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That night found Zuko once again standing at his window in a comfortable maroon tunic, Sokka's arrest weighing on his mind.
Had he done the right thing? He knew in his heart that his friend wouldn't commit such a terrible crime, but he had evidence that said otherwise. And if he tried to prove that Sokka wasn't the perpetrator, the palace officials that still supported Ozai could accuse him of being an unjust leader with biased opinions and he'd be forced from the throne.
His only hope of solving the problem was having Team Avatar find the real culprit.
Unless Huan was right, and his best friends really were trying to get rid of him. Zuko almost laughed. Of course it wasn't them. But he had to convince the world that he really did think the Avatar and his friends were behind it, or it could cause some difficult problems for Zuko concerning his leadership.
The young Fire Lord leaned his forearms against the windowsill and breathed a long sigh. At least he'd made sure a pair of bodyguards was stationed outside his door, deliberately excluding Huan. If anyone tried to attack him again, they'd be by his side in an instant. And right there was another confusing part of the situation— Huan. Why was he so intent on proving Team Avatar guilty? Was he part of the assassination attempt? Zuko was sure there was something deeper going on, but he couldn't do much right now but let it come to light in its own time.
He straightened and pulled the shutters closed, making sure he latched them securely, and then climbed into his plush bed.
Almost as an afterthought, Zuko lifted his sheathed dual swords from their place above the headboard and tucked them by his side. He'd be ready for anything tonight.
Zuko extinguished his lamp and rested back against his pillow.
It was only mildly surprising when Zuko was jolted awake by a slight rattling at the window. He sat up, drawing his swords silently, and rolled from his bed. The Fire Lord crept to his door and gave a soft knock, alerting the guards outside to the situation.
He heard them shift positions, and a second later the two of them —Xing and Kaibo— slipped through the door into the room. Their swords stayed at their sides, firebending being the preferred weapon for both men.
The three of them were ready when the intruder burst through the shutters, rolled once, and came up brandishing a pair of wickedly curved daggers. When the tall, skinny man spotted Zuko and his guards, his arms dropped to his sides with dread.
"Crud," he breathed, and stepped back toward the window. Kaibo was quick, though, sending a ball of flame past the intruder to block his escape.
Zuko moved forward to stand before the man, one sword lifting to his throat threateningly. "Who sent you?"
The man glanced to either side desperately, and, finding no means of escape, he admitted, "The Avatar."
Sokka sat, utterly bored, against the black stone wall of his prison cell under the palace. A single bar of gold sunlight filtering in through the narrow window was all he had to see by, and the only furnishings were a lumpy sleeping pallet against one wall and a bucket in the corner.
He was beginning to wonder whether letting himself be arrested was such a good idea. It had seemed the right thing to do at the time. At least his friends were fine. He was sure they'd find the real culprit soon, and then he could go free.
Sokka sighed and rested his head against the rough bricks behind him. He called to mind Iroh's impressive story of his own time in prison, where the old man had secretly built his body to the point where he could break out by physical strength alone. Maybe Sokka should try bodybuilding. It would pass the time, at least, and totally impress Suki the next time he saw her.
Sokka grinned to himself. Yeah, he'd give it a shot.
He pushed himself up from his place on the floor and reached to grab the bars above him, struggling to lift himself from the ground. The second and third times he pulled himself up it was even more difficult. He would improve, though.
He had plenty of time to work on it.
The man who had broken into Zuko's quarters was currently strapped to a chair in the interrogation room, mask pulled away to reveal his thin face and fearful droplets of sweat beading at his temples. Xing stood in front of him, lean arms crossed and amber eyes narrowed.
"You claimed the Avatar sent you," Xing clarified, the statement meant as a question.
"Y-yes," the seated man managed.
"How do I know you're not lying?"
"Well, um, I c-can tell you things about the Avatar and his friends that normal people wouldn't know."
"Like what?" Xing challenged.
"Uh, he's, um, he has a pet lemur named...uh...Mama," the man tried.
Xing raised an eyebrow. "Mama?"
"No, no, that doesn't sound quite right. It was...it was, um, Momo! Yes, the lemur's name is Momo."
Xing blinked slowly, unimpressed.
The man spread his hands pleadingly. "Wait, there's more. I-I know that he's involved with the waterbender girl. And his staff is a gift from a man at the Northern Air Temple."
Xing raised one eyebrow. Now that, not many people knew. Maybe this man was working for the kids.
"Why would the Avatar want Fire Lord Zuko dead? Aren't they close friends?" Xing inquired.
The man only replied, "Fire Lord Sozin was close friends with Avatar Roku."
He has a point, Xing thought. But instead he said, "You didn't answer my question. Why would Avatar Aang want the Fire Lord dead?"
The man frowned. "He didn't say. When somebody hands you a sack of gold pieces and tells you to get the job done, you don't ask questions."
Xing gave him a hard look. "Typical mercenary, huh? Tell me one more thing; how did the boy find you in the first place?"
"I tried to steal his rich friend's money pouch. Didn't go over too well," he winced, remembering the unpleasant experience of being knocked in the gut with a rock, "Afterward, he said I could make up for it by doing him a favor."
"What rich friend?" Xing asked.
The man shrugged. "The- the little girl. With the strange eyes."
Xing nodded and said with a small smile, "Thank you for your cooperation." Then he turned and opened the door to leave.
"Wait, aren't you going to let me go?" The man demanded, "I just gave you all the information you asked for!"
Xing didn't even look back over his shoulder, "Oh, right. Shin Tse, if you will, escort our friend here to the dungeon." He jerked his head back at the prisoner, who shouted, "No! The dungeon? I helped you!"
"Helpful or not," Xing said smoothly, "you still tried to kill the Fire Lord. Your punishment is life in prison. During Fire Lord Ozai's rule, it would be immediate execution, but he's not Fire Lord anymore, so...consider yourself lucky."
"He really was working for Aang?" Zuko asked, disbelieving. He turned, hands clasped behind his back, to face Xing at the door.
"Yes, Your Majesty. I am sorry."
"How can you be sure?"
"He knew things about Avatar Aang that no normal person possibly could, unless they'd spent time in his presence."
"His staff is a gift from a man at the Northern Air Temple. His pet lemur's name is Momo. He's in a relationship with the waterbender girl." Xing supplied.
Zuko lowered his face into his hands. "It can't be."
"It is, Fire Lord."
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