"Maybe you've forgotten why we need to start over. Maybe you've forgotten about how the Fire Nation left us all homeless . How they wiped out all the people we loved..."
~ Jet, City of Walls and Secrets
"So," Toph said. "What's with the brooding?"
Zuko gave a start of surprise and then glanced sidelong down at her. Over the last two days since leaving the town, they'd pushed hard to get to Ba Sing Se. No ostrich-horse could be ridden all day, and Ushi was old. Currently, they were giving her a break by walking along with her.
"I was not brooding," Zuko said. "I was thinking." Actually, he was going over yet again the memory of the dead turtle-duck hatchling, his mother, and Azula.
"Sure." Toph kicked a stone with her bare toes without flinching. "Don't tell me you're still sad about that town of Fuddie-Duddies…"
In the interest of not being tripped by a suddenly appearing stone, Zuko didn't point out that Toph had been the one who had been most upset about that town. "No. I was… It's stupid. Doesn't matter," he muttered, looking away.
She didn't look at him, but he felt her attention. "Maybe it does."
"Maybe it doesn't," he shot back, and kicked his own rock. He wore shoes, of course, and it didn't sail nearly as far as hers had. Zuko scowled at it. Then he sighed and shook his head. The words came out quick, before he could stop himself.
"When Gow knocked me out, I dreamed—I remembered my mother. My Fire Nation mother," he clarified. "I don't have any memories of her, or anything, I guess, before the Water Tribe rescued me when I was a kid."
Toph blinked. "Your history keeps getting weirder and weirder, Sparky."
Even though he was still in a bad mood, he quirked a smile. "Remind me to tell you about the time I met a sea dragon."
"Pah. I ran away and lived with badger-moles for a solid week. My mom was in hysterics." She paused. "So, what was she like? Your mom?"
"She…" He trailed off, remembering again his mother's warm arms around him, the sound of her voice. Why hadn't he looked at her face? "She smelled like fire-lilacs."
"Huh." Toph tilted her head, considering. "Nice."
To her, it probably was. Looks weren't important to a blind girl.
"Yeah." He looked down and added darkly, "And I think my sister killed my pet turtle-duck."
"That would be Princess Azula, right?"
He glanced sharply at her. "How do you know her name?"
"Hello, I keep telling people: I'm blind, not deaf. It's kind of important to know what's happening in royal court of the country who's trying to take yours over."
"Oh." He winced. "Sorry. News doesn't often come to the Southern Water Tribe. I didn't even know her name until recently."
"You don't remember her at all?" she asked.
"A couple things. Nothing good." Zuko scowled remembering the dreams that had plagued him for years. Something about that bedroom—that conversation was important. He knew it. "I met her once in the North Pole. We fought."
He shrugged. "The Northern Water Tribe still fell, in the end."
Toph was silent for a few more steps. Then, "You want to tell me what happened?"
Zuko thought back to everything: Katara not being allowed to learn combat waterbending, the Fire Nation siege, Aang going out alone on Appa to stop too many ships, then all the events in the temple, how Yue had commanded him to take Aang… the spirit forest that should have sheltered the Water Tribe, but which he couldn't find. Azula. Arnook. Iroh. How the lightning had felt running through his veins—he didn't like to think about it, but for a brief second he had been certain he was about to die. And then he'd thought so again, not even a few hours later, as Arnook turned on him.
"The Fire Nation laid a siege. My blood uncle, Iroh, killed Chief Arnook."
Toph waited a beat. "And?"
Zuko knew what she was asking, but didn't feel like going into details. His feelings about Arnook were mixed, to say the least. "And after the North Pole fell. My father, Chief Hakoda, took in the Northern refugees who were able to escape. Bato told me it tripled the ranks of fighting men, at least."
He had added that last bit to throw her off. He did not expect Toph's startled reaction, stopping in place, her blank eyes growing wide. "You're telling me the two Water Tribes have merged?"
"Well… sort of. Yeah."
Toph promptly turned and punched his shoulder, hard.
"Ow!" He rubbed at his arm. "What was that for?"
"We've been traveling together all this time and you never told me this before? Are you kidding?"
"What's the big deal?"
"The big deal? Don't you know your history?"
"Toph," he snapped. "What are you talking about?"
Her toes scrunched in the loose, dry soil as if trying to get a better read on him. Then she cocked her head. "Huh. I guess you don't."
She held up her hand and he obediently fell silent.
"I told you I had tutors growing up, right? One of them was really into history. He just loved to go on." She made her fingers into a talking mouth, then dropped it. "And… No offense, Sparky, but in the past—way back before the war—when the Avatar was weak, or not keeping an eye on things… or the North and South Poles weren't busy squabbling with each other, the Water Tribes were death on the ocean."
He wasn't sure if he should be offended at that or not. "So?"
"So if I'm hearing this right, your adopted dad is the most powerful Chief in centuries." She grinned the grin of the Blind Bandit entering a battle. "The Fire Nation is going to be screwed. Everyone knows the colonies help feed the home islands. Maybe they'll give the Earth Kingdom a break for a while. And…" Then, unexpectedly, she paled.
She shook her head. "Nothing." Turning, she absently kicked another rock. It sailed further than Zuko was capable of throwing.
"I had a thought. You're not going to like it."
"Fine, it's your delicate feelings." She blew out a breath that ruffled her long bangs. "How sure are you that the Water Tribe just happened to rescue you?"
His voice came out flat. "What."
"It turns out you're the prince of the Fire Nation. Mighty convenient that you'd get adopted by the head Water mucky-muck who happens to be smart enough to seize the opportunity to combine the tribes under him." She shrugged. "That's all I'm saying."
Zuko sputtered, outraged. A thousand denials came to his lips, choking each other out. The only thing that came out was, "You think the Water Tribe did this to me?"
"Ugh!" Right, he had completely forgotten. Irritated, he knelt and took one of her hands and pressed it to the left side of his face. She flinched back, more out of surprise than anything else. Then her mouth parted, and before he knew it her tiny hands ran up and down his cheek, up to the thick flesh that narrowed that eye and to what was left of his ear on that side. Her other hand brushed the whole side of his face, surprisingly gentle, to compare the two.
"It's a burn. And then there's this." He took her wrist more gently this time and guided her hand to the other side, the thick line of a scar that slashed diagonally down his neck.
Her hands dropped. "A lot of people have tried to kill you, huh?"
"Yeah, and none have succeeded."
It was a stupid answer. He knew it was the second it was out of his mouth. Thankfully, Toph didn't comment on it. She turned back to walk in silence, but what she said played around and around in his head.
Hakoda was a good man. Zuko wouldn't want anyone else to lead a combined Water Tribe. And if his people could use that to become death on the seas… even better. They could wear the Fire Nation down, stop them from sending more troops to the Earth Kingdom, capture supplies running back and forth from the colonies to the islands and back again.
It could mean major naval battles, but the Water Tribe were masters of the seas. They could make a big difference in the war.
And it would surely mean death on both sides.
Once again, that tiny persistent voice rose up. It seemed like it became louder each time.
But if I were Fire Lord, I could stop the war today.
It was a fine spring day. The sun was warm and the sky over Ba Sing Se so achingly blue in a way that made Aang want to climb on Appa's head and ride in loop-de-loops. Free and happy in the sky.
But he was stuck here on the boring ground. Earthbending. Or at least, he should be.
Aang gusted a sigh that stirred up dust in a circle three feet around him. His limbs felt as heavy as rocks, and he could swear there was actual gravel rolling around in his stomach.
He sat morosely outside the small earthbending school. This one was located in the middle ring… nearly at lower ring wall. It didn't have a distinguished reputation like the ones in the upper ring, but it was the best he could do. All the good schools had already kicked him out.
Classes had begun an hour ago, but as much as he tried to talk himself into it, Aang could not make his heavy feet move him inside.
By now enough time had passed that the earthbending teacher probably wouldn't take a late-arriving student, at least not today. Earth was sort of inflexible like that.
Aang could go back to the house in the upper ring, but then Katara would wonder why he still had his money meant for the classes.
Mastering air had come, well, as easily as breathing. He was a monk. He was literally born for it. Water was different, but still a lot of fun to swim in and create ice and snow whenever he wanted. And there were so many things to do with snow! From snowballs to pretty icicles to tiny little flakes he whip into storms with his airbending—combining the two was awesome!
There was nothing fun about earthbending. As much as Aang tried and tried, and concentrated and looked for the right angle to work at earth… he couldn't shift as much as a pebble. None of the teachers seemed to like him, either. And the other earthbending students just wanted to chuck rocks at each other, which hurt. Plus, he was the Avatar, so everyone expected him to learn earthbending easy, but every time he failed people looked so disappointed like he'd personally let them down and …
Aang knew he had to learn all of the elements before the comet came. The whole world was counting on him, Roku said. Time was running out. It was spring already and if he couldn't bend Earth, how was he supposed to learn fire—and how could he learn fire anyway with Zuko still missing, and… and…
It was too much.
Aang didn't make a conscious decision. The wind did it for him. He was running away, down one dusty street and then another, past stalls and wears and people who wore green and brown, like the element he could not bend.
He found himself, unexpectedly, in front of an archway. Ba Sing Se Zoo was stenciled on top.
Instantly, his spirits lifted.
A zoo? That sounded like fun!
Aang looked at the money in his pocket meant to be used for earthbending class, swallowed his guilt, and stepped forward to buy a ticket.
"No ostrich-horses allowed," the ferry intake clerk repeated stubbornly.
Zuko blew out an aggravated breath through his nose. It tasted slightly of smoke. "Ushi can stay in the hold. She's well trained and I promise on my honor I will be with her the entire time. She won't cause any trouble."
"Kid," the clerk looked and then sighed, the distant veneer of customer service falling away. "Look around you. I see the Bei Fong stamp on your passports, but this is not a pleasure cruise. Within an hour this ferry will be filled past safety regulations with refugees. We can't afford the space or the weight."
"The only way that ostrich-horse is getting on is through the galley. As meat," she clarified in case Zuko didn't understand.
Toph touched his wrist in a silent signal to drop it. Zuko snarled something and then stomped out of the line—the one he and Toph had been waiting an hour just to get to the head of.
According to his maps, the only way into Ba Sing Se from this direction was through serpent's pass. Luckily, a ferry ran the length of the great canyon, though at a price that made Zuko swallow hard. Water Tribe coins did not trade well here. He'd had to use the last of them to get tickets. Toph's family seal she'd thought to carry with her got them the passports.
The problem was… Ushi.
As if sensing his thoughts, the ostrich horse snapped at Momo's tail. The lemur screeched back, wrapping himself firmly around Zuko's neck as if for safety, but the mean-tempered hen had taken a chunk out of Zuko more than once. He tried to calm her and got bristled feathers in reply.
"Why do you like that ostrich horse?" Toph asked bluntly. "She hates you."
He rubbed his forehead. "She belonged to a friend of mine and… I have an obligation to make sure she's taken care of."
"Hmm." She turned in place, head canting to the side. She looked like she was feeling out for something with her earthbending. Her ears were practically twitching. Suddenly, she made a quarter turn to the left. "Follow me, Sparky."
Across the building, a man and heavily pregnant woman sat with their backs to the wall. The woman was weeping and her husband held her hand, looking worried.
Zuko was vaguely alarmed, and hoped nothing was wrong with the unborn baby. He was not a healer.
Toph, though, marched right up to them. "What's wrong?" she demanded with all of the arrogance of a noble who got answers to any question she asked.
The man looked up in surprise and said nothing.
The woman wiped at her eyes and sniffed. "Someone stole our bags. Our money, or tickets, our passports are gone."
"I'm sorry," Zuko said, feeling for them but not understanding why they were there. Would Toph's fancy Bei Fong seal cover for them, too?
"Now the only way to get to Ba Sing Se is to travel the pass on foot," the man continued, "but I don't know if Ying can make it in her condition."
"Can you ride?" Toph asked.
All three stared at her, then the man looked at Ushi. "That's generous, but we don't have any coin to spare," he said cautiously. "All that we had was taken with our bags."
Zuko swallowed hard. He knew half the reason he wanted to keep Ushi around was misplaced guilt over what had happened to Song's village. He hadn't known the girl well, but he thought she might approve of this. "The only payment I ask is that you take good care of her. Ushi belonged to a friend of mine, but we can't take her with us. She's old and… well, cranky, but you'll move faster with her to help."
The husband and wife looked at each other. Then the husband stood and bowed low to them both in thanks.
The thrill of visiting the zoo quickly faded. Monk Gyatso often said that Aang was a master of seeing what he wanted to see (even before he became a real airbending master), but Aang wasn't blind to the tiny cages and enclosures. Or the miserable animals locked within.
Aang was good at the bird's eye view, he'd flown over this area a few times both on his glider and on Appa. The zoo was surrounded by the encroaching city. It needed to be moved out of the middle ring into the country-side.
If he were an earthbender, he would do just that. Knock down the existing walls, herd the animals with friendly blasts of air and… fix this.
If he was an earthbender, he wouldn't be ditching class to go to the zoo in the first place. If he was an earthbender, he would be that much closer to defeating the Fire Lord. If, if, if…
More depressed than ever, Aang trudged out of the zoo.
Sorry little guys, he thought. I'll come back when I've got earthbending figured out. I promise.
It was mid-afternoon by the time he turned his heavy feet back home. If he was really lucky, Katara wouldn't notice that he was a little early (and not as dusty as he should be, had he actually been earthbending all day.)
It turned out, he didn't need luck. He walked in on Katara and Sokka in mid-argument.
They'd been doing that a lot more recently.
"I don't see what the big deal is," Sokka was saying. "I've eaten fish all my life, Katara. We lived in the South Pole. So what if I skip out on a fish dinner now?"
Katara faced her brother, her fists firmly planted on her hips in a stance that would make an earthbender proud, eyes narrowed. "It's not just fish, it's a fish bake— it's how they do things, here. Mayvai invited all of us, and I thought it would be nice," somehow the word dripped poison from her lips, "if we brought some traditional Southern Water Tribe food to share."
Sokka flapped a hand at her. "Well, bake away then, woman. I'm not stopping you."
She grit her teeth. "They want to meet you and Aang—"
"Who does?" Aang chirped.
Both siblings turned toward Aang. Sokka looked a little blank, but Katara offered him a warm smile, showing that she, at least, wasn't angry at him.
"My employer's family is having a fish bake. I told them you're a vegetarian—then I had to explain what a vegetarian was—but they would love for you to come. It'll be the evening after next."
He perked up. "A party? Sounds fun!"
She flashed him a grateful smile and then turned expectantly to Sokka.
"Can't," Sokka shrugged. "I have sword practice."
"Why can't you skip one class?"
"Why couldn't you skip one waterbending lesson?" he shot back.
"I never got to have a real waterbending lesson, but maybe I would have skipped one if I needed to," Katara said, which was the biggest lie Aang had ever heard from her. Katara was dedicated to bending as Aang was to breathing. Maybe she realized she didn't have a point because she continued, "Sokka, this is important to me."
"And sword training is important to me," he shot back. "She's counting on me to show up."
That stopped Katara stopped. "She?"
"She, who?" Sokka said.
"You just said 'she'."
"No, I didn't."
Katara turned. "Aang?"
"Uh." Aang was pretty sure he'd heard Sokka say 'she', too, but from the stubborn set in Sokka's jaw and the indignant way Katara was puffing herself up… yeah, he wasn't a firebender yet, but he knew better than to feed those flames. "Uh… I didn't hear?"
Katara looked narrow-eyed at her brother. "Sokka, are you seeing a girl at your sword training class?"
"What?" he yelped. "No!"
He sounded pretty believable to Aang, but Katara clearly didn't think so. "You are just… UGH! I can't believe you! What about Yue?"
Now he looked puzzled. "What about Yue?"
"I thought you two were… you were writing love letters. I thought you had an understanding."
"I never wrote…" Sokka blinked, shook his head in the same way Appa did when he was dislodging a pesky fly. It looked… wrong on him, somehow. Sokka was water-whip sharp. But just for an instant he looked foggy and confused. Then in the next, the weird expression was gone.
"There's no girl!" he snapped at his sister, voice breaking in outrage as he failed his hands around in emphasis. "And even if there was—there isn't!—it would be my business. Not for nosy little sisters!"
Katara's hands were firmly planted on her hips again. "What business is so important that you won't even see any of our people?"
"They're not our people. They're not our tribe, they're just other waterbenders—You know what?" he said abruptly, stamping towards the door. "Maybe I'll just go to my sword training class early today."
"Fine!" Katara yelled after him. "Say hello to your girlfriend for me!"
"I would if I had one! But I don't! So there!" That said, Sokka slammed the door on his way out.
Katara and Aang looked at each other.
"Should I… go after him?" Aang asked.
She shook her head and Aang let out a breath of relief. It seemed ever since they got into the city, Sokka had become moodier then Zuko had been. But at least Zuko would feel better after throwing around some fire.
With a graceful flick, Katara brought a globe of water into her hand and then flicked it out again. Five sharp icy knives embedded themselves into the wooden column on the opposite side of the room with loud thunks. She'd changed, too. Her waterbending had gotten a lot… sharper since she started working on the fishing boat.
Abruptly, she turned to Aang. "That was weird, right? Sokka was being way too defensive."
Aang didn't know about that, but… "I haven't heard him make a joke in forever."
She growled low under her breath. "I can't believe he'd let Yue moon over him while he's… he's training his sword with someone else."
Aang blinked. "The monks always told me that love should be freely given…" Then he quailed under Katara's intense glare. "But keeping secrets from people you love is bad, I would never… uh… I'm just going to check on Appa, bye!"
And he quickly made his own escape.
The ferry launched in the late afternoon. To say that the deck was crowded was a major understatement. Zuko realized that the clerk at the dock had not been exaggerating: No way Ushi could fit.
He and Toph found a spot by the rail. They had no trouble getting a spot—one look at Toph's green-tinged face and people quickly made room for her.
"Are you okay?" He patted her awkwardly on the back as she hung like a limp towel over the rail, occasionally gagging and spitting into the water below. She hadn't thrown up yet, but it looked to be only a matter of time.
"I hate the ocean," she groaned. "I can barely see a thing out here." She stopped, gulped something down, and somehow became even limper. "Ugh, all the rolling…"
They were not on the ocean. Not even remotely, but Zuko was wise enough not to correct her. "You can… barely see?" he asked instead.
In answer, she clenched her fists and tiny bits of gravel—unnoticed to his eye, carried in on the bottom of people's shoes and left there by deckhands uninterested in sweeping— rose up for a good three feet around them.
Zuko grunted, impressed despite himself. He had never thought of earthbending as a versatile art until he met Toph.
"When people got seasick in the tribe," he began, "my dad said to look to the horizon, but…"
"Doesn't do much for me." Toph straightened. With a gesture, the bits of gravel leapt into her hand as if called. She balled her fist, smashing the mass into a lumpy looking rock which she kneaded like a lump of bread. It seemed to help, and within a few minutes color had returned into her cheeks.
She wasn't hungry at all when one of the deckhands came around to ladle out bowls of soup. After one whiff, Zuko wasn't either.
Scowling, he threw his portion into the wide river where, hopefully, it wouldn't poison too many fish. "This is ridiculous. They were supposed to provide dinner, not stomach aches!" He looked around at the families and other downtrodden people who were grimacing, but doing their best to make do with the food. His scowl deepened.
"Skimming off the top is a long-honored merchant tradition." Toph agreed. She happily tossed hers overboard as well, bowl and all.
Her amusement ticked him off. "They're taking advantage of homeless refugees! Where is their honor?"
"There isn't any honor among thieves," said a voice close by. "And from what I heard, that's what the captain and his crew are: Thieves."
Zuko turned to see a boy his age standing nearby. He had a mop of Earth Kingdom brown hair, muddy green eyes, and a pair of hooked swords strapped to his belt.
Toph shifted around, her bare feet sliding across the smooth wooden deck. Zuko knew she'd have his back, though there wasn't much for her to fling except gravel.
The other teen took a wheat stalk out of his mouth with a lazy smile. "Name's Jet." He jerked his head to indicate two others nearby, a boy and a girl who wore equally patched clothing. "And these are my Freedom Fighters, Longshot and Smellerbee."
Don't tell me your parents gave you those names, Zuko thought.
"I'm Zuko, and she's Toph."
"What do you know about the food, Mister Freedom Fighter?" Toph asked bluntly.
Jet's lazy smile deepened somehow, but his eyes stayed on Zuko. "I've heard that the Captain and his men eat like kings while all the refugees have to live on scraps." A pause. "Doesn't seem fair, does it?"
There was something about Jet that seemed to both draw Zuko in and repel him at the same time. By now he was used to the instinctive flare of his inner fire whenever he was challenged by another firebender. Jet, he sensed, didn't have a spark of fire within him. Yet he was so clearly a leader that something visceral inside Zuko wanted to fight him anyway—just to see who would win.
Bad idea on very flammable ship full of refugees.
He shrugged a reply. Toph, too, remained stonily silent. After a beat, Jet went on.
"You want to help us "liberate" some decent food?" A smirk. "For the good of the hungry refugees, of course."
Decent food? It was tempting. Zuko glanced back at Toph who punched one balled fist into her open hand. With a nod, Zuko turned to Jet. "We're in."
"Um," said Smellerbee, gesturing to Toph. "No offense but we need fighters."
Uh-oh. Zuko took a step to the side. Toph raised one bare foot and stomped, hard. Every piece of gravel and speck of dirt larger than the tiniest mote raised several feet in the air, creating an instant cloud upon the deck. People shrieked in surprise. Mothers covered babies, and people who had just been starting to hold their noses and tuck into the rotten soup suddenly found their food even more spoiled than before. Probably for the best.
Toph held the moment for the silent count of three and then with downward push, everything fell back into place. Instantly. Calmly. Without one misblown clod of dirt. She had perfect control.
"My name is Toph Bei Fong," she said. "And I am the greatest Earthbender in the world."
Jet was so smooth that he did not hesitate for one second. "Welcome aboard, Toph. We would love to have you with us."
By mutual agreement, they decided to wait until after night fell to act. Sitting down on the deck, they all got to talking. Well, all but Longshot. The boy didn't speak much.
Jet's storytelling could have made any Water Tribesmen proud. He talked of days living with other children in tree-hut houses, living by their wits, and avoiding Fire Nation patrols.
"I never realized how good we had it," he added with a glance around. "Some of these refugees look like they've been through some lean times." His gaze fell to Zuko and Toph. "You two look like you made it out okay, though."
"We're not refugees," Toph said. "I'm heading to Ba Sing Se to be an Earth Rumble champion." She jerked a thumb at Zuko. "He's from the Water Tribe, trying to find his family."
"Last I heard they were headed towards the city," Zuko added. "Makes sense." He scanned the crowd on the overfull ferry; the exhausted men and women and hungry, fussy kids. "Everyone else seems to be going there."
He hoped he was making the right decision. If he didn't find Katara, Sokka, and Aang soon, he would have to head back and meet up with his father's fleet to plan out an attack during the eclipse without them.
"Family, huh?" Jet said, leaning back on the railing. He gave Zuko an easy grin, the stalk of wheat in his mouth switching from one side to the other. "They fight as good as you?"
Zuko looked at him in surprise.
Jet shrugged. "I know your type. You're a fighter, like us." And his gaze flicked, meaningfully, to Zuko's scars.
Again, his inner fire flared up as if an instinctual part of him recognized a challenge. Forcefully, Zuko pushed it back down. He made himself shrug and look away.
"Us?" Toph asked, doubt heavy in her voice.
Jet's shrug was casual. "We weren't just living carefree in the forest. The whole gang of us Freedom Fighters did what we could to stop the Fire Nation."
Zuko caught the past tense. "What happened?"
"What always happens," Smellerbee said, voice bitter. "We had a plan to wipe the Fire Nation out of our valley once and for all, but some of the kids got cold feet—"
"Not their fault," Jet said smoothly. "They were young. They didn't understand the realities of war." He grinned at Zuko, the type of smile that seemed to include him in his circle of friends, somehow, as if he were saying, But you understand, don't you?
Yes, he did.
Smellerbee growled. "The Fire Nation got wind of it—I still don't know who the snitch was, but if I ever find out…" She drew her knife out of a holster.
"Easy, Smellerbee," Jet said.
The girl shook her head, but put the knife away. "They sent a whole division to burn us out of the homes we'd made in the forest. A whole army just for some kids. If it weren't for Jet…" She shook her head again.
Longshot said nothing, but put his arm around her shoulders.
Who attacked you? Zuko wanted to ask. Which division? What was their banner? Then he caught himself, pushing down the flare of guilt. He couldn't do anything about what had happened. Those weren't his people who had attacked Jet's Freedom Fighters… and burned little kids out of their forest home. Oh, spirits…
"Where was this?" he asked, roughly.
"… I'm sorry," Zuko said, even as he tucked away the name of the town name in his heart, just in case he… Well, if he was ever in a position to do something about it. As stupid and impossible as it seemed.
Silence fell for a moment. Then Jet cleared his throat. "So we're starting fresh. Ba Sing Se is supposed to be the land of opportunity. They say if you're smart and hard working you can make something of yourself here. And," he added, "it would be nice to make some friends along the way." He smiled again at Zuko.
Despite his better judgement, Zuko smiled back.
Toph pulled him aside while Jet, Smellerbee, and Longshot went over to scope out the layout of the decks. "Something's wrong."
"What is it?"
She grimaced. "My feet can't see a thing on all this wood, but there was something in their voices I didn't like when they were talking about the Fire Nation chasing them out of their homes. About… the other kids."
He glanced covertly back to Jet and his two Freedom Fighters. "Are they lying?"
Toph shrugged. "I'd know for sure if any of them were sitting on a good rock, but right now I'm as good as blind."
She punched him hard in the shoulder. It wasn't a friendly punch, either.
Rubbing his arm, he considered her words. You didn't have to like the man you hunted with, but there did have to be some level of trust.
Jet and his friends seemed all right, but they weren't Tribe.
Neither was Toph, though, and he hadn't let that stop him from trusting her.
On the heels of that, he realized Toph had brought the information to him, but was letting him make the call, like Bato did to Hakoda. Did that make him chief of this expedition? Or would that be Jet?
And why did that make him uneasy?
"I want to eat food that's not rotten," he said because who knows what they would find in Ba Sing Se? He had no money left, and he doubted he'd be allowed to hunt for food near the city. "This may be the best chance for a solid meal we'll have until I can find my family. How about I'll watch your back, and you watch mine?"
She grinned and punched him hard in the shoulder. Much friendlier this time. "You got it, Sparky."
Sokka whistled an old tribal tune as he walked down the streets of Ba Sing Se. The lower rings could be kind of a dangerous place, but Sokka was turning into a dangerous guy himself.
After a couple weeks of intensive sword training, he could see muscle developing on his once-skinny arms. He could run longer, felt himself move differently. His steps were lighter.
Sure, it was hard work, but aside from waiting for Aang to learn earthbending and keeping an eye out for Zuko, there was nothing much to be done in Ba Sing Se.
His master's dojo was in a poorer section of the lower rings. Sokka didn't bother to wonder why such a prestigious person would be there. He didn't question the fact he couldn't actually picture his master's face, and didn't know their name. Those thoughts were smoothed away.
He knocked on the door and was surprised, as he always was, when a familiar face showed up.
The last time he'd seen her, that girl had been in the North Pole… No wait. She… had she been here before?
He recoiled, reaching for the sword. Azula got there first.
She's faster than me every time, he remembered with dawning horror. I have to warn Kat—
"Sokka, the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai."
Fear drained out of him like someone had pulled a plug. His pupils widened as the turbulent waters of his mind stilled.
"I am honored to accept his invitation," Sokka intoned.
Azula stepped aside and Sokka walked in.
The door shut behind him.
Zuko, Toph, and the Freedom Fighters moved as night fell.
Sneaking into the kitchen galley was shockingly easy. Because of the inherent fire danger, the ferry didn't have many oil lamps lit. That made for deeply shadowed hallways. Only guards patrolled the decks.
The hardest part was guiding Toph. She could use gravel and bits of dust and rock to judge the general position of things, but not enough to "see" by.
But she dead set against staying in place and insisted she could pull her own weight in the heist.
Zuko knew better than to underestimate her. Besides, if they were caught, at least she'd have an alibi about getting lost on the ship. Who would second-guess a blind girl?
"Ten steps," Zuko murmured, taking her elbow. "Straight up the stairs."
"Got it," she replied, focused and grim. Having a mission did wonders for her seasickness.
With a little patience and luck, they crept up the stairs to the officer's deck, past a sleepy guard, and to the galley located up top.
Longshot and Toph guarded the door. Zuko, Smellerbee, and Jet went around collecting hanging roast snake-fowl, bowls of cooked rice, and sacks of dried pea-beans and fruit.
They loaded it by the door for easy transport out. Jet grinned brightly at Zuko. "This food's going to help all the people on this ship. You're a natural Freedom Fighter." He slung an arm companionably around Zuko's shoulder.
Zuko found himself puffing out his chest in pride. "I guess I am."
Maybe, after Aang mastered all the elements and ended the war, he could do stuff like this more often. He missed the South Pole, but there was no need for him to stay during the dark winters. Maybe he could come up north. Help people with Jet's Freedom Fighters.
He could give something back for the sins of his blood ancestors.
Toph, who stood by the door, her sharp ears at the ready, suddenly turned her head with a hissed, "What's that?"
Instantly, everyone froze. Zuko found himself mentally reaching out for the two oil lamps on either side of the room.
"What is it?" Jet asked, dropping his arm from Zuko's shoulders and reaching for a sword. "I didn't hear anything."
Longshot raised his eyebrow and shook his head.
"I don't hear anything either," Smellerbee added. She was bent low and ready with her knife in one hand.
"It's not what I hear. It's what I smell." Toph pointed. "And it's coming from that way."
Her outstretched finger indicated a door on the other side of the room, past a row of hanging banana-onions. Jet and Zuko exchanged a look and Jet stalked over to test the knob. Not locked. He pushed it open.
A wave of boiling hot air and the scent of rot washed over them all. Zuko's stomach flipped so abruptly he was in danger of losing what little lunch he'd had.
"What is that?" Smellerbee demanded, backing a step in shock.
Jet was made of sterner stuff. He continued walking right in, despite the eye-watering smell. His indignant voice drifted out.
"What are they doing to our food?"
Swallowing bile down, Zuko followed. He found he had no more explanation than Jet.
There were four large stone pots set up in the middle of the room, all the contents under boil from a fire pit. Inside was a gray sludge, a disgusting mix of all of the food from the first room. It was as if someone had chopped up all the good food, bones, offal, bread, and everything else, dumped it in the pots and then set it to boil.
Longshot, Smellerbee, and Toph all came through. No one had any explanation.
"They're ruining all the food!" Smellerbee's lip curled in disgust. "On purpose!"
"But why?" Zuko asked.
"It's obvious, isn't it?" Jet growled. "The captain is in league with the Fire Nation."
Taken aback, Zuko turned to him. "What?"
The other boy's expression darkened. "He and his men eat only the best and spoil the rest purpose. Don't you see? They're trying to make Earth Kingdom refugees weak and sick before they are out of reach of the Fire Nation forever."
That was one of the most nonsensical theories Zuko had ever heard, and that included Sokka's delirious babbling that time he got sick with fire fever.
"That's ridiculous," Zuko said. "It isn't even how the Fire Nation fight."
Longshot turned his head, looking pointedly back the way they came.
"Longshot's right," Jet said. "We need to get out of here. But," he added, "not before we get rid of this." His voice rose with a bite of command. "I say we dump it all over the side and into the water."
"Fine by me," Zuko said.
Before they took two steps, Toph held out her arms, barring their way.
"I'm on it." Then she stepped forward. With a sharp kick, the four huge stone pots crashed through the far wall, timber splintering in all directions, where they fell into the river below.
"That was… loud," Zuko said.
"Violent, but effective," she replied in satisfaction.
Jet regarded Toph with a new, considering gaze. There was something in his eyes, like he'd realized Toph's earthbending wasn't a parlor trick—it had real power—that made Zuko want to step between them. Shield her from him.
Then a horrified voice cried out. "By the spirits! What have you kids done?"
They all turned to see several men in uniform, one wearing a captain's hat, staring in horror at the destroyed room. Jet thrust his chin out belligerently and stepped forward, swords at the ready.
"Me and my Freedom Fighters are putting things to right. You're trying to poison those people down there!"
"Poison? You little idiots!" a deckhand cried. "Those pots weren't for people. Those were for the serpents!"
"The what?" Toph barked.
The Captain didn't have time for explanations. He turned to one of the shipmen. "Order the engine room to stoke the engines to full. We must put as much space between us and this spot as possible."
"Wait," still brandishing his swords, Jet stepped forward. He cut an intimidating figure—or he would have if the men weren't practically shaking in their boots. "What's going on?"
Two of the men broke off and ran down the hall to pass along the captain's orders. The captain hustled out after them, presumedly to the bridge. Only one stayed behind and he was staring, eyes wide at the destruction of the room. He was the one who spoke.
"We fling the buoys out behind us." He pointed to a line of them against the wall, unnoticed The wax plug at the top melts in water after about an hour—Keeps the monster busy and away from the ship so we can pass through. But you just dumped it all out here, right where we are. Do you know what you've done?"
On the heels of his words a low haunting note, deeper than a roar, but filled with menace, rang through the ship. It wasn't loud, but it was big.
The serpent smelled the food and had expecting dinner.
"Do you have lifeboats?" Zuko rasped.
Then the deck under their feet shuddered as if something very large had bumped up against it.
The deckhand shook his head, his face bloodless. "Not enough for even half the passengers. But in this river? Trust me, they're safer aboard this ship—"
That was when the first crack of snapping wood shot through the ship.
And that was when the screaming from the decks blow started.
Through the hole in the wall, Zuko saw a blue-green coil wrap around the hull of the ship, coiling over the deck like a snake tightening around prey. People hurriedly backed away. A flash of an arrow-shaped head was followed by another loop.
The ship shuddered and the engines died. The coil tightened, wood splintered, and the world shattered apart.
The cabin twisted on its side, throwing everyone against a wall that used to be a floor. Longshot's elbow jabbed into Zuko, and then they both crashed into Jet. Zuko caught one glance at Toph's wide eyes before a wall of night dark water rushed in.
No light. No way to bend. Some instinct made him grab Toph's collar in one fist and push off from the floor/wall. The only light came from the hole Toph had made with the stone pots. Zuko aimed for it.
Thankfully the surface was only a few feet up. He broke through, gasping air to the sounds of screaming passengers and hooting serpent roars.
Toph flailed next to him. "I can't swim!" She slapped the water uselessly, sinking under.
He hastily grabbed her and hauled her back up. "Toph, stop! I have you!"
People who were drowning could easily drag someone down, but Toph was too controlled for panic. She listened. Stopped fighting and clung to Zuko—though not tight enough to keep him from swimming.
"I hate the ocean," she sputtered. "I can't see a thing!"
Be thankful this isn't the ocean. "On your back. You'll float," Zuko gasped, and helped maneuver her on her back, arms out.
Jet, Smellerbee, and Longshot popped up nearby.
The water was pitch black and filled with shouts and panicked splashing from other refugees. Zuko twisted around and was barely able to make out the darker smudge of the sharp ridges that cut into either side of the pass. "There!" he yelled, gesturing sharply to get the Freedom fighter's attention. "The shore is that way!"
Nodding, Jet raised his voice. He wasn't paddling for two, and the practiced command in his voice made even people on the verge of panic listen. "Head for the shore! It's not far. That way!"
His order was taken up by others, and shortly after the splashing had purpose as refugees started heading to safety.
With a final cracking, splintering sound, the last of the ferry sank under the surface. The serpent roared—a sound that was both heard out of the water and was felt within.
It's discovered it can't eat the wooden hull, Zuko realized. And it's really angry about it.
He and Jet exchanged a look. He saw at once that the other teen had come to the same conclusion.
Zuko shoved Toph at Smellerbee. "Get her to shore."
"No, wait! Where are you going?" Toph reached blindly for him, but he ducked away.
"What are you doing?" Smellerbee asked, but grabbed the other girl.
Jet answered for the both of them. "We have about a minute before that monster realizes all the snacks are up here on the surface."
"We're going to distract it," Zuko added fiercely.
"No! I can help!" Toph yelled but they all heard the high panic in her voice. Smellerbee traded looks with Longshot and then they started paddling toward shore, Toph yelling and raging between them.
Zuko and Jet turned towards the spot where the ferry had been. More and more people were passing them by, swimming towards land. They were quickly being left behind.
"Here." Jet passed him one of his hook swords, handle first.
Zuko accepted it with a grim nod, his heart thudding. He had no idea how to use a sword, much less a unique one like this. His experience with weapons was with a boomerang, a whalebone club and what spear-work he'd learned in the North Pole. Somehow, though, it seemed to feel right in his hand.
I've held a sword like this before, he thought—he knew.
In his mind's eye he caught a flash of a stern man. He wore his hair in a Fire Nation nobleman's knot, but his skin was Water Tribe dark. He also had unexpectedly kind eyes.
"These are dual swords. Two halves of a single weapon. Don't think of them as separate. They are two parts of the same whole…"
The serpent roared again and Zuko forcefully shoved the fragment of memory away. He didn't have time to chase it down.
The water rippled in a V as something very large moved just under the surface. It was heading towards the fleeing refugees.
"Hey!" Jet yelled, slapping the surface with one hand. "Hey, there's free lunch right here! Come and get it!"
Zuko flashed a quick grin at him and moved a few feet away to do the same. "Hey, fish-face! Ugly! Over here!"
The V turned, attracted more by their splashing than their words. It seemed to hesitate for a second, then made it's decision. It charged, throwing up a spray of water in its wake.
"We got its attention," Jet said. "Now what?"
"We take it down," Zuko replied grimly.
Jet flashed him a smile that bordered on this side of crazy. This was a guy who enjoyed a good battle. Zuko knew that feeling, and realized he had missed it. It was close to hunting some of the dangerous animals in the South Pole with Sokka. It had been too long since he had a hunting partner.
He couldn't dodge like he could on land, but he had a few tricks up his sleeves.
The roaring serpent aimed for a spot between them. Zuko waited until it was fully committed to the charge, then he plunged his hands under and breathed out sharply.
He couldn't firebend underwater, but he'd spent years molding heat against ice walls in huts in tandom with Katara to help strengthen and shape them. This wasn't so different. The only difficult part was focusing the heat away, so that he didn't boil the skin off his own hands.
The serpent's sensitive whiskers brushed the edge of his jet of hot water. It flinched, the roar rising up an octave to become a scream. At the same time, Jet slashed with his sword, hooking just under the scales, and ripping two away.
The serpent reared and Zuko got a good look at it for the first time. Its head was dragon-like, with a sharper, pointed nose and whiskers that looked more like barbs. Its eyes were yellow and stared straight ahead, dead and emotionless, like a fish. It roared again, lifting higher up into the air than he thought possible, swinging its blue-green head back and forth. A few scales by its mouth were blistered with heat. The cut Jet had made trickled blue-black blood into the water. But compared to a creature that size, the injuries were nothing.
Zuko realized with a sinking feeling that it had only been surprised.
Then, collecting itself, the serpent parted its jaws. It dived down, teeth aimed to close over Jet.
The other boy yelled, slashing his sword, but he was small and some of those teeth were as long as his arm.
Zuko didn't think—Story of his life—He only acted. He slashed out with a compact bolt of fire, like an icicle he'd once seen Katara throw, deadly and precise.
It hit one of those yellow fish eyes a second before the jaws closed.
Again the serpent screamed, rearing back up, lips peeled back to expose all its teeth and wow… there were more than three rows. It glared fishy yellow eyes at him.
He didn't think the serpent was intelligent enough for thought or commutation, not like a dragon. But he did suspect it could hate.
Then, abruptly, something larger—another blue-green body—struck the serpent. Even larger jaws closed around its neck. A new roar filled the air, so loud Zuko clapped his hands over his ears. It didn't help—it sounded like the anger was bouncing around inside his skull.
No, he realized with shock he felt all the way to his toes. It was another serpent. A larger serpent.
Then he remembered the trickle of blood dripping down from the first serpent's neck and into the water.
They smell blood. They're attracted to it, like wolf-sharks.
That meant the one that had crushed the ferry wasn't the only one in this river. Not even the biggest one. Suddenly the ripples in the dark water took on a very ominous meaning.
Jet was yelling something, but Zuko couldn't hear over the roars of the beasts. They were fighting. Coiling over and over and snapping at each other's faces.
"Swim!" Zuko shoved the hilt of the sword in his belt and turned towards shore.
Jet seemed to agree. They both headed back to shore as fast as they could swim.
Zuko expected to feel teeth close around him, or something drag him down from below, but the serpents must have been busy with the fight, or the remains of what had been in the ferry.
He just hoped they were fighting over food-stuff and supplies… and not bodies.
The land sloped up sharply right at the shore. Luckily, by this time most of the rest of the refugees had made it. Only the slowest were dragging themselves up—the ones injured from the war, sick or very old. He and Jet were the last out.
Letting out a relieved breath, Zuko stood. The weight of Jet's sword pulled on his belt. Unhooking it, he turned and held it out.
It was the only thing that kept him from being slashed open to the bone.
Jet's hooksword struck Zuko's with enough force to knock it out of his hand. It spun away and landed in water with a splash.
Zuko jumped back, arms up to avoid a second slash by a hair.
"This was your plan all along, wasn't it?" Jet screamed, advancing on him.
"What are you doing?" Zuko yelped, backing frantically.
"Jet!" Smellerbee splashed up in the knee-high water, putting herself by her leader's side. "What's wrong? What happened?"
The crazy look was back in Jet's eyes, and it was a lot less fun when it was turned on him. He pointed his hooked sword at Zuko. "He's a Fire Nation spy!"
Oh, monkeyfeathers. He thought that Jet had been distracted, and it had only been one bolt of fire. Nothing flashy. But apparently it had been enough.
"Jet." Smellerbee gripped his arm. "We can't do this again."
She looked pointedly to the groups of shivering, shocked survivors huddled on the shore. So far it seemed people were too stunned and tired to put together why the boat had sank, but that could change.
Again? Zuko wondered. What had happened at Gaipan?
"You don't understand." Jet shoved Smellerbee off and bent to grab his dropped hook sword. "I saw him fireb—"
The ground suddenly rose around him, trapping him to the waist. Toph stepped up, Momo on her shoulder. Her hair dripped out of its large bun, but her mouth was set in a thin line. "Maybe you should shut up before I shut you up."
Jet, of course, did the exact opposite. Thrashing against the rock restraint, he yelled, "He's Fire Nation! This girl is a collaborator. They were trying to sink the ship! This is their fault!"
Some people looked at them skeptically. Others looked interested, but they were too disorganized, cold, shocked to do anything.
"Come on," Zuko said tightly to Toph. He jerked his chin towards the forest. "Let's get out of here."
He and Toph quickly walked away. No one followed.
Jet howled after them… he sounded completely unhinged.
"I knew I didn't like that guy," Toph grumbled once they were well out of ear shot.
"Yeah." Zuko crunched his foot down on a stick much harder than it needed to make it break with a satisfying snap. He would have rather burned something, but that might have brought the wrong kind of attention.
His fire always brought the wrong attention.
"I'm sick of this," he growled. "I was trying to save that idiot's life!"
"Sparky." Toph paused as if bracing herself. "Did everyone make it out of the water okay?"
That doused the fire in him more effectively than a bucket of cold water. Yes, it was terrible that—once again—being a firebender had turned an ally into an enemy, but there were many people out there having a worse night.
Zuko thought of how quickly the ferry sank, how many serpents were probably in the water, and how long it took for the first to attack him and Jet directly. He wouldn't bet good furs that it had only been feasting on food supplies.
He also knew that Toph would know if he lied.
"I didn't see anyone left in the water."
Her face hardened, and but she didn't ask for clarification.
There was a long, long pause. Then she spoke. "No one on shore was yelling that people were missing. No one was asking around for missing people."
That was something. Her tone was tentative—for Toph. Less brash than usual, almost a question. He let out a long breath and then nodded. There was nothing he could do. "Then I think everyone got out okay."
The cliffs on either side of Serpent's pass were steep, but that was nothing to an earthbender. Eventually, the landscape leveled out. Zuko's energy was naturally low in the small hours of the night. He pretty much followed Toph's footsteps and concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other.
So he had to sidestep to avoid running right into her when she stopped dead.
"Hey, watch it!"
She didn't move. "Don't tell me you don't see that."
"See what?" Automatically, he widened his stance, looking around for any attackers. Surely no one had followed him from the shore. Or did she sense bandits? Fire Nation troops?
"That." She pointed.
"Um, Toph. That's a tree." They were in the middle of a forest, actually. Had been for the past hour, though the oncoming dawn had lightened the sky over the treetops.
"Ugh. I'm supposed to be the blind one, here. Not that. That!" She moved her hand straight up.
Zuko followed her gaze, not understanding. Then he blinked. That… wasn't the direction of the sun, but the sky in the treetops was light as if dawn had just broken through.
He stepped to the side, peering through a larger opening in the canopy. Then he got it. His jaw dropped.
What he mistook for a piece of the sky was sheer rock. Granite or marble or something so light that it blended perfectly into the early morning sky. Sheer and perfect and so tall that if he craned his head he couldn't even see the top.
A wall that went on and on and on.
Toph must have felt his reaction. She grinned. "Yeah, it's pretty awesome. You should try feeling it with your feet."
The wall was clearly built to keep the Fire Nation (and everyone else) out. For Toph, it was no challenge at all. Striding up she let out a low whistle and laid the palm of her hand almost reverently on the stone surface. Up close the stone glinted with sparkling minerals. He wondered what she "saw" with her special type of sight.
"The wall goes just as deep as it is tall," she said, awed.
His eyebrow rows rose and he took another look.
Before he could ask if that would be a problem, she laced her fingers, cracked her knuckles, and bent them a doorway wide enough for them to walk through.
The impenetrable walls of Ba Sing Se…
The thought floated in and out of his head. Where had he heard that phrase before?
He was getting these flashes, or echos of memories, or whatever more and more often. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?
Toph said that the walls were manned along the top, but Zuko had to take her word for it. He assumed that the guards manning the watchtowers were keeping watch for armies, not two lone travelers. Still, they stuck close to the wall's shadows (easy to do. A wall that tall cast shadows so long and deep it was like stepping into twilight).
After a mile, they came to an official entrance cut into the thick wall. It was easy to slip in with the flow of refugees.
Zuko glanced around, but no familiar faces stood out from the crowd around them. These weren't the same refugees as the ferry. From the dusty, footsore look of them, they'd all come on foot.
So many people, he thought. Plus, this was only one entrance among many along the wall. Ba Sing Se was the biggest city in the world, but how could they fit everyone? How large was the actual city?
The line snaked forward to what someone had called a monorail system. Several pairs of earthbenders stood next to a sort of metal carriage which straddled a railing—at least ten of the carriages were linked together in a line.
He and Toph boarded. Once the group boarded, the earthbenders started to move. The monorail picked up speed, and as impossible as it seemed, soon they were moving quicker than Appa could fly.
Zuko stared out the window as farms and field rolled into outlying homes, and then denser city. So much city. The homes went on and on and on.
Then, unmistakably, something else—just as large and as impressive as the wall—loomed up. His jaw dropped.
Toph must have felt his reaction. "What is it?"
"We're passing by the Earth Rumble arena." He glanced at her. "Can you see it?"
Her toes flexed against the steel floor. "No."
Her voice was flat and Zuko sensed she was too proud to ask what it looked like.
"It's huge—must be three or four times the size of the one in Gaoling. From here I can see a huge, flat area in the middle—I think it's for battling, an announcer's box, and the stands go way up. It's almost as tall as this monorail. I can't imagine how many people can fit inside." He paused. "They're all going to watch you fight."
"They're all going to watch me win." She sighed contentedly and leaned against him, closing her eyes. "I can't wait."
"The ocean was cold. You're warm."
They'd left Serpent's Pass hours ago, and they'd been walking since then. Toph was tired, but would never admit to weakness.
Zuko smiled and fell silent. Between the sway of the monorail and the click-clack of the wheels against the rail, it was nice to sit and watch the landscape pass by. It took a few minutes before he realized Toph had fallen asleep, propped up against him.
He let her rest.
The monorail coasted to a stop as the evening sky shaded into nightfall. Zuko looked out the window and realized he had no idea where in the city he was.
This seemed to be a residential district. A sheer wall of apartments rose up into the sky, families living clustered so close together that one neighbor could reach out and steal dinner from another… and judging by the bickering, some actually had.
The crowd left the station like a river in motion. Caught up in it, he and Toph descended into chaos. Officials in green uniform herded some refugees towards points of interest, while merchants barked out prices of food and drink to exhausted travelers. Zuko saw still others trying to get the attention of healthy men and women, offering unspecified employment. They didn't seem to be interested in collecting teenagers, but he gave them a wide berth anyway.
The nap had refreshed Toph. Her head turned this way and that, ears perked to catch everything. She stabbed one callused heel into the hard-packed dirt. "This way!" she said in satisfaction, making a quarter turn and walking straight to a woman who was passing out flyers.
"Come one, come all! Ba Sing Se's very own Earth Rumble starts tonight!" the woman called out in a brisk, but practiced tone. "Here you are, missy!" She shoved one in Toph's face.
Toph batted it away. "Paper doesn't much for me. When's the rumble starting?"
"Eighth bell. That's about in an hour," she said, to their confused looks.
"Where?" Zuko asked.
She beamed and turned the flyer over to show a rudimentary map drawn on the back. It seemed to be the largest and widest ring of Ba Sing Se—marked the 'lower' ring. The Earth Rumble arena sat like a big round growth on the edge, near the east side.
The woman beamed. "Down this street to the main drag, then follow the signs. You can't miss it!"
Zuko opened his mouth to ask if she'd heard anything about the Avatar coming to the city… but Toph was already striding down the busy street like she owned it. Trying to convince her to wait was roughly like trying to stop an avalanche rock-a-lanche in motion.
Rolling his eyes, Zuko followed.
Sure enough, there was a merrily painted gold and green sign pointing the way to the Earth Rumble. Toph couldn't see it, but she read his body language well enough that he didn't need to tell her to turn.
As he walked, a sensation of unease prickled the back of Zuko neck. He felt like he was being watched. There was a literal crowd of people at his back and at his front. Strangers brushed his shoulders as they passed. He felt fingers catch in his pockets, but they were already empty. When he turned, the would-be pickpockets had already melted into the crowd.
Once he swore he saw a shadow jumping from one roof to the other in the fading light, but when he looked, he saw only shadows.
"Come on, slow poke!" Toph yelled over her shoulder. She'd somehow gotten a few lengths ahead of him. He hurried to catch up.
Toph turned a corner and stopped. The busy evening streets had become clogged with an immovable crowd. The reason why was soon made clear: A cabbage cart had overturned, blocking the street completely. Cabbages had rolled this way and that as the merchant wailed. Some tried to help clean up while others just wanted to push past.
With a frustrated growl, Toph turned and headed towards a mostly deserted alleyway.
"Would you wait up?" Zuko asked, exasperated. "She said you had an hour!"
"Nope, I gotta get there before they close registration for new competitors."
Using the innate sense of direction of an earthbender, she turned another corner into the darkness. There were no people in this alleyway. It smelled like garbage and other, fouler, things.
Suddenly, something went 'twang', Toph gave a yelp and abruptly she flipped up backwards and hung in mid-air—suspended by a rope around her ankle.
A snare, Zuko realized. He'd used similar ones in the South Pole, but who would set up something like this in the city? Didn't matter. At least he knew the proper way to cut her down.
"Toph! Hold on!" He rushed forward.
"Stop right there."
Someone dropped from a low roof to the alleyway, between him and Toph. His hook swords were already unsheathed.
It was Jet.
"What do you want?" Zuko growled.
"Who is that?" Toph demanded, thrashing uselessly in the air. "Is that Jet?"
Momo gave a shrill cry of alarm as two more figures emerged from the mouth of the alleyway. Longshot, who had an arrow knocked on his bow, pointed directly at Toph. Smellerbee stood beside him, her knife was drawn, her eyes locked on Zuko.
"Jet and his two little followers," Zuko confirmed. Once glance down the deserted alleyway confirmed the worst—no one around to help, and nothing he could use as a weapon. They'd been neatly cut off and led into a trap. He suddenly didn't think that overturned cabbage cart had been an accident. He looked back at Jet, judging him to be the most dangerous out of the three. "How long have you been following us?"
"We saw you two on the monorail," Jet said. "Thought you could sneak into Ba Sing Se like the decent folk?"
Zuko clenched his fists. "We're not here to cause trouble."
"Sure you're not," he said, voice low and silky. "And that wasn't fire you were egging that monster on with?"
Zuko stared. He was insane.
"Enough jibber-jabbing. Let me down and fight me like a man!" Toph yelled. She was trying to curl up to grab at the rope around her ankle, but couldn't quite reach. She fell back and the momentum set her swinging.
Jet smirked. "Don't think so, earthbender. You can just stay up there, where you can't cause trouble. I'll call the city guard soon as I've dealt with your friend, here. I don't think they appreciate Fire Nation collaborators."
In answer, Toph snorted back an impressive ball of phlegm and spit right at him. Jet danced out of the way.
Seeing his distraction, Zuko lunged at him, aiming to grab one of the swords. But Smellerbee, as close and alert as Jet's shadow, did too.
"Jet, look out!" She darted forward, and Zuko had to leap to the side to avoid her slash.
"Don't, Bee!" Jet snapped. "He's mine. I'm going to make him pay for what happened to the ferry."
With a nod, she stepped back.
"You're insane!" Zuko yelled. "The serpent was an accident—You were there, Jet! I was trying to save your life!"
"Save my life?" he roared. "All you people know how to do is kill!"
Desperate, he tried another tactic. "Toph has nothing to do with this. I'll turn myself in—say whatever you want me to say." And hope that the Ba Sing Se officials would be smart and willing to contact Aang and his siblings to verify his story—if they were there at all. "Let her go, Jet."
Jet met his gaze. That slightly unhinged look was back in his eyes. He looked a little like the serpent right before it struck. And Zuko knew that there would be no talking him out of this. Zuko was about to fight to the death, barehanded against a swordsman. All he had was his fire.
Lots of people have tried to kill me, and none have succeeded, he thought. He only had to look in the mirror to know that much.
Jet grinned around his wheat stalk and raised his swords. "Why don't you come and make me?"
Fire was life, but surrounded by enemies, Zuko felt his own inner flame grow hotter than ever—almost incandescent. He could feel with a sixth sense he could almost see, every cookfire and lantern for a block around burn along with him.
Yes, fire was life, but it could easily turn into death.
Jet must have seen the decision in his eyes. His grip tightened on his swords. "That's right, Fire Nation. Show me what you're really made of."
Since leaving the South Pole, he had been in more fights than he could count, but had only deliberately burned two people — Zhao and Gow. Now, he knew, he was about to do it again. Zuko took in a deep controlled breath, like Iroh taught him, preparing to loose fire.
"Zuko! Go low!" barked a familiar voice.
For a split second, Zuko wasn't standing in a filthy alleyway in a crowded city. He was on snowy tundra along with his brother on the hunt. His body reacted before his mind could catch up.
Zuko dropped flat to the ground. There was a whistle of steel cutting air over his head. Then the clash of metal on metal.
Someone in Water Tribe blue had leaped between them and was cutting across Jet's two hook swords with a blade of his own.
It was Sokka.