"Ba Sing Se?"
Glancing up from his food, Zuko looked across the table at Xia-Su. Around them, the usual ebb and flow of that day's gossip continued, but he tuned it out. It was more comforting than anything else anyways.
"Yeah," Xia-Su said, snatching another dumpling from the communal table, "-every few years, Lord Beifong goes there with his wife. Something about making connections."
Xia-Su rolled her eyes, and he had to bite back a snort. Back when he'd still been a prince, there had never been any shortage of nobles who came to the palace for no other reason than to schmooze. It had been exhausting even back then, listening to the way they tried to butter up first to his grandfather and uncle, and then to his father. Sometimes they'd even attempt to do it directly to him and Azula- especially those with daughters and sons, hoping to find an advantageous match for their family.
He'd hated it.
"Anyways," Xia-Su continued, nibbling on her dumpling as she spoke, "-they're planning another trip for early fall."
Zuko hummed, glancing briefly out the window. The summer solstice had only just passed. Fall was months away, but if he knew one thing about noble processions, it was that they could take that long just to plan. Even just going to Ember Island when he was a child had been a production, and that was back when his father was just the second Prince. He couldn't imagine how much more complicated it was for Earth Kingdom nobles traveling in the middle of a war.
Zuko took a bite of his rice, before reaching out to snatch another dumpling for himself. "So how long are they usually gone?"
"It depends." Xia-Su said. "They've only gone on one other trip since I joined the staff, but the last time they went, they were gone for maybe a month."
"A month, huh?" Zuko asked. "That's a pretty long time."
"It'd be longer if they went by land, but they make most of the trip by boat." Xia-Su said. "At least, that's what Yun told me. He went with them on their last trip."
He tried not to grimace at the mention of the word boat. The last time he'd been on one, he'd been delirious with fever, a recently banished prince being sent into exile. It had been nearly three years since then, and he didn't doubt that most of the Fire Nation thought him dead.
In a sense, they'd be right. He wasn't dead, but Prince Zuko had definitely perished somewhere between Sei Wan and Gaoling. Now he was just Zuko.
Or depending on who you asked, Li.
"So do you think he'll go again this year?" Zuko asked. It'd be kind of lonely not having him around for a full month, maybe longer. He sometimes reminded him of Uncle- if Uncle gave out questionable advice instead of indecipherable proverbs.
(He'd yet to figure out which was worse.)
"Are you kidding me?" Xia-Su laughed. "He got so seasick that he said he never wanted to get on a boat again, even if it was a direct request from Lord Beifong."
Zuko chuckled, only feeling a little bad for laughing at someone who wasn't here. Yun was busy serving the Beifongs their nightly tea, Toph included. He'd eat his dinner later, once they were done, with all the other servants who served the Beifongs their nightly meal. For his part, once he was done eating he would head back to wait for Toph, so that he could escort her back to her room after dinner. Since dinner service was so long, he was able to take a break to eat during it.
Unless they had guests. Then he'd have to wait.
"Yeah," he said, "-that sounds like Yun."
"He'll deny it, but we've got him pegged." Xia-Su grinned. "Miyuki should announce the list of who's going closer to the trip. I'm just hoping its not me."
Zuko blinked, somewhat surprised by that. "You don't want to go?"
"Let me put it this way," Xia-Su said, leaning in close, "-I had a choice between coming here, and going to Ba Sing Se, and I chose here."
"What's so bad about it?" Zuko asked, genuinely curious. "I thought it was supposed to be one of the Earth Kingdom's greatest cities."
At least, that was how Uncle had described it in his letters. He'd always try to envision it whenever they got a new one, attempting to picture the great city with all of its magnificent walls in his head.
And then Lu Ten died, and Ba Sing Se was the last thing he wanted to think about.
"Oh, it is." Xia-Su agreed. "But I also heard that its local police force isn't beyond sinking people into pits of earth for minor infractions."
"Ah," Zuko arched a brow, "-that explains why."
"Yeah, I'm not exactly in a hurry to repeat that particular trauma." Xia-Su said. "But what about you? Have you ever been?"
Nearly choking on his food, Zuko quickly shook his head. "No. Never."
If he had, the world would look a lot different now. For one thing, he wouldn't be sitting here having this conversation with Xia-Su. He'd still be a prince, and his Uncle would probably be Fire Lord by now. His family would be whole and intact- his mother still around, and Lu Ten still alive.
And the Earth Kingdom would be in chains. Xia-Su, and everyone here, might be dead.
So no. He'd never been to Ba Sing Se.
"What about Toph?" Zuko asked, half trying to change the subject. "Do they take her?"
"The young miss?" Xia-Su frowned. "She stayed here the last time. I'd be surprised if they took her this time."
Yeah, that was about what he thought. They'd never take the risk, not when they (incorrectly) thought of Toph as someone who was delicate and fragile. It would be much safer for them to keep her here, where there was much less chance of a Fire Nation attack.
"Why?" Xia-Su asked. "Do you want to go to Ba Sing Se?"
Choking on his food again, Zuko quickly washed it down with tea. Right. If Toph went, then that would mean he'd have to go too.
"I'm... not so sure that would be such a good idea."
He might be exiled now, but he'd still been the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation at one point. Ba Sing Se was basically the heart of enemy territory, and even worse, was filled with people who might possibly recognize him- provided he was still recognizable, which was up for debate. He had a hard time connecting the person he saw in the mirror now with the person he'd been before, but the same might not be true for everyone.
If he was exposed behind Ba Sing Se's walls, there would be nowhere to run.
Xia-Su just hummed. "Guess there's people there you wouldn't want to see again."
It took him a second to figure out what she meant, before he remembered that most of the servants had already pegged him as an ex-noble long ago, which... wasn't wrong. They just thought he was one of the Earth Kingdom variety.
"Yeah, something like that." Zuko lied. He was no more comfortable with it than he was when he first arrived, but he'd learned to live with it. "I'm not embarrassed about being a servant, but I'd rather not... there's things I'd rather not be forced to remember."
Xia-Su very pointedly did not look at his scar, but from the way she shifted her feet underneath the table, he knew she was thinking about it. Her limp hadn't improved, nor had it gotten any worse- and for that matter, neither had his scar.
"Yeah," she said, "-I can understand that."
Zuko nodded, quickly finishing his food. It wasn't like he was trying to run away from the conversation or anything, it was just that he should probably get back. He didn't want to be late and make a bad impression on Toph's father. Not that it mattered, since he was certain the man still didn't like him, but he didn't want to go out of his way to make himself look bad.
"I should get going," he said, collecting his dishes and getting to his feet, "-don't want to keep Toph waiting."
"Don't forget you're on laundry duty with me tomorrow morning!" Xia-Su called out, seemingly unbothered by his hasty exit.
"I won't!" He called back. "When you see Yun, make fun of the seasickness thing for me!"
"Don't worry," she called after him, "-I will!"
"Going somewhere, kid?"
"Yeah, to do my job," Zuko breezed past Yang, "-which you should probably be doing too."
Next to Yang, Huan bite back a snort. It didn't stop Yang from glaring at his partner- or at him, for that matter. But it had been three years, and he'd more than gotten used to Yang's bullshit in that time. It wasn't like they were ever going to get along, so why bother even trying?
Besides, his glare was better.
"You've got a pretty smart mouth for a street urchin, kid." Yang said, unfortunately not one to be deterred. If the Fire Nation propaganda machine ever needed a terrible example of Earth Kingdom stubbornness, then he had a recommendation.
"I thought I was a spy, not a street urchin." Zuko remarked, glancing back at him. "You really should make up your mind."
"He's got you there." Huan grinned, giving his partner a less than friendly shove. "He's also right about getting back to work. Break's over. We wouldn't want any more street urchins getting in."
Yang shot him another glare before stomping off, muttering something underneath his breath about stupid Fire Nation brats. Zuko just huffed, briefly catching Huan's eye, who in turn gave him a sympathetic look.
"Sorry as always," he said.
"Sorry you always have to put up with him." Zuko said.
"Oh, it's not that bad." Huan said. "He actually has a lovely singing voice."
Zuko arched a brow. "...he does?"
"No," Huan said, "-I lied. He's as tone deaf as Avatar Qiang."
Zuko chuckled, picturing that far too easily. "As long as he doesn't go serenading any spirits."
The local players' rendition of that particular saga had been one to remember. They put on free public plays ever few months, and going to them had become something of a tradition ever since Yun had invited him to their first. They were better than the ones from Ember Island, even if they had way less of a budget. They always covered stories about the Avatars past, and he'd learned a lot from them.
(They never covered the ones from the Fire Nation. But then, they never spoke of any Avatars in the Fire Nation- not even their own.)
"Let's hope not, huh?" Huan laughed, before waving him off and hurrying to follow after his partner.
He watched him for a second, before turning on his heel, hurrying down the hall towards the dining hall. He hadn't meant to be held up so long, but he'd still probably make it in time. He'd long since memorized the routine here- and had long since gotten used to being on this side of the hustle and bustle of a noble manor. If anyone were to ask him if he missed palace life... well, probably not. He might be hiding who he was, but there was no denying that he was freer here than he'd ever been anywhere else. He had things that he hadn't since his mother left- people who cared about him, and someone to call a friend.
Compared to that, the life of a pampered prince seemed lacking.
Azula would probably laugh if she heard that, and accuse him of having let the peasant lifestyle afflict his brain. He didn't even want to consider what his father would think.
He just knew whatever it was, they'd both be wrong.
"So are you gonna spit it out, or am I going to have to beat it out of you?"
Zuko just snorted, long past wondering how Toph knew when something was on his mind. Anyone who thought that they could pull a fast one on Toph Beifong was a fool.
He'd picked her up from the dining hall as per usual, though her parents had lingered behind for another cup of tea. That too, was as per usual- that was when they discussed matters that they didn't want to say within earshot of Toph. Although considering that everything they said was still in earshot of Yun, who then told it to him, nothing around here stayed a secret from Toph for that long.
Like Ba Sing Se, for example.
"It's nothing serious." Zuko said. "I just heard from the other servants that your parents are planning a trip to Ba Sing Se."
It felt a little strange to talk to Toph about the Earth Kingdom capital now that she knew his real name, but if she'd recognized it, she'd never once remarked on it. She either didn't know or didn't care, both of which were strong possibilities. He wasn't sure how well known the name of a disgraced Fire Nation prince would be in the Earth Kingdom, even one who had once been the Crown Prince.
(Not that he'd been the Crown Prince for very long. By now, Azula had probably been the Crown Princess for longer.)
"Wait, they are?" Toph asked in surprise, crinkling her nose. "How am I the last one to hear about this? No- wait, nevermind. I know why."
Zuko hummed in response, trailing half a step behind the tiny earthbender. "Xia-Su told me that you didn't go the last time either."
"Nope," Toph said, popping the p, "-stayed here. Just like I have every time. They're not exactly big on letting me leave the house."
"I've noticed." Zuko said dryly.
Toph snorted, the edge of her lips twitching upwards. "Don't get me wrong, Scruffy- it's not like I actually want to go to Ba Sing Se. Everything I've heard about it makes it sound like it has way too many rules- which boring. What's the point of going somewhere new if you have to follow a bunch of stuffy rules?"
"Sound logic." Zuko said.
"You're darn right it is!" Toph said, gesturing emphatically with one hand. "But I just at least would like the option, you know?"
"Yeah, I think I know what you mean." Zuko agreed. "It's not fun when someone else controls every aspect of your life."
"Tell me about it." Toph grumbled, before perking up just as quick. "Then again, it's not like they control every aspect of my life."
"Nobody could control every aspect of your life." Zuko said, briefly reaching out to ruffle her hair. Toph no doubt sensed it, but although she grumbled and swatted his hand away, she made no attempt to actually stop it from happening.
"You're darn tooting they can't." Toph beamed.
"Although if your parents catch you talking like that, I'm pretty sure they'd wash your mouth out with soap." Zuko pointed out.
"Says the one who taught me." Toph shot back.
"Hey, I didn't teach you all of that." Zuko said, holding up his hands in protest. "You and I both know you learned most of that from the Earth Rumble."
"Okay, fair point." Toph shrugged, before coming to a stop just in front of the door to her room. "Well, this is me. See you later, I guess."
"Yeah, see you later," Zuko agreed, a gleam in eyes his eyes as he added, "-later tonight."
The last thing he saw before Toph shut her door was her broad, tooth-baring grin.
"I want to bring Toph with us."
Glancing up from his tea, Lao looked at his wife with a deep frown. She was watching him carefully, teacup in hand, waiting for his response.
"Bring Toph where?" He asked, every so slightly narrowing his eyes. "Surely you cannot mean to Ba Sing Se?"
It wasn't often that they risked the journey to the great city, but it was necessary every once in awhile if they wanted to maintain connections. With the war going on, many noble families had fled to the Upper Ring of the city, exchanging their ancestral lands for the safety of the walls. Indeed, his father had purchased a stately home within the walls of the city back when Lao was still a boy, but they had chosen to remain within Gaoling, a decision that he had continued upon becoming the head of the Beifong family.
Still, they did go every so often. Usually it was just the two of them and a few members of their household staff- they had more at their Ba Sing Se manor, but they'd never brought Toph with them before.
At least, not since she was a mere infant.
The journey was simply too risky, and Toph was so fragile. The boat trip alone would be stressful enough for her, and that was without the ever present threat of the Fire Nation. The route they took was relatively safe, but if there was one thing that the Dragon of the West's infamous siege had proved, it was that nowhere in the Earth Kingdom was truly safe.
Thankfully, Lao thought, it didn't seem as if there were any others of the Dragon's caliber within the Fire Nation army- and the Dragon himself had apparently retired. His brother, Fire Lord Ozai was a ruthless man to be sure, but with the way he waged the war, his nation would burn out of people long before they managed to burn the Earth Kingdom to the ground.
(But he would still try, he thought- and that was what he was worried about.)
"Where else?" Poppy asked.
"You know how dangerous the journey would be for her." Lao reminded his wife. "And the city itself, with all the refugees-"
"We have Li now," Poppy said firmly, "-and the war..."
She didn't finish her sentence, but he knew what she was going to say. The war was still far away from Gaoling, but the Fire Nation's presence in the Earth Kingdom had been growing stronger every year, ever since the new Fire Lord had been crowned. Perhaps it would only be a matter of time before Gaoling was no longer free.
In which case, fleeing to Ba Sing Se would be their only option.
(Omashu, with its lunatic king would hardly be a good fit for Toph.)
"I simply think it would be a good chance to help familiarize Toph with our estate there, in case the worst should happen before she's of marriageable age." Poppy finished. "I know you are concerned for her safety, but know that I am always thinking of it too. And I believe that taking Toph with us would be for the best in the long run."
Lao arched a brow, but he was forced to admit she had a point. Should they ever be forced to flee Gaoling, it would help calm Toph if they fled to somewhere she was already familiar with, rather than somewhere she had never been. Still, even with Li to protect her, the mere thought of taking her out of the safety of the manor grounds caused his stomach to churn.
The knowledge that Li would protect her was a cold comfort, really.
And he would protect her. He'd had his doubts at first, but the child had proven himself both loyal and skilled- mostly loyal. There had thankfully been no incidents in these past years that warranted the drawing of his swords, but he did not doubt that he would lay his life on the line to protect his daughter. Likely, he understood that without Toph, he wouldn't have the life he did today.
Gratitude was a powerful motivator.
Of course, he fully believed that the friendship he felt towards his daughter was genuine, but there would always be that underlying debt between the two of them, even if Toph didn't realize it. All that mattered was that Li did- and that was all the reassurance he needed to know that their friendship would never go beyond what was acceptable for their difference in station.
(He still didn't entirely like the boy, but he at least trusted him.)
"I suppose you have a point." Lao admitted. "I shall consider it."
Poppy smiled, and there was something in it that made him feel as if she'd already won.
Toph sneezed, then proceeded to wipe her snot on the sleeve of her nightclothes.
"Huh," she said, "-I wonder if Scruffy's talking about me."
Zuko sneezed, the candle he was meditating in front of flickering erratically in response.
"Ugh," he crinkled his nose, "-I hope it's not Azula. She never says anything nice."
He scored a lucky hit that night.
Toph proceeded to ensure it was his only one.
Lao woke the next morning already knowing his answer. Judging from the look on her face, so did his wife.
"Very well," he said, "-she can come."
"Is something the matter, Toph?"
Toph, who definitely had not been touching where Zuko had scored a lucky hit the previous night, just smiled at her mother. She'd woken up this morning with a nasty bruise on her thigh from his sword hilt, but that was okay- she'd made sure to give Zuko one to match.
"Everything's fine, mother." Toph only half-lied. A little bruise wasn't about to do anything more than mildly annoy her, but best to keep it from her mother. "Didn't you say you had something you wanted to discuss?"
"Yes, of course." Poppy said, sounding just a touch distracted. "You know how your father and I sometimes take trips to Ba Sing Se, right?"
Yeah, that's what she thought. When her mother had asked her to stay behind after their morning meal, she'd had a feeling this was about their trip. She couldn't wait to hear about how much they'd miss her while they were gone, but for her safety, she had to remain here. It was just too dangerous for her to travel when she was clearly so fragile and helpless, unable to do anything for herself.
And yet, she managed to say none of that, instead plastering a perfectly neutral expression on her face. "Of course, mother."
"Your father and I were planning to take another one early this autumn," Poppy began, "-and we were wondering if you would like to come with us this time."
Yep, just as she-
Toph's mouth hung slightly open, caught in the beginning of a rote reply. Just outside, she could sense Zuko nursing the back of his head, seeing as he'd jerked into attention so fast that he'd smacked it against the wall. And honestly- she couldn't blame him.
She couldn't blame him at all.
"I thought," Toph began, part of her wondering if this was some kind of test, "-I thought it was too dangerous for me to go."
"That was before we had Li," her mother stated, "-now that he's here, we have someone around who can ensure your safety at all times."
"Your father was against it at first, of course," her mother's tone was ever so slightly sly, "-but I managed to wear him down."
It wasn't often that she found herself struck speechless. The last time it had happened, it was when she'd made the connection between Zuko's scar and his father. She'd been horrified, because as much as her parents isolated and confined her, they would never lay their hands on her. So that someone could do that to their own child...
...it had been beyond her understanding.
Just like this, actually. This was so outside the bounds of what she expected from her mother, from her parents, that for a moment, she honestly had no idea how to respond.
And then she did.
"Yes," she said quickly- maybe a little too quickly, "-yes, I would."
"Wonderful!" Poppy exclaimed. "I just know you'll love Ba Sing Se. It is such a lovely city."
Toph almost made a comment that she had no way to discern what was lovely and what wasn't, before she remembered who it was she was talking to. Instead she simply nodded her head, using her connection to the earth as an anchor to ground her. She could feel Zuko through her earth sense, his heartbeat doing that thing where it spiked for reasons only ever known to him.
(He'd told her his real name like it had meant something to the world, and not just to her. But whatever that first meaning was, she had no idea.)
(If it meant more to the world than it did to her, she'd be very surprised.)
"Now go on," the way her mother didn't even wait for an answer brought some needed familiarity to the situation, "-you shouldn't keep Li waiting much longer."
At a loss for what else to do, Toph rose to her feet, heading towards the door- before she paused. Turning her head, she inclined it in her mother's general direction. "Thank you."
For once, she actually meant it.
"I thought you hated Ba Sing Se."
"I do," Toph said, "-I'm just also not stupid enough to refuse any offer to actually leave this damn place."
Zuko chuckled, even though his heart was still doing that weird anxious pitter-patter. "So when do you think your parents plan on informing me?"
The edge of Toph's lips quirked upwards. Figures they wouldn't bother briefing the person who was supposed to protect her first.
"If I were the betting kind-"
"-exactly, which is why I'm betting father will pull you aside later for a talk." Toph finished. "I still can't believe he agreed. That's so unlike him."
"I guess maybe miracles really do happen." Zuko said, his heartbeat now a lot steadier than it had been earlier. "Next thing you know, the Avatar will come back."
Toph snorted, patting Zuko firmly on the back. He didn't flinch when she touched him anymore. He barely flinched when anyone touched him these days.
"Yeah," she said, "-like that'd happen."
Ba Sing Se.
He was going to Ba Sing Se.
His life was sounding more and more like someone's idea of a bad joke. The nephew of the Dragon of the West, just waltzing into the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se, like an invited guest. If they ended up being invited to the palace, he might actually scream.
It just sounded so surreal! He'd been so worried about getting caught when Xia-Su had brought it up before, but now all he could think about was how absurd this was. His Uncle had spent nearly three years trying to conquer it, and had lost so much because of it. And now apparently he was just going to walk right in?
They were lucky he wasn't actually a spy.
(Not that he could conquer Ba Sing Se even if he tried. He didn't have that kind of luck.)
But hey- at least now he'd have one thing over Azula. She could gloat about her blue fire all she wanted, but he'd be the first one to step foot in the Upper Ring.
(Agni, he hoped he'd stay the only one.)
Azula sneezed, quietly and politely, because she was a princess, and princesses did not draw attention to their sneezes.
"Whoever it is," she narrowed her eyes, "-they'd better be saying good things."
"Li, might I have a word with you?"
With his best smile plastered on his face, Lao met the eyes of his daughter's bodyguard. It was thankfully an easier endeavor than it had once been, now that his hair had grown out enough to both cover his mangled ear and conceal the fact that he only had one eyebrow. The scar itself was no less disfiguring than it had been when he'd first laid eyes on it, but he'd grown more used to the sight of it.
(If nothing else, it served as a powerful deterrent.)
"Of course." Li uncrossed his arms from in front of his chest, pushing himself off the wall he had been leaning against.
Inside, Toph was busy with one of her tutors, though he was unsure which. While he had been the one to arrange her lessons with Master Yu, he left all other matters of education up to Poppy. She would know far better than he the necessary skills for a young noble girl- or at least, the ones Toph could actually learn.
No one wanted an uneducated wife- at least, no one worth mentioning did.
"It is about what my wife discussed with Toph this morning." Lao began. "Have you heard yet that were are planning a trip to Ba Sing Se?"
"I've hard it mentioned, yes." Li said.
"Excellent. That saves me some time." Lao said. "We are planning to bring Toph with us, so naturally, she will require someone to guard her. I am certain that I do not need to brief you on how perilous travel can be in these times."
Li shook his head, a solemn expression on his face. "No."
Yes, he didn't think he would. If anyone would know how dangerous wartime travel was, it would be a refugee.
Of course, they would be taking far safer routes than what was available to any mere refugee. He would waste no expense to ensure that they arrived in Ba Sing Se safely, especially with Toph now accompanying them.
"Good." Lao said. "We will depart in early autumn."
Li bowed, smooth and flawless as always. In spite of his rough appearance, he was at the very least well-mannered. Whoever had raised him had taught him well.
"I will see to it that Toph comes to no harm." Li promised.
"I am certain you will." Lao said. "Now, do you have a passport?"
Li blinked, lifting his head. "A passport?"
Lao frowned, thoughtfully stroking his mustache. It was fairly common knowledge that in order to enter Ba Sing Se, one needed a passport. But it was just as true that he had no idea from which part of the Earth Kingdom Li originated- it was entirely possible that what passed for common knowledge there was quite different.
"It is required if you wish to enter Ba Sing Se." Lao explained. "But no matter. I can easily obtain one for you."
"Oh," Li shifted uncomfortably on his feet, abruptly dropping his gaze, "-um, thanks."
"Think nothing of it." Lao said dismissively. "You will receive more details closer to the date. That is all."
Li simply bowed again, choosing to say nothing. Lao chose to watch him for a moment, before leaving. Out of the corner of his eye, Li lifted his head, watching him as he did so. His gaze was as unreadable as it was intense, his eyes an unnatural gold.
Truly, he would never fully be comfortable in his presence. But if he could keep Toph happy and above all safe, then little else mattered.
"So how was talking to my father?"
Since they were within the manor grounds, Toph walked just ahead of him. Otherwise, she'd be walking right by his side- but either way, she always stood on his right.
He never said anything, but she knew he appreciated it.
"Apparently he's getting me a passport." Zuko remarked.
"Huh," Toph said, "-well that makes sense, I guess. Can't get into Ba Sing Se without it."
"Guess not." Zuko said.
They lapsed into a bit of a silence, Zuko clearly in a contemplative mood. She couldn't blame him. As much as he'd gotten better at flinging fire around during their sparring matches, sometimes it was easy to forget that he was actually Fire Nation. Someone like Zuko wasn't supposed to just waltz into a place like Ba Sing Se, and no one seemed to be more aware of that than the person himself.
Actually, thinking about that...
"...so do you think it counts as fraud if he doesn't know?"
Zuko very nearly choked on his own laughter. It was an improvement.
Li jerked his head up, his eyes wide with surprise. Heaving a slight sigh, Xia-Su simply grabbed his bowl and ladled soup into it herself, before handing it back to the still bewildered boy. He took it, staring dumbly at the bowl for a few seconds, before offering her a sheepish look.
"Sorry," he said, stepping out of line to let the person behind him step up, "-zoned out."
"I never could have guessed." Xia-Su remarked, ladling soup into the bowl of the person behind him. "So? What's on your mind?"
"Apparently I'm going to Ba Sing Se."
Xia-Su blinked, letting that sink in for a moment. If Li was going to Ba Sing Se, that meant...
"They're taking the young miss?" She asked, just barely remembering to ladle soup into another servant's bowl. "That's... new."
Li snorted. "Tell me about it."
"She must be pretty excited about it." Xia-Su said. "I can't imagine being cooped up for so long in one place by choice."
Li very pointedly did not look at her leg, but from the way his left eye twitched, she knew he was thinking about it. Just because she understood their concerns, it didn't mean that she necessarily agreed with Lord and Lady Beifong's choice to keep Toph confined to the manor at all times. It might be large enough to fit dozens of healing huts within its walls, but there was only so much confinement one could take.
They'd built the young missus' prison with love, but it was still a prison.
She'd had a prison once too. Nobody had forced her to stay, but she had still been unable to leave for the longest time. If the healer hadn't kept her busy, she would have gone mad long before she'd worked up the courage to take that single step outside.
("It is true that a journey of a thousand miles starts with but one single step," an old man with sad eyes had once told her, "-but what they do not tell you is how difficult that one step can sometimes be.")
Still, if this was a sign that things were changing, then she could only be glad for it.
"How do you feel about it?" Xia-Su asked.
"I guess I don't have much of a choice." Li said. "It's my job."
Xia-Su hummed in understanding, even as she saw the anxiety at the corner of Li's eyes. It was no surprise. If she didn't miss her guess, then he'd been a Fire Nation noble once, and not the kind that came from the colonies. Him marching into Ba Sing Se would likely be no different than the young miss marching into the Caldera. It had to be a terrifying prospect for someone who didn't want to attract attention to himself.
She thought about the rumors she'd heard, and bit her tongue.
No need to scare him further. She didn't even know if they were true.
"Think of it as a chance to do some sightseeing on your employer's dime." Xia-Su offered. "You don't get a chance like that often."
The edge of Li's lips pulled faintly upwards. "I have heard Ba Sing Se is nice."
Xia-Su hummed again, if only to keep herself from blurting out the burning question on her lips. She couldn't help it! She was curious about what the Fire Nation might have to say about Ba Sing Se. Surely even they couldn't deny that it was an architectural marvel.
She hadn't seen it for herself, but she had no reason to doubt the hype. Otherwise she had some poets to be very mad at.
"In any case, you have months before the trip." Xia-Su said. "Plenty of time to work up some nerve."
Li frowned. "I have nerve."
"I'm sure you do," Xia-Su agreed, "-now go sit down and eat before the soup gets cold. I'm not reheating your bowl."
Li huffed, but nevertheless promptly complied. She watched him with a small smile, before Old Lady An cleared her throat, wordlessly reminding her that dinner service was far from finished and that people were waiting.
Like she wasn't worried about Li herself. She'd seen her give him an extra egg tart, the sly old woman.
In his life, Yun had seen it necessary to establish a few rules. They were all born out of wisdom and experience, such as never trusting the man who sold his own home-brewed sake at the very end of the marketplace unless he wanted to lose his lunch- and a variety of other meals.
Avoiding children who waited for the end of his shift was a recent addition, but no less vital.
It had also never worked even once.
(For someone with a limp, Xia-Su sure could move fast when she wanted to.)
"So," Xia-Su skipped any preamble, giving off some remarkably threatening energy as she placed a hand on his shoulder, "-how do you feel about going back to Ba Sing Se?"
It was almost unfair, Yun thought, that upon reaching her adult height, she had grown taller than him. Sure, it was amusing when she loomed over Li, but it was a lot less amusing when she was using it to intimidate him.
"...negatively?" Yun chanced.
He was not going to let a barely twenty year old slip of a girl intimidate him. She was intimidating, but he wasn't going to let her. He'd vomited so much over the course of that trip that it had constantly surprised him when he actually had something left to do so with.
Never again, he swore.
"Fascinating." Xia-Su said. "Now what if I asked how you felt about going back to Ba Sing Se... for Li?"
Oh. Well. That was a different matter entirely.
There was a knock on his door.
He didn't look up. The only person who would dare disturb him at this hour was either a guard or the head servant, and judging from the fact that there was no urgency in the knock, it was likely the latter.
Sliding open the door, Miyuki stepped inside, sliding it shut again before kneeling. "I apologize for the disturbance, Lord Beifong."
"No matter." Lao said. "What news do you have?"
"Two of the household staff have petitioned to accompany you to Ba Sing Se." Miyuki explained. "I had them put their request in writing."
Barely looking up from his paperwork, Lao held out a hand. "Give it here."
Miyuki complied, removing a folded paper from her robes and handing it to him. He opened it, scanning the contents with a casual glance before arching a brow. Yun had done an exemplary job in Ba Sing Se, as he always did, but the journey there and back had been so marked by his seasickness that he was more than willing to grant his request to remain behind on future trips. To see him requesting otherwise took him by surprise.
"Very well," he said, barely sparing a look at the head servant, "-I shall consider this."
Miyuki bowed her head, recognizing that as her cue to leave. Setting down his brush, Lao reached produced a fresh section of parchment.
If Xia-Su was to be traveling with them, they'd need an extra ostrich-horse.
"Is there something on my face?"
"No, nothing at all." Xia-Su was quick to reassure him, her smile suspiciously bright. "Your face is lovely."
"Yep," Yun agreed, his chopsticks missing his mouth entirely, landing somewhere in the realm of his ear, "-nothing going on here."
Zuko arched a brow, but shrugged it off. Whatever they were hiding, it probably wasn't anything serious.
And since when did Xia-Su think his face was lovely?
"What about Earth Rumble?"
"Eh, should be fine." Toph shrugged. "Even if something goes wrong, we should be back in plenty of time for me to defend my title."
"Good," Zuko said, "-I'd hate for you to miss it."
"You just want to see me beat up Fire Nation Man again." Toph grinned, looming over Zuko where he lay on the cave floor.
It was a pleasant bit of nostalgia- at least for her. She didn't get as many chances to knock him on his ass as she used to. He'd been getting better. Which was just fine- if she wanted an easy match, she'd go pick on one of the Earth Rumble contestants.
Still, he had better odds of meeting the Avatar then he did of beating her.
"It's a possibility." Zuko admitted, hauling himself to his feet and brushing the dirt of his clothes. She could sense him already slipping into a firebending stance. "So, ready to go again?"
"You know it."
"I wonder if they have an Earth Rumble in Ba Sing Se."
"If they do, you'll find it." Zuko grinned.
"You're damn right I will!" Toph's smile was all teeth, bright white and vaguely eerie in the dim light of his lantern. "Who knows? Maybe they'll even have a swordsmanship tournament or something. I'd root for you."
"Thanks," Zuko said, "-but you remember I'm trying not to attract attention, right?"
Although a tournament did sound fun...
...but no. Ba Sing Se was the heart of enemy territory. He really shouldn't let himself forget that.
"You could always wear a mask." Toph suggested.
Zuko opened his mouth to say something, only to snap it shut. That... wasn't such a bad idea, actually. He'd basically suggested the same thing to Toph back when she'd first been planning to join in on the Earth Rumbles.
"You know what," he said, "-I'll think about it."
Toph squinted vaguely in his direction. "You know I was joking, right?"
Zuko flushed. He hadn't.
"That's okay, Scruffy." Toph assured him. "That's one of your good qualities."
He put the Blue Spirit mask into his luggage anyways.
It couldn't hurt, right?
"As you all know by now, Lord and Lady Beifong are planning a trip to Ba Sing- good of you to join us, Li."
Zuko flushed, ducking his head. Next to him, Xia-Su attempted to mask her snickers in her sleeve, while Yun gave his shoulder a sympathetic pat. He thought he'd snuck into the assembly flawlessly, but he swore that Miyuki had extra eyes or something.
"Sorry," he mumbled, "-got a little held up with Toph."
It wasn't like he'd forgotten about today's meeting. It wasn't often that all the servants gathered together, including the ones who lived outside of the manor grounds. It was a certifiable crush of people, all eager to hear who was and wasn't going to Ba Sing Se.
"Now that we're all really here," Miyuki began, eying him with unmasked amusement before looking at the room as a whole, "-I suppose I can tell you what you're all here to hear- who among you is going to Ba Sing Se."
There was an excited murmur, everyone speculating on who would go. By now, word had spread that Toph would be accompanying her parents, so the number of servants- and guards- they would need to bring had inevitably gone up.
Casting a glance off to the sidelines, he easily pinpointed Yang's looming form. He'd be fine with whoever was going, so long as it wasn't him.
"-and finally, Xia-Su and Yun."
Zuko exhaled, held tension escaping his shoulders. Good, no Yang. That was what he-
Xia-Su and Yun?
"We had Miyuki personally make a request to Lord Beifong." Xia-Su explained when he looked to her for an answer. "I'm glad he approved it."
"But I thought you hated Ba Sing Se." Zuko said.
"I didn't say I hated it," Xia-Su shrugged, "-and it wasn't as if I could leave you to go somewhere you were nervous about by yourself. Really, give me more credit."
"Don't be so shy!" Yun said, throwing an arm around his shoulder. "Let us adults look out for you from time to time."
Zuko frowned, shifting awkwardly on his feet. He felt a stab of guilt, knowing that neither of them knew the real reason why he was feeling anxious about Ba Sing Se. He still didn't like deceiving people, even if it was necessary to his survival.
But he couldn't deny how happy being thought of made him.
"Okay," he said, staring more at his feet than at either of them, "-thanks."
Xia-Su and Yun shared a knowing look, the latter ruffling his hair before pulling away. Zuko huffed, making a vain attempt to fix it. He'd briefly considered growing it out to its previous length again, before shelving the idea. Long hair was a sign of nobility, and whatever he was now, it wasn't that.
"Now," Miyuki began, snapping his attention back towards the head servant, "-as for the details of the trip-"
Behind her, she felt Zuko freeze in his tracks at Yang's voice. Narrowing her eyes, Toph ever so slightly shifted her feet underneath her skirts.
"-don't think for a second that you can- ah!"
Anything else Yang might have said was cut off as he stumbled, the earth underneath his feet mysteriously starting to rock. Zuko choked back a laugh, his heartbeat going from annoyed to amused in an instant.
"Oh no," Toph said, using her most exaggerated I'm a helpless girl voice as she all but fell into Zuko's arms, "-an earthquake! Li, I'm so scared!"
"Don't worry," Zuko assured her, badly biting back his laughter, "-I'll take you somewhere safe."
Behind them, Yang sputtered, surely about to try and say something awful again.
Toph just made the earth shake harder, until Yang could barely stand. Nobody got away with harassing her friend when she was around.
"Thanks." Zuko told her later, once they were well out of Yang's earshot.
"Hey," she amicably punched him in the arm, "-what else is a little sister for?"
"Shoving you in the turtleduck pond?"