The pai sho parlor was closed. The windows were shuttered tightly, so no light would shine through even if one existed inside. No one responded to knocks on either the front or back doors.
The teenagers (and child) looked at each other.
"So…" Taiji said. "Break in?"
"Yeah!" Mei-Lin agreed, with a little jump in the air. Song had the feeling that Li had been a very bad influence on them all. This feeling did nothing to stop her from coaching the little girl into forming a crowbar out of the paving stones, because they were not staying in the middle of the street in a city that had already tried to disappear them once.
It was when they set the crowbar against the window shutters that the door finally creaked open.
"May I ask what you are doing?" the unamused old man asked.
"Were you just… watching us, and not saying anything?" Taiji asked, to which the man didn't reply.
"Breaking in," Mei-Lin answered, much more directly.
"May I ask why?"
"Junior sent us," Song said.
"Keishin," a voice sing-songed. "Keishin. Come on, buddy. You drunk on the job, or what?"
Keishin groaned, and swatted blearily at the hand shaking him. The weak moonlight stabbed at his eyes as he squinted up at the faces of Leng-Shu and Sang-Lin. Behind them there was a warehouse. Open and empty, and something about that seemed important to him, but remembering hurt. "'M not on duty."
"Oh boy, okay." Leng-Shu slid an arm under his shoulders, and propped him up. Between him and his partner, they got him upright, and draped over their shoulders. "You get mugged, Keishin? Somebody mistook the city guard for a profession that makes money?"
Keishin stumbled between them, managing a word or two edgewise between their smiles and their friendly ribbing and their attempts to get him more alert which, now that he was getting more alert, seemed important. Belatedly, he realized they weren't going to the station.
"Where're you taking me?"
Equally belatedly, he realized that wasn't a question a guy should ask out loud when he was in no condition to fight back. When those kids in at the warehouse had looked scared of guard uniforms, and his co-workers had just ceased their friendly teasing. Hadn't dropped the smiles, though.
"What were you doing at that warehouse, Keishin? Where are they?"
He'd always been a little too suspicious for his own good; he'd never thought about what he'd do once he got his evidence.
Maijing poured another cup for Li's Uncle. Mushi reciprocated, with a carefree smile that did not match the carefully measured breathing he'd never faltered in all evening. They were sitting in the main room. The detectives' desks were largely empty for the night, and most of the night shift were out on patrol. Ryo Cho Jyo was diligently working his way through the day shift's paperwork at the next desk over; the Captain was still holed up in his office. The teamaker had chosen a table by a corner; his back to two walls, facing windows and door, his eyes tracking any errant movement in the room with practiced ease.
Maijing sipped his tea. It was very good, for something made from the stale guard station leaves.
Li's Uncle had dealt with this latest pot with the air of a practiced master, each step in its place and time, with a self-amused quirk of lips that implied he was well aware he was doing this at an old table in the corner of a guard station. The only part of the ceremony he'd done strangely was the spark rocks; he'd flicked them together over the brazier only three times, instead of the traditional four. North, South, East, West. Air, Water, Earth, Fire. Some newer schools made a point of leaving off that last.
Maijing set his cup down, and gave it a quarter-turn to advance to the next cardinal direction, the next element. Tea ceremonies were about harmony and unity. Maijing still flicked his spark rocks four times, when he led.
Some schools were simply unused to incorporating spark rocks into their ceremony.
"You are a man of few words, Detective Maijing," Mushi chuckled. He set his own cup down, and turned it. There were no calluses on his hands, from soldier's swords or scribe's pens or fishermen's nets.
Maijing picked up his cup again, and sipped.
On the next rooftop over, a feral pygmy puma's hissing cut off with a startled mew. Mushi's eyes flicked to the window. Maijing felt rather than heard light footsteps dropping to the street, and… tired wobbling, before the figure outside caught itself.
"It is a lovely night, Detective," Li's Uncle smiled. "You have been cooped up with this old man for far too long. Perhaps you need some fresh air."
Maijing set his cup down again. Poured, into an empty cup. Then took both, and headed for the door.
No no no Uncle what were you doing. He knew Zuko was out here, he had to, because why else would he be encouraging a guard to come find him. Zuko pressed himself tighter to the wall next to the open window, and… and wondered if now was a good time to just disown the last member of his family who hadn't effectively done the same to him first. A lot of people didn't have uncles, and they were fine. If he didn't have an uncle, there wouldn't be dirty shirts on the apartment floor, or refugees interrupting his shift with swordfights, or a guard coming out to find him.
The boy was pressed against the shadows near the wall when Maijing came out. His eyes flashed cat-gold in the light from the window, and his stance wound tighter and his chest heaved harder with each moment Maijing looked his way. He had lost his outer robes somewhere. His bare chest was dark with the kind of spreading bruise that came from rocks aimed to take a target down fast, with little regard to their getting up again afterward.
Maijing lowered himself laboriously to a seat on the ground, his bad leg out straight, his body angled towards the street rather than the teenager. He set the spare teacup on the ground next to himself, and held his own with both hands. It was a bit small in his grasp, but he was used to that.
What remained of the boy's clothes were dirt-streaked. There was a cobweb in his hair he hadn't seemed to notice, and a matted patch that might have been dried blood. Inexpertly broken stone cuffs were locked around his wrists. Exhaustion in his stance. And a perfect distribution of weight on his feet for dodging an earthbending attack, no matter which direction it came from.
His muscles were too defined for a fisherman's son; his ribs too prominent under his skin for anyone but a refugee.
Maijing sipped his tea.
Zuko swallowed thickly and tried not to stare at the cups. He'd run across what felt like half the city and back without any water. The guard's gaze flicked his way, and Zuko tensed again when had he ever relaxed. He'd seen this guy bend, Mountain was a master—
A master who was trying to lure him over with tea. Who did he think Zuko was, Uncle? Zuko kept his eyes on the man's hands and feet, waiting for him to drop the act. All he did was keep drinking, probably to lower Zuko's guard. Like that would lower Zuko's guard.
The man wasn't even looking at Zuko. Like he didn't consider one teenager a threat, like Zuko couldn't do anything. At least that meant the Mountain didn't know he was a bender. Probably. Or maybe he was just that good, himself. (He'd sunk those guys back at the abandoned house into the ground with a sweep of his foot. All of them, in one motion. Zuko and Song had barely gotten out of sight before he could turn on them.)
"Your uncle is inside," the Mountain said.
"How stupid does everyone think I am?" Zuko snapped. More loudly than he should have. "Just because you have a hostage doesn't mean I'm just going to—to walk in again, and…" Not twice in one night, anyway. He wasn't that concussed. And why was he even talking to this guy, if Zuko had heard Uncle talking than Uncle had to be able to hear him talking. Zuko edged a step closer to the window frame, and closer to the Mountain (and closer to that teacup Agni he was so thirsty), and darted a look inside.
Uncle was smiling. Right up until he actually caught sight of him. Zuko glared at his smile and his teacup and his perfectly relaxed having-a-fine-night posture (why was he glaring at Uncle, when did he take his eyes off the earthbending master—)
The Mountain was still holding his teacup. He hadn't moved.
"Uncle," he hissed, not taking his eyes off the gigantic bender he'd forgotten for three seconds, "We need to go." Go, as in leave the station. And their apartment, and their jobs, and whatever disaster this fresh start had been. They needed to leave Ba Sing Se.
"Nephew?" Uncle asked, and Zuko was pathetically grateful he'd said nephew instead of Li. He was not having a Li sort of night. "What happened?"
Uncle's voice was close now, right on the other side of the window, if it wasn't on his left side he'd be able to see him from his peripheral vision.
"We need to go now," Zuko said, because he wasn't about to start explaining how much he knew about the corruption of the local guard with the most physically intimidating guard he'd ever seen sitting right there. Maybe the guy was clean, but clean or dirty he wasn't taking any chances on being held for questioning. "Please, Uncle."
"All right, nephew. I will come outside, and we can talk about it." He said it like he was trying to calm an ostrich-horse that had been spooked by a mouse-hopper. He said it like 'we need to go now' was a topic open to reasonable debate. But he was moving towards the door, which was the right direction, so Zuko just needed to find a way to edge around the Mountain to meet him and then he could drag him and run.
The Mountain was still holding his ridiculously undersized teacup and not looking at Zuko, like if he avoided eye contact then Zuko would forget he was there. The street was really narrow, and just because the man wasn't moving right now didn't mean he wouldn't the instant Zuko got closer—
The station door opened and Uncle stepped out, and walked right past the giant guard like of course the man wouldn't attack him. He came to Zuko's end of the alleyway and—and hugged him, and—
—and Zuko only realized that he'd let his face drop onto Uncle's shoulder and let himself hug the stupid tea-obsessed old man back, he didn't even know for how long, when the Mountain spoke.
"Would you like me to take the cuffs off?"
"Stay away." His fingers curled into the back of Uncle's shirt. He glared, but the giant guard wasn't even looking at him. He kept glaring, just on principle. And kept letting Uncle hold him, because he wasn't sure he had the energy to pull away. He was just… so tired, suddenly. And Uncle was warm and safe and right there, even if right there was outside a guard station in an enemy nation.
"Nephew. Are we leaving the city?" Uncle said into his good ear, his volume chosen for exactly how good he knew his nephew's hearing to be.
Zuko nodded into his shoulder.
"I'm sorry," Uncle said, and Zuko didn't understand why he would, or why he wanted to say it back. You shouldn't be sorry, I should be, I screwed everything up when I took that guard's swords instead of letting them fight for me, when I left you on the road, when I let you come with me into my banishment, when I talked you into letting me into the war room, when I was angry with Lu Ten for laughing that I was too young to fight and I didn't say goodbye before you left for Ba Sing Se. "It's okay, my boy. There are other cities."
It was a nice lie, that anything would be different in another city. (That he could ever be Uncle's boy.)
"But before we leave, perhaps you could tell me what happened? I sense it involved the guards, and I need to know if I must burn this station to the ground."
Uncle's beard tickled at his cheek; Zuko could feel his smile, the not-nice one that surprised the people who didn't see the dragon's coils under all the tea and laughter.
Somehow he let Uncle convince him to sit down. Somehow he didn't tackle Uncle to the ground when he stood up and went to the Mountain, too close too close, and brought back the spare cup of tea the man had brought out. Which… had been for Zuko all along. It wasn't just a second cup because the man was so big he needed two.
...The cup was really small and gone really fast, and he was coughing a little and somehow thirstier than before he drank. The giant guard very slowly stood, and very carefully turned away to go back inside, and very ridiculously held a full teapot out the open window for Uncle to take. He didn't come back outside. A paranoid look through the window showed him on the far side of the room, keeping the handful of late-night guards from getting closer to this conversation.
Zuko sat back down. He talked, in fits and stutters.
Uncle listened, and kept his teacup full. It still just tasted like water that someone had ruined with leaves, but it was warm and he was cold and there was a lot of it. He almost wasn't thirsty by the time he was done talking, but he must have still been a little, because his voice had cracked when he talked about Song disappearing into the station and her mother walking away without knowing she was there, and a warehouse where everyone was desperate and young and too-pretty under the refugee dirt.
"It seems unlikely that all the guards in the city would be aware of this," Uncle said, stroking his beard. He sounded as pleasant as always, but he had taken a few extra breaths between when Zuko stopped talking and he started replying, which meant he was calculating the percentage of the city he needed to cleanse with fire.
"They might not be. I… I don't think that Knife guy was, I just couldn't be sure."
"If the Captain of this station was in on this, I do not think he would have taken your dear Uncle along when he also arrested you. He seemed sincere when he spoke with me. Officer Maijing, as well."
Maijing. ...Mountain? "He… could have caught me. Maybe. A few times, I think." Even in the alleyway just now, with its stone pavement and walls and nowhere for Zuko to go that didn't involve touching more earth.
"If you do not feel safe in this city, we will leave it," Uncle said. "I don't believe the guards here will stop us. Perhaps my pai sho friends could even help these new acquaintances of yours to leave, as you hoped. But it would not be safe for them to travel with us, even if we had the resources to support them."
"I know." Zuko ran fingers through his hair, wincing when he touched his new scab. "But they need help, and—I just—I don't know. What should I do, Uncle?"
"Perhaps we should put a little faith into the officers of this station. It may be that they will surprise you."
"I've had too many surprises tonight," Zuko grumbled.
But if these guards didn't help, if they turned on him and Uncle—well, he and Uncle made a much different target than he and Song. And Uncle still looked a little like he wanted to burn something.
"I do not know any Juniors," the old man said, through the crack in the door. "Who knocks at the garden gate?"
The teenagers (and child) exchanged looks. The pai sho parlor did have some potted plants out front, but it was hardly a garden.
"His real name is Li," Song said. The man did not look impressed. "His uncle is, uh…"
"Mushy," Mei-Lin supplied, with great confidence. "He likes tea."
This was apparently a cause for recognition. "Mushi?" And an immediate scowl. "Mushi wouldn't send you here."
"That's what we've been trying to tell you," Taiji said. "Mushi didn't. Junior did. He said you could help."
Could and would were two very different things. The man shut the door on them.
"Junior said to wait here," Mei-Lin said, crossing her arms. "...Break in?"
The teenagers looked at each other. And at the dark street, where they were uncomfortably exposed. And at the shop that they knew Junior would meet them at, and they'd figure out something from there, because… because Junior.
Song fit the crowbar back to the window.
This successfully convinced the scowling old man to let them use the front door.
The hushed conversation from outside the station's window had died away. Maijing continued helping their rookie with the looming stack of paperwork. There were footsteps over the ground—one set heavy and even, the other light and hesitant. They came to the door of the station, rather than disappearing into the city night.
He did not look up as the boy came inside, a step ahead of his Uncle as if to shield him. From the corner of his eye, Maijing could see a fierce scowl, lifted chin, and stiff shoulders.
"Would you like me to remove the cuffs?" he offered again, filling out dates and times and remembered details from crimes earlier in his shift.
He felt more than saw the shift in weight as Li's uncle gave the boy a reassuring push forward.
"...Yeah," Li said. "Umm. Yes, please." His politeness had been heralded by additional gentle back-nudges.
Maijing finally made eye contact with the boy. He set down his pen, and stretched out a hand, palm up. It took a moment for Li to realize what he was getting at. The boy narrowed his eyes, and set his jaw. Finally—after another of his Uncle's light nudges—he walked forward, offering one wrist forward. Maijing brought up his other arm, and closed his hands together over cuff and too-thin wrist underneath. The stone fell away in two clean halves. The boy was bruised and scraped underneath, from these cuffs and Maijing's own, earlier in the night. His skin was fever-hot, and pale. Neither of these seemed a sign of illness.
The other wrist was tentatively offered. The other cuff removed, with equally little fanfare. The boy looked down at his freed hands like he wasn't quite sure what to do with them, now.
"Thank you," he said softly, with a tight bow.
Maijing stood. Ignored the boy's subtle shift to a more solid stance as he stepped out from behind the desk. Walked past him, and knocked on the door to the Captain's office.
"Li's here, Sir."
The Captain opened his door. Blinked once, at Li's appearance. Li's face shut back down into a scowl. His Uncle came up to his side, and gently encouraged him inside the Captain's office.
Maijing sat back down at his desk, and left them to it.
The pai sho parlor was as boring to a group of teenagers (and one child) as a pai sho parlor should be. The old man was sitting at a table with his arms crossed, being extra boring, as if that would make them forget that this particular pai sho parlor maintained a constant night watchman (who didn't make even a token effort to leave and summon the guards to deal with the ill-kept hooligans who'd invaded his shop.)
"I don't like just sitting around," Taiji said, his leg bouncing. Mei-Lin grumbled against his chest sleepily.
"What would Junior do?" another teen asked.
"Probably some crazy stuff from a spy play," another said.
The teenagers contemplated this. Then they scouted escape routes and possible weapons and how easy it would be to barricade themselves in the backroom.
The old man watched. It occurred to him that 'Junior' was probably Mushi's nephew. The world made both more and less sense after that. What had the Grandmaster been teaching that boy?
"I'm going with you," Zuko said.
"You," the Captain replied, "are an exhausted teenager with a head wound. And probable broken ribs."
"They're just bruised."
The Captain seemed to take it as a sign of his head wound and/or exhaustion that Zuko didn't understand his logic. But it was adult logic, the kind Uncle was always trying to A-Man-Needs-His-Sleep onto him. They were just walking across town; he'd done more feeling worse.
...And apparently he'd said that last part out loud. Which maybe was the head wound talking. The Captain let out a slow breath, then returned to his imitation of an unimpressible wood block.
"I've sent for our doctor. You will remain here, and see her when she arrives. You are free to use our washroom or the spare beds in our barrack while you wait. We will bring back your friends. Trust us."
"They aren't my friends," Zuko said, and the Captain looked at him. "...Yes Sir," Zuko said, channeling his inner Lieutenant Jee. The chair under him creaked insolently as he shifted his weight.
The Captain narrowed his eyes. "You will stay here."
"I heard you the first time," Zuko said, in the nonagreement of teenagers everywhere.
The Captain gathered his men. More than Zuko thought he should bring if he wanted to be trusted, but apparently he didn't want to walk into a corrupt precinct without ample backup. Zuko sat in a chair and glared at the wall as they left. Uncle made tea, so that Zuko could refuse it (this reassured Iroh that his nephew was already recovering from the night's trauma.)
"Is that the washroom?" Zuko asked the rookie cop the guards had left behind to supervise.
"Yes," the rookie said. "The stove's out for the night, though, it's only cold water—"
Zuko went in and shut the door.
There was a water tank over the scrapped ashes of a former fire; Zuko double-checked that the door was locked and the shutters closed, then added wood from a nearby pile, and breathed life into the flames. The others in that warehouse had looked like they hadn't bathed since they'd left whatever peasant towns they stumbled out of. With the amount of time it would take the Captain to convince them that his guards were somehow different from the guards that had locked them up, they should have hot water waiting when they got here. If they got here.
For himself, he heated up a bucket the fast way. There were clean cloths folded neatly on a shelf. He scrubbed off sweat, dirt, and the mat of blood from his hair. The head wound wasn't even that impressive.
There were clothes on the shelf, too. Spare uniforms. ...Spare uniforms and a window that locked from the inside.
The Captain did this to himself.
Iroh sat in front of his steeping tea, and wondered how long it would take the young rookie to realize that Zuko's pot was, as they say, already boiled. And drunk. And probably self-tossed out a window.
It had been a long night, and he admitted his proverbs were suffering for it.
(It had been a long night, and there had been no way to stop his nephew short of sitting on the boy and never blinking. At least this time Zuko would have backup. Even if the backup did not yet know he was coming, or that it required his assistance.)
It should be noted that while head wounds did not improve his nephew's life choices, they did not make them measurably worse, either. Zuko had always been quite skilled at passing concussion tests. Perhaps because he always approached problems as if he'd been hit on the head.
Iroh sipped his tea. It was calming.
Zuko knew where the pai sho parlor was. He did. But none of these streets connected how he thought they would, and he wasn't sure he should dangle himself and his luck in front of those guys who were definitely watching him from the rooftops, and—
—And dammit if that was the sound of a mugging from that alleyway he was going to… he would—
"You could help." He said up to a rooftop shadow. The shadow startled, like it thought it was being subtle. Zuko tugged at his hair, and tried to keep walking past the sounds of a boot connecting with something meaty interspersed with a cajoling voice asking questions.
Fine. Okay. Whatever. He spun on his heels, and went into the alleyway. Were the spirits messing with him tonight happy now?
He came face-to-face with two startled guardsmen. Laugh Lines and Sneers. Three guardsmen, actually, though Knife wasn't looking so good on the alleyway floor, and Zuko wasn't sure the guy recognized him past the blood he was squinting through.
Sneers, Zuko noted, had his swords.
Keishin's vision was a little… wobbly. Like the rest of him. It had to be, because part of his brain was convinced he was seeing a guard from his own precinct taking down Leng-Shu and Sang-Lin with crazy ninja moves. And the rest of his brain was convinced the guard was Li.
Guard Li checked the pulses. And then looted the unconscious bodies. He casually pocketed all the weapons they had, and slung a set of dao over his back. Took their money. Riffled through their papers and dropped them on the ground with a scowl. Turned to Keishin.
"Are you alive?"
"...Does it still hurt when you're dead?"
"Can you, umm." The kid scratched behind his ear. "Can you find an address?"
Yes. Yes, this was definitely Li.
"Did you… did you stop an assault to get directions?" Keishin pushed himself up along the alleyway wall, and then paused for a few gasping well-that-was-a-bad-idea breaths. He was pretty sure he had a busted rib or two.
And oh man, the kid could scowl-flush. "Can you help me or not?"
"Thought you promised me you'd go back to the station." This seemed real important to fixate on right now.
"I did," the kid said, with as much insulted pride as could possibly fit in a sixteen-year-old. "Then I left."
"...That is not how promises work."
Keishin's ears were a little addled too, because he thought he heard the kid mutter tell that to the Avatar. Didn't really have time to process the thought properly, though, because he was getting dragged up to his feet and he was in no way ready for that.
"Oww oww oww. Watch the ribs, I think they're—"
The kid pressed a hand against his side. And scoffed. "They're just bruised."
"Also, head wound."
"I have one, too. Stop being so dramatic." Zero sympathies were given. He rattled off a clearly-memorized address, and looked up at Keishin expectantly
"Isn't that a pai sho parlor?" Keishin asked, grudgingly allowing his arm to be wrapped over the kid's shoulder. Li was just short enough to be optimum leaning height. And way more solid than he'd expected for a scrawny refugee. What was this kid, a bag of solid muscles and pointy bones?
"Can you take me there without kidnapping any children?"
...Keishin really wished that didn't make sense to him.
The teenagers (and one very sleepy child) had also set up watches at various windows. It seemed like a Junior thing to do.
The city guards walked straight up to the front door, because they were allowed to go wherever they wanted and no one would question them hanging out in front of a pai sho parlor in the middle of the night. Or arresting a bunch of half-dressed teenage refugees who'd broken in. No one would really question where the refugees went after that, either. The old pai sho man had quietly slipped out the back the second he saw the guards. They… probably should have done that, too. But where would they go? And how would Li find them, if they ran?
One especially giant officer smoothed out the damage Mei-Lin's crowbar creation had done to the street. Then he lumbered off to block the back exit. Which still left a lot of windows, but those would be harder to get through fast and they didn't know how many other earthbenders were in the group.
Their apparent leader knocked. "This is Captain Doua of the 41st Precinct. We're here to help. Your friend Li sent us."
"How stupid do you think we are?" Taiji shouted through the closed door. It seemed like a Junior thing to say.
The Captain let out a slow breath, because it was.
Maijing stood behind the parlor's back exit, trusting his mere presence to be an effective deterrent to anyone considering running in this direction.
Two sets of footsteps approached from a sidestreet. One was shaky and dragging; the other impatient, light, well-rooted (and also shaky, but hiding it much better).
He nodded as his partner came into view, arm slung over a scowling Li's shoulder. Keishin flopped around his hand in what might have been a wave.
"Evening, partner. Nice of you to stay at the station instead of coming to back me up. Definitely was fine on my own."
"Take this," Li said, and shrugged out from under the taller man's arm. Maijing stepped forward to catch Keishin as the man slumped, in the same manner a wall might.
"Oww friggin' oww. Broken ribs, kid."
"Bruised," Li snapped back. He lifted his gaze up (and up), and met Maijing's eyes. One hand was rubbing circles around his other wrist, where the cuffs had been. "...Are they inside?"
"Can I go in, or are you going to stop me?"
There was a significant amount of bristling wasted in this question. Maijing stepped aside. Li edged around him, and tried the door. It was both locked and barricaded with something heavy on the inside. "Huh," the boy said, almost approvingly. And then he jumped to catch the roof overhang, and pulled himself up and out of sight.
"Say it," Keishin said, still leaning against him.
As always, Maijing was unclear on what emotions his partner was currently projecting onto him.
"Okay," the wiry man continued, with a growl, "So if he saw someone getting worked over in an alley, he wouldn't just keep walking. Are you happy?"
"Why was he wearing a guard uniform?" Maijing asked.
"...I thought you'd know."
Maijing didn't. Or perhaps he did: they had, afterall, left Li unattended at the station. And the boy had needed new clothes.
Zuko found the roof vent, and dropped inside. He managed—barely—not to get brained by Song's pai sho board, but he didn't see the rock-covered fist to his kneecap coming until too late.
He went down, and fought against all the instincts that told him to get up keep fighting. He held up his hands, instead. "Uh. Li, here? ...Oww."
Song peered down at him, one of many faces in the startled ring of teenagers (and one vicious child). "Where did you get a guard uniform?"
"I borrowed it."
Her lips quirked. "You mean you ostrich-horsed it."
Zuko scowled, because obviously they were all fine and didn't need his help at all. He pushed himself up, and got side-tackled okay-maybe-it-was-a-hug-instead by a little girl.
"Sorry sorry sorry," she said.
He patted her head. That's what you were supposed to do with upset children, right? "Never apologize for hitting the bad guy."
"But you aren't the bad guy."
He patted her head again. And didn't argue the point, even though others certainly would have on his behalf.
The teenagers huddled closer around him. They'd barricaded themselves into what looked like a back storeroom. Lots of wooden shelves full of tea and extra pai sho sets and boxes full of other probably boring old-man stuff. Also a few of those giant could-hold-a-person-inside vases. So. Maybe not just boring old-man stuff.
"What's the plan?" Taiji asked.
"Uh," Zuko started. "Turn ourselves in? They're not from this station, they're from the district by my Uncle's apartment. He, umm. He wants us to trust them."
"Do you trust them?" Song asked.
He… didn't know why that mattered. Why they'd assume he was right on this, he never was, he was a terrible judge of character, just look at Jet on the ferry and then at the teashop earlier in the night.
That… really had been earlier in the night.
"They took off my cuffs," Zuko answered, giving them the same information he had to work with. "And left me alone in a room."
None of them had known Junior long, but all of them knew that was a bad idea for anyone serious about containing him.
"All right," Song decided, tucking her pai sho board under one arm and offering her still-cuffed hands down to him. "We'll trust you."
Zuko stared at her offered hands, until he realized that she was trying to help him up. He… took them. And got up.
"I wouldn't trust me," he confided, because she deserved at least that much.
She patted him on the head, in exactly the same awkwardly stilted way he'd patted Mei-Lin. The smirk at the corners of her mouth made it clear that this was completely intentional. "Come on. Let's go not-trust some guards together."
The guards of the 41st Precinct arrested some still-unconscious officers on the way back to their own station. Keishin felt vindicated enough not to mention where his own initial concussion had come from. This had nothing to do with the way the little earthbending girl kept walking right behind Li, and turning back to scowl at him.
The girl walked even closer to Li.
Maijing said nothing.
The children refused to be alone with any of the Captain's guards. Or the doctor. They largely moved as a unit. A tired unit, disinclined to trust anyone not inducted to its membership. The Captain held off on taking their statements, leaving the morning shift commander detailed instructions on how exactly to leave them alone and not let any officers they didn't already recognize near them. His own evening shift would deal with them tomorrow, when they were rested, and hopefully more domesticated.
He was surprised by a knock on his office door. Even more surprised when Li entered. Alone. The boy glanced around the room like he was looking for any more surprises the night might have for him. Then he came forward, and straightened up like he was making a military report.
"The other guards took our passports. Everyone's. We need new papers to stay in the city." There was no please in his tone or his manners. Just a righteous demand.
The Captain sincerely doubted that all of those children were here legally, particularly with the way the boy wasn't meeting his eyes. He also sincerely doubted they would agree to testify against gang members and corrupt guards without even the promise of citizenship. "I'll see to it that that the paperwork is started."
The boy nodded in a tight jerk, his posture relaxing from fight-or-flight back towards his rapidly approaching adrenaline crash.
"Li, where did you get that uniform?"
The boy's shoulders snapped straight again. He looked somewhere above the Captain's head. "You said I could use your washroom. Sir."
"I did. I also told you to stay at the station. Why didn't you?"
The scowl returned, at full force. "You're not my boss."
"Did your Uncle tell you about my offer?"
"I hope you'll consider it. You have a guard's instincts. Though I would be your boss, then."
The boy looked at him like he was insane for even offering; it was a have you met me? And you still want me? type of look, and the first purely teenage adults-are-crazy expression the Captain had seen from him. He really was quite young, under the bluster.
"Good night, Li."
"Umm. You too?"
Iroh smiled down at the young girl. The girl scowled up at him, in an endearing imitation of his nephew's own favored expression. She was even squinting her left eye extra hard.
"Tea?" he offered.
She slapped the cup out of his hand. "That's from your nephew."
It took him a moment to recognize the strange sound that followed: Zuko, trying hard not to laugh with bruised ribs.
It was a sound worth a spilled teacup or two.
Some of these kids hadn't bathed for weeks, it smelled like. Keishin was still pretty sure the amount of splashing he was hearing was not strictly necessary.
"How did you even start that fire?" Keishin asked, with entirely warranted suspicion, and if Maijing wanted to say something he could just say it already. "Cho Jyo says the spark rocks were with the tea set."
"It's Cho— Wait, did you say it right?" No one answered the bemused rookie.
Li had taken it upon himself to guard the washroom door. He managed to bristle self-righteously and look incredibly shifty, simultaneously. "Uh. I had some?"
"You had spark rocks."
"In my pocket."
"In your pocket. Like normal people do."
The kid flushed. And fished a pair of spark rocks out of his pocket, which he held up in silent yet inexplicable proof.
"Huh," Keishin said. "...Are you an arsonist?"
"Detective Keishin," the Captain snapped, and made him get a start on his paperwork, even though he was still waiting for his turn with the doctor.
The guard station had a small attached barracks, for guards too tired to make it home safely, ones going straight from a late shift to an early one, or just anyone that would rather spend their lunch break sleeping than visiting a food cart. Keishin had made the mistake of claiming a bed in it. Keishin was unceremoniously bullied out by a horde of freshly bathed children, who claimed the beds and the pillows like vulture-hyenas snapping at a kill. He barely got out of the room alive with a blanket around his shoulders.
"Don't say it," he hissed at his partner, as he set up a nest on the floor of the main room, under his desk. His apartment was in the neighboring precinct. The one he'd gotten his ass handed to him in; the one whose officers they had in their lock up. He was not going home tonight.
Maijing had volunteered to stay up and make sure the morning shift was briefed on their guests. Also to make sure the kids didn't disappear out the window, which, good luck to him. Keishin was not volunteering for that. Keishin was tucking his coat around a stack of paperwork in a vaguely pillow-like shape, wrapping up in his blanket, and going to sleep, thank-you-much.
Across the room, Li's Uncle was trying to get the boy inside the barracks room and into one of those beds, even though the kids were already two or three to a bunk and Keishin couldn't imagine a porcupine-raccoon like Li sharing comfortably. This was a non-issue, since Li refused to stop guarding the door.
"A man needs his—"
"I'm fine," the kid snapped. "They trust me. I can't just sleep—"
"All right, nephew. Then may I have the honor of first watch?"
Li's Uncle arranged two chairs next to the barrack's door, side-by-side. The boy was asleep on his shoulder before the kids inside had even settled down. Keishin snorted (the boy jerked awake just long enough to scowl at him), then went to sleep.
...Or tried to. The doctor had said his ribs were only bruised, but he was still pretty sure there was a crack in there somewhere. And he was not being dramatic.
Song's mother was there within the hour. Zuko didn't wake up for the tearful reunion. If there was any fond motherly ruffling of his own hair, it was quickly grumble-swatted away as he resettled on Uncle's shoulder.
Li's Uncle did not wake him up for his own turn at a watch shift, Maijing noted.
The boy woke up only once, startling to awareness like a combat veteran at an alarm.
"Ssh, nephew. Go back to sleep," the old man soothed, running a hand through the boy's short hair. "We are safe here."
"No we're not," the boy groggily stated. Not an argument: a fact.
"Safe for now," the man corrected, which seemed good enough for his nephew. Li lay his head back down, and relaxed under the hand still gently carding his hair.
It was exactly sunrise. Maijing made no reaction to this fact, as the old man searched him for one out of the corner of his eye.
He was done killing Fire Nation children.
Former Guardsmen Leng-Shu and Sang-Lin died in transit to the district prison before they could be questioned. It was as unexpected as it was tragic.
End Case 0, Prologue: Scared Straight
"...What even was that?" the young Dai Li agent asked.
"The guard's problem," his senior partner replied, with no conception of how very wrong he was.