|More from Wordbender||Action/Adventure/Suspense||PG||Positive||No Update Page|
|A Million to One|
May 30, 2012
Previously in Air
Zuko's wooden performance was interrupted by the sudden appearance of Azula and Katara was mortally injured in the ensuing fight. Aang flew off to Ba Sing Se in desperate search of a waterbending healer while Zuko and Katara are offered shelter by their new friend Sensu. In the Fire Nation, Rozen has been arrested under suspicion of an assassination attempt on Mai's life.
Chapter Twenty: A Million to One
Sensu grabbed a cloak from beside his father. It was a chilly night, but he did not don the garment. He took a knife and began stripping it into pieces.
"I'm going to bind the wound," he told Zuko calmly, feeling those intense eyes watching his every move. Sensu bent over Katara, attempting to examine the injury. He moaned, casting his eyes up to the sliver of moon hanging in the sky. "Why couldn't you be full?"
Zuko produced a flame. "Will this help?"
Gansu glanced over his shoulder in surprise at the light. He saw the fist-sized ball of fire hovering over Zuko's palm. "You're Fire Nation."
Zuko nodded. He knew –even after twelve years– people were still skittish around firebenders, but he couldn't gauge this man's reaction.
Without another word, Gansu turned his attention back to the road.
"Thanks," Sensu said, "It helps a lot." In the flickering light, he peered at Katara's wound. Carefully he pulled back the sections of cloth burned into her flesh to reveal oozing blood.
Zuko felt sick, even Momo seemed to wince. But Sensu kept his head. He quickly and methodically wrapped the torn cloak pieces around her neck and shoulder.
Katara stirred once, moaned, and fell still again.
Momo chittered curiously and pawed at her hand. When she didn't make another move, his ears fell flat against his head. He sadly curled up into Zuko's lap and watched Katara, waiting for the slightest movement.
Sensu secured the last bandage. "The good news," he said, "Is that the lightning didn't hit her heart."
Zuko held his breath. "The bad news?"
Sensu hesitated. "It's still bad. It struck her directly in the shoulder and burned her arm and neck." He shook his head. "There's not much I can do about it now. When we get home, there are a few poultices I know of that might help, but..." He looked Zuko in the eye. "Your friend better hurry."
A brooding silence settled over the cart.
Zuko kept his flame burning. It would provide light for them to drive by, and he could keep an eye on Katara. Mostly, he didn't want to be trapped in the dark. Not with Azula on the prowl.
"Where did you learn to do that?" Zuko indicated the sound bandage.
"The war," Sensu replied. "It does a soldier good to know some healing basics. Saved a few comrades that way." His eyes darkened and Zuko knew he had lost some, too.
Sensu looked curiously at Zuko. "I never did catch your name."
"It's..." Zuko hesitated. "Li."
"Huh, my kid brother's name is Lee."
Zuko began to nod, but stopped. He glanced sharply at Sensu's father and a dreadful weight dropped into the pit of his stomach.
"Lee, you know you're meant to do this."
Lee shook his head uncertainly. "I don't know..."
His friend rolled his eyes. "Come on, every time someone so much as mentions the Fire Nation, you want to bite their head off."
"Sorry, Jomei, but joining up with a group of rebels who hijack Fire Nation shipments and send anonymous threats to the Earth King about making treaties isn't my idea of accomplishing anything."
"Oh, Lee," Jomei chuckled, shaking his head at his friend's naiveté, "We do so much more than that."
Lee raised an eyebrow, curious in spite of himself.
"If you'd join," Jomei urged, "I could tell you about it!"
Lee shook his head again. "Have you forgotten all the other rebels out there? They run around whooping and hollering, and they're not doing anybody any good. What makes your 'Guild of the Granite Gauntlet' so different?" he demanded.
Jomei cast a quick look about the market, checking for any eavesdroppers. "Because we're going to win, Lee." He grinned. "We can't lose!"
Lee's stomach twisted. He didn't know what to think. "I should get back home," he said quietly, turning away.
Jomei grabbed hold of his shoulder to stop him. "I know why you hate them so much," he said gently. "I remember him, Lee, what he did to you. I was there." His grip on Lee's shoulder tightened. "He tricked you. That's what the Fire Nation is doing now, they're tricking us. Think about it, Lee. Are you going to let him do it again?"
Lee's blood boiled at the memory. He wrenched away from Jomei's grip. He trudged down the path toward home without looking back, shoulders hunched and eyes burning.
Jomei crossed his arms as he watched his friend leave. A glint of satisfaction shimmered in his eyes. He'll come around, he thought. It's just a matter of time.
"There is a small matter that must be discussed," War Minister Shinu said.
"A small matter?!" General Tzen spluttered. "This is a growing crisis!"
Shinu ignored the protest. "There has been word from Colonel Ryuk on Tenzi Island," he said. "They can find no trace of these rioters."
A murmur rippled through the room. No wonder an emergency council had been called. Colonel Ryuk was the fifth officer to be sent with his men to find the rebels.
Shinu continued. "They say it is like chasing phantoms. The people are terrified by the attacks, and we can't help them."
One of the advisors snickered. "I guess Ryuk's not looking hard enough."
Tzen took offense. "The Colonel is a good man," he retorted. "He is one of the best in this army; if he can't find them, there is a reason."
The Firelord had once again distanced himself from his council. He sat on his throne, enveloped in the curtain of flame, and watched them all with an unwavering gaze. The Firelord leaned forward. "What do you suggest, War Minister Shinu?"
Shinu hesitated. He glanced at the silhouette behind the flames.
Nearly imperceptible, the Firelord nodded.
Shinu puffed out his chest. "I believe Admiral Jeong Jeong should be called to investigate," he declared. "If these rioters are really rebels, and not phantoms, I'm certain the Admiral could find them. If I'm not mistaken, you spent a good portion of your life evading Fire Nation soldiers."
Jeong Jeong's face remained expressionless. "You know I did."
"Perhaps, then, you know of some tricks that could catch these rioters," Shinu said. "I doubt they could escape the mighty Jeong Jeong."
Jeong Jeong raised an eyebrow, annoyed. "With all due respect, your majesty," he said calmly, inclining his head at the dais, "I believe my services are required more here."
"Hmm..." mused the Firelord. "War Minister, do you really think this is the best course of action?"
Shinu nodded. "If anyone can catch these rebels, your majesty, it's Jeong Jeong."
"Very well," the Firelord said. "Admiral Jeong Jeong, you will leave this evening."
"Your majesty!" Jeong Jeong protested.
The Firelord raised his hand. "I must listen to my War Minister, Admiral."
Jeong Jeong settled, but he glowered silently.
"There is one more thing I would like to discuss," the Firelord said. "Captain Kio?"
The captain of the guard stood, as always, away from the table of councilors. He watched the ranging emotions of the generals and admirals, prepared to step in if something got out of hand.
Kio started in surprise at the sound of his name. He bowed his head. "Yes, your majesty?"
"I understand an attempt was made on the Firelady's life."
Shocked murmurs rippled through the room. Jeong Jeong tensed, glaring toward the throne.
Kio blanched. He had been sworn to secrecy by Firelady Mai and Admiral Jeong Jeong. Why was the Firelord bringing it up in council?
"Well, uh, yes, your majesty," Kio stuttered.
"Do you believe it is safe for her to remain in the Palace?"
"Well, your majesty, as safe as always..."
The flames around the throne sputtered, spitting hot sparks. "Even after you find an assassin lurking within these very walls?"
Kio fell silent.
"Do you think there is even the slightest danger to my wife?"
"...I don't believe so, sir."
The Firelord's eyes narrowed. "But it's possible?"
"Nearly anything is possible, Firelord Zuko," the captain replied carefully.
The Firelord nodded. "Then I would like Firelady Mai and Princess Ursa moved to safer quarters, outside of the Palace."
Captain Kio straightened involuntarily. "I assure you, your majesty, the Palace is still the safest place for your family. There are more eyes to watch over them here."
"And the eyes of kidnappers and assassins!" the Firelord snapped. The fire roared, flames leaping toward the ceiling.
The room stilled at his anger. Kio flushed and quickly reverted to a deep bow.
The Firelord sighed; his anger and raging flames ebbed. "They will be guarded," he said, more to himself than his council; "They will be safe."
"But, your majesty," an advisor interjected, "Firelady Mai will never agree!"
The Firelord nodded. "That is why I need the support of all of you, my trusted advisors and generals." He sighed again. "Firelady Mai has always been head-strong, but her judgment now is clouded by grief. I fear for her safety."
There were murmurs of consent and approval through the room.
One advisor rose. "Of course we will help to convince her majesty."
Kuzarr wasn't surprised to find Jeong Jeong and Tzen waiting for him in his quarters.
"What kind of game are you playing?" Tzen raged.
"I am concerned for the Firelady's safety, General," Kuzarr answered calmly. "Just as I said."
Jeong Jeong watched him intently, but did not speak.
"I'm sorry," Kuzarr went on, "But she is not safe here. She won't be far; her parents have a home here in the city. She'll be safer, so long as she's out of the Palace, and no one else knows. But I knew she wouldn't listen to me."
"So you'll bend her will with the weight of the Firelord's council?" Tzen retorted.
"They weren't supposed to know about the attempted assassination," Jeong Jeong said calmly.
Kuzarr knew he should keep silent, but how could they remain so clueless? "That has nothing to do with the Firelady's safety, Admiral," he said bitterly. "You're just trying to protect Rozen."
"Watch your tongue," Tzen warned.
Kuzarr sighed sadly. "I know it must hurt to be betrayed by someone you trust–"
Jeong Jeong looked away.
Kuzarr gritted his teeth in frustration. "The Firelord depends on me! He entrusted me with his throne and his family–"
"You are only guarding the secret of the Firelord's departure, Kuzarr," Jeong Jeong snapped. "I was entrusted with the safety of his family, the Kyoshis are here to protect the throne, and you're doing a wonderful job ruining our chances."
Kuzarr paled. He staggered, as if physically struck. "I...I hadn't thought of that."
Tzen snorted. "That was obvious!"
Kuzarr bowed slowly. "You are right, Admiral. I acted foolishly and in haste. I apologize."
But Jeong Jeong knew apologies wouldn't fix this. He was expected to travel to the eastern islands. And he didn't have a choice, because he would never disobey Firelord Zuko.
Mai, too, it seemed, would have no way out. With the council begging and pressing her to retreat, as the will of the Firelord, she couldn't refuse for long.
The ostrich horse ambled slowly up the road toward the farm. It was the incessant snorting of the pigsters, pickens and moo-sows as they neared that confirmed Zuko's suspicion. A woman and a young man appeared from the house as the cart pulled to a stop near the barn.
The woman glanced curiously at the stranger and turned to her husband. "What happened?"
"We found them in Oscree, Sela," Gansu said, leaping down.
"They needed help," Sensu explained. He slowly lowered himself to the ground, grabbing his crutches. He nodded at Zuko. "His friend's been hurt."
Sela hurried over to the cart and peered inside. When she caught sight of the unconscious Katara she gasped. "Well don't just stand there! Bring her inside quick! Lee," she ordered, "Pull up herbs from the garden. Gansu, help me get her inside."
The young man rushed off and Gansu moved to obey, but Zuko gently lifted Katara in his arms. The woman ushered him into the house without a word. Gansu sent Sensu after them while he tended the ostrich-horse.
Zuko waited as Sela pulled back the blankets on a straw mattress.
"Lay her down here," she said. "Sensu, start a fire. We've got to keep her warm."
Zuko gently set Katara on the bed. Her head lolled to one side, revealing a horrendous red mark snaking out from under the bandage.
The woman eyed the mark sadly, tucking in the blanket around Katara.
"I dressed the wound," Sensu told his mother, "But I didn't have anything to treat it with."
She nodded, carefully sitting beside Katara. She began to slowly unwind the skillfully wrapped bandage. She inhaled sharply. "This is an ugly burn," she said softly.
Sensu impatiently scratched again and again at the spark rocks. They sparked profusely, but fire refused to catch on the logs. He glanced up at Zuko and gestured at the unburned wood. "You mind?"
Zuko wound his arm back, thrust forward with an open palm and shot a small torrent of flame at the logs, engulfing them.
Lee froze in the doorway, fistfuls of green herbs in his hands. He stared with accusing eyes. "You're a firebender."
Zuko did not reply.
"They were attacked in Oscree," Sensu said. "They needed a safe place to lie low. That's all."
Lee brought the herbs to his mother, but he never quite took his eyes off Zuko.
"I don't know what good these will do," Sela said softly. "I'm not sure your friend has much of a chance."
Zuko's face darkened.
"I know, Mom." Sensu said. "But the Avatar's bringing a healer for her. We just have to keep her around until he gets back."
"The Avatar?" Lee said, skeptically.
Sensu looked at Zuko. "Your friend 'Bonzoo' really is the Avatar, right?"
Zuko attempted to keep his expression stoic, but surprise glinted in his eyes. Of course, Sensu had watched Aang fly off. Slowly, he nodded. Fear crept into his heart, forcing his words back. Was his cover blown?
Sensu nodded at Katara. "And this is his wife?"
Again, Zuko nodded.
Sensu seemed satisfied. He moved to hover over the bed and help his mother dress the wound.
But Lee asked, "Who does that make you?"
Zuko hesitated. The white paste covering his scar and the hair resting over it had worked so far in concealing his identity. He hoped it wouldn't stop now. "...A friend."
Zuko refused to leave Katara's side. After Sela had redressed the wound with some healing poultices, he sat by his friend.
Sela left to prepare supper, Gansu and Lee to unload their cart-full of supplies. Sensu stayed a moment longer. He didn't say anything; just stood. Zuko found it surprisingly comforting.
Sometime later Sela appeared in the doorway. "There's a stew ready," she told him gently. "It's hearty, and there's enough to go around."
Zuko managed to smile. "Thank you," he said, "but I don't think I could eat anything."
Sela nodded. "If you change your mind..." She and Sensu disappeared into the main room.
Zuko had no intention of leaving Katara. He could only stare at her still form, willing her to wake, for her features to twist into her warm smile. He stared at the bandage, too, splayed across most of the left half of her torso.
"You can't die, Katara," he told her softly.
The soft thudding of wood against the floor forewarned him of Sensu's approach.
"You have to eat something," he said.
Zuko shook his head. "I'm fine."
Sensu sighed. "Look, there's one thing I know about this kind of grief: You've got to keep going. The minute your friend gets back with a healer, you might have to leave in a hurry. Come and eat some stew. She'll be fine for a few minutes."
Zuko glanced at Katara's face, half expecting her to open her eyes. Don't be stupid, Zuko, she'd probably say, I'll be fine.
Zuko nodded slowly. He rose, and followed Sensu into the main room.
Zuko hoped that it wasn't always this silent and gloomy in their home. No one said a word as he joined them, though Sela gave him a hopeful smile as she dished him a bowl of the stew. They ate slowly in the uncomfortable atmosphere. Zuko felt his hopeless, dark mood drop down a few notches.
Suddenly, Lee asked, "How did it happen?" His words, whether he meant them to or not, were an accusation more than a question.
Zuko stared into his bowl for a moment.
"Lee," Gansu warned, "Don't pry."
"I told you, Lee," Sensu said gently, quietly, "They were attacked."
Another moment passed. Sensu, Sela and Gansu ate in silence, but Zuko could only stare down at his bowl, aware of Lee's suspicious eyes still on him.
"She was protecting me," Zuko answered finally, to all their surprise. He lifted his head and looked Lee in the eye. "I was the one being attacked."
Lee tried to return Zuko's solid gaze, but Momo interrupted. Finally free to investigate, he spread his wings and leapt curiously onto Lee's shoulder. The tension broke and Lee turned away.
"You know you've got a good friend when they're willing to protect you at risk to their own life." This bit of wisdom came from Gansu.
Zuko swallowed hard. "I wish she hadn't." But he was thinking of Mai, of his children, and what they would have done if that lightning strike had killed him.
"The Avatar will bring a healer," Sensu said confidently. "He always seems to arrive in the nick of time."
"Or after it," Lee muttered. Zuko wasn't sure he'd heard right, but Gansu was glaring at his son.
"Sensu was a soldier in the war," Lee said suddenly, ignoring his father's warning gaze. His eyes were bitter with an old anger. "He fought against the Fire Nation."
"Yes," Sensu said tiredly, "I did. But not for long. That's how I lost my leg."
Zuko was surprised Sensu sounded so comfortable talking about his wound. Even now, he didn't like to mention the origins of his scar.
"My battalion was captured," he told Zuko. "We were left to sweat it out in a war camp, but we were only there a few months. None of us could believe it when Firelord Zuko showed up and ordered them to set us all free." Sensu smiled. "I'll tell you something, those soldiers weren't happy about it." His eyes grew distant as he remembered. "We found out about the end of the war then, from the Firelord and the Avatar. None of us expected our wardens to just let us go, but there weren't many of the soldiers who fought back. Sometimes I wonder if they were as tired of the war as we were."
Zuko tried to remember this day, but there had been so many war prisoners to free in so many different camps...Not all of them had accepted his reign so peacefully.
Sela began gathering empty bowls. "It's getting late," she told Zuko. "You need some rest."
Momo accepted one last scratching from Lee before gliding back to Zuko. The flying lemur landed on his head, sprawling across his thick black hair.
"There's another mattress in with your friend," Sela told him. "You can keep an eye on her through the night."
Zuko hesitated. "I hate to impose–" he began.
"Don't be ridiculous," Gansu assured him. "It's nothing. In the winter we all crowd around the fire out here anyway. Be sure to call if something happens in the night."
Zuko's heart swelled at the unconditional kindness and hospitality of these people. He spoke a last heartfelt 'thank you' before returning to check on Katara.
She still hadn't moved.
I am so, so, so, so, so sorry that this chapter is late! I was caught up in promoting a story on a writing website and a *cough* Legend of Korra marathon. (Serious necessity. My sis had only seen the first three episodes! She needed help.)
- 'A Million to One' -Ugh. I know, I know. This chapter title is less than impressive. But I was pressed for time. It's actually a play on Piandao's quote in Sokka's Master: 'Try Lee. There's a million Lees.' Har har. And then the secondary allusion to 'a million to one chance' about running into this particular Lee. You may have noticed I have a thing for puns. And hidden meanings. Okay, maybe not so terrible now, right? Riiiiight...
- Zuko Alone was one of my favorite episodes, and I really loved the character Lee. (Obviously.) The episode ended on such an emotional, hopeless note, and I couldn't help feeling that it was a burden Lee was going to carry around, probably for the rest of his life. How would it change Lee? Would he ever meet Zuko again? What would the meeting be like? Thus, even before I seriously considered writing 'Air', Lee's story had already begun to form in my mind.
For the collective works of the author, go here.