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|"Sometimes I feel like I was always supposed to be loyal to my brother, like that was my proper place. I feel like I defied my destiny at the Southern Temple. Everything would've been much easier if I had just stayed in bed that night.
Ghosts is the thirteenth chapter of the AU fanfiction story.
23 years pass. Kuzon has joined with the militant airbenders and is good friends with all of them. While performing a routine raid of a Fire Nation ship, Kuzon hesitates to take out a guard because he sees Sozin's face in place of the guard's for a moment. His hesitation allows the guard to kill one of the airbenders, . They quickly escape the ship, but Kuzon blames himself for Khalama's death. Taro tries to comfort him, but Kuzon snaps back at him and goes to sulk, haunted by his past. This causes Taro to reflect on his own past and dredge up similar feelings.
Twenty-three years went by. Taro and Kuzon grew into middle-age. A few more years and they'd have to think about retiring from the warrior order. Taro was relieved that he was beginning to go bald naturally again. His black eyebrows and beard, however, had grown thick and droopy. They were becoming flecked with gray. His soft gray eyes were now framed by eyeglasses, as his vision had dimmed slightly. Like the others, Taro wore green and brown Earth Kingdom robes to disguise his identity, and now a wide-brimmed triangular hat as well, since his arrow was beginning to show again. He altered his robes so they would at least fit as much like traditional airbender garb as possible, even they couldn't resemble them outwardly.
Kuzon, now forty-one, was just starting to go gray too. His hair had not receded so much and was still long enough to almost touch his shoulders, so he tied it all behind his head in a messy bun rather than bother with it. As a consequence of relinquishing his royal lifestyle, his hands had become much rougher and vague lines were forming around his mouth, eyes, and forehead. Kuzon still cut a dignified, maybe even somewhat hadsome figure for his age. He dressed in Earth Kingdom clothes as well, but being more used to wearing armor than the airbenders, his clothes derived more from military uniforms than the others'. He often wore arm bracers, shin protectors, even studded tunics purchased from merchants selling military surplus. Kuzon retained a dislike of cold temperatures and of being wet, so he also almost always wore a cape, as well as his sword.
Kunchen had joined the militant airbenders when he was old enough, and had quickly become a leader among them. Taro and Kuzon visited him often, and he looked up to them like older brothers. Life was pretty good, considering it was war time.
But some nights, Kuzon had nightmares. Nightmares where he was falling. He remembered his brother. It was never settled between them. In the twenty-three years since the battle at the Southern Temple, Kuzon could never shake his uneasiness from the lack of closure with Sozin. And, although he could never tell any of the airbenders, he missed Sozin. At least, Sozin as he had been. He had disowned Sozin as his brother, but still...they had a past together.
At the same time, Taro was still haunted by the memory of Afiko. Since his youth, he had been torn over whether his loyalty should be to Afiko or the other monks. He sometimes thought Afiko had been right, that the airbenders might have been saved if they had been less pacifistic. Afiko had said he wanted to keep Taro safe, and Taro wondered if he had really been right to refuse Afiko. He wondered if he was strong enough to die if it came down to a choice between that and betraying the airbenders. Afiko had raised him, maybe Taro had too much of Afiko in him...
But like Kuzon, he could never admit this to any of his friends.
The airbenders rarely stayed in one place. They were based in Ba Sing Se, but they often had to leave on missions anywhere in the Earth Kingdom, so they were usually traveling rather than back in the Ba Sing Se area. However, they liked to frequent the Ba Sing Se Marketplace. It was a good place to blend in and look for information. Plus, there was plenty of stuff cheap enough for the refugee freedom-fighter's budget.
On one particular day they had gone there looking for their contact, a spiritualist from the Earth Kingdom who had studied with both the air monks of the Southern Temple, as well as the Fire Sages. Since foreigners were now banned from the Fire Nation, she had only been able to keep up her studies by corresponding with Kerai, the grandson of the renegade Fire Sage Kaja. Everyone had split up into small groups to look for her. Kuzon and Taro were walking through the market district together.
"Ooh...I want a new cape," Kuzon said, admiring a brilliant hunter-green cape displayed on a rack at one of the vendor's stands.
"Ugh...You don't need a new cape, Kuzon. The one you have is fine," Taro said, frustrated.
"Are you kidding? This thing was completely singed when we raided those Fire Navy ships last week! It might as well be a shawl!" Kuzon gathered the bottom portion of his cape and showed it to Taro as evidence.
"It's fine, it's just the hem," Taro said.
"I don't care, I'm getting it," Kuzon said, looking slightly greedy.
"Sorry, I keep forgetting you're a prince." Taro started to speak in a drippy, posh accent. "Yes, his majesty does so enjoy wasting money," he said as Kuzon got the seller's attention and indicated the cape he wanted.
"Well maybe you enjoy sleeping on a bed of nails, Monk, but some of us have a thing called 'taste,'" Kuzon replied, paying the vendor and receiving his new cape.
Kuzon tied it around his neck proudly. "Well, I think it's ugly," the monk smiled.
"I think you're ugly," Kuzon jokingly replied. They both laughed.
Just then Kunchen came running up. "Guys, I found the contact!" He started to speak in hushed tones as he approached them. "She said the Fire Nation just captured intelligence about troop movements through the Yutai Mountains. They're moving it down the Shi Er Shan River to a major stronghold where it's going to be delivered to top generals!"
"How long ago?" Taro asked
"About three days, but they haven't sent the intel yet. It's going on a boat tomorrow."
"We'll have to take Pema and leave right away," Kuzon said. "If we can get to them while they're on the river they'll be isolated. Remember when we were there five years ago? There's a section of the river that's narrow and fast-moving. They won't be able to maneuver the boats."
"Let's get everyone together," said Kunchen.
The three men took out the traditional airbender flutes they had made and began to play an airbender song. The flutes had a very distinct sound, and functioned like a discreet signal flare to let all the other airbenders around know that the contact had been found. It didn't take long to call them all together. Kunchen quickly told the rest of their new mission, and they left for the mountains.
They packed up Pema and flew for almost a day. They left her in a clearing in the woods along the west bank and scouted up the river as best they could while waiting for night to fall. The boats had launched that morning, but it would be another two days' journey to the Fire Nation stronghold at the mouth of the river. There were three ships, all light riverboats. One held the prisoners and two were more heavily-armed escort craft.
There was little planning necessary. The ten stealth warriors, now fully clad in their dark brown outfits, split into two groups of three and one of four. The leaders of the teams, Taro, Kunchen, and a nun about Taro's age named Jamyang, gathered in a circle. "Octopus Snares Two Carp pattern?" Kunchen suggested. The others merely nodded, and they separated to get their teams into the appropriate positions.
A few of the guards on the Fire Nations ships began to get that uneasy feeling of being watched as the sun began to sink and the river narrowed. It grew darker. One thought he saw something move on the east bank. Another heard rustling on the western. The boats moved into a staggered formation, with the two escorts in front. They could only fit two boats abreast here, and even then, the sides were very close to the bank. So close that they cast a shadow in the moonlight under which the ninja could easily hide, keeping pace with the boats.
Perhaps the water grew rougher, or there was a shift change, but at some point the guards became distracted. Simultaneously, three airbenders on either side leapt onto the boats using airbending. There were six simultaneous strikes to pressure points in the necks of six guards. Khalama and a girl named Lasya had to deal with an additional guard each, due to their position closest to the bows of the boats. Without even looking in that direction, they simply extended their left and right hands, respectively, and sent the two guards into the river below with two sibilant blasts of air. Kunchen and Jamyang stole into the pilot's cabins of their respective boats and silently knocked out the two pilots. With the guards all neutralized, those two then took over the steering. The other four ninja blended back into the shadows cast by the pilot's cabins and other objects on the boat decks. "Hmm. Windy tonight," one guard on the main boat said to another.
Kuzon, along with the rest of Taro's team, silently waited beneath the water, breathing through a reed and clinging to a sunken log to avoid being swept away. Kunchen and Jamyang were to have the two escort craft neutralized by the time the boats passed above the third team. For a few more moments everything was silent as the boats continued to proceed down the river. Then, swimming up and airbending out of the water behind the main boat, the three airbenders on Taro's team boarded the boat. By then the guards who had been knocked into the water started sputtering and calling out. Their cover was blown, but with this kind of operation Taro was glad it had even lasted this long. As the two other members spun, dodged, and airbended at the perhaps ten other guards present, Taro pulled Kuzon up onto the boat using the air. The airbenders on the escort craft then leapt silently onto the main boat to lend assistance.
Taro and Kuzon made straight for the captain's quarters where the intelligence was bound to be. Assuming it would be locked, Kuzon sent a wave of fire at the lock, melting it out of the door. Taro stepped forward to blast the door open with a strong gust of air. A guard the others had somehow missed got close enough to those two to thrust his spear at Taro's side, but Kuzon had already taken a position to guard his friend's back. Kuzon stepped forward and half-drew his sword from its scabbard, thumping the pommel into the guard's stomach.
But then he hesitated. As the guard stumbled backward Kuzon was sure he now had Sozin's face. Kuzon stared at it, not knowing what to do. Brother...is it you? Kuzon hesitated, staring. While Kuzon was so entranced, the guard regained his footing and leveled his spear at Kuzon. Just in time, Khalama appeared and blasted the guard against the lip of the deck. "Hey, Kuzon! Kuzon! Are you okay?" Khalama asked, shaking him. Kuzon snapped out of it. He was about to thank the airbender when he saw Khalama gasp and arch his back in pain. A trickle of blood ran from his mouth and he clutched at something behind his back. The guard, still seated against the lip of the deck, had not been knocked out, and had speared Khalama in the lower abdomen.
"NO!" Kuzon cried. He caught Khalama in his left arm and blasted the guard with his other one. He started to cry and fell to the deck, holding the dying man. "Help! Somebody help!" he cried, hoping in vain that someone could do something about the wound.
Taro was already inside the captain's quarters and had knocked out the Captain, who now lay slumped in a corner of the room. Kuzon had taught Taro and the others where Fire Nation officers would store valuable intelligence and what stamps and seals it would carry. There was a writing desk with a single drawer, which Taro pulled clean out. Several papers fell to the floor. Taro reached inside the desk where the drawer had been, opened a smaller secret compartment at the back of the cavity and withdrew one scroll. He opened it to verify its content. "Got it." Taro looked around, gathering several more scrolls he thought would have important information.
Exiting the cabin, Taro saw Kuzon sitting on the deck, holding Khalama's body. "Oh no...What happened?" Taro asked
"Taro, please help him, get him to shore," Kuzon sobbed.
Taro scooped up Khalama's body. "Everyone's off. Burn the boats," he reminded Kuzon, not sure if he would remember protocol after whatever had happened to him and Khalama. Taro made an airbending leap to the western bank.
Kuzon did as Taro had said, then leapt to the western shore to join the others. In midair he felt a wave of air lift him and carry him safely to the bank, a sensation he had become very used to over the years. It was generated by Taro and a few other airbenders. Kuzon landed and followed the others a short distance into the forest, away from the scene of the battle. Soon they all stopped, and those who had not yet noticed that Taro was carrying a body gasped in surprise. Taro laid the body down and the airbenders informally circled around it. Many of them were crying. Kunchen stroked Lasya's hair as she sobbed into his shoulder. It had been many years since they had lost anyone on a mission.
"Khalama..." Jamyang said.
"He saved my life," Kuzon said. "He died saving me." He began to cry as he told them exactly what had happened. Everything except the part about Sozin's face.
They moved on to the clearing where Pema was, and even she looked sad as they entered. They had no mountains available to perform a traditional airbender funeral, so they cremated Khalama and scattered his ashes to the winds as they flew on Pema. The other airbenders sat around the outside of saddle. Most were somberly silent, and a few wept softly, held by friends.
Kuzon had never even known Khalama that well. They had been more acquaintances than friends, but that was why Kuzon had never expected him to die. Khalama had been a simple, fun-loving guy who had always stayed in the background, with a good joke here or there. It had hardly occurred to Kuzon that he could die. But he had, and Kuzon blamed himself. Because of his ambiguous feelings about his brother, Khalama had died.
"You can't blame yourself, Kuzon," Taro told him in anticipation of his thoughts. The airbender laid a hand on his friend's shoulder. "You engaged that guard to protect me. It's as much my fault as yours, but that Fire Nation soldier killed Khalama, not us. It's terrible, I know, but these things happen in war. Death is a part of life."
"I don't want to hear any of your stupid monkish 'emotional attachment' speeches right now, Taro!" He wiped his eyes. "This happened because of the war? Well the war happened because of me and my brother! People are going through this all over the world because of what I let my brother do!"
"Kuzon...please...you are nothing like Sozin. You've spent the last twenty years fighting against him."
"Oh, for what?" Kuzon stood up. "Sozin has kept his war going for twenty-three years, and there's no end in sight. We can't make a dent!" Kuzon was beginning to grow angrier and rave slightly.
"We're keeping the Fire Nation from subjugating even more of the world than they already have! If we hadn't intercepted this intelligence they could have easily won—"
"Yeah, it was really worth our friend's death just so we could get some flaming little piece of paper with the troop movements!" He clenched his fists and eyes in anger as a plume of flame shot from his mouth.
Taro looked straight at him. "It's not your fault," he said.
Kuzon seemed to calm down a little and sat back down in the saddle. He still sounded distraught though. "Why do we bother, Taro?" He looked at his friend, then out over the nighttime landscape. "Sometimes I feel like I was always supposed to be loyal to my brother, like that was my proper place. I feel like I defied my destiny at the Southern Temple. Everything would've been much easier if I had just stayed in bed that night."
"Kuzon, I know you don't really think that. That's a terrible thing to say."
Kuzon cradled his head in his hands. "Yeah, well..." he mumbled, his thoughts trailing off.
Kuzon wondered why he had been distracted in the first place. Why did he even still care about Sozin? It was what he said that night, Kuzon realized. "Traitor." He still partly felt as though he were the bad guy, that he had been wrong to betray Sozin. How can I even think that?
...But I do.
Taro knew Kuzon wasn't responsible for the war. Sozin took advantage of Kuzon's loyalty. Kuzon was just being a good brother. He couldn't have known what Sozin was planning until it was too late. But while Taro had done his best to help his friend, his own confidence was shaken. The war started because of Afiko too. I knew what kind of person Afiko was. I knew how much he hated the other monks. Am I responsible too...? Maybe I should have stopped him somehow. And he raised me. What if he's influenced me too much, and I'm not strong enough to resist? What if I sell out the airbenders for my life just like he did? I deserved to be cut off from the order like he was. Maybe I defied my destiny by refusing to follow him. I guess things really would have been easier, like Kuzon said.
He and Kuzon didn't get much sleep that night.
The next day they brought the intelligence, along with some of the Fire Navy scrolls Taro had found, to another of their underground contacts in the middle-sized Earth Kingdom town of Renxiang, who delivered it to local military authorities.
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|Enemies and Traitors chapters|
|Prologues - Brothers - Responsibilities - Necessities - Resources - The Avatar - Opportunities - Preparations - Betrayals - Changing Plans - Scars - Counting Losses - Exiles - Ghosts - Homecoming - The Traitor and the Firelord - Escapes - The Last Chance - Legacies|