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After failing to stop a kidnapping in the Middle Ring involving the Bonebender and a Firebender, Kage begins to have second thoughts about the whole business with the puzzle box. However, Ken's investigation into the ongoing kidnappings leads to a surprising reunion.
The Blue Spirit sat looking out across the city from the top of the elevated tram rail when he saw Shadow making her way up the side of the support, pounding her fist into the stone to create climbable platforms and outcroppings. It was slow going, since Kage hadn't quite gotten the hang of the technique yet and she wasn't as skilled a climber as Kensei, but she managed.
When he looked down at his sister, Ken began to wonder if they weren't getting in way over their heads by getting back into the whole business with the puzzle box-and they still had no idea what any of the names that had been burned into Ken's arm meant. They had decided against telling Iroh about the list of names until they had more information, although now that the box was mysteriously missing again, it meant that whatever was going on in Ba Sing Se was far from over and Ken wasn't sure that even the Blue Spirit was a match for it.
'Hi," said Kage as she reached the top, stopping beside her brother for breath.
"What took you?" said Kensei.
Kage slugged him in the arm, although the climb had worn her out too much for it to really hurt. "How did you get up here so fast?" she said.
Kensei pointed to a tram way station a few hundred yards away. "I took the stairs."
Kage looked as though she were about to slug him again when all of a sudden an explosion of fire lit up the city below somewhere in the middle ring district.
"What was that?" said the girl.
Kensei rose to his feet. "It means we have a job to do." He said and leapt down onto the platforms that his sister had just created.
"Not again," Kage whined, but she followed after him anyway.
At length they came to the scene of the action, where the proverbial fireworks had grown several times in intensity on a small residential property connected to a storefront on the adjoining street. The commotion had roused much of the surrounding neighborhood while guards and some volunteer Earthbenders tried to quench the flames billowing out from the second floor of the property.
As he neared the building's roof, he could see a familiar stream of bony spikes that had been embedded into the roofing tiles. Smoke and embers streamed from a hole in the roof and Kensei could just make out a trio of figures within, silhouetted against the flame.
"Let's do it!" said Kage, rushing towards the hole, "Shadow Swan to the rescue!"
Kensei held her back, "No," he said, "I want you to help put out the fire with your Earthbending, I'll go in and see what's going on inside."
"But my Earthbending stinks," said Kage.
"This isn't up for discussion," said her brother sternly, "I don't want you to get hurt."
The Blue Spirit didn't wait for a reply-taking a running leap, he launched himself across the narrow side street feet-first into the burning building, rolling quickly through a pile of flaming debris to the stone section of the building where two combatants faced each other.
"Let him go," said the one in a dark cloak, "Or this will end very badly for you." Something about his voice seemed familiar to Kensei, but he kept his distance, waiting to see how things played out.
Kensei recognized the other combatant as the Bonebender, all creaky joints, ragged cloth and a bone-plated exoskeleton. To his chest he clutched a terrified, stuttering middle-aged man by his throat, a long white spine pointed directly at the man's jugular.
"I pity you, Firebender," the assailant hissed, "Even after your homeland has been brought to its knees by a twelve-year old boy, you still delude yourself into thinking you possess anything resembling true power."
"P-please," said the man, "My older brother is Beng Ping, he's a very important man in the Upper Ring-h-he'll pay you whatever you want-both of you!"
Kensei gripped the handles of his twin swords. "Firebender?" he whispered, "In Ba Sing Se?"
The Bonebender laid a finger on Ping's ribcage and gave it a light tap. There was a cracking sound and the man cried out in sudden pain. "If you say another word, I'll break two ribs next time," said his captor.
Kensei's foot slipped on a fallen timber, catching the attentions of the Firebender. "You!" he snarled at the Blue Spirit, "What are you doing here?"
The Bonebender seized his chance and extended his arm-spikes, intent on driving them into the cloaked man's head until he dodged at the last second, sending out a stream of red fire that flashed blue for a second, searing off the oncoming spikes with pure heat.
The Blue Spirit rushed after the Bonebender as he dragged the man into the darkness outside and made his escape.
Kensei turned to face the Firebender and narrowly missed being flattened as the burning roof caved in. When The Blue Spirit finally managed to extricate himself from the structure, there was no sign of the Firebender or the Bonebender and his captive.
"A Firebender?" said Kage, as she undid the black wrappings from her face, "Do you think he's working with the skeleton guy?"
Kensei hid his mask in the usual spot in the back of the hovel. "I don't know," he said, "It didn't sound like it, but his being here can't be a good sign."
"Why can't they just leave us alone, Kensei" said Kageshiko, "Why did the Fire Nation have to bring their stupid puzzle box into Ba Sing Se in the first place? Why?"
Ken held his arm out into the moonlight of the window. "I don't know," he said, "But I think I do know who that man was that the Bonebender guy kidnapped. He was one of these names on the list-which means that the Bonebender is the one who stole the box after we brought it back to the Jasmine Dragon. If we can find out where the others live, then maybe we can-"
Kage pushed his arm away. "That's not what I meant," she said, "We have to tell someone about this-we have to tell Je and the city guard!"
"What?" Ken was taken aback, "We can't do that," he said, "If I tell him about the box he'll arrest me right on the spot! Besides, now that this Firebender's showed up, we finally have a lead! A Firebender in Ba Sing Se will stick out like a sore thumb and now that we know where he and the other guy are going to strike, we'll be able to stop them now."
"You know," said Kage in a small voice, "When you jumped down into the burning building, something happened. I just-I just froze up. I couldn't do Earthbending-I couldn't even move. I just sat there and I watched the flames and everything and I couldn't think about anything else except that I might never see you again."
Kensei glanced over at his sister and saw tears streaming down her cheeks. When he saw her crying, knelt down to give her a hug. "It's dad, isn't it," he said quietly. "I never even met him," said Kage, "Everything I knew about him I learned from what you told me. If the stupid Fire Nation hadn't come along then-then-"
"-We wouldn't be in this mess," said her brother, "I know." He released her. "But two people already died because of what happened with the box-and I almost lost you."
Kageshiko sniffed away the last of her tears. "That's why we have to get out of this-let someone else deal with it."
Ken shook his head. "There is no one else," he said, "I owe it to everyone who's suffered so far to see this through-and the Blue Spirit is the only one who can see this thing through-even if he has to go it alone."
The next name on the list was a woman named Lin Han. The Han residence was on the outermost edge of the Inner Ring, practically right against the wall. However, like all of the wealthier residences, the Han estate was sprawling and massive, with number of broad rock gardens and even its own orchard. The estate itself consisted of several stories and formed a rough L-shape and even had an observation tower with various wooden painted grotesques on the corner roof supports that resembled fearsome beasts.
And Like most upper-class residences, the Han's had their own garrison of armed guards, although even these didn't dissuade the Blue Spirit
The corridors were much darker on the inside than they had seemed from outdoors, but the cobalt champion had little trouble evading the guards and their searching lamps.
Ken had decide to leave his sister behind for this one and had quickly put her to sleep earlier that night with one of his stories. She had been so exhausted from the previous night and working at Jon's that she had fallen right to sleep. Ken had watched her for several moments before he left and couldn't remember what had possessed him to let her come along with him in the first place-she was much too young to have to deal with all of this.
Finally, the guards passed the Blue Spirit by and Ken snapped back into action, tip-toeing along the corridor until he came to what he assumed was one of the bedrooms, but right as he was about to enter, someone tapped him on the shoulder.
"Huh?" Kensei turned around.
The cloaked Firebender's smiling teeth shone in the darkness. "I thought I'd find you here," he said.
Before the Blue Spirit could react, the big man's hand shot out to Ken's neck and squeezed a vital point, causing him to drop instantly out of consciousness.
Faces Old and New
"He's coming around," said a familiar voice.
It was still dark, although off to the side he could see a lamp burning on a nearby countertop of what was obviously some sort of kitchen. Kensei felt his face and realized he was no longer wearing his mask and so bolted upright.
"Looking for this?" A hand held out the mask in front of him and then jerked it away.
"For goodness sakes, don't tease the boy," said another voice. "Don't you think he's been through enough?" Iroh. Ken was in the Jasmine Dragon.
"Exactly," said the familiar voice to the right, "He could have gotten himself killed long before now-dressing up and playing hero."
A futon had been laid out on the floor for Ken to rest on. At the far end of the counter, Iroh stood preparing some tea while a compact dwarfish man who couldn't have been more than five feet tall and who wore familiar dark goggles and a bottle-brush mustache regarded him silently from where he leaned against the wall.
Standing over him to the right was the robed Firebender. His hood was down now and Ken could see his features clearly as belonging to a man of about twenty five. His hair was cropped close to his skull, as though he had shaved it all off recently and had begun letting it grow back. Half of his face was obscured by darkness, but Kensei knew him instantly.
"Face?" Ken got to his feet and massaged the place where the man had grabbed him, "I thought you were both-"
Face grinned with a wry twist of his features that was almost a sneer and stepped into the light, revealing his bright golden eyes and the burn scar that covered the left side of his head.
"Allow me to introduce my nephew," said Iroh, stepping forward with a cup of tea, "Firelord Zuko."
Kensei stood there with his mouth open for several moments until his initial bewilderment turned to fury as he made a fist and punched the Fire Lord square in his unshaven jaw, causing him to stagger back.
"You know," said Zuko, rubbing his mouth "Ten years ago I would have burned you to a crisp for that."
Kensei's eyes narrowed as he stood there shaking in anger. "And I would have done ten times worse to you," he said, "The Fire Lord himself, huh? I guess you must have thought it was a good joke leading me on like you did in the catacombs."
"I don't expect you to understand everything right now," said Zuko, "but it had to be convincing, and Lord Huei wanted to make sure that none of the Dai Li had gone rogue again."
"The Dai Li?" said Kensei.
"If we hadn't," said the Fire Lord, "you might never have gone back for the box, and we would have been back to square one."
Iroh cleared his throat, "You see," he said, "Myself and my nephew have been working with the Dai Li for several to try and locate and protect old Fire Nation sympathizers and expatriate Firebenders throughout the Earth Kingdom-in particular Ba Sing Se. The boxes were a way for us to locate them discretely-until one of them was intercepted by you and your past employer."
"So you're a spy?" said Kensei, glancing between the two of them, "That's great-I've just been thrown in to a Dai Li-Fire Nation plot!"
Zuko held out his hands. "It's not like that," he said, "You have to understand, these people we've been trying to help-they're just like you and me. All they wanted to do after the War was get on with their lives."
"I'm nothing like you," Kensei spat, glaring, "You people killed my father and now you expect me to believe that you want to help people now?"
Zuko glared back. "I'm not my father," he said, "I'm not going to answer for all of the things he did to me or everyone else and I don't care what you believe. All I care about right now is that fact that there is someone in this city who wants very badly to find and hurt the people on the list before we can do anything to stop them."
Ken relaxed slightly. "So what if I do believe you," he said, "what happens next?"
"Nothing," said Zuko, "So long as you don't tell anyone about me and Ron, you and your sister are free to walk away from this whole thing."
Ken glanced at Iroh, "You mean you're really not going to turn me in for when I broke into your shop?"
Iroh chuckled and sipped his tea. "Are you joking?" he said, "That was one of the most exciting things that's happened to me since the War ended. Besides, no one was hurt and the damage to the shop was minimal at best. No, I think it's best that we keep all of this between ourselves."
"But there is one more thing," said Zuko, looking at the blue mask, "No more playing the Blue Spirit. If you keep going down that road, someone's going to get hurt."
Ken grabbed the mask. "I can handle myself," he said, "Where are my swords?"
Ron, not to be forgotten, gestured to where the blades rested against a nearby cabinet and Ken went to retrieve them.
"I was thinking of your sister," the Fire Lord said softly, "just like you should be."
Ken shook one of the swords in the man's face. "I don't care what you think, Firebender." He said.
Zuko sighed. "Fine." He said, "I'll let you go for now, but if I catch you interfering again then I'll have no choice but to turn you over to the Dai Li. As far as they and the city guards are concerned, you're a menace to the public order."
Kensei didn't respond. After strapping on his swords, he simply walked out.
Iroh gave his nephew a small smile. "He definitely reminds me of you at that age." He said.
Zuko frowned and remained silent.
For the collective works of the author, go here.