Blue Skies Over Band Lands [Avatar]
[Matthew Good - Blue Skies Over Bad Lands (username secret, password tunnel).]
It wasn't until night fell that things got bad.
The day had run on nervous energy, and even the flight from the battle on Appa had been fueled by a numbing adrenaline, but the poor sky bison's exhaustion had grounded them not long after they were over land, and by nightfall Katara -- who for all her cavalier sense of justice could be quite sensible -- had demanded they all make camp before they flat-out dropped where they stood.
They'd found a place near a small rock outcropping that Haru had extended to give them better shelter; Toph had fallen into a sleep of sheer exhaustion nearly as soon as they'd hit the ground, and Haru didn't want to wake her for something he could do himself. Aang had been the next to drop off, making some half-hearted apology that he didn't really feel and no one else really needed to hear before curling on his side on top of one of Appa's paws, Momo tucked loyally atop his head. Katara managed to get a small fire going with spark rocks, and the rest gathered wordlessly around it, passing around what few dried provisions had been stored in Appa's saddlebags, chewing unhungrily and in silence, utterly defeated.
In the same silence, Sokka tapped Katara on the shoulder and drew her away from the fire; they curled forehead to forehead, his hand stroking her hair until it stilled with sleep. Haru was dimly aware of the Duke's curling up nearly where he lay by the stones circling the fire, and Teo was motionless in his chair, his head bent slightly forward. They had all crumpled like puppets with cut strings; no longer suspended by the promise of success, they found there was nothing left to hold them up. With victory once so sure in sight, their absolute loss had been made even more wrenching, and now they were helpless and alone.
He was startled from his miserable reverie by a little throat-clearing cough, and he turned to see Teo, awake and staring into the fire, his hands folded so tightly in his lap that his knuckles had gone white. "Can you," he started, and then he looked even further away, until Haru couldn't see his face anymore. He took a deep breath and began again, his voice tired and weak and ashamed: "...Can you help me out of my chair?"
Haru supposed he'd never spent that long contemplating the mechanics of Teo's chair, but he looked now, and was shocked to realize that Teo wasn't just sitting on top of the contraption, he was actually bound from the thighs downward, and the bindings that held his legs in place wove through slots in the wood before coming to a knot near Teo's ankles, far beyond his reach. How do you usually get out? Haru nearly asked, and then caught himself: the Mechanist, of course, who had throughout the entire invasion never ventured beyond Teo's easy earshot, who was now locked up with the rest of their fathers in some Fire Nation jail.
"Sure," said Haru, kneeling at Teo's feet and slipping his fingers beneath the bindings' loosest edge.
The old stone structures hummed throughout his bones from the moment Haru set his bare feet on the slate floor, and he fell in love with the Western Air Temple immediately -- even if it did give him a strange sense of vertigo to know they were attached from the top, and not from the bottom. Every pillar and ornament bore the markings of sculptor's tools and wind scoring, rough and scarred and definitely not shaped by earthbenders, whose efforts left no trace of human involvement; after all, it was the rock that did all the work, and the bender only convinced it to do so. Whoever had carved the stone in this cavern had been possessed of a nearly inhuman amount of patience and care.
Which was why Haru became immediately hesitant when confronted with the dilemma of how to get Teo's chair off Appa's back. Before, just lifting the earth to make a moving pedestal had seemed a fine solution, but here, the only earth to bend was in the structures themselves, and it seemed intensely rude to damage such historical monuments.
Toph, on the other hand, had no such problem, and before Haru could so much as raise the issue with the rest of the party, she had stamped her foot onto the multi-coloured tiles and made a ramp right down into the center of the terrace. "Toph!" he cried, looking at her with a mix of surprise and horror.
"What? I'll put it back." She made a sweeping gesture as Teo tilted the front of his chair past the railing of Appa's saddle and, with a little push from the Duke to get the back wheels over, rolled down safely. True to her word, as soon as Teo was on the ground, she stamped her foot again, and the ramp vanished without a trace. "There you go. Good as old."
Teo wheeled back around to inspect the floor and nodded. "That's pretty handy," he acknowledged, letting his gaze travel from the mended floor upward, past the contained waterfall in the middle of the landing, up the heavy brick staircases, all the way to the ceiling where what would otherwise have been the bases of the temple buildings clung fast against gravity. "...It's so different from the Northern Air Temple."
Not just from the Northern Air Temple, Haru thought, but from everything any of them, even Aang, could call home. As corny as it seemed, the Western Air Temple was just another way the world had turned upside-down on them; maybe it was fitting they were walking on the undersides of eaves and looking up to where the basement should be. Haru took a deep, steadying breath, all the way past the soles of his feet and into the stone beneath him, thinking of all the appropriate variations on 'it'll be all right' he could muster to say to ward off what he was certain was a coming, crippling wave of homesickness that surely threatened to sweep them all away.
And then, against all odds, Teo looked straight at Haru and grinned. "I wonder if there are any secret rooms!"
No years of grounding could have saved him then; Teo's smile knocked him right off his feet, and he felt the corners of his own mouth helplessly rising in kind. "Let's go check it out!" Haru waved them onward, then took off first himself, and every tread of his soles against the wind-worn rock lifted his heavy heart.
The crash, Haru felt, was entirely his fault.
For all their architectural genius, the designers of the Western Air Temple had not been overly concerned with making the structure wheelchair-accessible. In light of all their masterpiece's sharp inclines and treacherous staircases, Haru had seen fit during their exploration to adopt a constant place behind Teo's chair, guiding him up steps and slowing him down ramps, and even (infrequently, though, and he always took care to return it to its original state) bending the floor to keep the chair's wheels from slipping dangerously close to one edge or another.
The Duke ran ahead, sometimes disappearing from sight, only to reappear moments later with breathless descriptions of what wonders lay ahead of them. His most recent discovery was no different: "It says the Hall of Statues is this way!" he announced, poking his head out from behind a far corner. "Wonder what's in there!"
"Statues, maybe?" Teo smirked, and Haru hid his laughter behind his hand. The floor was generally flat here, in the corridors inside the cliff wall, and Haru felt all right letting go of the handles at the back of Teo's chair, at least for the time being. "Say, did the airbenders really make all these tunnels?"
"I don't think so." Haru let his hands run over the rough walls, feeling the variations in the granite beneath his fingers. Though something had obviously dug intentional intersecting pathways here, there were no wear marks against the stone, and everything felt natural -- yet not in the too-natural, and therefore slightly artificial, way bent earth felt. "They're badger-mole tunnels, I think. Except it looks like something came in and flattened out the floor, too."
They turned to corner to find large characters carved in a pillar, directing those who wanted to see the Hall of Statues to the right, and those who wanted to visit the baths to the left. Staring in the latter direction, which led down a covered walkway that spanned the gap between their location and another inverted pagoda, Haru reflected that there was certainly something to be said for setting up camp in a structure that had once been inhabited entirely by women. Even if they hadn't been used in a hundred years, the baths probably wouldn't take long to clean at all, once they got around to it, and he could probably appeal to Katara to give him a hand....
Distracted by the thought of soaking off his lingering battle-sweat in a pool of warm, maybe even scented water, Haru didn't even notice that he had been left alone at the juncture, nor did he really register the sound of Teo's wheels growing steadily faster and farther away. It was testament, though, to how unique the sound of a wheelchair accident really could be that the instant it reached his ears, Haru knew exactly what he was hearing.
He tore down the hallway, increasingly horrified with each step at just how steep the incline was, practically vertical at places, tremendously unsafe, picturing a bloody pile of mangled limbs and sickly spinning wheels awaiting him at the end, running thoughts through his head about how he was a terrible friend and an even worse self-designated adult, certain that he had just permitted yet another catastrophe to pile onto the already overwhelming burden of tragedy that had fallen on their collective shoulders during the past few days--
Despite the fact that there were, in fact, no severed body parts strewn about the floor, the sight of the overturned chair was enough to turn Haru's stomach to stone, and the fallen form of Teo's body, sprawled several feet from the chair and only connected to it by a few loose strands of bindings, nearly drove him to a panic attack. It had been Haru's job that morning to secure Teo back into the chair, and though Teo had very patiently instructed him on how to do it, he obviously had failed utterly. He fell to his knees and gathered Teo in his arms, clutching his bird-light body to his own chest. Teo trembled almost violently in his embrace, and Haru was so adrenaline- rushed by the entire experience that it took him several seconds to realize that the shaking was not, as he had feared, convulsions resulting from a traumatic and surely fatal head injury.
"Sweet!" Teo laughed loudly, drawing his hand flat to his head and wincing; his fingers came away bloody, but only barely, and Haru could see that most of that came from Teo's scraped hands. "That's a ... oh, Haru, you've got to try that one. I got going real fast there near the end."
The Duke stepped through the doorway to the Hall of Statues -- which, Haru could see over his shoulder, was stocked as advertised. "Wow, Teo," he asked, surveying the carnage with wide eyes, "are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm good," Teo chuckled, his laughter ringing off the stones. "Nothing broken that wasn't before." For all his protests of how okay he was, though, he seemed disinclined to move from where he'd ended up. Instead, he looked up at Haru with an expression of absolute, almost comical indignation. "My brakes failed. Can you believe it? My stupid brakes!"
"I can't take you anywhere," sighed Haru, trying not to let his face show any sign that might be interpreted as encouraging behaviour like this, and nearly succeeding.
"Easy, easy," cautioned Teo, and Haru went as easy on him as he could, though he was learning quickly that what had first seemed a straightforward unwrapping task was far more complicated. Every time he thought he was being careful enough, he'd move just an inch too fast and Teo's smile would falter, which just made Haru feel terrible.
The Temple's living quarters were dusty, but still fully inhabitable, and the Mother Superior's quarters had been given to Teo by popular acclaim, since it was the only room large enough to turn his chair around in. As supper had ended and they'd all started off to their chosen cells, Teo had given Haru a quiet, pleading look unseen by the others, and Haru had quietly taken the handles of Teo's chair without drawing attention to their shared departure.
At last, the final foot of cloth came free, and Teo sighed, letting himself settle back in his bed. "Feels good to get those off," he sighed, draping one bare arm across his eyes.
Though he knew it to be impossibly rude, Haru couldn't help staring at Teo's legs. Where the rest of Teo's body seemed so tough, particularly his muscular arms and shoulders, his legs were pale and sickly sticks that seemed to lump and bend in all the wrong places. Long, ragged lines across the flesh told of old scars stretched with age, and his legs seemed more scar than skin, more loss than remnant. Haru was wrapping the binding into a loop around his forearm and thinking quietly on how it must feel to have useless legs, when Teo's toes suddenly splayed an fraction, startling Haru so badly that he dropped the bandages.
Teo peered out from beneath his forearm, looking puzzled for a moment, then smiling as he triangulated Haru's line of sight. "Yep, they move," he said, wiggling the toes of both feet weakly. "Not a lot, but they do. My dad," his voice hitched, and he cleared his throat to chase the uncertainty away, "my dad says that I need to stay like this now, while I'm still growing, so the bones don't get all crooked."
Embarrassed that he'd been caught staring and not entirely sure how comfortable he felt with Teo's comfort about the injury, Haru sat down on the edge of the bed, as far from Teo's feet as he could manage. "...Do they hurt?" he asked finally, figuring it as safe a question as any.
"Yeah, but that's not your fault. They just hurt all the time." Teo shrugged, settling a pillow under his back so he could sit up a little more steadily. "Dad says when I stop getting taller -- or, well, at least when I stop getting longer -- he'll see what he can do about building some braces for me. You know, so maybe I could walk for short distances. Like up stairs and things."
"Do you remember anything about when it happened?" Haru's eyes fixed on the bend of Teo's left knee, which skewed at an angle that was just subtly wrong.
Teo shook his head. "Nope. It happened when I was a baby." His undershirt was sleeveless and short, and when Teo stretched his arms above his head, Haru could see a glimpse of his pale stomach. "...I don't really want to be a bother, but--"
"Tomorrow morning? Sure." Haru stood and nodded, setting the bandages on the wheelchair's seat.
"Thanks." Teo reached up and unwound the green ribbon from his hair, letting the strands bound into the topknot free; he scratched his scalp, sending his coarse hair standing in all directions and making him look eerily like his father. "I mean, not if it's a problem or anything."
"No problem. Really." Haru shrugged. "It's not like I had anything better to do with my time." Instantly, he regretting having implied in the slightest that taking care of Teo might be some sort of burden or hardship, and he waved his open hands in the air. "No, that's not what I meant! I mean, I really ... just can't imagine I could find something to do that would be more important."
There must have been a strange flicker then to the room's single lamplight, because Haru would otherwise have sworn he saw a bashful flush tint Teo's cheeks. "...Thanks, Haru," he said, drawing a sheet over his legs. "I'll see you in the morning."
"Good night." Haru cupped his hand around the lamp's flame and blew out the light.
"Do you do this every morning?"
For Haru, who was notoriously touchy about being bothered while concentrating on his morning bending exercises, the sensation of having someone watching whose presence he didn't mind was a new one. "Every morning," he nodded, his right hand extended out before him, palm facing up. A single stone held suspended above his palm, trembling only slightly as Haru focused on perfecting the balance between effort and gravity.
Teo nodded and fell silent again, scratching at the loop of bandage around his forehead. Haru hadn't wanted to interrupt his routine, but neither had he wanted to leave Teo helpless in his bed longer than necessary, and when he'd finished binding Teo's legs and securing him (better this time, and he'd triple-checked to make sure) to the chair, he'd found himself not only explaining where he was going, but asking Teo if he wanted to come along. Teo, who seemed amenable to most things as a general rule, had of course agreed, and together they'd ventured through the halls until they'd come to a huge domed pavilion, exposed to the wind, that had practically hummed with natural energy. Places to practice bending didn't get much better than this.
After a long moment, Haru let the stone fall back into his palm and closed his fingers over it. "It was a way to practice that didn't require a lot of earth or attract a lot of attention. Fire Nation soldiers were everywhere, but they weren't in my bedroom, and even if they had come in, all they would have seen was a rock on the floor." He opened his palm again and concentrated on the stone, willing it across the room until it dropped lightly into Teo's lap.
With an impressed little smile, Teo held the stone up for examination, as though making sure there were no hidden wires or magician's sleight-of-hand. "Do all benders do this?"
"Play with rocks, or practice?" Haru asked, wiping a thin sheen of sweat from his brow. Even though the open pavilion caught a strong breeze, the morning was already warm, and the clear sky promised scorching heat by mid-day.
"Practice, I guess," Teo laughed, sending the rock back to Haru with an underhand toss; Haru caught it between his hands, cushioned an inch away from each palm. "I mean, I can't imagine Katara frowning at a rock for very long before giving up."
Haru pressed his hands together, still not actually making contact with the rock, and it began to turn to sand, whipped away by the wind even before it touched the ground. "We all do, yeah. I mean, for each bender, there's only so good you can get, but you have to work and practice to make sure you're even that good. I can really feel I've improved in the last few months I've been able to work openly with my dad." The last of the rock gave way under the pressure, and Haru blew the lingering bits of dust off his palms. "Not a lot of benders where you come from?"
Teo shook his head. "No benders. My dad says they all went off to fight in the war before I was born. I'd never really gotten a chance to see bending at all up close before I met Aang. And I'd never gotten to see earthbending before I met all of you." He shrugged, looking out at the spectacular view beyond the edges of the pavilion. "...It was pretty impressive."
Caught without anything that seemed like an appropriate response, Haru stood silently for a moment before focusing on the stone under his feet. He knelt, placing his palms flat on the cool surface, and folded over until his forehead touched the floor, until he could feel low hum of the great stone temple beneath him resonate within his own body.
The only child of older parents, Haru had spent most of his childhood entertaining himself, constructing entire towns and inhabitants from pebbles, narrating epic tales about great adventures that he made up on the spot. By the time he'd turned ten or so, he'd directed his talents toward impressing the town's children, distracting them long enough to let their mothers go about the business of keeping houses while their husbands were away at war. Even after the Fire Nation had come and he'd had to curtail his storytelling, he'd still been more than willing to mind the babies and young children of the younger women who came to his own mother for advice and assistance.
It was, therefore, little surprise that Haru took an instant protective attitude toward the Duke, who though not as small as Haru's usual babysitting fare, still projected an air of needing someone to keep an eye on him so he didn't accidentally, in a burst of great enthusiasm, run headlong off a cliff.
"There's bat-rabbits up there!" the Duke proclaimed as he dropped down from an opening in the ceiling; Haru had been preoccupied with re-tightening the bands around Teo's ankles, and had therefore missed completely how the Duke had gotten up there in the first place. "I think they're all asleep, though."
"Bat-rabbits?" Teo rolled forward a few inches, craning his head up at the opening to get a better view, even though it was completely dark past the hole's ragged entrance. "Are they dangerous?"
The Duke shook his head. "Nope. But farmers have to watch out, 'cause they'll eat all the bugs, but they'll eat all the plants, too. We used to have a bunch of them back in the forest where we--" He trailed off mid-sentence, losing focus for a moment, staring off at some far-gone memory just beyond their line of sight -- then he was back, laughing and poking a nearby statue in the leg. "Anyway, back in the forest, and they'd all come out at dusk in a big cloud, all hopping and flapping."
Haru smiled at the Duke. "Maybe we should explore around a little bit more, see if we can find where they come out here." He cinched the wrappings at Teo's knees again, now permanently paranoid that he hadn't managed to secure the bindings well enough.
On his second tug at the wrappings, though, Haru felt Teo's hand catch around his fingers. Puzzled, he looked up at Teo, who smiled and gave Haru's hand a light squeeze. "You can stop fussing, you know. I fixed the brake. I won't fall out again."
"I know," said Haru, who never wanted to admit to being fussy, who was too distracted by the allegation to remember that he probably should pull his hand away. "It's just dangerous around here."
"Not as dangerous as where else we've been lately!" Teo rolled his eyes and splayed his fingers, just a little, so that Haru's larger digits twined with his own. For the years between them, Teo's hands were not significantly smaller than Haru's, and were callused rough on the inside of his thumbs and the outside of his index fingers, just beyond the edge of his fingerless gloves, telling of a lifetime's worth of forward motion. "Don't worry. We're fine here. Nobody else probably even knows where we are."
That was when the first explosion hit the temple, sending shock waves through the rock so fierce that Haru felt like his head was going to split open.
Teo flinched as Haru slipped his arm under Teo's knees, preparing to lift him from the chair to the bed, and Haru froze. "What?"
"I didn't say anything." Teo smiled, his face wide and hopeful -- a little too wide and hopeful, in fact, with his expression a little frozen in place at the edges.
"Oh. Never mind." This time, Haru moved more slowly, coaxing Teo's knees to bend a little instead of treating his legs from the waist down as inflexible beams, watching all the while for signs that he might be causing any discomfort. He nodded when he felt he was securely in place, and Teo slipped his arm around Haru's shoulders for balance, resting his head against the plane of Haru's chest just above his heart as Haru ferried him gently to the mattress. As Haru let go and stepped back, he shrugged. "It just looked like it hurt, that's all."
Shaking his head, Teo reached for the hem of his long tunic and pulled it up over his head, folding it before draping it across the headboard of the bed. "It's nothing. Just growing pains. And I'm growing all crooked! Dad says I'll probably be taller than he is when I'm all grown, but only if we're measuring lying down." He paused for a moment, looking contemplative, then went about untying his hair. "Does that make me taller than he is, or just longer?"
Despite Teo's good humour, Haru wasn't sure what sort of reaction was expected of him in this situation. It seemed mean to laugh at the expense of Teo's physical disability, but almost meaner not to laugh when Teo himself seemed to find the circumstances so funny, and the third option -- to pretend like the conversation hadn't happened -- didn't seem a viable one. Haru decided on shrugging politely, saying, "I don't know," and finding somewhere else in the room to look as a compromise, hoping it would make him seem more thoughtful than uncomfortable.
"It's okay to not be serious about it sometimes." Teo poked at his own thigh as though it were a sleeping dog, a piece of meat, a sack of meal, something completely disconnected from the rest of his body. "I mean, it's not like they're going to magically fix themselves if I don't talk about them. My dad makes fun of me all the time!" Haru looked at Teo with what must have been a comically horrified expression, because Teo cracked up at the sight of it. "Hey, I make fun of him too, it's okay. I give him high-twos." Teo held up his hand palm-out, only with the same three fingers the Mechanist was missing bent down toward his palm.
That, at least, was too funny of an image to keep a straight face, and Haru burst out laughing as well, covering his mouth with his hand. "I ... I'm sorry, it's not funny...."
"Nah, it is. Or, you know, it can be. My dad always says, you've got to keep 'em laughing!" Teo looked up at Haru, a wicked twinkle in his eye. "That way they can't sneak up quietly behind you and push you down the stairs!'
At that, Haru laughed so hard he had to sit down, and the only place in the room that wasn't Teo's chair was the edge of the bed, where his far hand came to rest with his the backs of his knuckles barely touching the bare skin of Teo's calf. Neither of them pulled away.
"Man, Toph." Sokka grunted and rubbed his biceps from the effort of having recently been half of her human chair; Zuko, the other half, looked much less bothered by the duty as he folded his legs beneath him next to Haru at the cookfire. Everyone else had already begun to gather for the noon meal, and Haru had drawn the chef's short straw. "I think you need to find some alternate means of transportation."
"It's not my fault!" Toph huffed, sticking out her bare feet so the pinkened (and uncharacteristically clean) soles were visible to all. "I can barely walk!"
"Oh no," deadpanned Teo, wheeling into the room, "what a nightmare."
There was a small, horrified pause as the party at large took in what precisely had just happened, though it didn't last for more than a second before Toph burst out laughing, her wicked cackle ringing off the stone walls. "Somebody is just jealous because I've got two pretty boys to carry me around, and he's only got one."
Laughing in kind, Teo rolled into position next to Toph and held out a closed fist to her, which she stuck out her own fist to meet -- and landed a few inches to the right. Without comment, Teo adjusted his position and knocked their knuckles together. Haru smiled along with everyone else at the exchange and turned his attention quickly to convincing a large, flat stone to mash some wild potates into a smooth paste, keeping his head bent low with concentration so no one saw the colour rise to his face.
The mid-morning air was still and heavy, and they all three sat in the courtyard near the fountain, exhausted already from the Duke's spontaneously declaring, in the middle of crossing the hallway that led from the living quarters, that they should race to the other end of the temple. They'd all arrived more or less at the same time, though Teo had announced Haru the victor because Haru had stopped to help Teo down the route's one inescapable flight of stairs. Haru had accepted the decision graciously.
Far above them, a canary-vulture flew in wide, expansive circles above the canyon rim, its bright yellow feathers golden in the sunlight, its wings still and flat on either side. "My dad got the idea for the gliders from watching birds do things like that," Teo said, following the bird's flight patterns. "They don't have any motors or engines either. They just catch the air and go."
"Wow," said the Duke, who seemingly couldn't get enough of Teo's aeronautic stories, "I really want to try it someday."
"I bet you'd be good at it," smiled Teo. "But you have to be a little taller first so your feet can fit in the glider's stirrups and not dangle down. If they slip out, they'll break your air stream, and you might crash."
The Duke winced. "Ouch. Not good."
"Not good is right." Teo stretched his arms out above his head, looking longingly up at the sky. "But it's actually really safe, especially with all the hot air systems my dad installed. If you lose one gust of wind, you can probably pick up another. I really wish I had my glider with me," he added, and Haru saw his fingers close unconsciously around one of the latches in his chair back to which the glider frame attached, bare fingertips hooking through the well-worn gap in the wood. "On a windy day, in this canyon, you could really get going fast, I bet."
"I wish you had it too." Flopping flat on his back, his arms straight out to his sides, the Duke assumed a pose not unlike that of the carrion songbird above them. "Could I have a ride? I mean, if you did have it?"
"Sure!" Teo grinned brightly. "When this is all done, you can come back to the Northern Air Temple and definitely go for a ride with me."
"Sweet!" The Duke flapped his arms a few times, bird-like in his excitement.
Teo looked down at Haru, who sat on his other side. "How about you? Want a lift?"
"Thanks, but I think I'll pass on this one." Haru shook his head, leaning back on his elbows and stretching his long legs in front of him just far enough that the sunlight falling through the stone pillars could warm his bare toes. "Call me crazy, but I think earthbenders are made to stay on the ground. I mean, I've been on Appa, so I guess I'm okay with the actual flying part, but...."
"But?" Teo lifted an eyebrow.
Fears were easy to nurture but difficult to articulate, and Haru took a deep breath, thinking how best to word his objection. "Well, you know what they say, it's not the fall that gets you -- it's the sudden stop at the bottom."
Teo let out a surprised little laugh, and when Haru frowned at him, he waved his hand dismissively. "I'm sorry," he shook his head, "it's just ... that sounds really funny, coming from you."
"What do you mean?"
"Just...." Teo lifted his hands in a fair approximation of Haru's most common earthbending pose, palms up, fingers pointed away from the body, his knobby knuckles taut. "I don't know, I guess it's not funny, really. I just figure that, out of all the people I know, why are you the one afraid of hitting the ground?"
Haru found he didn't have an answer for that.
"Truth." Katara sat back against a pillar, mending the ragged edge of one of Sokka's tunics. With both Aang and Zuko gone, the group's customary sources of entertainment had evaporated, and so the party had found themselves reduced to a rousing game of Truth Or Dare -- which had slowly become a de facto game of Truth Or Truth, after Toph had stopped choosing 'dare' on account of how lame everyone else's dares were, and everyone else had stopped choosing 'dare' because there were no really good dares to think of in the middle of an otherwise abandoned temple after dark.
The Duke tapped his fingers against his jaw, leaning in toward her in the style of a police office performing an interrogation -- a set of gestures he had learned from copying Sokka, which was a worrying act of mimicry. "Did you and Jet kiss?" he asked, drawing out the last word for at least four more syllables than necessary.
Katara's face flushed bright red, and everyone else laughed, even Toph, who pounded the ground with her fist. "Hey, no cheating with facial expressions! You have to say it or it doesn't count!"
"Fine! Fine." She rolled her eyes and sighed deeply. "...Yes -- but only once, and before he tried to kill Sokka."
"Gosh, thanks," said Sokka sarcastically, and that made everyone else laugh again, even though Haru was willing to wager that most of them around the fire didn't know the full story there, and didn't understand entirely why they were laughing. Whatever the source, it was laughter, and it felt good, and it chased away whatever other fears and distractions might have otherwise crept in along with the falling dark.
"Okay, let's see...." Katara looked at the faces circled around the fire, selecting her victim. "Haru! Truth or dare?"
Having escaped most of the evening unasked simply by giving off the distinct (and frankly true) impression that he was simply a boring individual without a lot of juicy secrets, Haru squirmed under the new scrutiny. "...Ah, truth, I suppose?"
"So ... let's say if you weren't an earthbender anymore, but you could still be a bender. Which of the other three elements would you want to be able to bend?"
"Lame," announced Toph, picking at her toes with a long stick she'd found. "What kind of a question is that? Besides, if I couldn't be an earthbender anymore, I just ... wouldn't want to bend. Earth's just that awesome."
"I didn't ask you," Katara pointed out, though she laughed as she did so. This kind of interaction was most necessary for her, Haru thought, because she seemed drawn the tightest by all the recent events, a bowstring pulled so taut that both it and its bow were in danger of snapping. Even when he'd first met her nearly nine months ago, she'd already become well-accustomed the task of keeping everyone else together first and foremost, with her own mental well-being a distant secondary priority. It was good to be able to see her relax, even for a moment.
There was, however, still the matter of her question. "...Air," Haru answered, after a moment's thought. "I mean, maybe not like Aang does it, with the little breezes and the air scooter, but ... like, big storm gusts, sometimes, if you stand out in the middle of them, they sort of ... feel like rock, I guess. Not the ones that blow around you, but the big ones that knock you down. Does that make any sense?"
Toph leaned over and punched him on the arm, grinning merrily. "Nope! You're a certified crazy person," she announced, and they all laughed again, even Haru -- who then made the mistake of asking Toph about her most embarrassing moment, a truth that Toph decided needed ten minutes of setup and a little rock diorama to get the tone of the incident just right. As she spun the lengthy tale, Haru glanced across the fire and saw that Teo was looking not at her, but at him, giving him a curious little smile as though to say he understood perfectly.
That night, as he lifted Teo from his chair, Haru discovered that the only thing worse than when Teo hid his grunts of pain was when he couldn't swallow them anymore. Startled, he moved to put Teo back right where he'd found him, but Teo shook his head. "Bed," he pleaded, and Haru made the switch as quickly as he could. Teo whimpered as Haru set him down atop the sheets, but relaxed a little as he lay back against his pillows. "Sorry."
"Don't be sorry," said Haru, reaching toward the foot of the bed for the blanket. "Did you hurt yourself?"
Teo shook his head again. He shut his eyes and took a few deep, steadying breaths. "It just aches sometimes. There's probably a storm coming in."
His mother had been something of a local expert in predicting the next day's weather based on the inflammation in her hands, but Haru had always assumed that phenomenon was reserved for older people, not the kind of thing to be found in someone just a few years younger than he was. "Do you want me to get Katara?" he offered blindly, not even knowing if painkilling was one of the tricks in her healer's bag.
"I don't want to bother her. She's got Toph's feet to look after, and that's enough." With movements far slower than Haru had become accustomed to, Teo began his nightly routine of letting his hair down and removing his overshirt. "Besides, I don't know what she could do. This is just something old that happens every now and again."
"Well," Haru took a seat at the bed's edge, "what do you usually do when it hurts like this?"
Teo's smile looked customarily bright at first glance, but when Haru looked closely, he could see that its edges were a little frayed, forced into service to mask the pain in his legs. "Try to go to sleep, usually." He shifted his left knee, and as he did, a pained frown eclipsed his cheer. "...Or my dad rubs my legs."
"I can do that," said Haru, the words leaping out of his mouth before he had time to consider them; they made their way back to his brain through his ears, and by the time they'd made their return trip for closer examination, the offer was irrevocable. For a young man renowned throughout his community for always being so thoughtful before he spoke, the sensation was a bit disconcerting.
However, Teo seemed far from concerned, or offended, or any of the number of reactions Haru's brain, on its second hearing, had predicted. Instead, he blinked a few times at Haru, as though to make sure he'd just heard what he'd heard, and then he gestured to his pale legs stretched out along the bed. "If you want," he said, a note of caution weighing down the words. "I mean, really, you don't have to."
Haru placed his palms together, rubbing them against each other to rid his fingers of any lingering chill. "I want to." With one last nod to Teo to make sure it was actually all right -- last chance to bow out, last chance to say you were joking -- Haru placed his fingers against Teo's left ankle and pressed down gently on the muscle.
For a moment, it was everything he could do to keep an expression of horror from showing on his face. As bad as Teo's legs looked, it was nothing compared to the way they felt. His pale, soft skin was deeply lined with scars, but where his flesh was still whole, it was dusted lightly with dark hair even coarser than the mess on Teo's head. When Haru pressed his fingers into it, it shifted in a way he associated with old women's hands, so much skin to cover so little else. With his fingers, he could feel all the bone damage his eyes couldn't see, the rough ridges and knobby spurs of bone that lay just beneath the surface. It was no wonder Teo was in constant pain, if this is what was trying to grow straight under his skin.
While Haru worked his thumbs into the slender muscle tissue of Teo's calf, pressing against what felt like a knot but might just have been another peculairity of Teo's damaged skeletal structure, Teo brought his hand to his mouth and bit down on the knuckle of his first finger; shutting his eyes tight, he made a sound that could have been pained but could also have been something else. Haru instantly relented. "Is that...."
"It's great," said Teo, his voice a little breathless. "No, right there, it's ... yeah." He opened his eyes again and laughed, sounding a little sheepish, and that strange lamplight-pink had come to his cheeks again. "You're, um, really good at this, you know."
"Thanks." Setting back to the task at hand, Haru began to work his way up Teo's leg, stopping at every pressure point along the way, feeling his way around the long-healed breaks and over scars. All the scar tissue was old and stretched so thin, and only as Haru's fingertips searched the strange topography could he get a sense for which had been made by objects from without trying to get beneath Teo's skin, and which had been made by broken bones beneath once trying to get out. "There was an accupuncturist who came through our village," he said, to give him something to break the silence between them as much as by way of explanation, "and he had an apprentice, his nephew, who was just two years older than I was." Just below the knee, Haru decided he was good for an inch or so more up to Teo's thigh, and anything more would surely be too intrusive. "They stayed for about a month one summer, and did a pretty good business, and then they left again."
Teo giggled as Haru applied pressure to the first of two points behind his knee, a spot which Haru knew to be both beneficial and ticklish. "And they taught you how to do this?"
Haru nodded and went for the second point, smiling as Teo attempted not to squirm and laugh again. "I hung around the tent a lot, and Sun -- the apprentice -- showed me all the charts and scrolls his uncle used. I even let him practice putting needles into my arm." Letting his hands linger for a moment at the smooth bend of Teo's leg, Haru then shifted back down to the end of the bed and started up Teo's other leg.
"Wow," said Teo, who sounded genuinely impressed. "Did it hurt?"
"No, he was actually pretty good at it." Haru held up his thumb and forefinger less than half an inch apart. "They only actually go into your skin about that much, anyway. They're not supposed to go in deep. Sun said he'd been practicing with his uncle from the time he was six, so he'd gotten pretty good. His uncle was even starting to let him take care of some of the regular patients, the easier ones."
"Still." Teo shook his head, settling back down into his pillows, his eyelids starting to slip heavily downward. The pain and false bravado that had marked his features earlier were both gone, replaced by a sleepy peace that did Haru's heart good to see. "I don't think I'd be very...." Whatever else he meant to say, though, was lost in a monstrous yawn.
Haru stilled his hands against Teo's skin. "Go to sleep. I'll be back in the morning."
Nodding, Teo shifted himself into an even more vertical position, and Haru drew the blanket up over his body to his chest. "Thanks," Teo smiled. "For everything. I mean it."
"My pleasure," Haru replied, because it was true.
When no one could find Toph and Teo all afternoon, Haru suspected trouble, and when they showed up again just before dinner with matching grins and matching hats, he knew his suspicions were well-founded. Aang looked up from where he was dilligently trying to boil a pot of water without using any kindling. "...Where'd you get those?"
"We made 'em!" announced Toph, who was sitting on the arm of Teo's chair. Teo's arms were folded in his lap, and Haru couldn't figure out their means of locomotion until he saw Toph's hand making tiny, almost absent-minded circles, bending the metal bindings on the wheels so that they spun forward at a leisurely pace. "We found some old, ripped pillowcases and decided it was craft time." The white hats were crudely looped around the top, dangling in long points down nearly to the middle of their backs, and Haru could indeed believe they had started out life as pillowcases.
Teo produced Katara's mending kit from inside his shirt and handed it back to her. "Thanks for the loan."
"All right, I'll bite," said Sokka, sharpening his boomerang while perched on the fountain ledge. "Why do you two need matching hats?"
Toph and Teo grinned in each other's direction for a moment, then knocked knuckles and announced in unision, "Team Handi-Capable!" before dissolving into giggles.
Sokka stared at them dumbly, his jaw a little slack. "Wait, Team what?"
"What, you want to join and be our deaf member?" asked Toph, pulling Teo's chair close enough to the fire for her taste and hopping off.
"We did make a third hat," Teo pointed out, producing a slightly larger version of their hats from the side of his shirt were the mending kit hadn't been. It somehow seemed sadder than the other two in a way Haru couldn't quite put his finger on.
Toph snatched it from his hands and frowned at him. "That's Crispy's hat!"
Zuko -- who, despite repeated insistances that he wasn't going to respond to that -- looked up from his reading at the sound of his horrible new nickname. "Wait, why do I have to wear a hat?"
"Because you talk funny!" said Toph, as though the answer were obvious. She set the too-large brim atop Zuko's head, and it slid down, obscuring his good eye. He very patiently reached up and pushed it back up his forehead until he could see again. "And because you might as well be deaf, because you never listen to what anyone else says."
"We've got meetings every Tuesday," Teo chirped helpfully. "Though we're currently at the B.Y.O.T. stage of organization."
Zuko opened his mouth, then closed it again quickly, as though realizing that any attempt to protest would only serve to heap more doom upon his head. Hunching his shoulders and resting his chin against the heel of his hand, he went back to his scroll of military history. "I do not talk funny," he muttered softly, though he made no move to remove the hat.
Haru looked quizzically at Teo. "B.Y.O.T.?"
"Bring Your Own Tea." Teo shrugged. "At least, until we get better funding."
"Ah." Haru nodded as though any of this made sense.
"Where do you think they went?" The high, flat platform was empty, more exposed to the sky than any other place in the temple. Every time Teo had disappeared into the temple of his own accord, Haru had found him here, looking longingly upward. Some sudden noise or predator's arrival startled a flock of birds on the opposite wall of the canyon, and they took off in a great dark flood of wings.
Haru crossed his legs beneath him and sat on the flat ground, not bothering to make an earth-chair; this part of the temple seemed far too holy to deface, even temporarily, for his own convenience. "Where would you go, if you could?"
"To find our dads," answered Teo. He sighed and ran fingers through his unbound hair, taming it away from his face.
"What do you think they're doing right now?"
"Zuko and Sokka, or our dads?"
Teo shrugged, but let his mouth curl into a half-smile. "I was mostly thinking of our dads."
Haru picked up a flat, round pebble, about the same size and weight as a copper coin, and walked it up and down his knuckles with earthbending. It was another trick he'd learned in the years hiding in plain sight, pretending he was something he wasn't. He didn't have to hide anymore, and all he had to do was trade everything else for it. "Mine's probably rounding everyone up and coming up with some escape plan. And your dad is probably building something to help him with it."
"'I call it ... my Prison Breaking-Out-Of Machine!'" chirped Teo, doing an impression of the Mechanist that was downright eerie. "'It demolishes walls, disarms guards, and makes a mean custard tart!'"
Haru laughed with him, and then they fell into silence, staring out at the sky. The sun was setting behind them, casting the cayon' rim's rugged shadow on the far wall; its darkness came creeping slowly upward, and everything was helpless in its path. A strong urge came over him, and Haru took the rock he'd found and hurled it into the canyon, letting gravity have his plaything. He never heard it hit the ground.
"...Maybe they'll come find us," Haru said at last.
"Yeah," nodded Teo. "Maybe."
Haru dropped the rock almost as soon as he plucked it from Aang's hand. "Too hot." He shook his head, this time lifting it with earthbending instead and giving it a quick dunk in the fountain pond before bringing it to rest in his bare palm again.
"Sorry," said Aang, picking another stone out of the bucket by his side. "This is kind of difficult."
"It's good practice," said Katara, though her voice was muffled by her arms.
Haru concentrated on the stone in his palm for a moment, focusing on its energies, searching deep inside to feel out the ways the stone wanted to move, the ways the stone wanted the world around it to move. After a moment's consideration, he placed it on Toph's left shoulderblade, keeping his fingertips resting on the stone's surface until he felt that it had found its place. "How does that feel?"
"Man, screw that silly girly spa in Ba Sing Se." Toph wiggled her toes lightly, careful not to disturb the six or so stones that lay spread across her back. "This is the life."
The sky was clear, and the sun shone at such an angle that it beat down on the courtyard, shining warmly on Katara, Toph, and Teo's prone bodies. All three of them were mostly bare-skinned -- the girls in their bathing suits, Teo in only a pair of light shorts -- and all three of them had at least half a dozen flat, warm stones spread out at intervals along their skin. Beside them knelt Haru, also shirtless against the warm, pleasant weather, having tied all of his hair up away from his neck, using earthbending to keep at least a low-grade consciousness of where all the stones were and how they were affecting the flow of energy in the bodies beneath them. Every now and then, the Duke ran in, deposited into the bucket another rock of appropriate size he'd found within the temple's tunnel structure, and ran off cheerfully again to find another.
Though also stripped down to his bathing shorts, Aang, in fact, was the only one of them who didn't seem relaxed by the situation; his brow was furrowed with concentration, his breath rough in his mouth as he focused on using firebending to heat the rocks just enough to bring out their natural energies, but not enough to burn bare skin. He held his breath, then exhaled on a thin grey stone the length of Haru's palm. "Try that?" He offered it to Haru.
Haru wrapped his fingers around the end of it and smiled. "Nice job." This rock's energy was long and straight, gathering from the sides and projecting out either end, and Haru placed it along the back of Teo's right thigh, in line with where a straight, unbroken bone would have been. "All right?"
Teo murmured something that might have been 'feels great', but with his face pressed downward onto his crossed arms, it was difficult to tell. Nonetheless, Haru took his response as encouragement and pressed the stone down lightly against the skin, feeling it slowly ease into alignment with the others. Beneath Haru's touch, Teo tensed for the space of a deep breath; as he let his muscles relax again, Haru felt the rock finally fall into place.
Toph was, of course, a natural conduit for the rocks' energies, and Katara's waterbending meant that chi could flow easily with and through her body, no matter what element influenced it. Teo, on the other hand, was a mess of what Sun would have called broken meridians, particularly from the waist down. Haru wasn't as sensitive as Sun or his accupuncturist uncle had been, but with the rocks, he could use his earthbending to feel what was happening in the body beneath, and to -- with great care -- coax the energies to bend a different way.
"Mm," smiled Katara, turning her head to the side. "Say, Haru? Have you ever thought about visiting the South Pole? Or maybe even coming there to live?"
"Hands off, missy," grunted Toph. "This boy's mine."
"I'll fight you for him. I'll fight you both." Teo lifted his head just enough to add expression to his threat. "I fight dirty."
Haru shook his head and took a perfectly warmed stone from Aang, who was making no attempts to hide his great amusement. "I'm sure we can all come to some sort of arrangement," he said, contemplating the new rock for a moment before placing it square in the middle of Teo's bare back.
He woke in a cold sweat, disoriented and panicked by the particulars of a dream he couldn't remember, and, for a moment in the dark, he thought he was home.
Pulling himself to a sitting position, Haru took several deep, steadying breaths and looked around. The moon was half-full in the clear night sky, and it lit the landing where everyone still slept on, circled around the cold campfire, undisturbed by whatever had awakened Haru. Though they all still kept their own rooms for matters where a little privacy was needed, they had all slowly gotten into the habit dragging of their bedding out into the open pavilion. Even Teo had requested that Haru help him bring a sleeping bag out into the open night air. No one said aloud what they were all thinking: that Zuko and Sokka's sudden disappearance had been too sudden, and had lasted too long already, and that they were all starting to get anxious about the boys' return.
Deciding that sleep was still a ways off for him tonight, Haru stood and walked out to the edge of the landing, standing close enough that he could get a good look down over the edge. Contemplating the drop made the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet begin to sweat, and he had to take a half-step back before the vertigo could get too intense. Even during the day, the bottom of the chasm was darkened except at high noon, and even then the mist off the cataracts usually obscured anything that might otherwise have been seen of the river below; the dim moonlight, however, cast everything around him in a ghostly light, until Haru lost all perspective of how far away from him the mist, or the other side of the canyon, or even the other pagodas were.
Intellectually, he knew that Teo was absolutely right, that it was beyond foolishness to be afraid of heights when he could beg the ground below him to catch him gently before he came crashing down upon it. He'd used his earthbending to his aid in highly stressful situations before, after all, and it had never failed him then. But try as he might, he couldn't shake a deep certainty that that would be the one time it would all desert him.
He thought of his father, then, and how he wished that when his father had pushed him toward Appa, there on the side of the crater leading up to the imperial city, that he'd pushed back harder. All the men were sitting in Fire Nation prisons now, and he'd been told to go with the Avatar, but what he'd really been told was to go with the children. And they needed him, absolutely, and he'd done all he could to be as helpful as possible, and he knew his father had just been doing his level best to keep him safe, and no matter how many times he told himself all these things, the slight still lingered.
The worst part, really, was that he was glad not to be in prison -- so, of course, every time he felt glad about it, he just ended up feeling worse. Dejected, he slumped down on the edge of the landing, letting his feet dangle over the edge.
He barely heard Aang's approach, and didn't really register his presence as anything but night noise until he sat down next to Haru, sending a few pebbles scattering off the edge. "Hey," he said quietly. "Couldn't sleep either?"
"I've decided to stop sleeping," Haru answered, looking up at the night sky.
Aang shook his head. "Yeah, I tried that too. Doesn't really work out as well as you might think." He yawned and stretched his arms out in front of him, and Haru could see the long, blue lines following the lines of his body with swirling precision, from his shoulders down to where points formed at the backs of his hands. "It's nice out here at night, though. Quiet. ...Not a lot of quiet these days."
Nodding, Haru leaned forward a little, casting his gaze down over the rim as long as he dared before he had to pull back again. The moon had shifted lower on the horizon, and darkness had swallowed even more of the view below. "How far down do you suppose it goes?" he asked, figuring that if anyone knew, it would be the Avatar.
Aang thought for a moment, then shrugged. "All the way."
Refurbishing the bathrooms, it turned out, had taken a lot more work than Haru had originally expected. The long-disused pipes had corroded and cracked all the way through the rock, and the groundwater source which had fed them seemed to have dried up long ago. While two waterbenders hardly needed a pipe system to fill the baths, the huge tile basins themselves had cracked along the foundations and grown some impressive plant life in their crevices, meaning that even if they could get the water there, it wasn't likely to stay.
Citing the repairs as good practice for all their bending abilities, Katara had convinced Aang to throw all his weight into getting the system back in order, and they'd all spent nearly a full day on the project, thinking not about wars and absent friends, but about a good, long soak. They finished as the sun was dipping low on the horizon, Aang and Katara drawing up a vast amount water all the way from the river below and settling it down in the baths with a mighty splash, to the collective delight of the onlookers, who next set about the issue of deciding who got to use the baths first.
Haru poked his toe into the water, half-expecting some temperature extreme but actually finding it pleasantly warm, especially in contrast to the brisk evening air. "Feels good." He gave Aang a thumbs-up sign.
"Great!" Aang lifted his hands from where he'd submerged them wrists-deep in the water and dried them on his shorts, then proceeded to pull off said shorts, folding them atop a carved wooden bench. "Looks like the girls didn't leave us too much of a mess." Though Teo and the Duke had made some convincing points, Katara had eventually won the previous argument on the general merit that boys tend to be stinkier than girls, something no one could really contest.
The Duke steadied himself against a tile outcropping and performed an exquisite bellyflop into the water, emerging laughing and shaking his head like a walrus-dog. "That's great!" He took a deep breath and submerged again.
"Can't argue with that kind of endorsement," Aang shrugged, entering the water by way of the much more decorous tiered steps. The bath was huge, large enough to accomodate twenty or thirty people comfortably, situated beneath a wide rock outcropping that protected bathers from the elements above, but left them exposed on the sides, with only the occasional pillar obstructing the view. Steam rose from the top of the water around them, curling up toward the ceiling, where tiny mosaic tiles swirled in shimmering blue and white. The floor of the bath had likely looked just the same once, but time and decay had done the greater damage there, and Haru had been focused not on restoring it to its perfect former glory, but simply making it watertight.
Teo sat in his chair, peeling off his shirts and gloves before stacking them on another of the room's many benches as Haru unbound his legs. "Save some water for us!" he called to the Duke, who had figured out how to hold his hands in such a way that they squirted water like a moose-whale, and had taken to dilligently squirting water over the sides of the bath, where it rolled off toward the valley below.
Finally finished unwrapping, Haru put the bindings next to the rest of Teo's clothes, then bent down, slipping an arm beneath Teo's knees. "Ready to go?"
"Just a second." With a little wiggle that was both obscenely efficient and borderline just obscene, Teo squirmed out of his undershorts and pushed them down around his knees, where gravity mostly took care of the rest. "Can you get those?"
Sometimes, Teo was himself a one-man exercise in where not to look. "...Sure," Haru nodded, helping the shorts over Teo's ankles and folding them atop the rest of his clothes. He kept his gaze fixed first on the discarded clothing, and then on Teo's face, without allowing himself to ponder whether there was any malicious glee behind Teo's otherwise sweet smile. Bare to the waist himself, Haru fixed himself on the task ahead of him, and when he lifted Teo's warm body up from the chair and into his arms, he was perfectly calm.
"Sometimes I have dreams that I can walk," Teo said, without preamble or explanation. The early morning breeze ruffled his hair into his face as he stared off into the distance, watching the sky melt from pink into blue.
Haru barely looked away from the task in front of him, his hands held about a foot apart, holding three rocks in a straight line away from his body between them. "How does it feel?" he asked, because he couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Tall. Not very steady." Teo laughed. "Less comfortable than flying."
His breathing steady, Haru brought the first stone in the row back and over the others, until it was closest to his chest. He did it again with the next one, and the next, until the three had become points on a circle between his hands, wheeling their way slowly around. Moving rocks quickly was easy; they had motion in them that wanted to be released in great bursts, and so earthbenders were taught to work with hard, sharp punches, propelling the rock's energy forward as violently as possible. Any earthbender with even an inch of power could learn to strike a boulder across the room with a single tight blow.
Moving them slowly, keeping them carefully steady, though -- that was the difficult task, and therefore, to Haru, the task worth learning. He'd seen this truism reflected in the other benders' delicate works: how Katara spent great time focusing on lifting only a single droplet from a bucket of water; how Toph became uncharacteristically quiet as she extracted tiny veins of metal from the canyon walls while leaving the surrounding rock untouched; how Aang's greatest firebending challenge so far had been to learn to heat a single cup of tea without cracking the glaze.
After several minutes' worth of this, he let the rocks fall to the ground and wiped a thin sheen of sweat from his brow. "Do you ever wish you could?" he asked, and he wasn't even entirely sure he'd said it out loud until he saw Teo turn his head to look.
"Wish I could what?" he asked.
"You know." Haru stretched his arms high above his head and arched his spine backward, making his body into a long, curved line. "Walk."
Instead of answering, Teo looked back out into the distance, and was quiet so long that Haru was afraid he had been offensive. As he was starting to compose a lengthy apology in his mind for being such an insensitive jerk, though, Teo turned back and smiled. "Not really, no. That's funny, I haven't thought about it in a while. I used to, a lot, especially when my dad had to make up all the special machines to get me around and I kept getting stuck at the bottoms of ladders. That kind of sucked," he laughed. "But now? No, I guess I don't."
"What changed your mind?" asked Haru, assuming that there was some transformative anecdote just beneath the surface, just waiting to be asked about.
But Teo only shrugged. "Just things," he answered, turning the front wheel of his chair back around toward the walkway that led toward the main pavilion, smiling up at Haru as he passed by. "Little things."
"I'm sorry I don't have anything to tell you boys about your fathers," Hakoda told him, walking away from the ring of light around the fire to where Haru sat cross-legged atop a low wall, staring out in the night. "They took me away from the others pretty quickly."
Haru smiled and extended his hand, and Hakoda grabbed his forearm instead, pulling him into a manly Water Tribe handshake, which Haru had always found curiously and pleasantly intimate. "Thank you, sir," Haru said. "I'm sure they're all right."
Hakoda nodded and glanced back toward the fire, where everyone gathered around had just burst into gales of laughter; Sokka's voice was the loudest among them, carrying throughout the empty ruins and bouncing off the high ceilings. "They're probably keeping them close to the capitol. There's a prison less than a mile away where we were taken right after the invasion; I'm willing to bet they're still there, and that if they're not, they haven't bothered transporting them far. The Fire Nation's got bigger things to worry about than a bunch of prisoners right now, anyway."
Catching the meaning between his words, Haru blinked a few times. "...With respect, sir, you and your children spent a lot of time breaking people out of jail."
That won a broad, honest laugh from Hakoda, who clapped Haru on the shoulder. "I'm mostly learning from them," he admitted, and they laughed together over that one. "Tyro told me about how you and Katara got all the benders in your village out of that Fire Nation prison. That was mighty brave."
"He exaggerates; Katara was the brave one." Haru shrugged modestly.
With a light hop, Hakoda pulled himself up on the wall next to Haru. He looked older than Haru remembered, even though they'd first met barely two weeks previous, more lined around the eyes and smaller in his ragged prison clothes than he had in his blue Water Tribe armour. Haru, who hadn't seen more than his half-glimpsed reflection in puddles since before the Day of Black Sun, wondered how much his own face had changed with days of worry and anxious uncertainty. "Not to hear him tell it," said Hakoda. "Though I suppose we fathers tend to be biased toward our own children."
Not all fathers, Haru pointedly didn't say, his eyes seeking out and finding Zuko learning back against one of the pavilion's tall shutter doors, his knees tucked to his chest, the sadness in his smile visible even in the dim light; he brightened as the group's attention turned briefly to him, but as soon as Sokka had grabbed center stage again with his stories of derring-do, Zuko's cheerful expression began to slip. In that moment, he couldn't even be jealous of Sokka any longer for having his father back; having your father out of prison was better than having your father in prison, but having your father who loved you in prison was better than having a father out of prison who was intent on destroying the world. Life was a long exercise in putting everything into perspective.
"You remind me a great deal of your father," Hakoda said, after a moment of comfortable silence. "I think he'll be very proud to hear about the way you've helped keep everyone safe here."
With a deep sigh, Haru let his shoulders slump forward. "I should have come with you all, I really should," he said in a rush, speaking for the first time what had been on his heart ever since the retreat from the invasion.
Hakoda shook his head, and as he did, the tiny blue beads near the base of his two braids clattered together musically. "You and Sokka," he said with a smile. "I remember being his age, especially, so concerned with being thought of as a man, so worried about impressing my own father. No, from what Sokka and Katara both have told me, and from what I've seen this evening, you've done much more good here than you would have locked up in a prison cell."
"You could probably say that about anyone else in there," Haru pointed out.
"Point well made," Hakoda conceded, bringing his hand to rest on Haru's shoulder again; he was a smaller man than Tyro, and his hands less expansive, but there was something unmistakably familiar about the touch, and Haru found himself leaning into it as much as he dared. "Still, you don't remind me of your father because you're both great warriors -- though that's absolutely true, and you both were as brave as any I've fought beside. No, you remind me of him because, from what I've seen and heard, you're both deeply compassionate men who worry first and foremost about the well-being of those around you. And as important as it is for you and Sokka especially to fight fiercely now ... what your father and I both want for you is a time where you won't have to fight at all."
Deeply touched and a bit overwhelmed by the sentiment, Haru could hardly find the words to respond -- and was saved from having to do so at all by the sound of approaching wheels. "Haru?" Teo asked, rolling closer. "Don't let me interrupt, but I think everyone's starting to bed down for the night."
"Oh, sure." Haru hopped off the wall and took his place behind Teo's wheelchair, then looked back at Hakoda, who was smiling at him with an expression that showed he clearly believed his point had just been proven. "Thank you, sir, for what you said."
"Thank you," Hakoda nodded in return, giving them both a little wave good-night as he drew him knees up to his chest. There was a quiet longing to his smile as he watched them go, so faint that it hardly occured to Haru until they were well out of sight that Hakoda, too, might know what it was to feel guilty about one's own freedom.
Haru's thumbs were settled deep into the muscle on either side of Teo's left calf, and his mind was still turning over what Hakoda had said to him, when Teo caught him completely off-guard by asking, "Was Sun your boyfriend?"
Startled, Haru slipped his grip, pressing a little too hard against Teo's bone, and Teo made a small, sharp noise. "Sorry! Sorry!" Haru withdrew his hands completely for a moment, then gingerly resumed his previous grasp, watching for other signs of pain. "...Wait, what?"
"The accupuncturist's nephew -- was he your boyfriend?" Teo asked again, looking more amused by the reaction than troubled by any residual discomfort it might have caused him.
"Um," said Haru, because tonight was apparently a night where everything anyone said to him rendered him speechless. He turned his chin downward, letting his hair curtain his cheeks slightly as he felt what had become an unfortunately familiar blush rise in them. "...Yes. He was. I mean, I think he was. He never said so or anything, but ... I guess he was. For a little bit."
From his current position, he couldn't see Teo's smile widen, but it was audible in his voice. "Did you kiss him?"
Now Haru was certain that his cheeks matched the prisoner's red Hakoda had been wearing. "...Yes," he answered, figuring after a moment's consideration that trying to lie even slightly at this point would be utterly useless. His palms grew sweaty against Teo's scarred skin, and he could feel his pulse in his fingertips.
"No, not a lot." Haru squared his shoulders and brought his fingers up to rest on either side of Teo's knee. After he'd helped Teo into his nightclothes, he'd started to move them both back out to the central pavilion, but Teo had balked, claiming that his legs had hurt again and asking Haru to rub them before they returned for the night. At the time, Haru had thought nothing of it; now, Teo's motives seemed somewhat more suspect.
Teo reached for the curtain of Haru's dark hair, drawing as much as he could reach away from Haru's face and draping it over his shoulder. "How come not a lot?"
Haru shrugged, still unable to fully meet Teo's gaze. "He wasn't there that long. The soldiers increased their patrols, and one morning, they'd just packed up their things and gone. I don't know. ...He and his uncle both had eyes a lot like Zuko's, though."
"You think they were firebenders?"
"I think they were running from something." Haru sighed. "Story of my life."
At that, Teo laughed and reached for Haru's hair again, this time using it like reins to tug him closer. "Come here," he said, moving as close to the wall as he could to free up a body's width of the mattress.
"What?" Haru blushed, balking at the command but hardly willing to resist.
"I said, come here."
Teo pulled him closer, and Haru complied awkwardly until he realized that the only comfortable way to negotiate this request would be to stretch out along the bed like Teo, his bare feet on the mattress at the far end, his head on the pillow next to Teo's. So he did, trying to look casual even though his heart was trilling in his chest. "Is this okay?" he asked, mindful not to jostle Teo's legs. He was surprised at how little his feet extended on past Teo's -- only a few inches, in fact.
"This is fine." Teo nodded, taking Haru's hand in a grip that was just as cold and clammy with nervousness as Haru's own. That, actually, soothed his nerves somewhat; at least they were both in this together. "...I kind of don't know what I'm doing here," he admitted, "so I'm just going to say it: I really want to kiss you, is that okay?"
Haru felt his mouth go unhelpfully dry, but at least he maintained enough muscle control to nod. "That'd--" Twining his fingers with Teo's, he took another deep breath. "I'd like you to."
"Okay," said Teo, his smile bright. "Okay, good." Reaching up to thread his fingers through the long strands of Haru's hair, Teo drew close and pressed their lips together.
Working more on instinct than on rational thought, Haru placed a hand on Teo's bare shoulder, unable to stop marvelling at the difference between his broken legs and his powerful arms. Teo was just like that, Haru supposed: a mess of comfortable contradictions, the boy who couldn't walk but could fly, the one of them who needed taking care of but was still absolutely the one in charge. He felt Teo's lips part, just slightly, and the tip of his tongue prodded clumsily at the closed fold of Haru's lips, so Haru opened his mouth wider and let Teo in.
It was impossible for Haru to gauge how long they stayed like that, resting quietly in each other's arms, their mouths hesitantly learning one another. Teo tasted like dark things, like wet earth and strong tea, and though he began a bit clumsily, he learned fast. Haru took Teo's lower lip between his teeth, tugging gently, and Teo laughed into the kiss, so Haru did it again -- anything, he knew already, anything to make Teo happy, and he'd do it in a heartbeat. He didn't even know how long he'd wanted this, only that it had been everything he'd wanted for quite some time. All he'd needed was a push.
After what seemed like hours, Teo drew back and pressed their foreheads together, placing his hand flat on Haru's cheek. "We should probably get back," he pointed out, his words shaky with breath, "before they come looking for us."
"You're probably right," agreed Haru, who shut his eyes and stayed perfectly still.
He was dreaming again, and he knew that he was dreaming because Teo was standing there at the cliff, dressed in long, transluscent green robes that fluttered in the wind. Above him, light grey clouds rolled across the sky, pushed by some high unseen wind from behind him to the far line of the horizon -- and he could see their full trajectory, because he was nearly as far up as they were, perched somewhere high above the world.
In his dream, he took two steps closer to the edge, feeling loose rock slip beneath his bare soles as he did. "What's this?" he asked, looking around.
"The edge," said Teo, who was so close to it that the long, billowy trails of his robe were swept off by the wind. He was nearly as tall as Haru when he stood, and he looked unconcerned by the proximity to a sheer drop so far down, Haru couldn't entirely wrap his brain around it.
"So," Haru swallowed, concentrating on the single patch of earth beneath him. The wind blew his hair into his mouth, and he reached up to pull it all back, knotting it at the base of his neck in a way he felt was very practical of him, even as far as dream reasoning went. "Where did everyone go?"
Teo leaned closer to the edge, looking down. He looked older in some way Haru couldn't quite define, the lines of his face somehow sharper, his expression more serious than Haru had ever seen him let it become. "Your dream," he shrugged, as though this absolved him of any and all obligation to make sense. And then he followed with a suggestion that made Haru's stomach sieze up: "You could jump."
Haru took another look at the drop and pulled back from the edge, his head swimming. "It's a long way down." The moving clouds only allowed brief, scattered glimpses of the warm sun, and the wind in the high, thin air chilled his bare chest and arms. "It's a long way down," he repeated, like a mantra in reverse, where saying it enough might make the opposite come true.
That made Teo laugh, and in Haru's dream Teo's laugh was rich and deep, almost a grown man's, almost his father's. "It's always a long way down," he pointed out, though when he spoke he sounded like himself again. "What are you afraid of?"
"I told you." The ground beneath him shook with the wind, and Haru felt his intestines knot even tighter, even though he knew it was a dream, and you couldn't die in dreams, probably not, maybe not. And he wasn't even afraid, not really. It was just a long way down, that was all.
Teo folded his arms inside his voluminous robes. "Tell me again."
Haru swallowed, stepping closer to the edge. Below him, the world looked so far away that he could barely tell what he was seeing -- a farm here, maybe, and what looked to be a river there, and a collection of what could have been buildings that might have made up a town, but nothing he could recognize with any certainty at this altitude. He had only his best guesses for topography, faint shapes for landmarks, assumptions for perspective. Enough distance flattened everything.
He took another step, just to see better how small and soft everything below looked, then another, until finally he stood where Teo was, his toes nearly in line with the ragged edge. "...I don't know," he answered honestly. It was still a long way down, but down was everywhere from up here, and the ground was such a remote concept.
"Then go on," said Teo, the heavy lines of his impossibly long sleeves curling about his face, half-obscuring his expression. "Hurry home before dark."
Deep down, he knew it was only dream-logic at its core, but Haru found himself nodding in agreement as he turned, setting his toes on the hard ground as he gently shuffled backward until his heels hung out over nothing. Enormous gusts of wind whipped toward the his face, and he leaned into them, balancing forward as far as he could over what little of the ground was left to him. But even it was too small, and the world below him was enormous, and it knew how to catch him if he asked. Taking a deep breath and shutting his eyes, Haru stopped fighting and let the wind carry him over the edge, faithfully backward into thin air.
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