Chapter 1: Zuko Makes an Accurate First Impression
Case 0, Prologue: Scared Straight
1. Zuko Makes an Accurate First Impression
The stone cuffs were tight, but not tight enough. It was the only thing stopping Zuko from hyperventilating. He didn't think displaying a firebender's carefully timed breath control would be a good idea, here. They were already suspicious.
"Name?" the guard said. One of the guards; the bored one, built like an equally bored mountain. He readied a brush over a stack of paperwork, never bothering to look at Zuko.
"Li," he answered.
"You always say your name so snippy?" the sarcastic one asked, from his spot leaning up against the closed door. He was built more like a flint knife, crossed elbows sticking out at jagged edges, hair as dark as Zuko's own and just a little longer, just a little unrulier.
"Yes," Zuko said.
The interrogation room was small; two chairs, and a door that had clipped the table on their way in. The bored guard had run a hand over its corner, smoothing out the chip with a casual display of earthbending.
"Bender?" he rumbled.
"No," Zuko snipped.
The knife-edge guard watched him. If he ever blinked, he hadn't while Zuko was looking. "You get a lot of people attacking teashops under the misapprehension that you are?"
"You get a lot of enjoyment out of making me miss the rest of my shift?"
The man held up finger and thumb, and pinched them close together. A little. "That eager to get back, huh?" He looked Zuko up and down and back up again, lingering pointedly on the apron. "Definitely the teashop type."
Zuko flushed. "I need the money. I mean, Uncle needs it. We have an apartment. And he… he likes to buy things. Nothing extravegant, just stupid little things like bonsai plants that he keeps killing and teacups and we already have four and there's only two of us—"
Knife raised an eyebrow, real slow. Zuko shut his mouth, real fast.
"Place of residence?" Mountain asked. The brush looked like a piece of especially breakable straw between his muscular fingers. Who had muscular fingers?
Zuko opened his mouth. Shut it again. He awkwardly dug in his pockets with his cuffed hands for the piece of paper with their address, the one written in Uncle's lazy just-a-normal-refugee scrawl, so different from the princely characters he'd written with back before they had to hide who they were.
Knife's eyebrow climbed higher. "What are you, a lost five-year-old?"
"It's a big city," Zuko said, and didn't say I don't remember how to say Earth Kingdom addresses, they're so weird, you number your blocks instead of your houses how does anyone get anywhere. "And all your streets sound the same. Why is there a Dirt Road and a Dirt Street and a Dirt Circle and a Dirt Row and—"
"If the city planners didn't care, you really think I do?"
Zuko shut his mouth again.
"Date of immigration?"
Zuko turned a little redder. He turned his face away, and dug in his pocket for his passport. He always carried it; the guards could stop anyone in the Lower Ring and ask for proof of legal entry. So could the Dai Li. Golden-eyed people got asked a lot more often by both parties, Zuko had noticed.
He just pushed the papers over to the Mountain, so he didn't fumble reading the date. The Earth Kingdom's calendar reset to zero with each new king, got a new era name like any of their kings ever did anything worthy of being called an 'era'.
"Date of birth?"
"Can't you read?" Zuko snapped, because he had no idea what his birthyear was in the Serene Era of the Forty-Sixth Earth King, Kuei, Second of His Name, Long May He Ignore The Outside World.
"Can you?" Knife asked, with a head tilt Zuko didn't trust. "Neat skill for a—" the man leaned over, dramatically. Scanned the page, dramatically. Stretched out the next words, like he was calling the lie with each new syllable. "—Fisherman's son."
"Relation to the perpetrator?" Mountain asked.
"None," Zuko growled. "We met on the ferry. He's insane."
"Yen-Jin tells me your sword skills are pretty neat, too. You learn those gutting fish?" Knife struck a pose, like someone confusing dual dao with nunchucks. " Whacha, whacha," he mimed something that might have been sword moves, or just a dramatic half-body seizure. Ended with a flash of teeth, one of them chipped, the edge just as sharp as the rest of him. "Hey, where'd your Uncle learn to brew tea like that? That a usual fisherman skill? Lots more posh culture than I thought, out on those boats."
"Leave Uncle out of this." Zuko was half-way out of his seat before he realized it. Mountain stared at him blandly, and re-dipped his brush. Zuko eased himself back down.
"Sure, sure," Knife said, making little settle down gestures, like a guy trying to brush off an over-eager dogaroo. "Good to see a kid your age so attached to family. None of us here would want anything to happen to him."
Zuko grit his teeth, and turned his glare away from the man's chipped-tooth smile. They were on to him. They knew. He didn't know how much, but firebender and prince and false paperwork all led back to dead, one way or another, whether it was a public execution or being kicked out of the city for Azula to find. The rock cuffs were tight, but not tight enough. He could get up the heat to shatter them without burning his own wrists, or slip free if he didn't mind skinning his hands.
It kept Zuko from hyperventilating. Mostly.
"Tea?" the stoney-faced guard captain asked, his hands clasped behind his back. He was not the one waiting to pour.
"Always," Iroh smiled. A rookie officer, his status clear from his lighter uniform and jittery demeanor, filled his cup with only a minimum of splashing. Iroh lifted it, and breathed in deeply. He blew across its surface. Finally, he sipped. "Ah, southern jasmine. Perhaps from the fields of Leng-Sho?
The rookie's gaze flicked to the nondescript tea box. The captain continued to hold Iroh's own gaze. He'd taken a seat behind his well-organized desk, and sat there with as much natural stiffness as a tree that had grown in the spot. His hair was grey, his expression likewise. "You're quite the expert."
Iroh continued sipping with evident enjoyment, hmming his reply. The captain had left his own cup to cool in front of him. He was clearly waiting for Iroh to say something a bit more substantive.
"Excellent floral undertones. Subtle, as if waiting to convey its message." He smiled genially. "You really should try yours, Captain!"
The captain's eye twitched. He spoke, with very little inflection to hint at his inner thoughts. "That boy is your nephew?"
"My pride, my heart, occasionally my heart attack," Iroh placed a hand to his chest, and beamed. "Also my nephew."
"He took my guard's swords," the captain stated.
Iroh sipped his tea, and gave another hmm.
"From his belt," the captain elaborated.
Iroh continued to sip.
"As he was standing to intervene," the captain said, and just a faint hiss of frustration touched the frown lines cragged over his face.
It was really quite watery tea, but Iroh did not find this the proper time to say so, nor the proper place to judge.
"Is there a reason," the captain asked, his flatline tone restored, "your nephew would have so little faith in the ability of my officers to keep him safe?"
"Ah, well." He set his cup down, and gave it the quarter-turn to complete a tea ceremony that no one was performing. "We have been on the road for some time. Not everyone we have met has been as willing to help as your honorable and dedicated guards."
"Mushi." The Captain said the name like he was waiting for Iroh to confess to his real one, like no one could possibly have named their beloved son 'Mushi'. Iroh did not confess, though he did agree. "We have a program for boys like yours."
"And what sort of boy would that be, exactly?" Iroh asked mildly. He reached for the teapot the rookie had left at the desk's edge, and poured a drop more into the captain's already filled cup. The captain took the cue to good manners, and poured in return for Iroh.
"The kind who hates his job, but his boss says he's a hard worker anyway. Shows up on time, doesn't start trouble that didn't start on him first, yells at his Uncle to take his breaks and forgets to take his own."
The captain had spoken to Pao before Iroh. Iroh noted this, and chuckled amiably. "My Li does that, yes."
The captain was not done. "The kind who doesn't trust my guards, and thinks that trying to decapitate another boy in the middle of the street with my guard's swords is a proportionate reaction to danger."
Iroh sipped his tea. It went unsaid that his Li did that, as well. "What is this program of yours, Captain?"
"An internship of sorts. We pair kids like your Li up with senior guards. Send them on a few harmless assignments. Get them over any ideas they might have about our guards not supporting them; it gives them a few friendly faces they know they can talk to if they get into trouble, even if they're still skittish of authority at large. You're not the first refugees who had a rough time on the road. We don't like to see kids with Li's skill set falling in with the wrong crowd. We can schedule around his shifts at the... teashop." Whatever image Li in a teashop brought to the captain's mind, it caused a slight hint of skepticism to tug his mouth down. "Better he goes home tired, anyway."
He'd be less trouble tired, the captain implied, and Iroh could not help but agree.
"How long would this be for?"
"A week or two," the captain said. "A month at the outside. Usually doesn't take long to set boys like Li straight."
Iroh sipped his tea, and hmmed. The captain narrowed his eyes at the noncommittal sound.
The door behind them slammed open; a tall guard entered in its wake, striding like he expected all obstacles to similarly remove themselves from his path. When he smiled, it was with a sharply chipped front tooth. "Got him good and ready for you, Captain. He's a little fidgety, little scared, ready for the spiel." He turned that smile on Iroh. "You are definitely his weak point, old man. Kid loves you so much he goes ballistic if I even try to start a word with 'Un'."
The captain stared at his guardsman silently. The guard resheathed his smile, swallowed, and revised his earlier old man. "Uh. 'Esteemed sir'?"
The captain stood. He was not so tall standing as one would assume from the weight he brought to a room. Shorter than both the sharp-toothed man and the hulking guard who had stayed out in the hall; just of a height with the young rookie who was still hovering at the edge of the room. The captain nodded to his guard. "Good. With your permission, Master Mushi?"
"You have it," Iroh said. And sipped his tea. And hmmed. The captain, wisely, waited for him to explain. Iroh set down his cup. Turned it, a quarter. Smiled benignly at the sharp-toothed guard. "Pardon me, but did you leave my nephew alone just now?"
"Yeah." He said it with a sort of head tilt, and a narrowing of eyes that said he already knew where this was going, but wished to be proven wrong.
"I see. Tell me, does he know you have me in custody, as well?"
"You aren't in custody," the captain said. Iroh did not think he needed to explain how things might appear differently to his dear Li.
"Didn't want to rile him up that far," the sharp-toothed man said.
"I see," Iroh said. He picked back up his cup, and sipped.
The sharp-toothed man watched Iroh's placid face, and started in on all the protests he thought would somehow help. "It's a locked room. With no windows. In a guard station. With guards everywhere."
"...Oh you have got to be kidding me." The guard ducked out, presumably to check on this so-called locked room of his.
Iroh was unsurprised by the result, though a few guardsmen out at their desks in the main room jumped at its volume. It was soon matched by stomping, coming back their way.
"Maijing! Ryo Cho!"
"Cho Jyo," the rookie corrected. "Or just Ryo—"
"Didn't ask, don't care, get out here. That little dust-ferret couldn't have gotten far—"
Iroh watched the rookie and the mountainous officer as they followed the other into the hall.
The captain watched Iroh sipping his tea. "You don't think my men will find him."
"Oh no, they certainly will! Right here at your station, I imagine."
"When he comes back for you."
The sharp-toothed guard was rallying more men. Whoever was not hiding sufficiently behind their paperwork, it seemed. "Listen up, the streets are deadends all around here, and that kid is so new he still carries his address in case he gets lost. We just need to figure out which way he went and then we'll box him in—"
"My Li is such a caring boy." Iroh wiped a false tear from the corner of his eye. "It warms an old man's heart. I just know that he will blossom under the kind tutelage of your men, Captain. Thank you so much for extending this generous offer to our family."
The captain pinched the bridge of his nose. But he did not retract his offer.
"More tea?" He poured another drop into the man's nearly overflowing cup, and waited for the captain to refill Iroh's own.
Chapter 2: Zuko Trusts the Guards Too Much
Casual reminder that I'm a gen writer. A Zuko in close proximity to a canon character does not a ship make. But it /does/ shenanigans guarantee.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Say it," Detective Keishin growled, stalking two steps ahead of his mountainous new partner. The weight of Maijing's gaze on his back told him the other man had a lot to say. "I pushed the kid too hard, and now we're going to be chasing him all night. You've got better things to do, I've got better things to do. So just go ahead and say it: I screwed up."
Maijing didn't say anything. But he sure was thinking loudly back there. Keishin scoffed.
"You know how this wouldn't have happened? If the captain had let me interrogate him for real. You ever seen a punk that suspicious? Fisherman's son and a master sword fighter, sure. Harmless tea server that can ninja his way out of a locked room, of course. Wouldn't surprise me if that Jet kid was right. Kid reeks of Fire Nation spy."
"Too conspicuous," Maijing said, his voice as geologically bored as a granite slab, "and too bad at lying. Didn't seem to like it."
"Didn't stop him from doing it, did it?" Keishin ran a tongue over his chipped tooth, and kicked a rock just to show nature its place in the Lower Ring. And cursed, proficiently, when the rock turned out to be the tip of a skewed paving stone that wasn't moving for a non-bender like him. Oww friggin' oww.
Maijing took a moment to run a foot over it. The stone smoothed out, neat and pretty for the next schmuck. Then he kept following Keishin, all silent. Keishin caught a hint of something weirdly white down an alley, and jerked that way. Kept walking. Ended up with a scrunched-up teashop apron in his hands, which at least told him they were going the right way. Now if his new partner could stop judging, that'd be great.
"Passport said he was sixteen," Maijing said.
"What does that have to do with anything? Probably as fake as the rest."
Detective Maijing looked at him. The exact same look he'd had for the past two weeks, since Keishin had gotten himself transferred to this precinct and made into the senior guard's problem. He just kept looking and not saying anything.
"Okay, all right," Keishin snapped, "Maybe his general age wasn't a lie. But the rest was. Kid didn't even know the birthdate on his papers, did you catch that? He's trouble, and your captain's little stray cat rescue program is cute and all, but I'm pretty sure if that kid saw someone getting worked over in an alley he'd just keep walking. Does he seem like guard intern material to you? Some of us worked for our in. We didn't get picked up out of the Free Pygmy-Pumas box. This ring wouldn't be half as full of criminals if they kept kids like Li on the right side of the wall. What do we even have passports for if we're going to ignore the people with fake papers? Back in my precinct, we'd have deported the both of them two hours ago. Oh, would you stop looking at me—if you've got something to say, say it."
"I'll try his apartment," Maijing said. He slid a foot over the road, and opened up a hole into the next street over. Deadends were only deadends to mere mortals like Keishin; Ba Sing Se was a city built by and for benders. Keishin took a step to follow, and got hit with another look. "I'd like to talk with him alone," he said, and closed the wall in Keishin's face.
"There's no way he'd even get there this fast! Go ahead, waste your time!" Keishin kicked the stone, on principle.
This, like many things in his life, hurt him a lot more than it did the wall.
Zuko went to the teashop first. It looked closed already, even though it was too early. Pao was up front swiping a broom at the fight's aftermath and muttering to himself. No sign of Uncle. Zuko leapt to another rooftop, working his way around the shop, but though the back room was lit, no one was there.
Okay. That was… that was fine. Uncle would have been smart enough to take the night off after the guards hauled Zuko away; he was probably back at the apartment, making sure their bags were ready in case they needed to leave.
The apartment Zuko had given guards the address to.
He took in a careful breath, let it out, and leapt to the next roof. The Earth Kingdom had nonsensical addresses, and the streets had been laid out by a drunken badgermole, but none of that mattered from the roofs. Even if he felt weird to be up here without the weight of his mask on his face or swords on his back.
He'd ditched the white apron near the station. Balled it up and dropped it down a back alley. It was too visible, and—and it wasn't like he was going back to work tomorrow anyway, and he didn't know why that thought hurt. He hated the teashop. Hated Pao with his stingy wages and long hours, hated the way he treated Uncle like another part of the shop's inventory. Aprons, tables, kettles, teamaker. He would have made Uncle work every day from open to close if Zuko hadn't threatened to tear up that schedule. Uncle had just chuckled, like he was perfectly happy to spend all day for the rest of their lives brewing tea in this forgotten patch of Earth Kingdom dirt and Zuko hated it. But he hated the idea of dragging Uncle back out on the road even more. To just run, when there wasn't anywhere left to go.
The next rooftop was a story higher. He got up momentum, made the jump, clamped down on a grunt as his skinned hands gripped the ledge. Slipping the cuffs had been harder than he'd thought, but he hadn't wanted to leave behind heat-shocked shards by breaking them with firebending. Not when he wasn't sure they knew about that. He got an elbow over the edge, and pulled himself up and over.
The rooftop was full of pygmy pumas. They hissed. He hissed back, and stalked off between them while they were still confused.
Then he was looking down on the apartment. The windows were dark. But Uncle wouldn't want anyone to know he was home if he was getting ready to run, so that was… that was fine.
The guards wouldn't want Zuko to know this was a trap, either.
He crouched down. Watched the place. They'd left the shutters open for Uncle's ailing row of bonsais. Nothing moved inside, for a long time. And the longer he waited here, the more likely it was the guards would beat him there. Even if Uncle wasn't inside, he needed his swords—
Something crunched under his feet as he stood again.
Their missing spark rocks.
Which… set something up his spine, something cold and dirty. Someone had been on to them a lot longer than he'd thought, had been watching them, had been inside their apartment and he hadn't known. Zuko slipped the rocks into his pocket.
He went in through the window. No one was in the first room.
"Uncle?" he tried, softly.
Their teacups were still in the drying rack where Zuko had left them. Uncle's dirty shirt was still dropped on the floor where it had been for three days and it bothered Zuko more every time he saw it, couldn't Uncle just put it in the laundry basket, that was why they had a laundry basket.
The apartment looked exactly as it had when they'd left that morning.
There was no one else here. Not Uncle, not the guards. It was safe for him to take deep firebending breaths and… and just breathe.
Uncle wasn't at the shop and he wasn't home. Had they gotten him? Who? Guards, Dai Li, army, bounty hunters, some fanatic like Jet—
Breathe. There was one more place to check before he started treating this city like Pohuai Stronghold. A safe house Uncle's pai sho club ran, because apparently that was a thing pai sho clubs did, pai sho is more than just a game nephew. Zuko knew the address better than he did his own; Uncle had made him memorize it in case something happened. In case they got separated. Which was exactly what had happened, so… so Uncle would be there. He was playing a game and drinking tea and complaining about his nephew to some other old guys right now.
Zuko moved his futon to the side, lifted the tatami, and started prying up a floorboard. None of which would have been possible if the tatami wasn't ill-fit and decrepit, and the floorboard missing two nails. He hated this apartment too, but—but Uncle had sat him down with the numbers. The few coins they'd brought to the city, the wages of two teashop workers. And he'd taken Zuko to the other apartments in their price range. This really was the best they could afford, and Zuko hated that more than he hated the place itself. They'd certainly slept in worse places since the North Pole. Places with fewer walls. Or ceilings. Or floors.
The board came loose. The Blue Spirit grinned up at him. Zuko's hand hesitated, then pushed it and his dark clothing aside. He didn't know how long he'd be out there; his regular clothes would be less conspicuous if he got caught by the dawn, and they were dark enough not to stand out in the night. He took his swords, and put everything else back in its place. No need to make it easy for whoever was after them.
What else should he take? Money—half of Uncle's hidden emergency stash went into his pocket, wrapped tight in cloth so the coins wouldn't jangle. Food? Clothing? The bag he always kept packed, tucked up in the corner next to the one he'd made Uncle make? He could steal most of what he needed, and he might need to move fast, travel light. Maybe a water skin, that would be more important than food at the start, but it would slosh. There was a reason he always snuck up on the Avatar's waterbender, but she'd never snuck up on him. In the end, he only took the swords and the money.
He had one foot out the window when the knock came. He froze. And breathed: slowly, deeply. He hadn't lit any lights. Hadn't been especially loud. They might not even know he was here.
It could be Uncle, the stupid part of him said. The part that kept him inside, instead of letting him be half a block away already.
Uncle wouldn't knock.
"Li?" A voice called. A level, disinterested voice. "My name is Maijing. We met at the station. Your uncle is safe; he's having tea with our captain. Neither of you are in trouble." The voice of the mountainous officer.
"May I come in?" he asked, but Zuko was already gone.
Detective Maijing closed his eyes, and felt roof tiles compressing under running feet. Then nothing—probably jumped to the next building. He let out a slow breath.
He could have brought another officer with to watch the window. He stood by his choice.
Maijing lowered his hand from the door, and eyed the staircase behind him. He hated stairs.
It could be a lie.
But if anyone would be having tea with the guard captain after Zuko got arrested, it would be Uncle.
That didn't mean Uncle was safe, though. Didn't mean they weren't in trouble. That just meant Uncle had no self-preservation when it came to tea, which was exactly why they were in this situation to begin with. The guards were trying to lure Zuko back. It was so obvious it was insulting, and—
—And it was going to work.
Zuko grabbed his hair, crouched on a rooftop, and focused on not screaming as loudly outside his head as he was inside of it. When something snarled at him, he turned and snarled right back. The pygmy puma who'd been about to take a swipe at him sat back hard, and mewed. The other two looked from their leader to Zuko, hunkering as if to spring. Because twenty-pound cats to the face were exactly what Zuko needed right now—
Something moved on the neighboring rooftop. They all froze in the shadows as the Dai Li agent took a step closer, his body angled their way.
Mew, the lead cat said again. The agent stared a moment. Then he turned, and leapt to the next roof. A partner that Zuko hadn't even seen followed, a moment later.
...And now Zuko had three fleabags pressed against him, turning their heads to watch the agents exactly like he was. He nudged them away with his elbow, flashed his teeth right back at their growls, and dropped down to the street. He'd look less suspicious, down here.
It would help if he knew where he was going. He needed to get Uncle and get out of the city. Obviously. But how? Should he go to the pai sho place first, warn them what was coming? Break out Uncle first, before his tea got too cold and he heated it in front of them? Zuko found himself walking down one street, then back up another, and how did anyone get anywhere in this city without using the roofs? Half of these roads wound around to the opposite direction, the other half ended in stone-walled dead ends. And down that street was the Knife-Edged guard, so Zuko wasn't going that way. And down this street was the Mountain—Maijing—whatever. He didn't think either of them had seen him, but he hopped a wall and there was a guard station right in front of him, this city was infested with peasant justice.
At least it wasn't the same station. They shouldn't know him. ...Unless one of the guards after him had passed on his description. Fortunately, there was a woman distracting the only guard outside by loudly not-yelling into his face. Zuko pressed himself into a doorway, and hoped everyone would just go away.
"—Should have arrived on the ferry three days ago!"
"I understand your concern, ma'am. Our officers have the posters you gave us. But the truth is, sometimes young people just take the opportunity to spread their wings when they reach the city. We get a lot of kids her age who turn up a few weeks later on the other side of the city, protesting with the University kids or doing poetry in the Middle Ring—"
"Not my daughter," the woman said. Each word was its own statement, and she punctuated it by shoving one of the papers she carried into the guard's chest. "You will look for her. I will be back."
She stalked off. Straight past Zuko's none-too-subtle hiding place. Just as his two guard stalkers rounded their respective corners at both ends of the street, with the third guard still standing in front of the station right there.
She paused in front of him. Her eyes narrowed, then widened, then narrowed again. "Young man. What are you doing?"
"Uh," he said. "That guard on the corner. Is, umm. From a different station. Maybe you could give him a poster, too?" He jerked his head towards the Mountain, because if she was going to distract one of them for even a second, he wanted it to be the gigantic earthbender. He could deal with Knife, if he had to.
"You don't remember me at all, do you?" she asked. "Give your uncle my best. And stay out of trouble."
She patted his cheek. His good one; no one ever reached for the scar, except that one healer girl back when Uncle had been so tea-starved he'd been brewing random plants. "Uh… thanks?"
The woman stalked off towards Mountain and began loudly accosting him with her stack of papers. Her brown hair was lightened with gray. She walked with a confident step and a straight back. He didn't know her at all, but the girl on her flyer looked familiar.
Maijing patiently collected the posters that were being slammed into his chest, one by one. He patiently assured the mother that he would make certain every guard at his station carried one until her daughter was found. He patiently made eye contact with the boy, who was scrambling up a drain pipe. Li scrambled faster, and disappeared onto the roof. Maijing could have stomped; could have sent the earth trembling from here up the stone wall to the stone edge of the roof, could have caught the boy's arms as he pulled himself over. But considering the blood Li had left behind on those cuffs at the station, Maijing had no interest in making him feel truly trapped.
Keishin must have caught a flash of movement; at the end of the street, he glanced up, squinting into the shadows.
"My partner could use a poster," he suggested. This gave both him and the boy an adequate head start.
Maijing started walking again. He hadn't run since he'd come home from the front.
The rooftops weren't safe; they were full of Dai Li. The streets weren't safe; those guards kept finding him. Zuko needed a place to think, to rest, to not be running. To plan, like Uncle always said he should. He did the only reasonable thing: he broke into a house.
A woman promptly screamed.
But… not from the room he'd broken into.
It had looked like an abandoned house. Windows shuttered and boarded over, roof tiles cracked and missing, garden boxes dried out and dead.
The woman screamed again. Zuko tugged at his hair, and cast a look at the window he should just duck straight back out through. Then he opened the door to the hallway because he was stupid and he was worried about some random stranger more than his own Uncle, he was the worst nephew ever, why was he doing this—
The house was too abandoned. There were no blanket-nests tucked in corners from squatters, no refuse dropped by people who'd stayed here without feeling like they lived here. In a city with so many refugees, in the Lower Ring where he and Uncle and their rotting-at-the-edges apartment were considered well off, there shouldn't be empty houses.
There was a door with a light under it. Men laughing from the inside, the sound of cards being dealt and chips hitting the table. He didn't know who these men were, just that they didn't care that a woman was screaming down the hall. That was all he needed to know about them. He crept past, keeping his steps to the edge of the hall where the wood would be less likely to creak.
He was in a gang house, wasn't he? They were selling drugs, or… or…
The room the woman was in had gone too silent. It had a sliding door; he edged it open a crack, but even though there was a small lamp flickering inside, he couldn't see much. An empty, disheveled bed. A… foot?
He shoved the door open, rolling instinctively out of the way as something came for his head. Then he was staring up at a face that was more familiar in person than it had been in the posters. And she was staring down at him like she didn't like what she saw.
"Song?" he asked.
"Junior." She brandished her... what even was that? The board that had kept the window shutters closed? "You're with them? You horrible, awful—!"
Her board with nails in it. He rolled out of the way and tried to get to his feet, but tripped over the last man who'd made her this angry. "I heard someone screaming! I came to check!"
"You expect me to believe that, you, you, you ostrich-horse thief!"
The door was already open. So it was with no great fanfare that the other men looked in on them, and took in the scene.
One of them glanced at the groaning man on the floor, and let out a whistle for Song. "Feisty."
The other one was looking at Zuko. "Who are you?"
Zuko and Song exchanged a glance. Then he did the only reasonable thing: he grabbed her wrist, and threw them both out the window.
She landed on top of him. He landed on top of the guard. The Mountain, he determined, was made primarily of muscle. The man tried to catch him, or help him stand, or grab him, but he was running before the guard could get a good grip on him.
"That's a guard! Why are we running from a guard?" Song demanded, which was when he realized he was still holding her wrist. "What did you steal this time?" Behind them, the men were boiling out of the building just in time to meet the officer, and Zuko had been right, the man's earthbending was terrifying. The gang sunk into dirt up to their shoulders with just a few curt gestures of his arms, and then he was looking at Zuko.
"Let me go!" Song shouted.
He did. Gladly. But she kept following him.
"Hey! I'm not done yelling at you! You can't just… break in, and run off with me, and leave!" And now she was grabbing him, catching his arm before he could outpace her and slowing him down. "I don't know where I am!"
The guard wasn't chasing him yet when he rounded the nearest corner, but Zuko rounded a few more to be sure, backtracking when he hit dead ends why did this city have so many, not stopping until the girl hanging off his wrist planted her heels and dragged him to a halt.
"That was a guard, wasn't it?" she panted. "I need a guard."
"Then maybe you shouldn't have elbow-leeched onto me," Zuko panted back.
"Is this Ba Sing Se?" she asked. Still not letting his arm go. He would deal with that. Just as soon as he caught his breath. "I was… I was at the ferry port, and someone stole my passport, and this woman said she knew someone who could get me a ticket anyway and..."
Oh Agni she was going to cry, that was what girls looked like when they were trying not to cry.
"I know where a guard station is," Zuko said. "And I think I saw your mother there. If I bring you, will you let go?"
"My mom?" she asked.
He gestured. "This tall. Brown-gray hair. Was really upset the guards didn't have the whole station looking for you?"
She sniffled. And smiled. "If you bring me there, I won't even tell them about the ostrich-horse."
He growled, and turned away. She stayed stuck on his arm. And walked closer than she needed to. And kept looking at him.
"What?" he snapped.
"You've lost weight."
"So have you." A compliment among nobles was no compliment at all among refugees. Just a fact.
"The Fire Nation burned down my village. Again." She eyed him. "It's really slow, coming to Ba Sing Se on foot."
"If you cared about the stupid ostrich-horse so much, why didn't you turn us in for stealing it?"
"You needed it more than we did. And… we were doing so well there. I remembered what it was like having nothing, but feeling like we had to keep running. I told you I knew what you'd been through." She tilted her head back, to the buildings around them and the walls above them, and the moon above all the rest. "Except for the part about stealing ostrich-horses."
She didn't accept his apology. But she didn't not accept it.
Keishin had seen something on the roofs a few blocks back, before his partner had sicced that charming woman on him. Something that looked a lot like a kid so new to the city that he thought he was clever, running around on the Dai Li's turf. As soon as Keishin had shaken the lady, he'd run.
That brought him, out of breath, to this scene: his dear partner standing over a bunch of disembodied heads yelling at him from the street, and as many times as he saw that sink-them-in-the-stone trick, it was never not going to freak him out. And there in the background, Li and some girl running away. Keishin looked at that, and his body threw up a few flags of no more running. He stumbled to a halt next to Maijing, hands on his knees, somewhere between panting and dying a little and he was not this out of shape, but how did the kid move that fast? They'd hopped precinct lines already, for Shu's sake.
He gestured at Maijing with one hand, the other still firmly supporting him from collapsing into an out of breath ball. "Do the… Do the thing! Bend him into the ground!"
Maijing cast a slow, unconcerned glance as the kid and his girl, how had he had the time to pick up a girlfriend, rounded a corner. "He's running."
"Right. So stop him."
"I might break his leg."
Keishin was starting to like the idea of that kid with a broken leg. Less running. Less roof-climbing. Presumably less escaping from locked rooms in the first place.
"Keishin," a voice he really hadn't needed to hear on this already fantastic night called out. "Thought I saw you skulking outside the station earlier."
And there came Leng-Shu and Sang-Lin, strolling around the corner. Two weeks ago he'd outranked them. Now he was standing on their turf without jurisdiction, while his partner had some random guys sunk into the dirt and Keishin really had no idea why.
"Gentleman," Keishin said, "what a pleasant surprise. You're just in time to arrest these," he took a look down, and took a guess. From what he could see, they had a lot more yellow thread worked into their collars than the usual citizen, "charming members of the Gold Fox Gang. No need to thank us; you can go ahead and take all the credit."
"Detective Keishin," Leng-Shu said, "so kind of you. You've got the evidence to back this up?"
Keishin looked to Maijing. Maijing continued his usual impression of a particularly unhelpful boulder. "Yep. It's right there in that house."
"Which you have a warrant to search," Sang-Lin said, like a man who knew the answer was 'no' but really wanted to make him say it.
Keishin gestured. At the super sketchy house. "Looks abandoned to me. No warrants necessary."
"Detective Keishin," Leng-Shu said. "Is this your new partner? Why don't you introduce us."
"Maijing," the man himself supplied.
"Maijing. Great. You—"
"...Detective Maijing. You want to tell us why you crossed precinct lines to sink these men into our dirt?"
"We were searching for a missing child," Maijing said, somehow making Li sound like he really was a lost five-year old. "I saw a light in a seemingly abandoned house, and heard a woman's scream." Which was now officially more words than Keishin had ever gotten out of his partner in one go. "Two teenagers, a girl and boy, then leapt from the window. These men pursued."
"And then you sunk them in the ground," Sang-Lin finished.
By way of answer, Maijing continued to exist. So did the men he'd sunk.
"The kids give a statement?" Leng-Shu asked.
"They were thieves!" one of the grounded men shouted. "And this is assault! Guard brutality!"
...This was Keishin's night, now. Courtesy of Li.
"The girl matched this description," Maijing said, holding up the same poster that was shoved in Keishin's pocket. "I believe she's missing," he said, not pointing out the MISSING emblazoned over the image.
"So a missing girl was robbing us, that makes us criminals?" one of the men shouted.
Maijing was eventually persuaded to raise the men out of the ground. The men were, with a little too much ease to be completely innocent, persuaded not to report this incident to anyone's captains.
Leng-Shu took him to the side as his partner kept smoothing out ruffled feathers, and Keishin's partner kept… standing there.
"Keishin," he started. He patted his shoulder. Keishin shrugged it off. "I know you and I have never really gotten along. But this was supposed to be a fresh start for you. I'll talk to Sang-Lin, make sure he doesn't go running to Captain Shen about this, but you can't be over here. And you definitely can't be poking around with the Gold Foxes again. Evidence, Keishin. You know what that means? You can't go around harassing people because they're suspicious. Especially not if your new partner breaks out military-grade bending and, what, flips a coin for which side he's going to try arresting? What even was this?"
Keishin really, really didn't want to explain about Li. He didn't want to get lectured by someone three rungs down the payscale, either. "I get it, okay? Won't happen again. I don't miss you guys that much. We'll find our missing kid, and get out of your hair."
"It'd be one thing if the girl stuck around to testify, or if she comes to the station later. But this half-assed non-jurisdictional raid of yours just ruined any chance we had for pinning something on these guys. You're lucky they aren't pressing charges." He dropped a hand on Keishin's shoulder again, and squeezed. "So what you're going to do, is go back to your station, and send us over a description of the kid. Like every other precinct does. We know how to handle missing persons cases. Or does Captain Shen need to have another talk with your new captain?"
Keishin shrugged him off again, but didn't reply. Answer enough.
The station was a bright spot, lamps framing its entrance and light spilling out from its windows. Zuko stopped in the shadows of a side street. He tried shaking Song off his elbow. Again. This time, she finally let go.
"That is not my name."
She flashed him a smile, then took a hesitant step forward. Looked both ways, like there was anything in the empty street to stop her. Then she squared her shoulders, and walked to the station. She made it inside, and the door shut behind her, and closed, and that was it. Done. No more clingy girl, no more responsibility to her. The guards would take care of her from here.
Now he just needed to get to the other station, and stop the guards from taking care of Uncle.
...He leaned against the wall, and tried to pick up the pieces of his thoughts from before. His plan. That he would definitely have, because Uncle would never forgive him if he came in without one even if it worked. He was getting a little tired, but there was plenty of night left to work with.
The guards who'd been chasing him walked by on the main street, along with two others. Zuko pressed himself into a side-alley, just an eye peeking out to make sure they hadn't seen him. The two he didn't know went into the station; Mountain and Knife kept walking, separating from them with barely a wave. Zuko relaxed, slowly, but stayed hidden, because there was another set of footsteps coming.
He didn't smile as she went into the station to yell at more guards, that… that would be stupid. He'd only met them once. Twice, now. And he had Uncle to worry about, and a city to flee, and—
—And Song's mother got escorted out of the station by a guard who was giving her the same lipservice as earlier. And she walked away, just as angry as earlier. Even though her daughter was inside. Zuko had brought her there himself, and watched to make sure she got in. She was safe with the guards, it was where she'd wanted to go, that had been the point.
...So why did it feel like he'd done something really, really wrong?
Iroh very carefully leaned down, eye level with the captain's cup. He poured. Graceful, delicate, daintily—a single drop. Circles chased circles, but the surface tension held the tea back from overflowing.
The captain sighed, and poured for Iroh again.
Rewatched the Song episode to get a reminder of her character. Was pleasantly surprised by how much personality they packed into her few scenes. And /very pleased/ that Mushi told her Li goes by 'Junior'.
Chapter 3: Zuko Drops a Child Out a Window
Zuko stared at the station. Song's mother was out of sight now, gone, and he could have run after her and told her where her daughter was but then she'd go back in the station and never come out. Because that was apparently what guard stations in Ba Sing Se were like. There was no war; maybe there was no serious crime, either. Did the guards work with the Dai Li? Zuko didn't know exactly what the earthbenders who shared the rooftops with him did, except that refugees disappeared if they got too loud and the guards looked the other way. Like with Jet.
...He was drawing a hard line at rescuing Jet. He already had to get Uncle out of the guard station, and Song out of the guard station, and why couldn't they be in the same guard station. He let out a measured breath, careful not to let it turn into either flame or a growl or a curse invoking every spirit he knew by name because one or more of them was clearly taking bets on his life. There was no other way to explain how the prince of the Fire Nation was about to rescue an Earth Kingdom commoner.
He would have rescued Uncle first, except that Uncle was perfectly capable of rescuing himself but infuriatingly refusing not to. The more he thought about it, the more he believed that Mountain guard. Uncle probably did get lured in with tea. And now he was sitting there, in mortal peril, probably offering to brew their next pot after passive-aggressively drinking the first. The city wasn't on fire: therefore, Uncle wasn't expending any significant effort in escaping. So he must be fine where he was, for now.
...Unless they'd let her get her hands on a board with nails in it. She wasn't that helpless, actually. She wasn't even his problem. And if he did rescue her—and maybe she didn't even need rescuing—what was he going to do, bring her along with him to get Uncle? Get Uncle's pai sho buddies to smuggle all three of them from the city? Make that four—she'd probably want her mom to come too, and by the time Zuko was done getting Song and Uncle, the older woman would probably be in a third guard station because that was just how this evening was going.
This. This was why he never made plans. No matter what happened in his life, it always got worse than he could have possibly planned for. Uncle didn't get that.
The door to the station opened, spilling light across the street. Zuko ducked back around the corner.
"Easy there, kid."
Not fast enough, apparently.
"My name's Leng-Shu. Saw you watching from the window." The guard wasn't coming closer; his footsteps had stopped back by the station door, which he'd shut behind him. Zuko eyed the downspout he'd used to get away from Mountain earlier. "You're the one who helped Song find us, right? I'm not going to force you to come out or anything. But she could use your help, so could you make a little noise so I know you didn't just run off?"
Zuko was okay with the man thinking exactly that.
"...And I've been talking to the night. Good job, Leng-Shu." Light started to spill across the pavement again; the guard was reopening the door.
"What did you mean, she could use help?" Stupid stupid stupid.
The light narrowed, and cut off; the man had shut the door again. "She needs help IDing those guys who kidnapped her. You're the one who saved her from them, right? She didn't ID you, either—good friend you've got there."
"Why didn't you let her mom know she was in the station?"
"Her mom came by? Crap, I didn't think she'd be back so soon. Song just got here; the whole station doesn't know we found her yet. Why don't you come on inside, and we'll send out a runner to get her mom here while you and Song give your statements."
Zuko wondered, sometimes, how stupid people thought he was.
"Listen," the man said, when it became abundantly clear that Zuko wasn't going to respond. "You're right to be edgy. I get it. Ordinarily, I would care very much about what you were doing breaking into houses in the middle of the night. But those guys you interrupted, the ones you saved Song from—we've been trying to get leads on them for a long time. Whatever you've been up to, I guarantee it's not as bad as what you're going to help us put them away for. If you want, I can talk to a magistrate, get you a pardon before you even give testimony. You could even wait out here, if you wanted to." He let that hang in the air for a moment. "Or you could come in, and sit with Song while she waits for her mom. I don't know how well you two know each other, but she's really rattled. She could use a friend."
...Zuko wondered, sometimes, how stupid he actually was. He squeezed his eyes shut. Took in a breath, and let it out, and another, and another. And the guard kept standing there, not making any attempt to come closer, just waiting for him to decide.
He'd already broken out of one station today. If the guard was lying, he'd just… do what he'd already been planning. Grab Song and run, except he wouldn't have to break in first. And if the man wasn't lying, if he was sincere…
The pardon was a joke. No Earth Kingdom magistrate could pardon him from being the Fire Lord's son. But he was tired; sitting with Song for a little while would let him catch his breath. Even if she did keep sparking at him about the stupid ostrich horse.
Zuko took a half-step into view, and glared.
The guard held up his hands. "Your choice. Wait inside, wait outside, run away and we'll pretend this conversation never happened. You're not in trouble."
Neither of you are in trouble. The Mountain had said something like that, too, back at the apartment. Zuko edged another step closer. The guard kept his hands up. His face was professionally blank, but there were laugh lines crinkled around his eyes like he was amused by Zuko's tense actions. Zuko squared his shoulders, and crossed the space between them in a few stomping strides
"Take me to Song," he ordered.
"Yes, sir," Laugh Lines said.
No one had called Zuko sir since his ship had exploded. The guard said it with about the same respect he would have expected from his crew. Had they made it out of the north? He was not going to think about that again, not now, not here. Not with solid dirt under him instead of the creaking wood of the raft.
There weren't many people inside the station at this time of night, and fewer that bothered to look up. The guard led him past the main desk and down a hall. The layout wasn't the same as the other station; Zuko noted the differences as they went, keeping track of potential exits, blindspots, places that would naturally have higher or lower traffic. It was a good time for breaking out; he hoped Uncle's station was this empty, too.
They came to a row of closed doors that looked a lot like the interrogation rooms at the other precinct. Zuko's steps slowed.
"It's okay to be scared," Laugh Lines said. "You've probably had a rough night, right?"
"I'm not scared!"
The guard kept up his perfectly blank expression, plus or minus those stupid amused crinkles. He raised a hand, and knocked on a door. Another guard opened it just far enough to slip out. He shut it behind him.
"This is my partner, Sang-Lin," Laugh Lines introduced. "Sang-Lin, this is the concerned citizen who got the little lady to us, safe and sound."
"Concerned citizen, huh," the other guard said, looking Zuko over, taking in the scuffs and tears in his clothes. He had the same professionally blank face as his partner, but instead of the crinkles around his eyes, there was just the hint of a sneer around his mouth.
"Junior?" a voice said from inside the room. Song's voice. "Junior, run!"
Sneer caught one of his arms and Laugh Lines caught the other, and even as he was jerking away they were bending stone over his wrists. Zuko threw an elbow into Sneer's gut and spun low to kick at Laugh Lines, but the guard was already shoving him in the back, through the door his wheezing partner had jerked open. It shut again, with the distinct click of a lock.
The cuffs were tight around his wrists.
"Hello again, Junior," Song said, with a shaky smile. She had half-risen from her seat at the table, with her own cuffs in front of her. Lucky her: they'd cuffed his hands in back. "Thanks for bringing me to the station."
Zuko took in a slow breath. Zuko let out a slow breath. Then he started casing the room for anything they could use. Table—stone, too heavy to lift. Chairs, wood, light. No window, no convenient roof panels to pop up, and voices still outside the door. More voices than before, even.
"I thought interrogation room two was open," a man said.
"Naw," Sneer said. "Caught a street girl and her John Dee right in the act. Try five."
Song met his eyes, and he could see it in hers: she was thinking about calling for help. Wondering how corrupt that new guard was. Wondering how it would go for him, two on one, if he was clean. They could hear the sleepy sounds of the midnight station all around them, but who was actually going to help?
He didn't call out. Neither did she.
When Laugh Lines and Sneer came back in, they fought them. But Song wasn't very good at weaponizing chairs with cuffed hands, and Zuko wasn't great at tanking rocks to the chest in enclosed spaces. It was just like in that desert town; he was down again, but he couldn't use fire here, he didn't have an ostrich horse to flee town on and he had Uncle to worry about—
He flipped up again, without the flames.
The next rock hit his head. He went straight back down.
Keishin glared down at the rookie. The rookie pushed his reading glasses just a smidge further up his nose, looking up from a stack of paperwork.
"Jyo Cho—" he growled.
"Cho Jyo," the rookie corrected. "Ryo Cho Jyo. It's really not that difficult. Just 'Ryo' is fine."
"You were supposed to be out on the streets, helping with the search."
"You aren't actually in my chain of command yet. I check the organizational chart."
Not wanting to commit a public murder tonight, Keishin let out a long breath and let that slide. He filed revenge under his mental To Do list, and stomped over to join his partner in the Captain's office.
Maijing had pulled a third chair up to the Captain's desk and was pouring a cup of tea for the old man. The old man, in turn, poured for him. Keishin had no idea why they didn't just pour for themselves, and even less of a clue as to why the Captain's cup was a hard look away from overflowing.
"Ah, Detective Keishin," the punk kid's too-kindly uncle beamed. "Would you like a cup? That nice young man Ryo helped me find an excellent ginseng blend in your kitchen."
Maijing sipped his tea, the cup ridiculously undersized between his fingers. The Captain seemed to be imitating a statue with a tension headache.
"No," Keishin ground out through his clenched teeth, and his forced smile. "Thank you. I was just going to head back out to search again. I'm sure you're very worried about Li."
"It warms my heart," the old man said, with a complete lack of worry, "to see so many people concerned for my dear nephew."
"Sure," Keishin said, and turned a stare on his partner. "You coming?"
Maijing set his cup down, and gave it a quarter-turn.
"...Right, I'll just go alone, then."
That was fine. He hadn't been heading out to search for Li, anyway: if he got back to that house quick enough, the Gold Foxes might not have time to destroy all the leads on what they'd been using it for.
Zuko's head hurt and he couldn't remember why.
"Shame about the face," a voice said.
"Yeah, but did you see the eyes? Someone will—crap, he's waking back up—"
Zuko's head hurt a lot more, then a lot less. His ears rang a little, but there wasn't any water, so Uncle must have found him after his ship had blown up—
But he hadn't had a ship for months. And he couldn't even take an ostrich-horse into the city, so the customs agent would have definitely made him leave his ship at the port. And there weren't any pirates in Ba Sing Se. Were there?
"—Junior? Are you with us?"
"Where else would I be?" Zuko asked, frowning at the upside-down girl hanging over him.
"Don't try to sit up," she said, pushing him back down with her stone-cuffed hands. "Do you remember how you got here?"
'Here' was dark. He was on his side on a cold stone floor, his hands behind him and something soft propping up his head. There was a high roof above, and just a little moonlight creeping under the edges of the rafters. Some kind of warehouse? He didn't know how he'd gotten here, exactly. But he knew what had gotten him here. "Uncle heated his tea."
"I… see," the girl said. She had big brown eyes and hair in a single plait, and the soft thing under his head was her lap. "What's today's date?"
He didn't know how to say Earth Kingdom dates, this was a trap, she was on to him just like the guards—
"What did I say about sitting up?" She nudged his shoulders back down. "It's okay if you don't know. Let's try something easier: when's your birthday?"
This wasn't a trap. It was a concussion test. Uncle made him take these anytime he came back to the ship too late and too wobbly, and if Earth Kingdom calendars weren't so stupid he could have passed this with his head hurting three times this bad.
"It's on my passport," he said instead. Which failed to reassure the girl. She was a healer's apprentice, and she had fire on her leg like he had it on his face, but she probably hadn't done anything to deserve hers. She'd just been a kid.
"...Sssh, it's okay. Which Earth King currently reigns?"
"King Kuei, the… forty-sixth?"
"Fifty-second," she corrected, with a wince.
"Don't tell Uncle I got it wrong. He'll be disappointed." They had practiced for days on the road to the ferry, it was one number, but he hadn't wanted to learn it and now Uncle was trapped at a guard station and it… was actually mostly Uncle's fault, except for the sword fight, but it was Zuko's fault for not stopping Uncle from being so stupid that somehow days later sword fighting was the logical fallout.
The girl patted his cheek, not caring that it was his scarred side. She made him follow her finger with his eyes. He didn't mess up that part, because it was the same in Fire Nation infirmaries. Also her hands were cuffed, and two hands made a very easy target for following.
"Okay, last question. What's my name?"
"Good enough," she said. "But when we get out of here, you're going straight to a healer."
Someone snorted. There were other someones here. Zuko was on his feet and ready to fight in the time it would have taken to say 'Avat—'
"Last time you got out of here," a teenage boy said, "they dragged you kicking and screaming. And they brought you back the same, but with Junior here. Get a chance to visit a lot of healers while you were out there?"
"My name," Zuko said, "is not Junior."
"So what is it, Concussion Kid?"
"Um. ...Li? Not Mushi. That's Uncle."
Song let out a slow sigh, and pushed down on his shoulder. "Sit. I need to take a look at those ribs, too."
"They're just bruised," Zuko said, with a certain experience-based authority that made her look at him. Zuko sat down, and turned his head away as she unbuttoned his shirt. He was just going to… look for structural weak points. While she did that.
And glare at their fellow prisoners. Especially the snickering ones. The boy was unrepentant. But the little girl peeking out from behind him startled, and ducked back out of sight. Those two were sitting by the wall. There were a handful of others around the room, cast in various shadows. None of them were cuffed; they'd probably hit their kidnappers with fewer chairs. All of them were young. The boy looked a little older than Zuko, which would make him the oldest in the room. The girl just starting to poke her head up over his shoulder was the youngest by a fair margin; she was seven, maybe eight. The rest were somewhere in-between. The gauntness to their cheeks marked them as refugees, even where their clothes didn't. But all of them were still, somehow… pretty.
Zuko had never thought of himself as pretty, and this was not how he wanted to find out. His skin did its best to crawl off but got trapped in a mere shudder.
"Sorry," Song said, like she'd had anything to do with it. Her hands were warm and barely-there gentle. "Does it hurt here?"
"No," he said. Not anymore than the last time he'd had bruised ribs. Better, actually; at least he hadn't gotten thrown through a wall again. Or run into a building only to realize there wasn't a floor. His ribs only ached from one direction. "Are you done?"
"For now. But you need to—"
Rest. He'd heard that before. He stood up before she could tell him not to, and started to take proper stock of the situation. The floor was stone; bare and solid, nothing here but people and a few buckets. The ones over there looked like they held water. He didn't need to get closer to the ones in the other corner to know what they held. The door was metal, and had neither handle nor lock on this side; a testing kick told him it was secured from the outside.
"What are you doing?" the boy asked. When Zuko ignored him, he turned his head to Song. "What is he doing?"
She ignored him, too. She tracked Zuko's progress around the room, with eyes a lot more alert than the other prisoners. She didn't tell him to sit down, or rest, or stop kicking things so hard his ankle ached.
The walls and support beams were stone, but the roof was wooden; if he could get his hands free, he could get up into the rafters. Maybe. They were pretty high, but he'd figure it out. He wasn't sure if he could fit through the ventilation windows the moonlight was coming through, but he'd figure that out, too.
His hands tingled when he tried to move them, were a dull ache when he didn't. He wouldn't be slipping these cuffs. He might be able to shatter them off with bending, especially if the water in those buckets was cool enough to alternate heat with cold. He might be able to kick through the door with enough fire to weaken the hinges, too. But those were last resorts. They had to be; he doubted the kids trapped in here were trained fighters, but they outnumbered him, and they were Earth Kingdom. He knew what happened when he used firebending to save people in the Earth Kingdom; he didn't need another angry mob to reinforce the lesson. He didn't want to hurt them, either.
But if he was going to do this without bending, he needed these cuffs off.
"Are any of you earthbenders?"
No one answered him. They weren't doing a lot of talking to begin with. A few had even huddled back up and gone to sleep on the floor, now that the excitement of the new arrivals had worn off. The little girl watched him from over her brother's shoulder.
"I can get us out. But I need my hands free," he tried again, without much hope. This warehouse was mostly stone. If there were earthbenders here, they weren't the competent kind.
"You think we haven't tried getting out?" the boy said. "The walls are solid. The door's secured. No one comes no matter how much noise we make; I'm not sure anyone can even hear us through the walls, and they clearly don't care if they do. A couple of the girls tried to gang up on the men who bring in the water; haven't seen them since. Except for Song here. How'd that go for you, Song?"
Song's face tightened.
The teen looked back to Zuko. "What exactly are you going to do that we haven't tried?"
"Not giving up," Zuko said. "For a start."
The boy snorted. The girl behind him kept watching Zuko, her eyes wide. Someone over in the corner started to snore, though not as bad as Uncle. Zuko went to a support beam, turned around, and started banging his cuffs off the edge. He was aiming for the corner of the beam and the center of the cuffs, where they met between his hands, but he couldn't see and after a few more hits he couldn't really feel, either. But maybe the force combined with heat would be enough. Enough to break out, and subtle enough that no one would catch how. Song didn't look like she approved, but she wasn't trying to stop him, either.
One of the sleepers stirred enough to tell him to quiet down. Zuko glared at them, and banged harder. (...Oww.)
" 'Ma bender," the girl said.
"I'm a bender," she said, half-hiding her head in her brother's shoulder.
And that was how Zuko ended up sitting on the ground with a little girl behind him, a look of extreme concentration on her face as she held his cuffs between her palms and stuck the tip of her tongue out between her teeth. There was another tiny crack. She jumped. Song winced. Zuko tried to ignore how close that rock shard was to the veins in his wrist.
"You're, ah. You're doing fine," he said. "Try to break the part between the cuffs. Not the part by my hands."
He liked his hands. He liked them not impaled by rock shards. It figured that this was the one time in his life he wasn't surrounded by prodigy children. Maybe he should blow his cover and try to bend them off himself, but with cuffs this tight he'd be burning his own skin to get them off—
"Uh, maybe we should take a break—" her brother said.
"Nu-uh," the girl said, her tongue sticking into her cheek. "Not giving up."
Zuko took in a breath, and focused. Tried to do the same that she was doing: focusing his bending between his hands, to weaken the stone a little for her. Hopefully without hurting himself, or giving himself away. ...He was about as confident at this as an untrained seven or eight year old peasant, but the next crack was a little louder, and Song's gasp seemed more pleased than alarmed.
The girl herself paused. "Warm," she said. Zuko tensed, but her voice had been so soft that he didn't think anyone else heard her. And she didn't let go of him.
The next crack split the cuffs in half. His hands were still manacled, but he was free to move them. Zuko turned, and nodded to her. She very seriously nodded back.
"And now you set us all free," her brother drolled, arms crossed.
Zuko stood, rolling his shoulders. He eyed the support beam he'd been banging his cuffs on. Then he started to climb.
"What," the boy said, when Zuko was fifteen feet up.
"What," when he was thirty.
"Are you serious?" when he hooked his arms over a rafter, and started making his way across to the windows. Zuko didn't know why the other teen was impressed; this was the easy part. He could just walk. Even the narrowest beam was still a good six inches wide.
He hadn't been sure how long he'd been unconscious, but it was still deep night outside. The moon was high and the stars of Druk were in the west, so it couldn't be long past midnight. There was a breeze outside: it caught in his hair, and got under his collar where Song had left his top button undone. The ventilation windows were too narrow for him to fit through. Because of course they were. They were too narrow for anyone here, except—
"No," the boy said, following Zuko's appraising stare.
"Do I get to walk in the roof, too?" the girl said, sounding oddly pleased by this prospect.
"What are you thinking, Junior?" Song called up, and from up here he could see the other captives starting to stir. To watch him, with something that was cautiously sidling up towards hope.
"That anyone small enough to fit through is going to break bones coming down the other side," he answered, honestly.
"So we give them a rope," Song said.
"I don't have a rope."
"Teamwork," she said. "Ever heard of it? Sometimes you can just ask for an ostrich-horse." And then she started stripping out of her outer robe, leaving only her chest wraps, which almost caused Zuko to become re-acquainted with the ground.
She started tearing the cloth into strips, with the efficiency of someone used to making bandages on the fly. The other boy watched her for a moment, as speechless as Zuko.
"Oh," he said. "Oh." Then he shrugged out of his own shirt, took a seat, and started tying strips together as she kept tearing.
"How many do you need?" another teen asked, hesitantly coming over.
Song eyed the distance between herself and Zuko. "Let's start with shirts for now. I think that'll get us there."
Zuko sat in the rafters, and stared down at the forming rope. The answer to their problem, that was coming together without his help. It was… a weird feeling. But a good one? Like when something went wrong on the ship, and he found out that Uncle or Lieutenant Jee was already handling it, and he didn't have to yell at anyone.
He walked back over the rafters, and shimmied back down the beam, and offered up his own shirt to the cause. Song took it with a smile, and shredded it with ruthless efficiency. The boy kept tying the strips together; Zuko joined him, working on the other end of the growing length.
"Huh," the boy said, pausing to compare their knots. "Fisherman's son?"
"...Yeah," Zuko said.
The boy flashed his teeth, and bumped their fists together. Which was just as confusing as the possibility of escaping through the power of teamwork.
The little girl danced around the edges of their preparation, her earlier shyness gone. Or at least, gone as long as she was hovering over her brother or Zuko's shoulders. "I get to go out a window," she whispered in his ear, like it was a secret.
"This is a terrible idea," her brother said, but kept tying.
It was the only idea they had. (The only one that didn't involve fire, and them all hating him, and he wasn't even sure if he could burn his way through that door. At least this way, the girl stood a chance at getting away, even if the rest of them couldn't. And she wouldn't see him bend, if he had to.)
"I'm Taiji," the boy said. "That's Mei-Lin."
"I didn't ask," Zuko said.
"Dad said I had to protect him," Mei-Lin whispered. Another too-loud secret. "Because he's lazy and useless and he always quits too soon. I'm the brave one."
He hadn't asked about that, either.
They went over the plan as they worked.
"Don't try to open the door," Zuko said. "Go find, uh…"
"My mom," Song said.
"Do you know where she lives?"
"Of course, she wrote me a letter—" She crumpled in on herself, just a little. The first time she'd done so all night. "I keep thinking I have my papers. But the thief took my passport, and those men took everything else. I… don't know where she is. Even if—even when we get out, I don't know where to go. "
"We know where to start looking," Zuko said, like he was going to be around to help. Like wherever her mother was, it was somehow safe. He brushed a hand over his own pocket, and wasn't surprised to find the familiar rectangle of papers missing. No passport, no entry papers, no home address: they must have taken them while he was out.
He couldn't walk freely without his papers. The first guards who stopped to hassle him about his eyes would arrest him for being in the city illegally—
Which he was. And always had been. And if he landed in the guards' hands again, missing paperwork would be the least of his worries.
Why did he keep thinking like he could stay here? He couldn't.
Taiji let out a low whistle. "You two actually had papers? I had to pay a coyote-mole to get us in. The serpent's pass is freaky."
"I liked the serpent part," Mei-Lin shared. "If I can't go to your mom, where do I go? I still think I should try to open the door. I'm not scared of guards."
"It's not about being scared," Zuko said, "it's about completing your objective. If you get caught, everything fails. You need to secure allies and return in force."
"Fisherman's son?" Song said, raising an eyebrow.
"Uncle was in the military," Zuko said, stiffly. "And he still has… really strange contacts. There's a pai sho parlor. I know it sounds stupid, but they're weirdly good about helping. They, umm. Smuggled us out of a town once. Can you remember an address?"
The girl nodded, and repeated it after him just like he'd repeated it after Uncle, until he was sure she knew it. Probably everyone there had memorized it just from hearing it so much, but if Uncle's friends were willing to help Fire Nation runaways, they must be okay with helping Earth Kingdom refugees, too. Right?
The rope was done quickly with all of them working. It took longer for Taiji to test each length and knot to his satisfaction. They'd folded most of the fabric double for extra strength; triple where certain shirts had been threadbare prior to their donation. When the boy started checking it a third time, Song took it from him.
Zuko coiled it around himself. Mei-Lin was more than happy to ride him piggy-horse-back up into the ceiling. Crossing the rafters came with more grumbling than expected, though; apparently she'd been under the impression that she would get to balance across them, and her shouting brother was too far away to change her mind.
"Have you ever tried balancing on something this high up before?" Zuko asked.
"You are not letting her walk on those!" Taiji shouted.
"No," she said. "But I'm real good, anytime a tree trunk drifted in I'd be the first one to walk across it, even if it was still in the waves."
"It's different up high," Zuko said. "It takes practice. You'll be slow the first time, and we can't be slow. Everyone's counting on us."
She thought this over very carefully. "Okay. But next time you'll teach me."
"Next time," Zuko agreed.
"What 'next time'?"
He carried her the rest of the way across, then carefully eased her down, making sure she had a good grip on the rafter under her. She leaned her head out the window as he tied the rope into a harness. The other end he tied to the beam itself, in case— He wouldn't let that happen. But he tied it. In case.
"You know what to do?"
"We went over it ten times," she said, which was apparently a number she considered high enough for exaggerations.
"Mission parameters. Repeat them. Now." Zuko snapped, in his best commander voice.
"Get on the ground and run away and find the pai sho place and tell them Uncle Mushy—"
"—Is at the guard station and Li and my brother and everyone else are here and if they don't help me go to the station but not the close one the one by the teashop—"
"Pao's Family Tea Shop."
"—and if the guards there look stupid then pretend to be your sister so I can see your Uncle and get him to help and if he's drinking tea which he always is slap it out of his hand and say 'that's from your nephew' and then he'll definitely believe you sent me."
Zuko nodded. "And if someone tries to stop you?"
"Kick them in the bad place or the knees or go for the eyes, and don't be afraid to bite."
"And run as soon as they let go," he added. She nodded. He nodded. There was a time and place for honorable fighting, and a seven year old girl versus the city of Ba Sing Se was not it. They both stared down at the ground. It was a long way away, for a child. Or for someone about to lower a child on a rope made of threadbare clothing. He made her repeat the address to the pai sho parlor one more time. Then she took a deep breath and pushed herself out over the sill, and he gripped the rope with everything he had as he lowered her down.
There was nothing at the house. Nothing useful, and Keishin didn't know why he still let himself hope about things like this, because nothing was all he ever found. He'd made detective a year ago, and he'd screwed up the Gold Fox case so bad Captain Shen had booted him to another precinct. All there was in the building were messy beds that offered speculation in spades but proof of exactly nada, footprints in the dust of lesser used halls that showed someone had been here sometime, and the lingering smell of a kind of smoke that probably wasn't healthy to be breathing even second hand but which would be gone from the air completely in the next hour.
Nothing. Another location scuttled until the heat died down. Then the roach-mice would come crawling back.
At least Li and his new girlfriend had broken some window shutters on their way out of the second story. Good for them. Keishin kicked a nail-studded board along the floor for a bit, then made his own way out. He used the door.
Maybe he should get back to looking for Li. ...Or just go home for the night, that sounded great too.
"—and don't be afraid to bite," was not what he was expecting to hear coming from above his head as he passed a neighboring warehouse. Keishin paused in the shadows of a side street, and looked up.
And watched a young girl getting lowered down. By a kid with the most recognizable-from-a-distance face Keishin had ever had the displeasure of meeting.
...He could pretend not to see this. That was an option.
The girl reached the end of her… he was going to grudgingly call it a rope, because clothesline already had a definition and it wasn't this. She reached the end, and she was still about six feet off the ground. Li stuck his arms as far as he could out that teenie-tiny clearly-not-great-for-security ventilation window, giving her an extra foot.
"Hang on," he said. "I'll untie this end, then you'll have enough to—"
Keishin stepped into view. Li and the girl spotted him at about the same moment. She started trying to untie herself from her impromptu harness; the kid started trying to reel her back up. Keishin put a stop to that particular disaster in the making by grabbing the girl.
"All right," he sighed, "Does somebody want to tell me—"
The girl went for his eyes. Keishin gave her an instinctive shove, and felt both morally terrible and completely vindictive when she went swinging off on her rope. When she came swinging on back, he made sure to pin her arms.
She promptly tried to kick him, but he was honestly suspecting it by that point. He turned his body to minimize the choicer targets, and thanked Shu for seven-year-olds who thought flailing was the same as fighting. She looked really disappointed that all her efforts to injure him were being thwarted.
"Li," he said, looking up. "Why are you dropping attack children out of warehouse windows?"
"Like you don't know," the kid scoffed. "...You don't know?"
"Why would I know anything about this?" He could have stayed at the station. He could have been drinking tea, instead of this.
"...So you'll let us out?"
"Give me your word you'll go back to the station," Keishin said.
"...I give you my word," the kid said, and Keishin was really starting to get suspicious of all these meaningful pauses in the kid's dialogue.
"You," Keishin said, grabbing the girl's rope and giving it a little midair shake, "stop trying to maim me. Do your parents know where you are?"
"Mom and dad are dead," she said. "Taiji knows where I am, he helped make the rope."
There was the very faint sound of shouting voices from inside; if the street had been at all busy, he might not have heard them. Li turned away from the window, and shouted back. "It's a guard. But… he says he'll let us out? Of course I don't trust— Wait, where are you going?"
"The door," Keishin said. "I am not having this conversation with you forty feet above me."
"Other way," the kid replied.
Keishin spun on his heel, and changed course without comment. He slipped out his belt knife while he was at it, and snapped the girl's line. "If I put you down, are you going to go for my kneecaps or something?"
Oh he did not like those shifty eyes. But he didn't like hauling around a half-feral kid under his arm, either. He lowered her down, and kept a hand wrapped around her impromptu kiddie leash just in case she decided to—
Yep. He jerked her back as she tried to bolt, and dragged her along.
The warehouse door was locked. Really locked. Definitely locked-from-the-outside locked. Li-had-help-doing-this-to-himself locked. There was a metal bar braced over the metal door, and an earthbent lock holding both in place.
"I don't suppose you can earthbend," Keishin sighed, staring at it. The girl darted a look at him. "Wait, seriously? If you can, go ahead."
"...Let me?" she mumbled.
"You'll really let me?"
"We both want that door open, right? So open it." He even dropped her leash, as a sign of good faith. And also because he was pretty sure he could chase her down if she did try to run again. She was an underfed seven-year-old, not whatever Li was.
The girl stepped towards the door, keeping one eye on him. She took the lock between her hands, stuck her tongue out between her teeth, and started laboriously cracking the stone apart. After all of his partner's casual shows of mastery, it was weird watching bending take effort. Like it was something that took dedication and skill, and wasn't just handed out on a plate of gifts from the spirits.
When the lock was crumbled to a pile of stone shards on the ground, the girl shoved at the metal bar. It didn't budge. Keishin added his own hands to it. "On three," he said. "One, two, three—" He left a little weight in it, so she'd feel like she was doing something. He let her open one side, while he took the other, even though it took putting all her weight into it to make her door budge.
He half-expected the gasps from inside as the doors swung open. Obviously Li hadn't been alone in there, and obviously they'd be happy about not being locked in a warehouse. Li's girlfriend grabbed the little girl's hands and spun her around before spinning her off to an older boy. He even expected the partial nudity: that rope had come from somewhere.
What he didn't expect was the wariness with which all the kids sidled past, like they thought he'd make a grab for them. Or the way they huddled together like goat-geese expecting a predator's attack. And he hadn't quite processed that those things he'd seen on Li's wrists from the window were the remains of cuffs, the same kind Maijing had slapped on him at the start of this evening. His girlfriend still had a complete pair on. Those cuffs weren't only used by the city guards, they were pretty standard earthbending, but with the way they were all looking at him—at his uniform—
Wait, where did Li—?
The remains of rock cuffs hit the back of his head. Because of course they did.
Next time, he'd take the old guy up on his tea and spare himself the fading consciousness.
"Maybe they aren't all in on it," Song said, after checking the guard's pulse and pupils, and laying him on his side.
"Maybe. But he would have wanted to bring us to the station. And some of them are." Zuko massaged his wrists as best he could through the cuffs. "You all need to get to the pai sho parlor. You remember the address?"
"You're not coming with us?" Song asked.
"They have my uncle." Zuko flashed his teeth, in a way some might mistake for a smile. "Besides, I promised him I'd go to the station."
"Go steal your uncle, then," Song said. "You're good at that."
He bristled, but her own smile was… not what he'd expected. "I will," he said, finally.
"We'll be waiting."
"Neither too long nor too short, but each in its own time," Iroh guided.
"But how do I know when it's done?" the nice young rookie guard asked, staring down at the teapot.
"How does one know when spring becomes summer? Look for the cherry blossoms to fall."
"I don't know how that applies to tea," Ryo Cho Jyo said.
"But you will, when your own seasons turn," Iroh smiled first at the young guardsman, then at his superior, sitting back in his office. "I am sorry to impose upon your hospitality for so long, Captain. I'm sure my nephew will be along shortly."
The Captain got up, and shut his office door.
"It's done," Detective Maijing said, staring at the pot. He was, Iroh was pleased to note, exactly right.
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.