Cadence walked nervously alongside Iroh and Zuko as they approached the palace. While she was happy for her father getting this opportunity, she couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't quite right. She was especially wary as the invitation came so soon after Katara recognized them in the shop. Since the Avatar's group now had Kuei's ear, word of their real identities was bound to have reached him. She had fully expected officials to come and arrest them, or politely request their cooperation in visiting the palace. But all that arrived was a request to serve the Emperor tea.
It felt to her more like a ploy to lower their guard. She just hoped that it wasn't working on the others. She'd lost sight of Jong and Zhin on the way there, and she felt uncomfortably exposed without them watching over the group. She could see that Zuko was also nervous, but she couldn't tell if it was battlefield caution or stage jitters.
Seeing how happy Iroh was, Cadence did her best to control her fears. Surely she was just overthinking it. Perhaps Katara had raced to the group's apartment, rather than to the palace. Maybe Toph had vouched to them on behalf of herself and Iroh. Maybe they'd decided as a group not to mention it, and Iroh's tea was really that good that they received the invitation to serve tea to the King on merit.
Maybe Bosco had communicated a desire for 'adventure tea' to Kuei. One never knew with bears...
As Iroh began preparing the tea in the throne room, Cadence could see she wasn't the only one beginning to get suspicious. Zuko had started to glance around worriedly. "What's taking so long?" he murmured under his breath.
"Maybe the Earth King overslept?" Iroh offered hopefully, though nerves were creeping into his voice.
"Maybe Bosco did?" Cadence offered as well.
As they spoke, they looked up to see they were surrounded by Dai Li agents. Cadence immediately braced herself. Something was definitely wrong, and she could tell she wasn't the only one to see it.
And then Azula walked into the room, dressed as a Dai Li. "It's tea time," she greeted, plainly feeling good about herself.
"Azula!" Zuko snapped, shooting to his feet.
"Have you met the Dai Li?" Azula asked. "They're Earth Benders, but they have a killer instinct that's so Fire Bender. I just love it!"
Cadence at first was terrified, but then she saw Iroh calmly standing as he picked up his tea. "Did I ever tell you how I got the nickname, 'the Dragon of the West'?" he asked sweetly.
"I'm not interested in a lengthy anecdote, Uncle," Azula chided.
"It's more of a demonstration, really!" Iroh countered cheerily, sipping his tea. Zuko and Cadence both smirked, then ducked.
As Iroh's flame breath forced the Dai Li to duck, Zuko and Cadence blasted a path out of the room for them. The Dai Li pursued as the trio ran, but Cadence was able to turn a bit of her own Earth against them to give themselves more breathing room. After blasting a path out of the palace with fire and lightning, Cadence helped Iroh to the ground, using her magic and Air Bending to cushion his landing. "Come on!" Iroh called back up to Zuko. "You'll be fine!"
"I'll catch you!" Cadence added.
"No!" Zuko shouted back. "Someone has to stop what Azula's trying to do! And I'm the only one she'll insist on fighting personally!" Turning, he headed back into the palace.
Iroh sighed as he got to his feet. "That boy's going to get himself killed one of these days..." he muttered.
"No he won't," Cadence disagreed. "He knows what he's doing. He's got a plan."
"Here's hoping it doesn't backfire like his lightning," Iroh joked, turning tail to run.
Cadence followed him quickly, knowing she'd be a distraction Zuko couldn't afford in confronting Azula. Not only that...she's seen his spirit. The decision to confront Azula directly had helped mend the division inside him. Slowly and surely, he was becoming whole...possibly for the first time in his life. She couldn't interfere in that.
Zuko stood calmly as he faced Azula and the Dai Li. "You're so dramatic," Azula chided. "What, are you going to challenge me to an Agni Kai?"
"No," Zuko countered back. "That requires at least one competitor to have honor."
Azula's face twitched briefly. "Said the traitor!" she barked out.
"Said the brat," Zuko taunted back.
"You think you can take us all?" Azula derided.
"Nope," Zuko countered. He raised his hands. "I'm surrendering."
Shrugging, Azula directed the Dai Li agents to imprison Zuko...but inside, she was tormented by a most frustrating question.
Why is he smirking?
As Zuko was thrown into the underground prison, he did his best to tuck and roll down the stone tunnel so he could land with somesense of balance. He was rather surprised to see Katara there. "Zuko?" she gasped out, before glaring at him somewhat angrily.
Zuko managed a smile. "Fancy meeting you here..."
Iroh and Cadence made their way to the only help they could think of...the Avatar's apartment. The only ally they had left was Toph, and they could only hope that she'd be able to help.
When Toph opened the door, Cadence smiled up at her, and they immediately began their greeting.
Clap your hooves
And do a little shake!"
As Cadence and Toph both giggled, Aang and Sokka were somewhat slackjawed...and after a moment, Toph blushed a bit. "Cadence," Iroh asked quietly, "why did you 'do a little shake' in the boys' direction?"
"Because there are some areas where Toph's self-confidence needs all the help it can get," Cadence replied with a wink.
Aang finally got himself under control. "You two know each other?" he gasped out.
Cadence giggled. "Who do you think taught me the fundamentals of Earth Bending?"
"And you're Zuko's cousin with the fwooshy-fwoosh," Sokka groaned. "What next? You learned Water Bending from Master Pakku?"
Cadence' jaw dropped. "How did you know?"
As Sokka made rather amusing strangling noises, Aang raced up to her. "Please...you've got to tell me who taught you Air Bending! Where did you meet another Air Bender?"
"Wan Shi Tong's not an Air Bender," Cadence countered, "though he is very wise." She blinked. "Toph, why does Sokka look more guilty than normal?"
"Don't you think we have more important things to discuss right now?" Sokka asked quickly.
"Agreed," Iroh added. "Princess Azula is here in Ba Sing Se."
"She must have Katara!" Aang gasped out quickly.
"And Zuko!" Cadence confirmed.
"Then we'll work together to fight her and save them both," Aang decided.
"Whoa there!" Sokka spoke up. "You lost me at 'both'. We really want to help Zuko?"
"You're helping Katara," Cadence countered. "We just happen to be going in the same direction, so we might as well coordinate our efforts."
Sokka rubbed his chin for a time. "Okay, I can accept that."
"We interrogated a Dai Li agent on the way here," Iroh added. "Apparently, the prisoners are being held in the Crystal Catacombs of old Ba Sing Se deep beneath the palace, while Azula and Long Feng plot a coup."
"But my senses aren't strong enough to find them," Cadence admitted sadly. "It's why we came looking for you, Toph."
"Then let's go!" Aang proclaimed, and the group rushed out.
"Why did they throw you in here?" Katara demanded angrily of Zuko.
"Because they're working for my sister and she hates me," he replied easily, leaning against a wall and gently tapping a crystal.
"You expect me to buy that?" Katara snapped.
"No, not really." Zuko continued his gentle tapping. "I'm actually surprised you haven't tried to kill me already."
"If Ty Lee hadn't blocked my bending and taken away my water, I would be!" she growled.
"I'd honestly rather you didn't," Zuko commented blandly. "I fully expect my ex-girlfriend to try to, and I hope that will give her closure."
"Are you insane?" Katara screamed out. "Where do you get off joking at a time like this?" She threw her hands in the air in frustration. "I shouldn't be surprised, really. You're the Fire Lord's son. Spreading war and violence and hatred is in your blood!"
Zuko said nothing, deciding to let her vent, listening calmly.
"Do you have any idea the damage the war has caused? What it's cost people? Me, personally?"
Zuko opened his eyes when he heard her voice change from angry to sorrowful.
"...the Fire Nation took my mother away..."
"...that's something we have in common," Zuko said softly, seeing her tears.
Neither of them spoke for a while. Eventually, Katara looked up. "I'm...sorry for yelling at you like that..."
"Don't be," Zuko offered. "I have brought the war across the world, dogged your every step...nothing you said was a lie."
"That doesn't mean I was right to yell at you."
"But I needed to hear it," Zuko replied. "Not long ago...I made a decision that forced me to question my entire life. Now...if I'm going to be whole again, and make the right choices in the future...I need to face all the mistakes of my past."
They were both silent a while longer. "Would you stop that tapping?" Katara finally asked. "It's getting annoying."
"Not until I know the signal's not going through."
"There are three Earth Benders up there looking for us that know how to listen to the Earth," Zuko explained. "I'm giving them something to listen to." He couldn't help but smirk as part of the wall broke in, revealing Aang, Iroh, and Cadence.