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|A Time to Counter|
Previously in Air
While Lee and Aang try to reveal Jomei's true colors to the rebels, Toph and Haru lie in wait for the Dai Li and Zuko bides his time to rescue Roh-Roh.
Chapter Thirty-Nine: A Time to Counter
A hail of sharp shards leapt from the earth around the Dai Li at Toph's bidding.
Haru blinked. He couldn't believe his feet. "Where did they go?" he cried.
Toph didn't have time to answer. The ground beneath them began to murmur. She shoved Haru back just as the surface split. As the Dai Li agent erupted from his tunnel, Toph slapped her hands together, pulling out the earth to catch him in midair.
Sprawled awkwardly on the ground, Haru felt the earth tremble beneath him. He rolled to one side as the second Dai Li agent leapt from underground. The Dai Li instantly focused in on Toph, the obvious threat, and moved to knock her away from his companion.
Haru gritted his teeth. He leapt up and, without really thinking about the best line of attack, punched the man in the back of the neck. Unfortunately, the Dai Li seemed to anticipate the attack. Instead of connecting with soft flesh, Haru's fist slammed into a protective patch of rock.
Haru fell back with a grimace. Stupid! First he'd missed the Dai Li diving into the earth for a sneak attack and now this.
Toph would have liked to finish imprisoning her initial quarry. Condense the rock of his prison as much as possible, cuffing it around his hands, feet, chin, even his pinky toe. Anything that he could bend enough to break free. But it didn't look like she'd have time.
The earth twitched behind her. She eased aside as a column of earth slammed into the front of the solid cocoon, crumbling the prison to pebbles. The Dai Li was free, but Toph took some small satisfaction in seeing that his friend's unexpected blow had completely winded him.
The second Dai Li –Po, she decided– did not hesitate. He punched his arms left, raising another thick column to crush her. Slamming her feet into a firm stance, Toph didn't even flinch as the mass of rock charged her. She caught it in her hands, forcing it to a halt.
The column shuddered, pulled between two masters. It began to crumble, chunks falling away and sending distorted ripples through the earth. Toph decided to take advantage of the distraction. She punched into the column and missiles shot through the other side at Po. Soon the column was nothing more than a frame of holes. The weak threads of remaining rock splintered and the column fell away in shattered sections.
In the resulting cloud of dust Toph crouched down and pounded her fists into the earth. Twin columns rose up, before and behind Po.
Po slid away, skating across the earth as the two columns collided. But then, that was just what Toph wanted.
Haru shook at his injured hand, blinking his watery eyes against the dust. He searched the vibrations for the others; Toph was dealing with one Dai Li, but the other...He opened his mouth to shout a warning, but too late. Nguyen had already punched out.
Toph twisted under Nguyen's fist, startling the Dai Li. She quickly righted herself, simultaneously shifting the patch of earth beneath Nguyen's feet. He wobbled uncertainly. The earth lurched beneath him and was hurled forward, colliding headfirst into Po's gut.
Haru breathed a sigh of relief. He should have known Toph would feel someone sneaking up behind her. "Nicely done."
"How's your fist?" she snarled.
"Brace yourself," Toph warned. "Here they come again."
Toph had told Aang and Zuko that she would do her best to hold one of the Dai Li for questioning. Not that she would, but that she would try.
"Any ideas how to hold on to one of these guys?" Haru asked her.
"Plenty," Toph said. "It's just that most of them happen to involve metal."
"Ah." Metal was on thing they didn't have. Haru frowned. "Hey, I thought you said they were coming?"
"I did." Toph snorted. "I guess they changed their minds. They're headed farther up the cliff."
Haru waited for her to take off after them, but she just stood there. "...aren't you going to follow them?"
"I'm thinking," Toph retorted, tapping her chin. "Why would they run? Kidnapping Roh-Roh was their precious plan, so why leave the door wide open for us to rescue him?"
It was a good question.
"I didn't think the Dai Li were cowards, either," she said.
Haru frowned. "Retreating isn't always cowardly," he said, his tone edged with disapproval. "Sometimes it provides a strategic advantage."
"I barely tapped them," Toph complained. "They spotted a little challenge and took to their heels? That doesn't–" She fell silent.
"What is it?"
Toph cocked her head. "They've stopped." She sounded almost surprised.
Haru glanced up. The higher cliffs loomed overhead, their menacing black a stark contrast against the deep blue sky. "They're probably trying to lure you up there. It's got to be a trap."
Toph grinned. "I like traps."
"Setting them, or walking into them?" Haru couldn't help but ask.
Toph's grin widened. "Neither. You remember that running trick I showed you the other day?"
Haru frowned. "Wait, the one where...Oh." His stomach sank as realization dawned.
"That's the one, my protégé," Toph said, pounding him enthusiastically on the back. "Congratulations! You just graduated from bystander to bait."
The Dai Li lie in wait. They found the perfect spot, where the only path through the mountain narrowed to a tight ravine, the sheer rocks stretching upward on either side.
And their enemies had fallen for it. Now they would be captured and thoroughly questioned; just who had sent them and how did they know about their schedule? Their first guess was Tani, Wun and that irritable boy Jomei. But their allegiances would be know for certain soon enough. After that, they could be properly disposed of and their masters dealt with.
Nguyen and Po stiffened.
Down below, footsteps, running through the ravine. Two? Three? Perhaps more.
It didn't matter. With their skills and the element of surprise, Nguyen and Po could easily subdue three times their number.
They loosened their holds and dropped.
Toph smiled. She'd pinpointed the Dai Li's position as soon as she'd tiptoed into the ravine. They clung to the shadowed cliff side, their light-colored cloth and pale skin darkened in a thin layers of dark rock. Convenient camouflage. Pretty clever; after all, how could they know she saw their every move?
She readied herself as she felt the Dai Li's grip on the rock face loosen. They homed in on their target and dropped.
"Here we go," Toph muttered, only half to the oblivious Haru.
Toph brought her feet together sharply, in the same movement jabbing her elbows out. Pillars erupted from the cliffs on either side of the ravine. The missiles were, for an instant, completely level with the falling Dai Li. In that instant, Toph pounded her fists together. The pillars shot forward with a sudden burst of speed. Each caught one of the two men as they fell and slammed them together in mid air.
The two Dai Li hung there, pinned to one another by the pillars, limp in unconsciousness.
Toph clapped the dust from her hands. "That ought to hold them for awhile."
Zuko crouched beside the door of the shack, ducking just below the open window. Five minutes. He had waited five minutes after Nguyen and Po left, just like they planned. He only hoped Toph and Haru could deal with them.
He closed his eyes briefly. Took a deep breath to slow his frantic heartbeat, to silence the pounding in his head.
There was one man inside the shack now. One man standing between Zuko and his son. As he listened, body rigid with tension, Zuko imagined he could almost hear the guard breathing. Zuko gritted his teeth. He reached over his shoulder and slowly drew out the double blades. One man wouldn't separate him from Roh-Roh for long.
In a swift movement he rose, kicking the door down.
There was the man, sitting at a table, startled. Behind him, a door. Instinctively Zuko knew Roh-Roh was on the other side. Several large earthen pots were scattered about the shack, but other than that it was empty.
Zuko charged. He swung his sword at the man, but it hissed through only air. The guard was quick, ducking under the table, but Zuko was quicker. He leapt atop it and swiped his blade clean through, cutting the rickety fixture in half and exposing the hiding place.
The guard was already on the move, rolling across the floor for distance.
The severed table teetered underfoot. Zuko swayed precariously, balanced on one section. Flame licked down his sword blade as the table rocked. He swung around for momentum, flinging the fire at the guard's head as Zuko leapt back to the steady earthen floor.
The guard twisted awkwardly to avoid the fireball. He stumbled off-balance, falling among the pots.
Zuko barely touched ground before he again advanced. Swords trailing behind, the burn of smoke and charred wood filling his head, Zuko felt the burden in his chest grow heavier. The dense bundle of fear, anger and frustration –having been built and repressed and condensed and built over since that bright morning he first heard his son's pitiful cry– it weighed on him with each step until it suddenly burst, exploding with a flourish of fire that encompassed him. A terrifying cry leapt from his throat as he charged.
Blinded by his own fire, Zuko did not see the blow. Rock slammed into his gut. He dropped one sword in surprise. Zuko was thrown back against the far wall, losing his grip on the second blade halfway across the room. The wooden wall cracked audibly. Pain exploded across his back. The shack shuddered and groaned.
Haru rested his hands on his knees, panting gently when Toph caught up to him. The technique he'd used was a good one, but exhausting. While he ran through the ravine, with each footfall he had attacked the earth with his bending, sending small bits of rock up into the air and letting them fall back to earth. The loose rocks imitated the fall of more footsteps and through the violent vibrations it was almost impossible to tell there wasn't a horde of people charging along with him.
He glared up at Toph as she approached.
"You couldn't have told me that was your plan?" he demanded.
Toph shrugged. "I didn't want you to give me away."
"You still should have told me," he sulked. "When I felt them drop, I almost reacted."
The mirth of victory suddenly drained from her face. "At least you felt them drop," his teacher growled. "Five minutes ago, you wouldn't have been able to do even that. What was with you back there? You were hitting blind!"
Haru scowled, because he knew it was true. He'd screwed up and there was no excuse for it. In the heat of the battle, everything had moved too fast. He didn't have the time to implement the listening techniques she'd been pounding into him and still managed to stay on his toes.
"I guess I need more practice," he muttered.
"You practice all the time," Toph shot back vehemently. "You're run down on practice. What you need is to rewire that mushed up brain of yours!"
Every word beat on Haru's hunched shoulders. True, true, true. Failure.
"You were thinking you didn't have time to look with your feet, weren't you?"
Haru blinked. He looked up at Toph in surprise. "How did you–Ow!"
Toph rapped her knuckles on his forehead. "How many times do I have to tell you, dunderhead? Seeing through the earth isn't some kind of secondary measure or backup plan; it's first and foremost in earthbending! Nothing else matters, Haru! When are you going to get that into your head?"
Haru didn't reply. He didn't have a good answer for her and he knew from experience that Toph didn't accept apologies.
Toph sighed heavily. She stomped and a lump of earth bounced up at perfect stool height and she took a seat. For a moment, they stared up in silence at the rock-pillar-Dai-Li masterpiece arcing gracefully through the night sky above them.
"What are we going to do with them?" Haru finally asked.
Toph grunted. "Keep 'em there, I guess, until Aang and Zuko have a chance to get some answers. We'll have to keep an eye on them and make sure they don't wake up."
"You think they could escape?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. It's possible. You can't see it from here, but I cuffed their hands and feet together. It's only rock, but that kind of positioning will be tricky, even for a Dai Li."
Her sightless eyes gazed up at her prison art for another long moment. "Hopefully they hurry," she added, which did nothing to reassure Haru.
The guard rose warily from among the pots, his fingers guiding ribbons of clay. Earth snaked out from the pots, morphing together in large clumps.
Zuko groaned. The sharp pain subsided into a throbbing ache throughout his torso. But he moaned because he had not seen the blow coming, nor had he noticed the pots were full. If he had not been so hasty, he would have realized the guard was an earthbender. But his judgment was clouded with desperation, his eyes blinded with anger.
The guard said nothing. He advanced, punching out, once, twice.
Zuko dove to the floor, ducking the first missile. The second snake of compact clay lashed at him. He twisted away, but it grazed his cheek. He rolled onto his feet, steadying his hands in a ready stance.
The guard frowned. He cautiously crouched down, never taking his eyes from Zuko, and dipped his hands into one of the vessels. The earth inside writhed and wriggled, wrapping around his hands to form a rocky gauntlet.
Zuko's eyes narrowed. He knew that trick.
The guard whirled at him, sweeping his arms out. Three of the heavy pots jumped at Zuko. He danced away, kicking and punching at them with fire. The shattered fragments rained down. Through the haze of dust and smoke he caught sight of another pot, circling around behind him. He rounded on it, slicing through it with a fiery fist.
As the pot crumbled, something hard slammed into Zuko's lower back. He stumbled forward with a cry, reaching back to grab it. He dipped his head as he stumbled and something hissed over him, clipping his hair. He spun round to face the guard.
The guard reached out with one hand and caught the second rock gauntlet as it rebounded. It landed on his outstretched palm and melt back into place around his fist.
Zuko pulled his hand away from his back, the brittle clay crumbling through his fingers. "You're Dai Li too," he realized.
The guard didn't answer.
It made sense that there would be a third Dai Li agent. Zuko was surprised none of them had considered the possibility. Clouded by desperation again, he supposed.
The guard clenched his fists. The rock around him shifted. The remaining pots wobbled.
Every inch of Zuko's body was tight with pain and burning with unspent rage. He ignored it. He eased back into a defensive stance because he now knew three things.
One: Roh-Roh was most definitely beyond the door.
Two: The man standing between Zuko and his son had the answers to dozens of questions that still haunted him.
And three: There, two steps before him, glinting and shifting among the dirt as it slithered back to its master, lay one of Zuko's swords.
No notes! I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date!
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