"I don't want to hear your stupid bedtime story."
"Well, little sisters who don't listen to their brothers just have to suck it up and do as he says. And you are going to get a bedtime story."
"I'm twelve, I'm too old for a bedtime story."
Zuko, newly eighteen and feeling the crushing weight of responsibilities, glared at his sister. "Again, it sucks to be you. Dad left me in charge, so get comfortable."
"Is this a kissing story?"
"No. Now listen.
"Once upon a time, there was a handsome prince. But all was not well in his kingdom, for his mother was missing-"
"Mom's dead, Zuko, stop pretending she's not, even in a fairy tale that is so heavy handed about being your life. If this is gonna be a dumb 'beauty and the beast' adaption, I hope you're not trying to be the beauty."
"Just shut up and let me tell the story. As I was saying, the mother was missing, and the prince's father often left on long trips, trying to save the kingdom from certain destruction."
"You hate Dad; why is he sympathetic in this story?"
"Oh my god, Azula, shut up!"
She pulled a face in response. "Just asking questions. Not my fault you're a bad storyteller."
"All will be explained. And if it's not explained, it's not important to the story. So, the prince has no parents ninety percent of the time. What he did have was a baby sister, who cried and cried, and even with an army of nannies and assistants the prince was expected to care for her and the kingdom as if he was his father."
"Wow. Now I know how you feel about me."
"Maybe if you shut up and listened, you could be a hero in the story, too."
"Yeah, yeah, just get to the point."
"One night, as his sister cried and cried, and the kingdom continued to flounder, the prince reached his breaking point. You see, what no one in the kingdom knew was that the Queen of Goblins had fallen in love with the prince, and given him certain powers. And so, at the height of his desperation, the prince fell to the ground before his sister's room and cried: 'Goblin Queen! Goblin Queen! Where ever you may be, take this child away from me!'"
Azula burst into laughter. "That's the stupidest thing I've heard! What happens next? The Queen takes him as her king in trade for his sister? Come on, Zuko!"
"No," he murmured, heart sinking. "He saves his sister and spurns the Queen."
Azula didn't hear him, laughing as she was. Neither did she hear him mutter a goodnight and stand, leaving her room with the click of the door. She was still laughing when he turned in the hall to look back at her room.
He winced as another peal of laughter - high and cruel - sounded through the door.
"I wish the goblins would come and take you away." He turned his back on her room. "Right now."
The world around him seemed to shift and that was what he was aware of first, the silence. He immediately ran back into Azula's room, heart in his throat. Her covers were thrown back, and she was gone.
Zuko fumbled for the light switch, only it seemed like a useless decoration on the wall for all the use it was. He stepped farther into her room, glancing about anxiously.
"Azula? Azula, come out. This isn't funny."
"No, it's not," came an unfamiliar voice, and Zuko pivoted towards the window, one hand throwing a wild punch easily caught by the stranger's hand.
She stared at him, blue eyes alight with mischief. Her skin, a warm reddish-brown not unlike the sepia-colored pictures his mother used to collect, seemed to glow with power as her brown hair fluttered about her face, almost alive. She was draped in blue, a richer blue than Zuko had ever seen. Her cape, black as night with serrated edges, billowed about her, almost as if it was reaching for him.
There was also a shower of glitter.
"Hello, Zuko. How are we this evening?"
"Give my sister back."
"Such defiance. And straight to the point, too. Well, well."
She began to circle him, having let drop his hand, and she resembled nothing but predator. "You wished her away. I cannot just give her back to you."
"I didn't mean it."
"What's said is said, Zuko."
"She's my sister, not my child, so she's not mine to give away."
The Goblin Queen - for that's all who she could be - laughed. "You said it yourself, Zuko. Your father left you in charge. He left you responsible for her, so you were her guardian and had every right to wish her away."
With a twist of her gloved hand, a crystal appeared in her fingers. "I came to offer you a gift, your dreams. Nothing more. But it is not a gift for a little prince who cares for a spoiled brat."
Zuko wanted to accept it. The crystal called to him with images of the family business safe, his father's love, his mother returned. No bratty, better younger sibling hanging over him like a knife, as likely to cut him as to hug him.
"Forget about your sister.
Your sister. Your responsibility. You have to protect her.
His mother had never made it clear what he was supposed to protect Azula from, the world, their dad, herself. But he tried. And maybe he'd failed before, but now he clenched his hands into fists at his sides and repeated his demand again.
"Give my sister back."
She sighed, the crystal vanishing with a pop. "Such a pity. Since you did not listen before, I will explain further in detail. Look there," she began, moving to his side and pointing out Azula's window.
Where usually there was a copse of trees and more suburbia, there was now what looked like a sprawling, labyrinthine castle on a mountain. Zuko realized he was now standing on a hill across from the gates to the labyrinth, the Queen still at his side.
"You see the castle there, at the center of my labyrinth? Your sister is there, waiting. I'm sure you familial bond will lead you to her eventually, only that's no fun for me." An orante clock appeared, hanging in the tree beside them, with one more hour than he was accustomed to. "You have thirteen hours to solve the labyrinth and get your sister back. Or else she becomes one of us, forever."
The Queen vanished into thin air, leaving only her final, ominous words behind. The second hand on the clock began to move, and Zuko sprang into action, running towards the gates as fast as he feet would take him.
Katara re-materialized just outside of her throne room. She hated that part, interacting with those so callous as to wish away family members even if they did regret it immediately. There was an almost overpowering feeling that something different was at play here, so she leaned against the door to listen to her new charge before entering.
To her surprise, the young twelve year old was trying to martial her goblins and turn them against her. Strange, reconnaissance indicated the heir, the elder child naturally preferred by cut-throat business types, was the cunning one. However, it would not surprise Katara if in a family of snakes even the mostly-cast-off good one was a skilled manipulator.
Well, better to keep the child on her toes. The goblins were too simple and too loyal to be turned astray.
She transported herself onto her throne in an overly showy display complete with showers of glitter and a swirling blue and purple orb to announce where exactly she was arriving. While capable of appearing in total silence and stealth, if this new charge was determined to act as enemy, Katara would keep some secrets.
"And who are you," the almost imperial twelve year old demanded.
Katara smiled, attempting to put her at ease. "Who else could I be, but the Goblin Queen?"
The girl's jaw dropped. "You mean, that story was real?"
"It came as quite the shock to Zuko, too."
She must process very quickly, for the twelve year old was only silent for a beat before scoffing, "I bet it was even a bigger surprise that you didn't cart him off to be king."
Katara raised an eyebrow. She hoped this was not a coping mechanism.
"So what's my idiot brother doing with his freedom now that he doesn't have to take care of me?"
Katara desperately wanted to share a tale of a callous older brother who abandoned her. It would chip away at the familial bond, and while Zuko would still be pulled towards the castle, the labyrinth would be a much harsher place. Plus, if he did manage to make his presence known, the surge of hope in her brother on the part of Azula could very well knock down all the walls in between them. The Goblin Queen also knew that to feel alone could very well break this already abandoned child.
"Look for yourself."
She tossed a crystal to the young girl, who stared, transfixed, at the image of her brother kicking at the doors to the labyrinth, demanding they open. Her eyes glanced up at Katara.
"He demanded a chance to get you back, so I gave him one. It's not a big chance, but he took it anyway."
"And my father? He's supposed to be home soon."
"He'll arrive home at midnight, yes? Just under three hours from now. He will find his children missing, and likely begin searching for them. And when your brother's thirteen hours are up, I will return him home at midnight, unwinding your father's panicked search."
Azula raised an eyebrow, looking back at the crystal. "You don't think he'll get me back. You don't think he'll win."
"No one ever does."
Zuko had spent his first thirty minutes running to the gate and yelling at them. Hurling abuse did not seem the key to opening them, however, so he began to scour the area around the gates, trying to find the way in.
Instead, he found a short, black haired girl catching fairies, knocking them out with a spray and then putting them in a large jar on the ground.
She whirled to face him, and Zuko realized she was blind.
"How are you catching them?" He blurted out before thinking.
"Magic." And she wiggled her fingers at him for good measure. "Now who are you, and what are you doing here?"
"I'm Zuko. My sister's in the castle, and I have to get her."
The girl laughed. "I see. She stole your dolls one too many times? Kept coming in when you wanted to seduce a girl? Did she mess up your mint condition comic books?"
"No," said Zuko, some negative emotion twisting his mouth. "She was teasing me again, and just being a brat, and it's complicated. Look, how do you get in?"
"Huh. So she hurt you, - don't think I'm not curious about the rest of that story - and now she's got consequences you want to save her from? You're quite the big brother. I'll help you." The small girl made for the gates.
"Thank you. I just can't leave Azula with that lady."
"The Goblin Queen? Katara's not that bad. She actually cares about the children wished away. If you fail, she'll find her a good family to adopt into, though if she's old enough to tease and make it hurt, Katara will have her work cut out for her. Not many of the Summer Court would appreciate an obviously barb-tongued heir. Too bad things are a mess with the Winter Court."
Zuko glanced around at the barren landscape, scraggly trees and pathetic bushes. "This is part of the Summer Court?"
"Oh no. The Underground is it's own, no influence here. But you see, hold on." She turned to the gates, rapped twice, and said, "open up, please."
"That's all I had to do?"
The girl shrugged. "It will probably help you to think of the Labyrinth as alive, as her own player."
Zuko stepped into the maze with a careful look around. "Come with me? I'm still really confused about what you mean by Summer Court. And my sister isn't going to be a goblin?"
The girl sighed. "I can't. I have a job to do, and it doesn't involve escorting confused young runners through the Labyrinth and explain Fae politics you'll never have to deal with. You'll wake up thinking this was a dream, win or lose. You seem honest though, like you got one of those faces people just tell their problems to." She stuck her hand out to shake. "Name's Toph. Good luck, Zuko."
"Thanks." As he ran off to the right, the gates closed behind him.
Toph turned to go back to her work, but her eyes widened as she remembered Zuko's voice, and just what about him encouraged her to share so much. She had to get to the castle. Katara needed to know exactly who was in the Underground.
She took off running, then slowed, then stopped. What was she running for? The fairy jar was right over there.
Whistling, Toph returned to her work.