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The day after Fire Lord Zuko received the disturbing confirmation of Aang's plot against him, Team Avatar minus Sokka was holding a meeting in the main room of their house in the Capital.
Katara was saying, "Well, Toph said she overheard Zuko telling Huan that the man who attacked him had blue eyes. It shouldn't be too hard to find a blue-eyed guy in the Fire Nation Capital, right?"
"Yeah, easy peasy," said Toph, "Except for the fact that I can't see!"
"You'll have to partner up with one of us, then," Aang replied.
"Actually, I think it may be a better idea to just go together," Katara said.
"Okay. We'd better start looking," the airbender floated to his feet and moved toward the door, and Katara joined him.
"Come on, Toph," she said, offering a hand to help the smaller girl to her feet. Toph took it and stood, then crossed her arms.
"Where to first, Twinkle Toes?" she asked.
Aang said, "Uh...the Harbor City. That's where Zuko first found Combustion Man. There are probably plenty of nice...bad, criminal people there."
"Sounds great!" Toph grinned, "Let's go."
Katara heaved a sigh.
One would think that, with the war over, the Harbor City crime rate would decrease to a manageable amount and the city would become a bit more hospitable without the war taxes strapping every citizen for cash. Apparently, this was not so.
As Team Avatar walked the grimy streets of the city's crime-riddled outskirts, shady-looking people peered at them from shadowed alleys and doorways, tattooed men quieted their whispered conversations, and the more ordinary pedestrians avoided eye contact.
Once, Katara made the mistake of meeting a lopsided man's gaze, and he scowled and reached for the dagger at his belt. Aang gripped his staff tighter and they hurried on by.
On another occasion, a gang of young boys apparently found it amusing to try and trip Toph by kicking garbage into her path. The third time she stepped neatly over their ball of trash, though, one of them grew frustrated and sent a jet of flame at her feet instead. He received a rock to the gut for his troubles, and his friends erupted into laughter. This seemed to earn Toph their respect, and they left her alone afterward.
The three teens spent some time wandering the streets and peeking into taverns and the like, but not once did they spot a man with light blue eyes. Most everyone they saw had the usual amber of Fire Nation natives, and the rest possessed varying shades of brown and hazel.
They were on their way out of the seedy area when a large man jostled roughly into them from behind, sending the kids stumbling. "Watch it," he rumbled as he moved on, even though the fault was obviously his.
"Sorry, mister," Aang called, ever the peaceable one, but Toph had other ideas.
"Why don't you watch it, meathead?" she challenged. The man stopped his lumbering and turned around, eyes narrowed.
"What was that?" He gave her a chance to take back her words, but Toph stood her ground.
"You heard me."
The man started back toward the three of them with an angry snarl, and Aang and Katara backed up a few steps.
"Toph, come on, let's just go," Katara urged.
Toph crossed her arms. "Nobody messes with Team Avatar, Sugar Queen. Someone's got to teach this lunk a lesson."
Aang appealed to the burly man, "She doesn't mean it, sir, really."
"Uh, yeah, Aang? I definitely do mean it," Toph corrected.
The man had ignored Aang's words anyway. He stopped in front of Toph, looming several feet above her, and said, "You're gonna regret this, little girl."
She took a fighting stance and sneered, "Bring it."
Aang and Katara were about to intervene and drag Toph away no matter what, but as it turned out, they didn't have to.
A shout came from behind the big man, "Dulong! Are you picking fights with children again?" The voice was young, with a husky edge to it, but held a distinct note of authority.
The burly man— Dulong —turned around reluctantly. Aang and Katara peered curiously around him to see the newcomer, and Toph dug her toes further into the dirt to get a better idea of what he looked like.
The man approaching wasn't particularly tall or imposing, but his bare forearms were corded with lean muscle and Toph could tell by his bearing that the rest of his body was the same. His brown hair was cut short— rare among those in the Fire Nation —with neat sideburns reaching to his jaw, and his face was handsome in a slightly exotic way. He wore a suit of light metal armor, the standard uniform of the Capital police force.
Katara wasn't impressed. If the state of the Harbor City was anything to judge by, the police force was nothing to be proud of.
Aang was a little confused by his presence— why was this guy taunting a muscled giant three times his size? Did he think his rank would protect him? Aang doubted it.
Toph, for once, really wasn't sure what to think. She hadn't known the man existed until ten seconds ago, but she liked him already. She hoped he knew what he was doing.
The burly man scowled at the newcomer. "It wasn't me who picked the fight. Butt out before you get hurt, kid."
"You liar!" Toph burst out. She would've continued, but Katara slapped a hand over her mouth.
"Are you trying to get us pounded? Just let this guy handle it," she hissed.
Toph jerked away sulkily, but stayed silent. She felt the policeman chuckle from some lengths away.
"You know, Dulong, this time I could almost believe you." He smiled. Aang held in a laugh. The man continued, "Just leave these folks alone. You haven't done anything wrong just yet. Walk away now and you're in no trouble."
A vein pulsed on Dulong's forehead in anger. He obviously hated being ordered around by the young man, but his reasoning overruled his fury and he turned and stalked away. Katara and Aang let out relieved sighs. The young policeman moved over to stand in front of them.
"Sorry for the trouble, you guys. The tension is always pretty high here," he said with an apologetic smile.
Katara still didn't like him very much. "Why don't the police do something about it?" she demanded.
The man didn't take offense. He replied, "We try. The force has always been spread pretty thin, since most of the manpower was going into Fire Lord Ozai's military. Now that the war's over, we're getting some more recruits, but we're still struggling." He shrugged, then looked at their little group more carefully. "You're not from around here, are you?" he asked.
"You're not very quick, are you?" Katara snapped back.
Aang looked at her, "Katara, calm down." Then he spoke to the policeman, who looked a little hurt, "No, we aren't. I'm Avatar Aang. This is Katara and Toph."
"The Avatar! Forgive me, I wasn't thinking." He bowed, then chuckled sheepishly.
If only to balance out her friend's hostility, Toph spoke up, "It's alright. What's your name?"
The young man looked at her closely for the first time. "Kyro. And you're Toph... Toph Beifong? The metalbender?"
Toph was ecstatic. He'd heard of her! "The one and only," she grinned.
"Nice to meet you, Miss Beifong." Kyro clapped her on the shoulder. Toph didn't reply, only stared at her feet with a blush dusting her cheeks.
"Uh, anyway," Aang said quickly, "I really appreciate your help, Mister Kyro, but we need to get going."
"Wait," Katara caught Aang's arm as he started to move away, "Kyro, do you know of any criminals here with light blue eyes?"
Kyro thought for a moment. "Um...no, I can't say that I do. Sorry." He shrugged.
Katara nodded curtly and continued on without another word. Aang looked after her, then back at Kyro, debating whether he should follow. In the end he gave the policeman a shrug and a wave, then jogged after the waterbender.
When he was out of earshot, Kyro muttered to Toph, "What's her problem?"
Toph shrugged, "No idea. Maybe she's got something against attractive guys."
Kyro was about to respond, but then he registered what she'd said. Toph felt his heartbeat quicken slightly. "Oh," he chuckled. "Well, I don't— I'm not sure if— um, thank you?"
Toph grinned. Making people feel awkward was amusing. "Whatever," she laughed, and then said, "Well, I'd better catch up before they leave me behind. Nice meeting you, mister officer man Kyro, sir." She waved and hurried off in the direction Aang and Katara had taken, leaving Kyro looking curiously after her.
Toph caught up to them quickly and fell into step next to Aang. They hardly noticed, which irritated her. Ditch the blind girl in the middle of the seedy Fire Nation joint. Thanks, guys, she thought. She spoke not a word aloud, however, and they walked on silently until Katara said bitterly, "That was a waste of time."
Aang hurried to console her, "Maybe not. We had to look. At least we know now that the assassin's not in the Harbor City."
"Unless he is, and we just couldn't find him," Toph pointed out unhelpfully.
Katara just sighed. Aang gave Toph a hard look that she couldn't see, and they walked the rest of the way in silence.
The bending threesome arrived back at their elegant house as the sun began its evening journey toward the horizon, shadows growing long and sunlight orange. Dark clouds were rolling in from the north, bearing the promise of bad weather.
As soon as they entered the house, Aang, Katara and Toph escaped to their sleeping bags, feet sore after spending much of the day wandering the Harbor City's stone streets.
After a silent moment, Toph voiced the question that gnawed at each of them, "What do we do now?"
Aang sighed and said, "I don't know. We can't possibly search the entire Fire Nation for the assassin. We may never find him, and that means Sokka is stuck in prison."
"Not necessarily..." Toph replied, a mischievous edge to her voice.
"What are you suggesting?" Katara inquired. She already knew she wouldn't like the answer.
"Why don't we break him out?"
"Break him out!" Aang echoed, "That would make us criminals, and we'd risk losing the trust of the Fire Nation. I'm the Avatar. I can't do something like that."
"Being the Avatar is boring," Toph complained. "...You know, except for the quadruple-bending powers and stuff."
"Maybe, but it's my duty," Aang said nobly. Toph attempted to roll her eyes.
"Plus, Sokka wouldn't want us to risk everything to break him out," Katara added more practically.
"How else would he get out? Aang just said it himself, this blue-eyed guy is gonna be impossible to find!" Toph cried.
"I didn't say impossible," Aang corrected.
"You get the point, Twinkle Toes. I just want Sokka back," she said miserably. It was the truth. Toph missed her Water Tribe friend much more than she cared to admit. The others fell silent. No one could argue with her— they all missed Sokka.
"I don't know..." Katara finally sighed. "Let's just get some rest. We'll discuss this more tomorrow." Aang and Toph didn't argue, as much as they wanted to.
The three of them lay back on their sleeping bags and tried to relax. Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance. Sleep would not come easily tonight for any of them.
The four mismatched men clad in dark leather sneaked effortlessly into Team Avatar's house using the noisy racket of the raging storm as cover, carrying bundles of cord and poorly crafted knives.
None of the sleeping teens heard them coming— not even Toph, who was rendered blind due to the wooden floor. Even so, they went for her first, knowing she was bound to feel it if they tried to take one of the others. The largest of the men crept up next to the earthbender's sleeping form, took a breath, and struck.
One huge hand clapped over her mouth, stifling Toph's cry of alarm, and with the other he caught her waist and lifted her off the ground, where she was helpless. Toph kicked at him blindly and struggled against his iron grip until a second man bound her ankles and wrists together, then hauled her out the door.
Then they moved on to the Avatar. A broad-shouldered one moved Aang's staff out of reach, and then the big man grabbed him. Aang wasn't so easily overtaken, though. He shot jets of flame from his fingertips, scorching the man's huge hands and waking Katara.
"What—" she started, but Aang jerked her to her feet and uncorked her water pouch before she could ask questions.
"Bad men. Waterbend, now!" he cried, and kicked another stream of fire at the man who leaped at him. Katara did as she was told, whipping a trail of water at a second intruder and sending him against the wall.
Then both benders whirled to face the door as it burst open, but it was Toph, not a dark-clothed man, who jumped into the room. "Nobody beats Toph Beifong that easily. The lunkhead dropped me on the ground." The earthbender grinned, and joined Aang and Katara to face the four rallied men.
They heard the broad-shouldered one mutter to his short comrade, "We've got to take them to the Fire Lord, or we're in for big trouble." The other man grunted in agreement.
The kids were shocked. Zuko had sent these thugs to capture them? Aang in particular was deeply disturbed. Zuko knew it wasn't Sokka who'd tried to kill him. Why was he doing this?
The intruders took advantage of their surprise and lunged, brandishing warped daggers. The three benders retaliated as one, raising walls of earth, water and fire to ward off the men's attack.
"Get out of here," Aang commanded them in a deeper voice than usual, "before I get angry." To emphasize his point, he airbended his staff off the floor and caught it, holding it front of him imposingly. As if on cue a crash of thunder shook the walls.
"Have you ever tried fighting an angry Avatar?" Katara asked the men, playing along with Aang's ploy.
"Things usually get pretty messy," Toph told them with absolute seriousness.
The men glanced fearfully at one another. They had indeed heard about the Avatar and his immense power, and it didn't sound like a force to be reckoned with.
"We're not getting paid enough to deal with this," the short man decided, and he and his companions fled. Aang let them leave, and when he was sure they weren't coming back, he relaxed.
He dropped his staff and sank to his knees on his sleeping bag. Katara knelt to wrap an arm around his shoulders. "Zuko sent... kidnappers?" Aang asked miserably.
Katara hugged him and said, "I'm sure this wasn't him."
"Yeah. If someone framed Sokka, who says they can't frame Zuko, too?" Toph agreed, crossing her arms. Then she muttered, "I hate that those goons could sneak up on us so easily."
"I know," Katara raised her head, "But at least we could take them in a fight without much trouble.
Aang pushed himself to his feet, Katara's arm falling away from his shoulders. "We need to found out who's behind this, somehow," he said determinedly.
"Wow, really? I hadn't picked up on that yet," Toph said sarcastically. Katara shot her a glare, but Aang took no notice.
"Someone is trying to turn us against the Fire Lord. We need to find them, and stop them," he said.
"How do we do that?" Katara asked.
Aang deflated, "That's the problem."
Toph heaved a sigh. "Well, as much as we're accomplishing here, I'm going to sleep." In a gentler tone, she added, "We'll figure it out. Good night."
"'Night," Katara answered. To Aang, she said, "She's got the right idea. Try and get some sleep, okay?"
The airbender nodded reluctantly and sat back down on his sleeping bag. Katara gave him a quick kiss and then stretched out on her own pallet.
Despite the night's events, the three teens were tired, and the rain drumming on the roof had steadied into a calming rhythm. Soon they were all asleep, albeit lightly. They were greeted with no more surprises that night.
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