"I'm only going to ask once more. Where is he?"
Katara ignored the question, staring with loathing at the one who asked it.
Azula tutted. "Very well, be that way. I have other things to attend to, so I don't have time to question you now. But trust me, when I return, you will tell me where the Avatar has gone. My methods can be quite…persuasive."
With that ominous pronouncement, Azula walked back up to the entrance of the catacomb, and a Dai Li agent sealed the entrance.
Once alone, Katara searched the entire length of her prison, but found no hidden exits or tunnels, and sat back down again, feeling somewhat miserable.
If I was an earthbender, I could get out of here no problem. But no, if I was an earthbender, they just would have put me in a regular cell.
She sighed, and looked hopelessly around the room. There's got to be a way out of here. At the very least, someone has to come looking for me eventually…
Zuko walked down the street, his eyes surveying the houses. They appeared luxurious from the outside, and were clearly more spacious than the apartment his uncle and he were staying at.
It was the day after the opening of the Jasmine Dragon, and the new tea shop was, by all standards, a resounding success. They'd had many customers the first day, and as good word of mouth spread around, things had been even busier the second day. Between curious new customers and satisfied returning customers, he and his uncle had been busy for most of the day.
Fortunately, things started to slow down by the end of the afternoon, and Zuko was able to secure a few hours of liberty while his uncle wrapped things up for the day.
With his conversation with Katara still fresh in his mind, he felt the need to speak with her again, to try to make amends better, and to also speak with some of the others as well.
I think we're on good terms now, but I'd still like to talk to her again, and to the Avatar, if he's here. I owe him an apology more than the others, and it's best to do this sort of thing in person, I think.
Locating the house where Aang was staying, Zuko walked up to the door and knocked lightly.
Almost immediately the door flew open to reveal the blind girl that Zuko had seen with the Aang, Katara, and Sokka, a grin on her face.
"Hey, firecracker! What's up?"
Zuko looked taken aback. "Um, how did you know it was me?"
She tapped her foot lightly against the ground. "These feet can sense a lot, and I always remember the footsteps of someone I've met before."
She turned her unseeing eyes upwards toward Zuko's face. "So, what can I help you with?"
Disarmed by her blunt but friendly manner, Zuko stuttered. "Well, I came by to…um…talk." He finished lamely.
"Oh, that's cool." She said enthusiastically. "I'm afraid that the others are all gone at the moment, but I know how to carry a conversation."
She stepped back inside, then turned and added. "Oh, and I don't hold anything you did before against you, either. I can tell you've changed, and in any case I wasn't part of the group yet when you were chasing Aang, so I can't take it personally."
Zuko looked surprised at her forwardness. "Um, thanks, uh…?"
"My name's Toph." Toph stated.
"Oh. Okay." Zuko remained where he was for a moment, then shook himself and stepped inside after her.
Zuko peered around the house, and felt mildly impressed. It certainly was bigger than his apartment, and could easily accommodate four guests or more.
"It's a nice looking house you guys have here." Zuko said, gesturing around the room.
"I'll take your word for it." Toph said dryly.
Zuko looked momentarily confused, then smacked his forehead. "Sorry…"
Toph laughed. "Oh, it's okay. I've been with the others for a quite while, and they still sometimes forget I'm blind."
"Well," Zuko said. "you do seem to notice a lot of things that others don't."
"True." Toph remarked. "One of the perks of being a prodigy earthbender."
Toph stamped her foot onto the ground, causing a small rock to jump into her hand and making Zuko jump slightly. Toph tossed the rock up and down with a jaunty air.
Zuko glanced at the rock, and then noticed the back of her hand was heavily bruised. Curious, he asked her about it.
"Oh." She said, her tone disgruntled. "Yesterday I went down to an apartment in the middle ring, expecting to meet my mother there, only to be ambushed by two thugs."
"What?" Zuko said, startled. "You were attacked?"
"Oh no," she remarked. "They were two goons that my father apparently hired to bring me back by force. They'd set a metal trap to catch me, but luckily I managed to get out of the way just in time."
"Wait, your father sent them?" Zuko said incredulously.
"Yeah, at least that's what they told me after I beat them up and forced them to tell me what they were doing here." She let out a grunt. "I have to give them credit, it was a clever set up, as I can't read and my friends don't know my mother's handwriting, so there was no way we could have known the letter was a fake. But still, you'd think they would have learned their lesson after what I did at the Earth Rumble."
"The what?" By this time, Zuko was barely following what Toph was saying. Sensing his confusion, Toph quickly explained where she'd come from and how she'd joined up with the Avatar.
"…So, all in all, it's been much more fun traveling around with Twinkletoes than it was with my parents."
She paused, then added more seriously. "Although, I suppose I can't complain too much, as you seem to have had a worse time with your parents."
Zuko stiffened. "Well…I definitely had a hard time when it came to…my father." He said haltingly. "But…my mother was actually quite kind, and gentle. She cared about me. A lot." He swallowed, a lump forming in his throat.
"Where is she?" Toph asked curiously.
Zuko was silent for a moment, then said, with difficulty. "She's gone."
"Oh." Toph said, speaking more quietly. "I'm sorry."
Zuko shook his head. "It's not your fault."
"Katara also lost her mother when she was young." Toph said. "She doesn't talk about it much, but I can tell it still hurts her. And from the sounds of it, you still miss her too."
Zuko nodded absently.
Toph straightened up, and said briskly. "Well, you still have your uncle." She grinned. "And you have us."
Zuko looked sharply at her. "What? But…would you really want to be friends after…?"
"Oh come on," she said dismissively. "I can tell you're sorry, and I wasn't around when you did some of the bad stuff. I consider you a friend, and the others will warm up to you eventually."
Zuko smiled softly. "Thanks, Toph. Although, the waterbender, I mean, Katara, she seemed warmer towards me when I spoke with her yesterday, so maybe…"
Zuko suddenly frowned. "Do you know where Katara is? I thought she'd said she'd be around here today."
Toph also frowned. "Now that you mention it, I don't think she came back here last night. I didn't think too much about it cause I was still kind of flustered over those goons, but she's usually not one to stay out too late."
"Hmm." Zuko said. "Where could she have gone?"
"Well, I think she was going to the palace to help with some plans or something." Toph said. "Maybe we should go there to see if she's there, or if anyone's seen her."
Zuko looked at her in surprise. "What, do you mean going now?"
"Well, why not? No time like the present."
"But, they probably wouldn't let me in…"
"Nonsense!" She declared. "I'll vouch for you, and there's no way they'd dare disagree with me.
Zuko seemed unwilling to disagree with the young earthbender as well, and the two of them made their way towards the Earth Kingdom palace.
After a few inquiries yielded no results, they decided to ask the Earth King himself. Or rather, Toph decided, and Zuko let himself be dragged along.
Stepping into the throne room, Zuko felt taken aback. It had the same grand, austere feeling of the Fire throne, but the room seemed more inviting, and didn't invoke the feelings of dread he'd come to associate with the Fire throne.
The Earth King sat on his throne, with a large animal curled up next to him. Off to the side of the room in front of the grand throne were two Kyoshi warriors talking to each other quietly, in a tone clearly not meant for the Earth King's ears.
The stopped talking abruptly when Zuko and Toph entered the room, and stood at attention with smiles on their faces. One of them smiled quite cheerfully, but the smile on the other seemed rather fixed.
Neither Zuko nor Toph paid much attention to them, their attention focused on the Earth King. He smiled upon seeing Toph.
"Ah, hello Toph!" he said with a smile. "Is there anything you need help with?"
"No, not really." Toph said easily. "I was just wondering if you'd seen Katara anywhere."
The two Kyoshi warriors glanced at each other, then back at the guests.
"No, I'm afraid I haven't." The Earth King said with a frown. "I'm sure she's around here somewhere, though."
He turned to face Zuko. "May I ask who your companion is?"
"Oh." Toph said, sounding uncertain. "He's, um…"
"My name is Lee." Zuko said, and then quickly added. "It's a pleasure to meet you, your majesty."
"Oh, the pleasure is mine." The Earth King replied.
One of the Kyoshi warriors looked startled when Zuko spoke. She walked closer, and peered carefully at Zuko's face.
Zuko turned to face her. "Is there…something wrong?" He asked uncertainly.
"Zuko?" The Kyoshi warrior breathed with bewilderment, then abruptly covered her mouth as if to push the word back in.
Zuko froze, and after examining the Kyoshi warrior's face, recognition came to him as well. "Azula?"
Quick as lightning, Toph bent a swath of earth towards the two Kyoshi warriors and took a defensive position between them and the Earth King.
Ty Lee hit the wall, and staggered to her feet, dazed, but Azula recovered much quicker, and sent a large blast of fire barreling towards Toph and the Earth King.
But before it came anywhere near them, Zuko blocked the fire, dispelling it, and countered with his own firebending. The two continued to fight for several minutes, the room flashing with light from the bursts of flame.
The Earth King was momentarily frozen, shocked by the displays of firebending, but abruptly came to life again and yelled. "Guards! Come quickly!"
A short time after his summons, one of the generals and a squad of guards entered the throne room, momentarily taken aback by the firebending, but clearly ready to deal with the intruders.
Seeing that she was outnumbered, Azula ground her teeth in frustration.
"Damn you all." She hissed. "This isn't over."
With that declaration, she disengaged from Zuko, and dashed over to Ty Lee. Before the guards could stop her, she conjured up a pillar of fire, obscuring the two girls from view and giving off a light bright enough to force everyone in the room to shield their eyes. After a few seconds, the light faded. The ground around the area was scorched, and the two girls were gone.
"Find them!" The general barked. "Do not let them get away."
Half of the guards separated to search the rest of the palace. The other half remained at the general's side, and eyed Zuko warily.
"As for you…" The general said, looking at Zuko, but Toph interceded.
"Hold on!" Toph said anxiously. "I know he's a firebender, but he's on our side! He just helped protect the Earth King from those imposters, and he's not going to hurt anyone! Aang can vouch for him!"
The Earth King listened to Toph's pleas, but then looked to the general for his judgment.
"It is true that he appeared to be defending the Earth King, and if the Avatar can attest to his trustworthiness, we will know for certain that he is no threat." The general said. "However, it has been a long time since any firebenders have made their way into Ba Sing Se, and the circumstances are suspicious. As a result, I am afraid we will have to place him under arrest as a precaution until we get to the bottom of this. I'm sorry, but we can't afford to take any chances when the security of this palace is thrown into question."
The guards came up to escort Zuko away, and while he looked as though he wanted to run, he came quietly.
Toph whispered. "I'm sorry."
Zuko shook his head, and allowed himself to be led away by the guards.
Author's Note: I am incredibly sorry about the long delay. I'm not trying to make this a habit, but it unfortunately appears to be one I need to work on.
Feel free to leave any thoughts or comments, and Happy Easter!
Edit: My how time flies. I still get a kick out of the conversation between Zuko and Toph. I think I did a good job representing the characters, let me know what you think.