The dawn brings clarity.
The waterbender is theoretically well enough to travel. However, there is no immediate need to do so, and I believe that she and the rest of the Avatar's group sorely need a few days' rest. None of them have been unaffected by the events of the past few days, and while it's not a thing that a temporary reprieve can solve, I don't think that it can hurt. Especially when the alternative is forcing a march on into Agni-knows-what.
It has not escaped my notice that my thoughts have turned to staying with them. At least for the present.
I suppose I might as well. If they will have me. At the very least I might provide them with some small amount of protection, should Iroh come knocking.
Any vague plans I had for the morning are rearranged the second I make my way downstairs, and into the common room, and see who is already occupying the breakfast table.
The waterbender (Katara. Her name is Katara). She looks... much as I suspected she might.
Death hollows the eyes and sinks the cheeks. Wrung-out and run down, I doubt she has even registered my presence. I back out of the room, quietly, and almost bump into the Avatar, hovering in the doorway.
I nod to him, briefly, although he barely spares me a glance, and make my way towards the front door. I somehow doubt my presence here will help anyone. Let them help each other.
I have work to be getting on with.
It's the kind of heat that you breathe in and it dries your throat down to your lungs. There's not a cloud in the sky, not the merest hint of a breeze, and the sun hasn't even climbed to midday yet but people are already dodging from shadow to shadow (with the occasional exception of the few firebenders on patrol, part of the local militia, smugly immune to the perils of eyeball-shrivelling sunshine), and it's even odds that the streets will be deserted from midday to late afternoon and I am now quite definitely certain that somebody is following me.
I amble into the market square, as unconcerned as can be, and wait patiently for the Bei Fong girl to catch up.
Toph Bei Fong. I had done a little reading up on her since she had become part of the Avatar's group. Not a great deal, but then there wasn't a great deal on record about her. The only daughter of the Gaoling Bei Fongs, notorious collaborators who had done well out of the occupation. She herself was rarely seen, kept housebound. Twelve years old. Apparently had some minor talent as an earthbender, but not trained beyond the very basics. Blind as a wolfbat.
That last point was starting to stick in my brain a bit. The penultimate one seemed a bit incongruous, as well. The anti-penultimate, I was trying quite hard not to think about, just in case it depressed me again.
Eventually, she arrived at my elbow, as nonchalant as though we had walked from the inn together.
"You're all the way out here," she accused, as I bought an apple from a stall.
"Yes," I replied. There didn't seem any point in denying it. "Good morning."
"Huh." She paused, for a long moment. Then she shrugged, as though she had learned something of no consequence. "I was wondering."
Understanding crept over me. Of course. Well, I suppose I am happy to be a distraction.
"Would you like to come with me? I was going to meet with a friend."
She shrugged again, just a fraction too nonchalant to be genuine. "Sure, whatever."
"Okay! I guess we've made pretty good progress today, so..." Sokka's eyes darted around, as if half-sure the trees around them were just waiting for him to show signs of weakness "...find a place to stop?"
"Hn," Azula grunted, blankly.
"...Was that a yes? …I'm just gonna assume that was a yes."
Azula didn't dignify that with a response, dragging her feet over to a marginally more comfortable-looking patch of ground, and dropping onto it.
"You remember the conversations we used to have?" Sokka sighed, wistfully. "You know, the ones where I said words, and then you said words, and nobody stared off blankly into the distance and left the other person hanging, talking to themselves? I miss those days."
"...Fine. Fine. I'll be back in a second. Just gonna, you know. Look around."
"So," the earthbender piped up, at my elbow, as we moved through the market, "where are we going?"
"A bar, probably."
She snorted, amused. "Probably?"
"Yes. I assume there is one nearby." There's something just slightly off about the day, if I can just-
"You have no idea who this guy you're supposed to meet is, do you."
"What could possibly make you think that?" Just something in the way people are moving. It's not a happy crowd that has gathered at this market. Not the instant ink-drop of bad news, just... general unease. It's making my hair tingle, and that's never a good sign.
"What's his name?"
"Lee," I said, absently.
"You're the worst liar I've ever met," she declared, with an air of authority.
"That's quite rude of you to say so."
I know I'm supposed to be a bit more subtle, and ideally not reveal the existence of the Order to outsiders if at all possible, but I'm not, for two very simple reasons. Firstly, the girl is a companion of the Avatar, and as such deserves frankness more than most, and, secondly, Agni help me but I don't have the strength for it right now. I'm bone-tired, and the last thing I want to be worried with is the proper codes and procedures for letting the uninitiated find out about Order business.
Jeong-Jeong would probably have a heart attack if he found out, but frankly he could do with one, and if anybody has the authority to overrule the code book, it's me, Acting Damn Grand Damn Lotus Piandao.
The bar was a dismal, flat-roofed affair, small windows and tables that looked slightly tacky to the touch. The sort of place where the clientèle can't even work up the energy to sneer at you as you walk in. The earthbender looks as though she has stepped in something unpleasant. She probably has.
These sorts of places are staple meeting-places for the Order. Agni knows why; perhaps some long-forgotten Grand Lotus with a flair for the dramatic set it in stone once. But whatever the origin, this is the way it tends to go. The pai-sho table in the corner, wizened master inevitably waiting-
Or not, in this case. Well, I suppose he can't sit there all the time. A man needs to eat, after all.
I ambled over to the barman, who seemed locked in a perpetual loop of wiping a glass clean with a filthy rag, not noticing that the grime he was so engaged in removing was in fact being distributed in the first place by his cloth, and nodded over to the pai sho table.
"Afternoon," I begin, with something I hope is an easy smile. "Tell me, you wouldn't happen to know the name of the person who usually sits at the pai sho table, would you? They beat me quite soundly last time I was passing through this way, and I was rather hoping for a rematch."
He blinked, heavily, and I was forced to endure the sight of a slow drop of sweat rolling down the side of his long nose.
"You'd be wanting Old Lady Cho, I reckon. She's not that good at pai sho. She's alright, I s'pose."
Wonderful. Perhaps we can speed this up a little.
"Will she be here tonight? I'm only in town for the evening, I'm afraid."
He shrugged. "Don't rightly know. Not seen her in" his brows knitted, and across the room, out of the corner of my eye, I see the earthbender's head twitch, ever so slightly "...bout three weeks, now." This revelation didn't mean much to me, but it evidently meant something to him, judging by the shadow that crossed his face. "Tell you what, I'll give you her address, if it please you, and you can go check up on her. Perhaps it's nothing, but she don't have family round here no more. Nobody to notice if she up and vanished. If you take my meaning," he concluded, with a foreboding air. I didn't take his meaning, but I had the disquieting feeling that I was going to.
We step back out, away from the sweaty gloom of the bar, and into the baking sunshine of the afternoon. A thought strikes me. The earthbender is not wearing shoes. I look down.
"How're the feet?"
She nods, academically. "Kinda warm. It's pretty uncomfortable," she says, with an air of disinterest.
Well, if she's not going to put shoes on, I suppose it isn't any of my business.
Sokka stared at her, critically.
"You've been sleeping, right?"
"I'm fine," she snapped, turning away from him.
"That's not what I asked. Your eyes look kinda bloodshot, that's all." He waited, apparently for a response, for several seconds, before continuing, with an air of defeat. "So you have been sleeping, right? Sleep's important."
The sun is starting to set by the time we reach the house, long shadows creeping up the walls. The neighbourhood has given way to narrow terraced streets, and small, cramped houses.
It is one of these houses that Cho apparently calls home.
Toph places a hand on the wall and gestures for my silence, jaw set in studious concentration. After a moment, she declares that there's nobody home.
"And for a while, I'd reckon," she says, grimly. I still haven't established quite how she's doing what she does, but I don't see any reason to disbelieve her.
The door swings open at a touch. Not a good sign. No sign of anything out of the ordinary indoors. It looks like the sort of house you might expect an old woman living alone to keep. Aside from the layer of dust.
It appears that Old Lady Cho has not been here for some time.
Azula stared with furrowed brow at her companion, as he tended to the fire.
He was getting to her.
Enough. She was just going to ask him.
She cleared her throat.
"Hmm?" he responded, not looking up.
"What do you want?"
Azula shook her head.
"What is it you want?"
"...These fish not to burn?"
"That's not what I meant."
"...Then... I don't know, a better pair of boots? A proper boat of my own? To see my family again? To bring the wonders of indoor plumbing to the Water Tribes? A nice steak? Come on, Azula, you're not giving me a lot to work with here."
"...Never mind," she said, abruptly. "It was a stupid question. Forget it."
He held her gaze for a few moments.
"'Kay," he replied, and turned the fish over on the fire.
"What're you looking for?" the earthbender asks, as I sift through a small stack of letters. Nothing out of the ordinary, unfortunately. "'Cause, as far as I can see, you've just broken into some random old lady's house, and now you're going through her stuff?"
When you put it like that. I sigh, and straighten up. It's unlikely to be among her shopping lists, I will concede.
"The woman that lives"lived? Lives "in this house is a... an agent."
She gives this due consideration. "You don't seem the type of guy to have agents."
She's got me there. "I'm borrowing them. Anyway, she would have had reports. Reports I need to see." I have to know what's happening in the Earth Kingdom. I've been out of the loop too long as it is. "They might be kept somewhere hidden."
She sighs, long-sufferingly. "Alright, just a second." She cracks her knuckles, theatrically, sliding into a stance. After a second, her arm slams outwards, and with a small crack of stone, a partition in the wall falls open, revealing a small tin box.
"Ah. Thank you."
"What did you mean," he said, slowly, shifting his back so he was leaning up against a convenient rock, "when you asked me what I wanted, earlier?"
"I thought I told you to forget it."
He sighed. "It obviously bothered you."
"From where I'm standing, it seems to have bothered you more."
"Fine, whatever. G'night."
The earthbender is getting bored. In my defence, there are a lot of reports. The invasion of Ba Sing Se (a total success, if completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things), the reconstruction of Omashu (another success, and one more important than the largely symbolic recapture of that dead city), the liberation of the South (all on schedule), there were a thousand parts to this picture, and it wasn't always clear which ones were going to be important.
But read enough, and the image becomes clear. The Southern exodus to Kyoshi has all but halted, as the people of the Southern Earth Kingdom return to their homes. Fire Nation forces moving North- some small groups captured or killed (more often the latter), but most banding together in some semblance of organisation, heading towards the harbours. As predicted- standard evacuation procedures. The Eclipse broke their resolve and shattered their strongholds. Omashu has become a beacon- refugees have been flocking there. Bumi's reinstatement as King has been a huge boost to morale.
And General Fong is dead. His spearhead into the North broken. The fortresses still stand. Gathering Fire Nation forces in the Original Colonies.
With mounting horror, a pattern starts to emerge, never stated outright, but inexorable, and oh so terribly clear.
It's not enough.
The advance has stalled. The Fire Nation still holds the Northern Peninsula. The Original Colonies remain Iroh's.
The earthbender seems to notice my mounting distress.
"You alright? You seem kinda... twitchy."
I stand, shoving the damned reports into my pockets. It takes all I have not to start pacing up and down.
"Do you think you can make your own way back to the inn?" She nods, slowly. "Could you please give my apologies to Hama and the Lady Ursa. I will be back later. There is someone I need to see."
I just hope she's there.
Fire was all around her, curling and snapping, licking at her clothes and charring her hair, and the more she tried to struggle, the more the fire leapt and blazed, the trees burning all around her and out of the smoke he came. The Fire Lord, wreathed in smoke, crowned in embers, a monster in red and gold.
And he began to speak, words she couldn't understand, soft and low and rumbling and rasping, a grating murmur on the edge of hearing, edged with murder but drawing her down, pulling her towards him even as she tried to drag herself away.
And his voice changed in an instant, screaming and roaring, louder than any sound had ever been, shattering the world with screaming fury and the ground quaked and bellowed and fell away beneath her feet and she fell, a scream stuck in her throat.
Azula tore out of the nightmare, heart rattling and hair slick with sweat. Gulping down great lungfuls of air, hands rubbing the sweat out of her eyes, she flopped forward, nearly knocking her head on the heavy cloth of the makeshift tent.
It was too small. To confined. She needed to be able to breathe. Carelessly, she pushed herself onto her feet, and with a sudden burst of energy, forced herself out of the tent, into the warm night.
There, she was confronted with the sight of Sokka. He had fallen asleep where he sat, still propped up against the rock, sword still sitting between his knees, cloak wrapped around him. Occasionally, a gentle snore lifted his chest and made his nose twitch, but otherwise, he might as well have been a corpse.
Absently, she sat next to him, facing into the glowing remains of the campfire.
She stared at the embers for a long time, and did something she should probably have done a long time ago- she took stock.
It was a grim tally. In a few short months, she had lost it all- family, home, even her strength had abandoned her. The few scraps she had dragged back had been hard-won, and just when she had thought she might be getting somewhere- Mother had come back, and she was surrounded by people who she was beginning to think she could rely on- her Uncle had taken everything away. He had broken into her life and swept it all away a second time.
So she was left in a wilderness she could not navigate, with nothing but the clothes she sat in and a teenage barbarian that knew better than to trust her. She had nearly died, those first days after the fall. Iroh seemed so unassailable, so far beyond her meagre strength, he had taken even her drive from her. She was lost, in every sense.
But he had not reacted in the same way. He was in the same situation as her, and his last sight before they fell had been his sister bleeding to death on the floor of the temple, but instead of collapsing, what had he done? He had simply stood up, and taken the burden of keeping them both alive.
How dare he? What right did he have to stay so composed when her life was in such fragments? What kept him so- driven?
Slowly, carefully, and utterly silently, so as not to wake her snoring companion, Azula stood, and paced slowly away from the camp, into the dark.