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Avatar: Unsung Heroes

By Emily Claus

Action / Fantasy

The Art of Conning

艺术精读

Ka-boom!

Along with a series of small explosions the array of fireballs burst open, spilling out their contents into an illusion of miniature fireworks. Bits of glowing ember rained down around the wooden stage for a brief moment before disappearing into nothingness again. The crowd below roared with delight as two girls took center stage grabbed each others hands, swinging them along into a bow.

Both dressed alike in color scheme, the first and slightly taller of the two girls had reddish-brown hair and hazel eyes that were slightly more green than brown. She wore a burnt yellow and white outfit, its edges contrasted with shades of pale red. Around her neck was a sky blue beaded necklace, its color matching that of the shorts she wore underneath a skirt that tied around. She was called Naka and, contrary to popular belief, actually an airbender. In fact, about half of their magician's act was based off of the illusion of having two firebenders when really one of the girls wasn't even a firebender at all. But more on that later.

Although hard to believe, Ellire was actually the oldest of the two and the real firebender in the performance. She had long, wavy brown hair with matching eyes and adorned herself with an orange headband, shoes, and sleeves. Her shirt and skirt were a matching shade of red, an image of blue and yellow flames climbing their way up towards the bottom.

The two benders exchanged glances, beaming as the crowd of onlookers continued to whistle and cheer. A red velvet curtain blew in front of them and they broke character, panting. Quite literally squealing with pride, Naka leapt forward and hugged onto Ellire, whose eyes widened in surprise.

"That was great! Did you see how many faces there were out there?" she exclaimed.

Ellire smiled back, wiggling her way out of her friend's embrace. "I did indeed. It's a good thing we didn't mess up."

"I don't know, the first couple of times we tried that flaming sword trick I was afraid you were going to burn the entire stage to the ground!" Naka laughed.

Ellire frowned. "Me? I just keep the thing lit and draw in the audience's attention; you're the one who actually keeps it up in the air and is supposed to bring it down safely so that I can-" The firebender paused, taking another glance in Naka's direction as she calmed herself down. "Y'know what, never mind. It was a good run back there."

Naka sat herself down on the ledge behind the stage as her partner jumped down next to her. "I still don't think it'd hurt to keep a couple of waterbenders nearby," she mused. "Just in case!" Naka quickly added after having received a stern glare from over Ellire's shoulder. She sighed and looked up towards the sky. "Hey, Elle?"

Ellire cringed. She'd never liking the nickname, but if she couldn't get Naka to cut it out in the amount of time that they'd known each other there was no use trying now. "Yes?" she answered, starting to pack several of their magic show's props back into a large truck that was set off towards the side of the makeshift theater.

"Do you ever wonder what Blaise is up to?"

Ellire froze, still bent over. "Pardon?"

"You know, Blaise," Naka repeated herself. "I mean, we haven't seen or heard from her in months now, so I couldn't help but... wonder..."

She stood up again, frowning. "Who cares? She got what she had coming."

The airbender tilted her head to the side, somewhat concerned by this unfeeling response. "Elle... that's not a very nice way to look at it. After all, she WAS our friend before we-"

"Friends don't tell other friends how to live their life!"

Naka had been cut off mid-sentence, her mouth still hanging slightly ajar. She closed it again, turning her attention down towards the ground. Ellire's hands had instinctively clenched themselves into firsts, glowing slightly as if she were preparing to launch an attack. After a moment of silence she loosened them again, the fiery glow vanishing back into her palms.

"I'm sorry. I... I didn't mean to snap like that. You didn't do anything wrong, Naka."

The younger girl shook her head slowly, still looking away. "No, it's my fault. I shouldn't have brought her up."

The truth was, the gang of street performers that currently travelled from town to town putting on a little magic show used to consist of one more firebender: Blaise, as ironic a name as it was (which could explain her love of corny puns). In fact, they'd been a trio for almost as long as any of the girls could remember until about a year ago, when Ellire and Naka had felt that she was beginning to act a little too much like the group's leader for her own good.

"Ellire! Naka!"

The silence was broken by the voice of a girl that had to have been a good several years younger than the performers. She came bounding over, her short, light brown hair and bangs bouncing as she ran. Her eyes were a clear blue beneath a pair of glasses and she was wearing a short green dress.

Silence.

"Those are your names... right?"

Naka jumped up quickly upon seeing the newcomer. "Um, yes!" she exclaimed. "I'm Naka, and this is Ellire. Or 'Elle,' if you think that's easier to remember."

"Call me Elle and I'll burn you from the inside out." Ellire replied flatly.

"Isn't she just charming," the girl mused sarcastically.

Naka shrugged. "Just give her some time and she'll warm up to you. Eventually."

Ellire twitched slightly in annoyance. "And you must be... Jin, was it?"

"Jairin," the younger girl corrected. Ellire shrugged carelessly. Close enough, as far as she was concerned.

Naka looked back and forth at the two, confused. "Wait. You know each other?"

"Yup," Ellire answered, giving a serious nod. "She's the daughter of that guy I was talking to this morning, Mr. What's-his-face."

"Cole."

It would seem Naka finally understood. "And we're staying with their family during our stay here, then!"

"By George, I think she's got it!" Ellire laughed aloud.

"Well, Jairin, did you get a chance to see the show?" Naka asked Mr. Cole's daughter who smiled, nodding her head energetically. "Did you like it?"

"Like it?" Jairin repeated enthusiastically. "I loved it! You guys were amazing! I mean, I've certainly seen benders such as yourselves before, but nothing like that!"

Naka was grinning ear to ear. "You think so?"

Ellire rolled her eyes. "Wonderful. You have fun talking with your new fan, Naka. In the meantime I'm going to go find out how much we made on that last performance. Maybe if we're lucky we'll have enough to pick up a meal tonight," she said sarcastically. "There's nothing quite like performing on an empty stomach."

"Oh! That's what I came to talk to you about!" Jairin gasped. "Mom and Dad wanted to know if you were coming over for dinner."

Both bender's eyes lit up at the mere mention of food. "Are you for serious?" Ellire asked doubtfully. "Are you sure that's okay with them?"

"Well, you kind of ARE our guests. I personally figure it would've been rude otherwise."

Unable to contain herself, Naka threw her fist into the air with glee. "Whoohoo! We're gonna get real food tonight, Elle!"

"Someone needs to calm down a tad," Ellire chuckled, rolling her eyes at Naka yet again. "In that case, I'm going to finish packing some stuff up over here," she informed Jairin. "We'll meet you there in a bit."

Jairin nodded before turning around and running off again in the opposite direction, waving back at them from behind her. "Okay, I'll tell them you're on your way!"

Naka stood watching her leave, an amused look across her face. "I like her."

Ellire turned back towards the stage distractedly. "Don't."

"Why not?" Naka wrinkled her eyebrows, confused.

"Because," Ellire explaining calmly, "it just makes things harder. Wouldn't you agree?"

With a clank of metal coins Naka pulled down the tip jar and peered into it, slightly disappointed. Given the size of the crowd she had half expected to see three times that many. She set it down, sighing to herself. "I suppose you're right. We'd best get ready for the second act tonight."

Ellire turned over her shoulder and their eyes met, glittering with a shared train of thought. "I see I've taught you well. After all, the real magic starts after dark."

-x-

That night Naka and Ellire found themselves sitting around a rather extravagantly laid dinner table with Jairin and her parents. Naka eyed the food longingly as she was forced to hold hands with everyone else around the table, a steaming warm main course teasing her from only a couple feet away.

"Amen," Mr. Cole said, opening his eyes again and lifting his head. The chain of linked hands quickly broke apart as the guests took the liberty of piling their plates high with more food than they probably could've even finished themselves. Mr. and Mrs. Cole exchanged worried glances but ultimately thought it best not to comment on anything.

"Oh! Thanks for inviting us over last minute like this," Ellire said through a mouthful of food.

Mrs. Cole smiled weakly in response to their guests' poor manners. "Anytime! My husband just loves travelers, don't you dear?" She placed her hands against his arm and smiled up at the man pleasantly.

"But of course," Mr. Cole responded. "It would seem we don't get a lot of visitors passing through these parts, so most people in town love seeing new faces. Particularly those of skilled magicians, such as yourselves."

Ellire blushed slightly at their host's compliment and now it was Naka's turn to roll her eyes in playful annoyance. Honestly, more often than not she wondered how both of their egos managed to fit into a room at the same time.

"And little Jairin was just so excited when she heard that your show was coming into town!" Mrs. Cole added, a cheery look on her face.

"Mom!" Jairin quickly shot a warning glance in her mother's direction, as if embarrassed to even admit to such a thing. Mrs. Cole laughed quietly to herself.

"Well, it's true!"

Jairin pouted as her father continued the conversation. "Y'know what Jairin said to me just this afternoon? She said she wanted to learn to bend just like you two!" Now Jairin tried to bury her face deep into her plate, completely and utterly embarrassed by those she called her parents.

On the other hand, both Naka and Ellire's eyes lit up at this statement. Naka couldn't help but want to clarify the meaning of it. "Wait, so you guys are benders, too?" Ellire sat back in her chair, squinting at the family somewhat. With their current attire they hardly looked dedicated to one specific element.

"No, just Jairin," Mr. Cole made clear. "She's an earthbender."

Mrs. Cole shook her head proudly. "I just don't know where she gets it!"

Jairin eyed both Mr. and Mrs. Cole distastefully, still looking a slightly pinker shade than usual. "It's not that big a deal, guys," she muttered under her breath, desperately wanting the attention to be dragged off of her so that they could perhaps learn more about the newcomers instead. However, that didn't seem likely with the way the conversation was going thus far.

Ellire pursed her lips smugly, perhaps sizing the earthbender up as if anticipating a quick battle with her later. Naka and Ellire weren't particularly great fighters, considering they'd spent years dedicating their bending mostly to the art of performing showy tricks, but for some unknown reason it made Ellire feel better to think that she could still take out a challenger or two if the time came.

Upon seeing this Jairin leaned back again, making a face. She couldn't tell what the firebender was thinking but regardless of whatever it was it still made her feel uncomfortable.

"So! Jairin!" Naka finally chimed in, clapping her hands together happily. "Have you been taking bending lessons or whatever young benders do these days?"

Jairin shook her head sadly. "She used to go to a little school here a while back," Mr. Cole explained, "but it shut down some years ago due to a lack of funding. As I've said before, there aren't a lot of benders in this town, after all."

"But we're still trying to find Jairin a new teacher," Mrs. Cole said determinedly. "She really does have the motivation to get better, and we'd help her if we knew how."

Then Jairin stood up excitedly and gasped, her eyes wide. Everyone else looked up at her, startled by the sudden movement. "Maybe Naka could teach me how!" she squealed.

Ellire raised an eyebrow. "Naka? Why Naka? She's not even an earthbender!"

Sitting down again and scooting her chair in, Jairin attempted to explain her epiphany. "I know that. I just figured, well, when you get down to the really basic stuff bending's pretty much the same, just with different elements. Right?"

"Wrong."

"And if that's true, then even if Naka can't earthbend I can still learn from her firebending!" Jairin smiled in Naka's direction, expecting some kind of encouragement.

Ellire merely shook her head. "If that were true then why ask Naka to do it? I'm older, anyway. I could probably teach you just as well if not better."

Naka glared at Ellire, muttering under her breath, "Are you seriously jealous?"

"No! Of course not," she whispered back sourly and looked up at Jairin again. "But really. Why does it have to be Naka?"

Jairin shrugged thoughtfully. "No particular reason."

"Seriously. Tell me."

"No! Don't worry about it."

"You tell me right-"

"Okay!" Jairin finally gave in. "She just sorta comes off as... I don't know, a nicer person than you?"

"...That's it." Ellire tried to stand up, an angry look flashing across her face, when Naka grabbed her arm and pulled her down into her seat again. Looking distatefully at Naka, Ellire flipped some of her hair back and tried a new approach. "Look, kid, I didn't want to crush all of your hopes and dreams... but even if Naka wanted to teach you, she can't."

"Why not?" It would seem both Naka and Jairin had asked this at the same time.

"Because," Ellire continued as matter-of-factly as she could, "Naka's not a firebender. If you must know, she's not even a bender at all!"

She then winced at a hard kick from under the table and glared back at Naka, whose disapproving face seemed to be asking where exactly she thought she was going with this. She shrugged, wanting the airbender to get off her back.

Jairin looked hurt. "W-What? But, that's not possible... I saw her firebend! I saw it with my own eyes!"

Picking up her fork, Ellire took another bite calmly. "That's why it's called a magic trick. I'd hate to give away all of our secrets, as I think there's some sort of magician's code about it or whatever, but the fact that Naka can't bend is half of the illusion right there. It's all very complicated; I'd love to explain further, but I doubt you'd be able to keep up."

Jairin turned her attention to Naka, who for the most part had been sitting there quietly. "Is this true?" she asked.

Naka looked up at Ellire, who didn't say anything. She didn't like the idea of lying to Jairin, but it wasn't exactly like she could go back and fix it now without causing any more problems. "Yes," she said, burying her chin in her hands.

Frowning disappointedly, Jairin hunched over in her seat, pressing an arm against her cheek and the table. She picked up a fork and began poking around at her plate, her appetite suddenly gone.

Mrs. Cole looked at her daughter worriedly. "Jairin, dear, you shouldn't let yourself get so upset over that. I'm sure that Ellire would make just as good a teacher."

"You should at least try finishing your food," Mr. Cole commented as well. "Playing around with it isn't helping anyone."

Jairin put her silverware down on top of her plate and sighed. "It's fine. I'm not hungry anymore." She then got up and hurried up a flight of stairs behind her, making her way towards her room.

Mr. Cole frowned. "Jairin! You weren't dismissed, young lady! And you forgot to clear the table on top of everything!"

"It's all right, I'll take care of it." Mrs. Cole said, standing up with her empty plate in one hand and picking up Jairin's in the other. Mr. Cole got up as well and followed her into the kitchen.

"Here, let me help."

As the married couple disappeared into the other room the place suddenly seemed much more quiet, Naka and Ellire left alone to stare at each other awkwardly. Finally Naka decided to break the silence.

"Stop giving me that look, Elle."

Ellire cocked her head to the side. "What look? I'm not giving you a look."

"Yes, you are. You're giving me that look that clearly says 'well, I didn't do anything wrong back there' when, yes, obviously you did!" Naka threw her napkin down over the plate. "Seriously, Elle? Did you really have to go and tell Jairin that I wasn't a bender? I mean, what good did it prove?"

"I don't know!" Ellire admitted, shrugging. "I just sort of panicked, okay? And what would've happened if you had agreed to teach her?"

"Then she would've figured out I was actually an airbender and it would change nothing!"

"Are you stupid? Of course it would!" Ellire paused, unsure of how she was to get through to Naka's thick head. "You already know that we can't teach her anyway. Building up expectations like that and then betraying her later would've been even crueler... I just said what I thought would make it easiest."

Naka continued to shoot daggers at Ellire, unconvinced. "You know, for someone who claims to hate Blaise as much as you do, you sure do act a lot like her!"

There was a loud crashing sound as Ellire jumped up, shoving the chair out from behind her. "Say that again!" she challenged, her eyes seeming to glow a faint red. "I don't know about you, Naka, but all I've done since we got rid of her is try to look out for you. For both of us!"

Naka shook her head slowly, immediately regretting what she'd said. "I know. I know, you're right. The last thing we need to be doing right now is fighting."

Ellire sighed, allowing herself to calm down some as her eyes faded back to their normal color. She looked down towards the floor, feeling somewhat ashamed at herself for having snapped like that twice in one day. "No... I'm sorry. It was wrong of me to say something like that in the first place, anyhow. Next time I'll let you answer for yourself."

"Wouldn't matter," Naka said. "You were just doing what you thought was best. It's not like we'd be around to teach her, even if we wanted to." She lifted her head to Ellire, who was still standing, a serious look on both of their faces. "You're absolutely right. The second we stop getting along we have nothing, so... no more fighting?"

Ellire smiled. "No more fighting. I promise."

"Me too!" Naka said, getting up and hugging onto Ellire, who attempted to place her hand over Naka's head affectionately but quickly realized that it was more trouble than it was worth, being the shorter of the two, and had to settle with just hugging back this time instead.

"You should get some sleep," Ellire whispered. "It's been a long day."

"But what about you? Aren't you tired?"

"Don't worry; I'll probably pass out in the wagon on their drive back out, if that's okay with you." Naka tried to stifle a yawn, grateful for her friend's offer. "Shall I wake you up at midnight, then?"

"Midnight it is," Naka confirmed, stepping out of their embrace.

-x-

Somewhere in the Fire Nation, Chief of Police Kumi stood leaning against the wooden railing to a small balcony outside of the police station. In front of her stretched a black ocean, the three quarters of the moon left visible reflecting eerily against its smooth surface.

The firebending official was clad in primarily red and black armor, her dark brown hair tied up tightly into a bun, save two long strands that stuck out of the front and faded into a lighter red color. She adjusted the tiny spectacles on her face, frowning.

"Blaise... precisely how long did you intend on standing there before either of us said anything?" Kumi asked sarcastically, hardly bothering to turn her head around.

Sure enough, another figure stood just outside the doorway to the moonlit balcony, her hands fidgeting around awkwardly behind her back. She looked a bit younger than Kumi, but not by much and wore a short pink tank top over orange pants that were several sizes too large for her, bagging out at the sides. Several small red ribbons were tied around her wrists and being used as a belt and like Kumi, she also wore a pair of glasses with light brown hair that went some ways down past her shoulders.

"Um..." Blaise looked over her shoulder nervously. As much as she tried to keep herself from becoming intimidated in the older firebender's presence, it certainly wasn't easy. Most of the Fire Nation had developed a habit of referring to the Chief of Police as 'Old Ironfire' for that very reason, although they wouldn't dare to say so to Kumi's face.

Still not bothering to turn around, Kumi rolled her eyes, already bored with waiting for Blaise's excuse. "What do you want?" she sighed.

Blaise stood up straight again. "Oh! Well, uh, I couldn't help but notice that you've been acting a little... well, stressed, I suppose, as of late. So there's that. And I also was kind of sort of wondering if you happened to have received any news pertaining to the current location of a certain two con artists... if that's okay with you?"

Finally turning to face Blaise, Kumi lifted an eyebrow. "Would these two con artists by any chance have any sort of relation to the girls that you promised to lead me and my forces to in exchange for your freedom?"

Shifting her head back and forth in thought Blaise finally answered, "I think that would be a fair assumption."

Suddenly Kumi leapt forward, pinning Blaise against the wall angrily with her arm. "Do you think this is funny?" she hissed. "It's been nearly an entire month since we brought you in, and we're not a single step closer to finding your ex-partners in crime! Give me one good reason why I shouldn't have you placed behind bars this very moment!"

Smiling weakly, Blaise took a hold on Kumi's arm and brought it down slowly, their eyes still fixed on each other distrustfully. "Now, that's not very fair, Chief. After all, I did point you in the right direction... sort of. That is to say, at least I stopped you from looking in exactly the WRONG direction. If you know what I mean."

Kumi's expression didn't change. "I never know what you mean... idiot. Why can't you just stop being a smartass and admit that you have no idea where they are or where they're going?"

"Because, see, that would be BENDing the truth just a tad, wouldn't it?" Blaise grinned up at Kumi, somewhat surprised to see her lack of a reaction yet again. "Get it? Bending? Like, because we're benders?"

Beat.

She proceeded to explain the bad pun: "Okay, so you know what 'bending the truth' means. As in, you'd be sli-"

"Would you just shut up!"

Blaise fell silent again, cupping her hand over her mouth as Kumi turned away, pacing in the opposite direction. "God! You and your ridiculous sense of humor all the time! Life isn't some big joke."

"Look, I didn't mean to imply tha-"

Kumi spun around in place, shooting an icy glare in Blaise's direction. Blaise mimed a lock and key motion across her mouth, stuffed the invisible 'key' into her shirt and then gave the Chief of Police a thumbs up, as if cueing her to continue. Kumi sighed again and picked up where she had left off.

"I'm a woman of action, Blaise. I don't like to wait for things and honestly, that's the only thing you've seemed to accomplish in the time that you've been with us: make me wait. So I think I'm going to propose a new deal for you, and it'd be in your best interests to accept..."

Blaise gulped. She wasn't sure where this was going, but if her and Kumi's goals were similar she hoped it wouldn't be anything too bad. After all, how often did one have to opportunity to get their revenge while still working under the law?

"You have four weeks," Kumi decided.

Blaise reached into her shirt once again and proceeded to act out unlocking her mouth to respond. "I can do it in two."

"All right, then. Two weeks."

Kumi squinted at Blaise, somewhat confused as to why she would bother arguing a worse deal for herself, but ultimately decided against questioning it for fear of instead receiving another bad pun as an explanation.

"Two weeks," Kumi repeated, "and if I don't catch a glimpse of those two in that amount of time then I am taking back my offer and will have my men arrest you in their place. Are we clear?"

"I thought you said that my charges no longer appl-"

"I said are we CLEAR?"

Blaise began nodding quickly. "Uh-huh! I mean, yes Chief!" She quickly saluted the Chief of Police, hoping that was how she was expected to respond and not just embarrassing herself further.

"Good," Kumi responded, still unconvinced. "I intend to have wanted posters spread as far the Earth Kingdom in the next couple of days. Hopefully that'll get someone to tip us off and you can start from there."

"And then I can take some of the police and go hunt them down myself?"

Kumi practically laughed out loud, which is certainly saying something for her. "No. I want to keep a close eye on you during this wild armadillogoose chase."

-x-

"Psst! Ellire!"

The firebender groaned softly and began to mumble something in her sleep before shifting onto her other side. Naka sat cross-legged on the floor beside her friend's bed, Ellire's back now facing her. She frowned and stood up, jabbing Ellire against her side.

"Elle!" she whispered, continuing to prod and poke her. "Dammit, Ellire, you promised you'd be the one waking me up!"

Naka grabbed a pillow from next to the still-sleeping girl and slammed it against her face. For a moment there she thought it had worked, too, as Ellire stretched her arms out to the sides with a loud yawn, for whatever reason lifting her leg at the same time. However, instead of opening her eyes and sitting up Ellire then proceeded to reach out and pull the pillow out of Naka's grasp, curling up into a tight ball around it.

Naka pulled all of the blankets off of Ellire at once. Still no desired response.

Now, this really began to frustrate Naka, who it turns out wasn't used to playing the responsible one and quite frankly had decided that she wasn't a fan of it, either. A mischievious smile spreading across the airbender's face. Slowly she rolled her sleeves up over her elbows and held her arms out in front of her.

A sudden gust of wind blew Ellire into the air, pillow and all, and then relocated the firebender directly over the hard floor. There she hovered for a brief moment before being unceremoniously dropped.

There was a loud thunk followed by a stream of unpleasant muttering. Naka ducked down and pressed herself against the ground, wary of Ellire's next course of action against her.

Meanwhile, Ellire had just finished realizing what had happened and blinked in surprise, rubbing the back of her head with one hand. She then leapt halfway onto the bed, preparing to have a stern word with Naka when she realized that she couldn't even see the other girl at all. Pulling her way across the rest of the bed sideways Ellire popped her head over its edge, now spotting the culprit.

"You said midnight?" Naka said, smiling as innocently as she could.

"Yeah, well." Ellire slit her eyes towards Naka, remembering to keep her voice low. "At the last minute I decided I needed my beauty sleep."

Naka raised an eyebrow mockingly. "Beauty sleep, eh? If that's what you're calling it then I'd suggest about 24 hours to improve your case."

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that last snide remark. Now, could you do me a favor and toss me our bags? We don't have a lot of time, especially if you accidentally woke somebody up with your little stunt back there."

Naka nodded. She picked up two large sacks from the ground and tossed one in Ellire's direction, using a small gust of wind to blow it directly into her partner's hand.

"There's nothing valuable in here," Naka said. "I suggest we head downstairs first. Unless, of course, you particularly fancy that lamp over there."

Ellire followed Naka's gaze to see an ornate lamp that was a deep green shade with golden trim. "You know what," she replied, "I think I do. I'm keepin' it!" And with that she lifted the glass thing and slid it off of its nightstand and into her brown sack.

Holding her hand over her mouth, Naka tried not to laugh. "Suit yourself. I'm not gonna lie, I hope the silverware's worth more."

"I will admit those were some fancy-shmancy forks Mr. and Mrs. Cole had back there!"

Giggling as softly as they could manage so as to not wake up their sleeping hosts, the two crooks slipped downstairs and into the kitchen. There they began filling their bags with all sorts of things, some quite valuable and others really just more shiny than anything else.

It was just as Naka was trying to stuff a poorly folded tablecloth into an already too-full sack when they became aware of a third person watching them from halfway down the stairwell.

"I-I don't understand..." Jairin managed weakly, feeling a thick lump in her throat. Her eyes were wide with fear and hurt. "Ever since you got here, my family's done nothing but been kind to you. We let you eat from our table... sleep in our beds..." Eyes now beginning to water, it took all that Jairin had in her to keep from crying.

A wave of guilty slowly crept across the room. When it had spread all the way to Ellire she looked into her bag of stolen goods, trying hard to push away any regretting emotions in their attempt to surface. She sighed, still unable to meet the earthbender's eyes. "Well. This just got awkward rather quickly."

Not knowing what else to do, Naka set down her own bag and rushed forward to hug Jairin. And she allowed her to do so, too. At least for a good minute or so, after which point Ellire and Naka were almost horrified to see how quickly her disposition could change right before their very eyes.

"I'll kill you!" Jairin yelled loudly, throwing her hands forward and forcing Naka away from her. This was immediately followed by the crashing sound of a large slab of stone that had broken its way through the wooden floorboards and had begun lunging towards Naka, smacking her square across the chest and then proceeding to shove her quickly towards the other end of the room.

Just before colliding into the opposite wall, Naka summoned up a quick gust of wind and flung herself out of the danger zone, landing safely back on her own two feet. She clutched her hand over her stomach, gritting her teeth.

Ellire was too busy staring at Jairin in surprise to pay much attention to how Naka was currently faring. She trusted that her friend knew how to defend herself against a sudden attack. But even so, that little earthbending display hardly looked like an amature seeking out a new teacher.

Her current train of thought was distracted abruptly, however, when Jairin continued to fling out her arm, which now pulled out a series of bullet-shaped rocks from the stone protruding out of the dining room floor. Upon opening up her clenched fist, she unleashed the volley in the firebender's direction.

Rock after rock whizzing through the air and over her head like missiles, Ellire dropped to the ground, dodging behind a low counter that separated the kitchen from the dining room. At the same time Ellire's bag had slipped from her grasp, falling a short distance to the tile kitchen floor along with the sound of breaking glass.

"That better not've been my lamp," Ellire hissed under her breath. "I was actually quite fond of it!"

Cautious of another round, she rolled forward into a summersault. Unfortunately for her, she had somewhat miscalculated the distance between herself and the oven directly across from her and ended up smacking her back against its door.

Wincing in pain, Ellire pulled herself up again, keeping one hand against the counter for support. Nearby she saw Naka shifting back and forth smoothly in order to dodge the newest wave of stone projectiles.

"I could use a tad bit of help, actually!" Naka called back at her sarcastically. "Thanks for offering!" The majority of her attention still focused on keeping unscathed, she swung her arm around, sending a gust of wind directly at Jairin, who caught the beginning of the blast before stretching a sheet of hardened earth in front of her as a shield.

From the other side, Ellire stood up straight and lit up both of her hands with crackling flames. She flung the first fireball at Jairin, which missed entirely, flying past the side of her head. Ellire made it disappear nearly as soon as it had come into existence before the glowing embers had a chance to touch the staircase, kind enough to want to avoid torching the house.

The irony in this was that despite Ellire's attempts to keep the unusual battlefield relatively in order, the girl who lived there seemed to show no interest when it came to monitoring the destructiveness of her bending.

The second fireball that Ellire threw forward scathed across its target's left shoulder before sliding behind Jairin and disappearing like the previous one. She stumbled backwards while grabbing at the wound, but the second her fingertips touched its hot surface she pulled away with a gasp. It was at this point that Jairin completely lost her footing, reaching out towards the nearby wall as she fell. It didn't seem to do much, considering how she immediately slipped flat onto her back as a look of pain rippled across her face.

Ellire couldn't help but wonder just how bad the burn she'd left on the earthbender was. Either way, Jairin didn't look like she'd be getting up anytime soon. Throwing her sack back over her shoulder, Ellire made a run for the door. She noticed her back was still sore from moments ago and hoped that it would stop hurting soon, since there wasn't much that she could do about it for the time being.

"Hey, Naka!" she called from the doorway. "You coming or what?"

The barricade of dirt and stone had crumbled in on itself when Jairin tripped, and Naka stepped forward onto the collapsed rubble to get a better look at her. The girl was struggling to stand herself back up again and she felt half torn between offering out her hand to help her or holding her down with another blast of wind.

"Naka!" Ellire called again, getting impatient now.

Suddenly Mr. and Mrs. Cole came running downstairs. They stopped a little ways above their daughter and stared in horror at the mess, quickly putting two and two together. Panicking, Naka spun around and ran back to Ellire's side, hardly slowing her pace as she picked up her sack again.

As the two girls disappeared into the night, the family cupped their hands over their mouths and called after them angrily.

"Stop! Thieves!"

-x-

Sometime later Naka and Ellire had stopped deep into the woods for the night. Or morning, as it just well may be. Their large caravan sat parked in the dark a little ways away from a firepit that had been dug out of the ground and was surrounded by tall, looming trees. Across the thick fabric its side read:

A Touch of Magic

starring Ellire, Blaise and Naka

However, Blaise's name had been blackened out, likely Ellire's doing. A burnt, charcoal-colored surface remained where the word was once painted brightly, although still more or less readable.

Ellire dumped a large pile of broken sticks into the pit and easily lit them ablaze. Suddenly the campsite seemed so much more homely, the golden-colored flames now licking at the area around them and casting long shadows from the trees that spread out around the campsite's perimiter.

"Hey, Naka," she said, now pulling out a pair of heavy-duty sleeping bags from inside the wagon, still stuffed to the brim with the folded up performance stage and everything else that the duo may or may not have actually owned. "You coming? It's late, and I want to give us enough time to make it to next town before dark if we're going to sleep well into a good chunk of the day already."

"Yeah. I'll be there in a minute."

Naka was standing in front of the caravan, where their giant jackalope was crouched down comfortably, an orange glow reflecting off of its gray fur. Naka stroked its long, black-tipped velvet ear just below a pair of antlers.

"Good boy, Dandan!" she cooed. "I'll find you some nuts in the morning, I promise. I know you love those." Dandan made an odd clicking noise in the back of his throat as she patted its head and rejoined Ellire, who was squeezing into her sleeping bag beside the roaring campfire.

"Hey... Elle?" Naka asked softly as she crawled into her own makeshift bed. The dirt-covered ground was much harder and less pleasant than what she'd been sleeping on at the Cole's place, but she didn't say anything about it.

"Hm?"

Naka pulled the top of the sleeping bag up to her chin and continued. "Do you think it's worth it? This whole dine and dash business, I mean."

Ellire lifted her head a bit more to try to see Naka before bringing her line of vision back to the dancing embers only a foot or so away. Close proximity to the heat didn't bother her all that much.

"Why would you ask that?"

"Well..." Naka bit her lip, not entirely sure of where she was going with this train of thought. "It's just, everything Jairin was saying... It just got me thinking, that's all. I mean, it's true. All of it."

"You're not going to keep going on about that, are you?" Ellire complained, her back still facing Naka. She found it hurt less to sleep on her side after the whole oven collision incident.

"I just..." The airbender's voice trailed off as she stared into the night sky directly above her. She could only make out several stars shining in the distance. Perhaps one of them was actually a planet, explaining why it seemed to glow brighter than the others. The vast majority of the moon was blocked out by a tall pine tree to the side of her. Naka sighed.

"I don't know. I feel terrible every time. I understand why we do it. It's all we can to get by, just the two of us, but... They never asked for it. And I can't even imagine what it must be like in their situation."

Ellire shut her eyes slowly with the intention of getting back to sleep very soon. "Don't tell me you're getting soft, now. I don't particularly enjoy it, either, but you said so yourself: it's just something that we have to do." She paused. "I just want to help you... for us."

"Ellire... are we bad people?"

"Bad is an opinion," the firebender whispered back. "After all, I'm sure that the Coles wouldn't consider us the most exceptional house guests."

"But do YOU think we're bad?"

"...No. No, of course not."

Naka shut her eyes as well, forcing an unseen smile. "G'night."

"Night."

-x-

The following morning the majority of the vast Fire Nation police forces had gathered outside of the station in an orderly block. There was an unusual amount of mist about and the sky was a matching dull gray. The air was thick, foggy and cold, but the police (many of them being firebenders themselves) hardly seemed to notice the low temperature. Among the officials, all dressed in identical black and red uniform and standing up straight with their arms at their sides, Blaise stuck out like a sore thumb standing at the end of the first row.

However, Blaise hardly seemed to notice much less mind the way her light pink and orange attire clashed against the surrounding color spectrum. Perched upon her was miniature dragon, about the size of a hamster and a darker shade of lime green. She called her companion Aeron and he somehow possessed to ability to communicate with Blaise alone. Through her mind.

Blaise's attention was suddenly pulled in as Kumi exited the station, her black metal boots making a crunching noise against the field of small stones below her as she trudged towards a stage positioned in front of the mass of Fire Nation officials.

A hush lingered over the crowd as Chief of Police Kumi trudged up a small flight of stairs and positioned herself at the center of the stage and before a podium. There was nothing else at the podium to raise her voice or state who she was, but standing behind it made her feel important. What it did offer, though, was a small stepping stool hidden away from the public's eye in order to lift Kumi from the platform some inches more. She wasn't the tallest of people, therefore the concept of standing on something to boost her height often appealed to the high-ranking bender.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" Kumi addressed the forces, her voice ringing out loud and clear. "Members of the Fire Nation Police Department and protectors of justice! As you all are well aware, it is very early on a Saturday morning. Perhaps you are wondering why I've called you here at such an inconvenient time. I don't suppose any of you have heard of an insignificant traveling circus called A Touch of Magic?" She scanned the crowd like a hawk searching out its prey as the police lifted their chins to her, listening intently. "No?"

Kumi cleared her throat before continuing. "Well then, aren't you in for a treat. In all my years in this position, not once have I come across a duo so deserving of punishment as these two girls. As the traitor from our own homeland, Ellire, and her accomplice Naka!"

Along with Kumi's declaration a large banner was unrolled from behind her depicting a large inked drawing of the two travellers from their chests up. In the picture Naka was sticking out her tongue playfull and had her arm around Ellire, who was holding up a peace sign with one hand and smiling. Above the image was the word 'wanted,' bolded and written entirely with capital letters, and beneath it was the description:

Ellire of the Fire Nation

Naka of the Western Air Temple

Wanted for Thievery, Among Other Things

Reward: 350,000 Gold Pieces Each

Aeron snorted out a thin layer of smoke out of his nostrils from atop Blaise's shoulder. He turned his attention to her, his face still expressionless.

Looks like Old Ironfire's serious about these two. That's a whopping 700,000 gold pieces altogether!

Blaise nodded slowly in response to the dragon's statement, still keeping faced forward. "Yup," she said nonchalantly. "That does seem like a lot for Ellire and Naka. At least, more than even I would want to pay to have them captured!"

Makes you wonder what her personal vendetta is...

"I don't know." Blaise merely shrugged. "Makes my whole revenge scheme seem like childsplay, whatever it is."

The soldier standing next to Blaise looked over, an uneasy scowl upon his face. This didn't come as a surprise to the firebender, considering the fact that others couldn't hear Aeron's voice for unknown reasons while with Blaise's they, well, could.

In a poor attempt to avoid the awkwardness of explaining this to the soldier whom she never expected to see again after this meeting, she simply decided to put her finger over her own mouth, shush HIM, and then turn attention back towards Kumi and point, as if saying that that's where he ought to be focusing and not at her.

"You've gotta stop doing that," she still whispered to Aeron. "The last thing I need is another reason for people to think I'm nuts!"

Aeron snorted again, a dark green eye focused on her.

As if you didn't do a good enough job of that yourself... Oh well. Don't expect me to stop speaking my mind for your sake, but if you choose to ignore me there's not much I can do about it. I don't bite... much.

Blaise rolled her eyes. "Have I mentioned how much you suck sometimes?"

At this point the nearby policeman, being utterly convinced that Blaise was having a full-fledged conversation with herself, had taken as many steps as he could away from her without touching whomever it was positioned on his other side.

Kumi then continued, hardly allowing Blaise any time to further embarrass herself.

"Do not let their outward appearances dissuade you," she said, holding onto the podium and leaning forward. "These benders are far from innocent! Perhaps they don't appear as bad as some of our previous targets, but I assure you, Ellire and Naka are nothing more than a nuisance to our society and therefore must be captured at all costs! I will not rest until someone has put a stop to their petty crimes once and for all, and that someone will be me!"

"Or me!" Blaise shouted out, shooting her fist into the air.

Kumi jolted her head in Blaise's direction, the interruption catching her off guard. "Um... no, it's going to be me. But I suppose you can help. A bit. And what are you even doing here anyway, Blaise?!"

Blaise lowered her hand slowly, suddenly worried that that may not've been the most clever move in the history of everything. "Well..." she began, feeling compelled to speak up so that Kumi could hear her. "You did ask me to attend, Chief."

"I know! I know I did, but..." Kumi rested her arm against the podium, using it to hold up her head. "God. Sometimes I hate your stinking guts just so much."

Isn't she something special. And quite a way with words, too...

"Shut up, Aeron. No one asked you."

"What was that? Did you just tell me to shut up?!"

"No!" Blaise called back, cupping her hands over her mouth. "I was talking to Aeron! My dragon!"

"Well then!" Kumi shouted, matching Blaise's volume. "Tell it to shut up!"

"That's what I just did!"

"Good!"

Oh, for the love of...

"Why are we yelling!"

"I don't know! Maybe if you'd keep your dumb comments to yourself I could continue at a normal volume!"

"Sounds good to me!"

The two of them stopped their little shouting match abruptly. The mass of police had begun to shoot each other worried glances, but Kumi and Blaise hardly seemed to notice. Chief Kumi cleared her throat once again.

"Now... where was I? Ah, yes: Ellire and Naka. Anyway!" She pointed to the sign behind her yet again. "My first plan was to have you broken up into smaller forces and then distributed throughout the many civilizations in the Earth Kingdom, where the tricksters are assumed to still be passing through. There you will be asked to put up these posters immediately, which will hopefully encourage someone who's already encountered them to tip us off. Otherwise I expect you to watch over the area for any signs of Naka and Ellire and, if spotted, to stay hot on their trail until you are able to bring them back to me. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Chief," several of the soldiers said out loud.

"I said, is that understood?" Kumi repeated herself, slightly louder this time.

"Yes Chief!" they all shouted back in unison.

Satisfied by this respond, Kumi stormed off of the platform once again where she stopping in front of another high-ranking officer, who stood at the foot of the stairs. "How soon can we sail out from the Fire Nation?"

"With the tide," the man answered confidently.

Kumi nodded. "Good. I trust you can get the men ready in that amount of time? I would like to have a word with the captains first."

The other official nodded, turning to leave. Kumi searched for Blaise in the now dispersing crowd, who still wasn't particularly difficult to pick out among the other identical uniforms. "Blaise!" she called, waving her over.

Blaise looked up, surprised, and pointed at herself for confirmation before walking over to the Chief of Police. "Yes... My Lady?"

"I want to..." Kumi's voice trailed off distractedly. "Blaise. Did you just call me your 'lady'?"

"Nope. Not at all."

"But I swear I just heard..."

"Innocent until proven guilty."

Kumi squinted in Blaise's direction for a while before dropping the subject. "Never mind. I said before that I wanted to keep an eye on you, therefore I trust you'll stay nearby from this point on."

"I thought you said you hated me?"

"It's going to be a long trip, I can tell you that much."

"So we're speaking with the ship captains before we depart?" Blaise confirmed, desperately trying to keep this conversation as minimally awkward as possible. After all, from the sound of it they would be stuck with each other for quite some time.

"Yes. Do me a favor and try to keep up and please, for my own sanity... do try to avoid unnecessary puns." With that Kumi began to head in the opposite direction, hardly waiting for Blaise to catch up as she followed the Chief of Police from a little ways away.

Aeron flicked his scale-covered tail in amusement. Do you really intend to play by Kumi's rules this entire time? From the looks of it you two can't stand each other, not to mention the Blaise I know doesn't take orders from anyone...

Blaise grinned mischievously, keeping both eyes straight in front of her. "And doesn't the Blaise you know also always have a backup plan?"

Oh?

"'Oh' indeed. I'll stick with Kumi, play by her own rules... for now. Once I've gotten as close to my old friends as I can with their help I intend to seek out revenge on my own." Aeron made a strange hissing sound, his tongue protruding from his mouth with amusement.

How intriguing. For both of our sakes, I hope you don't mess up again...

"Don't worry, I won't. Not this time."

-x-

"You don't look much like an assassin."

"That's the thing about assassins. When you are one you don't go around telling people."

"But you told me that you were an assassin."

"How do you know I wasn't tricking you? Maybe I told you that I was an assassin so you'd think, 'now there's no way that she can be an assassin' when I really was?"

Jairin finally threw her arms into the air in defeat. "But that doesn't even make any sense!"

"Look, kid, I've been in this business longer than you've been alive!" the other girl shot back defensively. Jairin merely shrugged in response.

"I seriously doubt it."

The two of them were conversing in the middle of a pub a little ways from Jairin's house. The younger earthbender had never visited it before, her parents having always warned her about encountering the wrong sort of people in them. As if to prove them right she'd managed to run into a self-proclaimed assassin on her first try, if that's even what the waterbender really was.

Jairin stood in front of the bar area. A foot or so away the older girl was leaning back on one of the bar stools, her legs kicked on top of the counter as if she'd not a care in the world. Dressed in Water Tribe getup from head to toe, she had ridiculously long brown hair held into a ponytail by a dark and light blue striped bracelet. Two sky blue beads pinned up bits of hair a little ways above her ears.

The waterbender was wearing a sleeveless darker blue shirt with long, pale brown sleeves put on each arm separately so that there was a gap where her shoulders were. She wore a pair of pale blue tights underneath a skirt that tied around and a pair of brown boots, their edges decorated with a water-like, swirling design.

"So can you help me or not?" Jairin asked again. She held out a bunnypig bank and placed it down on top of the bar's tabletop.

It took all of the other girl's will to keep from laughing out loud. "How much you got in there, kid? A couple copper pieces?"

"Nearly 500 silver," Jairin corrected. "Mostly from chores around the house over the years, but I've got more back at home if it isn't enough. And stop calling me 'kid'! The name's Jairin, got it?"

The waterbender made a face. Even a thousand gold pieces hardly seemed worth her time, but to be perfectly honest she wasn't having any better luck with other clients as it was. It had been months upon months since anyone had hired her for her services and sitting around doing nothing had left her incredibly bored.

"You can call me Rei," she replied, eyeing the bunnypig bank. "And I suppose I'll take the job. You can tell me the details later, but from what I've heard so far it doesn't sound like it'll be too difficult."

"Does tomorrow morning work? Same place?"

"Tomorrow's fine. Bring whatever money you have."

Jairin nodded her thanks at Rei before turning to leave. Perhaps she wasn't doing the most noble of deeds (or legal, for that matter), and behind her parents' backs at that, but the younger earthbender didn't care. It would all be worth it later; they'd have to understand. If all went as planned she'd have her stuff back in no time at all and the culprits would be getting the punishment they deserved.

["Campfire" by Karina]


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