Avatar: The Last Airbender and all of its characters are owned by Nickelodeon. This story is owned by me.
Chapter 3: The Aftermath
"Aang, give me your hat"
"I'm the Firelord and I'm about to walk into my own palace, which contains several generals of a rival nation with which I am on the brink of war, one of which is dead, all after losing their king during the worst night of my life, I'd like to look at least slightly more dignified than a stray cat that lost a fight with a hedgeclipper. Not to mention that the mother of my future child is in there and I have to make her think I'm remotely responsible."
"And you really think Aang's hat will make you look more dignified?" asked Sokka.
"Hey, what's wrong with my hat?"
"Aang, it's the exact same hat that Dock wore," said Sokka, "if Dock does it, it's not dignified."
"Will you just cooperate!?" Zuko growled, grabbing the hat off of Aang's head.
The four of them walked up the palace steps and approached the front guards.
"Halt!" one of the guards commanded, "Who do you peasants think you are, bringing your stink within a mile of the Royal Pal-"
In a moment he recognized Zuko's scar and Aang's arrow and made the same face Aang did when he accidentally water-cut one of Katara's hair loops off.
"I would like to enter my house, please," Zuko said in a tone more like Azula than any of them would ever point out to his face, "Unless of course I don't meet your standards, lieutenant."
"N-...No, of course not, my Lord," the guard stammered, "We are glad to see you return safely."
"Oh, so you thought something might happen to me? Because I can't handle myself? Are you calling me weak, lieutenant?"
All the color drained from the guard's face, "Not at all, sir! It's just that given what happened with the Earth Kingdom general last night-"
"Oh yes, your arrogance almost made me forget your incompetence, how you allowed a guest in my home to be murdered!"
"B-...but sir! I wasn't stationed anywhere near where he was found! It must have been someone else assigned to that area that-"
"Oh, so now you're selling out your fellow guards, pointing fingers at them to save your own skin!?" Zuko was now face-to-face with the man, making sure the scarred side was slightly more towards him, "The only reason I don't roast you alive on the spot is that I might get your ashes in my hair and I don't have time to wash."
With that, Zuko, barged through the great doors, leaving the guard with only his spear to prop him up and keep him from fainting, leading the others close behind him. Sokka looked confused and terrified at Zuko, Aang was looking like a disapproving father, and Toph was trying not to laugh until they got out of earshot.
"Scaring the crap out of that guard wasn't necessary," scolded Aang.
"It made me feel better," said Zuko grumpily, "and I needed to get that out of my system before I deal with the dirty people. No offense, Toph."
"We've been over this, Sparky, it's a healthy coating of earth."
After checking to make sure his hair (or lack thereof) was covered underneath his commandeered hat, Zuko led the others into the room where they were keeping the dead general's body. They saw him laid on a table with a cloth covering his face. Katara and the royal physician were examining the body, while three of the Earth King's other generals stood to the side, talking amongst themselves in hushed tones. The Earth King was nowhere to be seen.
This last one didn't go unnoticed by anyone entering the room. The sound of all four of them gulping at once drew a quick glance from Katara, followed by a double-take that almost made her neck snap. Aang could feel her blue eyes downright scanning every point in his body, especially his eye. He wasn't confident that he would be able to avoid the truth about what happened last night. It was terrible, he felt all exposed and naked in front of her. Well actually no, that's a bad metaphor, he thought, because if that were literally the case it would be the opposite of a problem. Luckily the utter ridiculousness of Sokka-sorry, Mr. Fire's- luxurious beard was enough to draw the attention of everyone in the room. And possibly outside the room. Hell, some people in the Earth Kingdom probably got distracted from what they were doing somehow.
Katara couldn't decide who she was going to kill first. Did they think this was a joke? She had spent all morning with a dead general and, even worse, three live ones. How the hell did Toph end up being the most remotely presentable person there? She ran to catch them at the door so that she could have a go at them first before the generals did.
"What. On Earth. Is wrong with you?" She growled through clenched teeth.
"We came here as soon as we got your message, Katara," said Zuko, knowing full well that she wasn't criticizing their tardiness.
"Sokka, for Yue's sake, aren't you old enough to grow your own beard by now?" she motioned to Sokka's facial fur.
"Well, um, you see," Sokka said, putting on false bravado, "time was of the essence, and I thought the intimidation factor that comes from a manly beard would come in handy if we were ever going to interrogate some suspects."
Katara pinched the bridge of her nose, wondering how a liar this bad managed to scam an entire town's worth of gamblers out of their money. It didn't help Sokka's lie that Toph was currently doubled over laughing at Sokka's attempted toughness, which in turn wasn't helping placate the angered generals at the other end of the room.
"Settle down, Captain Boomerang," said Toph, "from what I've heard about the deal in Ching, you couldn't crack a case even if it plopped open in front of you. I'll get to the bottom of this."
"Oh no," Zuko almost wept.
Toph face went into "serious business" mode, "those uptight uniform dudes are hiding something, I'll get them to talk," and with that she strutted off to the generals before any of them could stop her.
Well, I guess that's that then, thought Zuko, my country's going to war.
Toph walked right up to the closest general, a tall, broad, behemoth of a man that had probably eaten things bigger than Toph by accident before. He looked at her with a half amused, half annoyed expression, "And who are you?"
"I will be asking the questions here, thank you very much," Toph said threateningly to the man's navel, "Alright, let's start with what we know. Who is the dead guy?"
"Yes," said the general.
"I mean his name."
"The dead guy."
"The guy who was murdered."
"The guy on the damn table!"
"Hu is dead!"
"That's what I'm asking! Who is dead?"
"That's his name."
"That's who's name?"
"...Okay, back up. Who is the guy on the table?"
"WELL TELL ME WHO THAT GUY IS NAMED!"
"That is his name!"
"'That' is his name?"
"Good, now we're making progress. Okay, how did That die?"
"How did what die?"
"The guy you just told me about."
"I told you about Hu."
"What, did you forget?"
"The name of the dead guy."
"The guy we're talking about! Him! Is That his name?"
"Well then why did you TELL me his name was That!?"
"His name was what?"
"His name was 'What?'"
"The dead guy."
"I mean what is his name?"
"Not 'What", Hu"
"I just asked who!"
"How could you ask Hu, you asked Mi!"
"uuuuggggghhh, okay, forget the dead guy, what's your name, genius?"
"I am Mi."
"Oh, forget it," she pointed to a second general.
"Who is he?" she asked pointing to the first.
"Not you, him!"
"He is Mi."
"Okay, wise guy, if he's you, then who are you?"
"I am Yu."
"...WHAT!? Oh, forget it, you're crazier than this guy," she turned back to the first, "You!"
"Yes?" asked the second.
"SHUT UP! You, tell your buddy to stop fooling around, I've got a murder to solve!"
"I'm sure he knows that," the first said sarcastically, "Yu is not blind."
"Um, actually, genius, in case you haven't noticed, me is blind!"
"I am not blind."
"I didn't call you blind!"
"Good, because Yu is not blind."
"But I AM-oh screw you," she turned to the last general, "Who are you?"
"YES, everyone here!"
"Wi is me, he is Yu, he is Mi, and he is Hu."
"...I'm sorry, who is who?"
"Well, yes, obviously."
" …...WHO. ARE. ALL. OF. YOU!?"
The second one spoke up, "He is Wi, he is Mi, I am Yu, and Hu is dead."
"Oh, hell with it, I don't even care who's dead anymore."
"You don't care Hu is dead-!?"
"Okay, everyone calm down," Katara interjected, "Toph, everyone, I'd like you to meet General Yu, General Mi, and General Wi. They've been with me here to try to solve General Hu's murder."
Toph's face went beet red, "Well, this all could have been avoided by having real names," she said before falling in line with Zuko, Sokka, and Aang on the other side of the body.
"Okay," Katara began, finally beginning the investigation, "here's what we know: General Hu was found in the west wing of the palace, down the hall from Zuko's chambers."
Zuko got irritated. Did Katara have to highlight how his security was so incompetent even right outside his own room?
"From what I can tell, the cause of death was electrocution," Katara continued, her voice somber with the weight of what she was about to say, "Zuko, I think he was killed by a lightningbender."
Through the vibrations in the floor, Toph could feel the behinds of all three of her companions clenching at the simultaneous realization.
"Um…" Sokka ventured cautiously, "How did you say he was killed."
Katara looked confused, she had spoken plainly, "Lightningbending, Sokka."
Trying to keep his voice from sounding like the trapped mousepig he was feeling like, Zuko cleared his throat, "You sure about that, Katara?"
Katara was annoyed about having her expertise question, "Yes, Zuko, I'm sure. In case you've forgotten, I'm well acquainted with these injuries. His scarring is nearly identical to the kind you and Aang got from Azula."
"Anything else we can go on? Anything strange or out of place?" asked Aang.
"Well...this is probably nothing, but...his shoes are weird."
"His shoes?" Sokka scoffed with a raised eyebrow, "Katara, I know you're a girl, but clothes aren't always-"
"Will you shut up and look, you moron? They're clearly not his. In fact, they look fire nation. And they're several sizes too big for him."
That certainly shut Sokka up. Now that he looked at the shoes, they definitely didn't belong there. Because he had been wearing them last night. All four of them somehow resisted the urge to look down at the small Earth Kingdom shoes that Sokka was now stuck in.
"This is an indescribable outrage!" said Mi, "We demand justice be issued at once!"
"It will be, general," said Katara, "lightningbending is a very rare skill. It shouldn't be hard to narrow down who had the means and opportunity. We'll bring the city's police force on the case immediately."
"NO!" said Zuko, entirely too quickly, "...I mean, uh, I think it would be wiser to play this close to the chest. Obviously someone in my own court may be involved. We don't know who can be trusted and we don't want to tip the assassin off that we're looking for him," he bowed to the generals, "I will personally oversee the investigation and make sure this crime does not go unpunished."
"You, and the Earth King, surely," said Yu, "where is he?"
Zuko gulped, "Oh, yes, Kuei. He, um...Sokka, tell him."
"Wait, what? Oh, um...right before we got your message about General Hu, Kuei said that he wanted to go on a ride on Appa. A long flight. By himself. And of course we couldn't say no, because we're all such good, loyal friends of the Earth Kingdom," He finished with two thumbs up and a big smile, "He's sure to be back from the countryside in a couple of hours."
Yu pointed a finger at Zuko, "If something has happened to the king, we promise you, it will mean war."
Zuko stood his ground, "I promise you, nothing bad has happened to King Kuei. Please, return to your guest rooms where you will be safe, and as soon as we have any new information, you will be the first to know."
The three generals reluctantly marched out of the room.
"Well," Sokka began in his Wang Fire voice, "based on this evidence, I can deduce that-"
Katara had had enough, "Oh, will you shut up and take that thing off?" She grabbed the fake beard and yanked down hard, making it peel off with a cringe-worthy ripping sound. Sokka squeaked and wimpered like a kicked puppy and bit his lip to prevent any more unmanliness from escaping.
Toph chuckled, "Oh my god, please tell me that Sokka is crying right now."
"What? No," Sokka choked, "I am not crying!...you're crying."
Toph got a wicked grin, "My legs aren't shaky anymore, Sokka, I can tell your lyyyyiiiiiiing."
"Oh, will you all just stop it!?" Katara burst, "Sokka, stop crying. Toph, stop laughing. Zuko, will you please take off that ridiculous hat-"
"You put a hat on, woman!"
"Wait, you think it's ridiculous?" asked Aang.
"And Aang," Katara continued, her voice getting chillingly calm, "You want to step outside for a word?"
Aang most definitely did not want to step outside for a word, but he was already acting suspicious as it is. Sokka wished Aang spoke he and Toph's foot language so he could tell him No, stop, she's using divide and conquer!
Aang followed Katara out into the hall and she immediately rounded on him, "Okay, for starters, what in Yue's name happened to your eye?"
"Oh, well," Aang stammered, scratching the back of his head, "You see, um, we were in this tavern, aaaaand Zuko and Sokka had gone to get some drinks, and there was...this guy."
"Ooooh, a guy, that explains it."
"Well he was this big, drunk guy, and he started tooooo...um, disrespect Toph. Yeah, that's it. Like, dangerously so. And the whole place was wood, so she couldn't bury the guy alive. So it was up to me to make him back off. But you see, I couldn't earth, water, or airbend, because I didn't want to out myself as the Avatar, and I couldn't firebend, because it was crowded and people might have gotten hurt, soooooo I tried to fight him off hand-to-hand."
Katara slapped her forehead, "Oh spirits, I see where this is going."
"Hey, I thought if Sokka does it, it couldn't be that hard. Anyway, I did manage to make him get lost, but he gave me this eye in exchange."
Katara's voice instantly changed to one of extreme affectionate concern, "Oh my goodness, are you alright? That was so good of you to try to protect Toph."
"Oh, well, ya know," Aang chuckled and shrugged, "You know me, that's just the Aang thing to do."
Katara changed subjects, "Okay, now why were all of you acting so weird in there? What the hell is going on, Aang?"
"I was just about to ask that. You seem really grumpy, Katara."
"Yeah, you seem really tired and stressed. Maybe you should go back to bed. Ya know...for the rest of the day."
Oh, I'll show him grumpy, "Aang, of course I'm tired and stressed! I barely got any sleep last night! Aren't we going to talk about the letter you sent me last night?"
As a master airbender, Aang never thought he would ever lose his ability to breathe like this, "The...the letter?"
"Yes, Aang! I mean, I know we have more important things to worry about right now, but, ya know, it's kind of a big deal."
"Big de-? I mean, yes, of course it's a big deal. The biggest of deals. As deals go, this is definitely on the bigger end of the...deal spectrum. Obviously."
"Do Zuko and the others know?" Katara asked in a quiet, nervous voice. Katara? Nervous? That's not good.
"Um," began Aang, "Of course they know. I mean, why wouldn't they, with something of this importance? Of this...huge magnitude."
Katara looked nervously back at the door, "Okay, well I'll go keep an eye on the Earth Kingdom generals. You guys figure this out, but we need to talk once this is over."
"Yeah, yeah, of course!" said Aang, nodding vigorously, "I've got it covered, everything will be fine."
Back in the room with the body, Sokka was getting impatient, "Do you think Aang will spill the beans to Sugar Queen?"
Toph's eyebrow shot up into her bangs.
"What?" asked Sokka, "you don't own that."
Aang then burst back into the room, spun around, and shouted at the top of his lungs, "WHAT THE HELL DID WE DO LAST NIGHT!?"
Toph chuckled, "What was all that about remaining calm, Twinkle Toes?"
"Toph, this is not a joke," panted Aang, grabbing Toph by the arms and shaking her, "I sent her a letter last night! A letter that's making her upset!"
"Aang, we have more important things to worry about right now than your love life," Zuko pointed out.
"Zuko, you don't get it," said Aang, turning on Zuko, "we're having problems! Katara and I don't get problems, Zuko! And now-wait, Zuko, are you robbing Hu?"
Zuko was sticking his hands in all of Hu's pockets and pouches, "No, Aang, I'm looking for something that might indicate where he was last night. We obviously met him for his and Sokka's shoes to be switched, so if we pinpoint where we ran into him, we might be able to find out what happened, and, more importantly, what happened to Kuei."
"Wait, is this case not solved?" asked Toph, confused, "I've been assuming Sokka wanted the guy's shoes, so Sparky killed him."
"No, that is not what happened!" snapped Zuko, "I would never kill someone for the sake of anyone's fashion sense, least of all Sokka's."
"Yeah," agreed Sokka, "and I would never ask Zuko too...hey, what do you mean 'least of all Sokka's?'"
"Hey, I found something!" said Zuko, pulling out a piece of paper from one of Hu's pockets, "Hey, it's a menu from the Blue Dragon, the same one that Sokka found in his pocket! That must have been where we crossed paths with him last night. We should head over there and see if Kuei was still with us at the time. I'll gather an armed escort so we can deal with those damn crowds and strange festivities out there."
"No," objected Sokka, "You may have just been pulling the generals' chain when you told them you were going to play it close to the chest, but I still think it's the right thing to do. We don't want it out that it was us doing those things last night. My instincts tell me that we should keep traveling incognito."
"What's a cognito?" asked Toph.
It was then that a servant knocked on the door and stuck his head in, "Firelord Zuko, I hate to interrupt you, but the Lady Mai has requested an audience with you. She insists that you come at your earliest convenience."
Zuko highly doubted that that was the way Mai phrased it. "Tell Mai that I'll see her as soon as I can, but I'm busy preventing a war." The servant nodded and closed the door.
"Uh, hotman?" asked Aang cautiously, "You sure it's a good idea to keep Mai waiting. You could be in for a fight later."
"Yeah," added Sokka, "of the sharp and pointy variety."
"I haven't been able to lie to Mai in my life, guys," explained Zuko, "I don't know what the hell I did last night, and I would like to try to maintain the illusion to her that I'm responsible enough to raise our child. I can't talk to her right now. Come on, let's get to this restaurant place as quick as we can."
"Yeah, great idea," agreed Sokka, "I'm starving."
Yes, another long wait in between chapters, but at least this time the chapter isn't inexcusably short, like the last one. I'm not going to promise that I'll manage to speed up, because I'll probably break it.
In case you're wondering, yes, General Hu did play first base for St. Louis before his tragic demise.
As always, the only reason I'm doing this is for your reviews and input, so please keep them coming.