil. Doubling back so she wouldn't be seen, Katara came up around the rear of the building looking for an open window or another entrance.

A carved lattice provided the answer. Taking firm hold, she hauled herself up, wedging her toes into the gaps in the design and clambering over the scoops and spikes that ought to have kept intruders away, but were far too ornamental for the job. Katara was beginning to wish she had kept up the rigorous training regime that she had been accustomed to while travelling with Aang. Too much soft living had yet to damage her figure, but it was apparently murder on her muscles. With an unladylike grunt she swung herself bodily over the lattice, through the small gap between the carving and the window frame.

She landed with a muffled thump inside some sort of office and quickly made her way to the door. Katara paused, hand on the knob at the sound of voices growing closer. Heart in her throat, she dashed across the room, sliding over the empty desk to roll behind a set of shelves in the far corner. She tucked her shoulders in and tried to breathe silently and listen over the thumping rush of blood in her ears.

"…and that's why." The speaker's words became distinct as the door opened. "We will ultimately succeed. Despite their powers, the tainted are false at heart."

The lantern light pooled across the floor and Katara forced herself closer to the wall, deeper into the shadow of the bookshelf.

"I understand, Honored Elder."

Zuko!

"But this can't be a long term solution. It would just be too unwieldy."

There was a rustling of fabric Katara took to mean a nod. "Of course. The Tutor is only a stopgap solution."

She craned her neck around the shelf, risking a brief glance. Gamen had his back to her, seated at the desk facing a standing Fire Lord turned tribesman. Almost like he knew she was there already Zuko's eyes flicked towards her and widened ever so slightly. He gasped and tried to hide the noise with coughing.

"Elder Gamen." He said, strained. "Sir, I've kept you far too late with my questions. I should let you get your rest."

The man stood and Katara pressed herself back into her hiding place. "Indeed, you are right. Come, let me walk you back to your rooms."

"I just want to thank you again for providing me with a place in your barracks…" The rest of Zuko's obeisances were muffled as the two of them exited the office. She sighed in relief and uncoiled her body from her hiding place. Too close. That had been sloppy.

Wasting no more time she crept out into the twisting narrow hallways, running her fingertips along one wall to keep herself from tripping in the blackness and listening for the sounds of children. The first two rooms she entered were storage, and the third contained a squad of sleeping guards. Hardly daring to breathe, Katara backed silently from the room and wedged the door closed with an unlit torch.

A heavy hand clamped down on her left shoulder and she nearly shrieked in surprise.

"What in Agni's name are you doing here?"

She sagged against him for a moment, waiting for her heart to slow down. "I'm doing what you wanted. Let's get those kids out of here."

She began tugging him forward down the hallway.

"Wait, Katara." He pulled her to a halt.

"You changed your mind?"

"No, it's this way." He smirked, barely visible in the dim light and she couldn't help but laugh softly. Things with Zuko were always so clear when they had a job to do.

"I thought I was going to get to break you out of jail," he remarked.

"Since when have I ever needed you to rescue me?"

""Never." He tugged her into a shadowed alcove moments before a lantern-carrying guard crossed the hallway ahead of them. "But I thought it might be fun."

They ducked along another passage and into the largest room Katara had seen yet. Bunks lined each wall with a double row down the middle. There had to be at least a hundred of them in the room, but most were empty. Instead a group of beds had been shoved together in the center of the room. The youngest children were congregated on it, piled together like puppies for warmth and comfort, surrounded on the outside by anyone who looked older than ten. There was a low noise like a bird call, and she and Zuko suddenly found themselves surrounded by a group of protective looking children.

Zuko held up his hands, calling a tongue of flame up on one while he put a finger to his lips with the other. Katara bent the water from a nearby washbasin and tugged it up over her arms.

"We came to help," she whispered. "We'll get you out of here."

She sent a surge of water forward to tear through the horrific contraption on the closest child's back just as Zuko neatly sliced through another. The young boy grimaced in pain as blood began to flow freely into the abused points on his body. Katara reached out with healing water and the bruises receded. He grinned and kicked up a tile from the floor, shattering it midair and sending the pieces out in a perfect ring to imbed themselves in the walls.

Excited whispers built into a dull roar as the children clamored for release, but the only sound Katara heard was men shouting outside.

"The Water Witch is gone!"

She shot Zuko a despairing look. "Get out of here." Without waiting for a response to her command, Katara took off, sprinting back to the office where she had entered.

"Find her!"

She could hear the thunder of running feet behind her; the guards she had trapped in their room were pounding at the door. Almost tripping over her skirts, Katara yanked them away from her ankles and scrambled back to her feet. Skidding through the office door she slammed it behind her and threw herself into the tall carved chair. Smoothing her hair and forcing herself to breathe slowly, Katara had just enough time to regain her composure before the door burst open and Elder Gamen swept in, flanked by angry looking soldiers.

"Ah, Honored Elder," she said, striving for nonchalance. "I was hoping we could chat."

 


 

"Snoozles you made it!"

"I've been here half an hour!" Sokka protested to the two women. "Where have you been hiding?"

"Training," Toph said simply. Mai gave him a smile that was as sharp as her knives. He repressed the urge to shudder. Mai might not have tried to aim any of her pointy things his way in years but she was still slightly terrifying and when combined with the unpredictable aggression of Toph, they were a combination to make a hardened warrior run for the hills.

"Explain to me again why you sent me an urgent message to drop everything and race to the Fire Nation for a small court function?"

"Because it's not really a small court function," Mai drawled.

Toph cackled in a way that Sokka found profoundly disturbing. "That's just what Sparky thinks." Sliding herself into the seat beside him she propped her bare feet up on the table, a move totally at odds with her court-appropriate silk robe and flowing trousers, but so everyday for Toph that even the status-conscious Mai didn't bat an eyelash. "What we are witnessing now is the first of Uncle Dragon's attempts to marry Zuko off before he becomes Fire Lord."

Sokka fought the urge to spit his wine all over the very fine tablecloth. "All these women are here to meet the Jerkbender?"

"Well they've already met him," Mai explained. "They're from high ranking families of impeccable bloodline. The lord regent will have invited every single woman within five years of Zuko's age, and they'll all be doing their best to snare his attentions."

"Well that explains why no one would talk to me," he muttered, though it soothed his wounded ego to know that the Water Tribe charm wasn't wearing off. "Wait," Sokka turned to Mai. "You're okay with this?"

"I broke up with Zuko," she shrugged. "And even if I hadn't, this should be at least mildly entertaining."

Sokka watched from his seat near the food as Zuko entered, all decked out in the fripperies and shoulder pads that men in the Fire Nation seemed to be so fond of. The second he stepped through the door every female in the room was watching him like a flock of falcon crows tracking a prairie dog. Iroh stepped down from the dais at the back of the room - the smaller flame ornament that marked him as prince-regent lending the older man a regal air that Sokka still found a bit strange on such a relaxed and approachable person – and welcomed everyone to the party. 'An opportunity for the nobility of the Fire Nation to reacquaint themselves with the newly risen members of the royal family', he said.

Reacquaint themselves is right.

But Zuko actually seemed to be taking the party at face value, touring the room like an experienced host and attempting to speak to everyone he came across. It wasn't until the potential Fire Lord had made it halfway through his circuit of the hall that he seemed to realize something was amiss. There was a gaggle of ladies forming behind him and every time Zuko would approach someone new, one of the flock would call out to that person as though they had only just seen them, ingratiating herself into the conversation and trying every trick to keep Zuko's attention. Bewitching smiles, fake giggling, fluttering eyelashes and plunging necklines, there was no tactic too ridiculous for these ladies to attempt.

By this time Toph was practically howling with laughter and even Mai looked amused.

"I owe you an apology," Sokka said to her. "You are by far the least scary woman in this room."

Mai quirked an eyebrow at him but Toph agreed. "Damn right Snoozles."

"It is so good to see my nephew making friends." Iroh sat down on Sokka's opposite side.

The Water Tribe boy watched Zuko getting steadily more flummoxed and panicky; moving as though his clothing chafed him and he couldn't quite remember what he was supposed to be doing. There was none of the easy confidence of movement that Sokka had long associated with Zuko's fighting. He was starting to look like Momo in a room full of toddlers. "Are we watching the same party?"

"Zuko seems to respond well to adversity. I thought this might be the best way to get him a new lady friend since he was not worthy of your attentions, Lady Mai."

The elegant Fire Nation girl inclined her head with a demure smile that would have been a girlish giggle from anyone else. Sokka looked at Iroh with a new appreciation. Here was someone who knew how to charm the ladies. Not that he didn't love Suki, but it never hurt to keep one's proverbial weapons sharp. "Speaking of ladies, where is your lovely sister?"

"Katara?" Sokka knew Katara was reasonably pretty but hearing her complimented like that was just strange. She should still be ten years old and concentrating on waterbending and penguin sledding as far as he was concerned. "She said she wanted to change. That was ages ago."

"Oh good," Toph remarked. "She's just outside. This will be so much better with Sweetness here."

Katara did seem to have surprisingly good comedic timing when it came to making fun of Zuko. She was announced by the herald – a ridiculous idea Sokka thought – as the doors opened, the only spot of blue in an ocean of fiery colours, wearing that waterbending master dress she'd gotten recently with her hair up like a Fire Nation lady's.

Sokka watched his sister glide smoothly into the room and lock eyes with Zuko. He didn't move, just nodded his head to her and drew himself up, looking confident and poised and every inch the prince once more.

"Ah," Mai said softly.

Toph slapped the table in triumph. "Called it."

The girl Zuko had been talking to had noted the shift in his attention and was looking around for her rival, ready to do battle in that secret girl way where they said nice things to one another for half a minute and then were both furious, but new confident Zuko was apparently suave enough to notice this. He snapped his attention back to her just long enough to distract the chit from Katara and extricate himself from the conversation with dignity.

They did not approach one another but Katara's presence seemed to be enough to relax Zuko into his role as host and chief entrée on the meat market.

"It was worth a try, Dragon," Toph consoled Iroh.

"I think my nephew has chosen rather well, actually."

"She's probably the least dull person here."

Things came together with an almost audible click in Sokka's head. "No way!" he cried, leaping up and knocking his chair backwards. Too late he realized that the attention of the entire room was now fixed on him. "Mai," he demanded quietly. "Where are your whetstones?"

"Why?"

"I need to go sharpen my boomerang."

Chapter Text

Aang had been sitting on the front steps of the Jasmine Dragon for the better part of an hour when the sun finally rose enough to burn away the dew and Iroh arrived to open the shop.

The old general did not seem the least bit surprised to find a sleepless Avatar on his stoop. He greeted Aang warmly and led him inside to the kitchen. Amid the pungent aromas of pu-erh and the cardamom snap of spicy chai Iroh settled him down at an old rough-hewn table stained with tea and passed him one of the bao he had been eating.

Aang munched away, watching with interest as Iroh set out two delicate mugs, a service cup and a small teapot before the larger kettle began to steam. Deftly he transferred the hot water into the service cup, warming the porcelain, and then did the same to the smaller teapot. He produced a small wooden box with a Poppy inlayed in very pale veneer. White poppies for consolation? While Aang thought he could probably use the soporific effect of poppy, he was glad to see that the tea inside the box contained none of the narcotic blossoms. The coiled leaves inside were dark, but tiny flowers and the peels of unknown fruits produced spots of brightness in the mélange.

Iroh began to speak as he poured the hot water slowly across the leaves. "It is not often I have the opportunity to serve tea to my friends this way."

"I am sorry to disturb you so early."

"Nonsense. An old man like me doesn't need much sleep anymore. Though I am surprised to see you all alone." He covered the teapot and left it to steep, leaning back in his chair with a speculative look on his face. "The last time you sought me out like this was the night before you vanished."

Aang nodded, but did not speak. Fixing his attentions on the coil of steam rising out of the teapot's spout, he bent it into the shape of a continuously branching tree. Each limb produced two more, growing and growing.

"Do you plan to slip away again?"

"No." The tree collapsed into a wisp of nothing. "No, I don't want to go."

Iroh nodded and poured two cups of tea. The fragrance that rose from them was reminiscent of roasted apples and summer flowers, with a dark edge of bitterness like coiling grief. Aang cradled the cup in his hands but did not drink. "You never called me back."

"They wanted me to," Iroh acknowledged. "But I thought it was better that I didn't."

"Because they didn't need me." It wasn't a question.

"I don't know if Zuko ever told you that I lost my son during the siege of Ba Sing Se."

"Oh." Aang looked up, confusion at the non-sequitur was quickly replaced with empathy. "I'm sorry."

"I mention this because it was after Lu Ten's death that I lost my desire for glory… for battle. For almost everything. It took me a long time to come back to myself again and it was not an easy path."

"You thought I was grieving?"

"You forget that I was an exile for a time. No matter how far one goes, one is always tied to the place where they began. I know that the Air Nomads did not marry and live as we do in the Fire Nation, but I would imagine there were strong familial bonds; brothers, fathers." Iroh seemed to take Aang's silence as confirmation. "Our long war-torn hundred years was how long for you? A week? A few days?"

"Less."

"And you blinked awake to find yourself in a world where everyone you had loved was not just lost to you but irrevocably gone. Yes, I thought you needed time to mourn your people." He gave Aang a calculating glance. "Now, however, I am not so sure."

"Zuko told me you have been to the spirit world, General."

"Yes. I went to find my son. A strange place, full of traps and dangers. Though not, I suppose, for the Avatar."

"You would be wrong about that." Aang traced a finger around the rim of his cup. "You're right about the mourning in a way, but I brought my own dangers to the spirit world. There are… things no one knows, about how the Avatar was first brought into being. The creation of it was a great sacrifice, a horrible travesty. But the ancients considered the balance of the worlds worth any price. As such, they feel it is their right to steward their investment."

"Drink your tea," Iroh instructed.

Aang took a long pull and almost gagged, glancing about the kitchen for honey or sugar. The tea was every bit as brackish and bitter as it smelled. Its only blessing was the lack of aftertaste. The drink did seem to relax him though, and Aang found himself spilling out all his secrets to the thoughtful man across the table.

"When I crossed the boundaries into the spirit world it wasn't Avatar Roku waiting for me, or Kuruk or Kyoshi or Yang Chen. It was the spirit of the very first Avatar, one who had been born with no bending at all, and had the power poured into his head. He was… not pleased with me." The tea burned his throat going down, though it was no longer hot. "I was pulled into what I think now was a dream, of the moment when I sacrificed the Avatar state for Katara and he showed me how I could have prevented the fall of Ba Sing Se and ended the war on the Day of Black Sun. More than that, I lived through it; experienced those months again as a victor, rather than an injured boy in hiding. I won the day and in the end she was still standing by my side. Then I blinked and I stood at the crossroads again, with no real memory of that path of events and no recollection of what had happened. The whole thing was like trying to hold on to an incredibly vivid, lucid dream. While it was happening everything seemed so real and natural, it wasn't until it was all over and I could remember everything that it became clear."

"That second time, I had just the vaguest sense that things would be alright if I chose the Avatar State. But it wasn't alright; Azula killed Katara when she couldn't destroy me and I won the war alone. And then Katara wasn't just dying in spite of my trying to save her, I was letting her die to save others. Katara or the Earth King, Sokka and Toph. Katara or Ba Sing Se. Katara or the entire Earth Kingdom. Every time I would try to save her the world would burn or drown or die and if she lived she would hate me for it. Katara would hate me for loving her more than anything.

"Eventually I learned to make the choice that the former Avatars wanted. I could sacrifice Katara and still be strong enough to save the world. With Zuko and Sokka and Toph by me I made it through, over and over.

"And then they took them away too."

Aang watched with an impassive face as Zuko bent his neck onto the block. The Water Chiefs and Earth Nobles had demanded his head as recompense for the sins of the Fire Nation once they had fought Zuko and the armies to a standstill. Aang had tried to stop him the last time and Zuko had slit his own throat before the crowd. The time before that the crowd had lit him on fire themselves. If the firstborn of the Fire Lord died, the Fire Nation would be allowed to live. Balance.

Sokka would not stop fighting. After Katara's death at Azula's hands he swore vengeance upon the Fire Nation and whipped the Water Tribes into a frenzy behind him. They went rampaging through the nation after the fall of Ozai on the Day of Black Sun, killing anyone who resisted. He would not stop, he would not listen, and when Aang tried to put Zuko or Iroh or anyone else on the throne Sokka's army stormed the palace and assassinated them. So he killed Sokka. And when that didn't work he killed Hakoda. And finally, finally, when he had slaughtered Suki and their six month old daughter in front of him Aang made Sokka stop. Balance.

The Earth Queen laughed at him from her diamond throne and spat on his final offer of peace. Toph had proclaimed herself ruler of the Earth Kingdom through force of arms when Kuei refused to assist the invasion. With the force of the Dai Li behind her she had conquered every stretch of territory and razed Gaoling in particular to the ground. Her blinded parents flanked her throne, listening but too terrified to speak as Aang read out the terms of her surrender. In the end he broke her feet in four places and divided up the world into four equal shares. Balance.

"…and when I had restored balance I would be back at the beginning again. The spirits believe that the Avatar is of the utmost importance. They were afraid that I had come so close to taking it out of the world; not just once but over and over again. I could never be allowed to take such a risk again. No matter who asked me."

They were being held in a dark cell. The faint light reminded him of their moment in the Cave of Two Lovers that he had dreamed about but on this path had never allowed himself to experience. Men had threatened Katara and they would keep threatening her until he gave them what they wanted. And then they would kill her anyway. Aang could feel his heart shatter just thinking about it. The sobbing Water Tribe girl turned and threw herself into his arms begging him to get them out of this, to not let her die and something inside him was screaming and pleading. All he wanted was for this anger and fear inside him to be washed away by her love, the way he had once believed it could be. To be in a place where everyone was safe and everyone would live and he could be more than just a survivor.

"It's alright, Katara." She couldn't see the long sharp ice blade in his hands. There was barely any resistance as he slid it up under her ribs, like the ice just melded into her; waterbender calling back water. But there was nothing easy about the way she stiffened against him and grew colder as her blood drained out and stained his robes that unmistakable dark bright red. He buried his face in her hair and wanted to die.

"When I opened my eyes again she was standing there smiling at me. Zuko and Toph and Sokka were there. It was two days after our triumph at Ba Sing Se and I fell into the Avatar State.

"I went too far. So far I couldn't recognize myself. Deeper into the Avatar State than anyone was ever meant to go. I could feel the years piling up on me, ten thousand lifetimes of watching and protecting. Of small cruelties and vast wars, everything spiraling into chaos again and again. I just wanted it stopped. I wanted everything to stop.

"Everything became perfectly clear. The Avatar was not meant to maintain balance. He was there to force balance, to create it because people could not be expected to achieve it themselves. I reached out and I cast the palace of the Fire Lord into the sea. I brought down the walls of Ba Sing Se and I drew the continents together. I was different from them. I was better and stronger and insurmountably other. I changed the laws of nature and I built the world again. To make it safe for them.

"When the oceans settled and the rocks fell still Katara thanked me for avenging her mother. She stood by the decisions of the Avatar. Sokka crowed with victory and Zuko said he understood. But…

Toph looked at him as though she could finally see and the image sickened her. "What have you done?"

"I made it safe, Toph. Now you can be whoever you want to be. Everyone will live and the future is perfect."

"How can it be perfect when nothing was resolved? You think the Fire Nation is just going to stop?"

"I'll make them stop."

"You can't. It's not – no one should be able to do those things."

"I am the Avatar. I have that right." He grinned down at her, superiority and righteousness coursing through his veins like a drug. "I am the winner of Sozin's war. The Avatar triumphs."

"No." She planted her feet. "No. You are just like my parents. We will all be whatever we want – but only in this little playground of yours. Because you know best and we can't be trusted to take care of ourselves! We're weak and helpless, you are the Avatar and we should listen like good little children. You are wrong!"

Toph was so small from where he stood; so petty and angry. "That's for me to judge."

"I would have stood at your right hand forever," she said softly. "It would have been my honor. But now… I'd rather die."

The part of him that was the Avatar – ancient and eternal and so, so far away – watched dispassionately as Toph took three running steps and launched herself off the cliff on which they stood. But the human, the man, the boy, woke himself up with screaming.

"…I know it wasn't really Toph. No more than my compassion manifested was Katara, my inclination for self sacrifice was Zuko, or my desire for a family and a normal life was Sokka. She was just the embodiment of my willfulness, some tiny sliver of Aang that refused to be consumed by power. But spirits, she made me so ashamed.

"I woke up for the first time in three years, weeping and broken and I could remember it all. Everything that had happened, all those dark repetitions of the same events came flooding back. All that pride and selfishness and hatred, how I had perverted what it meant to be the Avatar. I was trying to be strong and I became something monstrous."

Aang downed the dregs of his teacup, slowly coming back to reality. There was no longer a bitter taste to the black liquid; instead, all he could taste were the florals and apple that lingered on his tongue after swallowing.

"When I came back to myself I was alone. The other Avatars weren't in my head any longer. And I wanted to come back but I didn't know how anymore. So I stayed and told myself I wasn't ready. I just hid. For two years, trying to come to terms with everything, waiting to be ready."

"And what made you decide you were prepared?" It was the first time Iroh had spoken since Aang began to bare his soul and the sound of his voice was jarring.

"Nothing." Aang smiled without humor, placing his teacup carefully next to the pot. "I started to wonder if I would ever be ready, so I came anyway."

He was a little embarrassed. He had come here looking for advice, but he hadn't intended to dump all his problems on Iroh. "Toph's been asking why I stayed away so long. I don't know what to tell her. I just want to forget about the whole thing."

"That, I think, would be a mistake," the old general interrupted Aang's train of thought. "As an old man who has seen many terrible things to a young man who has seen a great deal more: you must learn to own your failures as well as your triumphs. From what you have told me this was both."

"But I destroyed so much-"

"And in the end you stopped it. Not Miss Toph – formidable though she is – you. Perhaps that is what the spirits meant," he offered. "Not to break you down, but to push you further. So that you might learn to trust yourself."

"I – " Aang blinked at him. "I never thought of that."

Iroh smiled indulgently. "Tell your friends or keep your secrets. I think that they will understand more than you give them credit for. But remember that when the quick and easy path was before you, you were strong enough to choose the harder way."

He dropped his mug onto the table and Aang suddenly realized how late it must be. "I am so sorry General Iroh. I've kept you from opening your shop. Can I help with anything?"

"The Avatar serving tea to my customers would be quite a coup," he admitted, clearing away the remnants of their repast. "But I think that I will not open today. One of the perks of being your own boss is that you can take time off whenever you want."

Aang hovered nervously, trying to assist without getting in the way, until Iroh clamped his large hands down onto the young man's shoulders. "I do not mind cleaning up."

"I could help-"

"No," he insisted. "I am honored you would trust me with your story Aang, but don't think so hard. After all," his chuckle was infectious, "you are the Avatar, what could go wrong?"

Aang bowed deeply, as befitted someone who had taught him so much. Iroh returned the gesture and waved him off.

He noticed that he was shaking as he closed the door of the tea house behind him. The warm sun felt strange against his cold skin, mirroring the hollowed out sensation inside him. He felt cleansed, but empty. As though he had gorged himself on catharsis and scooped out something essential. Aang was most of the way back to the palace before he realized that it was the shame that was missing.

He didn't really know how to feel without it.

Of course it wasn't gone completely. He had been made fundamentally different and no amount of purging would return him to the way he used to be; but that was natural, normal. Experiences and memories – even terrible ones – were what defined people.

Now though, instead of rocks piled upon his chest slowly crushing him down, they were simply part of him, threads in a tapestry, currents in the air.

Toph was waiting for him when he arrived, perched on the railing of his balcony twisting metal into increasingly intricate shapes. She stopped when he entered and stared at him with her sightless eyes. Aang knew there was no hiding the state he was in from someone who could read his heartbeat.

"Hey."

"Hi."

Moving smoothly across the room she reached up to wind one hand around his arm, curling her wrist so she could grasp his shoulder from behind; her strong grip pulling him down, keeping him grounded. Bending into the pressure Aang collapsed onto his knees, his face pressed to her stomach for a moment. She squeezed his shoulder harder, before dropping to the ground with him, trying helplessly to gather him close, though he was almost a foot taller.

"Who can I beat up Twinkles?" she begged. "Just point me in the right direction."

He laughed, clear and light.

"I just missed you all so much."

 


 

The second annual celebration of the end of Sozin's war was every bit as good as the first. It had become the largest government sponsored event anywhere and consequently was the hit of most people's social season. The Prince Regent Iroh had hired every dance team theater troupe and fighting squad in the nation to perform in the streets. Ale both donated and paid for poured forth from every tavern as revelers from all the nations came together to celebrate peace. With five rather notable exceptions.

Sokka had begun to make meat jokes the moment he had arrived the day before, with Suki ever reminding him that not everyone ate meat. Then Toph had crashed down like an avalanche and started talking about how having a new student had reminded her of how Twinkletoes had never finished his training. Katara seemed to be forever bringing up that it had been a long and eventful year and talking about how glad she was that they were all back together. Zuko remained quiet and subdued, but Iroh assumed that was because he had spent the better part of the year trying to get his favorite uncle to spill the secret of the Avatar's whereabouts.

As though he actually knew.

Eventually the melancholy members of the little group drifted aimlessly though the party and came to rest next to the place that Sokka and Miss Toph had claimed near the buffet, looking rather forlorn. When the rest of the merrymakers made their way out onto the balcony the makeshift family remained behind, and Iroh stayed to watch them.

After a few moments Sokka swallowed what he had been chewing and made a small circling motion with the chicken pig wing in his hand. "Does anyone else find it weird to be in the Fire Nation without Aang?"

"No," Zuko shot back, but his sarcastic demeanor collapsed as quickly as it had appeared. "It is strange. My whole life revolved around him for so long…"

"Yeah." Sokka shoved the taller boy's shoulder. "Good times."

"Where do you think he is?" Suki posed the question that had become a staple topic of conversation among the group over the past year. This time, however, no one answered. They fell silent, the oohs and ahhs of the crowd a dull roar in the background.

"I miss him." Katara's voice was choked. The older teens offered sympathetic looks but Katara was having none of it. "Not like that – I just miss him, alright? He was my friend."

"Yeah," they spoke in harmonious unison.

The somber mood was instantly shattered as they looked at one another in shock. Surprise became smiles became muffled giggles and they fell about laughing.

"Forget Twinkletoes," Toph waved their sadness away, though she was clutching the airbender medallion with her other hand. "The problem is that we're bored."

"Speak for yourself."

"Oh Zuko, you're bored to death in those stuffy meetings."

"Training to become the Fire Lord is a sacred trust, it is not –" He covered his face with a palm. "You're right, it's boring."

"Well I will admit that learning waterbending was way more fun than teaching it. Running after those girls is exhausting."

"I still can't find a place to start my school."

"The Kyoshis want to spend less time training now that we're at peace."

Sokka smacked the table, startling Toph. "We can't keep moping around like this. What if he never comes back?"

"Sokka!"

"How can you say that?"

"I'm just trying to be realistic." He stood, pacing the width of the table end where they all sat. "I want him back too but what if he just doesn't? Maybe something happened."

The front legs of Toph's chair hit the ground with a sharp bang. "Dragon, where is he?" she demanded. "He told you how to reach him, is he alright?"

Iroh held up his hands in defense. "He is alright. I spoke to Avatar Roku at midsummer and he told me that Aang was well. But I do not know where he is."

"Oh." She sank back down into her seat, looking thwarted. Katara put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"We'll just have to learn to get along," she said finally.

"Wait." The group turned as one to Zuko as he snapped his fingers. "Katara, when do you need to be back to the tribe?"

"I was going to head back to Gaoling with Toph for a while, then meet Sokka on Kyoshi in… three weeks?" She looked to her brother for confirmation.

"I got suckered into spending a season with my parents," Toph explained. "Spirits it's going to be awful."

"Suki, could you take a vacation?"

"If I wanted to," she answered dubiously.

"I think I could as well. Right Uncle?" Iroh nodded, interested to see what Zuko had planned. "I think I've got an idea. Something to keep us all connected, and connected to Aang."

Hope shining on their faces, the children – for they were all still children, no matter how they felt – gathered around Zuko, eager for a direction, an obstacle to overcome. It struck Iroh yet again how very proud he was of his nephew and the family he had built himself.

Chapter Text

"We should get up. Things to do."

Aang shifted his head from the floor to her stomach. "I know."

They had spent the better part of the morning on the floor after he had come back from Iroh's teashop, slowly uncurling from one another to sprawl in glacially shifting poses across the stone. Munching on bits of the breakfast that had been laid out for them and talking about inconsequential things.

Toph sighed and stretched. "Ready, ready, ready…" she said as though gearing up for a race. "Go!"

Neither of them moved a muscle.

Aang laughed and rolled over, burrowing his face in her abdomen. "Sometimes it's hard to believe we actually managed to save the world." He hauled himself to a standing position, mock groaning at the effort.

"Speak for yourself Twinkles, I am awesome." She rose, ignoring his outstretched hand. "We should try and get down to the library before that scholar comes to find us."

The grin on her face changed instantly to a look of consternation and Aang felt a light shower of dust on his shoulder where Toph disintegrated a small stone a split second before it would have impacted his head. He whirled around, ready to confront their attacker and saw no one.

"Ow!" Another stone struck him between the shoulder blades. Aang spun to see why Toph had missed that one, only to find her calmly pouring a glass of juice from the remains of their breakfast.

"Toph what -"

His accusation was cut off by the sound of childish giggling. Hanging from the side of the door frame was a small boy, likely no older than five, with a pile of rocks at his feet. Aang's fierce expression softened immediately, though the boy didn't seem to find him intimidating either way.

"Well hello there." He crouched down in front of the child. "It's not nice to throw stones at people."

"Bu'its funny!" the boy cried.

Behind him Toph burst out laughing. Aang turned just far enough to quirk an eyebrow at her. "Are you to blame for this?"

"Nope. This is all natural, Twinkletoes. "He can sense your wishy-washy air weakness."

"Who do you belong to, little guy?"

"He belongs to his Majesty the Earth King." A haggard looking woman rushed into the room and scooped up the boy, sketching a hasty bow towards Aang. "Master Avatar, I apologize if he disturbed you and the princess."

"Not at all."

Aang reached out to ruffle the tiny prince's hair. "I didn't think that the Earth King was allowed to be a bender."

"Normally." The word was a groan of exertion as the nursemaid heaved the boy up onto her shoulder. "Or at least traditionally he's not. But his most high imperial majesty-"

"Puyi," Toph interrupted obstinately.

"The Earth King is determined to build himself a dynasty." The maid seemed pleased to share the juiciest of palace gossip. "The little one hasn't been announced as heir yet, and when his bending showed there was quite the debate over whether he would be suitable. Word is his Majesty plans to make the speech tonight and ask you, my lord Avatar, to bless the appointment."

Aang scratched at the back of his neck. His blessing didn't hold any real weight, no matter what that little dark voice at the back of his mind whispered about worship, but being friendly with the King couldn't hurt. "Of course. Will his mother be present tonight?"

"The first concubine has been given permission to attend the banquet." The nurse did not elaborate further, but she looked ever so faintly displeased.

"How nice for her," the Toph said wryly. "If you get the chance be sure to mention to the Earth King how progressive I find him."

Aang shot her a look of exasperation that, as expected, went completely unnoticed.

"My lord Avatar." A puffy faced man dressed in the official robes of the Ba Sing Se University slid into the room behind the nursemaid. "Princess Bei Fong, his Splendor has requested that I accompany you on your tour of our great library."

"Well you can tell his Splendor-"

"We're grateful for his generosity," Aang smoothly interrupted Toph's retort.

"But it really isn't necessary," she finished, smirking deliberately at him.

Aang sighed and rolled his shoulders. This was going to go just great.

 

Two hours later found the Avatar and his earthbending teacher, hungry, tired and ready to sink the scholar in the ground up to his neck if they couldn't get a straight answer from him. The man, who had introduced himself as Fong, had led them on a circuitous route around the University of Ba Sing Se recounting all manner of useless information about the history of the building and how it had been built so close to the palace of the Earth King because the monarchs of the Kingdom traditionally prized knowledge. Fong seemed to possess the same selective hearing of Joo Di and he had repeatedly ignored Aang's requests that he simply point the way to the library and go about his business. When Toph had flat out demanded that he leave them alone the scholar had been bold - and stupid- enough to insist that he not leave the princess to such tedious work, especially when she would require assistance.

Aang managed to airbend her an inch or so off the ground fast enough to stop her from crushing the man's head to a pulp for the insinuation she was helpless, but the pathway had trembled for the rest of their walk.

At long last they made their way into the library, where Fong directed them to a table heaped high with books on the geography of the Earth Kingdom. Almost all of them were fairly recent.

"These won't help," Aang tried to explain. "We're looking for a name that no one's ever heard of, even me. It probably predates the war."

"I am sorry, Avatar," the man dipped a bow without a hint of actual subservience. "Most of the texts specific to the Earth Kingdom that predate Sozin's War were removed or destroyed during the Fire Nation's occupation."

He didn't need Toph to tell him that was a bald faced lie, but the scholar had been lying about almost every single thing they had asked since he had introduced himself, which was a surprisingly effective way of concealing the truth. His heartbeat was jumping around so much that even honesty made him sound like a liar.

"Well we appreciate you trying," Toph assured Fong with nauseating sweetness. "I'll let you intelligent men search then shall I? I am far too blind to help you after all." She was off like a shot before either of them could speak. Aang stared at the pile of thick textbooks already knowing that they were all going to be utterly useless.

Spirits damn her.

 

Running her sensitive fingers over the engraved signs that marked topics, Toph found the section for historical maps in minutes. She may not have been able to read the actual text but the titles on the spines of the ancient books were frequently embossed or raised. With any luck Twinkletoes would keep that hogmonkey away long enough for her to find something useful. She traced the calligraphic markings without success. This had been much easier when they were searching for Appa; at least then they were able to actually ask for what they needed. Whether Fong was an agent of the Black Fist or just a scheming toady of Puyi, she and Aang had agreed not to reveal they knew the name of the Black Fist base. Now if only they could glean its location they would be in business.

'The Great Divide and its Impact on Soil Erosion', 'Indigenous Fauna of the Foggy Swamp', 'Volcanoes, Volcanoes, Volcanoes Volume One: The Northern Earth Kingdom'

It was hard to believe that people focused enough of their lives on nonsense like this to write books on. Though volcanoes did pique her interest slightly. She mused over the question of whether bending molten rock would constitute earth or firebending.

"Princess Bei Fong!" Fong's voice was muffled by the towering shelves but she could feel his footsteps coming closer. Toph straightened, deft fingers seizing upon a scroll marked 'A History of Mountain Range Shifts as Impacted by Earthbenders Vol. IV'. Tucking it into the back of her waistband where it was hidden by her long sleeveless outer-robe, Toph took off running for a more innocuous section of the library.

Hopefully the stolen scroll would have something useful on it, and at least now she had found where the books that would actually be of service were kept. Idly, she contemplated removing Fong while there were no witnesses around, but raising the Black Fist's suspicions before they found the Waking Mountain would only hurt their cause.

Besides, she had a horrible party to get ready for.

 

Aang paced the hallway outside Toph's door, trying to get used to the constricting shift of the robes he was wearing. They were Air Nomad colours but Earth Kingdom style and lacked the freedom of movement he was used to. There was the sound of something heavy hitting a wall and his fearless earthbending teacher came scrambling out of the room, shutting the door behind her as quickly as possible and collapsing back against it with a slightly hunted look on her face.

"Twinkles, get me out of here, the maids want me to wear shoes."

"Wow."

He had seen Toph in a dress more than once, but this was the Avatar State of gowns. She was swathed in pale green silk, cut very traditionally with long bell sleeves, wrapped over a tight embroidered sheath, with the collar very low in the back. It emphasized her slender neck and left enough creamy skin on display to make him blush. Her dark hair was pulled up and styled in an elaborate momoware, glimmering with combs.

"Katara picked it out for me." She shrugged with a nonchalance belied by the rising flush creeping over her chest. "It's green right? She said I look nice in green."

"You do," he assured her emphatically.

She placed her hands together and bowed with a wry grin. A clicking noise brought Aang's attention to her wide sleeves. At the end of the richly embroidered cloth her cuffs were decorated with thin oval slices of agate. "Toph, are you armed?"

Her laughter was sharp and bright. "Oh Twinkletoes, you got it!" She draped an arm conspiratorially around his shoulders. "I just want to make sure all the stuffy bores in there remember who they're dealing with." She held up a cuff for his inspection. "Sugarqueen made me promise not to use them unless it's an emergency. Apparently they take a long time to sew back on."

She looked him up and down. "You cleaned up nice."

"Ha! That doesn't work every time!"

She tsked. "Where's Sokka when you need him?"

"Well," he made an obsequious bow, "Grandmaster Sifu Princess Toph, would you consent to take my arm for our grand entrance?"

"Well Avatar Twinkles, I suppose since you asked so nicely." She slipped her hand through his arm and they walked sedately into the grand hall.

The banquet hall was lavishly adorned and already filled with circulating knots of people in a rainbow array of silks and velvets. The sounds of conversation and laughter mingled with the faint notes of music and the mouthwatering aromas wafting through the air. Liveried servants slipped through the crowd carrying trays of food and drink for those too engrossed in discussion to pay a visit to the sumptuous feast laid out on the groaning tables. An officious looking footman announced them to the room and almost immediately they were set upon by Lien and Chan, dressed respectively in the gold and white of their orders. Aang barely had time to squeeze Toph's hand before the tall woman spirited him away.

 

"Have you and the Avatar found anything?"

"We might have," Toph retorted, moving through the crowd more smoothly than Chan could hope to match, and showing her irritation by making him dodge courtiers as she used her vibration sight to slide through like water. "If you had been able to get rid of that idiotic excuse for a scholar. The man was barely pretending to help."

Chan finally managed to catch her elbow and lead her to a more secluded spot on the pretext of examining the food. "Did you tell him what you were looking for?"

"Yes. I told him everything because I am completely incompetent." Sliding her foot across the floor – the spreading hem of her dress concealing the movement – she bent a blunt spike of earth to jab at his instep.

"Do not challenge me, Novice Bei Fong."

"I'm not afraid of you, Chan."

"You should have more respect for the White Lotus."

"The White Lotus is a peerless organization with a long and illustrious history," she said. "But you need to earn my respect."

Chan's heartbeat read halfway between irritated and contrite as he busied himself with selecting a few choice items from the banquet table and passing her a plate. "I think you might like this."

From a high strung politician accustomed to more elaborate machinations, Toph supposed it was the closest thing to an apology she could expect, and she generously refrained from pointing out to Chan that she was quite capable of choosing her own food.

"I found out where the answer will be. The historical geography section isn't exactly large. Aang and I could have the answer in an hour if we could just get rid of Fong."

"I'm afraid I can't promise anything," Chan said regretfully. "There's been a lot of talk amongst the court lately. The Black Fist hasn't been mentioned directly but there have been whispers."

"About?"

"That the provincial rulers aren't paying proper tribute to the King. There are rumours circulating that Bumi in particular has lost faith in the Earth King's power since Kuei broke during the siege. His Majesty may not support the Black Fist, but he won't go against the will of the entire court."

"Is that why he's planning to announce the little earthbender as his heir?"

"The hope is that naming Dan Ling crown prince will show support for the benders and prove that the line of succession is still strong."

Toph sniffed at the steaming dishes, attracted by the subtle smell of egg custard tarts, and darted forward just in time to snag the last one on the tray. "Well if anyone can play both sides of something like this and come out smelling like panda lilies it's probably Puyi." Toph could feel the King's vibrations coming slowly up behind them, staying with a crowd in an effort to disguise his heartbeat and unnerve her. Spinning smoothly on her heel she offered him the untouched plate of food in her left hand. "Would you care for a morsel?"

Pyui stood silently for a moment. Toph imagined he was making some sort of face, sizing her up or perhaps attempting to disquiet her. Rather than rise to the bait she simply lowered the offered dish and made to turn back towards Chan.

"It is not an easy task," the King's voice halted her movement, "to balance the whims of a capricious populace and the wishes of the nobles while still attempting to do what is right for your country."

"Is that why you don't try?"

Chan tensed behind her, shifting to interrupt the two of them before she could say something else horrible to the monarch of the Earth Kingdom, but Puyi seemed unconcerned.

"The trouble with you, Lady Bei Fong, is that you lack the power of civilized conversation but not the power of speech."

"The niceties of civilized conversation are lost on me," Toph admitted, smirking at him. "Are you required to lie about everything or is that just a preference of yours?"

"Lady, if I were your husband I would poison your tea."

"If you were my husband I'd drink it." She spread her skirts out and bowed deeply. The deferential gesture, completely at odds with her words, had Puyi dismissing her respectfully before the retort sunk in and she heard his heartbeat pick up in anger. Chan was nearly apoplectic.

"Why can you not behave?" he demanded.

"You sound just like my mother."

"Spirits preserve us if you actually do become queen of Omashu. Are you deliberately making enemies to prove yourself more unsuitable?"

"I am not going to be queen of Omashu," she insisted. She did not want to be queen so she wouldn't be and that was that. It had nothing at all to do with the fact that even her friends thought she would be terrible. Sokka had nearly wet himself laughing at the idea. Even Katara, though she was trying to be kind, had been lying when she said Toph would make a good queen.

Ignoring Chan's admonishments she bent her acute senses to the approaching vibrations of Lien and Twinkletoes.

"… Are you sure you know what to say?"

"Yes." There was a wealth of polite exasperation in the word.

"This could be an excellent chance for us to improve public opinion of benders."

"I'll do my best."

Aang stepped closer to her as they passed, bumping their shoulders. Toph turned enough to wave the egg custard tart she was still holding. "Last one!" she whispered before taking an enormous bite, making exaggerated noises of delight as she chewed.

"Aw, Toph." She kept walking, ignoring his groan of disappointment.

"Avatar, I believe the King is calling you…" Lien's voice faded into the hubbub.

"Are you listening, Toph?" Chan said too loudly in her ear.

"No.”

She felt him reach forward to shake her and stop halfway, realizing that they were in the center of a crowded banquet hall and that she was capable of snapping him in half with a gesture. "I was saying that the library is unguarded. If you could manage to slip away early tomorrow morning I could cover for you with his Highness."

"Lien could probably help you with that," Toph said, just to feel his irritation spike.

"I'd rather kiss a flying bison."

"That could be arranged."

"Oh for spirits sake." He let the exasperated remark trail off as a hush fell over the assembly. Toph felt the Earth King ascend a low platform at the far end of the room, Aang no more than half a step behind him. Chan's attention shifted from her towards more illustrious personages and she took the opportunity to glide away through the crowd. There was a group of servants clustered around the inset door towards what she assumed was the kitchen, but they barely looked at her twice. Toph was more interested in the large table loaded with food and drink that they stood next to and the long tablecloth that covered it. Stomping her foot, she made positively sure that all the courtiers had their attention fixed on the proceedings before lifting the cloth and ducking smoothly underneath. Crouching to keep her elaborate hairstyle from bumping the wood above her, she rearranged her skirts and slouched comfortably against one leg of the table.

There was a rising murmur, which she took to indicate Puyi's announcement of his successor, and Aang offered the young boy the blessing of the Avatar. The resulting round of applause was far from fervent but it wasn't as grudging as she had feared. It seemed that the noble families were willing to accept an earthbending Earth King, or at least were not inclined to challenge the succession publicly.

People were flooding back towards the food again, the musicians resumed playing and a few bold souls ventured towards the dance floor. Toph listened to their measured steps against the stone, vibrations echoing out from their movements in swirls and eddies, when she was brought up short by the sound of footsteps too light for the tall man they belonged to.

Twinkletoes.

He was pacing the length of the table, searching for something, either her or more egg custard tarts. She scrambled up onto her knees just as he was about to pass by, making a sharp gesture with one hand. The command rippled across the marble to the open dance floor where several subtle rises pushed their way out of the stone at the exact moment in the dance the men had to turn and lift their partners in a spin. The unexpected shift of the floor caused each pair to overbalance and fall in almost perfect unison.

Cackling, Toph waited for the instant when every head in the room snapped towards the commotion, and shot her arms out through a gap in the tablecloth to seize the back of the Avatar's knees. Aang was too surprised even to cry out as he fell, and she grabbed him around the shoulders and hauled him towards her in one smooth motion, letting the curtain of cloth drop neatly back into place.

Aang took one look at her and burst out laughing.

She clamped a hand down across his mouth but his laughter was positively infectious. Toph could feel giggles bubbling up in her own throat and bit into her sleeve to stop them from breaking free. Aang peeled away her hand.

"How long have you been under here?"

"Since that nonsense with you blessing the prince." He chuckled again and untangled his formal robes of Avatar-dom or whatever they were. Toph had been tempted to call it a dress but he had been complimentary enough about her attire that she had decided against it. "You don't want to go back to the party do you?" The thought actually hadn't crossed her mind before now. But perhaps Aang had been enjoying the attention; she wasn't sure. It was a touch unsettling to think of how much her friend might have changed –

"Are you kidding? I'm just sorry I didn't think of this first."

And just like that her concern evaporated. Stretching her bare feet out, Toph reclined once more. "Did you get anything to eat?"

"Barely. That Lien is relentless. She had a list of suspected informants she wanted to point out and she was grilling me on whether we'd found anything today." He shifted close enough to pick absently at her beaded and embroidered cuff. "What about you?"

She shrugged. "Oh you know, picked a fight with the Earth King."

"Why do you two hate each other so much?"

"I might have called him a liar in front of the court when we first met."

"I'm not even surprised."

She shoved him hard enough that his head knocked against the underside of the table. "Chan said that the library isn't guarded. He mentioned we should try sneaking in, maybe really early in the morning when no one will miss us."

"You know," he said after a moment. "No one is exactly looking for us now."

"You are finally starting to get smarter, Twinkletoes."

Creeping awkwardly along under the table, they broke for the kitchen door Toph had noticed earlier. The servants squeaked in surprise but Aang just grabbed her hand and tugged her along at a dead run. Just outside the kitchen there was a balcony that opened on to what must have been an amazing view of the sleeping city stretched out below. Before she could ask him why they weren't making for the door, he had looped her arm over one shoulder and struck his staff against the ground.

"Hold on."

Toph realized what he meant too late to stop him from throwing them both bodily off the edge of the balcony. She buried her face in his shoulder to muffle her instinctive shriek as the ground fell away and her awareness became limited to Aang and wind.

 

Aang dropped them almost soundlessly onto a wide second story window ledge, peering out over the lip to make sure that neither of the night guards on the door had seen them. Carefully he unwrapped Toph from the death grip she had around his torso. "Alright?"

Small rocks began to pummel him from all directions.

"Toph! I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

"No you're not, but I sure will make you sorry," she threatened, but ceased the onslaught all the same in favour of trying to extricate one of the elaborate combs that had come loose during their flight and appeared to be poking her in the face. "Do not do that again."

The earthbender's elaborate chignon had been completely destroyed. Pieces had whipped free and now hung windswept and bedraggled around her head, tangling with the pretty decorations, and there was dust and at least one visible splinter in it from the underside of the table. With a cry of irritation Toph yanked all the combs out as fast as possible, letting the dark locks cascade down around her. "Alright, let's go."

"You're going to leave it everywhere like that?" Earth Kingdom noblewomen traditionally didn't cut their hair often and Toph's fell to the small of her back.

"Well it's not exactly going to get in my eyes or anything, Twinkles."

"Here, I'll get it." He reached out and seized her hair, divided it into three sections and began braiding.

Toph went absolutely rigid under his touch and he thought for a moment he'd hurt her, but she made no protest, simply turning so her back was to him. "What is it with you and my hair anyway?" she asked after a moment.

Aang almost swallowed his tongue. "Ahh," he prevaricated. "It comes from being bald most of the time."

"Is that so?"

Sometimes he hated that she could tell when he was lying. "Lady airbenders kept their hair long like this. They would only let it down during festivals."

He had been barely eleven, on a rush of sugar from too many fruit pies at the summer solstice festival. The Southern Air Temple was golden in the light of a thousand coloured lanterns and echoing with laughter and celebration. Rushing carelessly through the temple on his air scooter, he had neglected to dismount before the sphere dissipated and had gone tumbling through the door to one of the acolyte's rooms. The door had been unlocked, and his breath had been knocked clear out of him by the fall, so his entry to the room, while completely ridiculous, had been silent enough that its occupants hadn't noticed.

The seasonal festivals of the Air Nomads were celebrations of life and harmony. They gave the segregated genders an opportunity to see one another, business was discussed and friends reunited, but the holidays were also very focused on fertility. Communal living - even mostly celibate as the monks were - did not leave a whole lot of room for prudery and the nomads had never been overly concerned with the idea of chastity. Aang had grown up falling asleep to soft sounds of passion from other rooms during festival time and it had never been more than part and parcel of the revelry. Celebrations of life and love that one day he would be old enough to join.

Academic knowledge however hadn't really impressed upon him the action behind the concept.

An airbender maiden sat on the low bed facing towards him. She was surpassing lovely, with dusky skin and delicate features, her robes loosened enough to expose her shoulders and collarbone but hardly immodest yet. What drew his attention was her hair. It was the first time he had ever seen a nun with her hair out of the ceremonial half-braid. It spilled out to cover part of her face and cascaded wildly down over one shoulder where the fingers of her lover threaded through the ebony strands. The young monk's hand tightened just slightly, causing his lady to gasp and expose her throat to his hungry mouth.

Aang was transfixed. Not just by the sensuality of the scene but by how fervently he wanted to be that young man.

He'd slipped away before they had seen him, but the image of that tryst was burned into his brain.

"Loose hair, it's just very feminine."

"Feminine?" He couldn't see her expression but Toph's voice was strangled.

Aang decided that discretion was the better part of valor and deftly wound a lace around the half-braid he had plaited into her hair. "There you go; you could be a sister of the Western Temple."

She whipped around fast enough that he was almost struck by her heavy braid. "A nun? You look at me and see a nun?"

"What- yes? I mean no – It's just-" A flash of that memory with him and Toph in place of the young airbenders raced across his mind and Aang clenched his fists, stepping as far back from her as the ledge would allow.

"Whatever Airhead." She practically growled opening up the side of the stone wall she stepped through and slammed it closed behind her.

Aang smacked his head against the rock a few times before following her in.

The library was eerie in the dark. Rows of bookcases loomed forbiddingly over them, faint light through the windows casting menacing shadows across the floor. Aang called up a small flame in the palm of his hand, keeping it carefully away from the ancient papers that filled the shelves. Toph led him quickly down the stairs to the section she had found earlier, replacing the useless scroll she had stolen and beginning to pull down other relevant titles. He cleared a space at one of the nearby tables provided for researchers and began to scour the atlas she passed him for any record of the Waking Mountain.

They'd been at it for an hour with no success when Aang finally managed to get ahead of the mammoth pile of books and scrolls Toph had been tossing down to him. Blinking away slight disorientation born of staring at small print for far too long, he made his way over to the base of the ladder Toph had bent out of the stone to help her reach the higher shelves. It also raised her high enough that Aang could hook his chin over her shoulder from behind.

"Find anything else?"

"I'm looking," she said shortly. He had to be doing this on purpose, no matter what his heartbeat told her, there was simply no way. She took a step sharply to the left, bending a second ladder to hold her in one smooth movement. Aang dropped back to lean against the shelves.

"When did you learn to read?"

"Right after you left. I went home for a little while." Toph smiled to herself. Aang could only guess at the weeks of buildup and anxiety that had come along with that decision. "My parents decided that since I wasn't as helpless as they thought I should start learning how to take over the family business."

"How long did that last?"

"About six months," she admitted. "I really tried."

"I bet you were good at it."

"You really mean that." It wasn't a question, but she was surprised nonetheless

He shrugged. "I never thought you weren't smart, Toph. You're just a born fighter."

"This is true." She shrugged with an air of carefully studied nonchalance.

Aang pulled down a scroll that had been hidden by her body and began to scan it idly. "Has it been like this the whole time I was gone?"

"Arguing with my parents and sneaking out of fancy parties? It's been like that my whole life, Twinkletoes."

"No, I mean people trying to start up new wars over nothing."

"Oh," She stopped picking her way through the heavy books on the higher shelves and hitched up her spreading skirts to sit on the top rung. "Not really. I mean there were border conflicts and lots of military deserters trying to set themselves up as mercenary lords but the Black Fist is new. I guess they were off licking their wounds like the rest of us."

"I don't understand why they would do this. I mean people are people and there's always war, but after all that time under the yoke of the Fire Nation they just turn around and hate somebody else for no reason?"

"Let it never be said that being a victim exempts you from being a truly awful person."

He suppressed the urge to shudder. She had no idea how true that was.

Aang was brought back to the present by a small foot pressing against his face. "Hey," Toph prodded his forehead with her toes. "I don't know what you're thinking about, but quit it. You're not a horrible person and your sad vibrations are bringing me down."

The sharp memory of her screaming when he snapped her metatarsals echoed in his mind and Aang caught hold of the extremity with both hands, bringing it down and rubbing the pads of his thumbs over her arch. Toph collapsed bonelessly against the bookshelf with a hum of pleasure and he smiled. Much better.

It was a very nice moment until her other foot shot out of nowhere and connected hard with the side of his head. "I warned you about that, Flyboy."

"Sorry."

"No you're not."

"I'm sorry that I'm not sorry?" he offered.

Toph just rolled her eyes. "Keep looking."

Irrepressible smile still in place, Aang picked up the scroll he'd been looking at earlier and almost immediately reached out to tug her sleeve. "I found it!"

She scrambled down the ladder and ran her fingers across the cap of the roller. "Volcanoes, Volcanoes, Volcanoes Volume Two?"

"That would explain the name Waking Mountain." He traced the broad peninsula on the parchment map. "It's southeast of the city, in a mountain range on the far side of Chameleon Bay."

"How long will it take us to get there?"

"Shouldn't be more than a day or two, less on Appa-"

"Wait." Toph held up a hand and knelt, pressing her palms against the stone. "Something's wrong." No sooner had the words left her lips than the sound of a great gong rolled down the hill from the direction of the palace.

"That's the call to arms for the Dai Li. The Earth King is in trouble."

 


 

 

Zuko may have been absolute rubbish at making the elaborate tea blends that his uncle preferred, but in the last eight months he'd become quite adept at brewing the simple black kind, designed only to perk you up and keep you moving.

The servants had been completely horrified the first time he had crept into the kitchens late at night to make himself a snack, going so far as to inform Iroh that the prince was acting in a manner unbefitting his station. Zuko couldn't deny that he liked the trappings of royalty. There was nothing appealing about washing your own clothes in an icy river or skinning animals for supper. Still, there were days he missed the clean ache of bone-weary physical exhaustion, the strange sense of accomplishment that had come from watching his friends around a campfire eating something he had worked hard to prepare. And there were times when he just didn't need seven bowing servants for a cup of tea.

Balancing the tray in one hand he levered open the ostentatiously large doors of the palace library. Their little sanctuary. Flickering golden light picked up the dull red of the walls, making even the cavernous space seem warm and cozy. There was a large alcove at one end, almost a separate room, where the three walls were mostly comprised of large glass panes that looked out over an ornamental garden. In it there was a large blackwood desk flanked by padded benches. The table was a study in precise chaos; neatly organized stacks of books warred for space with balls of scrunched up paper, hastily scrawled notes and empty mugs, and across the nearest bench, with a book open on her chest and one arm dangling down towards the floor, was Katara, fast asleep.

Zuko watched her fondly as he put down the heavily laden tray. She was leaving tomorrow. He had tried to convince her that she needed rest, but she had insisted on coming down to the library in the dead of night yet again, trying to cram a few more tidbits of knowledge into her stuffed brain. At daybreak she would head for Whaletail Island to be sworn in as the new Water Tribe representative to the Council of Four, which combined with her status as chief's daughter and Master Waterbender would make her one of the most influential women in the world.

Right now though, she resembled nothing so much as a baby kitten-owl.

Of course Zuko was a little biased because he was head over heels in love with her.

He stood for a moment, drinking in the sight of her. She was so utterly different from the Fire Nation women he had known all his life, with their pale skin and fierce but delicate features. Katara was bolder, brighter, more vivid somehow than anyone else.

Reaching out, he traced the contours of her face in the air above it, hand trembling ever so slightly. He crouched next to her and pulled the book from her nerveless fingers, setting it down beside them on the floor. Zuko leaned forward and pressed his lips ever so slightly to hers.

That fleeting brush would have been the end of it. They got along well; there was no question of that, but if she felt the same way about him she had given no sign and he didn't ever want to endanger their friendship. This tiny kiss would be a secret stolen moment to hold on to when she was gone. But Katara arched up from the bench and reached for him. "Mmm, Zuko…" His name on her lips was a sibilant caress and he was utterly lost.

He kissed her again and again, brief and chaste until he felt her eyelashes flutter open across his cheek. Before he could pull away she'd twined her arms around his neck and tugged him closer, her eyes falling closed once more as she deepened the kiss.

Kissing Katara was like holding lightning, that breathless moment before the redirection when every hair stood on end and his nerves crackled and sparked. She responded to him instantly, eagerly enough to make Zuko groan in response. Katara raked her fingers through his hair, dislodging his topknot with a scrape of nails that had him shuddering. Aching o get closer, Zuko lifted her bodily from the bench to seat her on the table. She nibbled at his lower lip, flicking her wicked tongue over the sting and he never ever wanted to stop.

Which was of course when they bent backwards too far and knocked one of the higher book stacks to the marble floor with a crash.

Shock made them leap apart. The moment was almost funny, but the sight of Katara flushed and tousled with heavy-lidded eyes and kiss bruised lips put laughing far out of his mind. He stepped towards her again and she took two steps smartly back.

"Zuko, I'm leaving in the morning."

Her words cooled his ardor like a bucket of icy water. "How long will you be gone?"

"I don't know." She smoothed out her skirts. "I'll stay as long as they need me to. I'm committed."

No matter what.

He heard the words unspoken in her statement loud and clear and Zuko knew there was only one way for him to answer and retain her respect. "They're lucky to have you, Katara. I know you'll do great things."

"Thank you," she said quietly.

They stood looking at one another, the silence stretching on a beat too long.

"Well it's late."

"Yes."

"We should probably turn in."

"I was just going to say that."

"Okay… goodnight."

She was gone in a whisper of blue before he could manage to croak out a response. "Goodnight Katara."

 

Chapter Text

 

Suki swiped at her waterlines for the third time in less than a minute, huffing with irritation when it made absolutely no difference.

There was a reason that she had never worn her Kyoshi regalia to battle in the Fire Nation and it had nothing to do with the fact that Azula had stolen it. The fearsome warpaint that was so iconic to her caste might strike terror into the hearts of wrongdoers everywhere, but it also tended to run in extreme heat.

She could feel the red pigment melting against her skin and caking into the creases of her eyelids, and wanted nothing more than to dunk her whole head into the bucket of water they kept near the boiler for emergencies. If it had been just her and Sokka she would not have hesitated for an instant but in front of her warriors? She would stand and sweat herself to the point of dehydration without a word of complaint to provide an example.

At this altitude, subjected to buffeting winds, she should have been chilled to freezing. But packing eight Kyoshis, plus her, Sokka and their cargo into a space meant to comfortably transport no more than seven, combined with the excess heat from stoking the engine every few moments to maintain their height and the unseasonable warmth of the day did not make for a breezy and relaxing trip.

"Almost there," Sokka called from his place at the rudder. "Omashu should be visible just around this mountain."

Turning away, ostensibly to gaze out on their destination, Suki rolled her eyes, contorting her face in an attempt to relieve the itching caked sensation when an unexpected flash of colour on the ground caught her attention.

"Sokka?"

"Yeah?"

"Is there something going on in Omashu this time of year?"

"Like what?"

The other warriors were moving to join her, looking out over the edge of the balloon's basket.

"Like a big fair or a nomad migration or troop movements?"

He shook his head. "Not that I'm aware of. Why?

"Because," below them, in a wide half ring covering the only place the city was accessible by land were tents. Not just a few or a dozen but more than a hundred, fanned out in regimental rows. "I think we may have interrupted a siege." The figures running up and down the rows were too small for her to make out what they were doing but the enormous boulder being fired by one of the catapults at the rear of the blockade made it pretty clear.

"LEFT!" she shrieked back to Sokka, who jammed the rudder as hard as he could without question.

"What is going on?" he demanded.

"We're under attack! Kyoshis, more wood on the fire! We have to get out of range!" The warriors leapt into action, forming two chains from the boiler to the wood pile. Suki leapt to the prow of the ship to act as lookout for Sokka stuck on the tiller. Whoever was below them wasn't wasting any time. "Right!" she screamed.

Sokka shoved the tiller further left, sending the boulder careening past them. It impacted the balloon, setting it swinging wildly, but didn't manage to tear the canvas. Suki grunted in pain as she was flung forward from her perch into the ropes and she glared back at her boyfriend. "I said right!"

"It was too close to turn right," he called back. "Besides, it worked didn't it?"

"Would you just let me drive?"

Far below she could see two stones beginning their ascent, aimed for either side of their ship. "Uh, could we do up? Or down?"

"We're trying to go up!"

"I meant faster!"

Sokka looked desperately from the frantically stoking Warriors to the rapidly moving ground below. "How far are we from Omashu?"

"Vertically or horizontally?"

"SUKI!"

"We're almost across the canyon!" She leaned out as far as she could. "Sokka, we're out of time!"

"Hold on!" he roared, leaping away from his place at the stern and pulling his sword free in one flash of movement. The ropes parted like butter under the edge of his blade and there was a sickening lurch before her feet lifted away from the basket floor. Weightless and falling.

A few of the girls were shrieking in panic but Suki had been through enough rough rides on a flying bison to keep her head. Gritting her teeth she moved hand over hand back towards the stern till she could grip the tiller, fitting her hands between Sokka's and helping him to pull the rudder as far back as it would go.

"Do you have a plan?" she managed to ask over the rush of the wind.

"Mail chutes." He screwed up his face in what might have been a wink if they hadn't been falling at an absolutely ludicrous speed.

"That's your plan?"

"Yep. Pull!"

Her arms quivering from the effort, Suki hauled back on the tiller as hard as she could. The first impact jarred her so hard she thought her teeth might rattle free of her skull. They bounced once and then began to slide down the sharp incline, slowly at first but rapidly picking up speed.

"Was this part of the plan?"

A rock wall formed just in front of the basket, not blocking their progress, but moving back in time with the remains of the speeding air balloon and gradually slowing its careening descent. They came to a rumbling stop just at the point where the mail would have been loaded. She fell forward heavily onto Sokka, sprawled out across the bottom of the basket, both of them groaning in pain.

She recovered first, rolling painfully over so she could raise herself up to her hands and knees. "You okay?"

"I think so. Anyone get the registration number for that catapult?"

"Kyoshis?"

"All in one piece, ma'am," Ty Lee replied from somewhere at the bottom of the pile of painted warriors.

She made to lever herself up but Sokka caught her arm. "Are you alright?" he asked seriously.

"Fine." She gave him a soft smile before peeking over the lip of their craft.

The Bei Fong Bandits were grinning down at them from the platform.

"Nice of you to drop in."

 


 

"It's not really a siege so much as a blockade," Ayashu explained as they made their way to the palace. The ruins of the war balloon had been picked off the mail track and disposed of, but fortunately their cargo had survived the rather exuberant landing. "They arrived maybe half a day after we did and just set themselves up all over the mountainside. They've blocked all the trade routes, even that sewer passage you used with the Avatar and Master Katara." Sokka shuddered faintly at the memory of crawling through muck and pentapus -ses? pentapi?

"What is it they're after?"

"The Black Fist is calling for the abdication of King Bumi," one of the other Bandits piped up. She had always had trouble keeping them straight, but supposed that many people would have the same problem with her warriors- especially in full paint. "They're demanding that some non-bender be put on the throne. Not that there's anything wrong with non-benders!" the young girl backpedaled when confronted with glares from Sokka, Suki and eight irate Kyoshis.

Suki sighed and nodded. "But the new guy will definitely be Black Fist. What do you think they'll do?" she asked Sokka.

"They're probably aiming to get their man in power and try to increase happiness in the city for a while to secure their claim to the throne. At the same time this new king will likely start removing high ranking people with earthbending talent, citing them as unsuitable for various stupid reasons, then they'll start taking census as 'part of the new regime' till they track down every bender in the city." He turned back to the Bandit leader. "Did Toph learn anything from the attackers at the school?"

"Just that name. She and the Avatar promised to return tomorrow."

Suki glanced around at the baleful glares the group was receiving as they passed through the market. We may not have until tomorrow.

"We can't wait that long," Sokka replied, apparently reading her thoughts. "Why isn't Bumi doing anything?"

"Neutral Jing," the bandits said in unison, like an exceptionally depressed chorus.

He threw up his hands in exasperation. "Seriously? This whole city is a powderkeg. What in La's name is he waiting for?"

"For you, Strategist." The answer came from a slightly hunched figure in a heavy cloak who stood at the base of the palace steps. The speaker lowered his hood, revealing the grizzled, gap toothed, grinning face of King Bumi. He held up a spar of what looked like purple crystal. "Rock candy?"

The interior of Omashu's palace was filled with running, laughing young earthbenders. Apparently Toph had assumed her students would be safe here. She was going to hit the ceiling when she discovered that the city was under siege, Suki thought wryly as she neatly sidestepped two sprinting children.

"What have you brought me, young Sokka?" Bumi asked, easing himself back onto the throne. "Besides a cadre of lovely young women."

Suki and her warriors did their best to look utterly forbidding. It didn't seem to be terribly effective.

The King might have still been sharp minded and mad as a box of badgertoads, but the signs of his immense age were beginning to show. He looked as though he had been unwell, Suki could see the years piling up behind his eyes and in the stiffness of his movements; though she knew better than to discount him for an instant in a battle, perhaps it was too much to ask him to fight it alone.

"We have come to the defense of your city, my lord," she told him formally. Bumi nodded at her, a respectful gesture from a King. The man was never one for ceremony but he had always treated her and her caste with a measure of deference that her friends were a touch too familiar to receive. Not that it ever stopped him from acting like a madman; he was completely incorrigible.

"And we brought party favours." Sokka threw open the lid to one of the chests they had rescued from the war balloon and tossed a large leather cuirass at Bumi.

The armour had come together rather well in the end. Though their first efforts had resulted in a shamble of cobbled together bits, after three solid days of making the spirits-cursed things they had managed to produce a much more streamlined piece. The result was a leather vest, cut in at the shoulders to allow for maximum movement of the arms and high at the neck to protect the throat. The material was heavy, but since most of the original pieces had been secondhand they were generally well worn and supple. Seaming delineated a wide collar-like section that was ornamental on the front but concealed thick metal plate across the upper back. Retaining flexibility while covering the required chi points had been complicated on the back and sides, so Sokka had eventually settled on wide angled bands that began under the arms and crossed the ribs to form a deep v shape in the back, leaving space for movement between the edges and the half-moon shape that covered the nerve cluster near the base of the spine. The vests laced down from the nape of the neck to prevent easy removal and allow them to remain as close as possible to the body. With the metal covered by tawny leather, the armour looked like part of a uniform. There would be no reason for the Black Fist's chi blockers to suspect a thing until they found out that their techniques were useless.

Suki was rather proud of the things. It was a pity her warriors would not get to wear them. As Sokka explained how they worked, she helped the Bandits find appropriate sizes among the mishmash they had been able to procure, only turning her attention back to her fiancée when he began to bring up war strategy.

"Do we have any kind of plan?"

"The people are starting to panic," Bumi said regretfully. "There were stores of food in the city but it wasn't much; we weren't anticipating this kind of attack."

"Prep for an assassination attempt doesn't usually require much food," the waterbending Bandit broke in, only to be glared down by her leader. Suki silently disapproved of the girl's undisciplined behavior, knowing she'd have been more respectful if Toph were there to dole out reprisal.

"That's going to be a problem," Ayashu said. "We can take the army down, no question. But if the people turn against us first, we'll be conquered from the inside out."

"But how are we going to get them back on our side?" Ty Lee posed the question on everyone's mind.

"I say we send the earthbenders out to pass around what's left of the food stores," Sokka suggested. "All in your name, Bumi, free to anyone who's hungry, see if that won't drum up a little public support. Suki and the Kyoshis can do a some scouting; maybe tonight we can make things difficult for the Black Fist before the cavalry gets here."

Suki left two of her midlevel warriors with the Bandits to pass out food, taking Ty Lee and her newest recruits with her and Sokka up on the wall. Her could plan an excellent attack but Sokka hadn't been trained in defense the way she had, and no amount of description and advice could substitute for experience. The younger Kyoshis needed to learn even more. Suki had to admit that the lack of a war had really been putting a cramp in her ability to train her students in battle situations.

The spread of the army was even more intimidating from the ground, which she supposed was sort of the point of a siege. They covered the whole visible mouth of the valley. "Alright." She turned back to her warriors. "What do you see?"

"Judging from the number of tents, there are at least five hundred men." The girl looked out again. "Maybe six."

"They have enough siege weapons to take down air support but nothing to get them across the chasm. So they're not planning to attack, they're going to starve the city out."

"In those tents?" Suki challenged their hypothesis. "Those are light cloth, they'd never last through the first frost. They expect this to resolve quickly. Very quickly. Which means?"

"They think we're going to surrender."

She nodded. "And without a fight too. There aren't any fortifications built to stop an attack from here."

"But Omashu doesn't have any weapons that can reach the other side of the chasm from here. This city uses earthbenders for defense."

"But they didn't bring enough men to counter an earthbender attack!" the second warrior protested.

"They expect the benders to be neutralized," Sokka finished the thought before Suki could explain. "They know the city well enough to know that Bumi will wait for the right moment to attack but his people won't. They were ready to turn on Bumi when he surrendered to the Fire Nation during the war. It wouldn't take much to incite an uprising."

"Commander!" The scream came from one of the Kyoshi warriors who had been left back with the Bandits. She was sprinting at top speed towards them. "Trouble!"

 


 

 

"Tell the King we don't want his charity, we want the siege over!"

There was a roar of agreement and from somewhere in the crowd a rock came sailing forth to impact the platform where the Bandits stood.

"You benders have brought us nothing but trouble!"

More stones came flying towards the group. Suki watched Shan tuck himself around his sister, taking two rocks across the upper back. Lan did not see the flurry in time, and took a heavy blow to the stomach, doubling over and falling to her knees. Jai uncorked her waterskin, looking merciless, but Yanmei caught her wrist and instead of attacking the waterbender produced a thin, translucent ice shield. The display of power, defensive though it was, seemed to further inflame the crowd and Sokka leapt forward from halfway down the stairs that led to the top of the wall and rushed for the platform, holding up his hands.

"People of Omashu!" His voice was a roar. "Look at yourselves! Look at what you're doing! The Bandits are only are trying to help you!"

"They're benders!" someone in the crowd shouted. He dodged another rock and Suki gave a nod to her warriors, dispersing them throughout the crowd. Sokka might be able to talk them down; she had every confidence in him, but she was not inclined to take unnecessary risks.

"They brought this down on us!"

"They're the ones these invaders want!"

"And you intend to surrender? I remember the proud people of this city under the heel of the Fire Nation. You were abused and decimated and you still wanted to fight back. You were determined not to give in! Now three days under siege and you throw your own people to the wolves?"

"They're not our people!"

"Yes they are! This city was founded by the very first earthbenders. It is part of you, just as much as it's part of them." Sokka's voice was quiet but carried over the watching crowd so well she could hear him clearly even from her place on the wall. "These people are trying to frighten us, to divide us. Don't let them."

A moment of tense silence stretch across the open square and then a faint pattering sound like the first drops of a rainstorm began. It was only when the crowd began to disperse that Suki realized it was the sound of stones being dropped to the ground.

A few people remained and began to help retrieve the spilled sacks of food, taking the load from the Bandits still huddled defensively together on the platform. One or two even went so far as to offer a shamefaced apology. Sokka turned toward where she still stood poised to attack near the bottom of the stairs and gave her the thumbs up and a big silly grin.

That's my man.

 


 

 

The night air was cooler than usual for this time of year and the moon had barely begun to wax, providing only the faintest of light amid a smattering of cloud cover. She turned to her left where her warriors stood poised to move on her command, on her right were the Bandits, who had abandoned their green and gold for darker shades. A hand on her back made Suki turn to see Sokka, in full Water Tribe warrior paint, looking for all the world like some wild demon.

"Spirits that's sexy," she breathed, just loud enough for him to hear.

Sokka leaned down to whisper in her ear. "Real warriors wear makeup, Sweetcakes."

She couldn't quite suppress a giggle, but she managed to morph it into a confident laugh when Ty Lee grinned at her. "Alright, I'm giving us one hour to do as much damage as we can," she instructed them. "No bending, no engaging the enemy. Understood? Shan and Suyin are going to send up a little fireworks display for us at the end of one hour. I don't care what you're in the middle of when you see that signal. You drop it and head back to the city. If you get caught we're leaving you till tomorrow." She spun out her fans in twin circles of golden death. "Ready?"

"Ready, Commander."

"Ready, General Suki."

"Ready, my deadly Darling."

"Oh go on." She shoved Sokka just hard enough to tip him over the edge of the wall. Following suit, Suki dove off behind him, letting the tug of her gloves along the rope she held slow her descent.

The Black Fist soldiers were watching the only bridge into the city, so the Bandits built one of their own, far down the cliff face and out of sight. The group scaled the opposite side of the chasm quickly and split off into smaller groups, heading for the food stores and the water supply. She swung right and headed for where she'd seen the catapults lined up in neat rows, just waiting to be sabotaged. Men were walking everywhere, but most of them seemed to be going about their own business and there were very few sentries.

Sloppy.

Suki slipped from shadow to shadow with the ease of long practice, feeling her whole body thrum with adrenaline. She found the defense line sooner than expected. Swirling out one fan blade she snapped the catapult's tension ropes, ducking around the throwing arm to saw most of the way through the pivot bar. Even if they managed to find enough new ropes to get the siege engines working again, any significant weight on the bar would cause it to break completely.

Methodically she moved down the line of machinery, counting off the minutes she had left and listening for any indication of discovery when she heard a commotion from the nearest tent. Ducking along the line cast by the lanterns she edged close to the flap of the tent and was shocked to see a crouched figure creeping along the opposite side. Doubling back she looped around the makeshift building until she could clamp one hand down over his mouth and yank him out of earshot.

"What are you doing? You were supposed to be tainting their water supply."

"I did," Sokka protested. "All the barrels are full of mud."

"Then why are you not back at the rendezvous site?"

"Because of that!" He pointed towards the noisy tent with a look of unholy glee on his face.

Rolling her eyes and cursing her own insatiable curiosity Suki inched her way back to the open entrance. There were about half a dozen men inside, all wearing the black sashes and shoulder guards that denoted higher rank within the Black Fist and from the look of the empty bottles lined up on the table they were all very clearly off duty. We could take out a big chunk of their commanders if we do this fast and quiet. Suki was about to allow herself a smug chuckle when she caught sight of what else was sitting on the table.

Oooh hello lover.

Double-decker, perfectly round and covered in strawberries and chocolate frosting, it was without a doubt the most mouthwatering cake she had ever seen. Spinning on her heel, she fixed Sokka with a fearsome glare. He wasn't here for the officers; he was unquestionably here for the cake. His guilty grin just confirmed her suspicions, and as he tugged her close enough to whisper in her ear, Suki already knew she was going to utterly cave in to this mad idea.

Suki, like any good warrior, knew her weaknesses, and she had an enormous weakness for chocolaty desserts.

"This is a stupid risk." Still she insisted on at least trying to make him see reason.

"What risk, either of us could take out that room of drunken hogmonkeys in half a minute."

"It only takes one of them to shout and raise the alarm."

"But it's a whole tent full of officers. I bet that's half their command staff. Think of the tactical advantage," he wheedled. "Besides, we're here to disrupt morale after all. And the loss of such an exquisite, luscious, lovely cake would definitely demoralize them."

"Oh Sokka," she let out a ridiculous exaggeration of a dreamy sigh. "You're so poetic when you talk about food." Clenching her jaw she came up with a plan. "Be a good little Kyoshi and follow my lead."

"Yes commander." His response was immediate and completely in earnest.

They secreted themselves on either side of the tent opening and Suki risked a quick glance inside to make sure their attention was diverted. Reaching out, she seized the rungs of the closest officer's chair and tipped it backward, sending him tumbling past her hiding place. She clamped one hand over his mouth and pulled him further into the shadows, using part of her sash to hogtie him before he could even react. The rest of the tent's occupants were so busy laughing drunkenly at their friend's antics that it took them almost a full minute to realize he hadn't come back in and for four of them to stumble out looking for him.

One of them was still in the tent.

Sokka seized the last one to leave and sliced neatly and silently across his throat. The intoxicated men wandered off in separate directions and she gestured Sokka to follow the first two. She went after the third, carefully waiting until he'd made his way behind the line of siege weapons but moving to take him out before he had the chance to undo his fly. War was an ugly thing but it didn't need to be quite that disturbing. Glancing around, she confirmed that no one had seen her, dragged the body of the officer out of sight behind another tent and made her way back to the officer's mess.

There was no sign of Sokka but one junior officer had apparently heard the siren call of the cake as well. He stood with his back to the entrance, poised with a knife and trying to find the perfect place to begin slicing.

"Hey," she interrupted, sending the boy whirling around in panic. "That cake is mine."

She took a running leap at him, gaining enough height to send her elbow dropping hard right into the top of his skull.  His eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed in an insensible heap before he even got the chance to yell. Suki kicked him neatly under the table so he was hidden by the cloth draped over top, secured one of the few remaining full bottles in her waistband and made off with her prize.  

Two steps out into the night air and Sokka returned, a spray of blood, even darker than his warpaint in the moonlight slashed across his face combined with his wide grin making him look absolutely feral. Then he caught sight of the dessert she held and morphed back into a slightly silly young man.

"Oh if that's not one of the prettiest sights in the world. Pretty girl," he tucked one arm around her waist and relieved her of her burden with his other hand. "Pretty food. If you had a package of seal jerky somewhere in that armour I could die a happy man."

"Hold on there, charmer." She pushed him gently away. "We're not done yet."

 

Sokka couldn't run with the cake in his arms, so Suki led the way carefully along the edges of the encampment, keeping them low and in the shadow of the mountains. They weren't the first to return to the rendezvous point; as she approached the ledge she could hear Lan and a few of the Kyoshis comparing notes.

"…Spilled their rice stores out all over the ground and then we put holes in every single one of the cooking pots."

"Holes in their pots? Devious."

"Well what did you do?"

"We let all their ostrich horses free. Those beasties will be halfway to Gaoling by now."

She jumped down onto the outcropping where they sat hidden just beneath the lip of the cliff's edge and Sokka dropped behind her, landing in a deep crouch and gingerly trying to balance the enormous cake.

"General Suki?" Lan's mouth was wide with shock. "What did you do?"

"Sokka thought we could all use a treat."

Their muffled giggles were interrupted by the whisper of running feet and the roar of an enormous explosion from the far edge of the camp. Ty Lee and the remaining warriors threw themselves over the edge and out of sight just as the space was lit up like the midday sun by the blast. Juggling the heavy platter, Suki did a quick mental count before turning to Ayashu.

"Everyone here?"

The earthbender looked tense and unhappy for a moment before the cliffside opened up next to them and Shan, Suyin and Jai came tumbling out covered in dirt. Their leader's body sagged in relief but her face was fearsome. "General Suki said no bending."

The Water Tribe bandit looked ready to protest but the twins bowed their heads respectfully. "Sorry Aya," they said in unison.

"Apologies later," Sokka broke in. "We're wasting our distraction."

Leaping up, they sprinted as one unit down the bridge towards the city walls. Above the gate the bandit Yanmei and Ayashu's sister were waiting to bend open entrance. Suki skidded through last – making sure that everyone was accounted for – and collapsed against the newly formed wall behind her. Reaching across to where Sokka was slumped not too far away from her, she plucked off a precariously dangling strawberry and swiped it through the icing.

"Best siege ever."

"You should always listen to me when it comes to food," he assured her.

The laughter of the assembled group was cut short by the thunderous sound of grinding rock. From their place at the gates Suki could just make out the shape of the palace being encased in stone. From somewhere high in the city a bell was ringing.

"What is that?"

"The bell of succession," Yanmei's voice was equal parts wonder and despair. "No one has heard that bell ring in eight generations."

"What does it mean?" Sokka demanded.

"It means King Bumi is dead."

 


 

 

"Here, what's this one?"

Toph turned the small square of glass over in her sensitive fingers. "It's copper," she said after a moment, listening to the sing of the metal. "Copper oxide, a very small amount. What colour does that make?"

"Light blue," Katara told her. "A little lighter than the sky. Actually it's almost the same as Aang's arrow."

"Can we use it?"

Katara laid the pale azure mosaic tile next to a series of variegated blues. "Actually if we mix them together I think it will look nicer than one flat shade."

"And white," Toph suggested. "That's the colour of clouds right, white?"

She hummed in agreement and sat back, idly toying with different shades of pale yellow for the border, watching the young earthbender pull the reddish powder from the collection of minerals they had picked up and set it to spinning in swirling shapes before her sightless eyes.

"Toph, why don't you want to be queen of Omashu?"

The grains of copper oxide dropped, coating her trousers in a fine dusting of red.

"What do you mean, Sweetness? It was just a stupid prank on Zuko."

"Yeah it was." Katara knew that watching Toph's face for clues wasn't exactly an effective way of reading her emotions, but the act was so ingrained she couldn't help it. "But you're fighting it so hard. That's not like you."

Toph snorted. "Right, I'm exactly the kind of person who wants to sit on a throne all day and talk about trade agreements and protocol. Thanks but I'll leave that to you."

"Bumi is hardly that kind of king and you know it. I don't understand why you wouldn't leap for that chance. Queen of Omashu would be a lot of power."

Toph bent the powdered mineral back into its small bag. "Do you remember when that assassin went for Zuko?"

"Which one?" Katara tried to toss her heartsick fear off with humor, knowing that her companion wasn't fooled. There had been so many and some had been so very close.

"Poison."

That had been the very worst because she couldn't heal it. She could only stop his organs from shutting down and pray to Tui and La and Agni and every spirit she had ever heard of that Zuko would make it through. "I remember."

"But do you remember why?"

In all honesty she couldn't. Her focus had been for Zuko alone. All that she could remember of the circumstances surrounding the attack was how utterly white hot angry she had been at the man who had almost robbed her - robbed them of their friend.

"I remember him being a mess afterwards."

"That was because he thought he deserved it." Toph ignored her sputter of indignation and continued. "The man who tried to poison Zuko did it because Zuko had his family killed."

Katara felt righteous anger well up in her and falter with no clear target. "Why?"

"Because they'd been abusing and murdering the Earth Kingdom citizens in the colonies they were administrating and decided they would rather not stop when the war did."

"Well..." She wanted to say good riddance, they deserved it. All those long held prejudices against the Fire Nation rising bitter in the back of her throat. But they weren't true; she'd grown up enough to know that nothing was ever so simple. "What does this have to do with you?"

"You know what Zuko’s heartbeat said? Guilt." The stones beneath them trembled with her ire. "He felt guilty that his actions had driven this man to such dire straits. He felt like he had failed."

"Killing people should never be an easy decision," Katara agreed. "Even if it's the right one."

"And that's why I can't be Queen. Because for me it would have been easy," Toph sighed, blowing her bangs up and away from her face. "A job like that would make me into a monster."

"Leading people doesn't make you cruel, Toph."

"No? Talk to Suki about sending people into battle sometime. Or your father; I bet he can tell you about how it feels to order his men to their deaths."

Katara shifted herself to sit next to the smaller girl, knees to her chest, shoulders bumping. The way they'd sat in that jail cell when Toph had first really opened up to her; the way they had sat the night Toph first killed a man to save her life. "You lead the Bandits."

"Yeah, to fight criminals and thugs," she scoffed. "I trained the Bandits; if they died fighting those pigweasels I'd kill them myself. I don't have to send them out against impossible odds because it's the right thing to do for my country." Reaching with movements more delicate than those she normally used for earthbending, she plucked at the tiles arrayed on the ground, arranging them by colour into a maelstrom of concentric circles; blue, orange, white, yellow. "This kind of power is enough for me."

The squares of tessera glass landed neatly in a many armed spiral. "What else do we need more of?"

Knowing Toph wanted the subject dropped, Katara reached for the cloth covered bundle that held the colors Suki wanted. "Here, this one is dark green."

"Chromium, almost half."

"You're wrong, you know."

"Sweetness, I'm pretty sure it's chromium."

"No." Katara bumped her shoulder. "I mean about everything else. If you had to, Toph, you could do it. You'd be great."

The blind girl made the effort to turn and smile towards her, so Katara knew that her words were appreciated before Toph ruined the moment. "Of course I'd be great, Sweetness. I'm awesome."

"You know, now that I think about it, I'm not sure anyone wants a mud slug like you as queen."

"That's right; I should be Melon Lord of the Universe!"

They dissolved into girlish giggling as Toph flexed her rather impressive biceps. "You'll make a better queen than I would, Katara," she said with a wicked, knowing grin.

Katara busied herself with repacking the spread tiles and tried to pretend that she had no idea what the other girl was talking about.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It had taken the combined might of the Bandits less than a minute to crack their way through the thick rock shield that encased the palace. Just steps inside the doors lay the body of a man wearing the ebony sash of the Black Fist. His skull had been caved in on one side by the heavy stone that lay in a pool of blood beside his cooling body. A boy of no more than ten was huddled against the wall a few yards away, staring at the broken man. It was one of Toph's students; the child was in shock.

Sokka almost didn't notice the smaller girl he was protecting until the touch of Ayashu's hand on his shoulder made the boy startle so badly that he bent the two of them halfway into the wall. Ayashu eased them back out of the stone with more gentleness than Sokka usually saw from rockbreakers in their element. "Are you alright?"

"He tried to hurt Min," the boy protested defensively. "I didn't mean to but he just-"

"It's alright." Ayashu's normally strident voice was quiet. "You did exactly the right thing. Now, where are the others?"

The reassuring words seemed to break the boy free of the stasis that gripped him and tears began to run down his face. "Hey now," she snapped her fingers. "Second rule."

He gasped in a strangled sounding breath, but the tears stopped. "Stand firm."

Ayashu nodded encouragingly and pulled both children to their feet. "You go with Suyin and find the others. She'll keep you all safe." Turning back to the rest of the group, she gestured at her sister. "Kana, go with them."

Suki signaled to one of the Kyoshis, who stepped forward. "Just in case."

The three of them nodded and vanished down a side hallway, leaving the rest to race their way towards the King's apartments on the upper floor. All the guards were dead, most of them at their stations, which meant they’d been set upon quickly by someone they trusted. "Someone in the palace was in on this," he told the group. "They knew we were out of the city."

The whole mass of them tightened together instinctively, the Kyoshis forming a loose circle around the benders. Sokka pulled his sword free and stepped to the head of the formation without breaking stride. As they climbed further though, the halls became filled with struggling combatants. A few chi blocked earthbenders were still desperately trying to get the rock to respond to their commands, but most had abandoned that in favor of more traditional weapons. The Black Fist had the advantage of surprise and were slowly overwhelming the guards. Sokka and the Kyoshis cut through them like an arctic wind.

The guard captain lay dismembered where he had fought to keep the invaders back from the King's chambers. Rather than wait to be attacked when they opened the doors, Yanmei and Ayashu blasted them apart as they approached.

King Bumi was slumped over on the floor, surrounded on all sides by the broken remains of his attackers and holding in one hand what appeared to be a crude warhammer bent from the stone floor. The old man was lying beside a spray of liquid spilled from a glass that lay smashed at his feet; there were three darts embedded in his shoulder. They'd drugged him or poisoned him, something to take away his bending, but not fast enough to stop him from arming himself. Sokka looked down in heartsick admiration. Crazy bastard to the end.

Before he could even finish sweeping the room, Jai leapt forward, uncorking her waterskin and running glowing palms across the King's body – the action reminded him sharply of Katara and the typical frisson of worry for his sister raced down his spine before he could dismiss it.

"Bumi, can you hear me?"

"Jai," Ayashu began gently, only to be interrupted by a faint rasp of labored breath.

"He's still alive!" Jai cried, yanking the darts free. "It's poison. Tui and La, I can't do anything with poison."

"What do you need?" Suki demanded.

"A better healer!"

"You two," she snapped at her warriors. "Go find a doctor; I don't care if you have to wake up the whole city. We need to set up a guard on the palace and have a team do a sweep and make sure there's no one else hiding here who could get the drop on us."

"I can keep him stabilized, but we can't move him much," Jai offered, her eyes never leaving her patient.

"Shen, stay with her and help her with anything she needs," Ayashu instructed. "The rest of us are in your hands, General Suki."

"Not me," Sokka interrupted before his lady could begin organizing her defense force. "I'm going to get some answers from whoever is still ringing that bell."

Ayashu and Suki's heads came up in unison, punctuated by the muffled gong of the bell of succession.

"Back in ten minutes or I'm coming up after you," Suki told him.

Sokka nodded his face grim. "You got it Lambietoes."

 


 

 

The sky was just beginning to grey on the eastern horizon as Sokka flung the trapdoor open and leapt the remaining few stairs to the cupola that housed the tolling bell. Below him the narrow streets and twisting mail chutes were spread out like one of Toph's sand cities, still and seemingly peaceful in the faint pale light. But Sokka had eyes only for the man standing beneath the great bronze bell.

The man was holding on to the rope with all his might, keeping it wrapped about his forearm for greater leverage and pulling so hard he was lifted from his feet with each retraction. He was wearing the ostentatious robe of an advisor to the crown, a black band wrapped hastily about his bicep to show his allegiance. This, then, was their inside man.

The space sword, which could shear cleanly through metal, found no opponent in the frayed ancient rope. With one last tooth-rattling clang the bell fell silent as its bellringer crashed to the ground. The man stared down the black length of Sokka's sword, naked hatred on his face not quite managing to mask the fear.

"You're too late," he spat.

"Oh I don't know; sunrise seems like a good time for revenge."

"It won't matter what you do to me." He gathered up his robes and tried to rise but Sokka struck him hard across the shoulders with the flat of his blade and the man remained on his knees. "You can't stop them now!"

"Is that what they said to you? Made you think it was all so inevitable, so why not kill the king?" The razor edge of his weapon pressed against the traitor's throat, drawing a thin line of blood. "Or did they promise you Omashu once we were all dead?"

"Bumi was a mad old fool!" The man's voice was strangled with terror. "He didn't deserve to rule, and passing off the crown to some other grand bender who'll just ignore us and abandon us? I was doing it for my city."

"And the siege, is that part of your plan too?"

The lying courtier said nothing. Sokka took a half step forward and punched him. The blow was enough to knock the man back more than a foot, laying him out across the wooden floor of the bell tower. Sokka wondered idly if the man had bitten through his tongue. "Answer me!"

"It's not a siege, they're waiting for my signal."

Two steps had him at the open lattice of the west wall; the entrance to the city was open, guarded by a few of the Black Fist, while the rest began to pack up their camp and mobilize the army. He could see the neat dark lines of their soldiers like toys in formation. "Oh no."

The courtier's mocking laughter came a split second before he struck and Sokka was able to narrowly dodge the stiletto blade that would have slid easily between his ribs.

"How did you get the gate open?" he demanded, parrying the next strike with his black weapon.

"The same way anyone gets the gate of Omashu open."

"Earthbenders." The revelation was a breath as he took the offensive. "You have earthbenders willing to work with you?"

"We have earthbenders willing to do whatever it takes to protect their families." The mocking smile on the man's face made Sokka's skin crawl. "Not that we'll spare any, but they don't need to know that." The man shot forward, stabbing at Sokka’s unprotected neck. Sokka pivoted on his back foot, bringing the sword up and across to slice smoothly through the stiletto and followed the blow through before neatly reversing the motion and bringing the pommel odown hard against the man's temple. He dropped like a stone and Sokka stepped back, not even out of breath, reaching for the remains of the bell rope to bind the man's hands.

"Space sword slice," the words were barely murmured in the still morning air. "If Bumi doesn't survive to make an example of you pal, you can bet that I will."

 


 

 

The rickety stairs to the tower were more difficult to navigate with the body of an unconscious heavyset man on his shoulders, but Sokka did his level best to run, not taking too much care to protect his captive from smacking into corners as they hurried through the halls. Suki and Ayashu were still in the antechamber where they had found Bumi, though the body of the king had been moved. The girls were leaning over a small table that held an unrolled map of Omashu, two Kyoshis at Suki's elbow to carry her orders wherever they might need to go. He dumped his cargo unceremoniously at the door so that the man rolled forward and struck the table legs.

"Ringleader," he explained neatly. "But we’ve got bigger problems. They have the gate open and they're mobilizing. I'm guessing they'll be here by sunrise. If it takes them even that long."

Ayashu huffed in irritation. "So much for disrupting a long term siege."

"There's still value in what we did," Suki insisted. "For one thing they can't use their catapults anymore. But right now we need to wake up whatever militia the city might have. Get the Bandits and any earthbenders you can muster and seal off the city in tiers and districts, anything we can do to hold them off or keep their numbers from overwhelming us."

"They have benders of their own," he interrupted.

Suki stopped mid-thought, her eyes wide with surprise. "Well that's not fair."

"I know, right?"

"They can't match the Bandits for power. Bender to bender, we're the stronger," Ayashu reminded them.

"Doesn't mean we should rely on just that. Any archers that can be found we need to get on the walls and have them take down the benders...incapacitating if possible." Her voice was soft but firm on the last instruction.

A flurry of movement at the doors drew their attention away from the table and map.

"We found a healer!" the younger of the pair of Kyoshis shouted, almost holding the man's arm above his head in triumph.

"So I see." Suki's calm dampened their hysterical enthusiasm. "Do you know much about poisons?"

"More than anyone in the city."

"And do you serve your King?"

He bowed his head solemnly. "I do."

Suki regarded the physician evenly, like Kyoshi herself behind the painted mask and Sokka swore he could feel the precious seconds ticking away. His muscles twitched with the effort of suppressing movement.

"He is in your hands, healer."

The man wasted no time with a reply, moving with alacrity through the elaborately carved doors to the bedchamber.

"He's coughing up blood," Jai began the moment she laid eyes on the young man. "I'm trying to hold him together but there's not much time left."

The healer lifted Bumi's eyelids to check his pupils and lifted his wrist to count out the man's pulse. "There's enough." He ran his fingers through the remains of the spilled liquid on the floor and sniffed it, grimacing at whatever he found. "This is going to be unpleasant. Help me move him," he directed Shan without really sparing him a glance. "I'll need towels and a lot of water. Waterbender, keep him stable for as long as you can."

"Do you know the antidote?" Ayashu asked, a note of desperation in her voice.

"Yes." The healer's voice was utterly calm. "But it may not be enough at this point. We'll have to try and draw some one the poison out." Gingerly he and Shan lifted the king and moved his unresponsive form back into the bedchamber.

Sokka wanted to follow, but years of Katara's ranting had taught him that warriors had no place in the sickroom. From the momentary pause after the healer departed, he was not the only one who worried for the old king. He cleared his throat and pulled the parchment map towards him, breaking their reverie.

Suki coughed and continued. "We should have the children seal the palace again once we're out."

"Will that help?"

"It might buy them some time."

"No." An idea sparked in Sokka's mind. "No, no. We have to stop thinking defensively. They're expecting that; the defensive plan, the neutral jing, they know that's what we'll do."

"That's the best way to keep a city like this from being breached."

"We're already breached. I say we rake in some positive jing. We need to take the fight to them."

 


 

 

Omashu's army was comprised almost exclusively of a volunteer militia. The building of a large military force had been the fastest way to bring the soldiers of the Fire Nation down upon you and in the years since no one had wanted to directly confront the idea that the fragile peace might not last. Subsequently, the majority of military service was neither mandatory nor encouraged and most of the men who had been roused from their beds in the predawn light looked a far cry from hardened fighters.

Two Kyoshi warriors and Jai had been left in the palace - which had been sealed by the oldest of the Bei Fong students after their departure - to guard the children and keep the king alive. The remaining six were at Suki's side, listening to her outline the plan while the bandits distributed the makeshift armour to anyone with bending talent.

Suki had suggested that the Kyoshis spread out to lead the different battalions of the army, but Sokka pointed out that there weren't really enough of them to warrant losing the speed and efficacy of their skills when fighting as a unit.

Sokka turned to face their ragtag group. Fifty men, five Bei Fong Bandits, seven Kyoshi warriors and a guy with a boomerang against five hundred.

Well, he'd faced more men with fewer allies before.

"For Omashu!" he vowed as loud as he dared. Wary of the need for quiet, the assembled army thumped their fists over their hearts and bowed their heads in unison. Sokka drew his sword, listening to the black metal ring faintly, and stepped out into the open plaza that lay before the city gate.

The earthbenders were the first thing he noticed. The chains that bound them hand and foot sparkled in the first light of the rising sun. There were no more than four, flanked by the platoon of about fifty men who were guarding them and the open gate. He nodded as they moved into view, and as one Ayashu and the bandits threw up a high wall encircling the plaza, blocking off all access to the city.

"Good morning!" he shouted as soon as they were within audible range. "You guys seem to have left the door open. Would you mind closing it? I'm feeling a bit of a draft!"

The Black Fist soldiers shifted into a defensive formation, spreading their line across the open gate. From the back of their platoon a team drew forward. Four soldiers with silver breastplates arranged themselves around a fifth. The man at the center of the square was tall, clad in elaborately decorated armour formed of ebony black leather and gleaming silver metal, with a heavy cowl that hid all features except his mocking smile. He had the bearing of a war leader along with the trappings of one and Sokka was sharply conscious of his own rather worn Water Tribe leather and furs. "And who are you, with the exceptionally shiny shoulder guards?"

The man reached up and pushed back his hood. "I am Zaofu, Leader of the Black Fist." The face of their enemy was dishearteningly heroic. Zaofu had strong, noble features, his colouring typical of the Fire Nation, though his brown eyes could have marked him as an Earth Kingdom native - an avenue he seemed willing to exploit with a deliberate lack of national allegiances or styles in his dress.

"Well it's lovely to meet you and everything but Omashu would appreciate it if you'd just shove off."

"And who are you to speak for this city, Water Tribe? You stand with the handmaidens of a long dead Avatar and a leaderless rabble of tainted mercenaries, with barely a handful of citizens misguided enough to follow the old ways." He twisted slightly to address the soldiers behind Sokka. "Any man here who leaves now will not be faulted for his foolishness."

Sokka could hear a worried rumble of muttered words and the creak of shifting leather, but he didn't dare take his eyes off of Zaofu long enough to look around at the men.

"If the people of this city wish us gone, let them come forward." Zaofu's smile was full of malice. "Let the king come forward and turn us away himself."

"King Bumi is a busy man," Sokka let his voice ring with a confidence he didn’t feel. "He has more important things to do than face off with a two-bit thug who's got delusions of grandeur."

Zaofu's face tightened and he knew that the insult had hit its mark. "Surrender!" the warlord demanded, turning to pitch his voice out towards the people behind the plaza walls. In the space of a heartbeat Sokka drew and flung his boomerang out into space. "Kneel or be slaughtered down to the last woman and child as an example for those who cling to the ways of the corrupted!"

The Black Fist soldiers who surrounded Zaofu were midway through a roar of approval at his words when the boomerang came arcing back and struck the man with an audible crack across one side of his head. He staggered back, blood seeping from his temple, and Sokka caught the boomerang easily in his free hand.

"Do you think that's enough of an answer?" he asked Suki quietly.

"Well said, dear." Her stance didn't shift an inch.

Zaofu spat on the stones between them. "So be it."

He and his bodyguards faded back through the line of soldiers at the gate, making their way back across the span that crossed the gorge to the rest of the army. "Kill them all!" he roared.

"Now!" Sokka screamed, signaling the archers they had arrayed across the rooftops behind their newly erected wall. Arrows fell like rain across the open plaza, making the Black Fist soldiers duck behind their shields. He raised his sword to the sky and brought it forward, racing across the open space with an army on his heels.

They hit the line of soldiers like a sledgehammer, breaking through the formation almost instantly. He lost sight of Suki and the Kyoshis, and the Bandits became only flashes of green between the forms of his enemies and the red haze of battle that coloured his vision.

Slicing his way through to the mouth of the gate he nearly tripped over the huddled form of a captive earthbender. Barely more than a boy, he looked up in fear and hopelessness. Sokka wondered for an instant what he saw - a feral wildman dressed in fur and painted with blood. One smooth slice of Sokka’s sword broke through the chains that kept the boy bound and he offered the young man a smile.

"Fight with us," he said, "and be free."

The boy seemed transfixed for a moment. Then from behind Sokka came the bloodcurdling scream of a Black Fist warrior as a rock pillar burst from the earth and launched him over the outer wall. He clapped a hand against the earthbender's back approvingly and leapt back into the fray.

 

Finishing one last enemy with an arcing slash across the torso, Sokka spun to find himself facing only allies. They had broken through the line at the gate.

Suki was shouting at the archers, moving them up to stand over the gate on the outer wall itself. Ty Lee was separating out those with crippling wounds to fall back and recover. Sokka turned back toward the bridge and the army that awaited them.

The span that crossed the gorge to the city of Omashu had been built with trade and travel in mind as much as defense. It was wide enough to allow two carts to pass, and from the approaching horde that translated into almost six men abreast. "Hold on!" he cried back toward his little army. "This isn't over yet!"

"Shan, Suyin!" Ayashu called. "Raise the gate!" The Black Fist were almost halfway across the span as they rushed forwards to meet them, the Bandits stepping ahead just in time to raise a rock wall and protect them from a volley of arrows. A collective push sent the sheet of stone flying outwards to crash against the oncoming line, and a whole stream of warriors fell screaming into the chasm. It barely made a dent in the enemy ranks.

As the sheet of stone fell away a number of men came leaping over the front lines of the Black Fist to attack the Bandits individually. Chi blockers, Sokka realized as they slid beneath the benders' guard and struck at their chakra points. He spared a tense second watching to make sure the armour they had built functioned correctly. The stunned surprise of the blockers when their attacks had no effect let Ayashu and her fighters knock several of them away, but not all. Chi blockers were specifically trained for close quarters combat with benders and though their principle advantage had been neutralized, they were still enough of a threat to keep the Bandits from making optimal use of their abilities.

Unable to rely on the protection of earthbenders, the Kyoshi warriors stepped forward to form a wall, golden fans spinning out into small round bucklers. He stepped up close behind as they knocked away the spears of the Black Fist and began to slice deep into their lines; calling up all the Kyoshi training that eight years of drilling and fighting with Suki had given him, he slid into their fighting forms, using his boomerang as a defensive weapon while his sword cut the enemy down.

The legions of the Black Fist were fearsome, but their grunts were no match for a squadron of highly trained Kyoshi fighters. They fell like wheat before the girls' whirling fans, each wave having to clear away the bodies of those who had been taken apart by their tessenjutsu.

But there were so many.

Heavy ropes launched from ballistae whistled across the chasm to sink deeply into the rock of the city's outer wall, pulling taut to form a makeshift bridge. They were too far away to strike with his sword but close enough that reinforcements for the Black Fist could swing out to flank them.

Sokka wiped the blood from his eyes and turned back towards the Bandits. Coming up fast he charged the blocker Ayashu was striking at, space sword slicing through muscle and bone with as much ease as it parted the fabric around it. "Aya, we need a wall!"

She shed the enormous stone fists that she'd bent around her hands and splayed her palms out against the rock bridge. A wall sheared up between the Kyoshis and the Black Fist, but not fast enough. The gurgling shriek and Suki's anguished cry told him what had happened before he even turned around.

In the lee of their protective wall Suki held the crumpled form of one of her warriors, spear still thrust through her chest half snapped off and sticking into the air. Sokka realized he didn't know her name.

The sound of tearing air pushed the remains of their force forward, huddling against to the wall to avoid the first hailstorm of arrows.

They were all close enough to hear the girl's wet gasp as her muscles tightened spasmodically, then went limp.

For a moment the Kyoshis bowed their heads, tears marking tracks in streaked face paint, but when Suki's head came up her eyes were hard and cold as ice. "We need to break the bridge."

"We can't-"

"There are too many," Sokka agreed. "If we break the bridge here we can take out everyone on it and pull back to the city to regroup."

"No," Ayashu repeated. "We can't. The whole thing is too big; it's higher than the walls of Ba Sing Se. Unless Yanmei can do it …we're not strong enough."

There was a thunderous crash from the opposite side of their thin stone wall. A moment's pause and it repeated. Battering ram.

Another volley of arrows darkened the sky, arcing higher and landing closer to the wall. "We've got nowhere to run."

The Bandits turned as one to Yanmei, who briefly looked panicked, but nodded resolutely. "I'll try."

She shifted her stance, sinking low into the ground in a move he had seen Toph use a hundred times, bringing her arms out slowly. The whole bridge began to rumble and quake, and Sokka heard the steady rhythm of the battering ram falter as stone chips went shuddering off the edge into the abyss. Yanmei's teeth were gritted, sweat beaded on her brow from the effort and she suddenly collapsed as though she'd been struck. "I can't," she gasped. "It's too big."

Three of the Omashu militia went down, pierced through the chest by barbed arrows. Shan took one right through the muscle of his calf, the sound of his fall accented by Ty Lee's cry as she was hit twice in the shoulder.

At the edge of his vision Sokka saw Ayashu close her eyes.

"Spirits you're useless, Yanmei," she spat, the whole group going silent at her outburst. "No control and no power, you're no good to anyone."

Yanmei went white at her words. "What?"

"You heard me. We're going to die here, all of us, because you are pathetic." There was no trace of fear in Ayashu, only utter contempt for her fellow warrior. "And the worst part is that it won't just be us. Those bastards will plow right through that gate. And they'll slaughter every last person in that city."

"No-" The denial was choked off and desperate.

Ayashu didn't look at her, she just kept talking. "There's no one left to stop them once we're dead. They'll be able to move right through the city tiers, though I imagine they'll take a little longer with the women than the men. And then you know where they'll go? They'll go to the palace, where the children are hiding."

Yanmei was staring at her now, her eyes huge against the pallor of her skin, mouth open but producing no sound. "They'll butcher those students like cattle. After we promised to protect them – "

"Shut up! Just shut up!"

"We are breaking that promise because of you! You're failing them just like you failed your daughter!"

Something shattered in Yanmei's face, an old, old wound reopened so deeply that it broke something basic and primal. "Don't you talk about my daughter!" she screamed at the top of her lungs. There was a deafening, rending crash and a shockwave blew the wall they were all hiding behind to dust, knocking the whole group flat. Sokka felt all the air go out of his lungs, and shards of stone slice right through his leathers to open a wide gash down his arm. Ignoring the pain he wrenched himself up to check on Suki only to be transfixed by the sight before him.

The bridge was intact – Black Fist in various states between injured and dead littered its surface, though most had been flung off by the force of the shockwave – but it ended in nothing. Where the edge of the valley had been, the cliff face had simply been sheared away. Half of the enemy encampment had crumbled with it into the gorge. Barely a hundred men remained on the far side of the gap. Even as he watched they were sounding a retreat, scrambling to disappear into the mountains.

The remains of their bedraggled army began to haul themselves up, picking their way across the broken rocks that littered the bridge like ice floes. Yanmei sat in the midst of the devastation, staring at the ground as a trickle of red ran from her nose. Ayashu had shielded her from the blast; there were spikes of rock embedded in the leather armour across her back, blood dripping from many tiny puncture wounds.

She backed away as the other Bandits came forward to care for their broken sister.

Sokka turned in search of Suki and found her right behind him, the wounded Ty Lee leaning on her for support. He kissed her forehead gratefully.

"We should follow them," she said. "It might be our only chance to find out where they're coming from."

"Tomorrow." He bent and picked up the body of the fallen Kyoshi warrior, leading them all back towards the city. "We'll go tomorrow."

 


 

 

The sound of Suki closing the door softly behind her and climbing into bed pulled Sokka to a place of faint awareness while still remaining mostly in slumber.

"Sokka?"

The snoozing boy remained silent.

"Sokka?"

"Mrghumm?"

"Sokka, are you awake?"

"Unfortunately."

"Sorry."

"Nah it's okay, I had to get up and talk to Suki anyway."

She laughed a little, the soft wuff of air tickling his ear as he rolled off his stomach and up on one elbow to see her face in the faint moonlight. "It's not the dream again is it?" he asked, even though he could tell it wasn't.

"Azula? No, not this time."

"Good, because Zuko's denied my formal request for her execution and I'm not allowed to ask again till next year."

"You're sweet to keep asking."

"So what's keeping you awake then Lambietoes?"

"It's…. personal," she prevaricated.

"Well that's fine, except you woke me up for a reason."

"Couldn't I just be looking for a little midnight action?"

He held up his hands defensively. "Well far be it from me to question you when the possibility of nakedness is on the table, but you don't seem in the mood for love."

"I just wanted to talk."

"And it couldn't wait till morning?"

"Sokka."

"Sorry, I'm just not quite awake yet."

"I just…" Suki's apprehension was enough to make him really worried. "I'm not pregnant," she finished finally.

"Ah, no sweetie," he almost laughed. "You're not. I'm pretty sure my warrior senses would have detected that."

"I mean I thought I was," Suki snapped. "I've been feeling ill in the mornings, moody and starving at weird times for a few weeks. I thought… I thought I might be pregnant."

"But," Sokka rubbed his hands over his face trying to process. "We were both drinking that hideous tea. Isn't that supposed to –"

"Yes."

"But you thought-"

"Yes."

"And you're not-"

"No."

"Okay… Is that bad?"

"No – yes, I mean sort of, but not really." She flopped back down, yanking away his pillow to cover her face with it and muffle a shriek of frustration. "No, it's a good thing."

"I’m still half asleep here, but you don't sound fine." He waited for a response and when none was forthcoming he decided to hazard a guess at what might be going through her mind. "Were you worried I wouldn't want a baby?"

"No" Suki reappeared from underneath the pillow. "I know you'd be happy. Wait – you would be happy, right?"

"Yes! I'd be thrilled if you were having our kid," he exclaimed. And then tried to stare at his own mouth in surprise. "Well what do you know, I really would."

"Good to know you've given this some thought," she snarked at him.

"Hey now," Sokka tried to defend himself. "Were you thinking about it?"

"Kyoshi knows I'm thinking about it now!"

"And…?"

"And what?"

"What are you thinking?"

"I was thinking thank the spirits. I thought it was finally a sign, a direction, a definitive answer. You would be thrilled and insist that I come to the South Pole and we'd raise the baby in the Water Tribe. And we'd get married and I'd teach fighting and learn to like sea prunes and we could raise our family… and I'd never have to feel like I made the choice to leave Kyoshi's service, because that would be a sacrifice for my family," she finished in a long rush.

"So you were excited about a baby because you want something to eliminate your choices and give you some direction?"

"Well it sounds evil when you put it like that."

"Sweetheart, why didn't you tell me that's what you were looking for? I can fix this," Sokka assured her.

"You can?"

"Sure I can. I'll just throw you over my shoulder and drag you back to the South Pole."

"You try it and I'll slice you to pieces," she said automatically. He laughed, but this seemed to only incense Suki further. "See? That's exactly what I mean. Four years, Sokka! It's been four years since you proposed and we're no closer to getting married than we ever were. I know we see each other all the time and I do love you, but I want to build a life together. I want this - at the very least - to be simple."

Sokka reached up and tugged her down till they were lying nose to nose. "Let's run away together." He pouted at her laughter. "I'm serious. Forget leadership and stupid responsibilities and honour. I miss being a tribesman. I miss hunting my own food and building with my hands and being exhausted and happy all the time.

"I say we get Toph to bend us an island halfway between Kyoshi and the South Pole. It can even be near the Southern Air Temple. I can build us a little house and I'll fish, and you can grow food and flowers and keep everything beautiful."

"Sokka, between the two of us we can barely boil water," she reminded him.

"We can figure it out. How hard can it be?"

"We should just hire Katara to come and cook for us. She can do the mending too, and irrigate the garden."

"Well then we're going to need a second island, because I am not having my baby sister in earshot of our love nest."

"Three islands then."

"Three?"

"You know Zuko wouldn't let Katara run away without him."

He pulled a face just to watch her laugh. "Fine, Zuko too. But only if he gives up being the Fire Lord. We're building a tropical paradise here, no statecraft allowed. And he has to learn to do something useful."

"He could wash the clothes!"

The mental image of the dignity-conscious Fire Lord with his long hair in a washerwoman's kerchief, up to his elbows in soapsuds had them both cackling.

"Well if no one is going to stay and keep Toph out of trouble, she'll need to come with us."

"As long as none of her terrible boyfriends tag along."

"Why are we the only ones we know capable of a functional relationship?"

"Because we are clearly the best."

"We'll have to make a spot for Aang, if he ever comes back. He can make those damn fruit pies he loves and teach our kids to ride elephant koi."

"Toph could teach them the dulcimer, and Zuko knows more history than can possibly be practical." Suki ticked prospective skills off on her fingertips.

"Toph will want to teach them to bash rock with their heads," Sokka reminded her.

"And you and Katara will fight all the time."

"I'm not sure Zuko can give up being Fire Lord. His head might explode with nothing to be dramatic about."

"I don't want our kids riding elephant koi, that's really dangerous."

Sokka looked at her hopefully. "Just us then?"

"Just us," Suki agreed. "We can learn to cook; and you can teach our children to be clever and brave and to never give up."

"I think they should learn bravery from you, sweetcakes. I'm just the meat and sarcasm guy."

She kissed him sweetly, laughing against his lips. "It wouldn't work."

"No, probably not," he admitted.

"Marry me anyway."

"I might as well. You've already stolen my virtue."

Suki reached forward and tugged him closer. "Come here, I wanna steal it again."

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Every muscle in Katara's body was drawn tight as a bowstring watching Gamen approach the desk. The man reminded her, absurdly, of Grandpakku when they first met. All fierce and disapproving, the weight and toll of years piled up behind his eyes. But even at his most dismissive there had never been so much malice in Pakku's expression.

The man had dismissed the guards accompanying him almost the moment he had set eyes on her, holding up a hand to forestall their protests and reminding them that they must not show fear in the face of evil. If there was anything that had ever made Katara want to use her bending for evil, it was being repeatedly told that she was an evil bender. Instead she pasted on her most neutrally benevolent smile and waited for the door to click shut behind them. Gamen turned back to face her, looking positively gleeful.

"So you escape, Witch, but you do not run."

"I don't fear you."

He scrutinized her face. "Not for yourself," he said at length. "But you fear what I might do to others. Your corrupted brethren and possibly your companion?"

The last was a deliberate question, meant to gauge her response and determine whether he could use her and Zuko against one another. But she had not carved out a place for herself on the Council without mastering an implacable façade. There was a reason visiting dignitaries called her the Ice Princess and it had nothing to do with being Water Tribe.

"He seems reluctant to be parted from you."

"He is concerned for his honour." After so many years of friendship with Toph, Katara was only too aware of how one could be caught out in a lie. Better to speak as honestly as she could and let him think her more skilled at dissembling than she truly was.

"Honour is a game for young men."

"And what is your game?"

Gamen smiled, sharklike. It made her skin crawl. "Very direct. What would you prefer I explain first, my motivations or my plan?" The question was mocking but she refused to be shamed at asking.

"I don't expect you to explain anything."

"Oh that won't do, Water Witch. Of course you want me to explain. Why else would you be here? I know who you are, Katara, daughter of Hakoda. Who trained the Avatar and fought the mad Fire Princess and saved the world," he listed loftily. "I know that you came from a subsistence life in a backwater fishing village, and I know you're doing a fair to middling job of running that ridiculous council of Four Nations in lieu of the Avatar. I know you're clever enough to appreciate what I'm trying to do here."

"Power," Katara acknowledged, fighting for serenity in her voice.

"Don't be tedious," Gamen chided her. "Power is simple. Any fool with a cudgel can hold power over others. But to have people bend and buckle on your collar voluntarily, to love you for the privilege of your boot in their face. That is true control." He gave that carachadon grin again. "And it's so easy."

The Elder scoffed at her expression. "You don't have to look so scandalized. I intend to rule well. I'm not a cruel man by nature." That was undoubtedly the biggest lie Katara had ever heard, but it sparked off something in her mind.

A man in a backwater village who followed the ways of a scholarly master; who surrounded himself with the trappings of wealth, but only in an understated way. Not the manner of a man who was new to power or riches.

"Does the deposed ruler miss his throne?" she jeered.

There were other explanations, of course, but that was the one that made the most sense, and the easiest to twist into mockery. "You think that people will just bow down and let another war happen?"

Gamen looked at her, his gaze equal parts condescension and amusement. "I'll make them bow."

"No one can do that."

He smiled broadly. “Now you know that’s not true.”

Utter revulsion hit Katara so hard she thought she might be physically ill. "And Zaofu?"

He laughed. "Ah Zaofu, a more perfect partner could not be asked for. The man is a believer, a true zealot. He believes wholeheartedly that your kind are a disease and he will stop at nothing to cure you."

"And you told him how."

"Yes, I did. You have enough of a mind, little Witch, that you can appreciate the frustration of surpassing those around you in every possible respect. One gets so bored."

"Bored," Katara said flatly, feeling her ire rise like the call of the moon in her blood. "How many have died for this. How many will die, because you're bored! Why? If you don't really hate us why are you doing this?"

"Don't make the mistake of thinking I don't hate you." Gamen leaned forward, placing his hands upon the far edge of the desk and leaning towards her, his voice low and terrifyingly angry. "I do. You people with your petty squabbles and your small lives. You never can see the bigger picture."

As quickly as the glimpse of the monstrous had come it was gone and the Elder had backed away, once again disturbingly genial. "You might stop me; I'd be surprised if it happened but there's always a chance. But you can’t stop this. A student of Master Kong must study history," he sneered. "I know that I am not the first to challenge why we think we need you. On the heels of a bender's war and the Avatar's abandonment, more will come to the same conclusion. What you can never, ever stop, Water Witch, is this anger. And when we kill you tomorrow at sunset for your insolence, not only will it be a perfect reaffirmation of our goal and a fabulous way to win loyalty, but I won't blink an eye."

Katara hated this man.

Deep cold rage seeped through her like ice in her veins. For a moment she wished for firebending so she could burn him to the ground; she wanted the full moon to rise so she could reach inside his blood and splatter him all over the room. This man with a scholar's robes and a lunatic's smile would die by her hand.

She flicked her fingers forward pulling the ink from the well on the desk up to form a whip in the air. "You're alone in a room with a waterbender, Gamen. What's to stop me from destroying you and ending this right now?"

"You could kill me," he agreed, nodding sagely as though he might be considering the merits of ostrich horse breeding and not arguing over his own death. "There's nothing to stop you except four thousand villagers who would see it as a confirmation of everything I'd been telling them all these years. You want to win them to you, witch, that much is obvious. And if you kill me you'll lose your chance forever. And," he added, with a small smile at the impotent frustration that Katara was certain was showing on her face. "We have your escort. Obviously he isn't a real tribesman and I'd like to keep him alive long enough to find out who he is, but I could certainly bring myself to kill him now and never know."

Zuko.

Not bothering to replace the ink, Katara simply let it drop inert, feeling the creeping dampness of the slow spreading stain over her skirts. Oh he would be so annoyed that she was giving in like this. "You'll be stopped," she insisted, rising to move around the desk. "People won't stand for this."

"The royal family of the Fire Nation took a hundred years to conquer the world," Gamen mused, directing her ahead of him towards the door. "I suspect I can do it in five."

"Remember," she said imperiously. "They were brought down by a twelve year old."

Her back was to him so she didn't see the strikes, but she heard the growl of anger and three hard blows across her shoulders and back sent her to the floor, her vision whiting out with pain as her chakras cramped and twisted.

She was only dimly aware of being hauled to her feet and dragged out through the twisting hallways. The creaking of a door brought her head up and she locked eyes with the small child that she had freed from that torturous device. The boy looked panicked and angry. Katara tried to offer him a reassuring smile but her muscles responded only sluggishly and she barely managed a pained grimace before she was pulled out of sight.

Determined to be as dignified as possible she attempted to regain her feet as the guards manhandled her down the steps of the main hall, but was almost immediately thwarted when they tossed her unceremoniously into the iron cage once more. Her head struck the bars violently and consciousness slipped away.

 


 

 

"You should have run."

She blinked slowly, trying to focus against the early morning light. The source of the voice was somewhere above her head. "I know," Katara groaned, bringing up a hand to shield her eyes.

"Why didn't you?" The blacksmith was sitting, much as Zuko had earlier, with her back to the cage bars, talking over one shoulder.

"You came back." Katara couldn't keep the surprise out of her voice.

"Why didn't you run?"

"Do you know what they're doing in there?" She rolled onto her stomach and pulled herself up to a kneeling position so she could gesture towards the town hall. "They're hurting children. Torturing them to try and remove their bending."

The woman did not reply, a grimace of sorrow crossing her features before she bent her head away.

"Of course you know." Katara's voice sounded distant and detached even to her own ears. Too many awful things in too short a time and she found there was nothing left of her righteous anger, only utter despair at the cruelties men could perpetrate against one another. "Gamen had to start his little campaign somewhere. Did he take them all as some sort of decree? Or did you offer the children of your own village up willingly - after slaughtering their parents, I assume. Did he promise it would make you safe?" The final word twisted into an ugly strangled accusation.

"You don't think about it." The woman choked out. "At first it seemed so innocent. Benders and non benders should go to separate schools, where's the flaw in that logic? And then it was separate parts of the city, which made sense because it would keep accidents from happening. And then it was more separation and fewer rights and every time it seemed so … little, so easy.

"And then they told me my baby girl had to die and I realized it was all too late."

There was a yawning abyss of hurt behind the woman's words and Katara felt her anger melt away like ice in spring.

"It's never too late."

"No? I accepted it, I expected it. I'd rather have scrabbled in the dirt here and been utterly reviled than speak against Gamen. How can I admit that he's wrong when doing so would mean I let my daughter die for no reason, no reason at all?"

She was reminded rather sharply of Zuko's attempts to justify his father's cruelty, hunting desperately for something that would prove all his suffering was worth the price.

"Then don't let it be for nothing," she insisted, afraid to touch the other woman and somehow break the fragile thread of understanding between them. "Let her be what leads you to the truth of things. Let her be the reason to stop it all."

"Maybe…" A flick of movement from the shadows of a nearby building distracted them both.

"Keegan!" The boy froze like a terrified rabbit at the sound of his mother's shout. She lunged to her feet and snatched him by the ear, pulling him close enough to keep her voice low. "What have I told you about eavesdropping on adult conversations?"

"But Mom, is it true? What she said about them hurting Jorry?"

"You stay out of this young man. Get home or I'll tan your hide."

She watched him go running off before slowly turning back to Katara. The waterbender could tell just from the look on her face that there was no chance. This woman would protect her son, her one living child, with everything. Every scrap of her own integrity, her values, her pride; every last inch of her would be laid down instantly in defense. And in spite of the icy fingers of terror taking slow hold of her, Katara couldn’t even blame her.

"They're going to kill me," she said bleakly.

"I know."

A horrible lump rose up in her throat but Katara swallowed it down, determined, "The children don't deserve this. Whatever you might think of benders, surely they're innocent. Get them to Zuko- or Sok-" Oh what did it matter anymore. "The man who came with me, he'll get them out."

"Gamen has him detained for questioning," the blacksmith insisted. "He won't be going anywhere."

Katara laughed, a sound that was awkwardly loud and startling, full of pride but no humor.

"That man is slipperier than an elbow leech and twice as tenacious."

The redhead looked at her askance. "Who is he to you?"

The tide of longing rose up in her like a cresting wave. "Everything."

 


 

 

It was odd, Zuko reflected, that a small room with no windows could be a study or a closet or a dressing room. Before the furniture was placed it could easily be a small library or a gallery or a treasury. But when it was a prison cell somehow you always knew. Its intended purpose seemed to seep into the walls themselves.

He was considering this mostly to stop himself from thoughts of absolutely throttling Katara.

They had leapt on him while he was trying to make his way unobtrusively back to the bunk they had issued him. Four guards had come up from behind and Zuko had pretended not to notice their approach, knowing nothing would make him look guiltier than to run or lash out at them before they even called a greeting.

They hadn't bothered with a greeting.

Two of them had taken him to the ground so fast he hadn't had time to fight back, one pressed his face hard into the dirt while the fourth sat on his legs and they tried to manhandle him into a set of metal cuffs. Bucking and writhing Zuko had managed to free one arm from their hold. He could have stopped them then, when the guard's surprised face was inches from his fist. One blast of fire would have incinerated the man's head and he could have dealt with the remaining three while they attempted to recover.

But he didn't know where she was.

And Katara had asked him not to.

The man who had been sitting on his legs landed an exceptionally vicious punch to the unscarred side of his face, snapping his head back hard enough that it bounced off the packed earth of the ground. The explosion of pain caused his vision to white out for a moment and when he had regained his senses he was already chained, feet digging tracks in the dirt as they pulled him back the way he'd come.

He'd been on full alert by the time they had dragged him back through the town hall to the row of tiny rooms that had been repurposed into cells, but he hadn't seen or heard any sign of Katara. A whole day he had been here - he could feel Agni's fire falling in the sky – and there had been no word. He was struggling to hold onto fury against the rising maelstrom of panic in his gut.

The opening door distracted Zuko from his attempts to undo the knots that bound him to the chair, the room's only stick of furniture, and he turned his best Fire Lord glare on Gamen and the man who entered with him.

"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded, taking whatever advantage the defensive afforded. His bravado was short lived as the beefy man accompanying the elder slapped him. Gamen folded his hands inside his voluminous sleeves and smiled pleasantly at him.

"You'll forgive Selig won't you? He does get so impassioned about the cause, it makes him a little overzealous." The emphasis placed on the word made it clear that if he didn't do what the old man wanted, this Selig would be allowed to get just as overzealous as he wanted with Zuko's person. "Now young man, it seems you haven't been completely honest with me. We may be a bit backward here in the Earth Kingdom but I can assure you we have heard of the Avatar's companions and you are most definitely not the water witch's brother."

"Have you ever been to the South Pole?" Zuko rasped around his parched throat. "There're a million Sokkas."

Gamen raised an eyebrow but didn't comment. "I like you, Sokka," he said. "Which is why you're still alive. I'd be interested in having a mind like yours working for me. This," he raised his hands to encompass the room the hall and the whole town, "this is just barely a taste of what's to come. And you could be a part of it."

He spat in Gamen's face and kicked out hard enough to snap the ropes binding his ankles to the chair, sending the old man reeling away and the chair tipping backwards. Ignoring the pain of impact he twisted his body under the circle of his own tied arms. Taking hold of the chair and swinging it up in front of him he sent Selig flying in a spray of blood and teeth when the wood cracked him in the jaw. "How do you like the taste of that?"

Oh if only.

He couldn't do that. He'd made a promise and as long as Katara was safe he’d play along.

She would be making up for forcing him into this for the rest of her natural life, Zuko swore to himself as he tried to project sincerity through his eyes. "I just need a chance to prove myself…sir."

"And you shall have it." Gamen smiled beatifically. "Tomorrow your conflicting loyalties shall be laid to rest."

"What?"

There was something dark and razor sharp in Gamen's expression. "You said you couldn't break your oath. I'm rendering that promise moot."

Zuko's feigned subservience shattered like a pane of glass. "Where is Katara?" He strained against the ropes that held him in place.

"She's exactly where you left her."

Selig snickered. "Yeah, right up until we put her head on a pike."

Blood was roaring in Zuko's ears. Gamen was speaking, something apparently genial but inherently threatening, Selig behind him as the ever present threat of deadly force. He couldn't hear a word.

Zuko's temper ran close to the skin, too close some said, to make him an effective diplomat. His fire burned bright and hot. He had never been able to master the blue flame the way his sister had, that cold detached rage burning like ice deep inside. It was too far from anything rational or emotional. Too far from anything human.

He was feeling it now.

Zuko stretched out his awareness and sensed every hearth, every braiser, every torch in a hundred yards flare brighter with his fury.

"… I have an execution to attend."

The door bumping shut on Gamen's parting shot was the first sound that Zuko heard clearly. Selig swaggered forward, jabbing one finger into his chest.

"Well now. It looks like it's just you and me. So who else knows you're here, eh?"

He didn't respond. Couldn't bring himself to care about this stupid man and his petty questions. His silence earned him a breath robbing punch to the stomach. "I asked you a question, boy." Selig yanked his head back by the hair, making Zuko's eyes water. "Is your tribe gonna come around looking for you?"

Zuko coughed, the burning in his gut drying his mouth to the point that it was difficult to form words. "Didn't… he want to know my name?"

The big man tipped his head back and laughed heartily. "Alright then." He pulled out a wickedly sharp knife and waved the blade in the general direction of Zuko's throat. "Who are you, boy?"

He let his eyes float shut and breathed deeply through his nose.

Just a little closer.

Selig leaned forward to ask the question again. He didn't make it through the second word.

The sheer size of the torrent of flame that burst from his lips would have surprised him at any other time but Zuko simply burned away the ropes on his wrists with a flick of his fingers and punched Selig hard in the throat to damage his vocal cords and stop the screams that were beginning as his hair caught fire. Calmly he unwound the bindings at his ankles and stepped over the man on the floor, ignoring the gasping croaks that were the only sound Selig could force out of his ruined throat.

Katara. His whole body was screaming for her. Katara, Katara.

He would save her. There was no other choice, no other way this could go. She would be fine. He had to believe that, had to be absolutely sure. Because if she was already dead he was going to burn this whole village to the ground.

 


 

 

The sun was setting, tinting the surfaces tipped towards its light in shimmering red, and Katara was going to die.

She was all at once paradoxically detached and full of mounting panic. Some deep, deep part of her couldn't quite wrap her head around the concept. The end of her existence…. it was an impossible thing.

Katara had faced death before. She'd been willing to give her life for Aang – and still would in an instant, no matter where he had gone they couldn’t follow – ready to die in defense of the Avatar. She would have thrown herself before the sword to spare her friends, her family. She had been so long expecting to fall on the field of battle that sacrifice was in her nature. Surrender, though, was anathema.

Her own helplessness made her nauseated.

There was a platform across the open square before her cage, around which torches had been arrayed in anticipation of the falling light. People were beginning to gather near, fearful, curious, half guilty expressions on their face as they peered at her.

And on the platform rested a heavy wooden block.

She couldn't take her eyes off of it. No matter how she wanted to look away, the rough hewn wood drew her like a moth to flame. Tui and La, she prayed internally as the guards opened the heavy metal door to her cage. Grant me strength. Please don't let me show fear.

Yue, oh Yue please help me, protect me.

They chained her. Not that it was necessary. Surrounded on all sides by a crush of people, she had nowhere to run, but Gamen was a showman and this was an exhibition as much as an execution. As they led her up the steps onto the platform for a moment she could see the ocean.

The coastline was a fair distance from where the edge of the village dropped into a steep hill, a wide beach providing ample fishing ground for the residents. But staring out over the edge she felt as though she could reach forward and almost touch its rippling surface.

Time is an illusion, it seemed to whisper. And so is death.

Then of course they spun her around to face the block and the throngs of people and Gamen's insidious smirk and her high minded philosophical thought processes came screeching to a halt.

The Elder raised his hands for silence and a hush fell over the assembled crowd. "My friends and neighbors, I congratulate you once again. We have come so far in such a short time and to see how you have cleaved to the true and unpolluted ways of the world makes me proud. We have taken the first steps on a long, hard road but I promise you that the old beliefs will be brought back to honor again. The whole secret knowledge of nature, of the divine, of the demonic will be ours. We will wash away the taint of the bending abomination from the world and cleanse it for ourselves."

The crowed stirred and murmured but did not quite break into applause or shouts of approval. A slightly irritated expression flicked across Gamen's face before he continued. "Three days ago a representative of the parasites arrived here, without invitation and attempted to ingratiate herself into our midst, seeking information to report back to her masters and bring the armies of the tainted down upon us!"

"No!" she protested vehemently. "That's not why I'm here. That is not what I'm doing!"

"Silence," Gamen barked. A guard stepped from behind and struck Katara hard across the shoulders, sending her crashing to her knees. "For perverting our village with your corruption and attempting to subvert our justice, you are hereby sentenced to death."

Dragging her head up, she locked eyes with the blacksmith. The woman had pushed her way to the front of the crowd and was staring at Katara, her body angled unnaturally to display one hip.

No, to show what was on it.

She carried a waterskin. Large and cumbersome, probably meant to be placed on a pack animal, and bulging with water.

Katara could feel the pull of her element, so very, very close. Her friend nodded, almost imperceptibly, and pulled the cork free. She reached out with the subtlest of gestures calling for the liquid that ran through her blood, binding her to every living thing.

Two drops spilled out of the mouth of the waterskin and no more.

Her chakras were hopelessly crippled. She was chi blocked. That more than anything else made her want to cry.

The blacksmith looked confused and suddenly afraid and Katara realized that she was out of time. A meaty hand gripped her by the scruff of her neck and forced her face down onto the block, the rough hewn wood biting and scraping at her cheek as she was shoved forward across it.

The executioner rested the blade against the back of her neck. She could feel the weight of the weapon pressing the sharp edge into her skin, her flesh parting like gossamer fabric beneath it.

The sword was sharp. At least it would be quick.

She closed her eyes to keep the tears in.

"No one," Gamen intoned, "escapes judgment."

I love you, Zuko.

 


 

 

"Well gentlemen, since it appears you are unable to come to anything resembling a consensus, I suggest we adjourn for the day. Please take the time to reconsider your proposals before we pick up again tomorrow."

There was a faint chorus of dissatisfied muttering as the old men picked themselves up and began to slowly vacate the war room. Not that it was being used for war anymore, but meetings regarding matters of state had been held there so long it seemed silly to alter the pattern for the sake of semantics. It wasn't until the last richly embroidered hem had swept away through the double doors that Zuko allowed himself to slump back against the scratchy cushions. Throwing his hands over his face he let out a groan of frustration.

A dark low chuckle from the shadowed pillars behind him made Zuko start but he didn't move until Mai came to peer down at him, her toes just grazing either side of his head. "Poor Zuko," she fairly purred, making him smile wryly behind the screen of his palms.

"That would be a lot more convincing if you didn't sound so entertained."

She slid smoothly down to sit in lotus above him, propping her chin up on one hand. "You know you're not doing too badly."

"I know." He reached out into the air, feeling his vertebra pop and stretch. "But there's less than a year before I have to take the throne and I still feel like every one of these ministers loathes me."

"That's because they do." She began flipping one of her butterfly knives back and forth across her knuckles. "But they hate you less than they did six months ago."

"Joy."

"Your friends are here," she said after a moment. Zuko sat up, suddenly feeling better. If there were any people in the world who could be counted on not to let him dwell, they were Sokka and Katara. And Toph, but she had been evasive about coming since she and Sokka weren't really talking at the moment.

"I was thinking," Mai's voice brought his attention back to her, "of going back to my parents' estate for a few days."

"Mai, you don't have to do that because they're here. Katara and Sokka like you." Admittedly it had taken some time before the Water Tribe siblings stopped ducking every time she made a sudden movement, but it was still the truth.

"They're here to see you. I'll just be bored."

"You…" Now was oh so definitely not the time to be bringing this up, but Mai's gloominess was reaching a terminal point. "You seem bored a lot, Mai. I mean more than usual. Is there something I can do? Are you unhappy?"

Are you unhappy with me?

The question remained unspoken, but hung heavily in the air nonetheless.

"Your majesty." A servant in Fire Palace livery ducked around the door carrying a tray with two glasses and an exquisite crystal vase full of amber liquid. "We were told it was a difficult meeting."

Zuko chuckled, rising to pour himself a finger of the drink. "Thanks, Mai."

"Hey, don't look at me." She shook her head at his offer of a glass. Zuko took a large swig and reeled back, making a disgusted face; the drink had an oddly rancid taste. Perhaps it had been corked? Or maybe he’d gotten spoiled drinking the ice plum brandy Sokka sent him for his birthday. He shrugged and went to take another sip, when he caught sight of the hungry anticipation on the servant's face.

"… It's poisoned, isn't it?"

The man began to laugh, smugly. "You should never have sentenced my family to death, traitor prince." He had only half a second to gloat before Mai's knives pinned him to the wall.

Zuko reeled back and fell to his knees, his body curling in on itself involuntarily as he was wracked with waves of pain. One moment his stomach was full of fiery spikes and the next he was numb with cold. "Mai," he gasped, yellow spots bursting across his swimming vision. "Need Katara."

He heard her screaming for someone faintly, over the frighteningly slow beat of his pulse in his ears.

 

He slid into consciousness again sometime later and immediately wished he hadn't. Pain was radiating out from his spine and every inch of his skin ached fiercely. He spent a few delirious moments trying to focus his eyes before the soft insistent noise that had brought him out of feverish dreamspace became clear enough to make out the words.

"Stay with me Zuko, listen to my voice."

Katara.

Her voice was hoarse and cracked, as though she'd been talking or shouting for a long time. Was she alright? Dear spirits he hurt.

The feeling of cool wet cloth on his burning forehead was rapturous.

"Don't die," she begged him gently. "Please please don't die."

She sounded so heartbroken, he wanted to reach out and comfort her, but his limbs were like lead. It was all he could do to muster up the energy to gasp out a promise.

"…won't."

Then darkness swamped him again.

When Zuko woke, completely aware for what felt like the first time in years, he felt lighter than air, empty to the marrow of his bones and utterly starving. There was an odd weighty numbness in his legs and he looked down to see that Katara had fallen asleep leaning forward across his body.

"She wouldn't leave."

"Toph, you came."

The young girl picked her way quietly from the chair she'd been perched on in one corner towards the bed. She pulled back one arm and Zuko braced himself for the hit, but Toph threw her arms lightly around his neck instead. "We thought you were dead, Sparky."

"I'm okay."

"No you're not!" She sounded close to tears. Zuko reached a shaky arm up to clasp her shoulder. After a moment she pulled away with a barely audible sniff and he deliberately said nothing while she wiped away evidence of emotions. "Mai and Uncle Dragon are taking care of everything. Katara went crazy when she couldn't heal you. She's been here every minute for almost a week."

He'd been out for a week?

"I'll go tell them you're up." She socked him very, very gently in the chest. "Don't get killed while I'm gone."

She disappeared with a faint padding of bare feet and Zuko was left alone to watch Katara's slumbering form rise and fall slightly with the rhythm of her breathing. Her forehead was scrunched slightly, as though she couldn't manage to relax even in her dreams. He reached forward and smoothed the stress line lightly with the pad of his thumb.

Tired blue eyes fluttered slowly open and she smiled up at him.

"Zuko."

She said his name like a caress.

 

Chapter Text

The sound of excited, shouting children was so utterly incongruous that for a moment, despite the blood running down her neck, Katara forgot to be afraid.

The attention of the crowd shifted from the dais towards the source of the noise and the executioner's pudao fell away, grinding agonizingly across the open wound at her nape. The instant the terrifying weight disappeared Katara shoved herself backwards, her stomach scraping against the rough wood as she strained for the leverage to right herself.

There were children running at full speed towards them, pelting the guards with rocks, bruises clear on their emaciated bodies. At the head of the rabble sprinted the boy she had healed and Keegan the blacksmith's son.

The two boys caught sight of Katara at nearly the same moment as she struggled to stand, each moving to alert the other before they dove in unison through the thick, milling crowd. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Gamen's face twist in fury. He opened his mouth to command the Black Fist guards and without thinking Katara took two awkwardly shuffling steps and hurled herself bodily at him, knocking them both to the wooden platform.

They landed in a painful heap of limbs and Katara took an elbow to the face. For all his age Gamen was clearly not a feeble man. Dazed from his blow and chained hand and foot, she was helpless to defend herself as he quickly recovered and seized her by one arm to struggle free of their tangle, hauling her gracelessly up as he stood.

"You've only postponed your fate, bender," he swore, driving one knee hard into her gut and tossing her to the ground. Katara curled in on herself, fighting down the bile rising in her throat.

All around her pandemonium reigned. Without a definitive order from Gamen the guards were trying desperately to intercept and hold as many kicking, screaming, earthbending children as they possibly could. A few were lashing out indiscriminately at the unprotected youngsters, but for every villager who was recoiling in fear from the benders, there were at least two trying to protect the children, beating back the guards with fists and torches.

There was a deafening boom and everyone ducked instinctively as an enormous fireball engulfed the administrative hall on the other side of the village, but Gamen had drawn a wicked looking long knife and Katara had no attention to spare for the blaze.

He thrust the blade downwards, aiming for her unprotected chest. Katara rolled awkwardly to one side, kicking her manacled legs out in an arc.

A feeble splash of clumsily bent water hit the Elder across the head, snapping his face to the side.

She was thrilled at the water's response but couldn't raise it back up to protect herself from the next slash of the knife. Katara cringed in anticipation of the blow, not wanting her last sight to be Gamen's triumphant grin.

The hollow thunk of sharp metal impacting wood made her look up in confusion.

Keegan, his arms trembling from the effort of holding out a wooden practice sword, had blocked the blow. Before Gamen could comprehend what had happened, Keegan's companion, the earthbending boy, struck at him with a trio of fist sized stones.

Staggering, the Elder reeled back and spun on his heel, landing a heavy blow across the boy's face and sending him flying backwards with the force of the impact.

"Jorry!" Keegan yelled, flailing his blunted wooden weapon.

Gamen rounded on him, snarling, and swung his long knife out again. Keegan managed to block the first blow with a wild parry, btu not the second. The blade flashed in the light of the faraway blaze and buried itself between the boy's ribs.

"Keegan!"

The blacksmith's anguished scream cut sharply across the noise of the fighting.

Gamen looked from Keegan's body towards the bewildered crowd, his eyes hardening. "Kill the Water Witch!" he shouted to the guards, sprinting for the edge of the ocean as the black clad men moved in, leveling swords and spears.

A roar that was more bestial than human came from somewhere above her. Zuko landed in a crouch, braced easily astride her body, swords of fire blooming from his fists. He spun the blades outwards, creating a firestorm that razed through the attackers. The guards fell before him, scrambling to escape the gouts of flame.

Katara's attention was fixed on the edge of the platform where the woman who had risked so much in an attempt to save her life clutched the dying figure of her son and tried desperately to staunch his wound.

"Zuko!" she cried insistently, rolling to present her bound hands.

He paused mid-battle to lock his fierce gold eyes with hers and nodded, snatching up the executioner's abandoned pudao to break her manacles. Removing her ankle restraints and swinging out from between his legs, Katara dashed toward the wounded child, only to be seized by a crowd of angry looking villagers.

"Stay away!"

"No!" She threw off the first person to grab her, dropping close to the ground to sweep another off his feet. "I can help!" She tried to make her voice placating despite her combative stance. "Let me through, please! Please, I can help, I can save him!"

Keegan wailed in agony and began to cough blood.

"No Keegan, no!" his mother cried out, her face streaked with tears and blood. Katara shoved forward, sliding to her knees at the boy's side. She tried to call out what was left in the water skin the blacksmith had been carrying. Barely a trickle remained and with her bending so weak it wasn't enough to hold the child's body together. Before she could complete the movement, the blacksmith snatched her wrists.

"Haven't you done enough?"

"I'm a healer!” She protested. Katara realized she didn't even know the woman's name. “It's bad but if you let me, I can help."

The redhead clutched Keegan closer to her chest protectively.

"Trust me," Katara begged.

There was an agonizingly long pause before the blacksmith gave the slightest of nods and laid her son down on the earth between them.

Casting about desperately Katara searched for a rain barrel, an ostrich-horse trough, anything that held water, but the open square had been intended as part of her prison and the ground was dry as dust. Through the tiny trickle of liquid connecting her to Keegan she could feel his heartbeat fading.

Screaming in frustration Katara threw her arms into the air, casting her power out and yanked with every ounce of strength inside her.

There was an earsplitting crash of thunder and lightning burst across the dark sky a half second before the heavens opened and rain began to fall. Katara drew the droplets to her, spinning them into a twisting torrent with graceful motions of her wrists and pouring it downwards to envelop Keegan's limp body.

Leaning close, she curled over the boy to protect him from the downpour and placed her hands across his wound.

Even with her damaged bending she could feel the sluggish movement of blood in Keegan's veins as his body tried to clot around the deep hole in his chest. She knew that Gamen's long blade had sliced through the fragile membrane of a lung and fluid was pouring through.

The ebb and flow of water in the body had always been something Katara understood. When she'd first begun her formal training at the North Pole she had loathed how naturally healing came to her, feeling as though her skill only justified the sexist views of the tribal leaders. After Hama's cruel tutelage, however, she had come to cling to the knowledge that her talent with blood could be a gift rather than a malevolent tool.

Waterbender healing was all mental. Where combat used motion and speed to enhance the bender's innate power, in healing deftness and delicacy were paramount. Instead of moving outward the bender sank inward to meld more fully with their element.

Slowing her breathing to match the tempo of her patient's, Katara drew the fluid from the boy's punctured lung, joining it with her healing water and using both to seal the tear. Rising through the outer layers of muscle and she slowly coaxed the tissues to knit behind the retreating water.

Somewhere outside of the liquid world she inhabited she heard Keegan howl in pain but she had no time to soothe him, concentrating all her energy on holding the newly woven flesh together. The faint itchiness and discomfort of a cut healing over the course of weeks, compressed into seconds and increased exponentially to match the size of the injury caused unavoidable discomfort, the one kind of pain at which Katara could rejoice, for it meant that he was healing.

She raised herself out of the healing meditation, gasping in chorus with her patient. Katara opened her eyes to meet the boy's soft hazel ones – a moment that so reminded her of grey eyes, of golden eyes – and smiled.

"Hello there."

His mother opened her mouth but seemed unable to form words. Instead she threw her arms around Keegan, burying her face in his neck and completely ignoring the boy's coughing assertions that he was fine.

Katara had just enough time to smile fondly at the familial image when the blacksmith released her son and seized the waterbender by the shoulders, pulling her into a bone-crushing embrace.

"Thank you," she breathed, hot tears running down to mingle with the raindrops on Katara's neck and shoulder. "Thank you."

The woman pulled away and clasped their palms together in a firm handshake. "My name is Eloa," she pitched her voice to carry over the noise of the rain. "And for the life you have given, you have my loyalty."

Eloa stood, drawing her massive hammer and addressing the enraptured crowd –Katara had forgotten they were there. "This Water Wit- this woman came here in peace. She raised no hand against us and instead offered us aid. Anyone who wants to harm her further," the hammer was raised, pointed at the assembled citizens with menace, "will have to go through me."

She cut a fearsome figure, rain soaked and limned with orange from the light of the still burning town hall. Tall and strong, fearless now. "Gamen has abandoned us!" Eloa announced. "He has broken faith and proved himself unfit to lead our people. I extend these two my protection. Does anyone here challenge it?"

There was no grand response, no shining golden moment, just a murmur of agreement and nods of assent in the rain and the dark. Anyone who would have gainsaid Eloa's offer seemed to think better of it in the face of the man with a firestorm at his fingertips and the bender who had brought down the rain. A man stepped free of the crowd and bent to lift Keegan from the muddy ground. Cradling him gently, he gave the boy's mother an encouraging look. "We're with you, Eloa."

That's a pretty good start.

Katara sagged in relief, swaying dangerously as she regained her feet, dizziness and exhaustion darkening the edges of her vision. She put out an arm to help her balance and found herself quickly braced by a body radiating warmth.

"I've got you." Zuko slid his arms around her waist. Clutching just hard enough to let her know how utterly terrified he had been. "You're safe."

Katara wondered which of them he was talking to.

"Zuko," she began, wanting to tell him how grateful she was, how amazing he'd been out there. "…I'm going to-!"

She wrenched herself away from his grip and bent over just in time to vomit spectacularly into the mud.

 


 

 

Zuko slid back into his Fire Nation clothing with a sigh of contentment.

It had been worth the dark, wet trek back to the war balloon to retrieve their belongings, just to be comfortable and clean for the first time in days. After Katara's stress induced sickness Zuko had scooped her up and carried her bridal style straight to the village's modest inn, ignoring her weak protests the whole way. Despite the blacksmith's word he was careful to make sure she was safe and capable of defending herself before he slipped out to walk the mile or so to the balloon.

Zuko wasn't sure he'd ever be able to leave Katara again without checking that she was armed to the teeth.

And even then…

The savage anger was still so close to the surface, even now. When he had blown his way out of that tiny cell there had been only one thought in his head and that was her. If a rock hadn't blown through a door he was passing and almost taken his head off he wouldn't haven't given another thought to the captive children until long after the hall had burned to the ground.

That was not a comforting thought.

They had been ready to knock him to the ground the instant he'd kicked down the door, but one glance at the orange balls of flame he carried in each hand and their charge had stopped. 'Run' was all he had said, all he could think to say as torches behind him licked too high, catching the walls alight. Katara would have cared for the frightened children, but all Zuko had cared about in that instant was her.

He'd blown the hall to splinters.

Fire enwrapped him like a lover, coiling up his arms as he sprinted towards the crowd. For a moment he could see nothing; the block they had placed was empty. Elder Gamen stood in the center of the dais, his robes whipped out by the wind and a long sharp knife in his hand.

He had screamed then. Panic and rage, denial and pain; he had cried out her name in an agony of loss.

The wild hair and terrible jokes and the blue, her laugh, the way she set her mouth when there was work to be done and the taste of lightning-

A ribbon of water had struck Gamen across the face.

And the whole world had started up again.

Somehow he'd leapt across that gap to land over her – watching Gamen, that bastard  cretin, run for the sailing boat moored at the docks – he fought without consciousness, laid waste to ten men, twenty men, his mind screaming defend, protect.

Her voice brought him back; the sound of his name and the set to her mouth that told him there was still work to be done.

He never ceased to be astonished at the magnitude of her strength, the depth of her compassion.

And he would never tell her that he'd sat shaking on the front porch of that little inn for twenty minutes before he could leave for the balloon.

 

She was still awake when he stepped out into the main room - though the innkeeper had long since retired - pacing back and forth across the floor in front of the roaring fireplace and weaving circuitous patterns around herself with a ribbon of water.

He recognized the expression on her face from a hundred nights in the Fire Palace library, late night war meetings with Sokka, endless hours teaching Aang under the moon. Too tired to sleep.

The wooden box in his pocket bumped its long familiar weight against his thigh as he tied a sash over his sleeveless robe and stepped back out into the main hall of the public house. Katara was no longer in the center of the room. She had migrated to the open doorway, watching the rain scrubbed sky, her lithe form lit half in watery moonlight, half in the gold-red glow of the fireplace.

Her distinctive waterbender robe was abandoned on a chair. It was beyond repair, burned, ripped, bloody and ink-stained of all things. A dark blotch was visible against the shape of her shin where it had bled through to her delicate silk underdress. The heavier Water Tribe wear he’d borrowed was scrap as well, so she'd appropriated one of his long sleeved tunics to ward off the chill.

She was waifish in the too large garment, the bones of her wrists looking almost frail where they were exposed by the rolled up cuffs, the rusty red and gold making her skin look like warm chocolate.

There were scrapes all down one side of her face and a dark bruise was blooming on the opposite cheekbone. Though her hair was loose and still drying, he could see the clotted cut across the back of her neck when she moved.

"Why didn't you heal that?"

Katara started a little, any sound seeming loud in the stillness of the night, and clutched at the back of her neck self-consciously. "I'd forgotten about it."

"A deep cut like that? It must still hurt."

"I'm too tired," she tried again gamely.

Zuko crossed his arms, smiling indulgently at her. "You seemed awake enough for that little water ribbon dance."

Katara threw up her hands in bemusement. "Sokka told me the ladies like scars?"

That drew a laugh from Zuko as he stepped close enough that their shoulders brushed, looking out over the sleepy moonlit village and the churned up mud of the open square. "What is it really?"

She looked at him, huffed and looked away again. "I'm scared, alright… I reached for the water and there was nothing. I was…" Her voice was strangled now. "I was going to die. The pudao was already slicing through my neck and I couldn't save myself." She curled inwards, rubbing frantic palms over her upper arms.

"Hey, hey." Zuko caught her hands, bringing them to either side of his face. "Look at me, Katara." Even wound up inside her own head, her fingers were carefully gentle across his scar. She raised her eyes to meet his. "I was coming. The damn kids beat me there-" That drew a faint giggle. "But I was coming for you. I'll always come for you."

He leaned forward and pressed his lips to the worried line between her brows. "And we'll go after him. We'll get Gamen, I promise."

Katara released his face and pulled him into her arms. He pressed his unblemished cheek to her hair and breathed in the scent of her, salt water and winter plum blossoms. She never seemed to lose that smell.

"And," he whispered, just above the shell of her ear. "I finally got to rescue you."

"That you did." Her lips moving against the bare skin of his neck made Zuko shiver and all at once his resolve was absolute. Pulling away, he dropped one hand into his pocket and ran his fingers over the worn wooden box.

It had sat on his private desk almost six months after he had it made. Zuko had been afraid to touch it for a long time, wanting what it represented but forever second-guessing himself. His mother had been the first to lift the carved container from where the craftsman had placed it. Smiling, she’d slipped it into the pocket of his robes. "You'll want it with you," she told him. "When the time is right."

Two years he had carried it, unopened.

"Katara." She looked at him expectantly. "When we get out of this…"

He let the last word fall for a breath, waiting for the interruptions – hers or the universe's – that always seemed to cleave through their moments together.

Zuko pulled the box from his pocket.

"…Please marry me."

Katara's hands shook as she opened it. On the velvet cushion inside rested a golden charm, a flattened, stylized flame that coiled around an empty circle in the center.

"It's to fit over your necklace," he explained, the words that would not come before now spilling all over themselves in a rush. "I know that according to Water Tribe custom I'm supposed to make you a new one, but this one was your mother's and it means so much to you – and a little bit to us too really. The shape, it's the…Fire Lady's symbol…"

She still hadn't said anything.

Dear spirits, she's horrified. She's going to hate me forever; I've ruined everything again-

Katara leapt forward, wrapping her arms around his neck and dragging his face down to hers.

"Yes."

Kissing Katara was still like lightning, but Zuko couldn't help but pull away, wanting confirmation. "You will?"

She nodded, beaming at him, heartbreakingly beautiful.

He wanted to cheer loud enough to wake the village, wanted to lift her and spin them both in a giddy whirl, but the look of hope and joy on her face suddenly sobered him. "I'll be a good husband to you, Katara. I promise. I'll-"

"Zuko." She caught his chin in one hand. "I love you. Stop talking."

 


 

 

 

Toph could count the number of times she had willingly submitted to shoes on one hand.

She had brought boots to the South Pole – even in summer the ground was cold enough to chill her to the bone – but she intended to wear them as little as possible and have Kotta or Sokka piggyback her around.

They'd been off the boat for twenty minutes before she pulled them out of her pack and bent to lace them fastidiously up and over her calves. She had sensed Sokka and Suki goggling at her from their place at her left, but she gave no indication of awareness. She simply tugged at the knots and surrendered to merciful blindness.

She might have been too sluggish with confusion and horror to react when Kotta sank to one knee and offered that beautiful betrothal necklace to the winsome sounding Water Tribe girl he had apparently been traveling all this way to meet, but she didn't have to watch their vibrations as he kissed her deeply and knotted that soft woven band around her no doubt swanlike neck.

And she was almost out of earshot fast enough to miss their delighted laughter and the cheers of the on looking tribe.

She had managed to roll her eyes and snort 'boring' in something that must have been a convincing facsimile of her natural voice because her companions let her wander away without comment. In shoes on a year round blanket of snow, she was hopelessly lost in minutes.

Toph couldn't even bring herself to care.

She fought to bring her anger to the surface where it belonged. She had been wronged here, there was no question. She had put better men in the dirt for so many lesser slights. But the only thought that echoed through her head was Why?

Toph twisted on the hook of betrayal and couldn't stop herself from feeling that she had expected too much in thinking she was worth loving.

She dug her short nails into her hands hard enough to draw blood.

Stop being melodramatic, you sound like Zuko.

If all along Kotta had been coming to the South Pole to meet his bride – Spirits, why hadn't Katara told her – then there was absolutely nothing Toph could have done to change that.

Except be good enough to fall in love with.

Oh Earth, she was so stupid!

More than anything else it was the humiliation of the whole thing that began to eat away at her. Kotta might not have known that she'd found the betrothal necklace, but he couldn't possibly have been oblivious enough to miss the fact that she was in love with him. And he hadn't cared. To him she was only a pastime.

Blessed anger finally began to well up inside her, burying the betrayal and crushing inadequacy.

She would break every one of his bones into dust. There had to be enough rock in this spirits-forsaken icy wasteland to make the bastard wish he'd never been born. Everyone would know that Toph Bei Fong was not to be trifled with and they would see how well his fiancée liked the Water Tribe man with no teeth.

… and then everyone would want to know why she had done it.

Sokka and Suki would stand by her, she had no doubt. But afterwards they would pull the story out of her, Suki pricking at her sense of indignation until she raged about it, Sokka there to offer just enough of himself that she'd be helpless to avoid spilling all her secrets.

And then they would pity her.

They would tell Sugar Queen too; they never seemed to understand that keeping a secret meant keeping it away from their little family as well. Then everyone would know. They would cluck about Toph's inability to give her heart wisely, and close in to shield her. Proving to the world that she needed protection.

Wheeling around in the direction of the most noise, Toph began to pick her way back toward the center of the city, tugging the wooden airbender amulet she wore free of her heavy outer robe.

She would go back and say nothing at all, Toph decided, nodding her head emphatically at no one. She wouldn't avoid Kotta or his new bride or anyone else and no one had to know what happened. She was unassailable like the rock, cool as metal. No one would be allowed to turn their bleeding heartbeats in her direction.

"This necklace is better anyway," she whispered, pressing the symbol into the palm of her hand hard enough to leave an imprint. Hoping that if she insisted enough it might start to feel true.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Aang hadn't been sure where the alarm was coming from within the sprawling complex of the Earth King's palace, but the gouts of flame pouring from a third story balcony were a fairly clear signal.

He dipped the glider lower, looking for a place to land, feeling Toph's arms tighten around his waist and shoulder – she had leapt onto his back without complaint or hesitation when he'd unfurled his staff, but her displeasure with their altitude was evident in the clutching tension of her muscles. In the fire's light he could see a line of dark shapes leaping easily from the decorative architecture of the palace's walls, the silhouette of the last one distorted by a large sack slung over his shoulder. For a second the covered shape seemed to move, but the stirring ceased as abruptly as it started and Aang chalked it up to a trick of the firelight.

"Whatever happened, they're getting away!" He craned his neck backward to make sure she heard him. "Toph, if I got you closer-"

"Fifteen feet," she agreed without allowing him to finish the thought. "This crazy thing isn't stable enough for further!"

He tilted the glider into a dive so steep they were at least halfway to plummeting, feeling the force of their speed push him backwards into the tiny earthbender, tugging at where his fists were clenched along the crossbar of the wings.

He couldn't resist a whoop of sheer exhilaration.

Toph laughed into his ear, her words almost completely whipped away by the rushing wind. "You're such a freak Twinkletoes!"

Aang ignored her, twisting his body sharply to pull the glider up and reduce their downward acceleration.

"Now!"

He needn't have said anything. Toph let go at the perfect moment as they came out of the dive, pushing off slightly to avoid tangling her feet or skirts in the tail fin. Aang couldn't see her landing, but he heard the tug and crash of rising earth. A pair of stones went sailing across the open courtyard beneath him and caught one of the fleeing figures in the back of the knees. The man fell, tumbling head over heels. One of his companions stopped to assist the fallen man, sending the others to protect the thief who carried what they'd stolen, fire blooming in his palm like a beacon.

Aang swooped down like a kestrel, retracting the wings of his staff and reaching for his inner fire. Flames raced along the knuckles of his free hand, responding much too quickly, but he was accustomed to its unnatural power by now and easily directed it into a fireball towards the bender on the ground, pulling the man's attention upwards just as Toph came flying in on a ridge of earth and sunk both men into the stone up to their necks.

"They're getting away!" She gestured at the remaining infiltrators who had made it to the open side gate and were spraying fire wildly at the few Dai Li who had managed to intercept them. Falling easily into step with Toph, he sprinted for the thick of the fighting.

Aang whipped away an arcing tongue of fire with a blast of his own flame, Toph ducking smoothly under his arm to engage the man carrying whatever it was they had taken. The slices of agate that had adorned the sleeves of her dress lifted free, spinning around her and striking at anyone who came near like some strange earthbending version of the octopus form.

The thin pieces of polished stone were too fragile to actually incapacitate anyone, but they stung like a swarm of angry hornets, opening tiny cuts and striking vulnerable areas with unerring accuracy.

Which allowed Toph to move undetected until she leveled her opponent with an enormous boulder.

The thief managed to toss the sack to one of his compatriots before he was flattened against the high walls of the palace complex. The man caught it rather gingerly before blasting flame at the Dai Li agents he'd been battling, gaining just enough distance from the fighting to sprint through the gate and out into the Upper Ring.

Striking his opponent hard across the head with the butt of his staff, Aang flipped himself over the remains of the skirmish and followed the escaping thief.

Right into the seething mass of revelers who filled the streets.

A festival.

He spun in a circle, searching for the hooded man in black. "Toph!" he cried. "Where did he go?"

The disheveled girl skidded up behind him and crouched to press her palms into the ground. "It's no good," she told him, her voice tight with frustration. "There's too many people to pick out his footsteps."

Aang sighed, running a hand through his hair and craning his neck to scan the crowd again. "Well at least we got the rest of them."

"What do you think they took?"

"My son."

The Earth King stood behind them, flanked by a dozen Dai Li. His face was more expressive than Aang had ever seen it before. Puyi was terrified.

Terrified and utterly enraged.

"They've kidnapped my son."

 


 

 

"You know it's not really the Fire Nation," Toph told Puyi rather callously as they sped through the high arched hallways of the Earth Kingdom Palace. The King had dismissed the Dai Li agents once they had entered the building, though two remained a step behind each of his shoulders. Chan and Lien had come running, both looking disheveled; her mouth looked bruised and his robes were slightly singed.

"Princess Toph." Chan's teeth were practically gritted as he spat more than spoke the honorific.

She stopped abruptly, spinning to catch the Earth King's arm in a gesture that even Aang knew was horrifically inappropriate. "We'll get him back," she promised, as though offended he hadn't already assumed it. Her head shifted ever so slightly in his direction and Aang realized that Toph wasn't sure whether or not he was committed as well. "I prom-"

I've been away much too long.

"We promise," he cut her off smoothly. She was impervious to his reproachful look but he hoped she could hear his heartbeat speaking.

Not without me Toph, not ever again.

"We know where they’re headed," he assured Puyi, glancing awkwardly at the assembled retinue.

"Don't tell me," the King agreed. "Just … get him back, Avatar."

"They've kidnapped him for a reason. Those Black Bastards wouldn't kill a child that valuable out of hand," Toph assured them both. "He's worth too much alive."

"Or on the throne," Lien said hollowly, her words sparking off in Aang's mind to form a heinously brilliant idea. "You have named Dan Ling your heir, in front of the whole court and had the Avatar officially endorse the title. What if the boy were returned without the ability to bend? Your majesty intended his appointment to be a position for peaceful cooperation –"

"But since the Earth King is not traditionally a bender," Chan ran with the idea, ignoring Lien's withering glare, "how could you cite the sudden lack of ability as grounds to dismiss the boy's claim to the throne? He is at an impressionable age, Highness; it would be easy for the Black Fist to sway Dan Ling to their cause. Corrupted or not, you would face a great deal of censure if that title is withdrawn."

"That's not counting the trouble you're going to have from everyone who's going to think that this was a Fire Nation attack," Toph chimed in, reminding them all of the threat posed by the very nature of the assault.

Puyi pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment. Leaning forward, he lowered his voice so that only Aang and Toph could hear him. "Get him back and get a high ranking ambassador from the Fire Nation here quickly," he instructed.

"Lady Ursa must be able to send someone," Aang speculated.

The Earth King quirked an eyebrow. "Where is the Fire Lord?"

Toph widened her sightless eyes, looking so deliberately guileless it made the man sigh.

"Do I want to know what the group of you are up to?"

"It serves your interests," Aang assured him, speaking right over Toph's definitive "No."

The Earth King scrutinized them for a moment, his expression unreadable, before he drew himself up imperiously. "Very well Avatar, I have made no demands on you, formal or otherwise. I will simply wish you and Princess Bei Fong all possible speed on your journey and assure you that you are welcome to return whenever you wish." Puyi nodded almost imperceptibly to Chan and Lien and turned in a sweep of silk robes and impassive bodyguards.

Toph rolled her eyes. "Politics." She spun on a heel towards Aang. "Can we forget protocol and just pack?"

"I only have one set of clothes," he reminded her. "Go get changed, I'll saddle Appa."

"Avatar, you can't fly!" Lien insisted. "The Black Fist will be watching for pursuers."

"Watching the air?"

"The Fire Nation aren't the only ones with war balloons anymore, Twinkletoes."

"You can leave him here."

A painful sense of wrongness twisted deep in Aang's gut. "No, I-"

"I am sure the Earth King's servants would be happy to take care of your bison," Chan dismissed the concerns that were rising in his throat with a nonchalant wave.

"No," Toph's voice brooked no argument. "Appa comes with us. We can all walk."

Seven years and she understood without hesitation what his silence was meant to say. He turned his attention back to the now-awkward courtiers. "We were supposed to meet Zuko, Katara, Sokka and Suki in Omashu tomorrow."

"I can get there," Chan offered, seeming slightly sheepish for disconcerting the Avatar. "The White Lotus can provide a reason to travel and secure passage to see King Bumi."

"You may need more assistance than that."

"Lady Ursa might send help," Toph considered. "But I think we can take care of these jerks."

"She might be more interested in knowing the whereabouts of her son," Lien offered wryly. "I'll send word through the Peony's networks. It ought to reach her faster than a courier."

Chan huffed skeptically behind her but she did not turn to look at him. "If you fly to the west until you're beyond the inner wall, that ought to confound anyone watching for your escape."

"How long have you studied tracking tactics, Lady Lien?" Her words were tart but Toph's smile was more teasing than harsh. "Twinkles, I'll meet you at the stables after I grab us supplies."

She spun away in a whirl of dark hair and dust covered silk.

"See if they have any more custard tarts!" he called after her.

Chan was gawking at him, seemingly astonished that the Avatar was stooping to shouting down corridors for sweets. Lien just looked completely bemused.

"What?"

 


 

 

They flew Appa till they were just beyond the outer walls of Ba Sing Se, farther to the eastern coast than Aang had ever had the occasion to travel before. The land here was heavily wooded, craggy rock formations bursting from the ground like shoots in spring; everything sloped gently downwards, away from the natural plateau on which the great walled city sat.

The stars were just beginning to fade into pale grey light when the last glimpse of the wall disappeared behind them and Aang directed Appa towards the ground.

It was not going to be easy maneuvering his great bulk through the thick woods while they avoided the few trails that ran through this part of the Earth Kingdom; flying bison were not meant to walk like ostrich horses. Still, he wouldn't have left Appa in the city of Ba Sing Se for all the tea in Iroh's shop.

They touched smoothly down and the bison rolled onto his side with a groan of protest, most displeased at being awakened in the middle of the night to fly such a distance. There was a faint yelp as Toph, who had been dozing in the saddle, slid sideways and fell to the ground with a thump.

"I take it back," she moaned. "Let's fly, who cares if they see us?"

She stretched out on the dirt next to Appa and didn't move. Aang, who had leapt neatly to one side with the ease of long practice when his furry friend began to topple, stood over her for a minute before prodding at her hip with the butt of his staff. He managed exactly two jabs before her palm snapped around the shaft of the weapon. Toph jerked it out of his hand and struck him lightly across the shoulder before tossing it neatly back and rising to her feet.

They were quiet as they pulled their small packs off Appa's saddle, the misty stillness of the chill morning air seemed to press in on them, encouraging silence. Toph dragged one foot in a half circle before her and pointed off slightly to the left. Aang shouldered the haversack containing their rations and followed her, beckoning Appa along.

The rising sun began to burn away the chill and seemed to lift the cobwebs from his head as well. His steps grew lighter as he was finally able to concentrate on the world around him rather than picking his way carefully over rough terrain in half light.

"How can you be so cheerful after a whole day without sleep?" The demand was voiced softly, imposing only reluctantly on the still air.

Aang pointed at the sky. "Firebenders rise with the sun, as Zuko used to say."

She was quiet again for a long moment.

"Your firebending is stronger." She didn't turn her head but Aang knew she was watching him intently. "It was the first thing you reached for last night. You were always strong, but it's more than that."

"It's not mine," he protested without thinking.

"Ozai," she said wonderingly. "I said, I said to Katara it was strange you weren't using firebending after the war. She told me you just didn't like it as much when you couldn't show off for Sparky!"

He watched the implications of what she'd just said sink in across her face.

"You didn't just cut him off from his power… you took it for yourself."

"I didn't understand what I was doing," he explained. "The sea-lion turtle told me how, but not what would happen. All that power… it had to go somewhere." Aang kicked a rock, sending it skittering through the foliage ahead of him.

"And you can't just release it?"

"Not without burning this whole forest to ashes. Ozai was kind of a strong bender."

"I remember." She shoved him gently. "Why don't you give it to someone? Suki would make a great firebender, and Snoozles would be so steamed."

Aang laughed. "I'm glad you can see a bright side Toph, but I can't make someone a firebender."

"Why not? I've seen you and Sparky do your little dragon dances, it doesn't seem that hard."

"No, I mean you physically can't. It's-" He broke off with a vague gesticulation, struggling for words. "Before there were benders, there wasn't anything that separated the four nations, not really. People were all the same and most of them were capable of bending their own energy. When Oma learned earthbending from the badgermoles or the first airbenders learned it from the flying bison, they used energybending to impart that knowledge to their tribe or village. And eventually of course…"

"There was war."

"The First Bender Wars. Those who knew the right techniques could take that power by force, stacking abilities on top of one another and robbing people of their strength." Aang rubbed at the back of his neck. "Most people cut off from their bending as adults go crazy…. or die."

"Too bad," Toph snickered, ignoring his guilt over Ozai so clearly she might as well have been shouting 'quit being a wuss' in his ear. "It couldn't have happened to a more deserving person." She waved her hand, indicating that he should continue with his story.

"So a group of people pooled their talents and created the first Avatar to end the wars, and energybending was forbidden and lost," he recounted as though the whole thing hadn't been a crime against nature and a horrible travesty, hoping Toph wouldn't ask any more questions.

"Eventually people with different bending powers started to fundamentally change, adapting to their element, and since the only way to pass on bending abilities was through children, even non benders began to develop those changes."

"Other than the fact that I'm awesome, we all seem pretty much the same."

"Well my bones are less dense than most people's because I'm an airbender. Water Tribe people can hold their breath for ages. Katara's a master, so for her it's probably longer. They can survive longer without water as well – provided they don't get into the cactus juice." That made Toph laugh. "You earthbenders are harder to break and thicker skinned. And strong firebenders are mostly immune to fire."

The smartass objection she had in mind was clear before she even had the chance to open her mouth. "Zuko took a fireball to the face at point blank range and didn't even lose his eye," he interrupted. "If he hadn't been from a very powerful ancient line of benders, he wouldn't have survived. People are only built for one type of power."

"Earthbending is the best anyway," she shrugged. "Though waterbending could be useful for seeing in all that ridiculous South Pole ice."

"Energybending is dangerous too," Aang reminded her. "Entering another person's mind is horrifying. You can lose yourself entirely."

That thought seemed to sober her and they trudged along for a few moments before she relented. "I suppose in that case I'll just have to stick with being the world's greatest earthbender. It's too bad though."

"I'm not so sure, you're scary enough without any extra powers."

"No, I meant that if you could energybend and teach others, you could rebuild the airbenders."

"Oh."

Aang tilted his face upward, feeling the heat of the sun and the silky caress of the faint air currents that slid between the trees like dancers, and remembered how it felt to be able to share that with someone who would know that it meant good thermal updraft in the later afternoons, that there would be rain the day after tomorrow and five weeks at least before the first lasting frost. He thought of the way rooftops of the Southern Temple shimmered in this same morning light while he and his friends swooped in and out of the lacelike pillars, calling up currents to follow them and play through the columns like music.

That powerful painful ache tugged from the hollow place inside him that meant gone.

But even if he could take whoever wanted to come, touch them on the head and have them rise with his knowledge, they would never be the airbenders he remembered, and it wouldn't ever be the same.

The snap of a twig brought his attention back down to his silent companion. Toph, who couldn't have been less like an airbender if she was actively trying, who stood in contrast to everything he'd wanted and needed and loved for the first twelve years of life. Grace and dirt and balance, matching him step for step.

"The children of airbenders," he answered at last, tugging himself out of introspection and trying to remember what the original question had been, "are always airbenders. So the nomads will bounce back eventually."

He could have hoped that some airbenders or distant descendants might have survived the Fire Nation's purges, but he no longer wanted to rely on the past to shape his future for him.

Toph gave him a look that told him he hadn't fooled her for a second, but clapped him on the back all the same. "If you were holding out for Katara you're going to be disappointed."

"Hmm?" Aang was too lost in thought to form a question.

"Because I think Sparky might get up the nerve to ask her to marry him soon."

"What!"


 

"I didn't mean to spring it on you like that; I thought you and Sugar Queen had talked about all this."

"It's all right," he assured her, and then wondered why exactly he was attempting to lie to Toph. "Okay, it's a little strange. Were they hiding it from me?"

He tried his best not to get angry when she burst out laughing at the question. "Oh dear spirits no! Let me tell you a story…"


 

"…And he's just frozen watching her come in, his heartbeat's practically stopped so I know she must look beautiful; and everyone goes quiet and Zuko says: 'Wow, you look way prettier than you are.'"

Aang covered his face with one hand and almost tripped over a tree root. "Oh Sifu Hotman, no."

That just made Toph cackle harder.


 

"I guess it's kind of nice, really."

And it was. The idea had been a bit of a shock, but the more he considered it the less it bothered him. They may not have always gotten along but Katara and Zuko were well matched and he loved them both.

"It's not romantic, it's ridiculous." Toph waved the sweet roll she was munching for emphasis. "Mooning over each other for years when all it would have taken to be happy was a little backbone."

He rolled his eyes. "Toph, we can't all be fearless and emotionless like you."

If he hadn't been watching for a smart aleck response Aang probably wouldn't have noticed the way her posture corrected itself and the corners of her mouth tightened slightly. He reached out to put a tentative hand on her shoulder and Toph twisted her body just slightly so that it landed on nothing but air.

"I didn't mean-"

"Yes you did," she interrupted, twisting her fingers hard into the beads of her necklace. "And why wouldn't you? When you last saw us Mai and Zuko had reconciled, Sokka and Suki had found each other again and you and Katara were the perfect fairytale, and I was watching you all in love." Her smirk was nasty. "And of course trying not to be sick. You were all so pathetic –"

"Toph, stop."

Impulsively he reached out and seized the back of her skull in one hand, bringing their foreheads together, the violence of the motion at odds with the gentle bump of connection.

"I'm sorry. I should never have said that."

She flailed slightly, and he thought she might throw him off, but the moment her hands came to rest on his arms all the fight seemed to drain out of her.

"I know," she said reluctantly.

"I never thought that."

"We were children," she interrupted. "That's all."

"And now?"

"Now I have my Bandits and I manage to stay warm on my own." Her smile was too bright. Aang ran a thumb lightly across one cheekbone. "Romance is hardly everything."

"You should be happy," he insisted. "You should always be happy, Toph."

"I am."

Aang pulled his head away from hers so he could see her face properly. "I can feel you lying."

That made Toph laugh, the sound bright as the afternoon sunshine. "Don't try that trick with me, I invented that."

"Oh come on Sifu," he teased. "Shouldn't I still be learning?"

"Yes," Toph agreed, leaning forward to smack an affectionate kiss on his cheek. "And your first new lesson is never listen to your teacher when she's feeling bitter." Pulling back, Toph resettled her pack and began to trudge onward. "Come on, we're losing that daylight you seeing people seem to need."

Aang stood for a moment, watching her go and thinking about all the ways there were to be lonely.

Appa bumped into him from behind, his blunt nose pressed into the small of the airbender's back and Aang turned to embrace his oldest friend. "I know buddy," he whispered, letting the bison's soft white fur absorb his words. "We won't let her be cold anymore."

 


 

 

"I'm fine."

Toph slammed the mug hard down onto the rough wooden table in front of him, making the scalding tea splash over the sides. "Sorry," she murmured, snatching a towel to mop up the spill.

He took the cloth from her calmly and she spun back to retrieve the rest of the mugs. Cradling one in her hands, Toph sat and ran her fingers across the beads that rested above the neckline of her tunic. "How long did it take the two of you to plan this out anyway?"

Sokka was looking at Iroh, but their pulses were so muddled with residual anxiety that she couldn't read them at all.

"It's been a record year for your Bandits, Toph," the old general said gently.

Oh honestly.

She wasn't about to encourage them to spring whatever trap they were setting. "I'm really pleased with their progress as a team. Hopefully now that we've pushed the northern raiders back into the mountains, the villages there will be more inclined to call on us in the future. The armies of the Earth King just can't be everywhere at once and their patrols are too sporadic in that part of the country." She paused in her explanation for a sip of the rapidly cooling jasmine in her cup and Sokka leapt on the opportunity.

"You didn't come to the South Pole for Katara's birthday."

"We were battling the raiders, I couldn't just leave."

"You weren't at the celebration for the end of the war either. The last time we saw you was at Suki's father's funeral."

"I'm sorry the raiders couldn't stop for a party," she snapped. "It's every year; I'll make the next one."

Sokka was quiet a moment. "Kana says you're planning another push for September."

Toph was going to disembowel her assistant, and then they were going to have a very serious talk about sharing her schedule with any old person who wandered in asking for it. Never mind that she'd always been perfectly willing to have her friends informed of her whereabouts; she'd wanted to be knee deep in a campaign before she told them she wasn't taking their yearly vacation.

"There are people's lives at stake here," she retorted.

"No there aren't." Sokka's voice was strained, rising in anger as he spoke. "The tribes living in the northern mountains will retreat to lay in supplies for the winter. There are never any raids after the end of summer. You're just looking for an excuse because you don't want anyone to find out – "

"You know?" Her shout of incredulous panic burst out before she could stop it, and with it any hope of playing off like she didn't know what he was talking about. The sound of a second clinking tea cup reminded her of who else was sitting at the table. "You told everyone?"

Iroh cleared his throat calmly. "I assure you Toph, I don't know what young Sokka is referring to. I came because you have been refusing the summons of the White Lotus."

"I don't want to move up ranks," she insisted. "I have enough to do."

"And yet in six years I've never known you to refuse a summons. To miss a celebration with your friends or let anything interfere with a chance at a vacation."

"That's the price of being the best at what I do," she replied archly. Trying to ignore the feeling that Iroh wasn't fooled for a second, Toph turned to an easier target, deliberately fixing her flat eyes on Sokka.

"How did you know?"

"It doesn't matter how."

"Tell me."

"I heard him talking to the other warriors," he admitted with a great gusty sigh. "He didn't mention your name but…"

"But I'm responsible for the 'Earth Kingdom girls are easy' rumors floating around the South Pole?" she snapped. Across the table Toph felt Iroh flinch and her cheeks flamed with humiliation.

Whatever Sokka had been planning to say was cut off in his throat by her blunt response.

"You are hiding from the people who know you well enough to see you are in pain," Iroh said gently. "That speaks of a troubled spirit."

"I broke his nose," Sokka offered. "I know you didn't need me to or anything but… I whipped him on the practice field and broke his nose."

Which meant that no one knew why he'd done it.

Romantic entanglements were a strange subject between them. His awkwardness over the residue of her crush had made him wary of hurting her feelings long after they had faded into general affection.

"Thanks," she said with only slightly ill grace. "But that doesn't change anything. I'm not doing this because I'm heartbroken. The Bandits, my students are what matter most."

"Toph, you can't just ignore us –"

"It is important for every man to have independence of purpose," Iroh cut off Sokka's outburst. Toph breathed an inaudible sigh of relief and began to relax. "However, that does not mean we will stand by while you cut us off. Regardless of your wish for change, one's former self should not be dismissed or denied."

She dropped back down in her chair, glaring in Iroh's direction. "You just love doing that don't you?"

He fairly radiated self-satisfaction. "You are not the most difficult young mind I have ever had to counsel."

Sokka snorted, muttering jerkbender under his breath and Toph was suddenly swamped by a wave of longing for them all.

"I'll be there, Snoozles," she promised quietly. "I won't go north in the fall."

Every tense muscle in Sokka relaxed at the sound of the nickname. "Now," she instructed, "go make yourself useful and let my students throw rock at you."

Sokka grumbled as he left but Toph had a feeling she could have asked for the stars on a string and he would have found a way to give them to her at this point. I'm glad he came.

"So how did you really know?"

"The same way he did," Iroh admitted. "If you'd been seeing to your duties as an initiate you would have known about our operatives in the South Tribes. The White Lotus looks after our own."

Toph raised one eyebrow in Iroh's direction. "Why come if he was coming?"

"Would you have listened to him?"

"…No."

"It is difficult to be rational about rescue when one is drowning," he said kindly. "And I thought you might be able to use a hug, even from an old man like me."

She let him come around the table and pull her close, breathing in the mix of tea and incense and the smoke that marked him a firebender.

"Thanks, Dragon."

"Anytime, my girl."

 

Chapter Text

 

Suki's legs wobbled like jelly as she unpeeled her hands from their death grip around Ayashu's waist and stumbled forward to check the condition of their group.

Bloody earthbenders.

They had been riding waves of dirt and rock called up by the Bandits, in hot pursuit of the fleeing remains of the Black Fist army, crossing the breadth of the Earth Kingdom at a speed Suki hadn't thought possible.

Word had been left with the Omashu Militia for Katara, Aang, Toph and Zuko. Sokka was gloating over the thought that they might resolve the conflict while the others were still searching libraries and nailing houses back together.

She supposed he deserved the outlet; their departure from the city had been much slower than he'd hoped - almost a full day behind their quarry - and they’d both been skittish as squirrelhares to get on the road. But Jai had been needed to stabilize Bumi's condition and the Bandits refused to leave without one of their number. The Kyoshis had taken the time to hold funeral rites while Ayashu singlehandedly rebuilt the bridge Yanmei had destroyed, working piece by piece until she almost collapsed from the effort.

In the end it seemed that Bumi would live, though the physician warned them it would be a long and arduous process and it was unlikely he'd ever fully recover his former strength. The ancient king had been alert enough to crack at least one horrendous joke before they departed however, so Suki was sure he'd be up terrorizing his staff in no time.

Suki had been worried about losing the trail of the Black Fist, but there were so many fleeing soldiers that they carved a path a baby could have followed across the land. A small war balloon flying black banners had vanished into the sky not long after Yanmei's decisive end to the battle, meaning that Zaofu himself was long gone. She hoped that the army they were pursuing would lead them to wherever the bastard had hidden himself.

They were catching up.

Toph's rock wave travelling technique had allowed them to close the gap quckly. They were deliberately taking longer, more frequent rest breaks to allow the Black Fist army to reach their destination and lead them straight there.

Cringing, Suki tried to stretch her muscles without giving voice to the groans of protest that attempted escape with each movement. The sun had already dipped below the horizon, though the sky remained a faded red that Sokka had taught her heralded a bright clear dawn.

Perhaps it was time to call it a night.

All of the Kyoshis seemed rather cramped and disagreeable after such a punishing ride, emphasizing the subdued aura that had fallen over them since their small ceremony at sunset the previous evening. As per tradition, the red accents of their facepaint had been removed, leaving them in blank white masks that made their eyes look huge and dark with sorrow. They would eschew the scarlet splashes until the next time they went into battle. From the impatient swirling of their golden fans, Suki could tell her warriors were anxious to avenge their fallen sister.

The Bandits were subdued as well, fracturing under the weight of contention between their interim commander and the de facto mother of the band. Yanmei had barely spoken five words at a stretch since she'd brought half a mountain tumbling down and Ayashu fluctuated between angry and penitent too rapidly to properly lead her squad.

Suki watched Sokka pass out food, doggedly attempting to raise the spirits of the group with his own special kind of silliness. Ty Lee brightened and stepped up to play foil to his jokes, taking the wind out of his sails with that precise measure of exasperation and affection that came so naturally to Suki.

It had taken a long time for the Ty Lee to learn the balance of acid and sweet that Sokka – and indeed their whole little family – responded to. Whether natural or conditioned by long exposure to Azula, Ty Lee was a satisfier, so mortified at the thought of making a misstep or causing offense that she was always willing to throw herself upon the altar of humiliation, to push herself into being ridiculous in order to maintain some unknown balance. Even if her earnest desperation had never quite managed to outstrip Azula’s annoyance.

Her confidence had grown leaps and bounds over the years she had been a Kyoshi warrior – it took courage to turn from a hated enemy to a subordinate soldier – but still sometimes Suki would catch Ty Lee looking at her over a shoulder, or up through her bangs furtively, as though expecting reprisal at any moment.

That was what Ayashu lacked as leader, the easy confidence Toph projected with every breath. The earthbending team was the Bei Fong Bandits for a reason after all; they weren't held together by a common cause or a calling like the Kyoshis, they were unified by Toph.

It was unfair, Suki knew, to hold Ayashu to the standard set by her Toph’s almost preternatural ability to read people, but it was what the Bandits relied on. They would never hold together in the long run without her.

One day - a day that was approaching with unsettling speed - Ty Lee would stop looking to her and it would be Suki's time to step down. It might not win Suki any accolades among the people of Kyoshi Island but the former Fire Nation woman was the right choice as her replacement. Ty Lee would defend her new home all the more fiercely for having chosen it.

Ty Lee tossed Sokka a backhanded compliment about his manly physique and her eyes flicked, nervous and hopeful, towards Suki. She smiled gently, even while rolling her eyes. Today they had more present concerns to focus on.

The light had faded almost completely by the time Suki had tracked the edges of their stopping point and she turned to her lover and second in command with an expression that was all business. "All right you two, I'm thinking we camp here tonight and pick up the trail tomorrow morning."

Ty Lee cocked her head and bent herself back at an impossible angle. "What if we lose them?"

"We're all exhausted, the Black Fist must be even worse off. They wouldn't still be running so hard if they weren't close to their destination."

Sokka nodded. "Too clear to make a fire," he said, examining the state of the sky. "But at least it won't rain on us."

As though called down by his words a flash of bright light burst across the dark sky, followed by a deafening roll of thunder and the once clear sky opened into a torrential downpour.

Suki cupped her hands against her brow, trying to prevent white drips of warpaint from trickling into her eyes.

"Well," Sokka deflated under the pouring rain. "That is just great."

 


 

 

Toph lay back on the sun warmed rocks, panting slightly and listening to Aang’s vibrations coming up behind her. When they'd reached the foot of the mountains around noon it had been the work of a moment to bend neat foot and handholds from the stone, making the climb simple and safe. But by the third sheer cliff face they had scaled she found her arms trembling with the effort and was excruciatingly glad to collapse when she reached the top.

They had walked without rest for the full day and made it till sunset before they reached the point of exhaustion where everything became riotously funny. After a particularly disastrous attempt by Toph to piggyback someone a head and shoulders taller than she was, they ended up sleeping where they fell, only to be awoken after a far too brief rest by the vibrations of movement in the distance.

She had thought it was a moose lion herd at first. But as the cobwebs of sleep slowly cleared from her mind, Toph could pick out the orderly rhythm in the noise.

An army. Not enormous, but a significant size. And coming up on them fast.

They decided to move quickly and stay ahead of the advancing force, using the last few hours of darkness to climb on Appa's back and gain ground then keeping a steady pace throughout the day.

Then they’d reached the edge of the mountain range and had to leave Appa hidden in the foothills.

Aang's fingers grasped at the lip of the ridge and Toph reached over to help him haul his body over the edge.

"Break time yet?" he gasped.

Toph rose to pull the pack from his shoulders. "Dinner I think."

He lay back and propped himself up on his elbows to soak up the last warmth of the setting sun. "I'm not as fit as I remember." The words were a plaintive moan. "Didn't we used to be good at adventures?"

"Speak for yourself Twinkles."

"Oh yeah Noodle Arms?" He poked her bicep lightly. "I may not be able to feel it but I can see your hands shaking."

She snorted but didn't answer, rummaging through the pack in search of the basket full of baozi she knew were somewhere near the bottom.

"Do you ever get bored traveling like this?" Aang asked, his voice oddly faint and contemplative. "I mean you and I haven't seen each other in years so we've got lots to say, but what do you and everyone else talk about when you're together?"

You.

That always seemed to be how they spent their time together when they'd exhausted their stores of gossip and work troubles, talking about Aang.

He was their lodestone, the warmth they all turned to without even thinking. His loving, trustful nature inspired loyalty and summoned protective instincts. It was more than just the fact of power; there was a spirit in Aang that conquered without attack or artifice. Something about him that left everyone he met fundamentally different.

When she was young Toph had believed she was strong because she was a fighter. She had felt brave for disobeying her parents.

Meeting Aang had made her feel so petty.

Of course she'd quickly learned that he was petty too sometimes, and cowardly and foolish. Toph was not and had never been laboring under the illusion that Twinkletoes was perfect.

Unconditional love, her mother had once said in one of those rare moments when she seemed to finally understand what Toph was trying to explain to her. True and selfless adoration.

Of course it had taken her some time to realize that when she was around the ridiculous boy all the time. Between the night she'd run away from home and the day he'd vanished without a trace, they had barely been away from one another for more than a week at a stretch and it wasn't possible to put someone on a pedestal when they kept taking suicide leaps of humiliation off it. Even if she’d wanted to.

"I don't get bored, I love to travel. And with the right people you don't need to talk at all."

She felt him smile as she passed over one of the pumpkin bao she had pilfered from the Earth King's kitchens. Aang wasn't so different now from that boy he had been.

Sadder and wiser, cracked at the edges, but not broken.

Just like her.

He tossed the bun from one hand to the other anxiously, trying to roll it up his arm before stuffing the whole thing in his mouth and attempting to speak around it. "Well I'm going to be traveling a lot." Toph was really glad she couldn't see the masticated sounding mouthful. "I know you're busy but maybe sometimes we could…"

Toph held up a hand, head cocked to the echoes in the rock. Beneath them the waking mountain was talking.

Though the volcano had obviously been dormant for many years, she could feel the slow movements of the molten earth under it, like the shifting of a giant in sleep. And something was prodding it. Jumping to her feet, Toph yanked Aang up. Ignoring his protests, she bent a slab free from the stone and leapt on, tugging him close behind her. One kick against the ground and they were grinding over the far edge of the mountainside.

Toph dropped into a low stance, bending her knees deeply and trying to maintain her balance as Aang flailed and gripped her waist. The sheet they balanced on picked up speed as they slid down the nearly vertical incline. She was concentrated her focus on flattening the path before them and steering away from outcroppings that were too large to blast through.

"Toph!" Aang flattened himself across her back and shoved her down as they passed beneath a ridge she'd missed, bending a deep channel through the rock for their makeshift sled. She pushed back the rock above and widened the gap only to be confronted with a solid fall of stone ahead. Pulling a slender pillar out of the mountainside Toph wrapped both hands around it and swung her body, wincing at the yank of weight and sting of friction on her palms. Aang reached down to grip the board with one hand, his arms keeping the slab against his feet and her against him.

They were traveling sideways now, angling downwards at fantastic speed. Toph whooped in exhilaration and bent a perfect curving ridge that led them in an arcing switchback and slowed their headlong rush. Crossing half the open face of the mountain, she brought up another curve that sent them skittering back, still moving down towards the valley-like gap between the towering peaks. Aang laughed in her ear as they leaned this way and that in hairpin turns, the bottom of their sled sending up sparks at first, then chips of stone.

"This is better than the Omashu mail chutes!"

Below them, just before the two peaks came together, there was a break in the smooth angle of the mountain. A drop of almost twenty feet before the slope continued. She felt the moment Aang noticed, and realized they were going much too fast to stop before they reached it.

"Toph…"

She ignored him.

"Toph."

He bent a low wall to stop them and she pushed it easily aside.

"Toph, Toph, Toph, Toph!" His voice was louder with each repeat of her name.

"Hang on you big baby!" she shouted back, forming a ramp right off the edge of the drop. She kicked off the ground and sent them hurtling out through open space, both yelling their heads off.

Her stomach lurched, halfway between panic and anticipation in the exciting-sick feeling of freefall.

Board and bodies landed with a crunch on the far side of the gap, careening downwards almost out of control. Sweeping her hands forward in a single forceful gesture Toph dragged another ramp up out of the mountainside, a steep enough incline that they came grinding to a halt right on the tipping point.

Leaning back nonchalantly against Aang, Toph stretched her hands forward and cracked her knuckles.

"Oh yeah, I am good."

Aang pressed his cheek to the top of her head his heart pounding like a triphammer. "Why?" he asked helplessly.

"Something's happening with the mountain," she explained. "Just over that ridge."

The remaining climb was shallow enough that it could almost be walked. They scrambled up the edge and whatever he could see made Aang freeze. "Toph, I think they might have been doing more than just licking their wounds."

Toph shoved one hand into the loose soil of the ridge and spread her awareness out as far as she could. "Sweet Earth," she breathed. "It's a whole city."

They’d been expecting an army camp, not a fortress.

The Black Fist had clearly been establishing themselves here for years, planning this place with captive earthbenders in mind. Almost everything was built from wood, right down to the enormous line of tree trunks lashed together in a bulwark that surrounded the edge of the complex, adding a further layer of defense to the mountains that already ringed it on three sides. The fourth was open to the great blank expanse of the ocean but what concerned her were the movements of people inside the walls.

Soldiers were moving in guard formations, smaller, skittering people she assumed were captives moved hurriedly between them as though trying to avoid attracting attention, and beneath it all was what had drawn her notice in the first place: the roaring explosions of blasting beneath the mountain.

The sheer number of bodies moving across the open yards below muddled her ability to see them all clearly. Toph dug her elbow into Aang's side. "How many?"

The Avatar sucked in a breath through his teeth. "At least fifty that I can see, though there's probably more inside the buildings. The prisoners… Toph, they're all children. I don't see any adults. They're all wearing prison uniforms and there's some kind of metal thing strapped all over them."

"What are they blasting for?"

"I can't see. It must be iron," he speculated. "There's a machine shop down there and at least two forges."

"The catapults," she breathed, her mind racing. "We have to get the children out of there. I can't level the place with them inside."

Aang didn't even blink at the violence of her plan. "It's almost dark. If we can bend a tunnel out under the wall and get them to that ravine we just jumped…"

"How dark is it?" Toph could feel the earth cooling but had no perception of how the light or lack thereof might conceal them from detection.

"The sun only went down all the way a few minutes ago," he informed her. "But there are enough torches that they'll find us the second we make any noise. What we really need is a distraction."

Half a dozen options flashed through Toph's mind only to be interrupted by a cracking sensation of ozone in the air, followed quickly by a booming rumble of thunder and a downpour so torrential she was soaked to the skin almost instantly. "That was not natural."

Aang tipped his head back, close enough to her that the sound and vibrations of the water hitting his skin limned out the features of his face like black ink. "A waterbender? A strong one." He turned to her with a dazzling smile. "If it's Katara and Zuko, they're not far away."

"Well then we better hurry!" she laughed. "I don't intend to share the glory."

“I’m with you.” There was mischief in his voice.

The closeness of their triumph, the clarity of her vibration sight in the rain, the giddy thrill of being caught in the downpour – Toph could feel crazy wild joy welling up through every pore. Reaching out, she caught the line of Aang's jaw in her fingertips and smoothed her thumbs across his lips, wiping away the drops of water that spilled down his philtrum, She leaned close and kissed him.

It was too wet from the rain dripping down on them, and their noses bumped rather painfully. Toph had heard great kisses described as electric shocks, so powerful they could start wars or topple heroes, or change a person deep in the marrow of their bones. This was small and sweet, light and steady, and just enough to let something in.

Heat curled in her stomach and Toph could feel banked passion in the way Aang responded. She smiled against his mouth and pulled away gently, still so close that the warmth of his skin pricked at her own. There was no rush; they had all the time in the world.

Easing backwards and stepping away, she levered herself over the crest of the peak they were leaning on.

"Toph?" The Avatar's voice was soft and full of wonder.

It made her giddy.

"I like being with you Twinkletoes. Come on, we have butt to kick."

 


 

 

Moving in unison, it took them no time at all to bend a tunnel out under the wooden barricade big enough to walk through easily.

The rain had gutted the torches and sent most of the sentries running for the shelter of the buildings. Though it irritated her to no end, the scattering vibrations of the storm forced Toph to rely on Aang's eyes, following close behind him as he wove through the blocks of dead space that were wooden buildings.

The two that backed against the wall were long and relatively narrow. Though there were guards stationed at the far end of each one, the entrances faced the narrow alley between the dripping eaves. They scrunched themselves down in the doorway, trying to avoid the eyes of any passing patrols or guard towers, and Toph reached out to bend away the metal of the lock.

Her vision was faint at best once inside the wooden building. But the metal contraptions that adorned the prisoners' bodies stood out like beacons. Aang was trying to quiet the captives, explaining who they were and what was happening, but Toph focused her attention on the cold iron instead.

The locking mechanism was complex and strange. She could bend the shape apart like the bolt on the door, but there were so many children she’d be at it all night. Instead she reached forward to the nearest tiny bender and tugged free the hingepin that molded the metal across her shoulder.

The whole device fell away and she had to dive for the thing in order to stop it clanking heavily against the floor.

"Got it," she whispered, hearing Aang's soft chuckle at her leap.

The small girl she had freed slid into an earthbending stance but Toph rose and caught her shoulder. "Not yet," she explained. "It will take a while before the rock answers again. Don't strain yourself."

"Grab anything you need," Aang instructed. "We're getting you all out of here."

They moved through the room with alacrity, Aang freezing and breaking the metal with almost the same speed as her bending. Toph pulled the blunt metal pins into circular links and looped them in a chain around her waist. More metal was always an advantage.

He moved on to the second longhouse while she led the children back to their escape tunnel, edging carefully along the defending wall.

"Keep going," she instructed them when the group had reached the mouth of the tunnel. "Straight through and don't dawdle. On the other side there'll be a big white furry thing. His name is Appa. Just stay there and stay quiet until we get the others."

"Solitary," one of the boys piped up. "Someone's in solitary. Over there."

"I'll get them," she promised. "Now go!"

The tiny building stood a little apart from the others, closer to the water and more carefully guarded. The soldier by the door would not be possible to sneak past, so Toph opened up the earth and let it swallow the man before he could scream. Closing the ground over his head and listening to the slowing of his terrified movements into unconsciousness before she opened the earth up again, leaving him trapped but alive.

The lock on this door was even easier and simply broke apart under her touch. Toph ducked inside just as she felt movement towards the jetties. Someone was arriving by boat.

No sooner had she closed the door behind her than a punch made her duck and spin, gesturing to immobilize the assailant's feet in stone. "Hey!" she whisper-shouted. "Here to help."

The lack of a proper floor in the tiny room allowed her to see her attacker clearly. A boy of probably fifteen, by far the oldest of the captives she had seen and completely astonished at her presence. She couldn't help but grin.

"I am the legendary Master Toph Bei Fong and I'll be rescuing you this evening." She removed his metal restrainer with a flourish and added the link to her chain. "Keep quiet, do exactly as I say and don't wander off." She grabbed his arm and yanked him out the door and around to the far side of the tiny hut as fast as she could. There was a large crowd growing next to the dock, arrayed in a facsimile of military parade stance.

Someone important then. Toph wondered if it was the infamous Zaofu.

As they ran into Aang and the second crowd of children by the tunnels, she turned to her young companion. "You seem pretty scrappy, kid, so I'm leaving you in charge. Keep the little ones safe." Her tone brooked no argument, and she could feel his pulse strong and steady as he nodded.

"What about our parents?" one of the little ones asked.

She felt Aang turn a questioning gaze on the young man next to her. "They keep the adults in the fortress," he explained.

"Toph-"

"Aang-"

They both spoke at the exact same time, but she recovered faster. "I call going in after them!" she crowed.

He sighed. "Alright, but don't do anything till I get back. And be careful." Aang reached out as though he might cup her cheek, but squeezed her shoulder instead.

"Everyone's down at the dock. Don't worry."

Tossing a wink at him, Toph took off, sprinting up the slope to the citadel along the wall.

 


 

 

The large building at the far edge of the complex was half in and half out of the mountainside, one of the only stone structures in the fortress. The huge entrance had been left unguarded and she slipped in easily, feeling the heat of the torches drying the water from her skin. Ducking into an alcove, Toph braced her hands against the floor and listened.

The twisted passages carved far back into the mountain. Guard rooms and barracks, an armory and dining halls and meeting rooms, and lot of soldiers walking the halls ahead. More than she could clearly count. More than enough to march on the Earth Kingdom.

But what she was looking for rested two floors down, a series of tiny rooms full of people. Cells.

The thundering feet of an advancing platoon coming up the corridor towards her, had Top scrambling backwards. Tugging her awareness back to the here and now, she ran for the building's entrance and  noticed too late that the group of soldiers and whoever had arrived at the docks had been coming up the hill behind.

She stood for a moment, a tiny girl framed in an enormous stone doorway, face to face with thirty men, another fifty coming up behind.

Surrounded.

Toph stepped out from under the shadow of the lintel and spun in a careful circle, keeping her weight on her back leg and dragging her opposite foot lightly across the sandy ground, trying to expand her focus, waiting and listening. There was no movement from the front ring of guards. They seemed to be frozen in shock at the one woman invasion force.

Then they charged.

Toph dropped back a few steps and yanked a ring of boulders free of the ground, blasting them out in a crescent of rock. A few fell or retreated but by then the rest were under her guard. Too close quarters for her favored style of fighting, Toph borrowed Ayashu's best move and plunged her hands into the dirt, encasing them in massive fists of stone.

Kicking hard sideways, she launched a boulder at one soldier moving up on her left, feeling it catch him in the chest and send him flying even as she swung her right arm up to block another blow. She hit her attacker with a cross punch only to be struck hard in the chest and knocked back half a step. Someone grabbed her from behind, trying to hold her still for a second blow; instead she slid her feet across the ground and used a spear of rock to blast the man that held her forwards, ducking and sending him into the soldier preparing to strike her across the face.

Knocking two opposite attackers away with angled pillars that launched them back into their fellows, Toph drove an elbow hard against someone's cheek, using the energy of the ricochet to send her weighted fist into another's nose with a satisfying crunch.

Spinning, she dipped her body parallel to the ground, dodging a series of blows by balancing on one bent leg just long enough to spring back and send her body twisting in a flurry of feet, fists and stone. Someone fast came up on her right, catching her arm and elbow before she could shake him off. Ignoring the attempt to put pressure on her wrist through four inches of rock, she used the Black Fist soldier as leverage to swing her bare feet outwards, taking two steps up a warrior in front of her, sending her heel hard into his jaw and allowing the drop to add force to the crescent kick she landed on the top of his fellow's skull.

Using her lower center of gravity, she stepped to the side and flung the man still gripping her wrist and elbow headlong into the next wave of Black Fist brave enough to take her on.

Somewhere at the back of the crowd she heard the sound of shifting weight, leaning back on one foot and lunging forward. Throwing!

Leery of the metal gas canisters she had encountered back at the Bei Fong School, Toph ducked, sinking her stance and shifting to raise an earthen dome around her when something heavy fell about her neck from the other way, tightening and yanking her off balance. A second thrower she had missed. The barrier she'd been forming collapsed as Toph twisted her right arm around the rope and yanked backwards, feeling the soldier holding the other end stumble and release his grip. Four others leapt to catch hold of the loose end, just as another lasso flew through the air and caught her left wrist.

The pull dragged her in the opposite direction just as the Black Fist were hauling on the rope around her neck and Toph choked, eyes watering as she tried to keep them from cutting off her air supply. She yanked her wrist free for an instant but more ropes were flying at her from every direction, ensnaring her other arm and looping over her shoulders, fighting to tug Toph to her knees. Three soldiers hit her in the back like a battering ram and she landed face first on the ground.

Kicking out with her still free legs Toph threw up boulders haphazardly; unable to focus enough to aim with the wind knocked out of her, she settled for turning the soil into a churning treacherous mass.

Someone tackled her legs and tried to stop her desperate movements while her arms were wrenched painfully up and back. Toph couldn't hold back a scream as she felt her shoulder stretch close to the breaking point and the earth answered her panic, rippling out in a shockwave.

Dimly she could feel soldiers flying off in all directions as the men on her back managed to hogtie her feet, her cheek pressing into the dirt keeping her tenuously connected to her element and her vision.

The panicked shout of her name brought her head up off the ground in an instant.

"Aang no! Get out of here!"

Something blunt and hard cracked across the back of her skull and Toph was sent tumbling into darkness.

 


 

 

Katara bustled back and forth across the small room, stirring and seasoning with a practiced hand. She took a deep sniff of the sweet, black rice congee and added another small measure of chopped ginger before turning to root through their store for the last of the dates. Even if no one noticed the fruit, it was a special day and she would make sure it was marked.

Besides, Sokka liked dates and he was bound to be nervous.

As if summoned, her brother appeared in the doorway, hair sticking up at all angles, looking halfway between sleep and utter terror.

"Good morning," Katara called brightly. "Hope you're hungry!"

"Dear spirits Sugar Queen." Toph nearly tumbled headfirst out of Katara's bedroom, long hair everywhere, her normal grace absent on the hide and ice floor. "Must you be so relentlessly cheerful?"

"Come on Toph, there's congee," she wheedled.

The small girl took a bowl with a nod of thanks, but slumped against the table without eating.

"And its Sokka's big day, we should be supportive."

"Does it still count as breakfast if you've hardly slept?" Sokka asked morosely, poking at his food. "I kept waking up from dreams of utter terrifying failure."

"Mmmm," Toph said seriously from where her head was pillowed on the table.

Katara set down her wooden spoon and focused on her brother. "Don't worry so much Sokka, it's a good plan and you've brought parts of it up with the elders before today. It isn't like you're going in blind."

"Mmmm." It was downright unnatural how mocking an inarticulate noise could be.

"Good morning my children!" Hakoda swept into the room with a booming roar of greeting, grinning from ear to ear. "And houseguest who might as well be one of my children."

"Mmmm." Toph called in greeting.

Hakoda clapped a hand down on Sokka's shoulder, and Katara watched her brother start involuntarily. "How about it boy, are you ready to dazzle the elders and change the face of your tribe forever?"

"I feel sick."

"Just like the morning before a whale hunt, Sokka," their father said, taking Katara's offered bowl. "Nerves are normal."

"Really, I think I might throw up."

"You'll do fine. And besides, we'll be right there with you."

"Daddy to bail me out." Sokka bonked his head off the table. "That's really going to prove to the elders I'm mature enough to handle the rebuilding effort for the whole South Pole."

"I'll be there too," Katara reminded him.

"My much more impressive sister and a tiny lazy earthbender; that really takes the pressure off."

Toph turned her head towards him without lifting it off the table. "I'm right here you know."

"Mmmm." Hakoda offered with a wink she couldn't see.

"Has everyone gone crazy but me?" He leapt up and began to pace fast enough to wear a hole in the furs. "This is going to be a disaster! I'm not ready to present this plan. Look here." Sokka snatched up one of the large rolls of paper from the corner of the room and spread it out over one end of the table, scattering the breakfast dishes. "I've put the secondary retaining wall too close, if we were invaded by the Fire Nation again their new warships could break through if the other wall was breached before the alarm was sounded! And this-"

"Sokka!" Katara caught her brother's wrist and pulled him back to his seat. "You're spinning, calm down. Everything is going to be fine."

"I wouldn't have backed you on this if I didn't think it was a good plan, Sokka," Hakoda assured him.

"Mmmm," Toph interrupted, shoving a cloth wrapped pack of Gran-Gran's seal jerky across the table at him. Everyone broke into laughter for a moment as the young man bit off a large piece.

Sokka let his eyes flutter closed, breathing deeply while he chewed.

The thinking face.

Give her brother food and five minutes to plan and he could move the world.

But Sokka never seemed to see how vital he was, her bother always considered himself expendable; less somehow than her and their father and their friends. No matter that he kept her and Aang safe while traveling the world – he hadn't been able to fight off Zuko's fully armed and outfitted warship with only a spear. Forget that He'd led them across the Fire Nation in secret and invented a new means of traveling under water – he'd been outmaneuvered by a man thirty years his senior with superior forces and intelligence.

Sometimes Katara just wanted to shake him.

And sometimes he needed a shake. They needed one another. She'd heard him tell Toph once that she was more of a mother figure to him than their real mom had been and though Katara loved her father dearly, there were moments when she understood the idea. When she needed protection or comfort or support it was always Sokka she turned to first.

Katara was still smiling with nostalgic fondness when he opened his eyes. "Okay," he said. "I'm okay, I can do this."

As it there was ever any doubt.

He bit off another piece of jerky and waved the package at them, smiling around a mouthful. "Mmmm!" 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Aang could feel the Avatar State tugging and flickering at him like a beacon flashing in the corner of his eye as he threw himself bodily across the open space to where Toph had gone down under a pile of Black Fist soldiers. Catching an air current, he leapt forward with twin cyclones spinning out in a maelstrom from each palm. His enemies went flying off in all directions. In one smooth spinning motion he drew his staff and landed with the weapon leveled at the crowd, one knee bent, the other leg out straight, balanced and waiting.

"Surrender."

A hail of the ropes they had used to bog down Toph was his only answer.

Aang turned them to ash before they crossed half the distance.

Ozai's fire welled up beneath his skin like blood and Aang gave it free reign, using it to propel himself upwards and lend force to the column of flame produced by his circling kick. The Black Fist fell back in surprise even as the fire cut a swath through their line. Their confusion allowed him to sink a dozen into the earth before any managed to get within striking distance.

Blue fire flashed across his eyes, remaining just long enough for the power of Kyoshi to sink deep into his bones. A ring of boulders rose out of the ground to spin in orbit around him as jets of fire cut men down and spinning strikes of his staff pushed the attackers back. Aang's focus was so bent on reaching Toph it took him a moment to notice when the onslaught stopped.

She was bound and unconscious but visibly breathing, thrown at the feet of an old man in the long elaborate robes of a scholar, who stood with his hands in his sleeves watching Aang with amusement.

Aang didn’t drop the boulders but he stilled their movement, leaving the rocks suspended around him. He leveled his staff at the man's chest. "Let her go."

"Avatar, you have no idea what an absolute joy it is to see you," the man greeted him like an old friend. "A delightful end to a rather dismal day. Would you kindly put down those rocks my boy?"

Aang looped a rope of air around the man's neck and dragged him forward. "I will not ask again."

Three arrows split the small space between the two of them, disrupting Aang's hold and allowing the man to step back. "Neither will I." He gestured up and behind him, drawing the Avatar's attention to half a dozen dark shapes arrayed across the rooftops nearby. "From what they've told me, you have encountered the Yu Yan archers before, Avatar."

His stomach dropped.

"They were disgraced after they failed to capture you, and fell out of favor in the Fire Nation military, which I always thought was a mistake. After all, who else is a good enough shot to drop a bender before they can bring forth any of their unholy tricks?"

"I was twelve then," Aang said through gritted teeth. "You really think they can stop me from there?"

"No."

Cold sharp metal pricked the back of his neck and only one thought made it through his mind when Aang glanced over his shoulder to see the red-painted gimlet eyes above the crossbow.

Toph is going to kill me for not hearing him.

"The great and powerful Avatar." The old man was grinning like a shark. "My brother was an Earth Sage, ever so long ago. When you disappeared – the first time you disappeared," he clarified with a smirk, "the guardians began to fear what might happen if they were destroyed. The ravenous army of the Fire Nation had already obliterated the Air Nomads trying to wipe out the Avatar, it would only make sense to turn on those who were responsible for the collected knowledge about you. So for the first time since their inception the Sages began to document everything they knew. All the terrible power of the Avatar… and all your weaknesses.

"And where better to entrust that knowledge than with a family whose second born had served the sages since the time of the first Avatar? They did make for such interesting reading as a boy."

He gestured and two men came forward bearing chains of heavy black metal. "If you attempt to ascend into the Avatar State the Yu Yan will kill you and break the line of incarnation. If you resist and refuse to cooperate we will kill her and see if your loyalty to your friends is enough to bring on the change. I have plans for you Avatar, but I will easily settle for your utter destruction."

Aang wanted to curse and scream. He wanted to tear the whole encampment apart. He turned his hands to expose the insides of his wrists and offered them forward.

"Very well."

Piercing pain burst against his leg as an arrow buried itself deep in to the meat of his thigh. Aang reached down to grip the protruding shaft with a lurch of nausea.

"I'd leave that if I were you."

The man's smug, self-satisfied voice was the last thing Aang heard as his vision began to swim.

 


 

 

He woke to the sound of Toph cursing the air blue.

"-And your mother too, you cow sucking stupid inbred sack of meat! I will end you!"

Aang chuckled before he remembered where he was and Toph immediately turned her ire on him.

"Twinkletoes you airheaded, frog-humping son of a bitch! How did you manage to get us into this mess?"

"Me?" he demanded, groggily trying to rub at his eyes.

He was chained. Not just manacled at the wrists but covered forearm to fist in metal so tight he could feel his fingernails cutting into his palms. He had been positioned on his knees, presumably so that he couldn't bend with his legs and his calves were secured to the wooden platform on which they knelt. Toph was facing him, less than three feet away - if his hands were free he could have reached out and touched her – similarly secured, but her bonds were canvas and rope rather than metal.

The door was positioned behind him, well out of range of an air or firebending attack, flanked by two crossbow carrying guards who hadn't so much as quailed under Toph's torrent of abuse.

"I was trying to rescue you," he protested.

"Nice job rockhead!" she struggled briefly, trying to lash out at him, panic and relief warring in her voice. "I can't see anything on this stupid wood."

"That's okay," he said nonchalantly. "Nothing interesting in here anyway."

"So?" she demanded after a beat, the slight rise in the pitch of her voice the only indication she was anything but completely relaxed.

"What?"

"What's your plan Twinkles? It was your big rescue operation that got us into this mess. You get us out."

Aang scanned the room for anything that he could turn to their advantage. "Might help if I knew what that guy wanted. Has anyone come in?"

"Not since I woke up… which was a long time ago. I’m starting to run out of insults."

She was close enough that he could conceivably burn away the fabric that held her with his firebreath, but he wouldn't be able to control it enough to avoid seriously injuring her.

The click of the door behind him drew Aang's attention to the fact that one of the guards had left. "I guess they were waiting for us both to be conscious." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Toph, can you bend these cuffs?"

"No." She dropped her head. "Not on wood, not from this distance without my hands. I can feel the metal but I need contact!" The last word was a growl of frustration.

"It's okay. Whatever they want, they're obviously not interested in killing us outright. We just have to wait for them to slip up."

Toph took a long slow breath, trying to relax through sheer force of will. Waiting tied up and truly blind for spirits knew how long had clearly taken its toll, but he could see her unknot a little at the sound of his voice.

"Aang," she said with a detached sort of calm. "You remember those impossible choices?"

No, no, no. "Toph-"

"You remember what I said," she instructed. "Don't forget."

"I'm not going to-"

"Well you better at least attempt another plan first." She laughed, hollowly. "I don't want that to be the only thing we try."

The sound of the door opening, prevented Aang from arguing the point.

"So, Toph Bei Fong. My men chase your little vigilante group all around the Kingdom trying to flush you out and here you appear on my doorstep." The voice was low and smooth, relaxing in its timbre. The man it belonged to remained directly behind Aang, invisible despite how he craned his neck.

Toph's head came up, cocked slightly as she tried to track the man by sound alone. "Well the Earth King asked me to stop by and pick up his kid," she told their captor. "Says he wants the little monster home for dinner."

"Ah, young Dan Ling. How fortunate that my soldiers happened to rescue him from those Fire Nation dissidents. My associate is with the boy right now. I believe they are bonding, but you have my word that the child will not be harmed."

"Well the word of some nobody holding us captive makes all the difference."

"I don't usually bother to introduce myself to the tainted, but as I am your host for now I suppose the effort is required. I am Zaofu." At last he stepped around far enough that Aang could see him.

The man was a tall, imposing figure in full armour of black leather and silver metal that glinted blood red in the torchlight. His features were aristocratic but harsh and his eyes filled with equal parts self-assurance and bat-shit-crazy insanity. Aang was reminded very strongly and unpleasantly of Azula.

They were in serious trouble.

"-Leader of the Black Fist, formerly of the Fire Nation. No doubt you have heard of me."

"You know," Aang interrupted. "Jeong Jeong made it sound like deserting the Fire Nation army was a huge and daring accomplishment, but you people are just everywhere–"

"Do not question my loyalty. The battalion under my command was among the most feared anywhere in the world, and we accomplished that without your bending parlor tricks."

"Parlor tricks?" Toph's voice was an incredulous stage whisper. "Did he see what the Loser Lord did to the Earth Kingdom?"

"Ozai would have been a better leader without the ability to firebend. He should have remained on the throne and continued our conquest. Not surrendered to his mad daughter or weak son. Bending was a crutch to our nation for far too long, weakening our people, keeping them submissive and dependent." Zaofu's voice practically shook with conviction.

"Oh Snoozles and Suki would love to hear that."

"Has he stopped claiming boomerang is an element?" Aang asked, genuinely interested.

Zaofu took two steps forward and backhanded him hard enough that the metal tips of his gloves scraped parallel lines across Aang’s face and the inside of his cheek split on the ridge of his teeth.

"We will free the people from your oppression," the Black Fist commander swore. "Make them strong and united under one banner, one country. The age of the bender will end in blood and the spirits themselves will rejoice at our victory."

There was a dramatic pause and Toph hummed in consideration.

"Did that work for you Aang?"

He swallowed the blood in his mouth and smirked at her, letting the cocky smile infuse his voice. "You know, I liked it. Good intimidation, just enough of a story to keep you interested."

"All I heard was blah-blah no one in the Fire Nation loved me, blah-blah I'm throwing a huge tantrum."

"Silence," Zaofu demanded.

"Oh come on Toph, backstory is important for a convincing villain."

"Silence!" There was a ring of metal on metal and Zaofu's longsword rested, vibrating slightly, against Aang's throat. "I suggest you start taking all this a touch more seriously, or I shall begin at your toes and break every bone going up until your flippant attitude runs out."

"No!" Toph protested and then bit her own tongue at the outburst. Aang tried to give her a reassuring smile, before realizing she wouldn't be able to sense it.

"Good." The sword left his neck but remained unsheathed in silent intimidation. "I was told you could be used one against the other, I'm pleased to find it's true. The return of the Avatar was an unexpected snag in our plans, but you have the potential to accelerate our cause greatly."

Aang glared balefully up at him. "What do you want Zaofu?"

"I want you to remove the abilities of every bender on the planet," he said finally. "You can start with her."

 

He knew it was absolutely inappropriate, he knew it was a bad idea, but Aang couldn't help himself.

He burst out laughing.

The absurdity of the request just wouldn't let him go. Not even the Avatar had that much power, could handle that much power. Toph's alone would overwhelm him. If he were to take her bending, sure he'd be able to remove the metal cuffs that bound him and get them both to safety, but it wouldn't be necessary because he'd have accidentally leveled the mountain by then.

He finally got control over his chuckling long enough to look up at Toph, expecting to see her smirking at him and rolling her eyes. Only to find her looking ashen and terrified, her face completely drained of colour.

The sight sobered him instantly.

Not as funny as he'd thought.

"I can't," he said simply. "It's not possible."

"You’ve done it before Avatar, don't insult my intelligence."

"Really though," Aang insisted, desperation mounting. "It's not a fearless show of defiance. I actually cannot do it."

"Avatar, it's not a request."

"And if I don't cooperate you'll kill her?"

Zaofu laughed a little. "No, no Avatar. Miss Bei Fong here has given me enough trouble that I might very well kill her anyway. But if you refuse I will burn down everything she is." He leaned close to Toph's head and whispered in her ear, the gesture a hideous parody of seduction. She tried to jerk away, but Zaofu tangled his fingers in her hair and yanked her close, laughing at her uncontrollable trembling.

"Do you hear that little girl? You and yours escaped my last trap by sheer luck. It won't happen again. I'll frame you and leave all your Bandits to the tender mercies of the people. The vengeance upon fallen heroes is always so terribly harsh; I wonder what will happen to your students?"

"You leave them alone!" she shrieked. The mountain around them rumbled faintly with her ire and Aang could feel his metal cuffs drawn forward as though magnetized, but they quickly fell flat again.

Zaofu turned back towards him. "If she is no longer one of you abominations then I have no quarrel with her. Do as I say promptly and I might even be persuaded to let her live."

"As leverage you mean." Aang summoned up enough saliva to spit at the man's feet, putting enough airbending behind it that it tore through the leather of Zaofu's boots. "Toph's Bandits aren't fools, you won't pin them so easily."

"Very well." The man's jaw clenched as he looked from his elaborate now ruined footwear to Aang's defiant stare. "I shall simply have to find a more sensitive pressure point." He paced to the edge of the room and flipped a lever, raising the metal pillars that they were strung up between. The door guards removed the straps across his legs just as the Commander unbound Toph's.

His muscles ached in relief at the chance to stretch after spirits knew how many hours kneeling, but across from him the shorter Toph hung suspended in midair, gritting her teeth in pain as she tried to keep her arms bent and the weight of her whole body off her wrists.

"Put her down!" he cried at the same time she screamed the same command.

Zaofu ignored them both. "Gamen," he began, "my associate who is so fond of your history, Avatar - he studies people, why they do the things they do. He's been doing it so long that he can predict their thoughts like the migration patterns of the elk-deer.

"I, on the other hand, study individuals. I watch my enemies, track every gesture and idiosyncrasy looking for a weakness where I can strike. You know," he said conversationally to Toph, "most people don't really believe that you're blind. But you're the only one of your despicable kind I've encountered that will never wear shoes."

Quick as a striking cobra he reached out and seized one of the earthbender's feet. Toph cried out in panic at the sudden sensation and awareness, kicking furiously back at him with her free limb. Zaofu dug the sharp tips of his gauntlets into the soft arch of her foot and she went limp, gasping in pain.

"Sensitive indeed," he murmured, looking over her shoulder directly at Aang. "Well Avatar? Will you cleanse your friend and spare her suffering?"

Toph's head came up and she shook it emphatically.

Choking on panic and foreknowledge, Aang gave himself up to what she wanted. "Suffering? Toph loves a good foot massage."

Her smile was brilliant, grateful and proud.

Then Zaofu brought out the knife.

"I am not a great one for the finer points of torture." He slid the blade across her skin, drawing a line of blood and a hiss from Toph. "But I can do well enough I think."

The knife cut shallowly through her skin, but it wasn't until he sheathed the dagger and seized the tiny flap tightly between his fingers that Aang realized what he intended.

Zaofu was going to to peel the skin from her feet.

Toph's flesh pulled away from her body so smoothly it was hard to imagine that it even hurt. Except for the screaming.

Aang was bellowing protests before the first cry left her lips. Struggling with all his might against the chains that held him and desperately forcing back the rising tide of the Avatar State.

It seemed to go on and on, Zaofu laughing at his helpless struggle. Toph's voice howling and whimpering, ragged with agony.

Aang's desperate pleading lost coherence long before the strip of skin was sliced free at her heel.

Zaofu stepped back to consider his handiwork. "Are you ready to cooperate now?"

Toph hung limply from her bonds, sweat dripping from her hair, blood dripping from her feet.

"Take her bending and I promise not to harm her any further."

She was shaking her head at him. Trying to talk in a voice destroyed by screaming.

No.

"Sever her power and she can be free."

Aang, please.

"Surrender."

His vision was blurry with tears. "I'll do it."

He'd forgotten about the Yu Yan guards until they came up behind him. One keeping the crossbow bolt pressed firmly into the back of his neck while the other undid his chains. Aang fell forward onto his knees without their support to hold him and dragged himself across the space between them, pressing his face to the top of her damaged foot for a moment, lips shaping apologies against her skin.

"Oh get on with it." Zaofu seized him by the back of the neck and lifted Aang to his feet.

Face to face, inches away he could hear her begging now.

"Aang don't, please don't, let him kill me if you have to but don't leave me helpless, please, please, please don't put me in the dark."

"Toph." He gripped her waist, moved to her shoulders, his hands fluttering like birds. "You need to let me in."

"You're going to take it all away!" Her voice was halfway to a scream.

He pressed their foreheads together, and then shifted so that they were temple to temple, his eyes clenched shut, his lips just above her ear. "You have to trust me."

Aang stepped away and spread the fingers of his left hand against her chest, placing the pad of his right thumb gently in the space between her brows he gazed into Toph's defiant, sightless eyes and fell back into the endless blue light of his power.

 


 

 

"In battle there is always the possibility that you could be cut down at any second. I was ready for that fear, I spent my whole life preparing for it. Death in battle defending her people is the greatest glory for a Warrior of Kyoshi. But she didn't want me to die. She didn't even ask me any questions really. Just said she wanted to understand me better. 'Know me' were the words she used.

"I think the worst thing was the fire. Zuko tried to burn my village down once, did you know that? But I don't know one person who grew up with the war and doesn't sometimes dream of fire. She didn't do anything that would truly cripple me – said that was for later. But she liked to pour oil over me and heat it bubbling – liked the way it always made me scream on and on, I couldn't stop myself. Just pain, pain, pain and the sound of her voice telling me to let it all out. Tell her everything.

“But there was nothing to tell. I didn't know where Aang was, I didn't know what they were planning. There was nothing for me to tell her.

“So I told her about Sokka. I screamed his name. Begged and pleaded and prayed he would save me. And he never did, not that he could have - he didn't even know I'd been captured till she'd already sent me away in preparation for the invasion- but I hated him for it then, in the worst moments. I hated him for not saving me.

“And when I wake up with her voice in my ears, smelling my own skin cooking sometimes I still do.

“I love him so much it kept me alive, but sometimes the only thing I see is the boy who left me in that hell when I needed him."

Suki tipped her head back and let the pale silver light wash over her.

"How can you bear to let me keep him?"

You love him. The words rose in her mind soft and full of grace. It is more than enough.

Her own thoughts or something else, it didn't really matter.

She smiled at the moon hanging over the water.

 

Chapter Text

 

Toph was dreaming.

Or at least it felt like dreaming. It had that sensation of awareness without vibration that she'd come to associate with sleep, something she assumed must be like sight. But this place felt closer, safer than dreaming, almost controllable.

More at home than her school, more familiar than the house she had grown up in. She belonged here, this was exactly where she was supposed to be.

Something important had been happening, she could feel the thoughts just out of reach but they slid away when she tried to grip them.

A sound like wind chimes and air through the trees raised to thunderous volume reverberated across the open space and then, where there had only been the familiar whispery forms of her vibration sight, there was something else.

It wasn't until she squinted involuntarily and moved to look away that she realized she was seeing something.

People shied away when the light was too bright.

Light.

The brightness coalesced into the shape of a young man. His outline was familiar but she was distracted from identifying him by simply looking.

There were so many different shades on him. Kind eyes that were dark, but not as dark as the boots he wore, skin and clothes paler than both. Colours, she thought giddily, wondering which was which, dear spirits I'm seeing colours!

Smoothly bisecting his forehead was a shape that mimicked the point of an arrow. A shape with a soft raise that she had traced with the tips of her fingers.

"Aang?"

"Hi Toph."

"Aang I can see! I can see you!" She fixed him with a deadly glare. "What did you do?"

 


 

He'd been bracing himself for the pain.

But when the blue light faded away, to Aang's surprise he found himself in calm, soft darkness. The deep blackness of his surroundings was no hindrance to his sight; the world was sketched out in paler shapes formed of silvery lines like an inverted charcoal drawing.

He was standing in what amounted to a wide bowl. The bottom of a deep canyon, all rock and earth, but here and there the craggy walls gave way to the shapes of imperial Earth Kingdom architecture. Intricate latticed screens and sweeping gabled roofs with elaborately formed figures on the raised corners grew out of the cliff face like plants, all formed of the same stone that glittered with ribbons of mica and veins of silvery metal.

The flat bottom of the canyon in which he stood was carpeted with lotus flowers, growing without water or visible stems; their scent improbably subsumed by the smell of sandy soil, pine needles baking in the hot summer sun and the aroma of camphor wood.

And high above in the endless velvet expanse of the sky were stars that looked like they'd been made with the point of a pen.

Even as he took it all in Aang could read the reasons behind it, the endless array of memories that lived beneath every aspect. All the accumulation that made up the woman who stood before him, sketched out in white light.

Her glare fit to make a grown man weep for his mother.

"You're not seeing," he told her gently, hating to break the news that it was only temporary. "Not really. We're inside your mind. This is my mental image of how I look."

"Your hair is gone," she said.

Aang laughed awkwardly. "That's what I mean."

He felt her struggle to remember what was happening, the rush of information as it all came flooding back ran through his mind just as it ran through hers. The canyon walls quaked as Toph dropped into a fighting stance. "I won't let you take it. I can't." She slid her hands up and forward trying to make the rocks obey. There was no response, the rocks weren't real even if bending could work inside a mind, but Toph's panic resonated through him with all the force of a typhoon. Rain began to fall – inky black spots of nothing that landed in silvery splashes against the flower-strewn ground – and Aang moved forward to catch her before she even started to crumple.

"I'm not going to take your bending, Toph," he promised against the wispy curtain of her hair. "Even if I could, I wouldn't."

Her fear ebbed away and the rain stopped slowly. The feeling of being held was pulling forth other memories. Very interesting memories.

Toph pushed him back sharply. "Twinkletoes I can feel you rifling around in there!" Her cheeks were scarlet.

"Not my fault!" He held up his hands defensively. "If there's something you don't want me to see, don't drag it out."

"I'd like to see you control your associative memory," she retorted, but her irritability faded as her eyes locked on his face. Toph lifted one hand to cup his cheek, swallowing hard. "How… how long do I have like this? Aren't they going to figure out something is wrong?"

"We have time," he explained. "Not too much, but things seem slower here than they actually are."

Her relief and wonder burst through him like fireworks and she laughed at the expression on his face.

"Do you ever get used to this?"

"I've only done it once before," he reminded her. "And that was-"

"Awful," she supplied, pulling at his thoughts, seeing his memories; right there with him through what had been the most terrifying moment of his young life to that point. "Fire and blood and so much rage."

Stepping into Ozai's mind had been like stepping out onto the fires of Agni. The Fire Lord had fought him like a cornered animal and almost succeeded in tearing him apart.

"Toph, don't look."

But Toph Bei Fong never met a rule she wouldn't break with a smirk on her face. Commands were there to be ignored, orders were meant to be countermanded, and there was never anything to be gained by leaving things well enough alone.

"Oh Aang."

"Hey it all worked out for the best – you were there."

"I must have really scared you when I jumped off Appa."

"A little bit," he laughed before it dawned on him that he'd never told her why her leap had scared him so much. "Wait, what?"

"You broke my feet?"

He stepped back from her sharply. "How are you seeing that?"

"You're inside my mind Aang, is it so hard to believe I'm in yours too?

She was. There unexpectedly, deeper than the surface images he couldn't help but pull along, he could feel Toph's presence in his thoughts, moving through the corridors of his memory. She stood next to him on the platform where Zuko surrendered his life for his country; watched him fling Suki's body at Sokka's feet; stepped with him into the audience chamber of the Earth Queen.

Her fingers wrapped over his death grip on the dagger sharp shard of ice in the darkness.

She leaned softly into all the lonely spaces and knew him, utterly and completely.

Toph looked for a moment as though she might cry. "I had no idea-"

"You were never supposed to."

She seized him by the collar and shook him so hard that if they had been out in the real world his teeth would have rattled. "No more you hear me? Not ever again. You let someone subject you to that again and I will hunt you down and remind you why I'm still your Sifu!"

Aang held up his hands, placating. "Only if you do something for me."

"What?"

"Hang on to your headband Sifu." He cracked his mental knuckles. "I have a really bad plan."

 


 

 

Katara woke alone. The grey light of dawn was just beginning to turn brighter outside the window and the crumpled sheets next to her were still warm.

She was deliriously happy.

She rolled back and forth in the bed for a moment, muffling a sound which could only be described as a squeal into her pillow, before she calmed enough to sit up, smooth back her hair and make an attempt at dignity.

Though Zuko must have only risen moments before her, he was nowhere to be found inside the inn. There was, however, a bowl of peaches on the end of the table closest to the door of their room still beaded with water. Katara snatched one and headed out into the misty morning.

The whole village was up and moving about, people buzzing like ants over the damage to the town hall cum-Black Fist base, pulling out the inner walls and erecting scaffolding over the burnt sections. Those who chanced upon eye contact or stepped across her path nodded respectfully, but otherwise her presence was almost deliberately ignored. Katara did her best to stay out of the way, keeping to the edges of the open lawn while she searched the shifting crowds for Zuko.

"Katara!"

Eloa beckoned her down towards the shore, her omnipresent hammer replaced with a thick coil of rope slung over one shoulder. There was a small sloop moored at the docks just past the blacksmith, and her boy Keegan was clambering the rigging with an enthusiasm that made the healer in Katara wince.

She was about to race down and stop him when two strong arms reached up and plucked the enthusiastic lad free of the ropes. Zuko set Keegan firmly down on the wooden jetty, looking up just as she approached.

"Good morning, Fire Lady," he said, his smirk sliding right past smug into completely giddy. "Sleep well?"

"Incredibly," she replied looking up at him through her eyelashes, gratified to see him swallow hard. "So," Katara switched her tone to brisk just to make his head spin. "What's all this?"

"I promised we'd go after Gamen," Zuko explained. "Eloa says the Black Fist who weren't from here always came by boat from across the bay." He gestured to a cloudy smudge on the horizon that might have been a far off coastline.

Katara whipped a stream of water up from the ocean and directed it smoothly into her waterskin, just imagining the crack it would make when it wrapped around that foul man's neck, before the sound of hammering in the background brought her up short. "But the village… Zuko, we should help."

"I tried," he began, but Eloa interrupted.

"No one is more grateful for what you've done than I am." She placed her rough hands on Katara's shoulders. "But this town has been blaming the benders for our troubles so long that it would probably be better if you weren't around when things settle down and everyone realizes just what your upheaval means for the village."

Guilty though she felt, Katara couldn't deny her blood was calling for vengeance. "Well if we're going, you might want to let me handle the boat," she said, leaping smoothly from the dock to the stern.

"Hey, I spent four years of my life on a ship before I met you," Zuko protested.

Katara untangled the hash of knots he'd made on the mainsail and rethreaded the rigging in a matter of moments, reefing the main a little to compensate for the higher winds picking up on the water. "And I'm Water Tribe, Fire Lord. Don't you ever forget it."

Zuko sighed and flopped down in the prow, looking absurdly regal for a young man in rough clothing on a rickety ship. She rolled her eyes and ignored him in favour of Eloa.

Katara reached up and took the other woman's hands. "I can't thank you enough for what you tried to do."

"I can't thank you enough for what you did," the blacksmith replied simply. "I'll never forget it. Any time you wish to return, you will be welcome here." She craned her neck back to look at the damaged village over her shoulder. "Although not perhaps within the next six months."

"I'll keep that in mind. Stay safe." She leaned down to look at Keegan very seriously. "Don't you go running around too much and making things worse," Katara instructed, prodding very lightly at the slightly pink and tender flesh on the boy's bare stomach. "And take care of your mother."

Keegan nodded solemnly and they both stepped back to wave as Katara cast the mooring lines away and steered the sloop out towards open water.

 


 

Sokka took a flying leap off the crest of the earthen ridge Shan was bending beneath them, launching his body towards the lintel of the main gate. Ty Lee could almost certainly have made the jump with more grace but Sokka had gotten there first and he would never let a good opportunity to show off for his girl slide by.

He landed in a deep crouch, whirling to cut down the guards. Space Sword sheered cleanly though the metal winch, securing the gate's counterweights and before anyone could move to stop him or raise the alarm the rest of his little army was flooding into the compound.

The fortress-city was instantly in chaos.

The Kyoshis and the Bandits spread out quickly in teams - one earthbender to each green clad warrior – and swept between the low wooden buildings, quickly dispatching any opposition as Suki jammed the gate open from below, ensuring they had a retreat where their enemies could be bottlenecked.

They'd all been surprised at the lack of sentries or measurable resistance as the trail they were following drew into the mountains and closer to the coast. A few scouts had hampered their progress, but the Black Fist were making no effort to hide their tracks and the stronghold seemed barely guarded. Sokka raced along the narrow ledge behind the spiked ramparts, tossing archers off the walls. If the barracks were anything to go by they should have been encountering a lot more trouble.

A flash of sails on the horizon drew his attention, distracting him from the next sentinel to be dispatched and giving the man an opportunity to strike the large bell that hung from his tower.

The fighting below seemed to pause for breath while the sonorous note rang out, echoing off the mountains into an endless drone.

Then guards began to pour out of the citadel.

Abandoning his attempts to silence the sentries, Sokka grabbed the rope of a large banner and slid down the wall, slicing through the sigil of the Black Fist as he dropped.

Suki met him halfway across the open yard toward the oncoming force, yelling for the rest of their allies.

"Back to the gate!" he called. "We need to keep them from surrounding us!"

"The water!" she shouted back, pointing towards the open coastline.

There was no chance for him to protest before the Kyoshis were moving. The Bandits covered the retreat, obfuscating their movements by filling the air with a cloud of swirling dust. Shan and Suyin brought up low, constantly shifting walls that sent the Black Fist fighters tumbling to be trampled by their fellows and Jai drew the seawater forth to coat the ground behind them in treacherous ice. Those who made it across the hazardous field, coughing and half blind, were faced with the deadly golden fans of seven vengeful Kyoshi warriors.

Sokka grabbed a nearby combatant by the hair and neatly slit his throat, surveying the battlefield grimly. For every one who fell, two more seemed to stumble free of the cloud less impaired, and the dust had become impossible to control once produced. "Drop it," he called to the closest Bandit, deflecting an attack with a thrust that pointed to the encroaching billow.

Lan did him one better; spinning her arms out and clenching her fists, she condensed the granules into rocks the size of winter plums and sent them rocketing out in a shockwave, making their enemies scatter like frightened birds.

When their proverbial smokescreen dropped, the bandits shot their retracting walls up, forcing the Black Fist into a narrow space and preventing them from coming up on the sides of the little group. Waves of pillars burst in rippling lines from the ground, sending the soldiers flying into the air; those who were not sliced and skewered by the Kyoshis landed with bone-breaking force. From somewhere to the back of the advance a horn sounded and the nervous looking men took up the call.

"Retreat!"

"Oh no you don't," Sokka spat, locking eyes with Suki. They exchanged a nod and as one raised their voice to the sky.

"CHARGE!"

The dull roar didn't register at first. It wasn't until the sound grew deafening, even above the clash of battle and the sky began to go dark that Sokka turned and was confronted with a terrifying blue-green wall of water.

Faster than he could consciously act he'd caught Suki's wrist and yanked her close enough to shield her with his body, but the wave simply parted and rushed over the huddled group on the shore, crashing with devastating power onto the panicking Black Fist.

Impact with land barely slowed the water at all. It consumed the fortress, blasting back men and buildings alike and sending everything smashing into the face of the mountain. Thinking quickly, Ayashu caught Suyin's hand and they moved in tandem to sink a deep channel into the earth, giving the ebbing wave and all it carried a path to rush past them into the sea.

"Jai!" Sokka exclaimed. "That was amazing!"

"Not Jai," Suki told him, trying to disentangle herself from his protective grip. "Katara!"

The swirling torrents of water parted on either side of an Earth Kingdom boat, revealing his sister balanced on the bowsprit looking fearsome and powerful and every inch the impressive master waterbender that she was.

"You're supposed to be in Omashu!" he roared, voice carrying easily over the water.

The vision of an ocean spirit calming the tides cracked like thin ice and gave way to the much more familiar sight of his annoyed little sister. "So are you."

"It's dangerous here!"

"I just saved everyone!" Her hands were on her hips now.

Bad sign. A little voice somewhere inside Sokka's head warned.

"They were retreating!" He gesticulated wildly to emphasize his point.

Katara dropped easily to the damp earth as the boat ran aground. "And now they're retreating out to sea."

"Hey Suki," Sokka heard Zuko say somewhere behind him as the firebender jumped down from the boat.

"Hey Zuko."

"How's it going?"

"Pretty good. You?"

"Can't complain."

"That's not the point!" Sokka refocused his attention on Katara. "We were here first. Victory was ours."

"Wait, wait – you were here first? Aren't those the Bandits?" She indicated the group of earthbenders looking rather awkward standing amid the puddles and detritus of the ruined fortress, trying to pretend they weren't watching the Water siblings fight. "Where are Toph and Aang?"

Sokka grinned wolfishly. "They're in Ba Sing Se!" he crowed. "They're stuck looking through libraries and making nice with the Earth King, while we fight all the bad guys."

"Oh Toph's not going to like that," Zuko said.

Katara rolled her eyes at them. "If you're both quite finished, we are in the middle of a mission here."

"Not much of one anymore." Ty Lee kicked at a lost helmet.

Suki looked thoughtful. "This can't possibly be their whole operation. I mean if they were capturing earthbenders, where would they keep them?"

"I'm going to take a wild guess," Zuko pointed to the ominous stone citadel that rose up from the mountain, "and say they might be in there."

"Wait." Ayashu held up a hand for their attention. She was crouched with one hand pressed to the muddy dirt. "There's something…"

Sokka didn't really understand the idea of feeling vibrations through the earth. It was part of why he so continuously forgot that Toph couldn't actually see. But it was hard to dismiss the girl's earth senses when he could feel the rumble himself. Small pebbles danced across the ground as the whole world seemed to quake and buckle. Ahead, one of the guard towers that flanked the gate tipped dangerously as its support struts sank into a fissure. Cracks snaked across the open ground at their feet and the group of them leapt back almost as one.

"Sokka." Katara's voice was laced with suspicion. "Are you sure Toph's in Ba Sing Se?"

 


 

 

The creaking thump of the heavy door closing behind him was such a terrifyingly final sound.

Two years and Zuko didn't think he would ever get used to it.

Two years and every time he entered he had to stop outside the door and gather his courage, gird himself for the abrupt shock and the instinctive terror. Fight the ingrained need to fall to his knees and beg for forgiveness.

This time he swept through without hesitation, the flames of rage burning away the seeping chill of fear.

The small room was always so dark inside. Light trickled down from a window in the ceiling but it only struck the floor for a few hours every day.

"Well, well."

The voice was weak and scratchy from disuse, its owner hidden in the darkness at the furthest wall. Zuko considered the floor but did not sit, pacing the familiar three steps to the bars and gripping them as though he might pick up the whole cell and shake it.

"Hello father." The appellation was like ashes in his mouth.

"And how is my lovely wife?"

The corners of Zuko's mouth tightened slightly and the metal began to heat under his palms. "The scout I sent reported no sign."

"You didn't go in person? You terrible son. What if she was waiting and got scared off by the sight of a Fire Nation messenger?" Ozai's voice was full of bitter amusement.

The jab stung more than he should have allowed it to, those niggling little doubts that had sent him off chasing every other lead preying on his mind again. What if he'd been there? "She could have been, but she wasn't. Mother was never there at all."

"She might have been."

"Really?" There was only skepticism in the question.

"No." The older man shifted, bringing his face into the watery light. "So you've caught wise to my little game. It took you a disappointingly long time."

"Well me disappointing you is sort of our thing," he spat. "I wouldn't want to break with tradition."

"Kind of you."

"You never knew where she went did you?"

"No."

Zuko couldn't help the anger that welled up inside him. "Then why? Why did you string me along like that?" He released his grip on the metal that was molten red and began to pace. All those months of hoping and searching and there'd never been anything to find.

The former Fire Lord laughed uproariously. Zuko wanted to burn him to ashes. "You should take this more seriously, father. I could easily-"

"What, boy? What will you do? If you could kill me I'd already be dead. You'll twist on the hook of your precious honor and my rations won't even be cut."

"Count yourself lucky. It's more than you would have done for me."

"Lucky?" Ozai's voice was a strangled scream. "I should have died fighting the Avatar. In glorious battle. Or been executed as befitting a conquered leader, with honor. Instead you've condemned me here to rot – crippled as surely as if you'd gouged out my eyes and cut out my tongue!"

"It's less than you deserve." Zuko's words dripped with vitriol.

The broken wreck of a man disappeared as quickly as he had come, hidden behind Ozai's impermeable court mask. "Advocating a fate worse than death. You really are my son."

Nausea swamped him, but Zuko pushed it aside in favour of rage. "I am nothing like you."

"And yet here you are to gloat over the torment of a prisoner."

"I take it back; you may have given me my tendency for melodramatic self-pity. You are alive and well. Others have lived without bending before you."

"If it's so easy boy, go to your precious Avatar and have him take yours as well."

Zuko lit a ball of flame in one hand. Loving and hating himself for enjoying the way Ozai tracked the fire with his eyes. "Don't expect sympathy from me. Not when there isn't a hint of remorse in you."

"And yet here you are." His father's voice positively oozed self-confidence. That strength and command he had always feared and revered in equal measure. "When you could have easily made your displeasure known without bothering. Do you know how many people have come to visit me?"

No one but me.

"Azula wants to." Zuko tried to evade the question and summon up his righteous anger again.

"Azula." Ozai waved his hand dismissively.

"She misses you. And you don't care."

"The man she misses is gone."

"She doesn't want the Fire Lord," Zuko spat. "She wants her father."

"There was never any distinction for Azula. That was always your mistake."

His terrifying little sister. She would have done anything at all for this man and she was worth no more to Ozai than Zuko had been. "It wasn't a mistake to want to be a family!" The flame ball grew white hot and Zuko hurled it at the wall of the cell where it burst in an explosion of sparks. "You could have been our father, you should have been!"

The door flew open with a crash and two guards tumbled through, weapons drawn and leveled at the darkness beyond the cell bars. "Fire Lord, are you alright –"

"OUT!" Zuko roared at them, fire licking at the spaces between his fingertips.

The two men looked terrified. Caught halfway between genuflecting and sprinting away, they managed to obey, stumbling out of the cell to the sound of his father's mocking laughter.

Zuko willed himself to calm, strove to center his mind, and when that didn't work he pinched the bridge of his nose hard enough to make the bone ache.

"Oh Zuko, the way you care about things." Ozai reined in his half-hysterical chuckling and shifted closer to the bars. Zuko felt compelled to turn around and face him, determined to project cool impassivity. The former Fire Lord's gaze held something that might have been fondness on any other person's face, but was only an unrecognizable expression on those forbidding features. "No one else was ever like that, not in our family, not in our world. Even when you were beaten down railing about having nothing to live for or care about, you were passionate in your depression."

"Did your spies tell you that?" Zuko still couldn't suppress the lurch of humiliation in his gut when he thought about the reports Ozai must have received about him during his years of searching for the Avatar.

"I'm your father; I've known you since the day you were born."

He laughed at that, he couldn't help himself. "You never knew me at all."

"Spoken like a true adolescent."

"Doesn't make me wrong."

"No? You believe that if I understood you I would have been kinder. That if I knew you I would never have put you in a position to hear that pivotal war council and kept you at my side, loyal. But you are wrong."

"You wanted me banished to make way for Azula."

"No, I wanted to teach you a lesson. Firstborn with everything handed to you. Just like your Uncle. You had to understand that the consequences for disobedience on behalf of your beliefs wouldn't be sympathy, like it was under Azulon. Conquest is paramount. And look how well you learned."

"All I learned was how to hate you."

His father tsk'd. "Come now Zuko, self-deception is foolish and pointless."

"I'm still visiting you, aren't I?" With rage fueling him, Zuko felt daring enough to attempt a smirk. "Maybe you don't want me to stop all my foolish and pointless activities."

"I don't know. It makes it harder to concentrate on hating you with all the noise." Ozai's smile was practically congenial.

Zuko remembered a time when all he wanted was for his father to smile his way. Manipulation. A voice at the back of his mind reminded him. Ozai doesn't lie; he doesn't have to because you'll bend yourself over for a kind word.

"Why not try to have me killed? You have a few supporters in the city. I don't doubt you could manage an assassination attempt."

"You are a lesser son of greater sires, Zuko, and everyone in the Fire Nation can see it. There will never be peace while you sit on the throne. You will never stop waiting for the axe to fall. The people will destroy you eventually; I don't have to do anything but watch."

Smoke coalesced at his fingertips as Zuko's inner flame became a firestorm. "You could just forgive me. We could forgive each other and be done with it." He detested himself for wanting even that much from the man who had banished him without a second thought. Loathed that he could not break himself of wishing.

"We'll never forgive each other; there isn't any space left in us for forgiveness. Look at you, all snarling and pale with rage. You want me punished for hurting you. You want to kill me so much you can taste it, don't you?"

"Yes!"

"I thought you might. Good feeling, isn't it?" Ozai's gaze was riveting. "This is what you are, Zuko."

"Spirits, you're such a bastard."

"I know." He leaned back, breaking the spell and began again in a more conversational tone.

"How much blood is on your hands, my boy? How many men have you killed?"

Zuko crossed his arms, leaning against the cell bars. Deliberately trying to show he had nothing to fear from getting close to his father. Determined not to show any more emotion. "Not as many as you."

"Oh probably - if you're looking at it from a general, karmic perspective. The number I've actually physically destroyed? It's far fewer than you might think. But you're such a hands on person Zuko, always quick to rush in yourself and enact bloody revenge. You're a child of war, it's all you know how to be, all you can think about. The only time you are ever at peace is when you're fighting. Deep down you're a ruthless murdering bastard. Just. Like. Me."

He wanted to rail at Ozai, to swear up and down that his father was wrong. But there was no use in it. There had never been any use in fighting for the love of a man so far removed from his humanity.

Unfolding his arms, Zuko turned to go without a goodbye, not trusting himself to speak without giving his father more ammunition.

Ozai's voice pinned him in place like a bug on a card.

"Whatever my sentiment-addled brother may tell you about family being a choice and a bond, you are my son, Zuko. My child. And unless you are conquering, you will never be happy."

 

Chapter Text

 

The room seemed to ring with the sudden lack of rushing sound in the stillness that followed blinding light.

The Avatar had collapsed, sliding down in an insensible heap as the glow faded from his skin. Toph Bei Fong hung limp in her bindings.

"Check them," Zaofu ordered curtly, pacing the edge of the room.

The two Yu Yan who guarded the door stepped hesitantly toward the unconscious benders. One kept the bolt in his crossbow firmly trained on the nape of the Avatar's neck while the other checked his pulse.

"Alive."

Their commander nodded, the motion of his head an indicative jerk towards their second captive.

The unarmed archer leaned forward, groping awkwardly for the throb of the girl's heartbeat where her sweat-drenched hair was matted against her neck.

He had half an instant to realize that the measured beat was not as faint or thready as it ought to be before her iced jade eyes snapped open. Guard and captive gasped sharply in unison, but when she breathed out the forceful exhalation was accompanied by a blast of searing fire.

The man reeled back, screaming and clutching at his burning face and hair. The second Yu Yan archer jerked his crossbow up towards her face. Before he could take aim and end her ability to breathe forever, the Avatar moved.

Lifting his weight on his hands Aang kicked backwards, sending the guard flying across the room, his head cracking agains the wall. Aang spun to his feet in a whirlwind of air and rounded on Zaofu where he stood by the door, unearthly blue glowing forth from his eyes and the marks on his head. Behind the Avatar twin fireballs ignited. Toph Bei Fong let the flame dance across her knuckles, burning away the bonds that kept her helpless, and the earth began to quake.

The commander in chief of the feared army of the Black Fist threw himself from the room at a dead sprint. Removed from the ropes holding her a foot above the ground, Toph fell, tried to catch herself with her ruined foot and dropped like a stone.

"Twinkles!" Toph almost shrieked through clenched teeth as she clutched at her injury, pain exploding in bursts behind her eyelids. "That was a terrible plan!"

The power of the Avatar state flickered and disappeared from the room like a blown out candleflame and Aang hit the floor next to her. "Hey, it worked." The words were flippant but his voice was choked and raw sounding.

Toph couldn't care less.

"Help. Now!"

"Toph, I – there's no water and I can't – " He pressed against the wound anxiously, which helped to staunch the bleeding but sent fresh shocks of agony up her leg.

Blindly she reached out for him, seizing the wide cowled collar of his shirt and dragging his head down so she could bellow in his ear. "Then give me your spirits damned girly sash so I can wrap it up!"

She could feel him fumbling for the long strip that decorated the belt at his waist, whispering reassuring nonsense that distracted her from the fiery sting and made her want to throttle him all at the same time. Aang pressed the soft cloth gingerly against her wound and Toph snatched it away.

Holding one end free she wrapped the band around her foot, tightly enough that she couldn't help but keen as new waves of pain plucked at her body like the wires of a dulcimer. Aang's hands clenched against her skin, arms tightening around her shoulders with the restrained desire to help, the desperate frustrated need to stop her hurting.

Toph gasped with something that was almost relief as the pressure of the bandage against her skinned foot eased the white agony into a dull throb settling into the base of her spine.

"Can we never, ever do that again?" The words came out in a disappointingly shaky croak.

"Yeah." It was more of an exhalation than a response.

"Sorry I shouted at you."

He pressed a sound that might have been a strangled chuckle into her neck. "If there was ever a time for yelling…"

Aang didn't finish the thought, just gathered her further into his lap. Toph let herself rest for a moment, turning slightly in his grip to wrap her arms around him and lean her forehead against his shoulder.

"The real thing is better." The words were almost a question and it took her half a moment to realize he was referring to the embrace.

"It is," she agreed, then began to lever herself shakily into a standing position.

Aang squawked in alarm and leapt to his feet, trying to scoop her up again.

"You're not walking."

"Well I'm sure not getting carried out of here," she shot back, limping for the door. "This isn't over yet. We have a little royal earthbender to save. And I want Zaofu's head on a plate."

"Toph you can't walk, you can barely stand."

"I'm walking, I'm standing and if you try to stop me from fighting I'll set fire to all that hair of yours."

"I should have made you an airbender," he muttered, running ahead of her to blast open the door with a ferocious gust of wind. "Please?"

Toph could feel the guilt radiating off him, and every time she stepped forward pain bit into her. But even through the bandage that wrapped from the base of her toes to her heel she could see. The world spread and pooled around her in a symphony of vibration.

Her earthbending was still there and she would walk until both her feet were bleeding just to revel in it.

"I can't."

The tense lines of his body softened. Aang understood perfectly.

"But when we get back you better be at my beck and call." 

"Does that mean I get to fuss?"

"No!" she retorted, but her hand reached out almost of its own accord to catch his own. And just as they had the very first night she had met him, they turned to run.

 


 

 

By the time they had rounded the first corner into an oncoming crowd of guards, adrenaline had muted her pain into background noise and a new sensation had taken up her focus.

Fire.

The inferno inside her had banked itself in the moments after they were free but as the thrill of combat filled her it blazed up again to dance along her nerves. It was pure energy, singing through her muscles the way ginger sparked along her tastebuds. And it only seemed to get stronger as they navigated the twisting mountain passes closer to the surface, closer to the heat of the sun. For the first time in her whole life Toph longed to leave the sheltering embrace of her element and be closer to the open sky.

More than that, her fire wanted out. It pushed at her skin, making her dizzy with heat and power, clamoring to be unleashed.

Toph sunk into a stance that she had felt but never used. Remembering vividly how many times Zuko had trained her in it, Aang's memory of learning the form blending oddly with her own recollections of watching him master it.

Sending a slashing arc of flame towards the quad of guardsmen, she tried to focus on the strange new kata's movements.

Then promptly tripped and went sprawling into the closest Black Fist. The man caught her by the upper arms and they both froze; Toph could feel his heartbeat practically stop in surprise.

"Don't overthink it!" Aang called, blasting away the remaining two guards with jets of air.

Snapping forward, Toph sent her forehead slamming into the nose of the man who held her.

"Never do."

Just past their attackers the hallway forked on either side of a tiny room.

"Hey!" Aang called a halt. "My glider."

The ring of familiar metal reached her feet and Toph rushed past him to a low stone shelf, sighing with relief at the touch of her armour. The ornamental flying boar pauldron was missing from the pile, but with her foot injured she supposed it was better to be lighter and balanced than imposing. She abandoned the greaves that would not buckle around her bandaged foot, but as Toph fastened the Earth Rumble championship belt around her waist she felt indomitable.

"Up?" Aang pointed to the hallway with curved to the right up a flight of stairs. "Or down?"

"Zaofu went up." He nodded and was moving for the stairs before she could finish her sentence. "But the earthbenders are the other way."

"I can go after him. Or…" He didn't finish the sentence. Toph had a feeling Aang would rather have knocked her out and risked complete obliteration when she came to than let her go after the man alone and injured.

"Benders first." She quirked an eyebrow and smirked at him, just so he knew he hadn't fooled her.

The hallway must have been dark; she heard Aang stumble and curse under his breath at the rise in the flooring, but the moment Toph stepped over the slight ridge the world sharpened into perfect focus. Metal coated the entire passage, its clear conduction of sound mapping out the world as though her feet were able to see perfectly.

Toph loved to touch metal. Her armour was more than defense or spectacle, it was her substitute for earth when there was none to be had or someone insisted she scrub away her coating of dirt. Since she had learned to bend it, metal was almost as comforting as stone.

But she was the exception that proved the rule, which was that earthbenders needed to touch the earth.

There were more than twenty people crammed into a series of tiny cells and none of them seemed to be moving. They were slumped and still; no one was speaking.

"Hello?"

Toph wiped the sweat from her forehead and wrapped her hands around the crossbar of the door, tearing the steel like paper and leaving it glowing dull orange along the ragged edges.

There were five people in the small featureless box. Two were laid out on the floor like corpses at a visitation; only one looked up as she ripped through the door. "Are you alright? We're getting you out of here."

The man who had moved at her entrance shook his head and looked away.

"Who are you?"

The question came from across the hall. She felt the rush of heat as Aang snapped a fireball to life in his hand more acutely than she should have at that distance; her awareness becoming more attuned to flame.

"I'm Aang and that's Toph. We came to rescue you."

"What's wrong with them?" Toph demanded.

The woman who had spoken lifted the head and shoulders of the man she was tending to from her lap, setting him gingerly on the plate floor before rising to peer out at them. "It's these." She gestured to the metal restrainer slung across her shoulder. The same contraption that had been on all the captive children. "They put us in these and now we can't touch the earth. People started getting sick and then they just sort of stopped doing anything. They're letting themselves die."

Aang moved so fast that even Toph had trouble following the motion. There was the sound of ice crystallizing and shearing metal, and the remains of the suppresser hit the floor with a clang.

"Get them up," he said in a hard voice. "Toph, get the ones on that side. This ends now."

His tone brooked no argument, even if she had been inclined to offer any.

They made slow progress back through the tunnels. Toph was itching for movement, for combat but the sigh of relief as the earthbenders touched stone again made her laugh. She stepped quicker to walk abreast with Twinkletoes as they began to climb the stairs.

"We need to find Dan Ling," she reminded him in a whisper.

"I know," he sighed. "But it isn't just their bending. They're helpless."

She lifted her hair away from her neck, trying to cool down. "If Zaofu gets away with the prince while we're distracted we'll never find him again. Puyi will get pushed into conflict with the Fire Nation. If we come back without the kid-"

"I know, Toph." He sounded so agonized she had to punch his arm.

"I'll do it."

"What?"

"I'll lead them out. You could've just asked me."

He scoffed. "Suggest that you lead the captives and children to safety while I take out the bad guys? You would have punched me."

"I did punch you." she reminded him.

"I meant in the face."

"Well I'm not exactly jumping for joy. But that makes the most sense."

She could feel his grateful smile. "Alright, when we get to the entrance I'll distract them and you take everyone to where the children are hiding."

"Then what?"

"Then grab Appa and come back and get me!" he exclaimed plaintively.

The muffled clang of steel on steel distracted her from any reply. The group scrambled up the last few stairs into corridor that was obviously a branch off a larger hall. Hand pressed to the stone wall, she waved them back as a small battalion of troops went rushing past their hiding place towards the entrance.

Someone was attacking the citadel head on. And from the sound of panicked shouting the new arrivals were gaining ground. A blast of fire filled the doorway, Toph could feel the heat through the stone walls.

"Who is it?"

Leaving them secreted away Aang stole forward enough to duck around the corner and get a good view and came back with his heart spiking erratically. He put his hands forward presumably to make some sort of explanatory gesture but as far as she could sense he simply stopped and left them floating.

"Well?"

"It's… Zuko," he said finally. "Zuko and your Bandits, and I thought I saw the Kyoshi warriors."

"The Bandits are here?"

Toph understood the stuttering gestures a little better now.

"I'm going to kill them," she vowed. What had possessed them to leave Omashu? She was going to put them in a world of pain for leaving the students alone. "They are going to be cleaning the latrines with their faces for a month."

"On the positive side," Aang reminded her. "We have backup now."

He tugged the most coherent of the prisoners closer. "Toph and I will blast a path though the Black Fist to get you out. The people out there are our friends-"

Toph couldn't help feeling that the plan was inefficient. What they really needed was to get the enemy away from the gate entirely. Whoever was actually out there wouldn't be able to help the earthbenders if they were busy fighting for their lives. She snapped her fingers lightly, trying to come up with something distracting enough to draw the Black Fist further into the fortress rather than out, and nearly jumped back when a large flame ignited between her fingers.

"Twinkles?"

"-Now we were going to take all the children out by land. But I think you should try and get to the shore-"

"Aang."

" –If our friends are out there they'll have cleared the settlement-"

Taking too long!

Toph seized the back of Aang's collar in an iron grip and dragged him away, stepping into his place to pin the earthbenders with her blank stare. "When the guards are gone, make for the exit."

Not waiting for a reply, she charged out into the wide open entrance hall. Feeling the fighting close to the entrance she took two steps towards the battle, leaping into the air and bringing her arms together in great sweeping motions as she landed – rather clumsily on her bandaged foot. Fire erupted from her hands, searing down the corridor in a torrent of heat.

"Wahoo!" she screamed, her voice full of maniacal laughter. "Come on you baboon's asses, come on you mother grabbing bastards! I'm right here! I. am. Melon Lord!" Toph whirled and took off running as the Black Fist's attention turned to her, cackling uproariously and pulling Aang haplessly after her.

She could hear the shouts of panic behind her as they gave chase.

"Protect the Commander!"

"Toph!" Aang shouted, twisting in her grip as he stumbled along.

"Trust me!"

"Okay, but where are we going?"

The question brought her up short, almost sending her skidding into a wall when she stopped without looking, scraping her tormented foot painfully and making her wince. Toph shifted her attention back and forth between the two passages that led away from either side of a staircase that curved up and to the right, trying to sense where Zaofu might be hiding. Behind them, two dozen rampaging enemy soldiers sprinted around the corner.

"There they are!"

"We're going up." Aang declared, charging forward and scooping Toph up over one shoulder as he ran.

She wanted to shout at him, or at the very least get away from the unbearable heat he was radiating, but opted instead to hurl fireballs wildly at the advancing Black Fist.

"Hey!" Aang shouted, just before the scent of charred hair reached her nose.

"You're the one who won't let me walk," she retorted, laughing when he dropped her the moment they crested the stairs. Aang fell into stance at her side and they moved in unison to collapse the walls and ceiling at the top of the stairs. He folded double, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath, and Toph pressed herself back against the cool stone wall for a moment, trying to ease her feverish skin.

"Come on," she groaned. "Onward and upward."

 


 

 

The room at the top was built of dull grey metal and perfectly circular. Along the walls were low burning braisers that added light and warmth to the cold chamber, interspersed with rough hewn tables and shelves. All were wood which meant that their contents were invisible to her, but somehow she doubted that they contained potted plants and paintings of Gamen's grandchildren. The floor was a series of shallow steps leading to a sunken circle at the center, its floor grated and fitted with heavy chains.

There was only one other exit besides the door they had stepped through, a barred archway directly across the room. Behind it she could sense the curling flight of stairs that lead to the upper floor.

Above them a wide balcony ringed the outer edge of the room, forming the second level. It was set up like a well-appointed office, heavy feeling chairs next to more bookshelves and those tiny delicate tables her parents had always used to hold things she was not allowed to touch.

Aang stepped into the center of the room, his boot heels clicking loudly on the metal grating. Toph moved less than a step behind, pressing her back to his as she curled her toes into the wide-set lattice and tried not to consider exactly what might need sluicing away.

Gamen and Zaofu stood on opposing sides of the ring-like second floor looking down at them. Dan Ling stood next to the old scholar, confusion clear in his heartbeat as Gamen had his arm in a grip fit to bruise.

"Welcome, Avatar," the old man said. "I am impressed you came at all after what happened last time. And that you made it so far with an injured companion."

"She'll surprise you."

"I've no doubt." His voice was soft and congenial.

Aang held up a hand, forestalling whatever Gamen had been intending to say. Why did the bad guys always like to talk? “Give us the child and surrender, and we will let you live."

Aang didn’t sound angry or threatening. It was the tone of someone for whom no intimidation was required.

Gamen was silent, but Zaofu laughed; she heard the hum of bladed metal through the air and felt the man shift his stance. A bladed staff weapon. Pudao, her inner Sokka supplied; she could hear the rings on its blunt edge clinking.

"And what exactly is your leverage, Avatar? You will not kill or allow your companion to kill us. We have no bending for you to remove," he scoffed.

"Allow me." Toph lobbed a jet of flame at the presumptuous man.

Zaofu was too quick. She felt him dodge the blast easily, sweeping the flame aside with his polearm.

"That will be enough of that." Gamen's voice was finally starting to show an edge of trepidation. "I have a knife to the boy's throat and I will not hesitate to kill him."

"I don't want bloodshed," Aang said firmly. "Lay down your arms and you will not be harmed. I offer you a chance at repentance. You have the power to stop this now."

"And will Miss Bei Fong be as magnanimous?" Gamen's tone was mocking and she could feel the irritated spike in Zaofu's heartbeat, but Toph's concentration was bent on the question at hand. Could she allow Aang to let these men live?

His birdlike heart beat faster with trepidation. She knew beyond shadow of a doubt that if she said no he would back her. They would pull these men apart with earth and flame, wind and water. But it would change things between them.

"One chance." Her voice was adamant, pitched towards the men on the balcony as a list of specifications rather than an ultimatum towards the Avatar. "Immediate surrender. No trial, no chance to speak in a public forum and no one will ever see you again. Seclusion or death."

Aang nodded, not one iota of his grateful surprise audible. "You will live out your days in contemplation at the Eastern Air temple." It was as if they had rehearsed it.

"And what do you propose we do?" Gamen's voice was thoughtful.

"Meditate on the words of the scholar whose robes you wear, write poetry, contemplate your place in the universe. Just stay in isolation and give up your pretense at glory."

"It is no pretense," Zaofu roared, lifting his weapon to point it at Aang's chest. "I will not surrender like a coward."

Rage pricked at Toph. She had gone against her own desires to give this man a second chance. This man who had tortured her. For Aang she had been willing to let go of her anger.

"You were running like one back there!" she spat. "Surrender you pathetic useless traitor or I will kill you myself!"

"I am not a traitor!"

Zaofu leapt for her.

Toph felt the vibrations of his steps leave the floor and sunk her center of gravity down, waiting to spring with arcing fire and bludgeoning metal. Listening for her moment.

Her sight flared and resolved with movement and Aang stood between them.

With a noise like a fuse igniting a white hot sword of fire sprang from his hands. Aang parried Zaofu's wild swing; pivoting like a dancer, he thrust the makeshift weapon backwards, spearing through armour and flesh in one motion. They stood shoulder to shoulder for a moment before the commander began to slump against the blade that had run him through.

"I cannot allow you to do further harm," the Avatar said, his voice soft and sad.

Dispelling the fire, he eased Zaofu down to the cold metal ground. No blood poured from the wound- it had been instantly cauterized.

"I'm sorry. I am so, so sorry."

The man made no reply. His pudao clattered to the floor.

It was a moment before Aang rose. His heart was still steady and there was no trace of a tremor in his voice when he turned to Gamen.

"My offer stands," the Avatar intoned. "What do you choose?"

"Quite the display of martial prowess for a man who abhors killing."

"I am a man of peace," Aang replied. "I'm not stupid." He gazed up at the older man. "Surrender and live. Or force my hand."

"Neither, I think." Gamen shoved Dan Ling forward, off the edge of the balcony. Toph jumped for him, catching the screaming boy before he could hit the ground, and fell heavily to the plated floor. The old scholar leveled his crossbow at Aang, never wavering as he fumbled for something on the metal walls behind him. A grinding sound revealed an entrance that had not been there a moment ago and Toph realized that the hallway and chambers she could feel through the walls were not another part of the complex but connected to this room.

An escape tunnel.

"This doesn't change anything." Aang shook his head.

"I beg to differ. I don't need your alms, Avatar, trust me when I say that I could leave with nothing and still bring you down before my days are finished."

"You'll find only death at the end of that road." Aang promised.

"Planning to collapse the tunnel?"

"I will not raise a hand against you." He folded his arms behind his back. "You have my word."

"Then you are a fool," Gamen snapped. "You and all your worthless kind. They will come down on you, Avatar. In this life or your next; that I promise." Covering Aang with the crossbow he backed into the tunnel. The secret door closed with a thump and Gamen was gone.

"You're just letting him go?"

Toph was a little surprised at how shrill her own voice sounded. Her face was hot, her skin felt tight with anger.

"That tunnel leads out of the mountain right where we left the earthbenders," Aang explained softly. "I saw it earlier. They're waiting for him. To repay his kindness."

"Oh." She held the tiny scared prince to her chest and couldn't think of a single other thing to say.

And then she had no chance to.

Black Fist burst through the door and surrounded them, leveling pikes and swords, their hearts beating like a jacklope hare's.

"Your leaders are dead," Aang began, placating. "There is no need for this to continue–"

"Aang!" Toph shouted, rolling her eyes so hard it hurt. Idiot would try to reason with a tidal wave. She pushed off the floor, tossing the young boy to him as she jumped.

She landed on one knee on the grate at the room's center, wrapping her mind and her will and her power around the metal and stone, feeling the meters of rock beneath them and far, far below, hollow openness. Both her clenched fists came down towards the floor in a ferocious blow and the ground dropped out from under them.

Gritting her teeth she forced the stone to give beneath them, sending the round disk of metal plummeting further and faster till it broke through the roof of another hall. They crashed into the ground with bone-jarring force and Aang was thrown clear, wrapping himself around Dan Ling as he rolled away.

Toph shouted in triumph and blasted fire upwards through the shaft they'd left behind, shaking her sweaty bangs away and turning her focus back to Twinkletoes. "Come on! There's a few left between us and the outside still, and it's boiling in here!"

Fire raged through her as she took off running, barely caring now if he was behind her or not.

There were a few who had returned to try and hold the fortress entrance. They had lost ground and gained it, from the disruption in the stone of the hallway as far back as the stairway she and Twinkletoes had taken. Toph would make sure they lost it all. She bent up a flurry of boulders, pushing them at ferocious speed down the corridor, and then used fire to blast the rock apart just as it reached her enemy, filling the mouth of the tunnel with deadly shrapnel.

Pushing herself forward, the earth lengthening every stride, Toph burst through the entrance, scattering the remaining Fist warriors like pebbles. Kicking out with fire, she blasted down anyone bold enough to remain on their feet and spun, looking eagerly for her next opponent.

Power, she was so full of power. Toph wanted to throw her head back and laugh. She was the earth itself: molten fire in her heart, stone and metal as her bones. A monolith, a titan; radiant and rampant and glorious.

And all of it was only half of what Aang must feel all the time.

It's not.

A dark little voice whispered inside her. The tiny blind girl underground with the bagermoles. The part of her heart that only ever spoke the truth.

That small clear voice that understood exactly what was happening to her.

"We did it, Toph," the voice said both within and without. "Let it go."

But I could help you like this, she wanted to protest. I could do anything. You and I, we could build whole worlds.

"Let it go, please, please."

And she remembered being in Aangs mind. The way the Avatar state called to him in the darkest, brightest moments of his dreams. She remembered the darkness that came along with the blazing fire. She thought about raising up worlds and missed the badgermoles.

"…burning," was all she could gasp out.

Her knees hit the dirt with an impact she knew was jarring, but couldn't feel. Flames licked at the edges of her mind and when she spread her hands forward to support herself, heat radiated from her skin, almost glowing in her dark-light vision.

Then the heel of Aang's hand connected hard in the space between her shoulderblades.

She could practically hear the sound of her chakra opening.

What she now knew was brightness overwhelmed her senses. She could hear Aang or the memory of Aang speaking softly.

You must open the heart chakra, the chakra of love. It is blocked by grief –

"Blah, blah, blah Twinkles," she teased, not even sure if she said the words aloud. "I remember what you said to do."

Her hands sank deep into the earth and all she wanted then, all she had ever wanted was to be the world's greatest earthbender.

 


 

 

"What in Tui's name was that!"

"Was Toph just firebending?"

They were cut off by a deafening boom as the caldera of the ancient volcano exploded outwards.

Toph whooped – even her excitement sounding completely exhausted – falling back on her haunches against Aang's legs and tipping her head up towards where Zuko, Suki, Sokka and Katara were frozen in surprise.

"The mountain is definitely awake now!"

 


 

 

"This is a waste of time."

Suki passed him a bowl of the porridge they were having for breakfast. "Come on, it's fun to watch."

He grumbled over the food. "We should be working."

"We're always working." She passed him a strip of jerky and began to chew on one herself. "Time for a mini-vacation."

Katara turned back to Zuko, listening over Toph's shoulder as he tried to explain something she heard Aang attempt to describe a long time ago.

"Fire is more than just heat or light," he said. "There's a reason it's the only element that doesn't require an external source. The sun warriors taught us that fire is life. It is the energy inside every living thing. Motive power. You are strong when cradled by the earth or surrounded by the water. Firebenders are tied to the sun, but our strength comes from within. That makes us more powerful-"

"You wish, Sparky!" Toph snorted.

Katara tugged a little too sharply on the strands of dark hair she was braiding, smirking when Toph squawked. "You said you missed training," she murmured in the younger girl's ear. "So listen to your Sifu."

"He's not my Sifu."

"Then show respect for a fellow master."

That got her another derisive chuckle and Toph stuck out her tongue at the Fire Lord.

Katara finished the plait with a yank. "Well just shut up for five seconds and let your 'brother' talk."

Suki broke into giggles from across the open plaza they had marked out as a training yard, but Toph waved a hand, magnanimously indicating that Zuko should continue.

He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I was going to say that it's a strength and a weakness. We're harder to incapacitate but easier to wear down." He sent a wry, meaningful glance at her. "Especially without the sun."

She smiled at the oft repeated joke between them.

"I figure that if fire energy is life energy and it's in everything, then it's in you too and your elements."

"And you think we'll be able to use firebending forms." Katara wrapped a leather thong around the bottom of Toph's braid.

"Uncle used waterbending to find a way to redirect lightning." Zuko stood and began to pace slowly. "Toph, you found enough earth in metal to come up with a whole new way of bending. I mean who knows what else we could come up with?"

"I think you are forgetting, Sparky," the earthbender interjected, "that I am naturally awesome."

Katara wasn't listening. Instead she tapped her fingers thoughtfully against her lips. The idea of plumbing the depths of their abilities was tempting. Zuko wasn't wrong; there were all kinds of things that crossed her mind. But right at the very forefront she heard an old cracked voice.

You've got to keep an open mind Katara, there's water in places you never think about.

"What if it's all too much?" she asked. "There are powers that aren't worth having." Across the plaza Sokka fell silent and looked over, concerned.

"It's just a tool," Zuko assured her. "Having a skill doesn't mean you're obligated to use it."

Toph bumped her shoulder. "Besides, the more we learn, the more you can teach your students. Maybe next time they fight mine you won't be so embarrassed."

The small girl just laughed when Katara pushed her off the ledge they were perched on. She grinned at Zuko, the challenge of the whole idea spurring her competitive streak. "Alright, teach us what you know."

"Does this mean we have to learn the dragon dance?" Toph whined, pulling herself to her feet.

"Okay, firebending comes from the breath –"

"Hold it!" Sokka shouted, rushing over to them. "Stop right there. The world is at peace. There's no imminent destruction, no madmen bent on total domination and you three are so not sticking us with all the work to go and practice magic fighting!"

"Can I try too?" Suki joined the three benders. "I'll teach you tessenjutsu."

Her brother collapsed like a deflating war balloon and threw his arms up in frustration. "So," he said with the air of one completely outvoted. "It comes from the breath?"

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The rumbling earth was like a fireblast signaling the start of a race. The Bandits went sprinting for the citadel at the top of the sloping settlement with the rest of the group racing behind. The fortress looked like nothing so much as a kicked hornet-wasp nest, fearsome soldiers storming their way up from its depths to form a defensive line across the open maw of the entrance.

From the corner of his eye Zuko saw Katara bend a stream of water up from the puddles and pools left by her tidal wave as they ran, snapping it forward to fling a whip around a few surprised guards, tossing them away. Skidding up next to her, he was about to unleash his bending when a flash of red painted eyes behind the enemy's front line caught his attention.

He had a split second to think, incredulously, that it couldn't possibly be the Yu Yan archers, before an arrow streaked out of the shadows and pinned his boot to the earth – narrowly avoiding his toes inside it.

Unable to stop his own forward momentum Zuko was sent sprawling, landing heavily on Sokka. The younger man took in the arrow and subsequent situation with surprising speed and shouted something to the leader of Toph's vigilantes.

A rock wall shot up to block the entryway, and not a moment too soon. Zuko clamped down mercilessly on his instinct to flinch back at the noise of a hailstorm of arrows sinking deep into the stone.

"Well." Sokka shoved him back into a standing position. "I guess full frontal assault wasn't our best idea."

Suki grimaced as she moved closer, extricating an arrow from her golden headdress. "I wasn't expecting those."

"They're Fire Nation."

"What they are is a problem." The Kyoshi commander ignored him. "We have to get them out of the way so we can open the entrance. The Black Fist may not be able to get out but neither can Toph and Aang."

Sokka fingered his boomerang thoughtfully. "I can take out a few."

"Me too." Katara spun a set of snowflake-like throwing stars from the water between her fingers.

Zuko nodded. "We'll have to be fast."

"Everyone get close to the barrier," Suki instructed their warriors. "Ayashu, can you bring it down, there and there?"

The earthbender nodded and two sections of the wall dropped, leaving the center covered. Zuko looked across the space on the far left towards Sokka who was pressed against the center section.

"How many?"

Sokka stuck his head around the wall for a split second and almost had his face shaved by the point of an arrow. "Seven on the left, five on the right."

"Ready?"

"Oh yeah."

They moved at the same instant. Sokka went low, rolling into the open space and flinging his razor sharp weapon just as he came up on his knees, Zuko leaping over his head, flinging fireballs. They came to rest, breathing heavily on opposite sides of their makeshift doorway. "Four on the right," Sokka reported. "Three on the left."

"Two on the right!" Katara called from the gap on the right side, dispelling her remaining shuriken to press the water against the long graze a quick shot had left down her arm.

"Again?" Zuko asked, knowing they wouldn't be as lucky the second time.

"We've got it." The Bandit twins looked up from what they were doing with unholy glee written across their features. It was the most expressive the Fire Lord had ever seen the stoic pair and it was downright unsettling.

They were holding fist sized chunks of stone patterned with wide flecks and ribbons of silvery ore in their gloved hands. "Jai?" the female of the pair asked.

The waterbending bandit nodded. "Pull!"

She waited half an instant, tracking the arc of the rocks as they flew through the air towards the back of the Black Fist line; then, arching her arms, Jai let fly with jets of water.

One of the green and leather clad earthbenders threw an arm over Zuko's shoulders, forcing him and the two Kyoshis he'd been standing next to down against the ground so he didn't see the liquid hit the stone.

The resulting explosion, though, was hard to miss.

Sokka was the first to recover from being unexpectedly pressed into the dirt. "Did you just make rocks explode with water? How?" he demanded. "What chemicals did you treat them with?"

"Not right now dear," Suki reminded him in a mild tone that nevertheless was underscored with steel. She risked a glance around the wall. "Good shot."

"You are telling me how you did that," Sokka said in his best chieftain voice, shifting his intense stare from the twins to the waterbender. "Later."

Katara hauled herself up with a hand against the wall. "Everyone alright?" she asked, though her gaze only went to Zuko.

It gave him a little thrill of pleasure to know how much of her concern was fixed on him.

Putting the feeling aside, Zuko drew his dao swords. "Let's not give them a chance to recover."

 


 

 

The firestorm caught Zuko by surprise.

He'd been deep into the zen of battle, aware only of the enemy in front of him and Katara at his back, but the heat and power of the blast had been shocking enough to earn him a narrow slice across the collarbone.

Logically he knew that Aang wouldn't have let Toph run off without him, and that if she was here he would be too. Still it had been so long since the Avatar had been part of their lives…

And he had really expected that Aang's firebending would have improved.

The blast that sent the Black Fist retreating back into the mountain with all haste had been barely controlled. If he hadn't heard Toph's ridiculous insults over the roar of flame he would have assumed the bender was a half trained – albeit powerful – child.

There was a breath of calm as their enemies moved further down the corridor of the entrance, fortifying a smaller doorway so they could hold the benders back with fewer men. Before they could regroup and continue the offensive, however, a group of people burst from a side passage, sprinting for the citadel gate. From their emaciation and the hindered way they moved it was clear that they were escaping captives.

Katara rushed forward to assist the wounded and helpless, a few of the Bandits and Sokka moving to cover their escape. Suki directed her warriors to cover the entrance and the rest of them ducked around the pillars that framed the great open entrance.

"Is anyone hurt?"

"Do you have the children?" one man demanded.

Sokka and Suki exchanged a confused glance. "We haven't seen any children."

"The waterbending man," gasped a woman who stood hunched over her knees trying to catch a breath. "With the tattoos; he said they were outside the walls."

"Through a tunnel!" another chimed in.

"We'll find them," Katara assured the prisoners. "But first we have to get you out of here."

Sokka snapped his fingers. "The harbor; we'll get them out on the Black Fist's ships."

"The Kyoshis can take them there." Suki nodded.

"And we'll find the kids." Ayashu gestured to the Bandits, who formed up behind her. She gave them a challenging smile. "That is if you think you can hold down the fort."

Zuko rolled his eyes. "You all need to get away from Toph."

"Go slow," Katara instructed, pulling her water reluctantly away from the prisoner's livid bruises. "We can keep them pinned down till Toph and Aang get out."

The Kyoshis formed tight ranks around the weakened captives, picking their way cautiously to the ruined harbor as the Bandits took off, running the perimeter of the walls to search for the earthbending children.

Zuko unpeeled himself from the wall, Sokka following to stand at one shoulder.

"Want to make this interesting?"

"You think you can take more of them down?"

"Well." Sokka cracked his knuckles and peered speculatively at him. Zuko gave him a cool glance in response, going so far as to raise a disdainful eyebrow, but couldn't help puffing himself up a little under Sokka's scrutiny. "I don't want to embarrass you or anything Jerk Lord, but yeah; I think, I've got this one all tied up."

"And what about us?" Suki demanded, ignoring the cautious advance of the Black Fist down the hallway towards them

"Teams?" Zuko offered. "Benders against nonbenders?"

"Water Tribe verses the world?" Sokka smirked at his sister.

Katara shook her head. "I never get to fight with Suki," she said decisively. "Girls against boys."

"Well," Sokka prevaricated.

Zuko ignored him, snorting smoke, and sent a ball of flame blasting into the encroaching soldiers. "I think that's three for us."

"Cheating firebender!"

 


 

 

There weren't many soldiers left by this point – some must have been chasing Aang and Toph through the fortress – but those remaining were clearly the strongest and the smartest and they obviously had some experience fighting benders. The four of them held the entrance in a flurry of water, fire and steel.

But only just.

A few more reinforcements and they'd be forced to fall back. Sokka was bleeding from a strike that had caught him across the thigh, Katara's knuckles and forearms were covered in grazes and burns where she'd been blocking more heavily armored foes and Suki's makeup ran with sweat and blood.

Zuko sucked in a rasping breath and was about to call for a retreat when a resounding crash from somewhere in the mountain sent tremors through the stone.

Rocks fell from the ceiling, but it was the boulders rocketing down the corridor that made Zuko reach for Katara and roll them into one of the alcoves, shouting for Sokka and Suki. The two warriors hit the wall next to him half an instant before the chamber became an explosion of fire and stone shards. Scrambling they raced for the exit, dodging fleeing Black Fist as he and Katara fought to keep the uncontrolled fire from consuming them as well. Stepping into the sunlight, the four of them spun to fight whoever might have been pursuing.

And stopped.

Toph blasted through the entrance like she'd been launched from a trebuchet, scattering those who were attempting to run and laying waste to them with…

Zuko's mind simply refused to process further.

She was lashing out with fire, laughing and screaming battle cries until there was no one left for her to fight and she stood breathing heavily, dripping with sweat at the center of a circle of scorched earth and destruction.

He stepped hesitantly forward, expecting a quip or a shout of triumph, but she didn't even seem to be aware of them.

Toph was glowing faintly from the inside, smoke curling up from under her fingernails and out the corners of her mouth.

Zuko's stomach dropped.

Every few years in the Fire Nation there was news that a young child had been found as a pile of ash in its crib or a charred husk in the garden. Sometimes the power of fire outstripped the bender and the child would burn up from the inside. Natural occurrences were rare enough to be considered unavoidable tragedy but Zuko had seen it happen before.

Ozai had found a way to employ it as a form of capital punishment.

The right combination of suppressants under the blazing noonday sun and a firebender could become his own funeral pyre.

"Katara!" he screamed, racing forward and pressing his hands against Toph's burning forehead, resisting the instinctive desire to jerk away – Spirits her skin was scorching!

Instead he concentrated on bending as much heat as he could away from her body.

"What is it?" Katara leaned anxiously over them, her hands already coated in water.

'She's firebending," Zuko couldn't keep the confusion from his voice. "And it's burning her up. We've got to cool her down or she'll turn to ash from the inside out."

She nodded without speaking, quickly icing her hands and freezing the water that beaded Toph's skin until a pale hand landed on her shoulder and they looked up in unison to see Aang.

The boy he'd known was not in this man's face. The Avatar looked calm and fierce at once, his staff in one hand and an unknown child clinging to his leg. There was no trace of distress on his features as he watched his friend succumbing to the power inside her body.

"It's alright." There was an eternity of wisdom and strength behind his eyes. Zuko stepped back and Aang bent over so he could whisper in her ear.

"We did it Toph," Zuko couldn't hear the rest but he caught the sound of a faint plea.

Unseeing and unresponsive, Toph fell to her knees with a gasp and only Katara's hands closing reflexively on his arm stopped him from batting Aang aside and trying to help her.

Squaring his feet, Aang drove the heel of his hand forcefully into Toph's upper back.

The impact knocked her forward, her head tipped to the sky and light burst forth from her eyes and mouth. The bright-dark green glow engulfed her entire body, blazing so bright it hurt to look and fading away again almost as quickly.

To say that the silence that followed was stunned would be an understatement. But Sokka managed to sum it all up rather nicely.

"What in Tui's name was that?"

The surprised exclamations of the girls were cut off as far, far above them the whole rim of the caldera seemed to lift into the air.

Zuko sighed. When this was over, come diplomatic incident, natural disaster or the return of Sozin himself, he was going to sleep for an Agni blessed week.

 


 

 

The shockwave from the explosion shattered the top of the mountain and knocked them all off their feet.

Aang hauled himself up with a grimace. He had known it was coming but that didn't make it any better.

Volcanoes.

They hadn't used to bother him – well no more than sudden waves of lava bothered anyone – until he'd watched his former incarnation die in one.

Aang cast aside the hail of glowing rocks that rained down towards them. At least this time he wasn't in his nightclothes. "Katara." He helped her to stand. "Toph is going to need help with her foot. Zuko, can you get them both to safety?" Aang didn't bother to wait for a reply. "Sokka, Suki? You have to protect this little guy," He handed the bewildered Dan Ling off to the Kyoshi warrior. "He's going to be Earth King someday. The kids we rescued are with Appa through a tunnel behind the second barracks building. It might take you two trips to get them all out to the boats but I'll buy you the time."

"What do you mean 'buy us the time'?" Katara demanded, already pressing water covered hands to Toph's injury.

He gave her a small smile. "I'm going to stop the volcano."

"The hell you are."

"Well, he has done it before," Sokka reminded his sister.

"With a village full of earthbenders and a whole day to prepare!" She caught his hand, her eyes earnest and pleading. "Aang, you don't have to do this alone."

"You don't have to do this at all, " Zuko agreed. "We aren't trying to save a town here. This place would be better off buried."

"It isn't just the lava," Aang explained. We're close enough to the towns across the water that the hot ash fall alone will bring damage, but the flow of earth into the bay will cause tidal waves." A glowing red hot chunk of rock the size of a Fire Nation tank burst from the summit of the volcano and crashed into the lower peak of the next mountain with tremendous force, blasting the stone apart like a bomb. "I'll have to stop those too I guess." He couldn't prevent himself from swallowing hard.

"None of that happened last time," Katara protested.

"That was a shield volcano, this is composite. And it has all the fury of a firebender behind it."

The group stared.

"How in the name of earth do you know thatTwinkles?" Toph croaked, from her place on the ground.

Relief rushed through him like the heady swirl of wine in his blood and Aang crouched to trace the side of her face. "I may have read the rest of the Volcanoes, Volcanoes, Volcanoes scroll while you were sleeping on Appa."

Suki giggled but Zuko just snorted in derision. Aang turned to the Fire Lord, desperation tingeing his voice. "I may not be able to stop it but if the villages across the bay can be warned – I just need to know you're all okay." He insisted.

"We'll take care of the children – and Appa." Suki promised, tugging a protesting Sokka away.

High above them black smoke poured from the shattered peak as magma began to drip like candlewax down the mountain.

"There," Katara declared suddenly, pulling water back into her flask. "You'll be tender on that foot for a few days and the skin is still raw but there is skin and it won't scar." She levered Toph carefully to her feet.

"Zuko," Aang caught his arm. "I am trusting you to keep them safe."

As soon as Zuko's eyes dropped Aang knew he'd won. "Alright." He turned to the women, bending to help Katara support a hobbling Toph and ignoring the blind girl's insistence that they stay and knock some sense into the Avatar's head.

He wondered whether it might be safer to let the mountain have him so Toph wouldn't be able to beat him senseless until they found his next incarnation.

Talk about damned if you do.

Aang tried to push all that away as he turned to face the mountain and drew in a deep steadying breath.

Roku surfaced unbidden from the depths of his mind and he was drowned in the memories of dying on a similar mountain when Sozin left him to face the fury of such a geological behemoth alone.

A heavy hand clamped down on his shoulder, drawing him away from the phantom sensations of choking gas and ash and heat to Zuko standing at his shoulder. The Fire Lord shifted his stance into the first pose of the most basic firebending kata and Aang mirrored him unthinkingly. In unison they lit twin spheres of fire in their palms, smiling slightly over the flickering flame.

"No time for dancing now, boys." Katara appeared on Zuko's right, her blue eyes dancing with mirth.

"You said you would keep them-"

"I feel perfectly safe right here." A shift-hobbling step and Toph stood at his shoulder. "Don't you feel safe, Sugar Queen?"

"Completely secure."

"So nice of Sparky to protect us till we got here."

"Happy to help."

Aang had almost forgotten what was like to have friends who cared enough to railroad over any of your objections. "Ready?"

It was easier than he'd expected. Zuko kept back the searing heat as Toph sunk a deep trench into the ground just behind them and raised a platform beneath their feet while Katara filled the makeshift basin with seawater. He tossed his glider like a paper plane and leapt for it, soaring off into a sky dark with ash.

Aang circled the black plumes rising from the caldera, twisting and braiding the smoke behind him as he flew until a twisting cyclone of air followed his glider. He was about to call down to Katara when he saw she had anticipated his need. A thin sheet of water was spread above the three benders on the ground, sparkling in the afternoon sunlight. Aang dove like a kestrel, trailing the ribbons of polluted air behind him; he snapped his glider closed at the last instant, pointing his body like an arrow to break through the delicate water shield. At such a speed the water felt like a stone wall and the force of the impact jarred him hard enough to knock his breath away. He barely managed to land properly, skidding across the sandy ground to slow his forward momentum.

Katara staggered under the hammer blow of the air he'd pulled down after him but managed to keep the filter up, trapping the rock and ash in liquid. Panting with the effort, she spun the water into a solid wave and swirled it towards Toph, wrapping around her like ribbon. The injured earthbender stomped her foot at the center of the watery cocoon and the ash and stone flew free to form boulders at her feet.

Katara spun the water again, twisting the steaming liquid around Zuko, who pulled in its heat and released it as a blast of fire that illuminated the sky. Behind them Aang threw himself into the sky again, ready to repeat the process.

As he circled the caldera he caught sight of Toph far below him sheering a fissure into the mountainside, not deep enough to tap the magma well that Aang's earth senses told him was just beneath the surface, but a clear direction for the lava to travel: back into the mountains and away from the coast.

Gathering up all of the ash he could Aang plummeted again, but this time Katara's shield shattered when he hit, bursting into a thousand suspended drops of water. She recovered quickly enough to catch the soot ridden air he carried but the idea had been a mediocre one at best and when she lifted her arms to reform the barrier Aang shook his head.

Instead he pulled back from his friends and stepped into the first stance of an ancient airbending kata.

Using the glider staff as an extension of his own body, Aang began to call up a storm.

There were no settlements on the other side of the mountain range; all he had to do was blow the ashfall away from the Earth Kingdom. As he twisted his muscles into the endless repetitions of the form required to hold the wind in place, Aang watched Toph's fissure fill and begin to overflow. She reached out with a gesture that he knew from experience would hold back a landslide, and got barely a bubbling surge from the lava in response.

She repeated the motion once, twice, three times, before she shrieked in frustration and threw up a rock wall to halt the flow of molten rock. Zuko, his attention drawn by her infuriated cry, turned and accidentally shifted his movements to match hers.

Hundreds of feet above the lava rose in reaction.

"Sparky!" The shout of triumph was loud even over the mountain's roar. She shoved Zuko into position next to her and they stepped together, firebender and earthbender, mingling power and force to fight the molten stone.

They built the viscous substance into a curving wall, fighting to keep the whole thing from melting away under the heat of the lava piling up behind. Seeing their predicament, Katara stopped her attempts to wash the ash from the air around the four of them and brought her water up to cool the blistering rock. At first there was nothing but a giant cloud of steam to show for her efforts, making the hot ash clump and fall, coating them in muck, but Katara spun like a dancer and bent a continuous stream from the ocean below until, with deafening groans of protest the stone cooled and set.

The wind high above at the mountain's peak was fierce now, every sweep of Aang's arms only increasing its wildness, but it was too far away to clear the gases and smoke being vented all around them at the volcano's base. Changing the pattern of his movements, he shaped a bubble of air around them, switching back and forth between the two forms to maintain the wind above and breathable space below. Aang was shaking with the strain, sweat trickling down his spine and muscles burning.

He could see the mark of extended exertion on his friends as well. The rock wasn't cooling fast enough, so Zuko shifted from the earthlike forms back to fire, attempting to draw heat away from the rock. Toph quailed a little at the shift; she had a better understanding of how to manipulate the lava flow now but her grip on it was clearly tenuous.

The wall that the two of them had been forming began to curve more steeply, following the outer edge of the barricade that marked the perimeter of the settlement, the logs burning away at the touch of magma – flowing down towards the sea.

Dropping her control for a moment, Toph spun to face down the hill towards the open water and with a grunt of effort she pulled another barrier up from the earth, blocking the entire mouth of the harbor.

A circle.

Toph was building a circle, Aang realized. Using the molten rock to form a basin in which the lava could pool and never reach the water.

A basin they stood at the center of.

As she built the walls higher, Zuko and Katara's determined attempts to cool the rock to hardness were becoming less effective. No matter how much water she drew from the ocean it began to bubble and steam almost instantly and the heat Zuko pulled had no place to dissipate, rendering the air almost unbearable .

Toph broke first.

Simply too exhausted to bend any longer, her control faltered and she reeled back. The center of the retaining wall high above them on the volcano's slope began to glow and crack, lava pouring through the gaps. Katara caught the earthbender as she fell, throwing a frightened, desperate glance towards Zuko who simply reached for her hand.

Pushing away his fear and anger, Aang let down the fragile walls that separated who he was from what he was.

The light from his tattoos cut through the false darkness of falling ash.

He commanded the earth and the pillar on which they stood lifted into the black air. Beginning with a tiny cyclone in one palm he pushed the air outwards, clearing away the debris until the four of them stood at the eye of a whipping, spherical storm.

Far below the wall had broken and lava ran down into the basin. Forcing earth and fire to obey he bent the molten earth as though it were a liquid, pressing the flow against the half built walls and widening the sphere of air so that it cooled into a perfect circle.

Caught between the walls the benders had formed and the tremendous force created by the twisting wind, the lava began to harden into a flawless dome, its walls nearly a third the height of the mountain itself and thick as the ramparts of the Earth King's palace.

Kicking out with earthbending he broke through the section that had been cracking, carving a deep channel all the way down the volcano's slope and opening the caldera to let the magma pour forth into its new reservoir.

There was a deep pitched lowing sound behind them and Appa came bursting through the thick fog of ash.

Retracting the air dome, he let go of the Avatar State. Gasping at the return of his sense of self, Aang staggered to feel that endless power replaced by crippling exhaustion and he strained to hold the sphere in place around his friends.

"Come on!" Sokka called, hovering just beside the rock spire on which they stood.

Zuko handed up Toph and helped Katara clamber aboard the great beast's back before turning to offer Aang his hand.

"You go," Aang told him; the wind he'd bent was already beginning to calm. "I can hold it back a little longer."

"Get on the damn bison Aang!"

Regardless of the fact that he wasn't twelve anymore and they were almost the same height, Zuko managed to practically tackle him and throw him bodily onto the saddle with embarrassing ease.

"Yip, yip!" Appa needed none of Sokka's prompting to fly for the edge of the ash fall as fast as he could.

Aang watched the black clouds spread above them. All that for nothing.

"Aang." Katara's hand on his arm startled him from reflection. Standing, she lifted her trembling arms and began to move in a pattern that seemed unusually forceful for waterbending.

He matched her without question, feeling the water in the clouds coalesce around them into denser formations, dragging all of the air's moisture into a heavy mass of precipitation which pushed ever closer to the black smoke of the volcano.

With one last tremendous shove they sent the water-heavy cloudbank sailing towards the erupting mountain.

The moment the ash hit the water rain began to fall, the dragged to earth by the infinitesimal inclusion of weight. It was a sheer torrential downpour, the kind of rain that seemed determined to cleanse the whole of the earth. Slowly but surely it began to dissipate the smoky darkness and cool the mountain's rage.

Katara made a noise halfway between a giggle and a sigh. When Aang turned, grinning, to thank her, she just smiled – that special tender expression that had always made him feel so loved –then her eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed backwards onto Zuko.

The Fire Lord caught her easily, a soft look crossing his face at the sleeping waterbender in his arms. Bereft of her support, Toph groped blindly at the saddle for a moment. Fatigue weighing down his bones like lead, Aang seized her shoulder and they leaned together, propping one another up as they moved away from the smoke into dazzling sunlight.

Straight into a Fire Nation warship.

 


 

 

Toph did not fiddle with her chopsticks.

She did not lean her elbows on the table or put her feet up. She'd promised not belch or reach for things she wanted more of; but she would move to the South Pole before she'd sit and listen to this nonsense another second.

Now that she'd returned home she was considered officially old enough to sit at the table with her parents when they had important guests, where talk of all those dangerous adult things like politics and conflict went on.

Her mother and father knew on an intellectual level that she was a war hero but that understanding hadn't seemed to last long beyond the first week of her return. Old habits of coddling were apparently hard to break and, as they so endlessly reminded her, she was only fourteen.

Still they were happily admitting to Toph's existence now and she was permitted to come and go as she pleased provided she took one of the guardsmen with her at all times.

Hyo was an easy tail to lose and he never tried hard to find her.

It did mean that they were always arguing over the same things whenever company came. Toph would be welcome at the table and even into the conversation provided she wear something appropriate, – though she would fight her mother every inch of the way over freedom of movement and ruffle content – think before she opened her mouth and never earthbend at the table. In the end Toph agreed because if Sweetness and Snoozles were rebuilding a whole tribe and Sparky was learning to be Fire Lord, she was determined to soak up something useful about Earth Kingdom politics and business.

So far she wasn't impressed.

A nicer person might describe the man sitting across from her as a mountain, but Toph would barely credit him with mound. There was no muscle in his form, he was simply large. A big mound of person swathed in whispering silk and jewelry whose stones and metals called to her.

And spouting the most casually racist drivel she'd heard since they snuck through the Fire Nation.

The odious man had started the evening complaining about the influx of lower caste Fire Nation citizens immigrating into the Earth Kingdom, then bemoaned the impact that the 'savages of the water tribe' were having on trade with their inferior goods.

"So," Toph said in her most delicate voice with her blandest smile. "You were in support of unification?"

Her parents went silent.

She thought for a second it might have been better to wait until desert before accusing the man of being an Ozai loving traitor.

Their dinner guest did not seem to notice. "Not under the mantle of the Fire Lord, no," He said officiously. "Though one must laud them for their efficiency, the people of the Fire Nation lack refinement on the whole. They have no appreciation for delicacy, especially that of ladies," She could hear the condescension in his tone. "They actually permit women to serve in their army. All that spectacle and tumultuousness - Firebenders."

He said it the way her mother's friends might have said prostitutes or tax collectors.

"The Fire Nation lacked the mandate of heaven, my dear girl; that is the province of our glorious Earth King."

"I wonder if Iroh, the Fire Lord Regent, would agree?" She mused

Because I know Sparky wouldn't.

"The Dragon of the West? He gave up the siege of Ba Sing Se because he knew he could never bring down the earth kingdom."

"That's was all so long ago –" Her father attempted to steer the conversation away from Toph's rising anger, with no success whatsoever.

"And now they lower themselves to consorting with the Water Tribes" His laugher grated in her ears. "Those savages out on the ice. The things they bring to trade Lao, you would not believe it; there's not one piece of manufacturing technology on that whole iceberg!"

"Well of course not, the water tribes live in harmony with their surroundings." Sokka and Zuko had staged the sustainability verses expansion debate every day for a week and a half last month.

"People of the Earth Kingdom know that the land should be bent to serve our purposes."

"Balance needs to be maintained in the world," She said fiercely. "The four elements must work together in every nation."

"Lao your daughter has aspirations to be the Avatar. You must be so proud," Toph hadn't known a voice could hold that quantity of smugness. "I have heard you studied with Master Yu, yes? Even the delicate forms befitting a lady must allow you to connect with the earth. So you should understand why earthbenders are the strongest. We do not require the sun or the moon, the earth is always mighty. Which is why earthbending is the only discipline worthy of attention."

It was an argument Toph was sure she herself had used at one point, while squabbling with her friends. It made her almost nauseous with fury now. To hear their strength and sacrifice diminished by this great sweating mound of blubber.

She leaned forward slightly, shifting her bare feet against the flagstones under the table, ready to bury him to his neck when the wooden disk of her airbender amulet slid free of her dress and clinked lightly against her plate.

"And airbenders?" She asked softly, bringing her sightless gaze up to the fat businessman.

"I beg your pardon Miss Bei Fong?"

"You express your views so decidedly on the other two nations sir, I wondered what your opinion was of the Air Nomads."

"There are no Air Nomads."

"But your studies must have covered them."

"Studies?"

Toph widened her eyes, the very picture of innocuous surprise, trying to remember every trick of verbally filleting someone Mai and Iroh had ever taught her. "Surely you have made a lifelong study of the four nations and their martial practices. Your knowledge seems so all encompassing."

A dumpling slipped from her father's chopsticks, it fell with a splash into the delicate bowl provided for dipping sauce.

"I did not focus on such trivial subjects as history during my tenure at the great university."

"Then you must have been quite the slave to travel," She nodded understandingly. "Tell me did you have the opportunity to view the North Pole's spirit oasis?"

The man puffed up like a badgertoad. "I see no reason to step beyond the borders of our great nation. Any and all happiness can be found here."

"They do say," Her mother chimed in the perfectly cultured tones of nobility. "That ignorance is bliss."

"Quite right-" The fool began. There was a pause and Toph felt his heart rate spike while her mother's danced with laughter. He stood with a slight stagger and gave a stiff bow. "Excuse me Lord and Lady Bei Fong, Miss Bei Fong."

The moment he left the room Toph turned to her mother in shock, but Poppy continued eating as though nothing unusual had happened.

Lao Bei Fong put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands.

"People are going to say I can't keep order in my own house."

"Come now Lao, darling the man is a boor and everyone knows it."

"It's the principle of the thing." Her father insisted, but Toph could hear the smile in his voice.

A thought struck her suddenly. "I just advocated that all four nations were equal and that there should be peace and balance in the world, didn't I?"

He perked up a little at that. "You did, it was very restrained of –"

"Sweet Earth!" She tried to tug the necklace over her bun. "I'm turning into Twinkletoes."

"Dear you must stop referring to the Avatar that way."

Toph just sighed and went back to her meal.

I need to get out of here.

 

Chapter Text

 

It was Mai.

Zuko knew it the moment the dirigible's red canvas hove into view. His mother might have been the only one in the Fire Nation with even a vague idea where he and Katara had disappeared to but Mai could track a falcon on a cloudy day. Zuko was pretty sure she would have found him if he'd hidden in the spirit world.

Sometimes Zuko forgot that he was the Fire Lord.

The Fire Lord who had no heir and no second in the line of succession, except an uncle who was likely too old to father another child, or his mad sister; and he had disappeared from the palace in disguise, leaving only a hastily scrawled note and his mother's utter exasperation to convince his advisors he hadn't been kidnapped.

It seemed like he was forever leaving Mai notes.

He could practically see the black cloud of rage emanating from the deck of the ship. Zuko contemplated the distance from Appa's back to the ocean below with morbid fondness.

Mai never yelled or berated him the way Toph or Katara might have. She would simply fix him into place with that glare which reminded anyone on the receiving end that she knew fourteen ways to kill a person with one blunted chopstick, and she would wait. Until Zuko crumbled like sugar in the rain and greeted her with her formal title.

'Mistress Commander of the Golden Shield.'

"Fire Lord," she had replied archly last time, her tone as cold and hard as iron. "Even your sister did not expect me to guard her when I was not there."

The Golden Shield were the last line of defense for the Fire Lord and his heirs. Expertly trained and fiercely loyal, each member of their current number had been chosen because they and their families had suffered greatly under Zuko's father.

Ozai's former guards had been the ones behind at least three of the attempts on Zuko's life.

Mentally tallying the number of ‘accidental’ puncture wounds it would take to make this up to her, Zuko handed the still unconscious Katara over to her brother as Appa touched down on the metal deck, and climbed down to face his irate friend.

Mai's eyes were slightly narrowed, her mouth half open and poised to let her ire flow but she froze at the sight of him for a moment and her hard expression dissolved into concern.

It took Zuko a moment to realize exactly how they must look: black with ash and streaked with sweat and blood; Katara insensible, Toph limping but still trying to support the weary Avatar. Blood still dripped from Suki's forehead and his own collarbone, but they all sported various cuts and were spotted with lurid bruises.

Dear Spirits. He watched Mai's face morph from compassion to fury to pity again.

We're too pathetic to be angry at.

"Hello Mai," he offered ruefully.

The dark haired woman sucked a deep breath in through her teeth.

"Oh, just get inside," she snapped.

 


 

 

No one had bothered to find separate quarters on the ship.

They had barely taken half a moment to check on the condition of their rescued earthbenders before Zuko wandered like a sleepwalker into his suite. The rest of them had simply followed, commandeering the first soft surface they had come across and falling instantly into exhausted oblivion.

Aang woke slowly to a quiet rustling of fabric and the bed shifting beneath him. He fought the temptation to slip back into slumber for a moment before letting his eyes drift open.

Directly across the small room he could see Sokka who had fallen asleep sitting up on the only couch with head tipped back against the cushions. The warrior's mouth was wide open as he snored softly.

Suki lay stretched across the length of the sofa with her head in his lap, the remains of her makeup slowly rubbing off onto Sokka's shirt.

Aang himself was sprawled crosswise over the enormous bed, curled up around Toph, who pressed against Katara's spine like three spoons in a drawer. Zuko was draped in the opposite direction over the pillows, his body tucking in a comma shape close to Katara. Or at least where she had been; a mussed disturbance of the covers was all that remained.

"Hey," A soft voice caught his attention and Aang lifted his head ever so slightly to see her working healing water over Toph's foot again. "We're just stopping at Omashu for the Bandits. The ship won't reach Ba Sing Se before tomorrow morning. Go back to sleep."

He attempted to protest but his eyelids felt like weights. Tugging the wrong end of the fancy coverlet free of its regimental folds, he wrapped it around his shoulders and was lost to the world once more.

 


 

 

Aang awoke again when Toph rolled over and her forehead smacked into his chest.

He started violently, sitting up and dislodging her just in time to see a still sleeping Zuko make yet another fruitless attempt to pull apart the nearly origami level creases of the immaculate bedspread and accidentally kick Toph even further down the bed.

She cried out softly, still mostly sleeping, and flung one arm at her assailant. The space metal bracelet on her wrist flew across the bed and struck Zuko on the side of the head, making him jerk upright with a shout of pain.

Sokka inhaled a snore and came awake with a choking sound.

"Izz't Solstice?"

Suki's hand shot up and shoved his face back into the armrest. "Five more minutes," she moaned plaintively.

But there was no stopping Zuko and Toph who had gotten into a whispered fight, their squabbling interspersed with Toph's attempts to kick him in retaliation, both of them ignoring the blissfully unaware waterbender sprawled on the bed between them.

Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Aang reached forward and snaked his arms around Toph's waist, dragging her back to where he was leaning against the bedpost and pretending not to see Zuko's speculative look.

"It's too early for revenge," he murmured, unwilling to disrupt the peace of the morning anymore.

"It's never too early for vengeance," she grumbled. "Have I taught you nothing?"

Zuko glared balefully at her and raked his fingers through his hair, leaving it looking even more like he'd lost a fight with a mad broom. "It's morning," he informed no one in particular.

Aang nodded. "We must be almost there."

"We're there?" Suki sat up, blinking furiously. Almost all her makeup had smeared away, leaving only faint traces in the corners of her eyes and under her lower lip.

"Not yet." Zuko looked as close to laughter as Aang felt at the usually immaculate girl's appearance.

"Breakfast!" Sokka shouted from his place on the couch, completely ignoring the four glares and harmonized 'Shh!' that followed his outburst. "Zuko, use your Fire Lord special powers to get us something to eat."

Katara rolled over on her back. "I'll make you something in a minute Sokka!" she screamed at her brother. Her breathing remained entirely even; she was still utterly asleep.

"Hey Aang," Toph whispered quietly. "Check out Sugar Queen's new jewelry."

Katara's long hair had shifted with her movements, exposing the golden Fire Nation sigil that encircled her blue pendant.

"I told you Sparky would work up the stones for it soon."

"Wow. That's really pretty," Aang couldn't help thinking back to his thirteen year old self and the plans he had made to carve Katara a new betrothal necklace one day. Should have known her mother's necklace would mean more than a new one ever could.

Zuko had known though, which he gessed was sort of the point. "How did you know it was there before I did?"

"Because I'm amazing." She shifted forward, away from his embrace. Aang tightened his grip for a moment, feeling Toph squirm as he bent his head close to the shell of her ear.

"Yeah, you are."

A thought occurred suddenly to Aang. If he hadn't noticed… "Should we tell Sokka?"

Toph chuckled. "And miss the explosion?"

"There are too many people on this ship," Zuko was saying. "We'll be lucky if we get any breakfast at all, Fire Lord or not."

There was a tortured groan from the bed and Katara shoved one of the pillows over her face. "Why do you all hate me?" she moaned through the fabric.

"We do have to get up." Zuko plucked at the pillow barrier reluctantly. "Gotta go give the Earth King back his kid."

"Aang and Toph rescued him," she mumbled. "Make them give him back."

"Oh, uh, maybe Zuko should bring Dan Ling back to his Dad," Aang offered.

Sokka stretched and scratched his stubble. "Why, because he's got such a winning personality?"

"Because the Earth King's court thinks the Fire Nation stole him."

The pillow hit the wall on the far side of the room with a muffled whump. "What?"

"Well there were firebenders and-"

"Hey, it's not our fault!"

"Stop." Katara held up a hand, her other palm pressed to her forehead. "It doesn't matter. We just need to handle this properly."

"And how exactly do we do that?"

"First." She stood, gesturing to Suki – who rolled off the couch rather than try to lever herself immediately into a standing position – and catching Toph's arm. "We all need a bath and new clothes."

"You're not fooling anyone, Katara," Toph grumbled as the two older girls pulled her from the room. "This is just a ploy to make me clean my feet."

 


 

 

Zuko's mother was apparently intuitive bordering on clairvoyant as well as a true master of the disappearing act. After receiving the message Lien had sent through the Golden Peonies, Ursa had provided Mai with court clothing for Zuko, an approximation of airbender robes for Aang and a package the gloomy girl had pressed into Katara's hands with a laugh.

Suki and Toph had managed to scavenge something presentable from their respective teams. There was no salvaging the clothing of Sokka or the prisoners, but between the airship's crew and the soldiers of the Golden Shield, enough undamaged garments were found to clothe the motley group.

Even so, their appearance caused quite a stir in the Earth King's court.

Aang thought for a moment that Puyi was going to leap from the throne and snatch his son out of Zuko's arms. He swore the Earth King's knuckles went white where he gripped the golden armrests. The officious procession from the landing platform to the throne room had taken the better part of an hour; the thought of waiting so long to find out if your child was returned safely made Aang jumpy just to consider.

He and Katara flanked Zuko as she’d instructed, one step behind on either side to represent that both the Four Nations Council and the Avatar believed that the Fire Lord was making a genuine and peaceful gesture.

The infant crown prince squealed in excitement as he caught sight of his father, knocking Zuko's hair ornaments askew. With a smile that was more than half a grimace Zuko put Dan Ling down, letting the boy run the full length of the ostentatious room, causing the assembled courtiers to gasp and giggle at such a breach of protocol.

One of the four advisors flanking the throne did not seem to find the gesture charming. He bent to hiss into the King's ear, a venomous look on his face. Aang gestured minutely and set the air surrounding Puyi vibrating at a sympathetic resonance, amplifying the courtier's voice.

"My Lord, you cannot possibly be taken in by this cheap ploy. The Fire King seeks to curry your favour by returning your son when his own countrymen were the ones who stole the prince."

Zuko's face hardened and Katara stepped forward ready to smooth the situation, but Puyi was not about to lose face because of one upstart advisor.

"The Fire Lord has come to us in peace," the King said impassively. "With the marks of battle fresh upon his face. Our royal cousin has fought to preserve our bloodline, proving once again the courage and integrity that Agni's house is capable of." The advisor stepped back, rebuffed, and two green clad Dai Li materialized from the shadows behind the throne to remove him from the room.

"The shadow of war is not easily cast off," Zuko said diplomatically. "But the Fire Nation is committed to preserving peace. Your son is brave and strong; he will make an excellent Earth King one day." He was nowhere near Puyi’s level of expertise as a political manipulator, even after so many years of practice but the frankness of Zuko's words seemed effective.

"It has been a long time since we have had an opportunity to discuss the affairs of our Kingdoms, Fire Lord." Puyi rose, passing his child off to a nursemaid who appeared through the crowd like a wraith and vanished just as quickly. "We would enjoy the chance to speak with you about such things."

"As you say." Zuko nodded regally and the two rulers strode from the room, for all appearances as relaxed as old friends on a summer afternoon. At least if they hadn't been flanked on Puyi's left by a pair of Dai Li and Zuko's right by two stoic Golden Shield.

Katara looked bizarrely proud of the whole exchange; Aang squashed the urge to roll his eyes or snort like Toph.

Politics.

Thank the spirits he was only the Avatar.

Katara had intended for their exit to be just as much theater as their entrance, but upon the Earth King's departure from the throne room the whole court disappeared like leaves in an autumn gale. The five of them were left in an echoing empty chamber in a matter of moments.

"Good to have you back, Avatar, Princess Bei Fong," Lien's voice from behind him made Aang start, and he spun to see the elegant woman smiling like a foxcat with a saucer of cream.


She led them to a small parlor, chatting animatedly with Suki and Katara. Lien was practically gushing over the two women, repeating what an honor it was to meet such legendary heroes and showering them both with compliments. Aang thought that the Fire Nation style white, blue and gold robe Ursa had sent Katara was pretty too, but he couldn't see what about it justified Lien's raptures of delight.

Sokka only had eyes for the buffet that the room boasted, but Aang caught Toph's arm before they entered.

"Is she…?" He gestured helplessly, unsure of how to phrase his question.

Toph cocked an ear to his vibrations and laughed. "Lien's a recruiter," she explained. "Since I am White Lotus and so was Snoozle's master, she's probably looking to get Suki and Sweetness on the side of the Golden Peonies."

"But why?" Aang propped himself up against the outer side of the doorjamb. "What do they want us for?"

She shrugged expressively. "As far as I can tell, just for bragging rights. I think it's how they pass the time between helping overthrow despotic tyrants." From the corner of his eye Aang saw her tap the floor with one bare foot. "Bet you a silver piece that Chan comes running any minute."

He wasn't falling for that again. "I can feel him coming too you know." He bumped her shoulder as she leaned against the stone next to him. "So what's next?"

"Back to real life," she sighed. "Get my school back in order. Fix whatever happened to the Bandits while they weren't with me – there was something off about them yesterday."

"We were all so tired, I'm surprised you noticed."

"They're my responsibility," Toph said automatically; her whole body seemed to deflate into the wall. "When did I get so many responsibilities Twinkles?"

Aang scrapped together his courage. "You know Toph, I was thinking-"

She jerked upright as Chan came barreling around the corner and the moment burst like a soap bubble.

"Are the earthbenders being taken care of?" she demanded, sparing no attention for Chan's attempts to regain his dignity after being caught running by the Avatar.

With a huff he began to explain the measures being taken to tend the former captives and the plans to return the reunited families to their homes. "…The extraneous children will have to be split up and taken into orphanages here in the city," he told them.

"No."

"What?"

"You can't split them up," Toph insisted. "They don't have anyone else."

Chan sighed. "Novice Bei Fong, there is simply no institution in Ba Sing Se large enough to accommodate all these children."

"Sent them to me."

"What?" Now it was Aang's turn to demand clarification.

"They're earthbenders. The Bei Fong School will take them in. Earth knows after the last week I'm going to have panicky parents pulling students out left and right. I have the space, and with the reward for rescuing the little Prince – "

"There's no reward."

"Well there should be," Toph said indignantly.

They glared at one another for a moment. Or rather Chan glared at Toph's face while she glared somewhere over his left shoulder. Finally he threw his hands up in surrender. "Fine, we can probably work out a stipend for taking in the children."

"Excellent." Toph's smile was terribly smug. "Yanmei will be thrilled to have someone else to mother." She gestured towards the door into the parlor. "After you, Initiate Chan."

The moment the man disappeared around the doorframe Aang reached out to take both her hands. "That was kind."

"That was practical." Toph shrugged off the philanthropic gesture, but her cheeks were deeply flushed. "With so many more students, we'll whip Katara's waterbenders every time."

She stepped closer, maneuvering so that he stood between her body and the wall, effectively trapping him even as he held her wrists. There was a tentative pause between them, both hesitant to make any gesture that couldn’t be blamed on adrenaline.  Aang drew her hands to his waist and watched Toph's lips soften in anticipation as she was pulled closer.

He bent his head forward – and felt the approaching vibrations of Zuko and his guards.

"All hail Fire Lord Cockblock," she whispered practically against his mouth.

The two of them burst into hysterical laughter.

Zuko found them both slumped over against opposite walls of the corridor trying to contain their giggles. Aang had to give the man credit; he was trying his best to maintain a façade of dignity in front of two snickering teenagers when every imperious gesture made them utterly helpless with amusement.

With a growl of frustration Zuko seized them both by the collar and almost tossed them through the half open door.

"Fire Lord." Lien curtsied deeply, ignoring their rather indecorous entrance. "I trust your meeting with the Earth King was pleasant and fruitful."

"Very," Zuko said shortly, unsure of exactly who the woman was and how much he ought to be sharing with relative strangers in the room. Chan stepped forward, eager to alleviate his discomfort.

"May I be the first to offer you congratulations, Fire Lord." He bowed deeply toward Zuko and turned to offer the same courtesy to Katara. "And the future Fire Lady."

Behind him Sokka burst into laughter. Suki's eyes shot from the betrothed couple towards him and she giggled awkwardly to cover up the fact that Zuko had frozen in a paroxysm of horror and Toph was laughing for a whole different reason.

Chan continued, completely oblivious to the mounting panic. "Lady Katara, may I say that is a beautiful betrothal necklace."

Sokka clapped an arm around the the overenthusiastic courtier’s shoulders. "It was our Mom's," he explained. "Katara's been wearing it forever. Don't worry about it, people at the North Pole thought she was engaged too."

Katara's hand flew up to cover the pendant and its new addition. Sokka's eyes followed the panicked gesture.

Everyone in the room stopped moving.

"What is that?"

Chan excused himself quickly, his hand clamped firmly around Lien's wrist.

Katara put on a brisk tone. "Not now Sokka, we need to check on the captives."

"Everyone's fine. What is that."

"It's...uh…"

"Hey," Aang said conversationally. "It's my birthday tomorrow."

At best he'd been expecting to be dismissed with a promise of some little celebration; more likely he'd thought they would simply ignore him and Sokka would kill Zuko.

He hadn't expected the rising tension in the room to evaporate as every single one of his friends snapped their attention to him. Even Toph lifted her head sharply in his direction.

"Well," Zuko said with a crafty smile. "So it is."

 


 

 

The low golden sunlight of late afternoon felt delicious on her face as Katara leaned over the elaborately carved railing to watch Zuko and her brother fence in the courtyard below.

"So," she began awkwardly, turning to her black-clad companion.

Mai held up a hand to halt the flow of polite conversation immediately and gave her an incredulous look. "Really, you want to do that?"

"Well it's just…"

"This is the first time we've been alone together since I broke up with Zuko."

"Yeah."

Mai tipped her head back just slightly, a flicker of irritation crossing her face so fast Katara wasn't sure whether it had been real or just her own imagination. "And inquiring minds want to know the story."

Katara fiddled with her skirt. "I won't pretend I'm not curious." She was burning with the desire for all the dirty details. "But I'm not going to interrogate you," Much. "Toph just wants to know whether she should congratulate you on a lucky escape or drop Zuko into a sinkhole."

Mai made a soft noise of amusement and lifted herself away from the railing to face her. "How old were you when the war ended?"

The abrupt shift in topic startled Katara. "I was fourteen."

"And you just turned seventeen last month, yes?" Mai gave her a once over that made her feel naked. "Are you the same person?"

Katara almost scoffed. Of course she was the same person. She still loved sea prunes and the smell of the ocean. Three years and she would still catch herself reaching for the waterskin on her hip when she was surrounded by people in red. Her brother was still sexist sometimes; Toph would always have instinctively perfect table manners when she wasn't being rude to make a point. People rarely changed.

Unless they were very determined – or Zuko. Which really just proved how determined he was.

But then she remembered how it had felt when she finally caught a glimpse of her home village in the South Pole after more than a year of travel.

Beneath the excitement and relief had been an overwhelming sense of disappointment. It had all been so much smaller than she remembered. Her world had stretched beyond those white ice walls and she was different.

At the end of that year she had wanted to marry Aang and make a difference for her people. By the end of the following she'd gotten over the heartache of his departure and committed herself to bringing waterbending back to the South Pole. And now she had the opportunity to sit on the Council of Nations when she turned eighteen, to change the whole world on her own this time.

"No, I'm not."

Mai's lips twitched in the faintest trace of a smile. "Neither am I."

"I… I know we're not close like you and Toph or Suki," Katara began haltingly. "But I'm glad you're happy."

Mai crossed her arms and looped her hands inside the voluminous sleeves of her dress. "I'm glad I never pinned you with something fatal."

She moved at the same instant Katara uncorked her waterskin.

The two girls paused – Katara swallowing around the sharp peice of metal pressed against her throat and Mai shivering as the frozen icicle-blade pushed against her jugular – and began to snicker.

"Come on, Lady Katara." Mai tucked the blade away. "If I’m going to be Shield Mistress, I need to find out everything going on in the sordid courts of the barbarian Water Tribe."

Laughing, Katara took her arm.

 

Chapter Text

 

Aang had never received so many different answers to a simple question before.

He scratched irritably at where the fabric of the blindfold was rubbing against his cheek, only to have his hand smacked away. A soft carpet muffled any chance he might have had at identifying who it was sitting next to him.

"Where are we going?" he tried gamely.

Katara had told him they were heading to the South Pole and then rushed off to discuss supplies for the journey with the palace's kitchen staff. When he'd asked Toph and Suki whether they were coming south he'd been emphatically corrected; the whole group was apparently heading to the Bei Fong School and the girls were going to pick up Iroh who was coming along. Sokka said north, Zuko said west and Aang was bustled back onto the airship without any idea of their destination.

All he knew was they had been flying since yesterday afternoon and he had been stuck playing pai sho with Iroh until Sokka had come along after lunch with the blindfold.

A shudder reverberated through the ship and the sensation of movement stopped.

"We're here," said his unknown companion.

Hesitantly Aang stepped from the ship onto smooth worn stone.

It was late afternoon, the sun was bright and they were high. The air was dancing and swirling with currents, tugging him to come and play. His inner fire told him that Agni's light was close despite its failing strength and there wasn't much moisture in the air at this altitude.

With his sight cut off he instinctively sharpened his earth senses. They were on a mountain, standing in an open plaza bordered by… thin pillars.

"Ready?"

Someone yanked off the blindfold and shoved him forward, blinking to clear away the sudden blindness from dazzling light.

Zuko and Sokka stood grinning at him dressed in full Fire Lord regalia and the finest of borrowed Earth kingdom silk; they flanked Toph in her pale green gown and Katara, who was bedecked in an elaborate creation of myriad blues and luxurious white fur.

Aang gaped at them all, too distracted by the display even to look around.

"Avatar Aang," Katara began formally, and then stopped with a helpless smile. She threw her arms wide. "Happy Birthday!"

The four of them parted like curtains on a stage and behind them was a perfect image of a memory. Clear and sharp and real but impossible as a dream.

It was the Southern Air Temple.

He stood on the open terrace at the top of a wide set of stairs, looking up towards the spiraling blue topped towers of his home. The pale golden stone was smooth and well kept, broken only by lush herbaceous borders.

High above, wind whipped at the bright pennants that decorated the azure spires. Far below, the delicate arch of a bridge connected what had once been the air bison stables to the winding ribbon-like paths that wove their way down the mountain.

"You rebuilt it." The words came out in a choked whisper.

"The first month of every fall," Zuko explained. "And whatever other time we could spare."

"Some vacation."

"Oh Sokka, there were years you lived for that month," Suki scolded as she linked her arm with his looking like a vision in dark green and white silk with flashes of red accenting in lieu of her usual warrior makeup. Aang was hardly listening; instead he paced the edge of the training circle that dominated the wide open space, the place where his journey to becoming an airbender began.

Toph nudged him towards the wall that ringed the back of the terrace, in the shadow of a vaulted roof held up with pillars as fragile and intricately carved as a lady's ivory fan.

Katara searched his face anxiously. "Some things are different," she apologized, gesturing to the richly detailed mosaic that covered the wall. "When we couldn't find any pictures for reference we had to make our own art."

The mural depicted sky bison, exact in every detail, teaching the original nomads the ways of the air.

"It's perfect," he breathed, running his fingers over the tiny glass tiles. "It's amazing. How long did this take you?"

"There's more this way."

They had reconstructed the entire temple complex, working off the layout of what remained undamaged. Empty libraries and waiting kitchens; outlying homes for visitors to the temple and the high ascetic cells that had once belonged to the council masters. Sokka wanted to explain the water collection and plumbing system he'd designed, Toph and Zuko were bursting with pride over the fact that they had planned and built the flues that would carry heat from the kitchens to the rest of the complex in the winter.

"Teo and his dad helped us too," Katara explained as they showed him wonder after wonder. "Some of the people from the Northern Temple expressed interest in moving down here, and a few citizens claiming Air Nomad heritage have come forward to the council. But … well, this is your temple so it's your decision." She hugged him impulsively. "We just wanted you to have a home when you came back to us."

"This is incredible," Aang assured her. "I can't tell you what this means to me."

"One last thing,"

Zuko's warm hand was a firm pressure at his back. Sokka's shoulder bumped his as they walked, Katara staying just far enough ahead to avoid her brother stepping on her heels, laughing at Toph who tugged his hand, pulling him onwards.

The terrace on which the statue of Gyatso sat had been painstakingly restored. Cracked flagstones had been replaced or smoothed, the ornamental greenery coaxed into verdant life. Aang dipped his head to his old master, in respect and memorial, almost able to hear the sound of the kind monk's laughter in the wind. But what the others wanted him to see stood behind.

Through the long hallway, standing sentinel in the peristylium courtyard before the chamber of the Avatar, was another statue.

It was himself.

As he had been when he vanquished Ozai. His staff angled behind him, a smoked glass air sphere swirling eternally in one stone palm. The expression on the statue's face was solemn and defiant; at its feet flames and waves licked at ridges of earth that rose from the wide circular plinth it stood upon.

Avatar Aang, it read.

"Well Aang?"

"What do you think?"

There were no words that could possibly have encompassed all of his thoughts at that moment. Aang simply turned and flung his arms around Zuko – ignoring his squawk of protest – stumbling slightly when the tiny form of Toph attached herself to one side, but shored up on the other by Katara's soft embrace, tugging Suki close behind. All the wind rushed out of them in a huff as Sokka wrapped his arms tightly around the group and attempted to lift them all at once.

"Let's eat!"

 


 

 

For a party six years in the making Toph was surprised at how much fun she was actually having.

For all that Katara had wanted to dress up and add a sense of gravity to the occasion, there wasn't a whole lot of furniture at the Air Temple and after dragging the mess tables out of the airship's galley they'd realized there weren't any chairs. Still, barely more than twenty four hours notice had culled the guest list considerably and no one in their close circle was interested in standing on ceremony any more than they absolutely had to.

A few of the other earthbenders had suggested pulling stone benches from the ground up to the groaning buffet tables but Toph had refused to ruin all her hard word on the training yard and insisted the tables be moved closer to the stairs instead. Besides, labour would have taken her attention away from the food.

The Earth Kingdom palace had been full of tiny bite sized delicacies but they didn't hold a candle to the gargantuan spread of mouth-watering excellence that had been laid out. Half of it had been purchased back in Ba Sing Se but Sparky's chef had put together some deliciously spicy Fire Nation dishes and everyone had wanted to contribute a different recipe.

In deference to Aang the Water Tribe siblings had refrained from making sea prunes but Sokka had managed to secure a vast array of smoked fish and Katara had made something amazing with garlic and mussels. Haru and the Duke had brought the season's first root vegetables along with an entire boarqpine that Hippo was turning on a spit. Teo and his fiancée had come bearing food from his father's home at the Northern Temple, nutcakes and mooncakes, peaches, apples and litchi nuts.

Ty Lee had been in charge of the birthday cake and created something covered in cream and almonds and candied rose petals and so toweringly large that it had taken the Boulder and three Fire Nation soldiers to get it off the airship. Though she wasn't much of a cook, Toph had purchased a whole box of egg custard tarts from the finest bakery in the city. Feeling Aang's delight when she'd presented him with the beribboned box had almost made her think twice about stealing one.

Almost.

She lay back against the wide stone steps and put down her plate, letting the ebb and flow of the party swirl around her. From the far end of the table near the bonfire she could smell Iroh brewing tea, as nearby Haru grumbled at her for pushing him into conversation with Bumi. The mad old king felt weaker than she could ever remember him being before; the attempt on his life had taken a serious toll on him, but Toph was absolutely determined to find him a better heir before he made his escape and left her holding the kingdom.

Across the table from her Zuko and Sokka were arguing.

"I just don't understand why you were annoyed," Zuko said irritably. "It's not like anyone was surprised. You were the one who made me watch every step of the process when you made Suki's necklace."

"Because you're supposed to ask first!" Sokka shouted back. "You were supposed to come to the South Pole and ask Dad. We were going to torment you a little, make you really uncomfortable and then teach you how to whale hunt and all the best Water Tribe drinking songs. There was going to be bonding. Manly bonding," he explained as though Zuko had desecrated something priceless.

Toph swore she could actually feel Zuko's heart melt. She made a mental note to tease him for that mercilessly later.

"It was the perfect moment." Zuko sounded incredibly regretful. "I just had to. But hey," he clapped an arm around the morose Water Tribe man's shoulders, "no one knows about it yet. I'll come back with you to the South Pole and ask." He took another swig of the mug in front of him and Toph began to wonder exactly how much Sparky had indulged so far. Mai was not going to like it if the Fire Lord took another unscheduled vacation.

I need to get Uncle, she decided, standing up and trying to cast her sight out further. The old Dragon would know just what to say.

She stood slowly, feeling the warmth of the hanging lanterns more firmly on her skin, and tried to read the familiar space through the chorus of new vibrations. Cheong and his nomads were tuning their instruments near the training circle, a few of the Kyoshis and soldiers already gathering in anticipation of the opportunity to dance.

They would have to keep Sugar Queen out of the mulled wine. Katara tended to be musically inclined while intoxicated, which wouldn't be so bad if she could carry a tune.

A ribbon of air wrapped itself around her waist before Toph could take a step, pulling at her skirt until she spun around to face Aang as he landed lightly on the step above.

"Hey there."

"Come on." He reached for her hand. "I want to show you something."

Toph hiked up one side of her dress. "Is it high up?"

"It's an air temple Toph, everything is high," he reminded her. "But we can walk to it."

She couldn't help trying to listen intently for imperfections in the stone as they wandered through the arched corridors of the central tower, but Aang quickly distracted her with his enthusiastic tales. It seemed like every room they passed had some funny story attached or a legendary history behind it. As they walked she added their stories to his – the room where Katara and Zuko had an enormous paint fight and ruined the ceiling three times in a row, the alcove where Sokka and Suki had cloistered themselves for a little impromptu couple time and gotten trapped in a compromising position when part of the ceiling collapsed.

Filling the new walls with life.

"Here." Aang tugged them into a small room barely six paces across. Empty – as all the rooms were empty – but with one of her sky bison carvings pressed into the roof. "This was my room. When I was old enough to move out of the dormitories."

"It's nice."

"It's tiny," he laughed. "I mean compared to where you grew up. But it has the best view." He pushed her towards the balcony that wrapped around the whole outer wall.

"You brought me up here for the view?" she deadpanned.

"For the air," he said. "Can you feel it? All the way up here it's free and it's dancing."

The currents whipped at her, plucking pieces of her hair free of its braid and tickling her face. She giggled a little, rolling her eyes at the smiling man behind her. "You're so weird. I thought you'd want to be down here dancing for real."

"Later," he agreed. "Everything is a little strange right now."

Aang's voice lost its enthusiasm as he leaned forward against the balcony rail, presumably looking out over the terrace where their friends cavorted. Toph kicked lightly at his leg. "Are you going to tell them?"

All those things she had seen in his head that he carried around like heavy weights, like scars on his soul.

"Someday." He leaned against her as she settled next to him on the carved stone span. "Tonight I just want everyone to be happy."

The others had been giving him nervous glances all day; they so rarely knew Aang to be quiet when there wasn't something wrong and everyone had harbored some misgivings about whether restoring the temple would be seen as a gift or overstepping boundaries.

"Are you happy?"

"Almost completely."

"Come on Aang!" she mock groaned. "You've got a sweet new palace all to yourself, everyone's here to celebrate your birthday, there're all the tasty treats and dancing tunes your twinkly toes require; what else could you possibly need?"

"You."

Her breath caught and her heart beat a little faster but Toph forced herself to swallow and make him laugh. "You'll have to ply me with more liquor first."

"Not exactly what I meant."

Aang took a deep breath. She began to get worried.

"I was hoping…" He trailed off for a moment, swallowing hard, his heartbeat banging like a trip hammer. "That is I wanted to ask if… ah…"

"What, Aang?"

"Would you weave your path with mine," the words and cadence of his speech were awkward and formal, "so we might walk the world and share its wonders?"

Toph knit her brows in confusion, trying to grasp the thread of Aang's question. "You want me to travel with you."

"Yes." His relief was palpable. "That's it. Toph, you're perfect, you're fun and you're amazing and I can't think of anything better than having you run away with me."

Run away. Toph felt her breath catch. "You're leaving again?" She snatched her hand away from his grasp so quickly it felt hot, ignoring his open mouth. Of course it was all too good to be true. "No! No Aang, I'm not going with you. I can't believe you ever thought I would!"

Spinning on her heel she took off as fast as she could towards the lower terrace. Cursing her inability to run in the long skirt, Toph tried to pretend that she couldn't hear his heart breaking behind her, faint under the shattering sound of her own.

She skidded to a halt just outside the circle of warm torchlight and moved along the edge of the party until she found Iroh, ensconced by the braiser where the kettle was heating.

"Hey Dragon. mind if I share your spot?"

"Not at all." He waved her towards the nearest chair. "You may get soot on your lovely dress though."

Toph gave him a blank stare, but he didn't seem to notice. "I don't mind," she understated after a moment.

"So what is troubling you?"

"Can't I just want to sit?" she snapped at him.

Iroh nodded patiently. "I welcome your company, as always. But when a pretty girl goes off walking with a young man and returns alone to sit with an old codger like me, it usually means that not all is well."

"You're not a codger," Toph said automatically, but she relented anyway. "The arrow headed idiot is leaving again."

His heartbeat jumped in shock but the rest of Iroh"s movements remained smooth. "He told you this?"

"He asked me to go with him."

"What did he say?"

"Something about paths… he said he wanted to walk the world together." She scrubbed at one eye with the heel of her hand. Keep it together. "Sounded weird. Not like him."

"Ah." Every part of the older man's body relaxed and his smile was actually audible. "How much do you know about Air Nomad customs, Toph?"

She quirked a brow at his question but answered anyway. "Only what he told me."

"Very little of their history survived Sozin's purges, but most of it ended up in the library of the royal fire palace, which worked out well for me.” Iroh passed her the tea box to hold as he worked.

"An interesting people, the airbenders. They had no institution of marriage and rarely formed romantic relationships – for the most part they were very casual about their partners – but love, as you well know, is a difficult emotion to deny." He lifted the kettle and used the boiling water to warm the fine porcelain teapot. "Because the sexes lived separately, it was traditional for a couple who wished to spend their time together to symbolically run from the temples and go travelling in the way of the ancient nomads. They called it 'walking the world'."

Toph was fairly sure her heart had stopped.

"I believe my dear that the Avatar was not announcing his intention to leave, but asking you formally to pursue a romantic relationship."

She would have to apologize to Iroh later for running off on him.

 

Aang's heart was thumping at the very edge of her sharp awareness, heavier than usual but calm and steady. She darted through the crowd, taking the wide steps two at a time, tore down the long curving hallway and came to an abrupt halt right before she reached the courtyard. What in the name of the spirits was she going to say?

Aang was sitting in lotus at the base of his statue with a cup of something half full beside him. The plinth she'd produced for the figure had been widened and slowly, one by one Aang was pulling other shapes out of the marble. Perfect replicas of young Katara and Sokka stood over the statue's right shoulder, Zuko behind his left and grinding up from the base was her own twelve year old self.

"You made me taller than I was."

"It's scaled for personality."

"Then Snoozles should be twice as big." Not so much as a chuckle. "Didn't you like it?"

There was another scraping sound and she felt characters appear in the base of the plinth underneath his name. "It wouldn't be right without the rest of you."

She sank to the ground beside him. "What does it say?"

"For rigorous teachers seized my youth,
They cleansed its faith, and trimm'd its fire,
Show'd me the high white star of Truth,
There bade me gaze, and there aspire."

Toph wasn't much of one for poetry but Aang's voice was laden with feeling and her arms itched to wrap themselves around him. "I like it," she said instead.

"Toph, what do you want?"

"Look Aang, I wanted to explain that I was confused and if you were to ask me again-" His heart leapt in anticipation and Toph gave him a shy smile.

Right before she hauled back and punched him in the upper arm with all her strength.

"Ow!"

"I'd still have gotten mad because I didn't know what on earth you were talking about!" Aang made some sort of noise of protest but she was too busy berating him to pay attention. "The ancient airbender thing is sweet but it only works if I know the traditions, you rockhead! I thought you were going back to that tower."

"What? I'm not going anywhere! I meant I wanted you to be with me."

"Well I know that now!" she shouted back.

He opened his mouth as though to reply but nothing came out and he closed it again. Toph raised an eyebrow. "You gonna ask me again?"

"Are you going to say yes?"

"Aang, ask me again this minute."

He sighed heavily. "I know we've both got responsibilities and crazy lives and that this won't be easy but I want to be with you any way I can for as long as you'll have me."

"No, I liked the weird ceremonial one more, go back to that."

He caught her by the shoulders and slid his palms down to the small of her back, tugging her close enough that she was almost in his lap. "Say yes."

"I think I can hold out for a better offer."

"Toph."

"Yes Aang, I'll walk the world with you."

He kissed her soundly. Running her thumbs across his temples she caught the rise of his cheekbones in the hollow of her palm and pushed him gently away. "When I say walk though I mean walk. No flying."

"We can argue later," his voice buzzed against her lips, making Toph tingle all over, "let me kiss you."

She pushed him over and pinned him against the floor slanting her mouth across his fiercely for a moment and pulling back when he tried to deepen the kiss. "We're missing your party."

Aang tugged her back down, his hands trailing gentle along the valley of her spine.

"Forget the party."

 


 

 

"This is going to take forever," Toph moaned, dropping another load of stone debris down just outside the large hall they had set up camp in.

Suki had to agree; they'd been at this for a whole day and it seemed like they'd barely made a dent in clearing out the first floor.

She was beginning to wonder if Zuko's plan was even possible.

"Do you think we should paint a mural on the walls in here?" Katara asked no one in particular.

"Details later," Sokka gasped as he hefted an enormous piece of splintered wood onto the refuse pile. "We've got a long way to go before we start thinking about embellishment."

"Sky bison," Zuko said, ignoring him.

"There's going to be Sky Bison all over the damned temple," Katara muttered. "Didn't they have any other symbols?"

"There were statues of that airbending woman at the Western Temple," Toph suggested.

"Avatar Yangchen."

"Yeah, her."

"I don't know… maybe a landscape?"

"Of what, the sky?" Sokka scoffed. "These guys were worse than the Fire Nation."

"Hey what's wrong with the Fire Nation?"

"How many outfits do you own that don't have flames on them?"

"How many do you own that aren't blue?" Zuko shot back.

Katara and Toph continued their discussion obliviously. "How about birds? What else says air to you?"

"Big black nothingness."

"Toph!"

"Sugar Queen, do I have to explain the blind thing again? I really thought we were past this."

Suki ignored them, pacing the edges of the large room, peering into the shadows. The place was downright sepulchral. Sokka and Katara hadn't really prepared her for the intense silence of the empty halls or the shock of so many skeletons in golden robes. They were in almost every room, often surrounded by the empty armour of Fire Nation soldiers.

They had been avoiding the dead for the most part, but if everyone was truly serious about rebuilding they were going to have to dispose of all the remains.

"Does anyone know how airbenders bury their dead?"

"They fed them to birds," Sokka said absently.

"What!"

"You can't be serious."

"They called it Sky Burial," He nodded. "Iroh told me. It was supposed to symbolize the impermanence of life and give their energy back to the world. Since the Air Nomads believed that the spirit wasn't part of the body there was no sense in keeping it preserved."

"I'm not sure that will work when the remains are so old," Katara said hesitantly, clearly unsettled by the idea of feeding the dead to animals. "Maybe we could cremate them at the top of the mountain and return their ashes to the air?"

"That sounds like a good idea." Suki bent to run her fingers over the frayed edge of a yellow robe reverently, the fabric almost falling away at her touch.

"What are we going to do with the soldiers?" Toph kicked spitefully at a red horned helmet.

"I'll take them down the mountain tomorrow and burn them." Zuko ran a hand through his still short hair. "They shouldn't be put to rest here."

"I think that we should paint the day of Sozin's purge." Katara gestured to the walls of the wide room. "Something to commemorate the last stand of the airbenders."

"Really? You don't think that's too…" Toph waved a hand about, groping for a word. "Cruel? A constant reminder of the genocide of an entire people right in the entrance hall?" Her voice was slightly shrill. Katara moved instantly toward Toph and wrapped her arms around the girl's shoulders. Suki realized with a start that Toph was upset.

"It honours their sacrifice," Zuko said gravely.

"The bad parts of history are just as important as the good parts," Suki agreed, thinking darkly of chains and fire. Sokka's hand ran over her back and rested soothing on her shoulder. She smiled, strong now and happier for having once been sad. "You need both to move forward."

"It will remind us that if something can be remembered," Katara unwrapped one of her arms from Toph's shoulders and touched the wooden medallion that rested on her sternum, "then it can return."

"Well then." The small earthbender dusted her hands off. "We better get this place cleaned up."

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Katara couldn't sleep.

She'd retired early but she was too keyed up to rest. She missed Zuko even though they were together not two hours ago and it would be bad luck to see him again before tomorrow.

Instead, Katara stared over at the exquisite gown on the dress form in the corner. The culmination of six seamstress' tireless work and a lifetime of girlish fantasies sparkled like a gem. It was golden, vivid as fire, with gold brocade adding further texture and richness. All of the magnificent embroidery was red, emblematic of the Fire Nation, but the underdress was heavily gilded blue, just peeking out to pick up the colours of her elaborate headdress.

Katara could not have imagined a more perfect dress. It flattered her figure, it brought out her eyes and the colours made her skin glow.

Just looking at it made her nauseated.

The damn thing was heavy. Combined with the weight of the enormous crown-like headdress, she could barely walk or keep her head up. And just looking at it reminded her of everything that tomorrow was going to be. This wasn't a celebration of them, it was a political and historical event. It had taken sixteen months just to organize the day, not counting the endless meetings and debates over whether she was the right choice for the people, whether this would compromise her integrity as a member of the Council or affect the price of cabbages in the Earth Kingdom, with Zuko bellowing constantly in the background about how he was 'the Fire Lord and he would do as he damn well pleased by Agni's left testicle!'

Katara loved Zuko with all her heart, but she was seriously considering leaping into the nearest boat and bending herself at full speed back to where she could eat sea prunes and make faces and not wash her hair for days if she wanted to.

But Zuko had seemed so proud of all the Fire Nation traditions that they were involving. He'd been endlessly solicitous about making sure everything was exactly the way they both wanted it and Katara would have eaten her waterskin before admitting she hated the whole idea.

Sighing gustily, she kicked the sheets up and watched them flutter slowly back down. The billowing fabric blocked her view of the window, which was why she didn't notice the soft lumpy bundle flying at her until it swung through the cloth and hit her right in the face.

Sputtering, Katara disentangled herself from the bedsheet and unlaced the red ribbon that held the bundle closed. Her old blue dress rolled free of its packaging. Ocean stained and frail as a moth wing from endless and repeated scrubbing, this was the robe that she'd worn to save the world. Even after her growth in height made the dress more of a long tunic she had kept it, fastidiously cleaned and folded in a cedarwood chest. Katara laughed with delight when beneath it she found a pair of dark pants, soft leather boots and a black overshirt that brought back memories of ninja masks and secret missions. Scrambling out of bed she stripped off her sleeping robes and threw on the rough garments, easing back into them like a second skin. Strapping her waterskin belt across her chest she ran to the balcony.

Under the light of the rising moon a flying bison hovered.

Aang sat in his customary place on Appa's head, grinning fit to split his face in half, and Toph was draped over the front part of the saddle, close enough to swing her arms around his neck. Sokka and Suki were waving at her, snuggled together in a perfect cozy picture. Hanging off the edge of the saddle by one arm Zuko leaned out, offering her his hand.

"Come marry me."

Katara smiled at him, bemused. "Zuko, we're getting married tomorrow."

Toph snorted loudly from her perch. Aang steered their mount close enough that Zuko could drop off gently onto her balcony. "I know, tomorrow… we've been planning it for months and your dress and everything and we can still do it! I promise, whatever makes you happy. But that's not us." He caught her hands in his. "All that pomp and circumstance is what we grew up into but this," a gesture of his head directed her attention to Appa again and everyone on the bison waved like maniacs, "this is how we started and I want to keep that feeling forever… so, ah – Zuko here; will you marry me?"

Katara looked up at him for a moment with wide shining eyes, and then she launched herself into his arms hard enough to knock him to the ground. "Yes!" she cried, in between covering his face with kisses. "This is perfect! How did you – just what I wanted – yes!"

He chuckled under the onslaught and caught her chin long enough to kiss her deeply. They both chose not to let Sokka's squawk of "Argh my eyes! Katara stop it!" ruin the moment.

"Come on Snoozles," Toph admonished. "I think they look cute."

The pair on the balcony broke apart to glare at her. Aang gave Toph's braid a yank and she flicked him in the head before leaning down to steal a kiss of her own.

"So are you two coming?" Suki asked.

"How-"

"I've got it all figured out, sis," Sokka assured her, holding up what looked like a battle plan. "Aang's ruler of a nation – technically, even if it's just him – he can marry anyone who asks."

"Hope you don't mind an improvised Air Nomad life bond ceremony," the Avatar interrupted. "Because it's the only one I know. "

"I'll give you away and Suki can be your maid of honour."

"I called dibs as Sparky's best man." Toph waved.

"I thought we could go to the house on Ember Island," Zuko suggested quietly, wrapping his arms around her waist lightly from behind. "That way we can be back for all this nonsense tomorrow, but tonight will be the real wedding. Our wedding."

Katara had to fight back tears as she nodded, completely unable to speak. Suki and Sokka held out their hands to pull her onto Appa's back as Zuko boosted her up from behind. Toph tugged her down so their knees bumped together, comfortably squished. Aang smiled at them all as though he couldn't imagine a more joyful scene, and snapped the reins.

"Yip, yip!"