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|Cloak and Dagger|
July 9, 2012
Previously in Air
Mai, still suspicious of the accusations against Rozen, has asked Sokka and Suki to continue their investigation, despite being forced out of the Palace and into the 'protection' of her mother's home. Meanwhile, Aang brought a healer for Katara, but on the way the Avatar blacked out into the memory of a past Avatar.
Chapter Twenty-Five: Cloak and Dagger
Sokka and Suki followed Ming's instructions. They marched into the guard room and went directly into their respective changing rooms. Attired in the Palace guard uniforms, they each seized a spear and left to report for duty.
They passed another guard in the corridor. Sokka treated him to a wide grin and a friendly nod. The guard cautiously kept his distance.
"What are you doing?" Suki whispered.
"Blending in," Sokka replied, shooting another guard a smile. He resembled a sly hyena squirrel trying to distract its prey before lunging in for the kill.
No wonder no one was talking to them.
"Stop smiling," Suki told him, stifling a laugh. "Nobody smiles that much." She elbowed him playfully. "Except you, of course."
Sokka decided she was stating one of his endearing qualities.
The next guard that passed was not treated to a smile, but a question.
"Hey, we're supposed to be tying up the loose ends of that assassination attempt. Only –would you believe it?– our lieutenant forgot to tell us who provided the tip." Sokka attempted a chortle; it wasn't something he really excelled at, but it seemed appropriate.
Apparently the guard did not share this opinion.
"We're supposed to question everyone involved with the case," Suki put in. "Just to cover our bases. Do you remember who sent Captain Kio the tip?"
The guard glanced between them, wondering what division they were from. He glanced first left, then right, making certain they were alone. He leaned close. "Nobody knows for sure where the tip came from," he informed them in hushed tones.
"Nobody?" Sokka repeated, startled.
The guard shrugged. "Not that I know of." He glanced around again. "But I have heard a rumor that War Minister Shinu might have been involved."
Suki and Sokka exchanged knowing looks; a suspicion confirmed. They didn't think mere coincidence was responsible for Jeong Jeong being sent away to investigate the riots at Shinu's suggestion the same day Rozen was arrested.
"Thanks, buddy," Sokka nodded. "We'll take it from here."
The two marched off in search of War Minister Shinu.
It was nearly twelve hours since he'd found Katara. Only fear, adrenaline, and his hold on her hand kept Aang awake.
A soothing blue light filled the room. Aang could see that the healer was tired. The glow was not as bright as it first was, his arms sagged and there were dark circles under his eyes. The healer only paused occasionally to regain his energy or to replace the water, but he didn't stop. He continued doggedly on, determined to save his patient.
Sensu appeared once to bring them food. Aang had taken it, though it still remained by his side, untouched.
"Where's Li?" he'd asked.
Sensu hesitated. "Li...had to leave." When Aang frowned, he said, "Worry about her for now. I'll tell you what happened later."
The healer pulled back, taking a deep breath.
As the blue glow receded, Aang imagined Katara's eyelids flickering. The sight was familiar. Sometimes, in the mornings, he couldn't help watching her sleep. She always looked so beautiful and, as he gazed at her, her eyes would flutter open. She would see him and smile. They would laugh and he would lace his fingers through hers...Aang swallowed hard and buried his head in his free hand.
Katara's fingers shifted, tightening around his.
Aang looked up.
Katara smiled at him. "Hi, Aang."
"Katara!" he cried, grasping her hand even tighter.
She tried to move and moaned in pain. She glanced down at her shoulder, then at the man sitting beside her and finally around the room. "Where are we?" she asked. "What happened?"
"Azula showed up during the play," Aang reminded her. "She tried to kill Zu...Li, and you saved him."
Katara gritted her teeth as the fully-realized pain began coursing through to her brain. "I remember that part," she bit out. She held tight to his hand.
"Li fought her off," Aang explained. "And after that, Sensu happened. No one realized you were actually hurt; everyone thought it was part of the show. But Sensu was smart enough to know better. He took you and Li to his farm to keep you safe while I found a waterbending healer." He gestured at the stranger, who smiled helpfully.
The healer laid his water-covered palms on Katara's shoulder once more.
"How bad is it?" she asked.
"Well," the healer replied, "Not as bad as before. I can't heal it completely, only help it along. It will have to heal on its own. I'll show you how to bind it and recommend some herbal poultices."
Katara tried to smile, but a bout of pain raced through her shoulder. Her hand strayed protectively to her stomach. She took a deep breath. "Am I...okay?" she asked, though she dreaded the answer.
"You're fine," he told her. "Both of you are."
She breathed a sigh of relief and looked up at Aang. He smiled and squeezed her hand. He glanced up at the healer, confused. "How did you know?"
The healer blinked. Now it was his turn to appear befuddled. "Avatar Aang...you told me."
Aang frowned. "Me?" He racked his brain, but as he reached for the memory of his journey from Ba Sing Se, the shadow curled up at the corner of his mind sprang. Pain exploded as the darkness attacked. Aang bit his lip to keep from crying out. The attack only lasted an instant, but when he released his lip he tasted blood.
He glanced up. Katara had not seemed to notice the fit; her eyes were slowly drooping and her hold on his hand weakening. But the healer watched him carefully, his expression unreadable.
Aang slowly shook his head. "I...must have forgotten. I wasn't quite myself."
The healer thought back to that moment, when the Avatar grabbed his arm and stared up at him with eyes like dying embers. He nodded in agreement. "Understandable," he muttered. Frowning, he turned back to Katara. "You should get some sleep, my dear," he told her, though she was nearly caught in the throes of slumber already.
Soon, the room was filled with the sounds of her gentle breathing. Aang watched her as she slept –a peaceful, natural sleep– and couldn't help but smile.
He was aware of the healer's unwavering gaze, watching him from the other side of the bed.
Finally, he spoke. "Avatar Aang," he said carefully, "I do not even begin to understand your powers and your burdens, but..." He leaned forward. "Something is wrong, isn't it? Something happened that night, something that you don't remember and I can't explain. It happened again just now."
Aang carefully rearranged his expression in an effort to reveal nothing.
"I'd like to take a look at you," the healer continued. "Perhaps I can see if–"
Aang shook his head. "No."
The healer frowned. "I must insist. A head pain like that–"
Aang looked up, darkness etched in his eyes. "I appreciate your offer," he said quietly. "And if it were just a head pain, I'd be more than happy to have you fix me up. But I don't think this is something you can help with."
War Minister Shinu was not positioned in the Palace. He headed the military outpost at the head of the bay. Without an actual war to which he could minister, Shinu preferred executing his duties while simultaneously reinforcing the bay's defenses. When he spotted the Palace guards, he raised an eyebrow.
Generally, Shinu would have one of his low-ranking officers deal with such messengers. But these two stood right at his elbow and would not be moved. Finally, he looked up and, with a loud and annoyed sigh, asked, "How can I help you?"
"You can tell us why you accused Rozen of being a traitor." Sokka's voice was level and easy; it drew no attention from the others in the room.
Shinu actually blanched. He looked around to see if anyone heard, then ushered them into an empty room.
"Why did you do it?" Sokka demanded.
"I'm guessing you didn't have any proof," Suki added.
"I didn't accuse Rozen of anything!" Shinu whispered hoarsely, frantic.
Their expressions informed him his words held about as much credibility as hippo cow manure.
"I was given a message," he plowed on, "At one of the council meetings. It said that they suspected Rozen was a traitor –that he had been acting suspicious lately. I gave the message straight to Captain Kio. He arrested Rozen!"
The guards' expressions did not change.
"I don't know who left the message!" Shinu insisted. He was floundering without actual proof and he knew it. "It could have been anyone: one of the advisors, another general, even one of the guards or messengers."
Suki and Sokka sized him up, deciding whether to believe him.
"All right," Sokka concluded.
The War Minister breathed a sigh of relief.
"How long ago was this?" Suki demanded sharply.
Shinu jumped. "Uh, two days ago."
"Hmm," Sokka mused. "It didn't take Kio long, did it?"
Suki shook her head. "He arrested Rozen the next day."
"The message did say they feared Rozen was going to do something drastic," Shinu added helpfully. "So it's a good thing he acted so fast! Lady Mai might be dead now if not for him."
Sokka and Suki wondered. They left the outpost and only stopped when they were certain they were alone.
"We'll have to talk to everybody who was in the council room that day," Suki said with a resigned sigh.
Sokka nodded glumly. "We'd better split up. It'll be faster and, to tell you the truth, I think we need to be as fast as we can."
Suki completely agreed. She couldn't shake the feeling that someone was trying to trap them in a net.
"You talk to the advisors and generals," Suki said. "I'll find the guards that were posted and any messengers or servants who interrupted. We can meet in the courtyard."
Sokka squeezed her hand before taking off.
Suki cast about once more, searching for prying eyes. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, but she saw no one. Slowly, she set off in the other direction.
By midmorning, Katara was well enough to get out of bed.
"How are you feeling?" Sela asked.
Katara's shoulder was bound tight. It still throbbed with pain, but it was tolerable. "Much better," she replied. She nodded at the healer. "He says I'll be fine."
Aang bowed solemnly to Sensu and his parents. "I want to thank you all." His words were heavy with emotion. "If not for your help...Well, I don't know what would have happened."
Katara nodded her agreement. "But...can you tell us what happened to Li?"
Sensu nodded slowly. "The night we brought you here, she came."
Aang's eyes clouded.
"The woman who attacked you at the play," Sensu explained.
"I guess that explains the barn," Aang muttered, casting a glance back at the ashen remains.
"Li managed to fight her off," Sensu said, "But he seemed convinced she'd be back."
Aang and Katara both nodded.
"He insisted on leaving, hoping to lead her away from here."
"Did it work?" Katara asked.
Sensu shrugged. "She hasn't been back."
"We loaned Li an ostrich-horse," Gansu said, "We didn't want him to take off like that, but he wouldn't hear of putting us in danger. It was a brave thing to do."
"Very noble," put in Sensu.
"Yeah." Aang shared a look with Katara. "That sounds like him."
He turned back to the family who had saved Katara's life. "Look," he said, "I know it's a small price to pay, and nothing I could do would ever adequately thank you, but I'd like to earthbend you a barn." He winked. "Something that won't burn down."
Sokka stealthily slipped out the door. He slunk from one column to the next along the covered walkway, stepping lightly so as to avoid the attention of the turtle ducks drifting on the pond in the empty courtyard.
Suki, positioned between pillars as she waited for him, laughed when he sidled past. "What are you doing?"
Sokka jumped in surprise. "What? Er, uh..." His cheeks flushed and a goofy grin spread over his face. "Being stealthy," he replied. He suddenly grew serious. "What did you find out?"
Suki scowled. "Absolutely nothing! No one knows anything about Shinu's alleged message. You?"
Sokka shook his head. "I was hoping I just had all the innocent ones."
"So what should we do now?" Suki asked, leaning against a pillar. "Grill Shinu again?"
Sokka frowned. "I got the feeling he was telling the truth."
"So did I," Suki admitted. She glanced at Sokka out of the corner of her eye a little too casually. "It certainly seems like there were only two people who knew about Shinu's little message."
Sokka's face darkened, but he said nothing.
"One being Shinu," Suki prompted, "And the other..."
Sokka sighed. "Captain Kio," he finished.
Suki nodded. "Look, Sokka, I know he's a friend of yours, but the deeper we dig, the more suspicious that guy looks. The details he gave us on the assassination attempt were vague at best, and he is the one who insisted on guarding Mai."
Sokka's frown deepened. "I know, I know." He rubbed at his beard in frustration. "I just don't see him as a traitor."
Suki scoffed. "Famous last words."
Sokka let out a puff of air. "All right, we'll go talk to him. We ask him about the message Shinu says he gave him, and what he found that could possibly justify arresting Rozen."
Suki eagerly leapt forward, balancing on the balls of her feet. "Great! Now at least we have a trail to follow. Let's see if we can find the good captain."
Someone chuckled. "That won't be necessary, Suki."
Sokka and Suki turned in surprise. From the courtyard, a familiar face stepped forward, flanked by two guards.
"Oh, hey," Sokka said, recovering quickly. "We were just–"
The man nodded knowingly. "Mind if I join you?"
Suki was about to reply when she noticed the sunlight shift off the guards' armor. The hairs on the back of her neck rose. The two men hung back respectfully, but Suki could tell from their body posture that they were only waiting to spring.
"Not at all," Sokka said lightly, quickly taking in the scene and calculating their odds. "What's going on?"
The man smiled wolfishly. "I believe I know who your traitor is."
The two guards sprang. Suki reached for a concealed fan as Sokka flung his spear.
Hoo bowed respectfully. "I bear a message from War Minister Shinu, Admiral."
Jeong Jeong nodded for him to continue.
"Division 42 was attacked by the rioters. Few survived and General Tzen has marched out in retaliation." Hoo noticed a shadow pass over Jeong Jeong's eyes. They both knew Tzen's reputation. Though he focused on gaining bloodless victories, when it came to the senseless and merciless loss of life, Tzen often felt the weight of vengeance rest on his shoulders. Neither were surprised he had taken on the duty of hunting down the rebels.
"Shinu advises you to watch your step," Hoo continued. "He says the rebels are proving themselves to be both violent and resourceful."
Jeong Jeong did not acknowledge the end of the message. He moved to a table behind him. Atop it was spread a large map of the Fire Nation. He began tracing his fingers across it, from the Palace out; back to the Palace and back out.
Hoo realized the Admiral was tracing the journeys of each battalion sent to investigate the riots. And Jeong Jeong's frown was deepening.
"They are phantoms," Jeong Jeong murmured.
Jeong Jeong's eyes focused on him. "Their pattern is erratic and unpredictable. Rebels always fight for a cause. They strike to make a point. Up to now, why do you suppose these rebels would strike and then fade away entirely without a word?"
And why, Jeong Jeong thought to himself, did they wait to decimate a division until Tzen remained the last councilman between the country and the secret of the Firelord's departure? Tzen, who could never hold back the urge to avenge so many fallen.
Hoo thought hard. "Perhaps they don't want to be caught, sir?"
Jeong Jeong stared down at the map. His eyes were focused on the Palace. "Perhaps they are a distraction."
A servant entered the room, bowing. "The Firelord, Lady Mai."
Kuzarr stepped into the room. He waited until the messenger left before looking at Mai. He bowed respectfully to her, but his hands trembled and his face was pale.
Mai eyed him coldly. "What are you doing here?"
"I have a message from Sokka and Suki," he said quietly.
Mai's demeanor changed. Her chest tightened in anticipation. "What is it?"
Kuzarr swallowed. "They were right, my Lady."
Mai stood, narrowing her eyes.
"Rozen might not have been the traitor." Kuzarr's voice quivered. "Or at least, not the only one."
"Who else?" Mai demanded.
"I don't know, your majesty," he admitted. "The only thing I'm certain of is that Sokka and Suki were earlier attacked."
Mai's eyes sparked in surprise.
"The attempt was vanquished," Kuzarr quickly assured her, "And they managed to pry information from the attackers. What exactly, they wouldn't tell me." His face flushed. "I don't believe they trust me. They sent me to warn you, and to collect Keiko and Ty Lee. Sokka says he has a plan to trap the traitor, but he needs his warriors."
Mai studied him with guarded eyes. "Sokka wouldn't leave me here unguarded."
"Of course not, Lady. I've brought a battalion of soldiers with me, and Captain Kio and his men are still here. Sokka said he would only trust the Kyoshi Warriors with this mission."
It certainly sounded like something Sokka would say.
"Why tell me first?" Mai asked. "Shouldn't the Kyoshis be the first to know?"
"Again, I believe it is because he does not entirely trust me," Kuzarr said softly. His eyes, when they rose to meet hers, said, Just like you. "Suki and Sokka knew the Kyoshis probably wouldn't act on my word alone. But Sokka asked that they return with me, disguised as servants."
Mai thought for a moment. Did she trust Kuzarr? She certainly didn't like him much at the moment, forcing her out of the Palace for her own supposed protection. But she knew he had endangered his own life on several occasions –been gravely wounded, even– in defense of her husband's life.
"I'll send for them."
Aang knew Katara wouldn't like it, but he took a deep breath and said it anyway. "I want you to take Appa and the healer back to Ba Sing Se."
"What?!" Katara exploded. "I told you, I'm fine. I can make it."
Aang pulled her close and held her tight. "I almost lost you, Katara," he whispered. "I can't lose you. Either of you."
Katara looked into his gray eyes. They were serious, determined, even a little scared. She hesitated. She didn't want to go back to Ba Sing Se like some helpless housewife. Her hand strayed to stroke her stomach. But at the moment were her desires really that important?
Slowly, she nodded. "All right, Aang. I'll go."
Aang smiled in relief. "Thank you, Katara."
She kissed him softly. "You're welcome. But you have to promise me to be careful."
"You have to make me the same promise, Katara," he said. "Be careful. More careful than you've ever been. And...no fighting?"
Katara raised an eyebrow.
"Unless absolutely necessary?"
She managed to laugh. "All right. Unless absolutely necessary." She frowned. "Where are you going?"
"I," Aang declared, flipping open the wings of his glider, "Have a message for our hotheaded friend."
Katara placed a hand on his arm, stopping him a moment. "Aang. If that feeling–"
Aang nodded, already expecting this. "I'll keep grilling the other Avatars. One of them has to know something."
Her serious eyes bored into him. "If you have to, follow it. Figure out what it means."
Aang gave her a quick kiss. "Don't worry about me," he said. "Take care of yourself, Katara."
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