AN: Hello! First off, I am so very sorry that this took so long to write. I just didn't have the time to do this fanfic, school, and raise a family… But I have to finish this story. To those that waited, thank you. Well, read on and enjoy!
Zuko hastened his steps across the yard, urging his feet to move as fast as they could. His hands were clenched tightly in fists; his fingernails digging into the skin of his palms. The fear suffused him, but he had to keep calm. Time was of the essence.
Toph couldn't be far away, he thought nervously, as he stumbled several times on his robes, but managed to continue moving. The backyard of his mother's mansion was finally on his line of vision.
Toph, don't do anything stupid, he mentally pleaded.
There was no way in that he would be able to go after her, if he took a Komodo rhino. The only way Zuko could keep up with Toph, was if he borrowed Appa, the flying bison, and used Aang's ability to 'see' through vibrations; just like Toph did. He nodded in acceptance. His plan was slowly taking shape in his mind, the rest of it, he would have to improvise as he saw fit.
Only a few feet away, he thought remorsefully, Toph, I'm coming for you.
It took several minutes, but he was dashing up his mother's cobblestone pathway. Breathlessly, he entered through the back doors, eluding the butler that had tried very hard to understand what the Fire Lord had mumbled as he hurriedly passed by him.
At that moment, formality flew out the window. Nothing else matter at that moment. His mind and thoughts were on his beloved Toph. The different scenarios that played in his mind were baffling. The sickening thoughts of a wounded Toph laying god knew where plagued and scared him. Toph was too distraught to think straight. What if his action caused her harm? Shaking his head, he shuddered. He needed to find her… soon. An angry Earth bender wasn't good, imagine an angry Toph. That was definitely worse. He shuddered at the simple thought.
"She's gone," Zuko managed to heaved as he crossed the grandiose hallway that connected the large gathering room that overlooked the pond. He turned left, inhaled deeply and pried the large, wooden carved doors open, that led to upstairs alcove where his friends were.
"She's… she's gone." He breathed out.
"Who's gone?" Sokka asked, shoving a handful of grapes in his mouth, and leaned forward to pick more grapes from the fruit bowl at the center of the table.
"What's wrong, Zuko?" Ursa asked worriedly when she noticed her disheveled son. "Did something happen?" She rushed to his side, and cupped his hand in hers. "Do I need to send my guards…?"
"T-Toph," he interjected, yanking his hand from her grasped. "She's damn gone," he cursed, placing his hands on his knees as he gasped for air. "She's gone. She left in a hurry and I don't think that this will end well."
"Son," Ursa mumbled concerned.
"What are you trying to say?" Aang asked, getting up his chair. "Where did she go?"
"I told her," he exhaled, his sides hurting from running without taking a break. "I told her…"
"Told her what?" Suki asked, as she glanced from Zuko to Aang.
Sokka gulped loudly and slowly got to his feet. "You told her about…" Sokka trailed off.
"Yes," Zuko sighed. "I did…"
"About… her parents?" Aang asked confused. Zuko nodded again, miserably.
"Oh, man," Sokka heaved. "This isn't good,"
"I'm sorry," Aang replied dejectedly.
Suki and Katara stared around the room, hoping that someone would fill them in on what was transpiring. "Can someone fill me in on what's happening?" Suki asked puzzled. "I'm not following."
"Yes," Katara asked, nuzzling her chin on Rae's head. "I'm not understanding,"
Ignoring them, Zuko exhaled deeply. "I need you to use your bending…" Zuko began, pointing at Aang, as he ran out of the room, but quickly returned. "Maybe you can pinpoint where she's heading. A-and I need Appa," Zuko demanded, as he composed himself. "Fast."
"Oh, yes," Not wasting any time, Aang followed Zuko. "Give me a moment to gather my belongings…" Aang said to his friends.
"Sokka, I don't understand what's going on?" Katara asked worriedly.
"I'll tell you later," he groaned.
That was the last thing Zuko heard from his friends in the other room. Aang trailed after the Fire Lord, as he listened carefully to what Zuko was saying. He explained to the air bender what had transpired. Aang listened carefully and quietly, trying to piece the bits of information the Fire Lord had told him. They barged into the room that Zuko and Toph shared. Zuko rummaged through the closet, drawers, and dressers for his and Toph's clothes, cramming as much as he could in a small bag.
"We need to move fast," Zuko said hastily. "We need Appa. I need him… fast."
The two benders were deep in conversation, that they didn't hear Rae's soft footsteps.
"Papa?" Rae asked, his little feet had carried him inside the bedroom. "Is Mamma all right? Is she really gone?" he asked, his chubby little, pale hand gently caressed the bracelet his mother had given him.
"Rae," Zuko inhaled, forcing a smile, "Daddy's going on an urgent trip," he whispered, avoiding the amber eyes that were fixed on him. "He's going to go find your mother."
"Is she okay?" he asked softly.
"Yes," he nodded.
"Can I help you find her?" He asked, his bright eyes glanced at this father.
"Not this time, my son," Zuko said, turning his gaze away from Rae. "Go back to Katara. She'll keep an eye on you until I return with your mother." He said sternly, and picked up the bag.
"Please don't leave me, Papa," Rae begged softly, his bottom lip pouting.
Zuko's heart ached. He knew that Rae was confused and how he wanted to explain what was happening to his young son, but he could not. How do you explain the gravity of the matter to a doe-eyed, innocent child? He wanted to spare his son the pain.
"I can't take you with me," Zuko said, as he looked away. "This is something that only adults can solve and I need you to be a good boy and stay with the girls. They'll take care of you."
"Papa," Rae began, "I'll be a good boy. I promise that I won't be a bother. I'll behave. You won't know that I'm even there. Let me go with you, please." Rae pleaded innocently.
Hearing those words tore into Zuko's soul. The pain in Zuko's chest was unbearable. Zuko threw the bag on the mattress and sauntered over to his Rae.
"I love you," he said to his son. "And because I love you, I can't endanger your life, son."
Clearing his throat, Aang sauntered through the opened door. "I'll pack fast," Aang said over his shoulder before disappearing. "I'll meet you at the stable."
"Okay," Zuko bobbed his head, not deterring his eyes away from his son. "I'll meet you at the stable." He said as he kneeled down in front of his son and smoothly cradled him in his arms. "We'll find your Mama," he promised Rae.
Automatically, Rae's wrapped his little arms around his father's neck, resting his head on his father's shoulder and sighed. "I know you will."
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The incessant drumming in her head was worse than the news Zuko had delivered. She had too much in her mind to worry about a headache. She shuddered, recalling Zuko's voice calling after her as she sank deeper into the hole she'd formed with her earth bending. The anger that coursed through her blood and the loud thumping of her heart almost drove her insane.
The musty smell of the earth tunnel she had formed grew stronger as she continued making her path to Gaoling. It was the only thing that somewhat soothed her. Sweat trickled down the nape of her neck, her hair clung to her forehead and temples, her robe was drenched in sweat and she was exhausted. But this was good – this kept the constant thumping at bay. Her brows furrowed with precise determination, as she earthbended the moist ground in front of her in the shape of a passageway. As she moved on, the ground behind her returned to its previous position. Hunger tugged at her with loud rumbling noises, but she ignored it. She had a mission and it was to reach Gaoling in less than a day or two.
Toph closed her eyes and tried to stop the continuous sound that was irritating her. She continued pressing forward. She had travelled the part of the night; resting briefly only to continue moving. She was still at the halfway point of her destination, and she wasn't about to stop now. Gaoling was less than a hundred miles away, and she needed to reach her parents' home – soon! She was determined to end it once and for all. No more lies, she needed to know the truth. Nothing could stop her from protecting her son –from her parents or anyone that tried to harm Rae. What her parents had done was unforgivable. No matter how hard she thought about it, she couldn't forgive them. It just made her heart ache even more.
Hurt, she tried to abate the tears that stung her eyes and threatened to fall. She wouldn't cry. She forbade herself to cry. She'd done enough crying for her parents. She sighed, hoping to end her trip soon, so she could return to Zuko and Rae's side. She missed them. She missed Rae, the warmth of her son's smile. Hell, she missed everything about her precious child. Distancing herself from Rae was hard, but confronting her parents was the only way she knew she had to protect him – this was a necessity. Stopping her parents was the only way to protect her son and their future together.
Every hour that slowly passed, she grew increasingly tired. The fatigue was visible on her face. Dark circles decorated the areas under her eyes. Her face was paled from the strenuous amount of energy she had executed during her journey. She didn't let the weariness she felt stop her. Toph brought her hands together, and the passageway became longer and narrower in front of her. It was becoming obvious that she was not going to make it to Gaoling any time soon. It was late in the night, when she decided to stop and rest. If she didn't stop now, heavens knew if she would have the strength to fight her parents or their guards.
Grudgingly, she halted, willing the ground to form steps that led above ground. She hated the fact that she was tired and needed a break. Taking a bit of time to rest would do her good. She needed time to put her thoughts in order. Maybe some sleep would stop the pounding in her head. She needed to calm down and execute a foolproof plan if she was going to face Lao and Poppy Bei Fong.
If Toph's calculations were right, she would have two to three hours to rest before dawn. Resting would be beneficial for her. Inhaling loudly, she stepped out of the hole she was in and walked into the fresh air. A slow drizzle greeted her dirt-covered face, and she found the rain welcoming.
Exhaling loudly, she walked over to a tree and leaned against its trunk. Hiding under the foliage of the tree, covering herself from the soft rain, she smiled. The smell of night air and the cool breeze was pleasant. She loved the smell of the earth, but she also loved the feel of the open sky to clear her head. Toph took a moment to commune with nature.
"Time to rest," she mumbled, and pushed herself away from the tree trunk.
She sauntered over to a clearing and taking a stance, she earthbended a tent with two slabs of rocks. She crawled in to the tent and formed a third slab of rock to seal herself inside the earthly tent. She shuddered, cold. She sighed and frowned uncomfortably. She had become accustomed to the warmth the Fire Lord provided at night. The cold seeped in to her bones, but she forced herself to sleep.
"I will end this tomorrow," she reminded herself.
Morning soon would come and she would end things with her parents. She closed her pale green eyes and once again, the loud hammering and unfamiliar pounding greeted her. She tried to calm her thoughts. It was difficult, but she managed to sleep.
The light of the sun filtered through the cracks of her earth tent. Toph could sense the warmth of the sun heating the small tent. She groaned inwardly with irritation. Every inch of her body ached. She was yawned and stretched, but she was still tired and sleepy. Toph let out a long, exasperated exhale.
A loud thud hitting the wet ground greeted her. She tensed up and quickly sat up, spreading her hands over the ground.
Five heartbeats, she thought wryly.
She stood up and let the seismic vibrations paint a picture of a large flying bison yawning loudly near her campsite. She breathed out in relief. She willed the slab of rock that covered the entrance to her rock tent to fall off.
"Toph, are you okay?" the familiar low, raspy voice of the Fire Lord greeted her ears.
"Yes," she said, trying to sound irritated, but it came out like a whisper. She cursed her body's response to Zuko's proximity. What are you doing here?"
"Toph," the raspy voice called out to her. She could hear his slow, but steady footprints. "I'm here…"
She remain where she stood, too tired to move from where she was. Zuko inched closer to her. Toph shook her head, as if trying to quiet the voices in her mind.
"I am so sleepy," she muttered annoyed. "This must be a dream."
"No, Toph, it's real," she heard Zuko say her name, and it sounded so beautiful.
This time, she mustered the strength to take a step forward. She heard several thuds hit the wet ground. Zuko tensed up, but relaxed. Appa's tail wagged contently and continued hitting the ground. The vibrations around her painted a clearer vision of who it was.
"Zuko," she whispered emotionally.
Zuko knelt in front of her and without missing a step; he pulled her into his arms and kissed her lips. She welcomed the warmth of his touch.
"I'm sorry," he whispered huskily, resting his forehead on hers. "I'm so very sorry."
She closed her eyes and inhaled Zuko's familiar scent. "I'm too tired to argue, Zuko."
"I understand," He nodded, pulling her to his broad chest. "I stole Appa," he said quietly. "Aang was taking too long. I couldn't leave you by yourself. Aang was taking his time packing. I just – I took him," he rambled on. She kept quiet. She just let his hand trace lazy circles on her upper back. As much as she hated to admit it, being in Zuko's arms felt right. It was perfection. The anger that she felt, slowly subsided.
"Zuko," she began, as she pushed him away, "why did you bring him here? It's dangerous!"
"What are you talking about?" He asked, knitting his brows together. "Appa is strong."
"No, not Appa!" she hissed irritated, pulling away from him. "Why did you bring Rae?"
"Rae?" he asked confused. "He isn't here,"
"Yes, Rae, our son is here. Why is he here?" she asked annoyed.
"I left him with Katara, Sokka and my mother," he said softly.
"No, you did not," she started arguing, when she let out a deep exhale. She knew Zuko wasn't lying. Rae had probably snuck out without Zuko noticing him. "You can come out of there, Rae," she said tiredly, but grinned.
Zuko glanced down at her, and slowly looked over his shoulder. His vision settled on the giant flying bison. It was a clear morning, so Zuko had no difficulty seeing the blankets on Appa's saddle move. Suddenly, his young son's face came into view.
"Hi, Momma," Rae said sheepishly, as his little head became visible. "Hi, Papa,"
"When did you- "
Rae shrugged and came out from under the covers. Appa gently lower his head, and the small child was able to hop off the animal.
"I snuck under the blankets when you were arguing with Aang to hurry up," he chuckled nervously. "He wasn't happy," Rae said about his father, as he slowly trudged toward his parents. "I wanted to help you find her."
"Rae," Zuko said exasperated, as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "It's dangerous."
"No, it isn't. Momma and you can protect me," Rae said proudly.
Zuko kept a hold of his temper. "By Agni, you're both safe. That's all that matters," Zuko cursed. "You look like hell," he said to Toph and chuckled, as he brought her to his chest.
She chuckled, too, forgetting about how angry she was at him. "Why did you follow me? How did you know where I was?"
"It doesn't matter, Toph," he said, reaching out to grab Rae's arm. He brought him closed to him and sighed loudly. "We are together again. That's all that mattered. I missed you." Zuko said, kissing Toph's lips.