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Team Avatar woke to the pale light shining through the cracks in the shutters, feeling as though they'd only just fallen asleep. Aang sat up first and yawned. Katara pushed herself upright as well and got straight down to business, "So, what's the plan?"
Aang sighed and deflated. "I don't know. I thought it might help if I slept on it, but I've got nothing."
Toph, still flat on her back, asked, "Can we break Sokka out now?"
Katara looked at her, exasperated. "No! We still can't risk losing the trust of the entire nation," she reminded the earthbender. "I know you miss him, we all do, but right now we've got bigger things to worry about."
Toph threw her arms out to the sides and groaned dramatically.
Katara looked back at Aang. "The only way we're going to straighten this out is if we talk to Zuko. We've got to get into the palace," she said.
"How? If someone is trying to turn us against Zuko, they'd never let us get to him," Toph pointed out.
"Aang is the Avatar. If he can beat Fire Lord Ozai in battle, getting into the palace would be a piece of cake," Katara said.
Aang rubbed his neck. "I don't know, it still seems a little risky. We're invading the Royal Palace, for goodness' sake. That's going to cause problems."
"What choice do we have?" Katara asked him. "We'll never find out who's behind all this if we just sit here."
Aang looked conflicted for a moment. Then he sighed, "You're right. I'll go alone, so I won't attract too much attention."
"Hey, what's that supposed to mean?" Toph demanded. The others ignored her.
Aang asked, "When should I go?"
"I think now is as good a time as any. If we wait, who knows what could happen next," answered Katara.
"Yeah," Toph agreed, "We could all end up getting captured by creepy bad guys."
"You just have to get in, find Zuko, get the truth, and get out," the waterbender said to Aang, ignoring her other friend's comment.
Aang sighed, gave a nod and pushed himself to his feet. His staff floated into his hand. "Alright. I'll be back soon. If things get sticky, though, I'm not going to wait around to get in trouble," he said.
Katara stood and gave him a kiss. "Be safe."
"Don't get caught, Twinkle Toes," Toph said.
Aang took a deep breath and headed out the door. He took a step and jumped off the wooden porch, activating his glider and swooping up toward the palace.
The wind tore by his ears as he climbed higher, bending the air currents around himself to stay airborne, and his eyes began to water. He loved the sensation of flying; he felt free and light and part of nature itself. And it reminded him of flying with Appa, which was always a welcome memory (The sky bison, along with Momo, was currently staying on Ember Island at an enclosure built specifically for him. They planned to meet up soon for a trip to Yu Dao).
Aang carved across the sky, high enough that he would just look like a strange bird creature to those on the surface, and within moments he had reached the royal palace. He circled it once, diving down lower to find a window to enter through, and then made his move.
He shot in through the open widow, glider snapping closed an instant before it would've hit the wall, and rolled to his feet inside. He was in a large, unlit room with no occupants, and the only other exit was a heavy wooden door across from the window. Aang bounded silently over to the door and eased it open. The torch-lit corridor was empty, and so he slipped out into the hall and started toward the throne room.
He knew basically where he was going, but still it took a few wrong turns and backtracks before he found his destination. Several times Aang had to duck into a side room to avoid the guards pacing the corridors nearer the throne room.
Finally he reached the grand red and gold doors, a single guard standing to either side, and stopped in the dark shadows around the corner. How was he going to get past them? He couldn't do it by force, since that would only make the situation worse. He couldn't sneak by and get through the doors without obviously being seen. Maybe he could draw away the guards...but they were probably trained to stay at the doors no matter what.
He huffed a sigh. This was going to be tougher than he'd thought.
Sokka straightened and sat back against the black cell wall with a tired sigh. He'd just completed his third set of push-ups that morning. The Water Tribe warrior had quickly discovered that bodybuilding was a worthwhile task, but very exhausting. It took a good amount of willpower to push one's body to its limit and stretch those boundaries, and Sokka was feeling the drain.
He did have something to show for it, though. Even after a few days, he'd built muscle noticeably. His upper arms were bulging a bit more than usual, and his abdomen was developing solid ridges where there'd been little before.
He was proud of himself. A year and a half ago, he doubted he would've had the focus and determination to take on a task like this. Sokka grinned to himself and stretched out to begin his fourth set.
Aang flicked another small pebble down the corridor. It rattled and clicked and then came to a stop, joining three of its brethren in a scattered pile halfway down the hall. The guards by the door didn't move.
Aang sighed and flicked another stone, waited for it to cease its bouncing, and frowned when the guards ignored it once again.
He was growing tired of this. Having seen no other option, he was trying to draw the guards away from the throne room door with a handful of pebbles he'd collected a few minutes ago. It obviously wasn't working.
Aang straightened from his crouch and crept to the corner of the corridor, around which the two soldiers were stationed. He picked another stone from the pile in his hand, bit his lip in concentration, and flung it blindly around the corner. A muffled clink and a cry of "Ouch!" met his ears, and Aang held back a chuckle.
It was uncharacteristic of him to laugh at another's discomfort, but in this situation it seemed only natural. He was breaking into the palace, why not pelt a few infuriatingly steadfast guards with pebbles? It wasn't like he was actually hurting them, anyway.
Aang raised his arm to chuck another little rock, but he was stopped by the heavy footsteps of the fed-up door guard heading his way.
"I'm going to find you and teach you some manners, rock thrower, mark my words," the man growled, stomping toward the bend despite his fellow guard's protests.
Aang cast around frantically for a safe escape route and found none. He gripped his staff and leaped up from the floor with a puff of air.
The soldier appeared with his pike lowered, prepared to intimidate the irritating intruder, but he was met only by an empty hallway. He peered around with suspicious light-amber eyes and muttered, "Now where did you go?" The man stood still, listening for any sign of the culprit.
He waited a few seconds, then grunted and turned to go back to his post.
Then a tiny cascade of dust billowed from above.
The soldier snarled triumphantly and whipped his head up. Aang was pressed flat against the ceiling, hands and feet braced against the walls and staff resting across his back. The airbender grinned sheepishly at his discovery.
"You!" the man recognized him, "What are you doing here?"
Aang didn't answer. He dropped from the ceiling, cushioned himself with a blast of air and knocked the guard to the ground in one move, then rolled to his feet and sprinted for the closest window with his staff in hand.
"Hey!" the guard called after him, "Stop!"
As if Aang was going to listen.
The airbender reached the window and dove through, spreading his arms to the sides and slightly behind him as he let himself drop a few lengths. Then, he snapped out his glider, gripped the handles and swooped toward home.
Soaring over the city bustling with midmorning activity, Aang heaved a deep sigh. That had gone a lot worse than he'd expected. Not only had he failed to locate Zuko and get the truth, but now the Fire Lord probably thought Aang had been there to attack him somehow.
This whole ordeal was spiraling downhill fast. If he and his friends didn't find who was behind it all soon, they may lose the trust of Zuko and the Fire Nation forever, not to mention being constantly in danger of attack themselves.
Aang set his jaw determinedly. He wasn't going to let that happen.
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