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|Friends and Enemies|
Previously in Air
While Toph and Haru prepare to take on the Dai Li and Zuko waits for the right moment to rescue Roh-Roh, Lee is faced with the task of exposing the lies of the Guild to the skeptical rebels.
Chapter Thirty-Eight: Friends and Enemies
Remember your brother...
What Jomei really meant was 'Remember your anger, your pure unadulterated hate.' It was the only thing keeping so many people here, Lee realized as he looked about at the weathered solemn faces. They were holding on to something they long ago should have laid to rest. Perhaps they weren't given the opportunity; perhaps they were too settled in their fantasies of revenge. Or perhaps, as Jomei so thoroughly insisted, they believed there was simply no alternative.
What really stabbed Lee's heart was seeing Garrow and Jeb. Both were selected for this assignment. In the dim firelight, he barely recognized them for their hallow eyes and clenched faces.
We do what is necessary...
Necessary, Lee thought bitterly. Like ambushing and killing two men to keep your secret. Like kidnapping a child instead of facing your enemy head on. Like feeding your followers and your friends lies so the horrifying truth wouldn't bring them to their senses.
"They'll probably come down the side of the mountain," Jomei was saying. "Our best chance will be to split up and hide in the field and near the foot of the cliff. It's important that you remain as still as you possibly can." He glanced around at his 'trustworthy' men. "Any questions?"
One man Lee didn't know scowled into his beard and grudgingly raised his hand. "Are you certain killing them is the only way? If they're really traitors, shouldn't they stand trial before the General?"
Hope fluttered in Lee's chest. He was not the only one to question Jomei; surely he could use that to his advantage.
Jomei smiled at the man, but the expression was devoid of emotion. "Nguyen and Po are too dangerous to keep alive, Namar," he said stiffly. "They could still corrupt others with their words. We're too close to the end now for that."
Namar grunted, but did not object.
Heart pounding, Lee slowly lifted his hand.
Jomei looked at him and Lee felt sure that gaze saw everything; the fear in his eyes, the sweat on him palms.
Lee swallowed hard, afraid his voice would fail him. "Aren't you going to tell us the rest?"
Jomei's eyes narrowed. Suspicion flickered between his lids. "The rest?" he repeated. The words could have been chiseled from an iceberg.
All fifteen faces were turned to Lee now. He tried to ignore the heat of their eyes and the fervent beat of his own heartbeat.
Beside him, Lee could feel every one of Jomei's muscles tense.
"You said they're traitors, but you haven't told us why." Lee's voice grew stronger, steadier. "What did they do? If we're going to play executor, Jomei, I want to know why it is you feel they deserve to die."
Jomei glanced around him. There were murmurs from the others, uncomfortable shifts in posture. "Do you all feel that way?"
No one answered. But no one bothered to deny it, either.
"I see..." Jomei turned back to Lee. His eyes were no longer friendly, but a pair of balances, weighing his old friend. "Nguyen and Po's loyalties lie elsewhere. They have been spying on us this whole time. Who knows the information they have already gleaned? We can't afford to let them escape." His eyes burned into Lee's. "Does that answer your question?"
Under that hostile gaze, Lee's legs almost buckled but he plowed on. "How many earthbenders are here?" he asked softly.
Jomei didn't even glance at his gathered strike force. "All of them," he replied coldly, "Except for you and Garrow."
Lee's heart fell. It had been possible that Jomei and his father had been duped. They may never have known that Nguyen and Po were Dai Li. Lee had silently wished that was the case, but now he knew for sure.
"Why do you need so many?"
Jomei blinked in surprise.
Lee shook his head. "They're only two men. You shouldn't need so many." He swallowed hard. His voice turned bitter. "It's not as if they were Dai Li. Is it?"
The other men shuffled uncomfortably. A wave of shock and anger rippled through them at the mention of the long-time traitors.
Jeb, his brow furrowed in confusion, turned to Jomei. "What is he talking about?"
Jomei's eyes blazed. He never took them off Lee. "I think you're overtired, old friend," he said quietly. "Maybe you should get some rest, think about what you're saying."
Lee laughed, sharply. "Upset because I figured it out, Jomei? It wasn't one of the secrets you shared. And no wonder. You never trusted Nguyen and Po because you knew what they were. You accuse them of spying, but the Guild let them waltz right in."
The words had barely escaped Lee's tongue before a sheet of earth folded around him, clamping his mouth shut.
"I think you'd better stop now, Lee," Jomei said, his tone soft and dangerous. "Before you say something you might regret."
"No." Namar stepped forward, suspicious eyes glued to Jomei. "Let the boy finish."
Someone else shook their head. "Some things are better off left unsaid. Surely the General is entitled to keep some secrets, isn't he?"
Garrow rubbed thoughtfully at his beard. Lee felt the burden of that probing gaze; he swallowed hard, but he returned it.
"At times," Garrow said softly, "The number of secrets in this cavern borders on the ridiculous." He eyed Jomei cautiously. "I, too, would like an explanation."
Jomei glanced from Namar to Garrow and back to Lee. Finally, he nodded. "You're right, Garrow. There are a lot of secrets in this cavern." With a heavy sigh he glanced at his old friend. "But then I'm not the only one keeping them, am I, Lee?"
"I've been watching Jen Yi and Haru since they arrived. They're no more dedicated to the cause than Nguyen and Po." He shook his head and chuckled dryly. "Ironically, it was Nguyen and Po who really didn't trust those two, so I guess we owe them for that, too."
Lee began to panic. He struggled to move but his arms were pinned to his side inside the stone prison; he fought and writhed and barely moved an inch.
Garrow stepped forward. "What does that have to do with Lee, Jomei? Sure he knows them, but they're not exactly chums, now are they?"
Jomei glanced at Garrow, almost amused. Over the man's shoulder he could just see the son, Jeb, looking back and forth between them in confusion. No, Lee thought, suddenly afraid for Garrow. Step back; don't get involved. I'll handle it. Somehow.
"Perhaps not chums, Garrow," Jomei said, "but they've certainly been talking enough lately." He turned back to Lee. "I didn't think anything of it. Not until the three of them disappeared today. I had hoped you were merely naïve, Lee. But neither of them came back. You did." His eyebrow arched upward. "And you brought a new friend."
Jomei leaned forward. The earth around Lee tightened and he whimpered in pain.
"What am I supposed to make of that, Lee?"
Lee couldn't have answered, even if his jaw was free. He had thought they were lucky, being able to sneak Aang into the cavern so easily. So now what? he wondered, realizing with dismay that he didn't know. He and Aang had never discussed the possibility of being caught before he had said his piece. And Lee had only managed the first step.
"At least let the boy tell his side," Garrow insisted gruffly. "There must a reason–"
Jomei shook his head. "I understand, Garrow. I put him under your care and you've grown attached to him. You can't believe he would betray us. But he has. It's as simple as that. Lee isn't who we thought he was and you must accept that."
The hatred in Jomei's eyes sent ice racing through Lee's veins.
"But we don't have time for him now," Jomei finished. He stepped away from Lee and looked over his men with a smile that was far too wide. "We have a job to do, remember? And now we'll have to keep an eye out for Jen Yi and Haru as well, in case they try to do something stupid. I'll deal with this traitor when we get back."
A shiver wracked Lee's spine. He could imagine how Jomei might 'deal' with him. There was something different in his friend's eyes, something mad.
Several of the others shifted uncomfortably, but they nodded their agreement.
Lee closed his eyes. He'd failed. All he wanted to do was tell these people the truth, and he hadn't even managed that.
The earth around Lee rumbled and shook. Lee's heart jumped. Evidently Jomei had changed his mind. He would just crush him right now and be done with it. But the rock didn't tighten around Lee; it loosened, falling away in large clumps.
Lee gasped in surprise and stumbled back several steps.
Jomei whirled round, stopping nose to nose with Jeb, seething. "What do you think you're doing?"
Jeb stood his ground, gazing levelly back at the son of his organization's leader. "I consider Lee one of my friends," he said. "I think I deserve to know why he would betray that, and I want to hear that reason from him, not twisted by your silver tongue."
"So you release the traitor?" Jomei sneered. "That's not only stupid, it's insubordinate."
Jeb raised an eyebrow. "I don't remember anyone putting you in charge, Jomei, son of Tani or not. How do we know you're not the insubordinate one?"
Jomei's eyes flashed.
Garrow frowned in warning. "Jeb..."
Namar stepped forward. "He's got a point," he said thoughtfully. "All of this could be an elaborate plot to bring the Guild down from the inside."
Jomei clenched his fists. "Don't you see what they're doing? Lee, Jen Yi, Haru, maybe even Jeb –they're probably working with the Dai Li! They knew we were on to them. Nguyen and Po should have made it to the cavern by now. Lee's the distraction while the others are helping them escape. I won't let you traitors get away with it!"
He stomped his foot hard into the earth. A pillar of rock shot out toward Jeb.
"Look out!" Lee cried.
Jeb moved into position too slow. He flinched, knowing he could not defend himself in time. Garrow stepped forward as though he might stop the missile with his bare fist.
A gust of air blew past Lee. When he looked again, Jomei was doubled over in pain, his arm hanging limp at his side. Aang stood over him, wincing as he shook his hand. He forgot that jabbing people's chi points could hurt his knuckles quite so much; Ty Lee always made it look so easy.
"Sorry to interrupt," Aang said lightly, though his gaze was unrelenting, hooded in shadow. "You looked like you could use a hand."
Jomei snarled. He tried to move into another position, his arm flapping uselessly, but a rocky clamp snared his foot.
Jeb stepped out from behind the wall, blinking, wondering who had come to his defense. The others looked just as confused.
Namar's dark eyes bored into Jomei, his body poised for another earthbending attack. "So they are Dai Li."
The thick contempt in the man's voice made Jomei realize his slip. Anger flared in his eyes. "So what if they are?" he snapped.
"The Dai Li's loyalties lie with no one," Namar cried. "I should know. I was there in Ba Sing Se when they sold us out to the Fire Nation. You fool. By letting those backstabbers into the Guild you've endangered every one of us and our mission! What could possibly be worth that?"
Jomei shook his head. "I don't have to explain myself to you."
"You will," Namar promised darkly. "And until then, you'll stay put." He glanced at the others around him. "I don't know about you," he said quietly, "But something stinks. Lies, secrets, traitors –I intend to find out exactly what's going on and no one's leaving until I do."
Murmurs of agreement greeted Namar's proposal from the gathered men, and the growing crowd of onlookers beyond. Shock was the predominant reaction from those listening. Some shuffled uncomfortably, others looked as though they'd like to rip off either Lee or Jomei's head, or both.
"We already have two traitors here, Namar," Jomei said, glaring levelly at his warden. "Don't be a fool and join them."
Namar ignored him. He turned his suspicious gaze on Lee. "You weren't going any where, were you?" The implication of his subtle posture shift was clear.
"Nope," Lee said quickly. He didn't want to wind up encased in stone again. "I wasn't quite finished yet."
The eyes that turned back to him were hard and cold. Aang moved to Lee's side, ready to defend him verbally or physically.
Someone snorted contemptuously. "Did you and your friend learn Jomei is taking cues from the Fire Nation itself?"
"Silence!" Garrow snapped. He turned to Lee, his gaze both cautious and hopeful.
It was then Lee realized exactly why he wanted to expose Jomei's lies. It was for Jeb and Garrow –good, reasonable men despite their all-consuming anger with the Fire Nation, men who reminded him so much of his own family. Men he had gladly accepted as friends even if they would eventually be divided.
Lee knew now it was a mistake to blame the Fire Nation for what had happened to Sensu. But it was a mistake he'd realized on his own. Jeb and Garrow deserved the chance to figure it out, too, without Jomei and the Guild fueling their rage for their own purposes.
"Well, lad?" Garrow pressed.
"Go ahead," Aang urged.
And so for the first time in his life, Lee found himself with the full attention of a rapt audience. And for once, he actually had something to say.
Uhhhh...yeah, I'm running on a low tank and too little sleep right now. What small part of my brain is still functioning is currently obsessing over just when I can read the next chapter ofwithout ignoring my company this weekend and fangirling over the Once Upon A Time season premiere.
So...no notes on this chapter. Except, uh, way to go Jeb?
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