Anyway, here's chapter 1. Does anyone have any title ideas? Maybe it'll be more obvious as the story comes along.
Sokka woke up to the gently rocking motion of a ship at sea. He laid in his bunk for a few moments, wide awake, but listening carefully to the sounds above him. Long-zi had assured him that no one knew he was catching a ride, but Sokka could never be too sure about what the man said because con men/smugglers weren't exactly known for their trustworthiness. The men on the ship believed him to be a rich landowner from the lands just west of Ba Sing Se when in fact, he simply needed to smuggle some goods into the Southern Water Tribe--goods Sokka had asked for and were now safely under lock and key in his house.
It hadn't been easy leaving this time, with Katara making noise about his leaving when she and her family were due to stay at the South Pole for another 3 days. Fortunately, being her brother for the past 26 years had its benefits; all he had to do was point out her with her newfound feelings for Zuko in a brotherly manner and she couldn't wait to get rid him. That and promises of a visit in the Fire Nation in two months.
When Sokka was satisfied that no one was anywhere near his berth, he got out of his bunk and stretched--or at least tried to. Stowaways could only wish they had accommodations like his, a tiny room tucked away between the boiler room and kitchen, conveniently hidden behind a secret panel in the pantry. Sure, he could barely stand straight in it and could touch opposing walls without even stretching his arms, but he was safe. Another reason why hitching a ride with Long-zi was a good idea.
They would arrive at the southern-most point of the Earth Kingdom in half a day and that's when he would quietly take his leave using the trap door at his feet. After a quick swim, he had a half a day's walk to the nearest village where he kept a modest house with some supplies he would need. Then, it was time to have some talk with some people to find out some things about the long-lost Crown Princess of the Fire Nation.
Sokka had already started some work on tracking down Azula and he was sure Zuko had the same information because it really hadn't been that difficult to come by. Then again, Sokka had to give the Fire Lord credit; if Zuko had been able to figure out what Sokka was doing, he wasn't as dumb as he looked. With a sigh, he had to admit that the information he'd gathered had to be a little difficult to get to or else he'd be out here with everyone else who wanted Azula's head. The bounty Zuko offered for her wasn't chump change after all.
With a deep breath, he focused his thoughts on the task at hand. From what he'd gathered, she'd been planning this move for years. Her accomplice was none other than their old friend Jet, and they had connected not long after the war had ended. So, most likely she'd been planning something for nearly a decade.
Now that was planning, Sokka mused.
Jet had kept his head low until it was time to move, but he had moved around the Earth Kingdom like a man who everyone thought was dead--that is, he was not as careful as he should have been. Rooms and women were rented, booze was purchased. Sokka would trace Azula through Jet and the last place he was seen was Xin Gailin. Sure that was more than two years earlier, but it was something. Sokka knew he had to start somewhere.
Sokka started when there was a loud bang above his head. He could hear the sounds of loud voices and he stood on his bed to press his ear to the ceiling. All he needed to hear was "liar," "cheat," and "Long-zi" to know that it was time for him to go. He couldn't risk getting trapped in this room when the sailors began turning it inside out to see why exactly Long-zi had to lie to them. Sokka did not want to be around when they found what lined the walls.
Moving quickly, he gathered his few possessions and slipped his pack onto his back, making sure to secure its strap across his chest. He knelt and slid his fingers into the crack between the wall and floor, lifting it up with some difficulty. When he raised the panel high enough to fit through, he found himself staring into the face of one of the sailors.
"Who the hell are you?" the man spat, more surprised than anything else as he looked at Sokka from underneath his wide brimmed hat.
"Just a guy with a boomerang," Sokka said with an easy shrug, though with his free hand, he had already let his boomerang go.
He caught the sailor before he hit the deck and lowered him gently. Crouched, he listened for any approaching footsteps. It was a shame Long-zi had to be found out during the daytime because sneaking away with a boat would be a little harder without the cover of night, but he always did relish a challenge. A corner of his mouth lifted up as he considered the sailor at his feet.
It was easy enough to walk past a sailor rushing towards the prow of the ship, but Sokka tilted his new hat up slightly to consider the group of irate sailors standing by the rowboats. They were complaining loudly about being misled while one laughed about how Long-zi looked when they threw him overboard. Sokka started to back up but they spotted him and called out, thinking he was their currently unconscious friend.
It was really a matter of geometry and windspeed, but Sokka didn't have time to calculate the possibilities. Using well-honed instincts, he let loose his boomerang, while running forward to rush the one man it would not reach. He was quiet and efficient, like he always was, but he didn't count of the fourth sailor rounding the corner to see it all.
"Oh come on," Sokka said with a roll of his eyes when the sailor began to yell.
When the sailor ran at him with a wobbly sword, Sokka deflected him easily and tossed him over the side of the ship. He jumped into the waiting rowboat and lowered it halfway down before cutting the ropes, all the while ducking arrows and knives being flung at him. Luckily, these sailors were not mercenaries and thus were poor shots.
He looked up at them as he began to row away, a wide grin on his face.
"Maybe next time, fellas," he called out.
Even as he said it, the skies began to darken as if some great spirit was not pleased with his bravado. Sokka looked over his shoulder and could see the faint outline of land. It would take him at least a half hour to get there and this storm was coming in faster than that. Bearing down, he began to row faster.
* * * * *
Toph picked at her teeth as one of her many merchants explained why he paid more than she'd authorized for several bolts of fine scarlet-colored silk. She kept her temper firmly in check, but couldn't help wondering why she traveled all the way south to watch a bungler in action.
"What I want to know is why you needed that silk so badly," she said, interrupting him. "In case you didn't notice, red is not exactly the dominant color around here. I'm blind and I know that. Are you planning on setting up shop in the Fire Nation? Where, by the way, they have plenty of their own silk."
"Mistress, I was assured by the silk dealer that we would not find silk like this anywhere in the Earth Kingdom, so..."
"That's because it was made in the Fire Nation. How long have you been at this position, Lo?"
"Two weeks, Mistress."
"Right. That's why I had the foresight to give you a maximum price. Your ignoring me shows me how you don't respect my authority."
"You're not a..."
Toph stopped moving as did everyone else in the room. She straightened in her seat, unerringly pointing her faded jade-colored eyes at the offending merchant.
"Not a what?" she asked, her voice low and dangerous.
Lo cleared his throat and Toph could feel his already rapid heartbeat quicken.
"I beg your forgiveness, Mistress. I will not make such a foolish mistake again."
"No, you will not. Jin, please give Lo the rest of his pay for this week. After that, remove him from our books. Turuk, I am afraid you'll have to find a new assistant."
"I understand, Mistress," Turuk said smoothly, narrowing his blue eyes at Lo.
Jin stepped forward with a bag of gold coins for the now silent former merchant. She then put a hand on Lo's arm and escorted him out of the room.
"Where do we find these idiots?" Toph snorted. "Honestly, Turuk, we have an entire world to choose from but somehow, we can't filter out the idiots."
"That is the way of business, Mistress Toph," Turuk said easily. "You just have to roll with it."
"You Southern Water Tribe types are way too easygoing. I'd give a gold coin to see you lose your cool, Turuk."
"Save your money, Mistress."
Toph chuckled and leaned back in her seat. She crossed her legs and rested her chin in her cupped hand. It had taken some time for her to establish herself as the new head of the Bei Fong clan, but that work had been far more interesting than where she was now. Being the undisputed leader of the richest merchant family in the world was a boring place to be. What she wouldn't give for a spin on Appa or a visit to the South Pole. Her last visit had certainly been interesting, but she'd left with a knot in her stomach that she steadfastly ignored.
Listening to Katara and Zuko stumble their way towards love, spending time with their children...well, it did things to a young woman. That knot had loosened somewhat, but when she thought of them, it came back, tighter than ever. Sighing, she idly twirled rocks in her free hand and focused on the here and now.
"Is that all for today?" she asked Jin, hearing her assistant's familiar footsteps enter the antechamber.
"Great." Toph slid out of her seat, easily an entire head taller than her assistant. "I'll be training. You'll know where to find me if something crazy happens."
It was a rainy day, but having mud to bend was a nice change from the norm. Completely indifferent to what effects mud could have on her very expensive qi pao, Toph began to bend. It felt different from regular dirt, almost sliding in her senses. As she'd explained to Katara, mud was like water she could see.
Bending made much more sense to her than business, but the people who told her she was an excellent businesswoman weren't lying when they said it. She merely assured them that business was simply common sense, but they thought she had a magical formula that she used. Hakoda had once told her she was right, it was all common sense, and she had plenty of it. Too bad common sense had turned her life into a series of hirings, firings, buying, and selling. She was the greatest Earthbender in the world--yes, even better than the Avatar--but she was stuck, relegated to life indoors, surrounded by people who all wanted a piece of her.
A corner of her mouth twitched as she imagined Sokka and Aang needling her about being a poor little rich girl, but she pushed their voices out of her mind. This time was for her which meant a few selfish thoughts were allowed.
She didn't know how long she'd been out there, time tended to still when she was bending, before she heard Jin's distinctive footsteps coming up along the walk. Toph let out a breath and the mud she'd been forming into small spheres dropped to the ground. She turned to face her assistant.
"There's word of a man with the Bei Fong seal being brought to the hospital, Mistress," she said, eyes wide with excitement. "They pulled him out from the surf this morning."
Toph frowned. There weren't many who had that seal; she knew her parents were safely ensconced in Ba Sing Se, enjoying the life of kept people, and everyone else was in the South Pole. Unless...
"Let's go," Toph said, flicking the mud from her hands.
Jin knew better than to ask if she wanted to change.
(And thanks again to sableambiguity for the edits)