A Few(one) Notes(note)~
-Hey look, an update. And a short one at that. Better late and skimpy than never tho, right?
Right? No seriously, is that right? I'm not so sure.
Chapter 7: No Woman No Cry
Toph woke in the morning feeling like…
Shit was the only word that came to mind. Her head felt like there was an axe being driven through it at an excruciatingly slow pace. Every little bit of motion only served to push the dull blade further and further, inch-by-inch until she was pretty sure there was two clean halves of her freshly cleaved skull. Her ears rang with what she guessed was the sound of at least a hundred bell towers, and every sound felt like someone was taking a hammer right to the side of her temple. The first thing she could think of doing was throwing off the blankets that seemed to be intent on smothering her to death. After some frustrated kicking that left her out of breath, she was free of her silky constraint.
With a groan, she rolled on her side, letting herself tumble out of bed and onto her feet. What greeted her was not pleasant. The sensation was akin to her feet were screaming at her. The subtle vibrations and sensations that normally constructed her entire world had suddenly become her enemy.
Mortal enemy, she corrected herself.
Every little tactile impulse was a nail in her brain's coffin. All the pulses she could feel in the palace were beating at her mind like a hypnotyzingly rhythmic battering ram. At least she had made it to her room after last night, somehow. Toph tried to center herself. She tried to ignore the sensations pounding at her. She could almost hear Zuko's voice in her ear, smiling at her, laughing at her. Giving her grief for what a lightweight she was.
Breathe, Toph. Breathe.
She repeated the mantra to herself steadily as she made her way out of her room through the garden doors. As soon as she set foot onto the loamy soil of the grass, it was like the world around her was suddenly muffled. Toph took a moment to enjoy the newfound quiet and inhale the fresh air of the garden before she continued on towards Zuko's room. It was odd, but for some reason she couldn't feel him out. Cursing the incessant chirping of birds that was slowly driving her mad, she attributed the Fire Lord's absence to either the stifling effect of the grass beneath her feet or the fact that he was probable still in bed and the wooden frame was just blocking him out.
That stupid bed frame had always annoyed her. She could be standing right beside it but as long as he was on that bed, Zuko was perfectly invisible to her. Intending to march straight into his room, drag his ass out of bed, and give him a piece of her mind for not taking better care of her and reminding her not to drink so much, Toph stomped the rest of the way through the garden and into the rows of columns that prefaced Zuko's bedroom. She found the doors were already open, so not wasting any time she stopped at the edge of the bed and started groping around haphazardly in an attempt to get a grasp on Zuko.
But the more her hands fumbled around in the silk sheets, the more it seemed that the Fire Lord was not in his bed after all. After a groan and a series of curses at Zuko for making her effort of walking all the way over here wasted, she centered herself in preparation. With a stomp, she sent a miniature shock wave through the world around her. The vibrations it caused were enough for her to feel out everyone inside of the palace grounds that was on any kind of stone. As the information rushed back at her, she tried to sort through it all.
Katara was in her room across the garden. Aang was in the stables, probably tending to Aapa, Toph assumed. The rest of their gang was still lying about in the common room, most of which were still asleep. But Zuko was nowhere to be found. It was more than a little off. The absolute absence of his presence gave the earthbender the impression that the Fire Lord was outside of the palace walls. And that didn't sit well with her.
Zuko never left without telling her.
So why would he now? Rationalizing it as her own mistakes for somehow overlooking his whereabouts, she tried to suppress the nervous feeling that was rising to lump in her throat. After brushing her fingers across the silk of his bed, Toph turned around and exited the other set of doors to Zuko's room. As she set foot in the hall of the royal quarters, she sensed a pair of guards just around the corner. After attempting to shake off her hangover, she did her best to put on her business face as she approached the patrolling guardsmen.
"Good morning, General." The two firebenders snapped to attention as Toph approached.
Toph waved off their formality after they finished their bow, "At ease. Have either of you seen the Fire Lord this morning?"
"No, General. I was under the impression Fire Lord Zuko was still," the guardsman shot his comrade a grin and tried to hide his laughter, "…recovering from last night. If I may, ma'am, I would suggest you check his chambers."
Toph thanked the pair of soldiers and returned them to their duty before turning back down the hall. Something was definitely wrong. The feeling in her gut was as good as proof. But as she walked toward Katara's room, taking care to control her pace, she began to second-guess herself.
So what if the guards haven't seen him?
He probably took the garden exit.
But then why can't I feel him.
You're a mess, Toph. Concentrate woman.
It's no use. I still can't find him…
The earthbender materialized back into reality as her name played in her ears. Suddenly, Katara was standing right in front of her.
"It's not like you to zone out while you're walking around." The waterbender chided, "You almost walked into me."
Toph ignored her comment, "Katara, have you seen Zuko?"
Katara frowned as she heard her name come out of Toph's mouth. It may have been a while since they had been around each other, but Katara knew for a fact that Toph never used first names unless something serious was going on.
"I haven't seen him since last night," the waterbender's mind flickered to the conversation she had with the Fire Lord as she watched Toph's mouth slowly compress into a thin, perfectly horizontal frown line, "Why? What's going on?"
Toph shook her head, decided it was best not to jump to any conclusions, and stepped around Katara, "Nothing. I just can't find him."
Katara paused, stunned for a moment as Toph quickened her pace. In spite of her brush off, something was very obviously wrong with the little earthbender. So Katara stepped into pace behind her, "So what? Is that unusual?"
"Yes," Toph replied flatly.
Katara was a bit taken aback by the determination in Toph's voice, "Where are you going?"
Stepping up her stride, Toph wove through the corridors of the palace with practiced efficiency, "Iroh, then the palace gate, then Aang."
The waterbender said nothing in response. Something was different about Toph. Her answers were shorter, more serious, lacking in her usual playful, mischievous tone. The whole air around her was changing. And the more she noticed it, the more it gave her a nervous feeling.
Toph came to a stop outside of the room Iroh always occupied when he stayed in the palace. Not placing common courtesy high on her list of priority at the moment, Toph threw open the doors without knocking and walked inside. She immediately felt Iroh sitting with his knees bent under him in the traditional Fire Nation posture in front of a Pai Sho board.
"Toph, Katara, what have I done to earn a visit from such beautiful ladies so early in the morning?" Iroh placed a hand on his knee, and hoisted himself up, trying not to let his old age show.
"Iroh, have you seen Zuko?"
Katara watched as the smile on Iroh's face instantly melted away as Toph's voice met his ears. It seemed he too could tell that something was wrong. As Iroh looked at her, and then back to Toph, his brow pressed into a serious expression.
"No I'm sorry to say I haven't seen my dear nephew since the party last night," the old general tugged at his beard, "From the worry in your eyes I would assume that you haven't either."
When Toph remained silent, Katara stepped forward to Iroh, "Neither of us have seen him since last night. Apparently, the guards in the royal quarters said he should still be in his room."
"He's not," Toph spoke up. She couldn't help second-guessing herself. Maybe she was just missing him. But the more she checked, the more it was obvious Zuko was not within the palace walls.
"Am I to also assume that you can not feel him out, Toph?" Iroh asked, stepping towards the doors where he gestured for them all to exit.
Both the general and the waterbender looked over at Toph. The expression on her face was warping into something almost sinister. Something desperate and wild.
"I thought I was just too hung over. That I was making a mistake. But I'm not. Zuko isn't here."
Iroh trained his eyes on his surrogate niece, watching the range of emotions running through her. Anxiety was furrowing her brow, "Are you certain?"
"Yes," Toph confirmed, "There's no doubt."
"I see," Iroh responded slowly.
In between them, Katara watched as something switched in the two generals. Like some sort of lever had been pulled, changing their whole demeanor.
"I will assemble the Palace Guard. Toph, head to perimeter, gather the watchmen and see if you can find anyone who has seen Zuko. It's possible he simply left into the city. Katara, please find your companions and do the same. There is much ground to cover."
"Wait." Toph's command was crisp and absolute enough to stop both her companions, "We need to consider the possibility that palace security has been breached. If something has happened to Zuko, the last thing we should do is announce it to the world. Until we have solid information, this should be kept as quiet as possible."
Iroh ran a hand through the tufts of his beard as he considered what the blind girl had said. There was unquestionable wisdom in her point. Announcing the Fire Lord had gone missing would cause panic throughout the palace and eventually the entire Fire Nation. Not to mention it was tantamount to declaring their newfound state of vulnerability to any enemies they may have and the world at large,
"Toph is correct," Iroh concluded, "These circumstances call for prudence and caution. The first thing we need is, as my dear niece said, information. Katara, please get everyone together, but do it quietly. Toph we should-"
"Niece…" The word weighed heavy on the earthbender's mind, not because it was used in reference to her, she was used to that. What bothered her was something else all together. It was easy to forget sometimes, but she wasn't the only niece Iroh had. The scowl on Toph's face was warped into a furious mask as the realization struck her.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. How could I not have realized?
Zuko had just gone to see her the day before, alone and unscheduled, and now he had mysteriously vanished. That was too convenient to be coincidence. Her mindset on what she had to do, she tried to subside the bubbling mixture of fear and rage that burned in the pit of her stomach. If she had anything, anything, to do with this than the life Zuko had spared her would go to waste. Because this was going to be that psycho bitch's last day alive.
Toph spun on her heel, threw open the heavy wooden doors in a thunderous whirlwind of seething wrath and was out of the room before Katara could really get a grasp on the situation. Iroh was soon next to her and in an instant he had a hand on her shoulder and a comforting smile on his face, "Don't frown so much, my dear. Toph can handle more than you or I could dare dream to. And such a lovely girl shouldn't worry so. You'll get wrinkles to rival this old man's."
And with that, he too left swiftly through the door in a swirl of robes and hot air that betrayed the serene smile on Iroh's face. Leaving Katara alone and at a loss. Something about Toph's sudden unbridled frenzy, and Iroh's controlled but poorly hidden fear had frightened her. Those were two of the most powerful people she had come across in her entire life, and seeing them act with such anxiety was more than enough to convey the gravity of the situation. If they were worried, shit had truly hit the fan. She shook her head clear and set a foot forward with renewed purpose. There was one person who could be very useful to her. And in spite of how much she didn't want to rely on him, she found herself running at full tilt right to the stables. Right to Aang.
OMG OMG OMG! Right?
Not. Anyway, I forgot how fun this is. Drop me a line and say my fun was fun for you too. Or just say whatever. I'm not that picky.