Wolf quartz: It has its reasons, but I won't spoil :)
ShadowArchon456: Oooh, awesome! Ok, this is going to get long. I've read rough (fan-) estimations about Ba Sing Se INCLUDING far lands being around 3.000.000 square kilometers. If you remember the series, the farmlands stretched on forever after they entered Ba Sing Se. Talking purely about the city it is of course still large!
For the way I decided to write this, I had a few thoughts, the first one being that Aang saw a cityscape by night. Only the lights. For him to determine where the city ends (as modern cities tend to have a dozen smaller village surrounding them) is impossible. Also, the skyscrapers threw off his estimation.
I agree that Ba Sing Se is large. but if you take the AtlA map and try scaling it to the globe you'd get a Ba Sing Se that's the size of India. I have... various problems with that. Mainly how fast Zuko can travel on foot within the city boundaries. Also, AtlA is a pre-industrial society where I really doubt that many people living at one spot. If you look at city sizes on Earth before the industrial revolution... Yeah. They don't tend to be that big.
So I have three theories: One, the AtlA map is an artistic one. Ba Sing Se is arguably the center of the world from the „Good Guys" point of view – they wouldn't care about the Fire Nation capital or about the distances being correct. Two, Ba Sing Se is really that big, but a lot less densely populated than any modern city. Aang might not have been referring to city boundaries but to the amount of humans who could live there, he might have been especially thrown off by the skyscrapers. Three – the AtlA planet is way smaller than our Earth.
If we have a city the size of India that densely populated... then there'd be more people living in Ba Sing Se than in the entire rest of the world. So I'll be scaling down its size to a more reasonable level.
But, I beg you, BE that one guy! I love nothing more than people finding flaws in this story! (That's actually one of the reasons I publish so slowly, I tend to double check everything...especially the time needed for traveling shook me off. Badly.)
As always many thanks to everyone who read and reviewed! Enjoy!
"Welcome, Fire Lord Zuko."
Zuko held his head high, his steps steady and even as he entered the throne room. He could almost feel Toph stiffening besides him, unhappy at her own almost instinctively changing body language. She had been raised as a lady, whether she liked it or not. In these halls, her upbringing shined through the rough exterior ever so slightly.
Bowing low in the traditional Fire Nation greeting he fought back his frustration. He could rage about the wasted opportunities later. Now it was time to play the nice little monarch from the neighboring country and present himself as nonthreatening as possible. The pointed glares he felt all over his back reminded him all too vividly about the importance of smoothing down any possible confrontation between the nations for the time being. Unclenching his teeth he spoke up. "Earth King Kuei."
Never one to notice running tensions between other people, the Earth king stepped down towards Zuko with a bright smile and extended his arms. Clasping his forearms in traditional Water Tribe greeting (Sokka just had to show it to the King and claimed it was an international and highly formal greeting instead of a warrior's hey buddy I'm happy to see you clasp. At least that meant they could skip over a whole lot of formalities including various bows, inquiries about the other's state of health, and a whole lot of nothingness) Zuko allowed himself a smile. "It's a pleasure seeing you again."
Kuei nodded happily before turning to Toph. Similarly to her Zuko couldn't quite shake the way he was raised off completely, even if he wanted to. But it was easy keeping the fire of indignation under its wraps, knowing the Earth Kind hadn't intended the obvious insult. Ignoring the leader of another nation to greet a child! Zuko could picture all too vividly how his father would have reacted to such a grave disrespect. Fighting down a wince he tried not to imagine the throne room covered in flames while a booming voice forced everyone to bow down before him.
The unintended rebuke had caught the attention of the same guards that had been glaring at him since his presence had been announced. They traded sly smirks at what must have been his greatest humiliation yet.
He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Instead, Zuko threw a smile at Toph and Kuei greeting each other enthusiastically, making sure the fondness in his eyes was unmistakable. He was not hurt by Kuei's behavior, he was proud his friend got the respect she deserved, even making a king abandon his royal duties to step down and greet a mere commoner! Turning back, he couldn't resist a wry smile at the guards now annoyed glares. They'd obviously gotten the hint.
Waiting patiently until Kuei turned his attention back to him Zuko felt his eyes being drawn to a hooded figure in the back. The robes they wore spoke of higher status, but not nobility. A wealthy family like Toph's? It wasn't worth losing a thought about, he decided. If Earth King Kuei decided he wanted a shady person in his consort it was his own problem.
As if the king had heard his thoughts he turned around, apologizing profoundly for ignoring him. Zuko schooled his face into a polite smile, assuring him he wasn't offended. A look of pure relief washed over the man's face. "The time of your visit couldn't have been better. There is a lot we have to discuss."
Toph shifted again next to him. Her attention was pulled somewhere and stayed fixated on it. Zuko quickly noted what it was himself.
It was the strange figure. They moved forward purposefully, yet somehow held back at the same time. Zuko just knew he was being scrutinized. The person came to stand beside Kuei. The form was unnaturally stiff. Not even the fabric of their clothes seemed to move.
Kuei was still smiling, but his face had become strained. "Fire Lord, I'd like to introduce you to Sage Reeva from Yuketsu and- is something the matter?"
Zuko had startled somewhat at the name of the village but quickly smoothed his face into a neutral expression. "Nothing to worry about. I recognize the village's name."
"That doesn't surprise me in the slightest." The voice was obviously female. The young monarch turned to face her, a rebuke about interrupting two royals already on his tongue. Taking a calming breath he turned back to Kuei, waiting for him to continue.
This time the man picked up the underlying tension. "Well, we. Uh. The thing is, there were a few strange people in Yuketsu a few days ago. People who the Sage believes to be extremely dangerous."
He could lie. He could say he was in the Earth Kingdom for another reason. But if this sage knew anything about those firebenders, no, if she believed they were more than just a few kids looking for trouble, he would be better off asking about them directly. Which meant telling the king the reason for his visit. "They happen to be the reason I traveled to the Earth Kingdom, your Majesty."
"Sage Reeva suspected as much as well." Now Kuei looked more than uncomfortable.
Zuko felt his eyes narrow. "She does?"
The hooded sage scoffed. It was barely audible, but Zuko had been trained in infiltration tactics – he knew how to listen to the hint of a sound. It was what held him alive at Pohuai stronghold.
Before she could speak Toph tore into the the conversation. "Actually I was the one approached by a handful of locals. They figured I'd be willing to help. Seeing as most of my experience is fighting firebenders instead of trying to understand them I requested the Fire Lord's help." Oh, there was definitely something going on here that he missed. Toph usually didn't bother with royal pronouns or titles even in front of the royalty itself. But this scrawny, hidden woman got a full dose of court life? He'd have to tread carefully.
Sage Reeva gave him the impression of glaring at Toph. "The spirits are in turmoil. There is a cold wind whisking over our world, threatening to end everything we hold dear. Didn't you know about this, young lady? As the Fire Lord's consort you should have at least some idea about what's going on in the world. Then again, neither does he apparently. What an interesting coincidence, the cursed Fire Lord appearing during these times."
Fiery rage rolled through Zuko's stomach. "I have felt it as well. I might be young, but I am more experienced at dealing with spirits than most. I did survive a direct attack by the ocean spirit and even faced down the Avatar spirit a handful of times. I recognize the feeling of spirits. Also, the young Lady by my side is Toph Beifong, the strongest Earthbender you'll ever meet. Including the king of Omashu. She has been called to help and decided to request my presence as well. We are aware of the spirit world's newfound restlessness." Actually, only he was. It didn't seem like anything they could deal with. He had hoped it wouldn't have any connection to the benders he searched. "You imply those children have a connection to this disturbance within the spirit world. Furthermore, you indicate I am somehow involved as well. You would do well to remember your place." The last was said with an edge in his voice that almost made him flinch back himself. It had sounded almost like his father.
Toph jumped right in again, not giving the sage a chance to respond. "We are investigating a handful of firebenders. If they are in any way connected to the disturbance of the spirit world we will make sure to tell you. In the meantime why don't you tell us more about that disturbance? We've only arrived after the kids were long gone."
Reeva bared her teeth audibly. "They arrived almost two weeks after the rupture."
Kuei quickly took over the conversation. "Sage Reeva as well as most of our scholars are convinced there was some kind of rupture between the spirit world and our world. They do not know how it came to pass or what could seal it. As far as they can tell the rift isn't doing anything – it's simply there."
Zuko felt his brows furrowing. There was a border between the world of the living and the spirit world. That much everybody knew. A spirit could cross it as they pleased, although it was easier at some places and at certain times. Was that rift merely a place where too many spirits had crossed at once or was it really a crack in the border? He also knew humans could – under certain conditions – pass into the spirit world. What would such a rift do?
Steeling himself he spoke up. "For now, I will focus on looking for the children I came here for. But I will make sure my dear friend Avatar Aang will look into the issue. After all, who could know more about the spirit world than the world spirit?"
Momo forced herself up to her feet slowly. It was getting dark already. The city's wall had blocked the sun pretty early on, making them walk the last part of the journey without even the rays of the sun to warm them up.
Entering the city had been easier than they'd expected. Then again, it was an incredibly large city. One she'd never have expected in a world like this. Perhaps they had miscalculated? This city could very well be a complete opposite to the parts of this world they'd seen so far. Perhaps they would even have some more advanced technology here.
She had expected more of a border control. They'd given their names, said they were from Shu-Jee, a village they'd heard being mentioned in Tsuyoshi's tavern and went in.
Which brought them to the most recent problem.
They had a handful of money, enough to buy themselves one warm meal, not enough to get a room anywhere. Not that the cheaper inns had any spare rooms. Getting something to eat would take priority, but even that would be harder than they'd thought. None of them were in the mood for a crowded place. They needed space and time to themselves.
Undecided they'd sat down in a small park and enjoyed not having to walk anymore. For a while at least. Tenya and Momo were desperately discussing any way to get money in this city. Because one thing was for sure, they couldn't afford having to work full time here. Not that they really had a plan. She resisted the urge to pull at her hair. How long would they be able to hold it together?
They needed a plan, and fast.
"We could try earning some money as street performers", Eijiro snickered. "I could make a show out of punching through metal or something. Seems that no one can bend that stuff."
"We'll keep it in mind", Iida deadpanned.
Slowly the day was turning into night. They'd have to move into the upper rings of the city and hope there was somewhere they could afford a meal. But sleeping they'd probably be doing in an alley somewhere. Wasn't that a joy. If only she wasn't so sure the upper rings would be the place where people of higher status lived. In that case there was no way they'd ever find a place to stay the night.
A few people passed them. They talked happily among themselves, not noticing they were barely five meters away from what could only be considerd aliens to them. And wasn't that a fun thought. She liked science fiction books as much as the next person, but being the alien in such an unfamiliar territory had nothing cool or amazing. Of course there were some pretty awesome sights, but nothing big enough to shake her out of her stupor. Burying her head in her scarf she almost missed the words.
"-check out that tea shop, you know, the Golden Dragon?"
"Jasmine Dragon. You should remember it, it's amazing! The prices are only about half of the usual. Owner's a bit crazy, says knowing someone's enjoying a good cup of tea is enough to make him happy. And it's the best tea I've ever had! He even made us some lunch in exchange for stories from our travels. You have to go there once before you leave again!"
She didn't listen any further. It might be nothing, but it could be everything they needed. If that tea shop was cheap enough and they could convince the owner to make some food... Glancing at Tenya she quickly noted he had heard as well. "Alright, get up everybody!", he prodded. "Or we'll still sit here by tomorrow morning."
Nobody said it. They might as well still sit here in a few weeks. Perhaps even months or years. Fighting against tired muscles the UA students pulled themselves up and set off in search for the Jasmine Dragon.
Never had Toph been so happy about the words "I have a key."
She'd started to fear that they would have to stay in one of those snobby noble mansions in the upper ring instead of Uncle's tea shop. Luckily the Dragon of the west had given his nephew a spare key almost immediately after his coronation.
Nearing the shop she found herself frowning. "There's someone in front of your shop."
"Not mine", he shot back. "Got an idea who? Hopefully only customers who don't know Uncle isn't here."
"Group of people around Katara's age perhaps? They feel as if they're about to – oh, wow, one of them did just drop against your wall. I'd say they're pretty tired."
Sparky nodded slowly. They turned the last corner and came face to face with the group.
Something was very wrong.
Sparky's body cramped, tension rising up to his shoulders. He relaxed again rather quickly, but he was obvously still on edge. He must have seen something she couldn't feel.
"Can I help you?" His voice was kept steady.
One of the group took a step forward. "Uh, we heard this place made good tea and cheap lunch. We didn't know it would be closed. Sorry, we'll be on our way then."
Toph didn't hear Zuko's answer. Something else drew her attention.
Because she was Toph Beifong, the world's greatest earthbender. She had invented metalbending. Her earth- and metalsense was unrivaled. And that boy had apiece of machinery stuck in his calves.
At first she thought it was... anything. But the metal was refined and shaped in a way she knew all too well from the Fire Nation's war machines. It was definitely not something that belonged into the legs of someone!
"-really no problem?" That was a girl's voice. She was tall as well, although she seemed delicate next to the broad teenager next to her. The metal leg teenager. Was he a bender who used this contraption to fix his legs or something? No way. She had invented metalbending!
"None at all", Sparky assured gracefully. "I'm not as talented as my Uncle is, but I'll still be able to throw something together. Not sure about the food being all that good, I couldn't cook to save my life."
That got a laugh out of the group. "We'll survive it", another boy quipped.
"What's wrong with your legs?" Toph really wished she had better control of her mouth sometimes. The boy froze completely before stuttering about having a birth condition. She felt Zuko's displeasure at her blunt question, but he seemed to be as confused about the group as herself.
He stepped in quickly before they could pull away. "It's not important now. Come on in."
Katsuki and Eijiro had struck a deal about them doing the cooking in exchange for the tea and food itself. That Lee guy must really be a horrible cook. And the girl... well, she's blind. They have one good eye between them. That would probably end in desaster. Ochako thought. And wasn't that something. She hadn't missed the way Lee's eyes had been drawn to Shoto's almost identical burn scar immediately, nor the flinch that had came with it. It must have stirred some painful memories. With Shoto's hair died black he almost looked like a slightly younger replica of their host. Not even only the eye. The stiff way the boys held themselves, the barely noticeable avoidance of eye contact. It was all there. The way they kept glancing at each other told her a lot about just how uncomfortable they were with each other. But that was an issue for another time.
The Jasmine Dragon was not unlike the tea shops at home. Ochako's father had taken her to such a shop once on a special occasion. It felt like home.
The thought sent a pang through her heart. She fought down her frustration and focused back on their hosts. Something was very disconcerting about them.
The blind girl – Toph Beifong, the first time they heard a surname here – had apparently found a certain fascination with one of their members as well and kept checking Tenya out. She had explained she could "see" with her feet, thus throwing Ochako off, but the way she shifted towards Tenya was unmistakable. She kept an eye... foot on him. What was it she had noticed?
They drank the tea Lee had brewed together (she couldn't quite decide what to think of it. Could that stuff even still be called tea? It was strong enough to knock an elephant off its feet. Still, it was exactly what they needed.) in silence. The tension in the air could almost be cut with a butterknife, but at least they had something warm to fill their stomachs.
She had feared the question would come again, but she hadn't quite been prepared for it. "What's with your legs?", Toph asked stubbornly.
Tenya's face grew bright red. "I don't want to talk about it", he murmured. The rest of the class traded helpless glances. Somehow all of them knew it would be better not to try and lie. Especially once she continued on.
"I left something out during our introduction." Even blind she somehow managed to muster them all. "I am not only the world's greatest earthbender – so you'd better not annoy me too much – but I also invented metalbending! Which means I can feel metal, and you have quite a lot of that sticking in your legs!"
Someone must have punched her in the face while she wasn't looking.
It was ironic, somehow. If she'd been asked who was most likely to give their group away she'd said the two class representatives could never be it. There had been the possibility of Shoto with his double quirk. That one was already strange enough even for their homeworld. Then there was Katsuki, no explanation needed. Denki with his electricity quirk came in close as well. Izuku's strength and Minoru's hairballs. Eijiro's rock hard skin – could the girl maybe even feel his skin once it hardened? A scary thought – and of course Ochako's own quirk. All she'd have to do was touch something the wrong way by accident and their story would be out.
Nobody had figured it could be Tenya Iida of all people who would stick out so much. And if this girl could feel his engine, then there must be others who could sense him too. There was no way they'd ever blend in that way!
To her surprise Lee spoke up, voice calm. "You look like you could need some help. We can give that to you, if you want."
"Why?" Izuku stared at the older boy intently. "What do you get by helping us?"
"I guess three of you were in Yuketsu a while back."
The name didn't ring any bell for Ochako, but Denki and Shoto glanced at each other knowingly. Oh god. That had to be that village. The one where Denki almost got exorcised. That incident had hit hard.
When no one answered Lee let out a huff of – flames.
Flames? Why not. She made a note to ask Shoto if he could breathe fire too. Judging by the look on his face he was thinking about the same thing.
"Listen", Lee finally spoke up, "you have something... how do I say... clinging to you. Something that can be felt by anyone who knows the least bit about spirits."
"Spirits?", Minoru squeaked.
Toph blinked. Turned her head to Minoru. "Yes. Spirits. You know, bad, evil things with long fangs and-"
"Toph, don't." Lee's startling golden eyes were narrowed at them. "You've never even heard of spirits? That I find hard to believe."
Momo carefully rose to her feet. "We are not your enemies. But who we are isn't exactly something we trust some random guys we met on the streets with."
"Even some random guys who gave you food for free?" Toph gulped down the last of her tea and set it down.
Momo was not deterred. "Even then."
The two benders traded a glance – one glance – before Lee shook his head. "We are friends with the Avatar. Whatever it is you need help with, we can assist you. I just had a few questions about the firebending techniques you used there."
That was an opening! "How did you recognize the boys?", Ochako chimed in quickly. "They even changed their haircolor!"
Zuko grimaced slightly. "That was why I didn't recognize you instantly. But if you want to know, it were Shoto's eyes."
The boy in question blinked surprised. "My eyes?"
"There was a sage here who happened to see your eyes. She remembered one of the boys had one blue and one gray eye."
Shoto let out a long sigh. "Usually people are too busy trying not to stare at the scar to notice the eyes. Especially when we only meet for a short time."
"So, I guess all of you are benders?"
Tenya stood up as well, squaring his shoulders. "Can we discuss this with another in private please? If we accept your offer for help?"
"What other choice do we have?" Katsuki stood leaning against the doorframe, his face set in an angry scowl. "If we don't accept help from the Avatar's friends who should we ask?"
The class president looked through the faces of each classmate. Seeing nothing but agreement he let out a long sigh, the tension in his shoulders deflating. "Then we accept. You should probably sit down for this."
Toph laughed aloud. "You have a damn machine sticking out of your legs! How much weirder can it be?"
"Your sense is that clear? That's amazing!" Izuku's eyes practically sparkled.
The girl smirked at him. "I'm the world's greatest earthbender! I could rip that thing right out of his legs if I wanted!"
Tenya flinched. Hard.
"Please don't", he said quietly. Steeling himself again he pulled up the loose trousers, revealing the engine. Lee's eyes widened. "Because that engine is something that grew inside my body."
Katara glanced down at the landscape rushing by.
She was used to worse colds than this, but flying so high on Appa in full speed when the last remains of a blizzard were still blazing on the edge of the horizon was not high on her to-do list.
A list that at the moment resolved purely around Aang. Her boyfriend sat at the back of Appa's saddle in traditional meditation pose. His breathing was calm, but she could detect a hint of desperation in his features. There were no glowing arrows, but there were also none of the usual signs he had managed to get into contact with one of his past lives. In that case his expression would flitter through various moods no matter how still his body remained. Today there was only the strained hopelessness.
She felt the urge to talk to him, but she didn't know what to say. That was a first.
After they'd gotten together their relationship had changed, of course. She was afraid of taking a wrong turn, making a wrong step and crushing everything they'd had before. She didn't know if Aang had the same fears, it was something she didn't dare talking about.
Still, no matter how insecure she felt around him, as soon as one of them started talking they'd fall back into their comfortable roles, joking around and simply belonging together.
This time there was nothing she could do to help, nothing she could do to ease his mind. She didn't know anything about spirits. When she'd been young, before she discovered she was a bender, she'd been afraid of the few stories she'd heard and didn't listen whenever the subject came up. After she'd discovered her gift she's been busy trying to teach herself how to use it to care for what seemed to be nothing but silly bedtime stories. She regtretted that deeply now, wishing desperately she knew how to help Aang. Which was probably a silly wish, he was the Avatar, if he didn't know how to deal with this, then who would?
"Don't think too much about it", Sokka chided gently from Appa's head.
Katara felt her hands clench into fists. Didn't he notice how bad the situation was?
She turned around to bite at him but found her voice cut off. Sokka sat completely still, unlike anything her restless brother had looked any time before. His hands were clawed into the reigns, his fingers white from the force he'd put into his digits. His face was set in a tight scowl.
Sighing Katara leaned her back into the saddle. "I'm trying", she found herself whispering back.
Sokka continued staring at the horizon, looking trice his age easily with the worry lines surrounding his eyes. "That's the harsh truth, isn't it?", he offered finally. "We can fight and rage all we want. We can give our all, push past our limits. But sometimes that still isn't enough." He looked down onto his hands and let the reigns slip further through his fingers. "We can lose even if we give it our all. How many people did during the last hundred years? We'll probably never know." For the first time he turned around to face his sister. "We've been lucky so far. And we will continue to give it our all, right? So don't worry too much about it. We're us. The Avatar, one of the greatest waterbenders around the globe and me, a strategic genius. We'll pull through."
Katara could only stare at her brother in amazement. A sad smile tugged at her lips. "I thought speeches about hope were supposed to be my specialty?"
Sokka chuckled low in his throat. "After spending 15 years with you something had to stick, right? Besides, there's not much else I can do."
She felt her heart break for her brother. It was easy to forget, but he still suffered greatly trying to pull his weight among their group of incredibly talented benders despite all of them telling him he had done more than enough. Now she could understand how he felt. Knowing there was nothing she could do but watch from the sidelines while Aang had to fight a war raging within him brought a kind of agony she'd never have expected.
"You did enough. It's my turn now", she mumbled softly.
He didn't give any indication he'd heard.
Zuko had needed a few minutes to deal with the weirdness that was his life.
A boy running around with an engine in his legs. He made a note to himself not to let Sokka see this. Ever.
A quirk, their new acquaintances had called their powers. And what strange powers that were.
Seeing Ochako making a table float had almost sent him crashing. Toph had only looked confused at that because she suddenly couldn't feel the wooden table's weight anymore. Momo's creation quirk... that was nothing short of amazing. He thanked whichever deity might be willing to listen to him that the teenagers hadn't arrived half a year earlier before the end of the war. Had his father gotten such a power under his grasp...
He forced his thoughts away. Denki and Katsuki had both shown him their quirks after he asked (in the latter's case with much grumbling). It had helped him a bit, feeling the controlled explosions and the tingling of tame lightning. Yet he was sure he wouldn't be able to control such a power.
Minoru's power had made him blink a few times. He saw how it could be useful in a fight, but... it seemed strange in comparison to the others' quirks. When he commented on it they'd assured him theirs were among the easier understandable quirks.
Rock-hard skin. Engine legs. Superstrength. And of course the one that made him pause.
He'd felt something off with Shoto as soon as he'd seen him. He almost felt like a firebender, but only half of his body had really felt like flame. Now that he'd had the time to study the boy a bit closer he was even more confused. If he only felt into the flame he got the strange impression of heat and cold swiveling around each other, balancing another out. His uncle would have loved this. Half fire and half ice... Forget about Uncle, he had to show this to Aang!
A smirk appeared on his face when he thought about Sokka's reaction to these news. His water tribe friend would probably flip a table trying to wrap his head around the story.
There was only one more detail he had to see...
"So all of you are wearing wigs to hide your haircolors?" After all, the colors had been the main trait he'd looked out for.
It was Tenya who answered. "Not all of us, but most. Your world only has darker colors apparently?"
"I've certainly never heard of someone with straw colored hair before."
Tenya nodded slowly. "Up until the appearance of quirks, haircolors of our world tended to be everything from black to straw colored, which we usually call blond. Since then a lot of... more unnatural colors have appeared."
Zuko had known Toph was getting restless. As if to prove his point she threw her hands up. "Just take those things off and show him already!"
The burly teenager hesitated for a moment before reaching up to his hair and pulling off the dark wig. Again Zuko couldn't help but stare.
He hadn't been sure what to expect, but this was not it. Tenya's hair was still blackish, but... no, his eyes were not playing tricks on him. That was definitely a dark blue hue.
Their other guests had followed their apparent leader's example and taken off the wigs. The straw-blond head of Katsuki didn't surprise Zuko much after having been told about it beforehand. Izuku's dark green hair made him pause and blink, as did Eijiro's bright red. Minoru's purple almost made him crash his head into the wall and Denki's vibrant yellow almost brought him down to his knees. This was insane.
Looking at Shoto he noticed his otherworldly Doppelgänger had also raised his hand to his head before pulling it down again. "Let me guess, you're the one with the white hair?"
"Half", the boy confessed. "It's dyed, so I can't show you what it really looks like."
Toph snorted amusedly. "Why would only one of you dye their hair and the others run around with those stupid wigs? Isn't it risky that those things fall off?"
Shoto was suddenly very interested in the floor. "I kept burning through them", he offered slowly.
Zuko couldn't hide an amused huff. "Happened to me all the time when I started firebending with a mask on. I might be able to teach you a trick or two."
Izuku glanced between the two boys, worry edged into his face. "You're sure that will work? I mean, your powers are really different!"
"I don't think it will hurt to try." There was also the other reason. When he had focused more intently on Shoto's body temperature he'd been able to feel the swirling and clashing of temperatures even clearer. It had become obvious rather quickly which of his sides seemed to be more prominent. In total Shoto's body temperature was slightly below average, not enough to warrant any specific concern, but it seemed strange to him. There was also the way cold seemed to trail through his right-side limbs with each movement, almost like the flow of chi, while the heat in his left side stayed locked in place. It spoke of a deeper issue. One that might well be tied to the scar covering most of his face.
It might not have been his place, but Zuko knew the two of them would have to talk about the issue. The way Shoto had looked at him, how his eyes had taken in the shape of the scar, the slight widening of his eyes... yes, the boy had definitely recognized the form of Zuko's burn as a handprint. Wasn't that a joy.
It would have to wait, he chided himself. His interest in the younger boy had to stay secondary to the new issue.
A villain from the other world had managed to tear through the barrier seperating their worlds. He didn't dare think about the consequences if the rift couldn't be sealed. Could it even be sealed while the teenagers were still in this world? Would it close itself when everybody was back where they belonged? It were too many maybes.
A fist slammed into his arm. Yelping, he jumped up and glared at Toph.
"You spaced out there", she informed him nonchalantly.
Zuko closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Perhaps it's for the best if we continue this tomorrow. You all look dead on your feet."
He didn't miss the flicker of hope in their faces as soon as the mere thought of sleep came to them. Rising to his feet he gathered the tea cups and turned to Toph. "Would you show them the guestrooms upstairs? We only have two spare rooms here", he apologized, "but I think it's better than nothing."
A series of grateful nods answered him. Bidding them good night, he hurried off to tidy up the shop.
His eyes were drawn to a stack of paper laying innocently on one of the cupboards. I really should write to Uncle about this. He'll want to know.
Sighing, he put the dishes down and took the paper into his hands. I can't risk this getting out. I'll let him know I found the kids and that I'll stay away for a while longer. I have to find Aang anyway. Spirits know where he's running around now again.
The hairs on the back of his neck sprung up. Ink splashed over the paper, soaking the texture and dropping on the table.
Zuko noticed nothing of that. His whole body went rigid before he started shivering, shaking uncontrollable.
Look at you, child of fire, a chilly voice hissed into his ear. You can't even face me when I'm nothing but a breeze in the air. How do you plan on defeating me?
His hands clawed at the air, trying to ward of the cold seeping into his body. "What... are you?" His voice came out harsh and ragged. Without warning the cold sensation changed to a bright, harsh burning.
It's too soon now, the voice whispered softly, almost gently. It's not time, not yet.
"What do you want from me?", Zuko clenched out between clenched teeth.
A soft chuckle errupted within his ears. I? What makes you think I want anything from you? Why should a lowly human have any value for me?
Zuko struggled against the bonds of heat encasing his body. "And still you are here", he hissed at the spirit.
The chuckle became full blown laughter. I was curious about the Avatar and his chosen comrades. Now I see I worried for nothing. Farewell, child of fire. I hope you can at least serve to make my return more interesting.
Denki yawned loudly as he rapped his knuckles against the door. "Uh, Lee? You still here?"
Dead on their feet their host had said before. That actually described pretty well how he felt right now. They had agreed it would be easier if the girls bunked together again and the boys took the other guest room, meaning Toph bunked with the UA girls as well. Denki had offered in his foolishness to be the one to tell Lee about the arrangement. Each step he took reminded him sharply of the hardships the last few days had brought. He couldn't wait until everything was over. He missed his warm bed, he missed his video games, he even missed school.
"Oh wow, I can't believe I just thought that out loud in my head", he grumbled. Knocking again he called out for their host a second time. "Lee? You fallen asleep in there?"
A spark raced across his arm.
Confused, Denki looked down onto his outstretched hand. Tiny specks of light danced across the hairs on his skin, leaving his senses tingling. He hadn't felt this way now since...
The Chargebolt hero canceled every single train of thought that wasn't immediately needed. Steeling himself he threw his body against the door, slamming it open.
Every hair on his body stood upright. He had the feeling as if he'd just entered the heart of a thunderstorm. Electricity was zapping through the air visibly, leaving tiny flashes of lightning behind. He felt hot and cold simultanously.
His eyes fell on the person in the middle of the room and he bit back a swear. Lee sat on the ground, slumped into himself. His eyes were open, but his whole posture screamed defeat.
Denki bit back another curse. His first instinct was to scream for help, but another flash of lightning made him think differently. Closing his eyes he raised his arms, spreading them out in an arch. Taking a deep breath he beckoned the electricity to him, fixating his own body as a center. Taking another deep breath he invited the lightning to come join him, making sure it moved around Lee's still body.
Energy parted and shot forwards. Denki felt his eyes widen. "Shit."
Zuko shot up with a gasp. His hand fumbled at his chest. It felt as if he'd been blasted by lightning – again.
Groaning he forced his feet to connect with the ground in a way that would allow him to stand. His legs were sluggish in a way he recognized all too well. How did I manage to get beaten up again now? This is getting ridiculous.
It took a moment for him to remember that it wasn't part of his daily occurences anymore to be beaten up by something. And it wasn't every day he stared up at the ceiling in the Jasmin Dragon. Shaking his head slowly he forced himself to rise to his feet despite the overwhelming nausea.
A second groan from the other side of the room. Alarmed Zuko whirled around.
Bad idea, he chided himself harshly as he overbalanced and went crashing into the floor. Am I glad Toph isn't here right now... She wouldn't stop laughing at me for weeks if she saw that.
Toph... Forcing himself up a second time he looked over to the other peron. A mob of yellow hair stuck out behind one of the tables. Denki, his brain supplied helpfully.
Before he could trudge over to the fallen hero-in-training the younger boy gave another groan and carefully rose to his feet as well. "What the hell man?"
Blinking at the unfamiliar manners of speach again Zuko reached out and steadied the younger teenager until he looked less likely to fall over again. "I'm not sure. I wanted to clean the dishes and... I don't remember."
Denki looked at him like he'd grown a second head. He resisted the urge to pat his neck to check. "You were kinda lying there in the middle of a minature thunderstorm. Was a bit stronger than it looked like and knocked me out when I pulled it away."
Zuko rubbed his still sore forehead. "You can pull away thunderstorms?"
"Small ones, and not without short-circuiting my brain usually."
His attempts to remember what had happened were thwarted once again by the new term. "Short-circuited?"
"Yeah, like... you know your way around machines a bit? Like a spark jumpes between two wires and the whole thing doesn't work anymore?"
That sounded painful. Zuko slowly shook his head. "Perhaps our machinery really is that much behind yours, but I've never heard of something like that."
"Well, yeah, in short if I overuse my power I'm left with the brainpower of a vegetable." Denki mimicked Zuko unconciously, rubbing his head with his palm. "The electricity takes the shortest possible route, through my brain and leaves it all scrambled."
That... sounded really bad. "When my uncle taught me about lightning redirection he advised me to center it around my stomach. Perhaps that would work for you too?"
"Funny, you know, I actually try that when I'm using external electricity, but if I generate too much I always end up as a veggie."
"We ended up off track here", Zuko noted dryly.
The younger rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "Sorry 'bout that. I tend to ramble when I'm nervous." He took his hand down and looked at the Fire Lord with wide eyes. "So you really have no idea what happened?"
Zuko shook his head. "I wanted to wash the dishes and write a letter to my uncle... everything's black after that."
"Oh. That's.. not good."
The black haired teenager felt a strange cold creep across his back. Raising his inner flame he fought down the shiver. Something was very wrong here. Every instinct within him screamed there'd been a spirit here. But it's presence had vanished. Had Denki actually managed to fight off a spirit without noticing it? He made a mental note to never cross the group unless he had to. He did not want to find out just how strong they were by having to defend against them.
He was still horribly dizzy. The dishes seemed to stare at him accusingly.
"Hey", Denki called out softly. Zuko blinked up at him tiredly. When had his eyes closed? "Uh, we bunked together seperated in boys and girls, Toph's staying with our ladies. Just wanted to tell you that. Also, if you want, I can take care of that, you look like you can need sleep as badly as we do."
Zuko didn't even have the energy to discuss. Nodding thankfully he stumbled out into the hallway, holding himself upright with his hands against the wall. What had just happened?
Collapsing onto his mattress the second he reached the bedroom Uncle insisted on keeping ready for him he felt his eyes close already.
Whatever that was about, it can wait until tomorrow. Sleep first.
His eyes were heavier than solid stone. His body became lighter and his thoughts sluggish.
Zuko tumbled head over heals into the realm of dreams. Cold laughter followed him.