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Tension
Chapter information
Series

Air

Chapter

Sixty-Five

Written by

Wordbender

Release date

April 16, 2013

Chronology
Last chapter

The Faceless

Next chapter

A Familiar Face

Previously in Air

Zuko is shocked to learn of the Faceless under Kaori's care. Jee mentioned the navy vessels Kaori has seen anchored offshore and set off to investigate. And in the Spirit World, the sight of so many Faceless prompted Aang to challenge Koh for his collection.

Chapter Sixty-Five: Tension

The first fingers of daylight reached for the western horizon when Jeong Jeong quietly stepped behind Zuko. The Firelord stood talking with Kaori and Sokka.

"I think Katara's right," Sokka was saying. "This has got Creepy Spirit written all over it."

"Doesn't that make it the Avatar's responsibility, then?" Kaori asked. "Where is he?"

Sokka and Zuko exchanged a worried glance. "Aang is...detained on another matter," Zuko said carefully.

"Hmph!" Kaori snorted, glowering at the Firelord.

Jeong Jeong interrupted, clearing his throat.

Turning toward his Admiral, Zuko realized something was wrong. "What is it?" he asked, following Jeong Jeong away from the others.

"It is about Captain Jee," Jeong Jeong said. "He and Corporal Si Yung should have returned from their search some time ago."

"It's a big forest," Zuko said.

Jeong Jeong shook his head. "Not that big. I fear they may have been captured."

Zuko's eyes darkened.

"Who's been captured?"

They both turned in surprise, to find Kaori once again shamelessly eavesdropping.

"Who's been captured?" the old man demanded again.

"Two of my men," Zuko said quietly.

Kaori scowled. "By who?"

"Okay," Sokka cut in, "I don't think that's something you need to know. So why don't you just calm down–"

"Calm down?!" Kaori shouted, shuffling back as Sokka attempted to take him by the shoulder. He gestured at his helpless charges. "With all of 'em so helpless?"

The Caretaker turned on the Firelord again with burning eyes. "Are they in danger?"

Jeong Jeong stepped forward, his face stern. "Kaori, we do not yet–"

Disgust flashed across Kaori's face. He snorted, turning away from the young Firelord who could not even speak for himself.

"I don't know," Zuko said.

Jeong Jeong fell silent as Kaori hesitated, glancing back at the Firelord.

Studying the old man's face, Zuko realized what he had suspected. He had to tell Kaori everything. Already the man didn't trust him, with good reason even if it was a misunderstanding. But neither did Kaori have any respect for him. It surprised Zuko how much that hurt. What should it matter, after all? It was only the opinion of one man, and what did he truly know about Zuko? Perhaps it was the fact that Kaori despised him for something Zuko never would have intentionally done. Because he felt betrayed and forgotten. Explanations could not mend this tear. Kaori may not believe Zuko's words or apologies. But he might just believe the honesty of his actions.

"You mentioned to Captain Jee there were several navy vessels anchored offshore," Zuko began.

Kaori nodded uncertainly. "What of it?"

"There is no reason so many navy vessels should be here," Zuko explained. A wry smile twisted his lips. "Not that any of us are aware of, at any rate."

"Um, Zuko?" Sokka cut in. "Are you sure you want to–"

"I've been having trouble with a group of rebels recently," Zuko told Kaori, ignoring Sokka. "And I was just informed that they have stolen a number of navy vessels."

Sokka muttered under his breath, "Yeah, he's sure."

"I don't believe these rebels intend to harm your farm," Zuko said, "Or anyone on the island. It wouldn't serve their purpose. The truth is, they are likely regrouping for another attack."

Kaori swallowed hard. "Another?"

"As I said, they've been causing me some trouble."

Sokka snorted.

Over Kaori's shoulder, Zuko caught sight of one of the Faceless, running her hand along the stone wall enveloping the farm.

"I don't know if they are in danger, Kaori," Zuko said. "But I will protect them."

Kaori's guarded eyes narrowed, studying Zuko intently, but never seeming to reach a conclusion about him. Finally, he said, "Two have gone missin'."

The others stared at him.

"I didn't think much of it, at the time." Kaori boldly met their horrified looks. "Sometimes they disappear," he snapped. "It's just what happens. But it struck me as odd, that they both disappeared at the same time. I don't remember that happenin' before. What else could have happened, I told myself? They don't like to leave the Forest, and the villagers are too scared to come in. It was part of the reason I went to the market, to hear if somethin' had happened. But they were only spoutin' the same nonsense." He caught Zuko's eye again, and his voice grew dark. "But now you tell me that these ships aren't really soldiers, and you don't know what they're doing. And now I wonder, did they take 'em?"

"What purpose would that serve?" Jeong Jeong asked, frowning.

Kaori flung his arms heavenward. "Curiosity, sport, fear –Bah! How should I know?"

"It doesn't matter right now," Zuko said quietly. "If Captain Jee really has been captured, the rebels will doubtless send out a search party." He turned to Jeong Jeong. "Send a messenger back to the inn. I want enough soldiers to safeguard this place should anything happen."

"Wait just a minute!" Kaori spluttered. "Who says I want your safeguardin'? Your soldiers runnin' about the place, and terrifying 'em all? This place has protected us for generations, and it will go on doing that!"

"But has it stood against a violent onslaught?" Zuko demanded.

Kaori flinched, and Zuko forced himself to take a calming breath.

"Kaori," Zuko said, his voice quiet and grave. "I cannot leave this place unprotected knowing these rebels are close by. I like the idea even less knowing two of your charges have gone missing." He turned his gaze to the scattered Faceless milling about. When he looked back to Kaori, his eyes were imploring. "Please. Let me help them."

Kaori snorted, but his heart wasn't in it. "So now you want to help 'em?"

A wince caught Zuko's face, barely perceptible. But Kaori saw it.

"I never received your messages," Zuko said. "I don't know how or why, but I am sorry. I will help them, Kaori. Help you. But only if you'll let me."

The weathered face of Kaori grew darker, more tired as the Firelord spoke. His frown fell heavier on his face. It could have been a trick of the light, but Zuko swore he saw a tear in the old man's eye.

Kaori grunted, turning away from the Firelord. "Do as you will."

***

"So much for a nice island vacation," Toph muttered, kicking through the loose sand of the beach. Apparently, there was actually something to this 'curse' story after all, though what exactly she wasn't sure. Zuko's message had been short and curt: The Loyal are here. Come to the farmhouse.

Whoopee. And just what waited for them there, she wondered? The soldier had whispered something –'faceless'– like the word itself was cursed. What was that supposed to even mean?

But a chill crept up her spine. She had to admit, it wasn't exactly bedtime story material.

While the others were packing up, and Mai was left making their excuses to the innkeeper, Toph had volunteered to find Haru. It would give her a chance to finally talk to him. To –she swallowed hard– apologize. She'd put it off long enough. Part of her had been holding out for the hope that the tension would vanish on its own. That, given time, all would be forgotten. But Haru hadn't stopped avoiding her.

During breakfast, she heard him say he was going for a walk on the beach. And Ty Lee had thought it was a great idea.

Toph gritted her teeth, remembering the acrobat's ridiculous enthusiasm, undeterred even when Haru tried to stammer that he really didn't need any company. The spineless lily liver. Why didn't he just come out and tell her to mind her own business?

Somewhere in the secret corner of her heart, a voice whispered: Maybe he didn't want to.

Toph snorted. She kicked at the sand again to vent her anger, imaging the piles were attacking enemies. But just before she put her foot through each one, they took on a bubbly, bright aura in her mind's eye, and giggled a little too much.

The giggles grew louder and Toph hesitated.

In the sand, the vibrations of movement always felt sluggish. Here and there about the beach lay several large rocky outcroppings poking up through the sand, and to the west a collection of sharp cliffs rose up, cutting off the beach. As a result, the vibrations felt distorted, through the grains of sand distant and unclear, but the instant they struck an outcrop jumping into a distinct vision.

Toph focused her attention just as the echo of familiar footsteps ricocheted off a nearby outcrop, betraying the two figures only a few paces from her.

"There are you are," she grunted.

"Hello!" Ty Lee said cheerfully.

Less enthusiastic, Haru only asked, "What are you doing here?"

Toph snorted again. "Looking for you," she retorted. "There's been a development. Apparently the Loyal are close by, and Zuko wants us all to hole up in some farmhouse in the Forest."

"The cursed Forest?" Ty Lee asked.

"Of course that one!" Toph snapped, surprised by her own vehemence. "There aren't any other forests around, are there?"

Why are you yelling at her? What are you so angry about? She wanted to shut her mouth around the nasty words popping out, imagining the wounded look on Ty Lee's doubtless pretty features. Instead, her frustration freed itself in a mocking chuckle. "Don't tell me you're afraid of a little legend?"

"No," Ty Lee said quietly.

"Knock it off, Toph," Haru ordered. And he did order it. His voice wasn't skittish or hesitant now; it was sharp and commanding. Toph might have been impressed, if the one time he found his spine wasn't in front of a girl.

"That's okay," Ty Lee said, brightening. "I guess it was a stupid question."

"That's no excuse," Haru insisted, his voice growing louder. "It was rude and insensitive, and she ought to apologize."

"No, really." Ty Lee's vibrations shifted as she fidgeted. "It's okay."

"All right, fine." Toph huffed. "Sorry. Whatever. We need to get back right away." She turned her back on them, heading toward the inn.

The hairs on the back of Toph's neck prickled. She could practically feel that thunderclap glare of his boring down on her.

"That wasn't a proper–" he started.

But she felt Ty Lee's vibrations shift once more, this time as she placed her hand on Haru's arm.

"It's okay, Haru," Ty Lee said softly. "Just let it go."

Haru grunted in exasperation, but he didn't speak again.

Wordlessly, the two followed Toph back down the beach.

So much for making things better, Toph thought bitterly.

***

It was only a leaf. But to the Faceless man who had caught it between his fingers, it was the last true connection to a world he longer felt a part of. He touched it, caressed it, ran it along his smooth featureless face, squeezed it, and tickled it against his fingertips.

Suki watched in fascination, not without a little pity. What must it be like, to have no sense left but touch? Birds chirped in the trees, a gentle summer breeze played with her hair, the warm sweet scent of tropical flowers in full bloom sprang on her nostrils –every sense amplified in the presence of the Faceless.

A grunt of exertion shook Suki out of her revelry. Glancing around, she spotted Kaori pushing against the enormous barn door with little success.

Springing forward, she caught the handle above Kaori's gnarled hands. "Let me help you with that."

"Don't need help from a little missy," he growled, heaving upward to free the door from a catch in the floor. A vein bulged in Kaori's neck, though from the effort or annoyance, she couldn't tell. "Too skinny. Strain a muscle."

Usually Suki appreciated someone noticing her slim figure –after all, she was the mother of two children– but not when they saw it as a weakness.

Gritting her teeth and bracing her feet, Suki gave one quick pull on the handle. The door popped out of the indentation and whipped open, jerking out of Kaori's grasp.

Suki treated him to a saccharine smile. "You were saying?"

A weak chuckle escaped Kaori as he bent over to catch his breath. Puffing, he glanced her up and down. "Stronger than you look," he admitted.

"It's a Kyoshi Warrior trait," she said, deciding to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he really had been worried she'd hurt herself. "The underestimation of our enemies is one of the greatest tools we have."

Kaori puffed again, looking toward the barn door. "It gets heavier every time," he muttered, glaring at the offending object. His head dropped down in defeat, and he actually growled. "I'm gettin' too old for this."

Not much about the old man had impressed Suki. True, he had been caring for the Faceless most of his life, all on his own, and with his charges at least he seemed gentle and patient. But he had only proved rude and short-tempered with her and her friends. Especially Zuko. Here the Firelord was, finally offering the helping hand the old man so desperately needed, and Kaori spat in it.

But now, as she looked down at him, all the stubbornness and suspicion in his character drained away, leaving only a very tired, very desperate old man.

"How can I help?"

Kaori's head snapped up. Sharp, probing eyes scrutinized her. Suki bristled. But he only sighed again.

Slowly straightening, his body creaking in protest, Kaori said, "I've got to bring 'em inside. If there are villains runnin' about the place, I ain't leavin' 'em unguarded. At least there I might be able to protect 'em."

Suki glanced at the Faceless man over her shoulder. The leaf, caught between his fingers, still captured his undivided attention.

"I'll help you."

***

Ty Lee stopped in the middle of the trail with a frown, patting at her shoulders.

"What's wrong?" Haru asked.

Face flushing pink, the acrobat tittered in embarrassed. "I forgot my shawl." Her flush brightened when Toph groaned. "I'll just run back and get it," she said, backing away.

Haru started after her. "I'll go with you."

"No!" That embarrassed giggle again. "I mean, that's okay. It was silly of me. No need for you to waste your energy, Haru. You just stay here. I'll be real quick."

Without waiting for another word, Ty Lee dashed off through the sand, back down the cliff-blocked beach from whence they'd come.

"Right," Haru muttered, watching her go.

A snide comment perched on the tip of Toph's tongue, preparing to dive into the open, but she clamped her lips around it just in time. The atmosphere was uncomfortable enough between them.

So what words could ease the tension?

The thought hadn't even fully formed when she burst out, "I'm sorry for snapping at Ty Lee."

Haru didn't turn toward her. He grunted, unsatisfied. "I'm not the one you need to apologize to."

Dunderhead. I do, and you know it.

"But not for that!" He whirled to face her and Toph realized she'd accidentally spoken those words aloud.

"I –I –"

She sounded like an idiot! What was the plan, anyway? What was she going to say?

"I'm sorry about what I said!"

Haru hesitated. He didn't speak and Toph, heart pounding, skin prickling with uncertainty, took it as a sign to continue.

The words she had been dreading came out in a gush of relief.

"I didn't mean to upset you. I don't think your village is worthless or a waste of time or anything. And I don't want to force something else onto you either."

Still he didn't speak. Finally! Finally they could get past this and just move on.

"I just don't want you to settle. You can do so much more than that..."

Her voice trailed off when she felt his muscles tense. She was losing him again! What did she say this time to upset him?

When he spoke, his voice was low and serious. "What if staying in my village is what I want to do, Toph? Did you ever think of that?"

Toph blinked. Had she? No. The idea hadn't even crossed her mind. And why would it? She knew this wasn't really what he wanted out of life. This was just his misguided sense of duty. "You can't be this stupid!" she shouted, tugging at her hair in frustration. So much for the reasonable approach. "Forget your goody-two-shoes act for one second! Imagine no one was counting on you, nobody had any expectations for you. If you could do anything in the whole world, what would it be? What do you feel deep down in your gut, your own stupid selfish desire?"

Through the sand, she felt the angry pounding of his heart, pummeling against his chest.

"Not everyone is as selfish as you, Toph!" Haru caught himself, kneading his brow as he forced a shuddering breath to calm himself. "People really do put others above themselves. Because they want to. Not everyone has to reach for the stars. Not everyone has to have it all."

Toph faltered, surprised at how the words stung. Selfish? Selfish?! "I do put others above myself. I opened the Academy, didn't I? I spend all my time teaching others. What do you call that?"

"Entertainment," Haru shot back. "Don't tell me that, deep down, you didn't start teaching because you like bossing people around. You get to push their buttons, and mock them, and the cycle just repeats. If you really wanted to help people, you would be teaching metalbending. To everyone, not just picking and choosing your victims at will."

"I told you!" Toph bellowed, the veins in her neck popping. "I have to be picky because–"

"Please," Haru snapped. "Maybe everyone isn't cut out for metalbending, but who are you to decide that? You just like the power that goes with it. You get to be the judge–"

"Shut up," she seethed. Lunging forward, Toph slapped a hand over his mouth.

His eyes bulged in surprise. Staggering under her weight, Haru nearly toppled into the sand, but Toph grabbed his arm and jerked him upright. He tried to pull away. She yanked on his arm, hard.

"Shut up!"

The urgency in Toph's voice made him hesitate. He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. A frown darkened her face, her head cocked to one side as she listened.

Then he heard it. A distant cry, coming from the beach.

"That's Ty Lee!" At least, those were the words that tried to be heard past his muffler.

"Come on, Stache Man," Toph said with a tired sigh. She yanked his arm again, this time tugging him back toward the beach. "Sounds like your girlfriend's in trouble."

He was already racing along the sand beside her when the words registered. "Girlfriend?!"

***

Admiral Jeong Jeong awaited them at the gate of the farm. One look at his drawn, grave face, and Mai knew something was amiss.

"And what have you discovered here, Admiral?" the Firelady asked. She walked hand in hand between Ursa and Roh-Roh, the three royals heading the line of reinforcements reporting for duty.

"We are not entirely certain, Your Majesty," Jeong Jeong said, stepping aside as they entered.

Whatever Mai expected to see, it was not the chilling sight of featureless faces. A small gasp escaped Mai when she saw the eerie figures. Instinctively, she tightened her grip around her children's hands. Ursa returned her white-knuckled grasp as Roh-Roh pressed against his mother.

Across the farm, Zuko spotted his family at the gate. His heart jolted. What were they doing here? He hurried toward them. One glance at his wife's face and he could see the obvious shock in her eyes.

"Mai," he said gently, touching her arm. "I didn't know you were coming."

Mai tried to turn her gaze toward him, but she was unable to pull her eyes from the smooth surface where the man's face should have been. Swallowing hard, she managed to force words between her lips. "I...thought it might..."

Ursa's fingers clutched tighter at her hand. The terror in her daughter's grip sent a resolved strength surging through Mai. She shook herself, forcing her eyes to look at her husband.

"I got worried," she said, giving her children's hands a reassuring squeeze. "You said the Loyal were here and sent all the soldiers to some farm out in the middle of the Forest. If there really is danger, I thought we would be safer here than anywhere."

Zuko grimaced. "I guess I didn't think of that."

"I know." She smiled gently at him. "You thought keeping us out of the fray might keep us unnoticed."

Her gaze tugged away, distracted as one of the eerie figures moved.

Zuko followed her gaze. "I would have warned you."

"What are they?" Mai whispered.

"They're called the Faceless." Zuko shrugged. "Aside from that, I'm really not sure yet."

Ursa pointed wordlessly to the right. Gently leading one of the Faceless by the hand, Suki slowly guided him away from the tree he had been touching. As Suki passed, she noticed them and paused. Noticing their gazes, she glanced back at the Faceless man. With a reassuring smile, she said, "There's nothing to be afraid of. They're harmless."

Loosening her grip on her mother's hand, Ursa braved a question. "What are you doing?"

Roh-Roh's head ventured out from behind their mother at the sound of his sister's voice.

As she looked down at the Princess, Suki's smile broadened. "I'm helping their Caretaker lead them into the barn, where they'll be safe."

Glancing from side to side, Ursa took in the entirety of the enclosed farm. "There's so many of them."

"Yes," Suki agreed, her voice sad.

Ursa's soft brown eyes gazed up at her parents. "We should help them."

***

Sand churned on the beach, spraying into the air and cutting off Haru's sight.

"I can't see anything! Can you tell what's going on?"

"Maybe if you'd stop fidgeting," Toph growled.

Flushing, Haru forced himself to still.

They crouched behind a rock outcrop farther up the beach. Rushing out into the fight might have felt macho, but they needed to get a good look at the situation before trying to tackle it.

"She's outnumbered," Toph said. She ground her teeth. "By a lot. These guys aren't playing fair, but it looks like she's taken out a few."

"Any benders?"

"Fire. And Haru," she added, her voice grave. "They're trained, probably soldiers."

That meant they could only be the Loyal. Haru's heart thudded. He'd only heard stories about the old rebel syndicate, but they were known for their ruthlessness and brutality.

"Then we're wasting time."

"You charge them head on," Toph said, "And make it obvious. Arm waving, battle cries, and lots of those useless 'get away from her!' Got it?"

Haru was already starting forward. "What about you?"

She grinned. "I'm going underground."

***

Kaori stepped back, pausing for a moment to watch the strange procession. Others had joined the somber caravan. Now not only Suki, but Katara, the Firelady, even the Firelord himself helped guide the Faceless toward the safety of the barn.

At first, Kaori bristled at the idea of strangers aiding his charges. Especially children. But when he noticed the gentle touch of their small hands, and the calming affect they had on the Faceless, he bit back his protests.

The first thing he noticed about the children were their fine garments. The Prince and Princess, no doubt, he realized bitterly. But the second thing he noticed was the girl's bright smile, her confidence to approach each Faceless and willingness to help. And the boy, who shied away from others, seemed to have no qualms about the featureless spectres that would haunt many a sane man's nightmares.

And the children didn't just lead the Faceless. While the others –even Suki– hesitated to touch the eerie figures, the children smiled at them though they couldn't see and spoke to them though they couldn't hear. Perhaps the youngsters didn't realize their efforts went unrewarded, but Kaori suspected they already knew that.

***

If catching the enemy's attention was the idea, Haru succeeded. Shouting and hollering so emphatically the words scratched at his throat and burned his lungs, he half-charged, half-stumbled down the steep sandbank.

At his cries, the movement below paused. The dust settled. Figures began to take shape among the chaos. Blurs of dark color and one bright splash of pink. He couldn't count the individual number of assailants, but there were a lot of them. And one had Ty Lee wrapped tight in his grip.

Two soldiers leapt forward, pumping fireballs. As the first missile soared toward him, Haru fell to his knees, sliding across the sand. Heat searing his face, the fireball hissed over him and landed behind, crackling and spitting sparks as it collided with the sand. Twisting at the waves of sand bucking up in his wake, Haru swung them at the second missile, batting it away. It jerked off to the right, skidding through the shallow water with dying squeals.

"Stay back!" Ty Lee's captor cried, dragging her further into the midst of the enemy. She kicked and struggled, but the soldier seemed to be familiar with her particular nerve-numbing skills. His vice grip pinned down her arms and hands, and he constantly shifted so her legs could find no purchase. He produced a single flame on the tip of his finger. Holding it close to her cheek, he called out, "Or I'll hurt her pretty little face."

Haru stopped. Still kneeling in the sand, his legs coated with the grit, he didn't dare even to stand. Now that he was closer, at least he got a better look at them all. There were fifteen soldiers decked out in Fire Nation armor. But through their ranks he spotted two more figures, hanging back. One man with broad shoulders and a thick chin, and a woman with ghostly white skin and dark brooding eyes.

"Typical," the captor snickered.

"They always give up when we've got the girl," another agreed. He followed this up with a shrill and undignified shriek.

The others turned in alarm. Two hands reaching up from the sand had clamped around his legs, dragging him down. He was already up to his knees.

"My leg!" he cried, clawing uselessly at the air. "Something's got my leg!"

Several soldiers hurried forward to catch his arm. The earth trembled beneath them. A shockwave rippled through the sand around the sinking soldier, knocking the others back.

Her captor's attention diverted, Ty Lee took the opportunity to kick behind and up. He gave no fight, but released his grip and a high-pitched squeal as he sank to the beach. Before the others could react, she somersaulted out of their reach. Positioning herself beside Haru, they readied their stance for attack.

As the sand swallowed most of his torso, the sinking soldier inexplicably stopped. "I-is it over?"

Behind him, something rose out of the earth. A terrifying figure coated in earth and sand. It grinned at the soldier, revealing a row of malicious white teeth.

"Not quite," Toph said, catching the back of his head with a sharp blow.

The soldier slumped into unconsciousness. Their leader still lay crumpled on the beach, whimpering. The others hesitated.

That brief hesitation gave Toph the opportunity she needed. Digging her hands into the sand, she jerked. The ground slid beneath the soldiers, spinning like a merry-go-round. As they staggered and toppled, Haru launched a volley of rocks scattered along the beach, while Ty Lee bounded forward to punch at the nerve clusters of the soldiers along the outer edge.

"That's amazing, Toph!" Ty Lee cried, jabbing at another passing limb. "Earth, metal, sand –is there anything you can't bend?"

Haru snorted, condensing a lump of sand into a hard missile before lobbing it into the fray. "A person's will."

Toph scowled, even as sparks from her disoriented victims whizzed past her ear. "I told you, dunderhead, I'm trying to apologize!"

One soldier managed to loose a full-throated plea. "Stop!"

"What's that? You boys want another turn?" Toph grunted as she heaved at the sand once more. "Okay!"

A stabbing pain plunged into her side, threading its way through her veins and bursting in her chest. With a strangled cry, Toph's hold on the sand slipped and the soldiers skidded to a merciful halt.

Agony continued to course through her, twisting and wrenching at every organ, every nerve. Toph writhed, kicking out to catch her assailant. But no one was there. As the sharp, searing pain arced through her body, she reached back to the point of impact, expecting a knife to be lodged there. Nothing.

As quickly as it had come, the pain vanished.

Toph slumped down. Her body tingled with cool relief, washing away the heat of panic. Fingers digging into the sand, tears stinging at her eyes, she gulped down air to calm herself.

What was that?

"Nice little trick, isn't it?"

Haru and Ty Lee hesitated, confused over the inexplicable sense of dread that had settled over the sunny morning.

The pale woman stepped forward, staring down at Toph, grey lips twisted into a sardonic smile. The dark-rimmed eyes sparked with a cruel glimmer and Ty Lee knew black was definitely the right color for her. Her aura reeked of it.

A shiver racked through Haru. He'd met a lot of unfriendly people in his day, but nothing quite like this woman. Evil was the word that instantly jumped to mind. Someone who would break the legs of a fire ferret just to watch it writhe and cry.

The woman held no weapon, but her bony fingers clutched at a crude little doll.

Still trembling from the shock, Toph forced herself to focus. The vibrations swirled about her in unfamiliar patterns, distorted by pain and terror. Terror. When was the last time I felt that?

As the rings of motion began to settle into discernable patterns, Toph felt in control again. Some of the fear trickled away. When she noticed the odd object in the woman's hand, she forced a wry laugh between her clenched teeth.

"Aren't you a little old for toys?"

The chilling smile dropped from the woman's face. "Not these toys."

Haru winced. Did Toph have to be a smart-aleck all the time?

The woman raised one hand and he caught the glint of sunlight off the object she brandished. So she wasn't unarmed after all. But what good would a needle prove?

Hardly had the thought crossed his mind than the needle plunged once more at the doll.

As it punctured the tiny leg, pain exploded right behind Toph's kneecap. A scream tore from her throat. Burning agony ravaged up and down her leg, not just the skin but stabbing deep into her muscles, tendons, and right into the marrow of her bones.

"Toph!" Haru cried. His heart lurched, and an unfamiliar rage –hot and unpredictable– burst through his chest. Tearing a rock from the nearby outcrop with a violent yank, he punched out. It hurtled through the air, with his furious shout riding its wake. "Get away from her!"

Somewhere in the back of her mind, despite the pain, Toph snickered. What a useless phrase.

The rock, however, proved anything but. It tore through the air toward the woman. She jumped back but proved less than nimble. She tripped over her own feet as it thudded into the place where she'd once stood, kicking up a puff of sand. The woman raised her arm to protect her face from the flying grit and inadvertently yanked the needle out. As the sand billowed about in sheens, her feeble body trembled in a fit of dry coughs. Her male companion sprang forward in an attempt to shield her. The coughs continued to rack through her and the needle slipped between her fingers.

As it touched the ground, the needle sent a gentle pinging vibration through Toph's senses. She pounced. Slamming her hands down, she parted the sand beneath it and the needle dropped beneath the sinking surface.

Haru rushed forward, only bothering to shove aside the opponents blocking his path. Ty Lee sprang into action, her quick and lithe fists paralyzing various limbs as she danced between the soldiers.

Gritting her teeth, Toph struggled to her feet. Though the pain had faded, she realized that the effects still held her body captive. Chills raced through her. Her limbs –especially her leg– trembled and shuddered. When she tried to stand, the injured knee buckled. Only Haru, appearing at her side and sweeping her arm over his neck, kept her from toppling over again.

"Get to the trees," Toph grunted. "We need cover."

Haru nodded, that thunderclap scowl brooding over his face. Tightening his grip on Toph, he called out to Ty Lee. The sand churned beneath them. It swirled around their feet and pushed them forward, lengthening their strides. Ty Lee dashed after them as they stumbled into the cover of the forest.

"Farther!" Toph ordered the instant their feet touched solid earth.

Ty Lee ducked under Toph's other arm. Together, she and Haru helped their injured comrade deeper into the forest.

They heard the faint clatter of armor as the soldiers gave chase. Toph wondered if that woman would follow. A cold sweat broke over her, heart hammering against its cage like a desperate prisoner.

Alarmed by the terrified beating in Toph's chest, Haru hesitated. "Are you okay?"

"Keep going!" Toph snapped.

A faint shout drifted up from the beach. The words –forced between sputtering coughs– came from the woman. "Stop, fools! I cannot afford to lose more men. We have our own duty to uphold."

The sound of pursuit ceased, but Toph urged them on. Feeling no lull in her racing heartbeat, Haru didn't argue.

***

The barn had not been used to shelter animals in a very long time. Instead of straw or sawdust blanketing the floor, it had been laid with wooden planks. Rows of cots ran the length of the building. Stalls stood open, revealing more beds within, like tiny rooms.

"Use it during storms," Kaori explained shortly when questioned. "Can't leave 'em outside when the wind whips up and the rain starts to pound."

One stall housed a store of blankets, and Kaori directed them to bed each cot and assign a Faceless to them. "Just lead 'em to a cot," Kaori explained, "And set 'em down on it. They know what it means."

Suki took charge of ordering the bed assigning while Mai stood at the stall handing out blankets. She teased Zuko when it became obvious he could not tuck a blanket around a bed corner.

"It can't be harder than running a country," she said with a laugh.

Ursa and Roh-Roh giggled. The sounds of mirth bounded through the barn, brightening its dim, dismal depths. The Faceless may have been unable to hear the laughter, but they seemed to sense the lighter change in the atmosphere.

Suki couldn't help a sad smile as she looked over it all. "I don't know how Kaori's managed it for so long," she told Mai quietly.

"Neither do I." The Firelady's eyes darkened. She remembered Kaori's words at the market. Knowing what she did now, she wondered whether his anger with Zuko was justified.

Shaking the thoughts from her head, she reached into the stall for another blanket. Her hand touched only the rough wood of the shelves. She groped about, squinting into the dark corners, but there were no more blankets to be had.

Turning back to Suki, she said, "They're all gone."

Suki frowned, glancing back at the cots yet to be made, and then in search of the Caretaker. He was nowhere in sight. "Hmm. I wonder where Kaori disappeared to?"

From a nearby cot, Zuko looked up from his embarrassing handiwork. "I think he headed back toward the house."

Mai sighed. "I'll see if I can find him. How many more blankets do we need?"

After a quick headcount, they realized five more beds needed dressing and Mai set off. Admiral Jeong Jeong spotted her emerging from the barn and offered his assistance, but she waved him off with a 'thank you.'

The farmhouse stood right against the barn, and Mai thought perhaps they had once been connected. As she drew closer, the faded colors of the building presented themselves as once-vibrant white with blue trim. Unusual choice, but especially for a man as bitter and surly as Kaori. She paused on the porch to examine the paint, thinking it may have been done before the old man's time. But the paint would have worn off completely had it been before his reign. It had been applied ten, perhaps fifteen years ago. So he must have painted himself. She couldn't help wondering what had happened, to sap away such an obvious cheerful side of the old man.

A gentle breeze picked up, tugging at her robes. Remembering her mission, Mai rapped on the front door. It creaked under her touch, wobbling in its frame.

No answer came.

Frowning, she knocked again, harder. This time the old door shuddered, swinging open.

Suspicion crawled up Mai's spine. Where was the old man? And what could pull him away from the Faceless he cared so much about?

Stepping cautiously in, she called out, "Hello?" Her curious eyes took in the home as she waited for a reply. Mai moved farther in, telling herself she was only looking for a stack of blankets. The belongings were sparse and shabby, but it looked comfortable enough. Like the outside, the room was stamped with a faded sense of life and color that had long drained away.

On one wall hung an old portrait, yellowed with age. But the masterful brushstrokes of the artist had perfectly captured the chiseled, much younger features of the Caretaker, though there was a spark of joy now absent. There was one more thing in the portrait missing from the present day Kaori –the woman beside him. They were both young, perhaps in their early thirties, but what made Mai's heart ache was how happy they were.

This time, when no answer came, Mai didn't call out again. A dim light illuminated the far end of the hall, and she headed for it. She felt guilty, almost criminal, sneaking through the Caretaker's house, but her curiosity was roused. That, and her emotions were all muddled. The picture of the happy couple had welled her eyes with tears –pregnancy could be such a pain– and now she wanted to know what had happened to make Kaori so callous.

So she didn't call out, or make any sound as crept upon a door. Open just a crack, a stream of light filtered into the dark hallway. From within, Kaori's voice drifted.

"...might have been right..."

Mai knew she should knock. The old man's business was none of hers, even if her hormones were out of whack. Sidling up to the door, she peered through the crack at the scene on the other side. She stifled a gasp.

Kaori sat on the edge of a bed, his fingers wrapped tenderly about a woman's hand. If Mai thought his face had softened around the Faceless, it was nothing to how he looked now. His gaze lingered on the woman's face with unbridled adoration as he stroked her hair, gently kissed the hand he held tight.

Mai had thought the portrait was sad, but her heart ached double as she watched the pair, Kaori speaking softly to the Faceless woman as if she could hear.

The mystery was solved, but Mai felt no better for it. What was she doing here, intruding on such a personal moment? She quickly averted her eyes, stepping away.

A board creaked beneath her foot and Kaori's head snapped up. Catching sight of Mai's shadow through the door, he jumped to his feet.

"What are you doing?"

Mai paused. Swallowing back pity and sorrow rising in her throat, she gave the only excuse she had. "We ran out of blankets."

Kaori continued to scowl at her, weighing her in his mind's eye. He glanced down at the Faceless woman, and slowly the anger faded. With a sigh, he squeezed her hand once more and rose. He stepped into the hall, Mai scurrying back as he closed the door behind him.

In the dark hall, illuminated only by the crack of light gleaming beneath the door, they stood awkward. Neither knew what to say.

"My wife," Kaori said finally.

Mai's heart lurched, though she had already known it deep down. What could she say? She groped for words, but they all seemed so insufficient. "I'm...sorry."

Anger flashed in Kaori's eye. "You're sorry now?" he snapped. "Because you realize they just might be missed? Does that make it worse than when they were random, poor, unfortunate souls doomed to a fate worse than death?"

Mai bristled. "It doesn't make what happened to the others any worse or any better," she replied, her voice cold. "It puts it into perspective."

Another uncomfortable moment of silence reigned as Kaori digested this.

Mai's eyes drifted back to the closed door, thinking of the woman behind it. What would she do, she wondered, if it were the love of her life behind that door? What would Zuko do if it was her?

"That's why you're so angry with him."

Kaori snapped his head toward her.

"You blame my husband," Mai continued, knowing with each word that she spoke truth, "For what happened to your wife."

Kaori flinched. His shoulders tensed as he bristled, but instead of the indignation Mai anticipated, he heaved a heavy sigh.

"Teya told me to send the letters," he said. "After the first few with no answer, I wanted to give up. I told her they weren't comin'. But Teya–" His voice cracked. He cleared his throat gruffly, but Mai heard the tears in his words. "Teya, she told me not to give up. So I sent more." Kaori paused to take a shuddering breath. "For years she begged me to keep writin', hopin' that someone would figure out what to do. Then–" The tears broke over his eyes. Kaori wiped at them, unashamed. "Then she was the next one I found, a Faceless, just like the others. I wasn't sure at first, when I saw her standing in the Forest..." Kaori sniffed, loudly. "But when I took her hand, I knew. And she held on to mine, tight, knowin' full well it was me.

"I wrote the letters for another year, out of sheer desperation. Wrote one almost every night. The people in the village thought I'd gone crazy, comin' down every week with an armful of messages." Kaori shook his head, and his words turned bitter. "But nobody ever came. So I stopped writin'."

"He didn't know."

Kaori snorted, but his heart wasn't in it. "So everyone keeps insistin'."

"Because it's true," Mai said, her voice still soft, but unrelenting. "Zuko is a good man, but he is also the best and most dedicated ruler the Fire Nation has seen in hundreds of years. Everything he does, he does for the benefit of his people. He has dedicated his life to ensuring a better future for his country. Almost to the point of obsession," she added wryly. "It isn't possible that so many messages could have gotten lost, or misplaced. I agree with you. But I also know that my husband didn't ignore them."

Kaori firmed his jaw. "Well, obviously that ain't true."

Mai shook her head. "Zuko wouldn't. But not everyone in the Palace is like Zuko. My guess is that someone assumed there was no truth in your messages and ensured that they never saw the light of day. And now that Zuko does know, he will do everything in his power to help these people, and if it isn't in his power, he'll find someone who can fix it. And I also know, when we get back to the Palace, Zuko is going to find out who kept your letters from reaching him. Because that is who my husband is, Kaori."

Meeting her strong gaze, Kaori's eyes bored into hers, searching for truth. Searching for hope. Finally, he said, "I guess we'll see."

Shaking himself, he turned back down the hallway. "You needed blankets?"

***

"I challenge you, Face Stealer. I challenge you for every face in your collection."

Koh pulled back, blinking in surprise. "What?"

"You heard me," Aang said.

Koh blinked once more, but his eyes darkened as he began to laugh. "Oh, Avatar Aang, I thought you were smarter than that. You challenge me? What hope could you possibly have? A mortal, against a spirit. It is not a fair battle."

"Whoever said anything about a battle?" Aang asked him, fighting the urge to smirk as Koh cocked his head in curiosity.

"What do you purpose, then?"

"A contest," Aang said.

Koh flicked uncertainly between two faces, caught between surprise and curiosity. Curiosity finally won over. "And what, I wonder, would you offer in return?" He snorted when Aang did not answer immediately. "After all, Avatar, if I am to give you my entire collection should I lose, what do I gain if I win?"

What indeed? He glanced once more at Katara's image through the shadowed veil. With a deep breath, he turned back to Koh. "My face."

"Aang, no!" Haku cried in horror.

"Hmm," Koh mused. "A most interesting proposition indeed..."

"And I just know how bored you get," Aang needled.

Haku stepped between them. "You can't, Aang!" he cried. "I know looking at them is horrible, but what's done is done. You have to remember there is more at stake." He reached out to touch Aang's shoulder, but his ghostly hand passed through without effect. "Please. Don't do this."

Aang turned away. "I'm sorry, Haku. But I can't just ignore this. The Faceless, what he's doing –it isn't right. I have to stop it."

"Aang–"

"So noble, Haku," Koh said. "Do you not trust me? Very well. What if I present you a goodwill offering?"

He flicked to another face; a beautiful woman's, her eyes kind and sad. Thick, long black hair spilled down her face. She seemed to look at Aang, not with Koh's eyes, but her own. But Aang knew that was impossible.

"One of my more recent acquisitions, Avatar," Koh said. He chuckled. "I believe it will be quite...appropriate."

"Then you accept?" Aang demanded.

Koh grinned. "It is an offer far too tempting to resist. What are the rules?"

"Simple," Aang replied. "You just have to keep a straight face. Your own."

"Very well, Avatar," Koh said with a chuckle, flickering back to his own pale face. "Shall we begin?"

The face of the woman fell away, not flickering back into his collection, but fading into nothing as Koh's own face returned.

***

Lying on a cot, staring unseeingly above her, one of the Faceless waited.

For what she was waiting, she didn't know. She didn't even know why she was waiting. Where all these answer lay, where all those memories she couldn't quite recall were stored, she felt only an empty void. As if a part of her had been taken away. Rent from her very soul.

Taste, sight, sound, smell –they seemed to mean something to her, but like her name and her purpose, she couldn't quite remember.

The only thing that triggered anything in the corners of her mind were children. Young and vulnerable, innocent and adorable. Like the two who had taken her by the hand tonight. She had forgotten about children until she felt those small fingers wrapping around hers. And they had awoken something inside, stoked a fire in her heart that had almost gone cold.

As these thoughts raced through her mind, as these memories taunted her from just beyond the surface of recognition, a strange sensation swept through her. The skin of her face tingled and prickled. She sucked in a sharp breath –and coughed on the old scent of dust.

Her hands –her only source of outer knowledge– flew to her face. Instead of smooth flesh, they find features. Nose, mouth, ears, hair! And for the first time in nearly fifteen years, she found that she could open her eyes.


Author's Notes

Pray for Boston

  • "I'm getting to old for this." –It wasn't intended as a movie reference, but as I instantly thought of Danny Glover's memorable line in Lethal Weapon. All four of them. And his cameo appearance in Maverick.
  • You're probably wondering why Haru didn't try to decipher the fight scene through earthbending. Simple; he was panicked and knew that it would take too long.
    • A sandbending merry-go-round?
  • Why not? Toph likes to shift the earth out from under people, so why not have some real fun with it?
    • 'Poor unfortunate souls?' Really?
  • Yeah, I totally just did that. How many times do I have to tell you? The villains always get the best song! Although you have never truly heard this song until your hear my parents belting it out. This movie is a bit of our family legend.
  • Aang vs. Koh –It's like a blinking contest, only with much dire consequences.

'Thanks to everyone who voted for Air! We are now double fanonbenders!


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