I don't own Avatar. Cry me a river.
Zuko watched the avatar and his friends load up Appa's saddle, clutching a small scroll in his hand. He waited in the distance for a few moments, as if those borrowed seconds could deflect the disappointment he was about to bestow on them. They were laughing despite the bags under their eyes, even Toph. The avatar gleefully rode an air scooter around with boyish excitement, inadvertently flinging dust onto the rest of the group who didn't seem to mind. Zuko swallowed and took a step forward.
"Hey, Spark Master," smiled Toph, always the first to notice when a new set of footsteps approached. "Did you come to say goodbye?"
"That's so cute, Zuzu," said Katara in a mocking baby voice that pierced through her obvious fatigue.
"No, actually," sighed Zuko regrettably. He unrolled the paper and held it out for them to see. "Something's come up."
The group crowded around and peered at the five letters scrawled on the scroll. Sokka threw his hands into the air and kicked a pebble on the ground angrily. "This always happens!" he exclaimed. "Every time we're this close to a vacation, something has to come up!"
"Would someone mind reading it to me?" asked Toph irritably.
"It says, 'A.Z.U.L.A.'," said Katara, her voice betraying her desire to be gliding in the air on Appa's sturdy back.
"A.Z.U.L.A.?" said Toph.
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Aang.
Zuko cleared his throat. "We think it's an organization dedicated to freeing Azula and the general reconquering of the Earth Kingdom."
Toph grunted. "Not a very subtle name," she said.
Katara shook her head scornfully. "To think that people like that still exist."
"Well, it explains why the negotiations have been taking so long," Aang pointed out. "There are still plenty of loyalists out there."
"I was looking forward to going to the South Pole," grumbled Toph.
"So what are we supposed to do?" asked Sokka in a dismayed tone, obviously sharing Toph's disappointment.
"There is some good news," Zuko spoke up. "We've already got a probable location for their hideout, an old house on the fringes of the city. If we act quickly we can catch them off guard, and you still might have time for your vacation."
Aang eagerly opened his glider. "So what are we waiting for?"
Sokka put his hand under his chin the way he did when he was thinking about something important, or when he wanted to play therapist. "Something's a little strange," he said in a scholarly tone. "Why would they be so obvious? They have such an obvious name, and Zuko easily found their hideout? I don't know. It smells like a trap."
"Exactly," concurred Zuko. "We have to be very cautious. I think only Aang and Sokka should go inside while the rest of us wait outside as backup."
Katara scoffed. "And leave them in danger? I don't think so."
"Look," said Sokka, "It makes more sense for us to split up so they can't capture both the avatar and the Fire Lord."
"But they won't capture anyone if we all work together," asserted Katara stubbornly.
"Relax, Sweetness," chimed Toph smugly. "I'll be able to tell everything that's going on, so if they need our help we'll be right there."
"My thoughts exactly," said Zuko.
Katara grumbled. "I still don't like this idea."
"Come on. What's the worst that could happen?" said Sokka with a weary smile.
"Please don't say that."
After donning their peasant clothing, enabling free movement in the poorer neighborhoods of the Fire Nation capitol, the group set out to find A.Z.U.L.A.'s hiding place. Aang wore a headband and a unimportant cap, of course, and Zuko's hooded cloak did a decent job of covering his scar as long as he bowed his head low enough. They walked past the highly guarded Fire Nation prison here Iroh had been held, what looked to be a huge beehive carved maliciously into the walls of the volcano. They walked through the city, drawing as little attention as they could, and felt the sun slip beneath the lip of the crater. They passed by old houses and poorly maintained shacks, where garbage tumbled through the streets with the wind and people's backs were permanently hunched over from years of demanding manual labor. They passed an old woman begging for coins with a cup, and Aang couldn't resist tossing a few coins in before going following the others.
"Even after all we've done," Aang whispered to Katara, "the poor people are still separated from the rest, in Ba Sing Se, Omashu, and even here."
"Did you think change would just happen overnight?" asked Katara.
"I hoped so," Aang whispered forlornly.
They passed another beggar, and once again Aang met the pleading eyes and was forced to toss a meager pair of coins into her cup.
"Don't do that," whispered Zuko fiercely.
"You don't want them to find out we have money or you'll be giving it all away soon enough."
"That doesn't sound too bad," said Aang.
Zuko sighed and mumbled something or other about Air Nomads. "And you don't want people to know we don't belong here. We're supposed to be blending in, not forming a charity."
"But we have to help them," protested Aang.
"Now's not the time."
"When is the time?"
They stopped in front of a door to a rickety house, and Zuko was glad to leave the conversation behind. All but one of the hinges were missing and the porch light flickered on and off like a perpetual strobe. Window frames were off-center, and the building didn't have glass or even paper to keep prying eyes out. The wood was splintering all around the frame, giving the impression that it was simply waiting for the right time to collapse.
"This is it?" whispered Sokka.
Zuko nodded his head. "Be careful, you two." He, Katara, and Toph hid around the side. Sokka pushed the door gently, and it gave in to his touch easily, light and a band of voices spilling out through the thin crack.
Sokka turned to Aang. "This is really fishy," he said. "It's like they're trying to get caught."
Aang nodded. "Let's be careful, like Zuko said." Together they pushed the door open and marched into the main room, making sure to close the door behind them.
The smell was the first thing that hit them, even before the sights. It was like a barn, or what Appa would smell like if he were confined to an airtight room all day. Animal feet danced inside Aang's nose, making him want to sneeze, but he held it in, not wanting to give himself away.
The room itself was small, but still managed to fit a sizable number of people inside with ease. Small striped, furry armadillos scampered about on the floor, chased by children or others of their kind. The adults present were talking nonchalantly, crowding the meager buffet along the side.
"Is this A.Z.U.L.A.?" asked Sokka importantly, employing a deep, manly voice that Aang hadn't heard since Suki had returned to Kioshi Island.
Sokka's bravado only managed to attract the attention of one man, a short, plump person who waddled like a penguin whenever he took a step. "Yes, this is the Armadillo Zebras are Undeniably Lovable Association," he said, walking up and shaking Sokka's hand vigorously. "Have you come to show your affection for these darling little critters? Fascinating, aren't they? They've got the size and proportions of an armadillo, but the fur, snout, and tail of a zebra, creating, without a doubt, the most wonderful of animals in the world, wouldn't you agree?" An armadillo-zebra had already jumped into Aang's arms and was licking the laughing boy's cheeks.
Outside, Toph was pressing her ears against the wood, taking care to avoid potential splinters.
"Well?" prodded Katara anxiously. "Are they alright?"
"There's laughter," said Toph, puzzled, searching for something else to describe the situation. "They seem to be at a party or something."
"A party?" said Zuko.
Aang patted the little creature on the top of its head, then set it gently on the floor to run off. Soon it returned with newfound exuberance, joined by some of its friends.
"Why do you call yourselves A.Z.U.L.A.?" asked Sokka, itching for the opportunity to jump out and accuse.
"It's the acronym," said the man simply, scooping up a little armadillo zebra and snuggling close. "Armadillo Zebras are Undeniably…"
"Yeah, I know," interrupted Sokka. He was not happy about missing time in the South Pole to deal with some rank fellowship promoting animal appreciation. "But don't you think the name is a little suggestive?"
"Hm, you may be right," He said contemplatively. He turned to the armadillo zebra. "What do you think, cutie pie? Aren't you the cutest thing to ever walk the face of the earth? Yes you are, yes you are!" The armadillo zebra wiggled around in the man's grasp.
Aang was rolling along the floor in laughter, dog piled by a brigade of adorable armadillo zebras. They were jumping at his face, trying to fight through his hands to maliciously lick his face.
Outside, Toph smirked. "I think Twinkle Toes is ticklish."
Katara rolled her eyes, hoping in vain for some real information. "Yeah, I know that."
Zuko groaned. "I did not need to know that." Katara blushed.
"Do you have anything to do with former Princess Azula?" probed Sokka, coming as close as he dared to the man's face without getting licked by his armadillo zebra.
"Nope," he said simplistically. "We are dedicated to the cuteness that is the armadillo zebra, and Azula did not acknowledge its indisputable adorability. Therefore we have no interest in her. Isn't that right, Smookums? Aren't you cute? You are cute!"
Sokka groaned. "Then maybe you should change your name to the 'Armadillo Zebras are Undeniably Lovable Organization' instead. It would be less confusing."
"A.Z.U.L.O.? Hm," said the man. He set his armadillo zebra on the floor and raised his voice to reach everyone in the room. "Everyone, listen up! I move to change our name to the 'Armadillo Zebras are Undeniably Lovable Organization' so as not to confuse people looking for former Fire Princess Azula."
"Who cares?" shouted a woman in the back. "It doesn't matter what we call ourselves. All that matters are these little balls or pure cuteness."
The man turned to Sokka, who had just whapped his forehead, and smiled. "Is that better?" he asked.
"Yeah, sure, whatever," sighed Sokka. "Thanks." He turned to go, dragging Aang behind him, who was still trying to fight off the armadillo zebra attack on his lickable face. "Come on," the irritated warrior snapped at Aang. "We're getting this vacation started."
All heads in the room faced the front as the door slammed and the two outsiders had disappeared. Even the overactive armadillo zebras had stopped moving, steeping the room in silence.
"Was that the avatar?" asked one man in hushed anticipation.
"Yes, I swear it was!" whispered a smiling woman. "I could see the tattoo when one of the armadillo zebras lifted his headband for a second!"
"So we threw him off!" said a man, joining in on the whispering.
"Did you hear what they said at the end?" said another woman at an excited near-whisper. "They're going on vacation! They're leaving!"
"I wonder how long they'll be gone!" said another.
"Now's the best time to put our plan into action!"
"We're so close!"
The plump man turned to the man next to him. "Send word to General Kumo that phase one is complete. The avatar and the Fire Lord have been thrown off." He picked up one of the armadillo zebras and scratched behind its ears as frenzied whispers saturated the room around him.
"It was almost too easy!"
"I can't believe the plan worked so well!"
The plump man scratched his content armadillo zebra behind its ears, grinning madly, the light of a distant fire burning in his eyes. "Soon, Smookums," he cooed, "soon our princess will be free!"
Foo Foo Cuddly Poops: But… but I thought I was the cutest thing ever to walk the face of the earth!
I know the plot lends itself to a much longer story with many more chapters, but I want this to stand on its own. Besides, I've got two other series that I've been falling behind with.
Foo Foo Cuddly Poops: Stop ignoring me and my ultimate cuteness!
Why wasn't Iroh held at the Boiling Rock? Seems like it'd make more sense to put him at the highest security prison in the Fire Nation...
Foo Foo Cuddly Poops: Gah!