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Aang snapped in the wings of his glider and trotted to a stop in the cobbled street in front of the house. He mounted the three steps onto the porch and took a steadying breath before he pushed open the door.
The girls sat inside, leaning against the far wall, apparently locked in some deep discussion. "I know how confusing it is," Katara was saying to Toph, "but it happens to everybody. You can't really help how you feel. He'll- "
"Twinkle Toes?" Toph interrupted, suddenly sitting bolt upright, "You're back! Uh, yeah, so you heard that, then..." The earthbender rubbed at her neck, face reddening. "We were, um, talking...about stuff," she trailed off.
Aang felt awkward. He hadn't meant to barge in on the girls' private conversation.
"Sorry," he shrugged and smiled sheepishly, "I only heard a little bit, if that...you know, makes you feel any better."
Katara sighed. "It's fine," she said, glancing at Toph, who'd buried her face in her hands, "Did you talk to Zuko?"
At this Aang deflated visibly. Katara's expression had already turned to one of disappointment when he answered, "No. There were guards at the door, and I tried to draw them off, but I- I couldn't. I'm sorry." He looked away sadly.
Katara pushed herself up from the floor to give him a hug. "We'll find another way," she said firmly.
Aang turned his gaze to her determined eyes, and a smile of appreciation broke across his face. "Yeah," he agreed.
"And how do you think we're going to do that?" Toph demanded gruffly, trying to make up for her embarrassment.
"We'll-" Aang started to say, but a brisk knock at the door cut him off.
"Who could that be?" he wondered, moving to open the door.
"Careful," Katara cautioned.
Aang pulled the door open a crack and peered out.
A lone figure stood on the porch, hands planted on slender hips, reddish hair brushed out of warm dark blue eyes. When the door opened she turned her head to squint through the opening. "Hello? Who is that? Is this the right house?" the person inquired.
Aang pulled the door wide. "Suki," he greeted her with a grin, "It's good to see you. What are you doing here?"
"You too. I was in the neighborhood, so I decided to stop by," the Kyoshi Warrior smiled back and tried to peer around Aang into the room beyond. "Where's Sokka?"
Aang opened his mouth to answer and then shut it again, looking away in dismay.
"What's happened?" Suki asked, growing alarmed, "Where is he?"
Katara came to stand beside Aang at the door. "Come and sit down, Suki. We'll tell you everything," the waterbender said grimly.
Zuko shut his eyes tightly and ran both hands through his shaggy brown hair. "Thank you for telling me," he addressed the guardsman at the door to his quarters, "You're dismissed."
The man bowed shallowly and backed out of the room, letting the door swing shut of its own accord. Zuko didn't turn around. He sat hunched at his red and gold drawing table, elbows braced against the slanting surface, face in his hands.
This was not good news.
Apparently Avatar Aang had broken into the royal palace earlier that morning and attempted to sneak into the throne room. To attack him, the guardsman had guessed.
Team Avatar was not making his situation any better.
Zuko groaned and sat back in his chair. What was he supposed to do? If Aang kept drawing attention to himself, he would only get he and his friends into deeper trouble. Zuko knew the Avatar hadn't come to attack him, but everyone else sure thought otherwise.
Trying to convince them of Aang's innocence would only turn suspicion on himself. Who could he trust in this delicate dilemma? Even his imperial guardsmen seemed untrustworthy these days. Huan especially. What was the situation with him? He was awfully eager to blame Team Avatar for the crimes against the Fire Lord. There was evidence to back him up, but no explanation for his behavior. Huan knew the Avatar and his friends better than the rest of the imperial guardsmen. Why would he want to harm them?
And maybe Huan was just trying to be the best bodyguard he could, and he was jumping to conclusions in his efforts to protect Zuko. Maybe there was nothing going on in his mind but blind loyalty to the Fire Lord.
Who really had tried to kill Zuko, then? It was a blue-eyed man with a knife identical to Sokka's, about the Water Tribe warrior's size and stature. What if it really was him? What if Aang had gone power-mad and wanted the Fire Nation throne for himself?
Zuko shook his head. Now he was just making things up. Aang was an airbender, a pacifist. He wouldn't go to such extremes for his own desires. That brought Zuko back to the big question; who really was behind this?
If it was Sokka, had he acted on his own, without his friends' knowledge? It seemed a bit more likely than Aang going on a power-hungry rampage, but Sokka still lacked motive.
Zuko gripped his head and growled, turning to pace the length of the room. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Everything was stupid and confusing and contradictory and impossible. If only Uncle were here. He would know what to do, Zuko thought. Then he stopped. His hands fell to his sides.
I'll ask him for help, Zuko decided, relieved to shift his burden to someone else's shoulders, at least partly. He moved back to his drawing table and slid into the chair again, shuffling through stacks of papers to find a blank piece of parchment. He smoothed it out in front of him, picked up his gold-gilded pen, and began to write.
Suki sat silently through Team Avatar's recounting of the past few days' events, a gloved hand over her eyes. When they'd finished their story, she said nothing for a moment. Her friends waited uncomfortably for her reaction.
Finally Suki looked up and asked them, "So are we going to break him out?"
"That's what I said!" Toph exclaimed, throwing her arms out wide. She could feel Aang and Katara's disapproving stares, and so she dropped her arms with a huff and said nothing else.
Aang turned to Suki and answered her question, "Breaking Sokka out would cause huge problems. If everybody already thinks he tried to kill Fire Lord Zuko, sneaking into the palace and freeing him would cause even more suspicion. We could upset the peace here and lose the nation's trust forever."
Suki frowned. "How else can we work this out? Trying to get to Zuko didn't work. Could you try a formal approach? You know, arrange some meeting and talk to him there."
"That would be a good idea..." Aang said.
"Except that if we show our faces in the palace again, chances are we'll be thrown in prison without a chance to talk to Zuko," Katara finished the thought.
"Nice going, Twinkle Toes," Toph muttered, flopping onto her back.
Suki rested her chin on a hand. "What do we do, then?" she demanded.
Aang and Katara shrugged helplessly.
"We could storm the palace and just bust our way through to Zuko. If we split up and go at the same time, at least one of us would have to make it," Toph suggested from the floor.
"That brings us back to the trust problem," protested Aang, "Breaking into the palace is a bad idea!"
"You got any other option?" demanded Toph, "Feel free to share."
Aang started to shoot back a reply, but shut his mouth and just scowled.
Katara rested a hand on his shoulder and spoke to Suki, "What do you think? You've had strategy training, right?"
Suki stared intently at the wall past them, deep in thought. "Talking to Zuko is the only way to get the truth. If we can join forces with him, finding out who's behind this will be much easier," she said finally.
Aang started to protest again, but Suki turned her gaze on him and he fell silent. The intensity in her expression startled him.
"We're stuck," she went on, "There's no option that will work out perfectly for everyone. We have to take the risk." We have to free Sokka, she added silently.
Aang bowed his head. "I guess you're right," he spoke into his lap.
"Finally," Toph sat up, "We get to do something."
Katara looked to Suki with determined eyes. "All right. Let's do this."
"Get me some paper and a pen," Suki directed, a slight smile spreading over her face.
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