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|What Was Lost|
The sun had completely set in Ba Sing Se. Aang stood in shock as Toph tentatively began taking steps toward her violated home. The young Earthbender looked a little shaky on her feet and he couldn't blame her. If someone ever came into his and Katara's home and did this, well, he didn't want to think about it too much. At his side his wife moved forward and put her arms on Toph's shoulders.
"I'm sure it'll be fine." she tried to sooth. The blind Earthbender made no sign of acknowledgment but instead scuffled the ground with her feet. The momentary welling of tears on her face had subsided, a look of frustration and humiliation replacing it.
"How could I be so stupid?" Toph suddenly exclaimed aloud. "I should have told one of the guards to stay on today..." She turned in the general direction of her friends and bowed her head. "I'll understand if you want to stay someplace else. I'm sure whoever did this trashed all the guest rooms too. It'll take me a while to straighten up since –"
"Oh Ms. Toph! Ms. Toph! Has something happened? Oh I knew it would! Please forgive an old housekeeper for not being at her post when needed!" An elderly woman was hobbling toward the house at a surprising pace; especially considering one hand was on a gnarled cane that clattered against the cobblestone. Aang immediately saw a figure of contradiction. Here was a woman who looked at least seventy yet dressed as if she were twenty. Her kimono displayed a vibrant scene: giant elephant koi leapt from the water in splashes of emerald and ginger under an endless swirl of clouds. It looked like the sort of dress he expected to see a schoolgirl wearing during a parade.
As all watched this ancient whirlwind of color amble to stop Toph burst out laughing. The young Earthbender clutched her sides and the tears reappeared around her eyes but this time they were unmistakably tears of joy. In a spring she had rushed to the old woman and thrown her arms about her in a hug. Locks of pearly white hair fell across Toph's face and she blew at them absentmindedly.
"Just who I wanted to see." she said between giggles.
"You must be furious with me!" The old woman cried, hugging Toph to her and looking at the house. "I should have stayed here. What was one more person at the funeral when there was housekeeping to be done?"
"Uh Toph..." Sokka suddenly chimed up. "I don't want you to stop feeling better but would you mind telling us who the moving painting is?" The Earthbender suddenly seemed to remember the group of friends all standing a few feet from her.
"Oh...hehe sorry." She said, putting a hand on her brow. "Friends this is Mrs. Cai. Mrs. Cai, these are my friends."
"Hi there!" exclaimed Aang happily.
"A pleasure to meet you." muttered Zuko.
"How do you do?" Mai inquired politely.
"Koi lady!" shouted Lu Ten, who pointed at the kimono.
"Lu Ten that's rude. We call people by their names." Mai scolded. Mrs. Cai laughed and knocked her cane on the ground several times.
"Whatever the young master wishes to call me makes no difference." She then turned back to Toph. "But Mistress, your house! What shall we do?"
"I guess go in and see what the damage is." Toph replied, now as if it was no big deal. "The most important thing is that the guest rooms be clean. That is, if you guys still want to stay here?" The blind Earthbender twitched a foot in her friends' direction. Aang felt shocked and took a step forward.
"Of course we'll stay here." He said. "You're our friend Toph. Especially now since this happened. You shouldn't be alone."
"Oh I'm not alone." Toph said at once. "Mrs. Cai is here. Everything's fine."
"Koi lady!" Lu Ten yelled again. The group laughed briefly before immediately following Toph and Mrs. Cai into the house.
The foyer was a large room with stonewalls, occupied by a table and chairs set up in the middle. It was obvious that this is where Toph would great guests and where they would be served basic foods and tea. A glass cupboard was off to the left that most likely housed serving trays and any other required needs. Engraved in the far wall was the flying boar, symbol of the Bei Fong family. There were three doors leading out from the room, each on its own wall. Aside from the overturned chairs, nothing in this room appeared to be touched. Toph, however, instantaneously pointed out an absence.
"The china dishes and cups are gone." she said. Her gaze drifted in the direction of the open cupboard. "They were probably looking for money. No doubt thieves from one of the poorer sections of the city." Striding over, she placed her hand on the left wall. "I hope they didn't...no!" She suddenly cried and rushed through the door into the room. Aang and the others listened to the ensuing clatter before following after her.
Following through the door revealed a very cluttered room, obviously a study. Yet it was unlike any study Aang had ever seen before. There were no scraps of parchment, no paper of any kind. Instead, mountains of stone tablets layered the floor and swamped the desks. They varied in size from little flat pebbles to six-foot high slabs that were taller than he was. On all of them were either elaborate designs and caricatures or else bizarre and ancient text. As the Avatar peered over the stones, some of which now lay in pieces on the floor, he couldn't help but notice a small flicker of déjà vu. That feeling, however, vanished almost instantly as he came face to face with an engraving that filled him with terror.
A face stared back at him unlike any face he had ever seen before yet it was...familiar. It bore strong resemblance to the visage of a dragon but there were subtle differences here and there. The eyes were larger, the snout definitely did not protrude so far out from the face and there were no horns. Instead a ceremonial crown rested upon the figure's head, draping what appeared to be beads across its face. Looking at the rest of the body Aang saw it was very humanoid except for the scaled skin and clawed appendages. Draped in a magnificent robe the beast portrayed both power of strength and rank. Katara had noticed how occupied he'd become and was over at his side.
"Hey, you okay?" she asked. He almost jumped at her voice. So immersed in the figures eye's, he had completely forgotten about everyone else in the room.
"Yeah...fine." Aang exhaled, letting out a breath he was unaware he'd been holding. "Hey Toph, who is this?" He added. He turned and pointed a finger at the carving before lowering it sheepishly in realization and embarrassment. The blind Earthbender put on a devilish grin.
"You found the best of the best, Baldy. The crown jewel of my collection recently unearthed from the catacombs of Old Ba Sing Se. I'm just glad those thieves didn't know their valuables or he'd be long gone right now. What you're all looking at is a miniature scale carving of Oguanga, the Demon King." Aang felt himself shiver as Toph finished her declaration. He couldn't place it but there was something in the face of that carving...
"Miniature huh, how big was this guy?" Sokka asked. Then, after studying it for several more minutes a light bulb went off over his head. "He looks like you Zuko!"
"What? He does not!" the Firelord exclaimed.
"Sure he does. Like some great Fire Nation ancestor or something." Sokka continued. "Like your great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandfather Mr. Dragonface!" Zuko clenched his fists but little Lu Ten simply clapped and giggled.
"Great great Dragonface!" the infant squealed. "Daddy is great great Dragonface." The young Firelord softened looking at his son. Mai allowed herself a slight giggle too. They all turned back to the carving. Katara placed a hand on Aang's shoulder. She was about to speak when Mrs. Cai entered the room. The aged woman bowed low to Toph before speaking.
"I have checked the house Mistress Toph and you were right. Those rascals messed the guest rooms up something fierce. I can straighten it all out but I'll need a minute. Oh those animals, the thought of them in here it just makes me so mad that I...I...I need to clean something!" She stormed out of the room before quickly reappearing again. "Much apologizes Mistress, I was in such a dither I completely forget. There's a White Lotus here to see you, a young woman. Ms. Suki I think it was?"
"Suki!" Sokka couldn't stop himself from blurting it out.
"Ah I see you know this person." Mrs. Cai deduced. "I'll show her in then and then get right to work on those guest rooms. Let me know if there's anything you require Ms. Toph."
"I will, thanks Mrs. Cai." the blind Earthbender nodded. The old woman withdrew and a moment later Suki stepped into the room. Her face was a mixture of caution and worry.
"What happened? One minute you guys were at the funeral and the next you were gone. And what happened here Toph? Is everything okay?"
"Woah there Fancy-Dress, slow down." Toph began. "The house got broken into but we're all fine and near as I can feel, nothing serious was taken." Suki breathed out a sigh.
"That's a relief, one look from outside had me seriously worried. Thought for a second someone had sent an assassin after the Avatar or the Firelord." The Kyoshi Warrior smiled. Everyone except Sokka returned the grin.
"So what are the rest of us, diced jerky? Who says somebody out there couldn't send an assassin after me?" he put out angrily.
"Right..." Zuko cut in before Suki could respond. "Sokka of the Water Tribe, next to you Aang and I are just mere, lowly, cavehoppers." Everyone laughed as Sokka fumed to this retort. The Firelord picked up two pieces of a broken tablet before lying them down upon a table. "Whoever did this shouldn't get away. We should go after them. The robbery couldn't have occurred too long ago so there's a good chance we can catch the person or persons responsible before they reach the dealers at the black market."
"But it's such a big city. Even if we all split up there's no way we could track down whoever did this." Katara protested.
"Yeah...and besides, it's no big deal." Toph said, sitting on the floor and placing her chin on her hands.
"No big deal? Someone enters your home and takes the things you rightfully own and it's no big deal?" Zuko glared down at Toph with a sudden fury and indignation. "People like that are scum who leech off of others! This is a time of prosperity! No one starves in Ba Sing Se! Whoever did this did it for some easy cash. Well you all can just sit here but I'm going out to do something about it!"
"Zuko, where's this coming from?" Mai asked, suddenly very worried. Lu Ten was staring up at his father with wide, tear-filled eyes.
"I don't know...I'm sorry Toph. I don't know what came over me." Zuko whispered. Aang caught that after he said that Zuko looked away. He looked in the exact direction they had approached the house from, the direction in which his Uncle's tomb lay. Suddenly the Avatar stiffened his body.
"I'm with you." He said. "I think we should hunt them down. It'll be fun, just like old times." Aang glanced sideways at Katara. His wife searched his expression for a second before her own face brightened and she turned to address the young Firelord herself.
"Count me in." she declared.
"Me too. I could use a good mission after a day of ceremony." Suki stated plainly. Silence followed and everyone looked to Mai, Sokka and Toph who had remained silent.
"Eh, why not?" Sokka said at last. "I did bring boomerang along and..." Sokka suddenly reached around to a bag he'd had slung over his shoulder. "Bone sword! Or just Boney for short, still haven't given it a name."
"You made a sword out of bone?" Suki asked incredulously.
"Not just any bone." Sokka countered. "The horn of an albino rhino-whale to be precise. It's said to be stronger than most metals out there. Now would you quit shifting focus, Aang has a good rally thing going here!"
"Sorry, sorry...sheesh!" Suki turned away, but a glance drifted back in Sokka's direction before Toph spoke.
"If you guys all want to go I guess I'm in too." She said from her spot on the floor. "I hope you're right though Zuko and they are just petty criminals looking for some extra cash otherwise it'll be no fun knocking them around." She stood up. Lu Ten began jumping up and down and Mai let out a small sigh.
"If you're all going to relive the glory days that's fine. I'm staying here. Someone has to look after this one," She ruffled Lu Ten's hair. "And I guess I can watch the lemur too." Momo, who had alighted upon a pile of tablets on a desk, looked up at this mention. The flying lemur began chattering and flying around Mai's head. "This is going to be fun." The Firelady breathed in sarcasm.
"I want to go!" Lu Ten barked from his mother's heel.
"No Lu Ten it's too late and too dangerous. Stay here with your mom until I get back." Zuko scolded. Lu Ten ran to his father.
"But I want to catch bad guys with you Daddy!" he cried hysterically. Mai stepped forward and put a restraining hand on the infant's shoulder.
"That's enough Lu Ten!" she stated. "You must learn to behave yourself better in front of others." Toph walked over and knelt down in front of the sobbing child.
"Hey, I'm sorry we have to take your dad away tonight. But listen, if you're good while we're gone I promise to buy you the biggest toy you can find tomorrow, no matter how much it costs. Then we'll go get some nice sweetened ice tea and rice cakes, would you like that?" Lu Ten's snivel instantly became a smile.
"Ugh...please tell me you're not going to be that person with him." Mai groaned. Toph tried her best to put on an innocent smile, though it still had a very devilish quality.
"What person, the crazy wealthy aunt figure who spoils your kid rotten and undermines all your authority and moral guide lines?" The grin widened. "Why how could you ever think that could be me?"
"We should go." Aang cut them off. "Every minute we wait the trail gets that much colder."
"Katara was right earlier. We'll need to split up." Zuko suggested.
"Right." Aang agreed. "So here's how I see it. Zuko, you and Toph will head straight for the lower levels since out of everyone here you two know how to navigate that labyrinth the best. Katara and I will ride on Appa and search from the air for anyone who looks suspicious. Sokka, I guess you and Suki will go check in at the Ba Sing Se Security Center. Who knows, maybe somebody's already caught whoever did this." There was a short silence that followed this proposition.
"Umm...maybe you should go with Suki and I'll go with Katara." Sokka suggested mildly. "Just saying that since you know, you're the Avatar, you should take a more active ground role in searching for the thieves. I can say yip yip as well as you can." Aang looked at Sokka and then at Suki. He saw both surprise and pain in her gaze. Then he thought about leaving Katara's side and suddenly he was very afraid.
"I don't think so Sokka." He said at length. "In her condition right now Katara is...well obviously she'd be fine...I would just feel better if I was with her now. I feel it's where I should be. If that makes any sense?" He looked pleadingly around the room. Katara hugged him suddenly from behind and he felt his face redden.
"It does to me." she whispered into his ear. Aang's blush deepened.
"Yeah okay whatever. It's fine with me. Let's just go." Sokka affirmed. He turned and headed for the door. Suki hesitated a couple of seconds before following him. When she did so she turned to Aang and the Airbender saw the briefest hint of a smile before she vanished out into the night. Zuko and Toph were next, the Firelord only pausing to address his family.
"I'll be back soon." he said affectionately to Mai. She smiled and hugged him. Then Zuko lowered himself down on his haunches, so that his face was level with his son's. "Be a good boy, okay?"
"Can I stay up and wait for you Daddy?" the child suddenly asked. Zuko was thoughtful a moment. He glanced up to his wife's eyes. There was a small nod.
"Okay...as long as it's not too late." he added.
"Yay! And will you sing me the lullaby when you get back. You do a better job than Mom." Lu Ten grabbed Zuko's sleeve and pulled him in close for a whisper. "She doesn't know all the words." The Firelord laughed.
"All right, when I get back." he said, then in a flash, he and Toph were gone.
Outside it took several moments for Aang and Katara to board Appa. Even hurrying, the process was still slow. Yet soon they were on their way, the sky bison scanning the ground below with his enormous gaze. Katara lay back in the saddle while her husband held the reins. Overheard the full moon provided plenty of light so the couple could see a great deal simply by averting their eyes to the streets below. It was some time before either one of them spoke.
"You know Sokka had a point." Katara said lightly. "You could have done much more with someone else, or even searched by yourself. You don't have to keep babying me." Aang threw her a hurt glance.
"I know...I'm sorry. I don't mean to. I just thought your brother should have some one on one time with Suki. They haven't really spoken in years. And after seeing that carving in Toph's study I...I just didn't want to leave you alone."
"It really got to you, didn't it?" Katara inquired, her blue eyes shown with concern.
"Yeah." Aang admitted.
"Any idea why?" Katara pressed gently.
"No, that's the strangest part." Aang sighed. "I felt like I'd seen the creature in the carving before...or maybe that I would see him in the future. I don't know; it was weird. Terrible too, that person, Oguanga Toph called him. He's a bad guy Katara. I can't be away from you when I know there are people like him still in existence." The wind blew over his hairless head and caused a chill. The same breeze rippled the looped braids in Katara's hair. With effort, she hoisted herself up and crawled over to him so that the warmth of her body was shared into his.
"Aang," She began. "The demons vanished thousands of years ago. They're extinct or passed on into the Spirit World. Most people don't even remember the legends about them anymore. We don't have anything to worry about from a Demon King." She reached out and took his hand in hers. "And I know how much you want to be with me right now but you're the Avatar. I understand sometimes we'll be apart. Don't worry, nothing bad will ever happen to me...I can take care of myself." She grinned at him. He tried to manage one back.
"You're right." he replied. "I'm probably just overreacting. We'd better get back to watching the ground."
"There you go." Katara stated smugly. She settled back against the saddle. Aang tried to be optimistic as they flew on. However a doubt still lingered at the back of his mind, it felt like a warning.
Zuko and Toph made their way quickly down the staircases and through gates. They passed all number of guards and other random people walking along, some who walked with purpose, others that just ambled. As they descended Zuko watched the houses degrade around them. Luxury gave way to comfort and comfort gave way to just the essentials, the classes were still divided in this city. Torches lit the streets but neither one of them relied on the light. Toph was of course blind and Zuko, well he had learned to love the darkness as the Blue Spirit all those years ago.
It had been during this time that he had made his discovery of the black market: a seedy network of traders whom all operated outside the law. Some of these merchants ran perfectly legal shops during the day. The black market really only existed at night, unless the deal was urgent. It would be near impossible for an ordinary outsider to spot someone in this organization. Fortunately, neither he nor Toph qualified completely as ordinary.
"Do you really think we'll find the people who stole from me?" The blind Earthbender piped up from his side. Zuko remained silent. "Because honestly it seems like were just shooting around blind, in my case quite literally!" She kicked a rock as if to demonstrate her frustration.
"We'll find them." Zuko reassured. "We have to."
"Why?" Toph complained. "I already pointed out that all they took was money and I have enough of that to go around."
"We have to keep searching!" The young Firelord suddenly cut her off. Toph walked on in silence, blowing the hair off her face once.
"You know...I may be blind but it looks to me that even though I was the one who was robbed...you're the one missing something." she said quietly. Zuko stopped walking. He lowered his head in reflection. "You won't find him, not this way." Toph continued. She tentatively placed a hand on his shoulder. Zuko was speechless. Her words had cut into him like daggers.
"I have to try something. I just wanted to get my mind off it." He whispered slowly.
"You can't find what was never lost." Toph continued. "I think the only way you'll find who you're looking for is through time." They stood in silence in the street. Noises from nearby insects filled the air around them. Around the corner a tavern was entering its more boisterous hours of the night. Finally Zuko exhaled.
"Let's just keep going a few more blocks." he said and he was surprised by how much lighter his tone sounded.
"Okay." Toph agreed. "A few more blocks." She withdrew her hand only to punch him hard in the arm.
The streets were far too quiet for Sokka and Suki. The two hadn't spoken since leaving Toph's house. They were almost to the Ba Sing Se Security Center. Both walked at a brisk pace. They walked side by side but they kept their vision glued to the street side nearest to them. Both were so scared to accidentally blink into each other's vision that they turned their heads to look. It is questionable exactly how long this could have kept up if it hadn't been for the edge of one stall sticking out into the street. Since she had forced herself to look away Suki didn't see it and the abrupt impact expelled the air from her lungs.
"What happened? Are you okay?" Sokka at once spun around, drawing his sword in the same fluid motion.
"I'm fine." Suki coughed. She kicked at the stall angrily before smiling sheepishly to Sokka. "Guess I should learn to watch where I'm going huh?" Sokka opened his mouth to spit out some witty reply but closed it again almost instantly.
"It could have happened to anyone." He said at last. Then he turned and continued walking. After several moments Suki caught up to him. She walked timidly, her head bent in shyness. Then, all of a sudden, she stopped. Sokka stopped after a couple of steps and inclined his head in her direction.
"Why didn't you join the Order?" She asked. Sokka turned fully, his mouth hanging open. "A few years ago, I know Master Piandao offered you an invitation, why didn't you accept?" No answer came right away.
"My home needed me." Sokka responded eventually. "We had been so devastated during the war that I couldn't really afford to go off and help save the world again. I did it once but my people matter to me too. They needed me more." He paused before adding: "I wanted you there with me." Suki looked at him for as long as she could. There were tears in her eyes as she turned away.
"Let's just keep walking." she decided after a long moment.
"Yeah." Sokka approved, fighting to keep his own composure. "Let's."
Toph had been striding briskly when in an instant she had squealed an exclamation and dashed ahead. Zuko had stood there, only being able to be shocked until he forced himself back into reality and ran after her. He raced a good hundred paces before the blind Earthbender came back into view. She was bent over in the middle of the street picking up a small black box. From its shine Zuko quickly deduced that it was made of metal. Stopping just in front of her to catch his breath the Firelord peered at the small black box.
"What is it?" He asked.
"I can't believe I didn't notice it was missing!" Toph was saying to herself. Tears dripped down from her vacant eyes. "They must have dropped it when they realized they couldn't open it." She clutched the little box to her chest.
"Toph?" Zuko asked again. She turned and smiled to him.
"My greatest treasures are kept in boxes without lids." She said, a gleam across her face. Holding the box in one hand she made a swift, short dicing maneuver with the other. Straight away a line appeared across the solid metal surface and the box opened. Reaching in with her free hand the blind Earthbender produced a small lump of black rock. Zuko could really see nothing special about it. Then in a flash it had become a bracelet. Toph smiled as she held it in her hand.
"The only space earth I've ever bended." She stated. "I can't believe I almost lost it without realizing. I must really be blind." She slipped it on her arm. "Never again." she spoke to herself. Zuko grinned.
"I knew there was a reason we were out here!" he declared proudly. She smiled at him. The two stood there for a long time, admiring the alien rock on Toph's arm. A guard walked by, dowsing the street lamps. The two still remained. Next, they gradually turned and began their ascension back towards the Bei Fong residence. The night of searching was over.
"I waited for you Daddy!" Lu Ten exclaimed as his father entered the house. Everyone else had already arrived and retired for the evening. Zuko smiled at his son before embracing his wife who stood behind him.
"You did okay?" he asked.
"Between this one and the flying monkey? Great times!" Mai mused. She drew Zuko in and kissed him on the lips. "We were all fine. He wouldn't go to bed until you got home though. He wants his lullaby."
"Oh does he?" Zuko replied in a playful tone. The Firelord suddenly swooped down and gathered his child in his arms. "Then I suppose what the Prince demands he must get."
"Don't you spoil him now too." Mai chuckled. She retreated off to the corridor that lead to their room. "Try not to be too long now."
"I won't be." her husband answered back. He carried Lu Ten into his room. He could see Toph and Mrs. Cai had put special care into it so that it resembled a child's space. Many toys and colorful pictures greeted his vision. There was a large circular shaped bed that took up most of the room. Very gently, Zuko placed his son down upon it before sitting next to him.
"Lullaby time Daddy!" Lu Ten begged.
"All right." Zuko whispered. "But first get under the covers. Smooth out the worries from your heart and mind my little Prince, and close your eyes." The toddler did so. Zuko beamed at his son, and found his eyes once again welling with tears. They were both of pride and sorrow.
" Leaves from the vine
Falling so slow
Like fragile, tiny shells
Drifting in the foam
Little soldier boy
Come marching home
Brave soldier boy
Comes marching home..."
For the collective works of the author, go here.