In the town of Gaoling, there comes a bard, with burn scars against his wrists and wild tales of what he discovered as he snuck into the very heart of the Fire Nation.
He has a mischief about him, beneath secrecy and theatricality. His scars are from him escape - and he might not have even escaped the Fire Nation if not for the miracle events that took place in the palace and distracted the port guards long enough for him to slip by with only the barest encounter.
(In another life, he dies on that port, and his brother carries on their family business alone, selling cabbages. His tales remain unsung, and no one speaks of the banished Prince, for they know nothing of him. In that life, the Spirits did not care.)
In the town of Gaoling, there comes a bard, and he regales the inn he stays at the first night with such fantastic tales, swearing by their truth. It seems too good to be true- after all, how could the Firelord have defanged himself that well, before the assembled public?
His music is clumsy, yes, his lyrics unformed. Most of the time he doesn’t even sing, he speaks it and stumbles over a few of the words. It is quite obviously his first performance.
Nevertheless, he brings news, and he swears by its truth. He tells it well enough that those with enough to spare give him coin for his troubles.
In the town of Gaoling, there comes a bard, with fire-marred skin and stumbling words and eyes that have seen much. He is a blessed man, to survive.
Gan, the bard, counts out his money at the end of the night, eager to spread his tales across the whole of the Kingdom. If he could get this much money from just one inn, how much could he get from a King’s court? From the King’s court?
Caught up in his musings, he does not notice the dark figure approach his table, draw a thick silhouette from under their cloak, raise their hand and-
And throw down a sack.
The heavy bag sets in front of Gan and he jerks back, spilling a handful of coins onto the floorboards. He picks them up quickly and shoves them in his pockets, hands tightening around his Gheychak and bow. He’d hate to lose his instrument, but he’d hate even more to get killed.
The man looming over him is well-muscled, with long hair and a severe expression. Gan quickly shuffles the remaining loose coins closer to his body and hugs his instrument closer. Nevermind losing his Gheychak, there is no way he could beat the man in front of his table. The wood wouldn’t even make a dent.
“H-how can I help you, sir?” Gan is not a timid man. He chose to enter into the Fire Nation for the adventure of it, and chose to leave when- well, that’s not really important. He went into enemy territory just to see if he could and stayed because the nobles of the Fire Nation are braggarts of the highest order, and will tell anyone worth any amount of salt enough court gossip to last a lifetime.
In this situation, however, his knives are tucked in the coat he shucked off, on the opposite side of the table, and the man looks like he could crack Gan’s skull just by looking at him. Gan has a right to be wary, and slightly scared. The man that does not fear the saber-moose is not a man, he is a corpse.
The cloaked man smiles, and extends a hand. “My name is Xin Fu. I have a business proposal for you.”
Gan laughs, still reedier than he’d want it to be, but far from his choked stutters. He takes the hand offered, and shakes it firmly. Then, he whips his hand back and introduces himself, “Gan Yu, at your service.” Quickly, Gan drags his coat across the table by the arm and gestures to the opposite seat. “Please,” he entreats, “sit, and lets discuss this business opportunity of yours.”
Having his knives close makes him feel better, at least.
Xin’s smile grows and he slides into the seat, facing the bar at large with only his head turned to address Gan. “To keep it simple,” he begins, “I recently began a tournament of sorts, and we need to bring in more prospects- we had a few good bodies for our first show, but bones break, and the audience always gets bored, don’t they?” He laughs at his own pseudo-joke, head thrown back, and Gan is left silently to contemplate the heavy bag thrown on his table, yet to be explained.
Xin leans forward suddenly, the upper half of his body twisted to the table so he can loom regally over the bard. “You perform well, Yu, and you bear favorable news for fighting men. In a few weeks, my next tournament is going to take place. If I can get you back here, as mid-tourney entertainment? Well - business would boom .” He laughs again, harsh and boisterous, and Gan does not hesitate to join this time.
His greatest skill has always been playing to his audience. It has been since his grandmother introduced him to the Gheychak and helped him play.
(Come here, little one, she had said, here, hands like that, use the bow- there you have it.)
(what is it? He had asked, filled with pride even at the screechy, thin sound he managed to produce.)
(Everything, child. We are the music, we are the song. You let yours out now, let it free, and know that you will have it with you all the same once the dirt takes you.)
(Everything, in the way that a bird’s wings are everything. In the way that a fish’s gills are everything. In the way that a fox-kit’s fangs are everything.)
Grandmama had been kind to him. She had also taught him to approach most deals with caution, but he was still bad at that. He was bad at a lot of things that made a good bard. Father always thought he should go into a more stable career, but he loved Everything about being a bard.
“All I ask,” Xin continues, suddenly a serious businessman again, “is that you skip town until the tournament- go perform somewhere else for a while, let the suspense do all the work.”
“And if I say yes, how do you suggest I keep a profit?” Grandmama, your skills have not gone entirely to waste. “I can’t exactly go wait up in the mountain until you have use of me. I’m no trained hawk, good sir. Deals go both ways.”
Xin waves a hand dismissively and wrinkles his nose. He offers, “There are some villages in the flats that provide more of our troops than anywhere else, they could use some morale, and they’ll have enough coin to tide you over.” Xin pats the bag he’d thrown on the table companionably and continues with just an edge of a coaxing tone, “You’d be a hero for the war effort, Gan. And after you’re done inspiring some more of our benders to the warfront, you come back here and play for me. Four weeks, and then you get your name in lights and precious stones, my friend.”
Gan nods slightly, then gestures with his head toward the bag between them. He subtly begins to put the coins still on the table, guarded by his arms, in the pouches that litter his person. “So, what’s the story behind the bag?”
Xin chuckles, again. It’s a grating sound, like rocks thrown together, like a landslide cascading from his throat. Gan marks Xin as the second most unnerving person he has ever seen, behind only Firelord Ozai. Gan saw the Prince’s Agni Kai. Nothing will ever, ever take the Firelord from the top spot on that disturbing list.
Xin’s smile is more secretive, more predatory, now. He knows he’s winning this game of cat and mouse, and is about to deal the killing blow. “Well, between you and I…?” Xin reaches for it, opens the drawstrings and peel apart the sides, revealing the small mountain of coins inside, “Think of it as a preview.” He reaches in a grabs out a handful of coins- the sound of them sliding back into place in the bag sends a shiver down Gan’s spine. They scatter on the table and make up almost the exact sum he’d earned tonight.
Not the killing blow, then. The fox-cat brought cheese instead of claws.
“If you come,” Xin offers, “it’s all yours. I’ll advertise the event as yours too- the grand retelling of the Month of the Falling Sun at Earth Rumble II- both of us get popularity, both of us get paid, and both of us walk away afterward, no more deals, no more communication. You, a legend, me, a very happy event coordinator with some new avenues for expansion.”
Gan swallows, hard. The money in that bag could save him. It would be more than enough money to treat the burns on his wrists, enough to send home for his parents. Enough to get him a good ostrich-horse and a cart, to take his tales far and wide.
Sorry, Grandmama. Maybe it’s too good to be true, but I need this.
She’s probably rolling in her grave, trying to earthbend him a very strongly worded message. He would not blame her.
“So,” Xin drawls, “what do you say, Gan Fu?”
In twin sets of caves, on a far away island of the Fire Nation, two dragons wake.
The dragons wake only when they have one to teach at their gates. They must conserve their strength and their life- they are the last of their kind. The last to know the slide of wind over their scales and the heat of Agni within, the break of water vapor clouds against their snouts and the earth beneath their claws.
They are the last of their kind.
Ran and Shaw awaken and roar, up and up and up, past where the sun has already set on the horizon.
He They scream ed toward the moon.
(It’s a sign)
They were the last of their kind.
Now, there is another.
Bo has never actually seen the battlefront. He was one of the new recruits picked up by a desperate and determined General Iroh the day they were supposed to leave, plucked straight from his first deployment onto a ship carrying two members of the royal household.
This is not what he thought would happen when he signed up for the Navy.
The first two days were fine. Everything was fine. Yes, the ex-Crown Prince was a cryptid always sheathed in bandages and rarely seen outside of his rooms, and yes, General Iroh, the Dragon of the West, Breaker of the Wall, offered tea obsessively and played Pai Sho as if it were the greatest thing since toasted bread, and yes, it was fantastically boring to stand on a ship that should have decommissioned a decade ago and stare out at the endless expanse of waves, but it was fine.
Bo was fine.
Then on the third day, the ex-Crown Prince danced on the deck and showed scales.
The metric for ‘fine’ started shifting right about then.
Yes, the ex-Crown Prince was a Spirit that climbed in the rigging Bo was still desperately trying to learn, and yes, General Iroh threatened everyone who would dare to write home about the new developments with the same tone he used to offer tea, and yes, it was terrifying to watch the wind whip and tear through the sky on a child
a firebender ’s command, but it was fine.
Bo was fine.
Ok, so he wasn’t. He isn’t. It’s weird, alright?
Everything before this, everything life has ever decided to toss at him, has been utterly pedestrian and completely normal.
Now normal consists of hiking up mountains to long-empty temples to watch an impromptu funeral for century old bones, carried out in the most terrifying way possible by someone years younger than Bo.
Everything has always been normal.
He grew up in North Chung-Li, the big industrial town whose claim to fame is a disturbing statue of the Firelord in the town center that he played around until he was twelve and sent off to preliminary training.
He never manifested firebending, aside from the stuff that he must have inherited from his firebending parents- the ability to withstand high temperatures, wake with the sunrise, know where the sun is behind cloud cover, that sort of thing.
Everything about his life has been entirely ordinary.
He trained normally, he slept normally, he drilled normally, he fought normally, he followed orders normally and kept to himself normally. He was moderately social and moderately competent and moderately successful.
He has always been average, in average circumstances, with average people.
Now, he waits on the deck as they leave Fire Nation waters, their week of amnesty fast coming to an end. He waits on the deck, and he carefully does not look up above, where a Spirit in human form has tangled himself in the rigging and waits, motionless.
Bo is supposed to be up there too, checking on all of their knots and ensuring their sails are properly unfurled and hoisted, and everyone else on the deck knows it. None of them bother him about it, which is a small courtesy, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s hiding from someone poised over him like a spider-monkey and everyone knows it.
The ex-Crown Prince likes his heights, evidently, almost as much as he likes to hole himself up in his room and never leave. More often than not, at any given time of the day, he could be found in a cradle of rope high off of the deck, motionless and perfectly content to do nothing for long periods of time. Except for when he decides to scare the soul out of Bo while he climbs a different section of rigging by being a few feet behind him when he turns around, wrapped in the section that Bo had finished checking mere minutes earlier, with it being decidedly unoccupied at the time.
His penchant for staring is second only to his affinity for appearing and disappearing soundlessly wherever he wishes.
Honestly, at this point, waiting and very carefully not looking up, Bo doesn’t even know if the ex-Crown Prince is even awake. Bo’s been convinced a couple of times that the Spirit is just taking a nap in his checked sections, only waking up to instill fear then go back to sleep.
Bo honestly wishes he could do that too, but he’s pretty sure he’d mess up wrapping himself up securely and brain himself on the deck mid-nap.
Fiddling with ropes isn’t the worst gig anyone could get on a Navy vessel. Most of the ships with ropes have been rendered obsolete over time, of course, but there are training courses for those going into espionage around the North and South, who are trained to deal with pirated Water Tribe ships. That is, unfortunately, sort of Bo’s problem in the first place.
Bo doesn’t even know how to do his job.
Yes, he was trained preliminarily for a naval position, but only in patrol boats on the coast, definitely not pirated ships, and most certainly not high seas vessels. He probably would’ve been fine as an engineer on a more modern ship, with engines, but this is the kind with actual sails and rigging and the engine more as a backup.
This class of ship should have been burned a decade ago, but apparently this was the only one that General Iroh could scrounge up on short notice without his brother taking offense.
(Bo finds it disturbingly easy to commit mental treason. It seems to be a new development, but he hadn’t had any reason to think of the Firelord as anything but the uncontested grand ruler of their country until he walked onto his first assignment to see his son, waiting blankly, masked in white bandages.)
(It is very easy to think treasonous thoughts around those the rightful monarch has wronged. Even easier when one of them is a kid only a couple years older than his baby sister.)
They never drilled him to work with ropes or sails in training, only engines and smokestacks and cleaning filters. He only knows how to do his position because he once designed a raft to stubbornly prove a point to his parents that he could do just fine on his own, with the arrival of a new sibling. He doesn’t even know if he’s doing his job right. Then again, neither do most of the people on this ship.
He wishes he trained for espionage. He would’ve been good at it, too. He could be on Arctic waters right now, doing important work for the war effort. Or he could be patrolling Colony waters. At least if he did that he wouldn’t be waiting below his poorly managed kingdom of rope for the new despot ruler to resign his throne.
He should’ve just done theater.
Even aside from the old sails that he has no idea how to maintain, he’s swiftly realizing that the open ocean does not agree well with him. He has always been comfortable around water, but the endless expanse of sea around them and the lack of volcanoes and mountain ranges knifing across the horizon scares him.
Almost as much as the sudden presence behind his back does.
He turns with a yelp, knowing even as his feet shift who lies in wait.
After all, he heard nothing, but that little piece of him that is Agni’s child had recognized the sun shifting and setting behind him, despite it being high above at noon, and despite the fact that he’s currently facing north.
The Spirit that used to be Heir to the Throne feels almost like Agni, like his flames within burn harshly enough to fuel a legion. Perhaps they even do.
It’s hard to nap with him there, though. It always feels like sunrise. Probably good for work ethic, but horrible for insomniacs.
The ex-Crown Prince has an eeriness about him that cannot be explained by mortal means. It’s the kind of ghostly, eldritch aura of curiosity and loss and satisfaction told in Spirit-tales, like the Man-shun Lovers and the Blue Spirit. The way they wait in the wings and simply observe, like a fox-cat leisurely deciding whether or not to pounce, in silence and contemplation.
His one uncovered eye stares at everything, and currently it is boring a hole through Bo’s head, ringed with sleepless darkness.
Huh. What do you know, maybe even he can’t sleep, what with his whole ‘being a second sun’ gig.
The pale bandages that previously encircled his entire face have been replaced with that single piece of sea-torn cloth with its frantic, frenzied patterns. It isn’t quite thick enough to block the eerie lamplight glow of his slit eye. His scales don’t seem to be making a reappearance, at least.
(He still wonders about the scar. How did it happen, to make the Firelord cast away his son in disgust? How badly would he had to have messed up, in the process of getting that wound, to make his own father banish him and remove him from the throne, blinded and in pain?)
So yeah, maybe Bo wants to wrap that kid up in some blankets and help his terrifying Uncle force feed him chamomile, but Agni, he is creepy.
Ugh. Figures, he finds himself in the middle of a Spirit-tale and his first instinct is to mother-hen the insane Spirit that likes his workplace. Even five years away from his family in military training won’t stop him from becoming his mom, evidently.
They stand in stalemate, neither moving, neither speaking. In the periphery, Bo can see some of the crewmembers freeze to watch the confrontation, only to be pulled and tugged back to their posts by the older crewmembers with gravelly scars and missing fingers and the weight of experience.
The Prince has the same look on his face that he had when the bones went tumbling off the edge of that cliff, an emptiness, an uncertainty. He has a blankness about him, mixed and mingling among the rest of his persistent presence, the way a blank white wall calls out for attention among stone.
There’s a blankness like that among the veterans on the ship as well, a bleak emptiness. A quiet sense of horrors seen and felt and lived, yet to be turned into fuel for the inner flames. The place where emotion should belong, forcibly emptied out and replaced with a nothingness instead of anything else. Some of those men have been on the battlefield for a decade.
It is disturbing to feel the same emotion from a child and those that have been fighting and bleeding since they were barely toddling about.
Bo sweats, nervously, as the seconds extend and they have yet to break eye contact. “Ca-can I help you- uh, sir?” He was supposed to be on a patrol ship, supposed to be on a patrol ship , he didn’t really need to pay attention to royal etiquette right? Right?? Right! Except he’s not on a patrol ship, and there’s a member of the royal family staring him down and Bo has never been good at close-up eye contact and-
The Prince blinks, breaking their standoff first, a small concession. It does not mean much, but it disrupts the haze that prey instinct reduced him to. Bo gets the distinct impression that the blink means much more for the Prince than it ever will for Bo. He honestly hopes it stays that way.
The day he starts using stares and slow blinks as meters of affection and attention is the day he will have lost his mind. He pencils in that day for sometime next week.
Agni help him.
Quietly, the Prince sighs. It is hard to say what emotion he conveys through it. Then he places one hand behind his own back, and inclines his head gently, eyes flicking back up to meet Bo’s.
“At ease, soldier,” the Prince whispers, in that high, burnt voice. For one second, Bo sees those scorched bones the same size as his baby sister’s were when he left to join the troops, atop a pile ready to tumble into oblivion. The Prince sounds like that, like innocence burning as incense for a war machine. He sounds young and irrevocably damaged.
(In another life, Bo would have left the second he arrived at the docks and saw a child screaming murder at the General, damaged left side turned away. He would have gone on to accept an assignment on a patrol boat in the Upper Earth Kingdom, and be sent to join the attack against the Northern Water Tribe. He would not survive when the moon went out and the ocean itself wrapped around the ship and pulled it down. In that life, the Spirits did not care.)
The parade rest comes on instinct, drilled into him as it is. Then, hesitantly, Bo gives his own nod, deeper than the Prince’s. He is an untested glorified watchman turned rigger, the Prince should’ve never given him that sign of respect in the first place.
The Prince smiles, a frail, ephemeral thing that seems to wipe itself away with the slight breeze, small and trembling to raise itself up. He breaks his stare to observe the cloudless sky, head tilted up, hands held
in his lap and there is a skull too small oh Agni why is it that small loose at his sides.
“I’d check those knots, recruit,” the Prince says, left hand reaching up with pointer and middle fingers raised, tasting the air like a hunter tracking a beast, “There’s going to be a storm tonight.”
Bo glances up at the empty blue heavens with no hint of white, let alone gray or black, squinting around Agni’s bright rays.
The Prince is gone when he looks back.
According to the gossip, that’s simply what he does.
(Of course, according to the gossip, he’s the minion of Koh, Agni, and whatever heathen gods the Air Nomads followed. He’s also the Avatar, and Agni in human form, and a dragon, and a sign of peace, and a harbinger of doom.)
(According to the gossip, the Prince is a thousand things.)
According to Bo, the Prince needs to sleep, and to maybe stop hanging out amid the complex maze of rope that Bo is grudgingly in charge of.
Honestly, he should just install a hammock.
...That’s not actually a bad idea.
Bo sighs shakily, and begins to climb up the ropes, checking his knots extra carefully along the way.
After all, there’s going to be a storm tonight.
Zoti has served in the palace for three decades. Thirty long years, she has worked in the heart of the Caldera, from labor in the kitchens to laundry duty to long nights cleaning the ash and sand off of the floors. She has been in every room of the palace, and has done everything required of her.
When she first began her long career in the court of the Firelord, she was still young, conscripted into the kitchens. Once she had proven her grasp on etiquette and efficient manner, she was sent to join the ranks of the true servants. Her duties were varied, anything and everything the Royal Family required. She was fast and silent and respectful, and smart enough to work on the opposite side of the palace of the Firelord in a rage.
By the time Prince Ozai married Lady Ursa, Zoti was well-established and had not seen her village for many sunrises. Ursa even took a shining to the quiet, economical servant. Zoti spent a few years as an unofficial personal servant to the new Princess, although her duties mostly consisted of acquiring a steady supply of bread for the greedy turtleducks in the Royal Garden. Zoti faded into the background quietly when Ursa gave birth to her son, and later, her daughter.
Ursa gave Prince Zuko to Zoti when the five-rayed sun scar on his back first appeared, and Zoti said nothing as she cleaned and wrapped the wound. Ursa would give the young Prince to Zoti many times after that, as well, but the first would always poison her memories.
Ursa never gave Princess Azula to Zoti. Somehow that was more concerning than the burn. Still, she said nothing.
Zoti has been very good at saying nothing, for a very long time, except for Yes, your Majesty and Yes, my Lady.
Zoti said nothing when the Firelord died the same night Princess Ursa disappeared into the night.
Zoti said nothing as she cleaned the Throne Room, after the coronation.
Zoti said nothing as she waited by the wall in the war room next to the Matron and a child called for the end of sacrifice.
Zoti said nothing as she presented the Prince she once wrapped in bandages with his Agni Kai rings.
Zoti said nothing as she delivered the last meal from the Fire Nation the now-banished Prince would ever eat.
Zoti said nothing as she stood with the rest of the servants, pressed against the walls, and watched Agni’s sacred, eternal flames go cold.
Zoti has survived in this palace for three decades. From these hallowed halls, she has felt the rise of Agni over eleven thousand times. She has not done so by running her mouth. She has not done so without putting her ear to the ground, closing her mouth, and listening.
She has learned much from what she has heard.
The past week, she has kept away from the Firelord’s dinner table. She has kept careful track of where the Firelord may be at any given moment and devoted herself to her duties far, far away from where he is said to be. The Firelord is in a mood, they say. His moods often involve many spontaneous executions of the serving staff.
There are some smart enough to follow her lead. After all, few servants last as long as she has in the heart of the Nation, and they all know it. Being a servant is dangerous, but it is superior to dying from disease and starvation in villages with no resources for the Nation as a whole. Easier to be burned by the highest authority of your Nation than to eat yourself from the inside out.
She hesitates to call herself a Matron, simply because using a title tends to catch the attention of those she’d rather fade into the background with. Besides, there is always another that can claim that title, to control the rumor mill and spread the deepest secrets of the palace to every corner.
Matrons are the spymasters of the common folk, after all, hearing and spreading and shaping.
All Zoti has ever done is listen.
Listen, as she does when a servant a decade her junior shuffles past and breathes, “The Princess is not safe at her own table.”
Listen, as she does when she passes a clump of the kitchen staff whispering that the passage behind the bread ovens has been recently opened, at least a few times, in the past few days, and that the Princess has been quick to leave the table with little food eaten.
Listen, as she does when she presses herself to the wall and stands perfectly still, until the Firelord’s heavy steps and dark mutterings have left.
Listen, as she does when she picks up the new Heir’s laundry, spotted with blood, and hears choked, hastily silenced sobs echoing from behind a tapestry.
Listen, as she does when hiding in the upper floors of the training rooms of the Princess, as the Heir to the Throne hisses and winces and curses at her burned arms.
Listen, as she does when another servant finds her and solemnly informs her that the Matron has been prematurely retired by the Firelord, in a blast of orange and yellow and angry red.
Zoti has been complacent in this palace for three decades. She has been present for the reign of two Firelords. She has stayed, even at the news of her parents passing. From the Royal Family she has seen a marriage, the birth of two sons and a daughter, the death of the Crown Prince’s Heir, an assassination, a desertion, a coronation, an Agni Kai for the Crown Prince, a mutilation, a banishment, and the revocation of Agni’s first and most holy blessing.
And Zoti has said nothing.
She has seen the death of one Heir, the banishment of another, and the terror of the only one remaining. She has watched the ruination of two children, and now watches the next begin the spiral down.
And Zoti has said
She wants nothing more than to scream. Wants nothing more than to stand where the Herald does and howl to the sky as Ursa’s children had until there is nothing left in her body. Wants nothing more than to go to the streets of the Capital and preach her gospel of pain seen and quietly shuffled away, to teach these poor fools the lessons she has learned in the place of the children to young to understand them, to tear down every golden pedestal until all that is left to stand on is the bloodied ground holding the corpse of the truth as the guards drag her away to be silenced.
They have never needed to silence her. She has done that herself.
Where is the balancing ground between the subservient silence and the endless scream of tyranny?
(In another life, Zoti would have put the scream behind her teeth and chewed it down, swallowed it in its rotten form and never let it out. In another life, she would think, third one’s the charm, and never hear the Princess whimper in pain from the burns on her skin never gifted. She would continue on, having never seen Agni’s blessing revoked, and ignore as Azula harshened herself beneath what she thought her father’s love was. She would die in the Day of Black Sun, and no one would speak of her. In that life, the Spirits did not care.)
Zoti walks her rounds and quietly informs every servant she passes to meet in the Royal Garden come sundown, tells them to tell all they come across. She goes to the kitchens and takes a loaf of bread and the Princess’ meal. She delivers the latter before the Heir’s door. She will not need to leave her room and risk her father’s table. Zoti takes the former with her to the turtleduck pond.
She has not fed them since Lady Ursa left. Her son took up that mantle, but now he is gone as well. She alone remains to carry on their task. She tears off a chunk of bread and throws it to the turtleducks, flicking it expertly like Lady Ursa used to, giving it a graceful arc to the excited tumble of feathers and clacking shells.
She waits, as the Spirit that abandoned their throne alights upon the horizon and sinks below, throwing the sky into sharp pinks and purples and reds. The servants come into the Garden in groups, five or more at a time, a few trickling in as couples or singular travelers.
Zoti stands before them, watching them like hawks as they enter, scanning and searching and cataloging. She knows most of them, the only exceptions being the fresh blood brought in with the new, still smoldering vacancies.
Zoti has said Yes, my Lord and Yes, your Eminence for three long, long decades.
Now Zoti stands before her fellows, scared that they may not survive until the next sunset. She stands before them, with a straight spine and smoke gray hair and orange eyes and thin wrinkles betraying her age in the torchlight.
She is a few years younger than the Dragon of the West. She is older than the Firelord. She has forged herself in the flame that Agni has seen fit to quench, and of that she will never blame him. She is molten. She is the blaze that heralds the summer.
So Zoti says,
“I claim the mantle of Matron. Long have I served the palace, and long have the stones welcomed me as their keeper. Many years have I waited, many years have I listened. Four Matrons have stood where I stand now while I have worked in the heart of our Nation. Four Matrons have I seen leave by the pyre.
“I claim the mantle of Matron at the edge of dusk, for the shadows I must walk within to care for my children. If any wish to challenge my claim, step forward and let the Great Sun set upon your footprints.”
Three decades. Thirty years. Eleven thousand sunrises and sunsets.
Zoti has spent far too long with only Yes, of course and Absolutely, my-
She has spent far too long taking knives to her own claws and dulling her teeth, for fear of making it less pretty when she smiled her affirmations.
No one in the assembly, closely packed and watching her carefully, moves an inch.
No one challenges her.
No one dares to.
Ursa never gave Princess Azula to Zoti. But Ursa is no longer here, and her husband has long since proven himself a madman with a heavy hand of flame readily used against kin. Zoti will be damned to Koh’s Lair if she lets it remain as it is.
“Good,” Zoti declares, and smiles sharply, “There are a few things I must address before I allow you to leave for your nighttime duties.”
She stands tall, beneath the sunset, beneath the rising moon. She stands at the edge of a precipice, the end of an Empire.
All she has known her life is war. All her parents ever knew was war.
She has spent far too long, helping along a war waged by men in rich fabrics and armor atop blazeless thrones.
“We may serve the Firelord,” she announces, “But our master alone is the palace, and our loyalties lie with Agni’s line, not the cold thrones of man’s invention. Let all who do not stand with the Princess cast down their mantle. Let all who betray this meeting meet Koh by sunrise. Let us rise, brothers and sisters, with the sun. Let us not set with the man who has lost the favor of our Lord Agni.”
Carefully, in a wave, the assembled staff clasp their hands together, then raise them to the dying sun. An oath, a prayer, a request.
“Excellent,” Zoti smiles, “Tie your hair with blue ribbon, tomorrow. Agni, give strength.”
Where is the balancing ground between the subservient silence and the endless scream of tyranny?
Why, happily ensconced in the halls of sedition.
Toph waits until the vibrations of the manor have evened out into the near-stillness of afternoon tea, and only then does she slide out of bed, kick her slippers off of her feet, toss on a more common feeling robe, stack her pillows to approximate how a human shape feels, and bend herself out of the window.
Her parents have disappointingly lax security measures. Then again, she is a very small blind child who, to them, can’t walk down the hall without gracefully waltzing directly into a wall. Still, though! They’re rich! If someone can get out, they can sure as hell get in.
Honestly. If they didn’t demean her at just about every turn, she’d give them a demo of just how bad their security works. Unfortunately, they don’t deserve it.
Besides, Toph has a mission today. Maybe she can’t see the flyers around town everyone is talking about, but she has ears, and they work a lot better than everybody assumes. She heard about an earthbending competition a while back, only a month or two into her work with what she’s deduced to be badgermoles. She wasn’t comfortable enough in her bending to try and attend to learn anything, much less compete. Now that she can beat her teachers in their own game more often than not, she figures it’s just about time to listen in and learn something from humans.
Also, there’s a bard advertised, something-something Fire Nation blah-blah disgraced Prince yada-yada. No one seems to know enough of the details, and Toph has never much cared for bards in the first place. Her parents have this whole thing about them to try to teach her history through art, since it can’t be visual.
Fun fact: you can only listen to the Ballad of Kyoshi for the first three times before you want to remove the instrument from the hands playing it, the tongue from the person singing, and your own ears, preferably in that order.
Toph is here for the bending, not whatever tall tales a fraud of a bard is about to spin to get some coin.
And if Toph doesn’t hurry, she’s probably going to be late.
Ugh. If only her manor wasn’t on the opposite side of the town from the venue for ambiguously legal bloodsport.
There are only servants in the manor for the week, her parents are conducting a business transaction with a risky individual. They would not trust their fragile daughter around him, so she is left home with only the waitstaff, which is just how Toph likes it. It makes it easier to slip out with the excuse of an afternoon nap.
The match is already in progress by the time Toph manages to muscle her way into the venue. The vibrations through her feet are awesome , the whole arena has really good acoustics for earth-sense. The crowd stomping their feet rhythmically gives a near-perfect view of the whole place, and the shifting of stone against the tiles of what seems to be the main arena makes the whole area light up in a hotspot of glorious sound and beautiful clarity.
This, Toph decides, is her favorite place she has ever been.
For about the first five minutes, up until the end of the second round, Toph is still excited, blinded by everything, the excitement, the lucidity of every second pounding straight into her heart.
But then something shifts in her understanding, a little piece of her standing up on its hind legs and hissing a discontentment into the air. She listens closer, ever closer, and allows herself to immerse into where they battle, her feet pressed solidly against the stones, sitting against the ground instead of the seating since she’s too short to properly see on one of those.
It only takes until the knockout of the third round and the opening salvo of the fourth to spot the problem.
Toph could beat every single one of the supposed ‘master benders’ on that stage.
That rock- there, she can feel it being taken out of the ground, feel the way the dirt flakes off of it and the rubble falling beneath it in a messy shower. It hits the contender in the back of their head and dazes them, makes them stumble and slow in their patterns against the floor. Toph doesn’t have a problem with a line of sight, as long as they stand on her element. Toph could have dodged that.
That slab- there, there’s too much material on it compared to the will of the bender, it’s flaking and crumbling away chunks at the back that could prove just as dangerous to the bender utilizing it as the projectiles they made the slab shield to block. Toph knows exactly how much she can control, and exactly the breaking point to shear off the shield and make it into a weapon of her own. Toph could have won the fight there.
Those fissures- there, they run too deep, require too much effort to make. What’s the point of entombing your opponent with nine feet of rock above them when it’s just as effective to do it with one? Toph can feel the vibration of the heartbeat, can know just about how tall her opponent is from the echoes, and force them under the ground with barely any effort. Toph could use that extra material for shields, for projectiles, for distractions.
Toph could stomp her foot once and let her vibrations do her bending, send waves of tiles, pillars of stone, spikes and pits and shields. Toph could track where the rocks are thrown - almost no Earthbending is perfect, there will always be gravel that escapes from control - and throw them back the second they make contact against her barriers.
Toph could do better.
Toph, who learned to see and fight from the animals that eat worms in her backyard barely a year ago, could go up on that stage and put up a fight.
Toph, nine years old with no combat experience against humans, could stand a chance against the grown adults on the stage right now.
Toph could win.
Toph could win this whole competition.
In fact, what’s stopping her?
Yes, the arena is on the opposite side of the manor, and yes, Toph has been a shut-in for almost all of her life with next to no contact with outside society, but that just means that she’s a local folk tale: the blind noble shut up in her high manor, never seen. She’s practically part of the mythos of Gaoling. This is a risk. A risk that someone would tell her parents that they saw her.
It’s a risk coming here, yeah, but she’s one face among hundreds. To go onto that stage, distinctive sightless eyes and thick hair and high voice and all?
That wouldn’t even be possible.
And that isn’t- fucking fair.
Toph deserves to be up there, to take their pebbles and boulders and grind them into dust to make her new mountains, to show them exactly what they are missing, to shove what she has learned from nature itself into their faces until they choke on it and finally give her what she has always wanted.
Maybe not fame, Triple Spirits no, but some damn respect that she is a human being, that she is useful, that she is more than just a pretty decoration, not delicate like the thin petals of the flowers her parents twist her hair up with, not fragile as sheets of mica. She deserves that. They owe her that much. The world owes her that much.
And instead she’s stuck, listening and feeling two idiots that couldn’t properly bend their way out of a ditch get the glory.
Toph is so tempted to tap her foot against the stone and shove her will through the earth, to enter the arena as the third, silent competitor and shove them all away, to carve the symbols that make up her name into the stone.
(Toph can’t write, or read, not on or from paper, but her first and favorite governess had taught her how to make her name by carving it into wood and letting Toph feel the indentations. She had let Toph practice her name in the dirt. She was gone by the time Toph’s fifth birthday came.)
Toph is so, so tempted. She wars with herself, pitting that ugly, selfish, raw, stubborn child she clawed out of the earth in the badgermole tunnels against the prim, proper, pretty, painted child her parents are trying to raise.
She does not want to be beautiful. She does not want to have her face made up for her in pastes and ink. She does not want to be proper. She wants the earth beneath her toes and sinking between her fingers, wants to take and take and scrape her pretty, dainty little knuckles against stone until it listens to her, because she refuses to let it tell her where she cannot go.
And yet, she does not destroy the theatrical, pointless production in the center of the arena. Instead she opens her mouth wide into a savage grin that she’s heard wild animals have and screams and howls and cheers with the crowd around her, letting the sounds wash over and become her.
Before she could see through the earth, through the movement of the thing that made her and that she will one day return to, she had only sound. She was taught to keep her hands delicately folded inside of her sleeves, so touch was out of the equation. It’s not like you can taste and smell your way around an environment properly. All she had was sound, birds and echoes from her feet against the tiles, approximations of where everything was.
All she had was sound, and her own knowledge that she did not deserve to be shoved behind walls and fawned over even as she was forgotten.
She won’t ruin her chances in a pointless spectacle that will leave her trapped in a soundless wooden room for ‘her own safety’.
So she takes her feet off of the floor, ignores the vibrations that still echo through the whole place, and lets herself scream like she never has before, never has dared to in the hearing of anyone, in a celebration of being another face in the crowd, in the small victory of anonymity.
The fourth match ends without Toph feeling the conclusion, just losing herself in the sound. It is less frustrating that way.
Yet still, she yearns, for her deserved titles stolen from her by circumstance of birth, for the recognition she may never get if she sits down and stays a pretty, proper lady.
(In another life, Toph lets that feeling fester as the matches continue on, the crowd smaller than in this world. She lets it grow, unchecked, until it comes pouring out of her mouth in a challenge and she places herself on that stage. There are less people that could out her, it’s fine , she tells herself, and she is right. She is loud and uncaring and gives her all and wins and her parents never find out. She keeps that pretty, proper lady somewhere at her core until she outgrows it in the Avatar’s company and shucks her off, unneeded, with no more need to pretend. In that life, the Spirits did not care.)
In this life, however, there is not another match that follows immediately. There is not the straw that finally breaks her resolve.
There is a sudden silence.
The crowd quiets suddenly, too suddenly for Toph’s taste, and she frowns as she places her feet back onto the stone, trying to feel out what’s happening on the stage. The fighter that hadn’t been knocked off of the stage exits quickly as two more take his place.
One of them moves a little like Toph, with the stones caving to his footsteps. The other does not move like an earthbender.
There is no strength in his steps, no surety that the ground will cave to his wishes if he wills it to, there is no bravado and confidence. An earthbender must always be certain of themself, or their own element will crush them where they stand.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” The one that does move like an earthbender announces, a slick smile present in his tone of voice, “Your entertainment for this evening! Gan Yu, the man who looked the Firelord in the eye and lived to speak of it! The man who hid in the enemy’s capital for a month, beneath their noses! The man who escaped the Fire Nation, and stands before you now to tell the story!”
The audience roars excitedly and Toph straightens up from where she sits. Admittedly, she’s suddenly more interested than she thought she would be. Sure, most of his titles are probably bullshit, but with claims like that, he likely won’t be singing the Ballad of Kyoshi all night.
If he plays the opening bars to that damn song, though, Toph is going to punt him off of the stage.
The earthbender stomps his foot, and a pedestal of stone, big enough to sit on, rises from the ground in a sharp motion. He shifts his weight somewhat, as though throwing out his arms, and calls out, “Fellow countrymen! I present to you: The Month of the Falling Sun!”
The earthbender retreats as the audience screams in approval, leaving the other standing in an arena littered with rubble.
Then, he takes a step forward, and everything halts.
Gan has prepared for this over the past few weeks.
He followed Xin’s advice, went to the flats, gave some hope to the people starving at the edge of the desert. He travelled across mountains and broke bread with a small coven of earthbenders at the peaks of the mountains.
He has felt the sun against his skin as his only companion as the words spun from his lips and his fingers burned against the bow and strings. He has huddled by his meagre fire, desperate for warmth as autumn starts to set the chill into his skin.
The desert welcomed him with open arms for a few, fragile days, skirting the edge of the endless wasteland and speaking to no one the truths he has refined to perform. It was there, beneath the sun and atop the sands, that he truly began to understand. Beneath Fire and atop Earth.
Agni is a strong and heavy-handed master. For the Fire Nation, the sun is what they rise with, but more importantly, for . Unlike the rest of the Nations, they give their fealty to one Spirit alone, enshrined in their culture as their single blessing. Agni is the highest possible authority.
He bribed a few people to hear the details of the Prince’s upcoming Agni Kai. It was not hard to play as a colonist, ignorant of tradition and have it all explained. They each bare themselves before Agni, in dark cloth pants to preserve the rays of sunlight and gold to reflect the majesty. Ceremonial bindings, with rings and cloth, to declare loyalty to their one singular lord, and as much skin bared as possible, so that one may be driven by Agni’s will. Gan even managed to sneak into the very back to watch.
Their highest form of supposedly dignified resolution is judged solely by a Spirit, and ancient rules kept since the first Firelord took the throne. Their own highest authority is guided by Agni close to their ear, flames licking the base of their throne.
Everything in the Fire Nation is based around the sovereignty of the Firelord and the sacred devotion to the sun.
It is not hard to see the significance of the cloud, the day the Firelord took his son’s face in flame, nor the utter shock of the throne fire going dead.
It is easy to understand why they devote so much of themselves toward the sun, when there is only sand and the endless sky. When there is only the heat, questioning and forming and pressing and goading and guiding.
The sun makes harsh people, but it makes them strong. There are startling similarities between the severe creatures forged by sunbeams and those broken from stone itself. The sun and the earth will always be with each other, will always embrace the other. Amid the changing phase of the moon and the shifting breezes, they alone are consistent, are devoted to those that serve them, but they are not gentle masters.
He wrote his last verses as he shed the sand from his clothing and the sun slid calmly behind the clouds, as he shed the veil that kept him unburnt and capable of singing.
He had enough understanding by then.
He arrived in Gaoling, for the second time, a mere few hours before Xin’s tournament was set to begin.
Gan isn’t even sure if he’s even here for the money anymore. Yes, it was what drove him here again, and yes, it will help him on his way, but somewhere in his third day between dunes and the endlessly blue sky, it stopped being about coin.
He’s on the stage now, the heavy, clinking bag weighing down his belt, his Gheychak held in one numb hand and his bow in the other, tingling with nerves. There are lights, holes in the ceiling that open strategically to let in sunlight, bent by competitors not on the stage, and one of them is on him now.
He is alone on the stage, in the middle of sunlight in a dark cavern, and there are hundreds of people watching him. His mouth feels like it will not open, like nothing will come out even if it does.
So he collects his bow with the hand holding his instrument and opens his palm to the sunlight, as he’d seen some do in his month in enemy territory, and prays to the only Spirit he is entirely certain does exist.
Give me the strength to tell the story of your children
Give me the voice to give these lost souls guidance
Give me the patience to teach to those you cannot
Give me what you can
O, Lord Agni, give this poor soul your blessing
It is not about the coin. It is about the telling, the spreading, the knowledge.
(Come here, little one, says a ghost, here, hands like that, use the bow- there you have it )
(what is it? He had asked)
(Everything, child. We are the music, we are the song. You let yours out now, let it free, and know that you will have it with you all the same once the dirt takes you.)
Everything. Vital to survival, necessary to live. Like wings and gills and fangs. As beautiful as a massacre, as ugly as young love.
He takes up his bow again, plucks each string once, lets them ring, and prepares to split himself open.
To tell them Everything.
When he steps forward, it is not the same. He is not the same.
When the bard on stage steps forward, it is not like an earthbender, not the certainty that the world will bend to his will.
It is the ironclad patience of a prowling creature, ready to snap and defend and kill with only what it is. It is control over something that denies the collar.
For some reason, when his footsteps reach Toph, high up in the stands, with a strip of sunlight warming her hands pressed against the floor, all she can think is:
O, merry the blaze roars, for those that hear it
Gan begins at the beginning, as all tales truly begin. With the nothingness.
Sit now, by brethren, and let me speak of the void. From the nothingness, Agni, the spirit of the sun, of Fire, came to be by his own will to exist and live. Agni is what drives all things to be, as the spirit that makes life possible, that began the world when it was yet another scrap of the void.
Fire is life, didn’t you know?
With him came his sister, Tui, the spirit of the moon, of the Pull. She is the master of destiny, some say, and drags her fated creatures along. She made herself a husband, La, the spirit of the ocean, of the Push. He is the destruction that gives her the most loyal by dashing them against the rocks until they break the rocks themselves.
After, came the triplets, rising from the ocean through their own stubbornness and desire to exist and shape the world around them. Jamīna, spirit of the ground, Parvata, spirit of the mountain, and Ghāṭī, spirit of the valley. Our Spirits, they guide us with a heavy hand and a loving heart.
Last came Fēng, the spirit of the wind, who split herself into three more parts and scattered herself to the far corners of the world. As the final spirit, she holds the death to Agni’s life. She is the end.
After the end came us, and all the animals in the world. After the end, our story starts.
Here, Gan skips ahead to where it all began.
To a century ago, with the sky bleeding red for Fēng’s children.
He had fretted over what it all meant, with the sun and the sand pressed against his skin. What was it that made the pieces connect? What made the tapestry weave itself between his fingers? What made the Spirit of Life itself forsake his children, a hundred years after their greatest sin? What links all of it?
It is betrayal. A betrayal, by Firelord Sozin to the people of the Nation he served, to the Air Nomads. A betrayal by the Avatar, for leaving them alone in their time of need. By the Kingdom and the Tribes for standing by and doing nothing.
A thousand massacres of an element, for nothing, for a hundred more years of bloodshed.
He sings as much, the words an ugly, frantic tumble, his bow snapping back and forth across the body of his Gheychak, desperate to make sound, uncaring of what it is. It is disturbing and spine-chilling and feral, the screech and mellow mourning of the strings, the howls and hisses and screams echoing in between his words, in between his notes. By the time he describes the last falling body, he has to gasp in air and pause, just to remember where he is.
To remember Everything.
His next information is cobbled together, from the things he has overheard, the things he bribed out of others, and the most damning information that the woman who called herself the Matron had slipped him.
It is the story of a Prince.
Blood ran over stones easily, and the Nation prospered.
In time, good listeners, there was a boy of the line of Fire, the firstborn to the secondborn, and when he took his first breaths, he screamed toward the moon, as the sun set on him. They say his god abandoned him.
They say it is a sign.
His mother killed the Firelord in rage, and his father took the throne, denying the Dragon his seat. The Prince grew as the Heir to the throne of blood and bone and blazes. They say he was too weak to kill.
They say it is a sign.
One day, he came across their meetings, in which they planned to sacrifice their youngest men to kill our own veterans, and he denied them. He had not seen fourteen years, and yet he fought for the lives of his own people as viciously as the dragons his bloodline had killed.
He was too young to know, truly. They say all he wanted was an end to the death.
They say it is a sign.
Enraged by this sudden courage, his own father challenged him to a duel. The Firelord challenged a boy, his own blood, to the most sacred of battles.
They say, they say, did you know?
The boy did not know. He did not know it was his father, hidden as he was by the smoke.
He turned, his father turned. They turned.
Didn’t you know? The sun set on him.
Agni abandoned him.
Here, his playing gets erratic and frenzied again. The sunlight against his skin is uncomfortably warm.
It urges him to play on.
He does not deny it.
The Prince did not want to fight, and he begged his father not to. He begged, and he pleaded, and he called out for mercy.
But mercy was not granted.
The Firelord took his son’s head in his hands and stole his face, as Koh does. He did it with fire, and stripped flesh from bone.
They say it is a sign.
The Prince burned, until he was blinded from it, until he fell to the ground and died at his father’s feet.
He died at his father’s feet and the Firelord walked away.
Did you hear?
The Prince refused to follow Tíngzhǐ into the deep, refused to cease, and Agni gave him life again, for his will to persist past and understand impressed the Lord of all Life.
The Prince burned, and yet he did not perish.
He did not perish, and yet he died at his father’s feet.
He rose from the grave, from his wrappings; he tied his funeral shroud around his eyes and was forced from his burial ground, exiled far away. The Prince died by his father’s hands, and yet he still lives, in his funeral shroud, searching for a face of his own.
Perhaps he will take yours.
Perhaps he will take his father’s.
He is a bandit, surely.
Gan’s fingers have gone numb over the strings, are blazing hot on his bow as he coaxes long, slow notes from his instrument, as he chants gently over them, an endless stream of, “a sign, my kin, a sign, did you know?” guttural and inhuman, echoing from his throat.
There are words that he does not remember writing that tumble from his lips, notes that accompany them that shriek into the opening air as ghosts. The tragedy of the Prince is the penultimate betrayal; it is the key and the ultimate goal.
The people of the Kingdom care not for the destruction of others, not truly, not those who have fought wars failing and dying and desperate. They all know those stories, they have gone numb and useless over time.
Massacres happen daily. This is something new.
This, this is what will inspire them. The betrayal of one’s own bloodline, the destruction of a child, the death of innocence. This is what they must see, to know the weight of the sin.
There is not a single soul in that audience that is not watching, as he opens his eyes to gaze sightlessly over them all and begins his last and final stanza of betrayal.
Of Agni, by and to his most severe of followers.
The Prince’s body had not been exhumed by his own will when the Firelord named his daughter the heir. A despicable man, and a horrible thing to do, yet he persisted, and ignored the will of the Spirits.
He ignored the will of Agni, the god of all the Firelord dares call his own.
The Firelord stepped forward and spoke, of decimation, of destruction, of subjugation, of fate. He rose up to tower over his subjects, to claim them as his charges instead of Agni’s.
As he spoke of destiny, as he rose, so did his flames speak in ash and rise to claim him, to burn him, to deny him.
A beautiful denial, written in sparks and pain.
A sign, my kin, a sign, did you know?
In a rush, the flames consumed him, and then died (died at his feet), leaving his throne cold and empty, and his favor revoked. Nevermore will Agni bless the throne while he who blinds and burns sits upon it.
The Spirit of Life has denied the seat of our enemy’s power. Their sole god has turned his back upon his children.
A sign, my kin, a sign, did you know?
You know now.
The sunlight strips have long since ceased wreathing Toph’s hands by the time the bard finishes, takes his bow off of his instrument with a click of the strings, and bows, deep and heavy, weight shifting solidly.
Then, as one, the world explodes into sound as the crowd applauds, as they cheer and holler and yell and stomp their feet in approval.
Toph is silent.
Toph doesn’t know what to say.
There is nothing to be said.
The bard leaves. He doesn’t bask and revel in the glory, does not take questions, does not wait for anyone to call out to him and ask him what he meant, what any of it meant.
The bard walks off the stage as though he hasn’t just shattered some forbidden wall deep in Toph’s heart.
He does not wait for her.
Instead two of the winners from previous rounds come out in his place and stomp down on the hard stone he used as his pedestal, turning the arena flat and free once more. They take their stances, and Toph leaps to her feet and-
She tears out of the archway, out of the arena, out and over, following the heartbeat she can still feel in the soles of her feet, following the breath that formed the words that haze her mind over in the burning need to know.
He is moving quickly too, not as if expecting anyone to catch him, but more as if to simply be in motion and get away from the hollow stone.
Toph knows that feeling too well.
It is what drove her to the Earth Rumble today.
She catches him by the arm, halfway down the street, a grip of steel on a tiny girl that can barely reach his forearm, because she has questions , damn it.
She has questions, and they die in her mouth, they die in the tomb that she is, the cavern of a being that wears her skin. They sink beneath her topsoil and wrap around her fossilized bones and disintegrate as she feels the scar tissue beneath her fingers, feels the heartbeat of the man ratchet up for the first time since she’d felt him coming onto the stage.
Her feral curiosity rises up from her throat like magma forcing its way up to a volcano, but all of the words have been stripped, have collapsed downward into slick oil and hard coal, have melted and crystallized into haphazard amalgamations of what they might have been.
Her parents have never wanted the blessings of the Triple Spirits, they have never claimed them, and they have never forced Toph to fight for her life and lose it at their hands. But she has known the blindness, knows the loneliness, knows the desire to claim a part of others to fill in the empty gaps.
She wants to ask him if he was lying.
If it was fake.
If this is just another tall tale, just another song she’ll hear in a month until the opening notes make her froth at the mouth and go for the neck on impulse.
She waits. Just waits and says nothing, because the idea of an answer scares her more than the silence, because-
Because she already knows.
Because his heartbeat has settled into the same pattern it had on the stage.
He didn’t lie.
He hadn’t lied.
That’s worse, somehow.
The bard sighs, and takes his long, calloused fingers to gently wrap around her wrist and tug her hand off of his sleeve, off of his scars. He kneels in front of her and puts a hand on her shoulder and- and Toph has never been good with physical contact, but this is not a chaperoning, cloying gesture. It a solid grasp, conveying the need to understand. He can see her sightless eyes, there is no doubt about that. She has been told they are distinctive.
As distinctive as a stolen face. As distinctive as a wail toward the moon.
“You are the Lady Beifong, yes?” he questions, and waits patiently for a response. He is a bard, of course he knows of her. The young, blind Lady, locked away in her tower. He may have even written a song about her once. He has likely performed at least one. Naturally, he would recognize her.
“Yeah. Yeah, I am.” There’s less of Toph’s usual immediate aggression in her tone for once. Maybe it’s because she just heard this guy spill out his deepest emotions on the stage and not waver for one second. She can respect that.
The bard laughs, and very carefully removes his hand from her shoulder, tapping her wrist and holding his hand out in a shake, almost brushing her hand to indicate that she should take it. She is blind, after all, he doesn’t know she can feel his hand reaching out to her through the earth he kneels on. Doesn’t make her want to kick him any less for underestimating her. “Very nice to meet you, Lady Beifong,” He greets pleasantly, “May I ask what a nice young lady such as yourself is doing, dressed common at an Earth Rumble?”
‘Nice young lady?’ Oh. Oh, he’s going down.
Toph takes his hand aggressively and tugs him off balance, teeth bared again. If he wants to play blind girl and caring man, he can go find someone else. Toph doesn’t feel like messing around today. “I came here to know what real earthbending felt like, music man,” She spits the last words like it’s an insult. It is, kind of, or at least it was, until tonight. Until tonight it was exclusively reserved for idiots with lutes, high dreams, and a repertoire that begins and ends with the Ballad of Kyoshi. She’s rethinking whether it’s an insult now, with new information, but for now it’s reverted to its original state. “I don’t want my parents hearing about me here, so if you tell them, I’ll know, and you be dead, you hear me?”
He jerks his hand away from her grasp on instinct, unbalanced and startled. She snaps her foot out to stomp the ground, forcing the dirt between the cobbles to come forth and wrap around his legs, holding him in place. She does not need to dance, to prove herself to the earth. She knows herself, and she knows the stones, and what she knows she can reign to her will.
The bard sucks in a breath and leans forward, testing his fresh binds. They don’t break. They wouldn’t dare to.
The idiot has the gall to laugh. Yeah, it’s reedy and high and nervous, but also surprisingly genuine. Toph almost wishes he was a bad person, so that way she could feel better about being mad at him right now. Unfortunately he seems to be genuine.
He gives an irritating pseudo-bow, still half-buried in the earth, and declares, “My lips are sealed, Miss. The rumors about you being delicate are far from true, evidently.” EvIdeNTly , Triple Spirits, Toph wants to punch him. Toph wants to punch a lot of people, though. She has barely enough self-control to keep from it most of the time. “I dare say you could take down the Boulder, with earthbending that strong.” His heartbeat is erratic with fear, but it’s calming slowly. It’s almost infuriating the stride at which he takes everything.
Toph snarls, but some of the heat is gone as she snaps out, “Did you hear anything I said, rock-brains? I don’t want my parents hearing about me. I’m the single most recognizable nine year old on this continent, I can’t exactly go waltzing out there and not get handed back over to my parents the second I show my face on stage.”
The bard’s heartbeat does the flutter-skip of realization. Of revelation. Of an idea forming.
Toph isn’t sure if she likes that feeling.
He hums consideringly, lowly. “If you could release me, Miss,” he says with a smile in his voice, “I might be able to help.”
He isn’t lying.
Yeah, Toph really doesn’t like that feeling. But she kinda wants to see where this is going.
Toph tilts her head cautiously, and taps her foot against the ground, flattening the road again. “I’m listening.”
He reaches into something on him that clacks when he fishes around in it- a satchel? He avoids the tinkling objects and instead pulls out something with a rasp of fabric. “We may know your appearance, my Lady, but that is it.” If he calls her Lady one more time, she’s redoing his leg ornaments and leaving. “If you hide your face, it won’t matter. You can steal into the tournament, shake them all down for the prize, and leave without ever being caught,” He presses the fabric into her hand, coarse and harsh and filled with grains of sand that light up in her senses, and continues speaking with that annoyingly clever tone, “Tie it around your eyes, and no one will ever know.”
Oh, whatever. It’s fabric. Worst case scenario she’s putting a kidnapper’s sack on her head, which isn’t very helpful for either of them, since she’s blind and can earthbend faster than he can capture her.
Oh, no! A sack over her head, preventing any light from entering! Whatever will she do!
Toph takes the fabric roughly, places it flat against her face and messily knots it in the back until it’s tight enough that it won’t fall off.
She’s loathe to admit her curiosity, but she will do almost anything for the sake of spite.
The rough, well-used fabric pressed against her face feels right.
Like she is tying her own funeral shroud over her eyes.
Like she is leaving that pretty, fragile little princess in the ground and only she remains.
This feels right.
Grudgingly, Toph mutters, “Thanks.”
He rises, and closes his satchel with a scrape of leather and metal fastenings. He extends his hand again, but makes no effort to guide her through initial contact, trusting that she will take it with no prompting. Cautiously, she does so.
He is smiling. Maybe she can’t see it, but she knows that he is. “Make no mention of it, Miss. You do your country and your element proud.” He adjusts something on him- maybe the strap of an instrument, maybe just his bag, Toph can’t tell- and breaks away.
She feels each of his footsteps as he continues down the cobbled road, the same hurried yet casual pace he had before she ambushed him. Something about his steps is familiar to Toph, but she can’t quite place it before he pauses and shifts his body weight- looking over his shoulder.
“You know,” the bard says with a smile edging his words, “the Bandit Prince was blind too.”
He continues down the path as the heat of the sun against Toph’s skin dims with the coming sunset. He walks evenly, with purpose, with a certain will and stubbornness to each of his steps.
He moves a little like an earthbender, Toph decides.
Maybe more like fire, though.
(my kin, my kin, did you know)
(what a stage, what merry fools that watch and do not realize they are the actors)
(did you know what he would unleash)
The Rumble better be ready for her, because she isn’t holding back.
She is going to steal that win.
Steal it as Koh and the Firelord and the Prince do faces. Steal it as little more than a commoner, elevated and lessened to the position of Spirit and Royalty and the amalgamation of both. Steal it, hidden and cloaked from sight with a mask, little better than a highwayman, little worse than a Lord in his estate.
After all, didn’t you know?
(Did you hear?)
(broken from stone itself)
(In the town of Gaoling, there came-)
She’s a Bandit.
They make dock in the colonies. No one says a word about the occurrences on board in the taverns, and it doesn’t feel forced, or like it’s some great taboo, it just feels- wrong. Wrong to look a stranger in the eye and say, “The burned, exiled prince is a dangerous Spirit,” knowing that it would get out. The Prince has suffered enough. He doesn’t need that stigma with him too as he continues on his way.
He is already maimed. He does not need everyone to know what he has become because of it.
The crew hold their tongues.
Although the original plan was to get a new ship upon docking, it is agreed by everyone that they’ll work just fine on the same ship they have now, the slightly smaller model with the nice, somewhat safe rope maze for the Spirit to hang out on, rather than having him do something stupid, like sit on the smokestacks of the better option offered to them.
It’s easier that way.
No one says a word to the new recruits from the colony, not until the dock is far behind them and their contracts are signed, not until it is too late to back out. Only then does Captain Jee gather them all up- newbies and veterans alike, and begin the grave task of informing them that they’ve just signed themselves into a mission from the depths of an old wives tale and a drunkard’s flask.
It helps that Zuko is up in the rigging still, watching the gathering with the same interest he has with just about anything these days. It also helps when he roils his skin in that uncomfortable way that makes the multi-colored scales spread out from under his veil, over his neck, and out from the Agni Kai ring on his left arm.
‘Helps’ is subjective, in this case.
“Welcome aboard for the foreseeable future, men,” Jee says, very much aware that Zuko has just jumped down from the rigging to stand next to him and scare the sealegs off of his nice new soldiers, “Go find another officer to shadow for today. Crew assignments will be worked out tomorrow. Agni, give strength.”
Their eyes flick towards Zuko, then back to Jee, and then, startled, back to Zuko. Or, perhaps where Zuko used to be.
“You’ll get used to it. Get to work.”
Although Jee wouldn’t want to trade positions with anyone else in the world, he still regrets going on this ship, if only for moments like this.
Quietly, once everyone has left, Jee mutters, “Very dramatic, my Prince. Happy birthday.”
He swears he hears a laugh in response.
Jee will never get paid enough for this position.
In another life, things are different.
Gan never makes it home.
Bo never joins the search.
Zoti never breaks her silence.
Toph- well, Toph doesn’t change much. She has the unique ability to remain unfazed by the universe.
In this life, things change.
Gan buys his ostrich-horse and begins the journey to give the world Everything.
Bo uses a piece of sailcloth torn by rats and some spare rope to hang a hammock up near the rigging with all of his knowledge of knots. He does it in the vain hope that the Prince may someday actually use it instead of the areas Bo has to do his job.
Zoti knocks on the door to Azula’s room and comes in with a tray of food, a promise, a blue ribbon in her hair, and a dagger. It is the last that seems to give the Princess the most hope. Quietly, Zoti begins to spread her roots through the palace, feeding the turtleducks in her spare time.
Toph goes to the stage in the final challenge round, after four benders from the audience have been taken down. She goes with a veil wrapping her eyes and wins that Rumble, and the next, and the next. Every time, she makes an excuse, changes into common clothing, wraps well worn fabric over the bridge of her nose, tucked behind her ears, over her sightless eyes, and follows the tunnels under the streets to make it to the Rumble. Her parents never have an inkling of suspicion, and neither do the officials, and for the first time, Toph feels truly free, with the mantle of the Blind Bandit keeping her safe.
Change comes, swiftly and gradually, and things shift, as things are wont to do.
Maybe because, in this life, the Spirits cared.
More than anything though, they change because all people needed was enough care from a Spirit to start caring themselves.
In this life, people care.
It is horribly fascinating how that changes things.