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|By Omashu Rocks||Genre||Rating||Reviews||Updates|
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|Harboring, Part 1|
5 December 2013
A drowsy Jirou, slumped against a tree, scoffed at me and then at the barely-risen sun in the horizon.
"So is there a reason you woke me up so early?" he inquired dryly with a hoarse voice. "Did you want to get a jump start on our trip to the temple or did you just feel like being a bitch at this particular moment in time?"
Steaming, I crouched in front my ungrateful partner so that our eyes met on the same level, and I didn't blink once. "Temple?" I chuckled furiously. "We're not going anywhere until I get some answers." After nearly being burned alive the previous night by hit-men hired by Fire Sages, I refused to be left clueless any longer. Jirou and I were partners and it was about time he started treating me like an equal. After all, I saved his sorry ass and the only thanks I got was his repulsive attitude.
At first he ignored me, cleared his throat, licked his lips, and looked up at the sky, but eventually his irritated gaze returned to my unwavering glare so that he could reluctantly inquire, "What is it you want to know?"
"Everything," I stated emphatically, my voice unshaken. "Starting with why they sent me a partner, why it's you, and finishing with exactly what our goal is and when I'm done with this shit."
He mocked me with a fake, exaggerated expression of intimidation. "Ooooh! Feisty today, aren't we, Sweetheart? Mind giving me a little personal space before we continue with this interrogation?"
My brain snapped. With a vicious snarl, I yanked his torso and slammed his back against the rough bark of the tree. "You want a fucking interrogation? You got it!" I barked, Hell unraveling in my eyes. "My sister's on the line, and I am done with your fucking games!"
He bit his tongue as to refrain from making another snide comment. Maybe he was learning something. Looking down, I realized I was still digging my nails into his body. He deserved every last bit of pain I was inflicted, but I showed mercy.
"You ready to give answers yet? Because I have plenty of questions," I spat, finally releasing my grip.
As if completely unfazed, he rose to his feet. "Have you ever been mistaken for a man?"
"No. Have you?"
He offered some kind of snort in response, and he merely dusted off his tunic as if I wasn't ready to rip out his spine, chew it, and spit it back out.
The compromise we settled on was that Jirou would answer my questions on our long ride to the Fire Sages' temple. What was intended on being an interrogation became me nearly begging for answers. The physical height differences between Uma and Nightmare didn't help fight the thought that he was talking down to me.
"You see, Sweetheart, the real reason they sent me to help you isn't because they don't believe in you."
I think I should've kept count of how many lies he told in the duration of that conversation. "Really, then why did they send you?
"The truth is, the anti-government movement is growing stronger. The Wolves are gaining numbers, fast too."
"So why not send us in different directions to cover more ground and take out more Wolves?" The fact that I was proposing strategies for killing people I mostly agreed with made my stomach churn.
"Look, I can't read Sozin's mind, but I'd be willing to bet that we're the most motivated of the Shepherds. We're both doing this to one day see the person we care about most. Maybe he thinks that makes us the best pair to take on the biggest threats there are."
As much as I hated admitting it to myself, Jirou's words almost made me feel connected to him, like he wasn't so bad after all. Except, of course, for my certainty that he was sent to eliminate me. As one could understand, it was pretty hard to let that fear go, so I decided to ask him point blank.
"The crazy man at The Road, who I guess wasn't so crazy after all. He said that Sozin gets rid of Shepherds when he feels like he doesn't need them anymore."
Jirou kept staring forward, and I couldn't tell if he simply found it impossible to look at me. "That man is paid by the government to test people's reactions. He would never reveal an actual piece of confidential information."
"So you weren't sent to kill me?" My tone carried sarcasm, but I wasn't joking.
"Kill you?" he laughed. "Why would I want to kill you? You're too much fun!"
On the outside, I became more relaxed, but my core remained tight as ever. "That's good," I smiled. "It would be such a stupid idea to attack me anyway."
"Why is that," he smirked. "You think I'm scared of you?"
I shook my head, my expression remaining solemn. "No, but you should be." Sozin should be too.
The sun beat down on my neck for the next three hours until we reached a rocky coastline of the Fire Nation. There wasn't another word exchanged between me and Jirou, and I had Nightmare trail behind Uma because I couldn't stand the awkwardness of riding beside my fellow Shepherd. The mood was tense, and whenever I got close to him I could feel a kind of static build up inside me: an uncomfortable combination of stress, unease, confusion, and anger.
Jirou tugged gently on Uma's fir, commanding his beast to stop and gesturing that I should catch up. When I did, we both spent a moment to take in the powerful sight of waves crashing against the mountainous terrain, each time spraying us with cool, salt-filled water. I found the feeling refreshing, but Nightmare vigorously shook his head in displeasure.
My ally and/or assassin opened his mouth, as if to say something, but then closed it and proceeded to carefully ascend up the side of a rocky mountain. Uma made slow, precise movements, and her master commanded her with great caution.
"Are you coming?" I heard him call down.
Nightmare was just as nimble, if not more, than Uma, so catching up to him on the incline of unstable rocks wasn't too difficult. Soon, the waves that had been constantly splashing the side of my face were crashing far below me, and the peak of the hill was in sight. "Where are we going?" I yelled over the sea's cacophonous roar. Jirou pointed ahead, and I looked to spot, across a narrow and seemingly-perilous mountain range, a gorgeous structure with several stacked layers of red and gold. It was too far for me to make out any detail, but there was something at the top that appeared to be a red orb.
Jirou paused at a small plateau overlooking the ocean. There, he plopped off his bhoarse and took a seat by the edge of the cliff, his legs dangling high above the water. With an rare sense of safety and comfort, I sat beside him, and I was immediately awed by the breathtaking beauty of the sun's reflection sparkling through the blue sea like stars in the night sky.
"My father used to take me places like this to train."
Jirou turned his head to look at me, the wind gently blowing his hair. His eyes were just as beautiful as our surroundings. "To train or to realize how powerful the world was?"
I didn't always understand the purpose of my dad's lessons, and perhaps Jirou was right, like there was a brain somewhere in those perfectly tan muscles. "To train," I repeated.
"Ever think he was training you for something?" The Shepherd inquired.
A knot instantly formed in my stomach, and I decided that the nostalgia over my old life was over for the day. "What's the plan?" I asked, initiating the end of pleasure and the start of work.
"When Avatar Roku died," started Jirou, "the Fire Lord ordered the Fire Sages to shift their loyalty from the Avatar to himself. Most obeyed, but not all. This temple has been known to house some of the more resistant Sages. We've been watching them for a while, tracking their communications. Almost a dozen letters and meetings have confirmed their associations with hit-men. We've thought for a long time that they could be harboring the Avatar, given that we're almost certain he survived the burning of the Air Temples. If we're right, he's found a new home here."
I glanced over at the Sages temple, not in disdain but in curiosity. "So we sneak in? Disguised as Fire Sages?" I hoped that was the plan. After all, I had experience.
"No need to," answered my partner. "The Fire Lord has been sending inspectors regularly. Someone from the government can walk in without creating a scene."
"So we just go in pretending we're inspectors. Then-"
"No," he cut me off. "I go in alone."
"Then what do I do," I asked quizzically.
With a long sigh, Jirou slowly raised his right hand and placed it behind my back, and fear shot through my mind like a bolt of lightning. I threw my body away from the edge of the cliff, and scrambled as inland as I could go before firing a terrified stare at Jirou, who gawked back at me like I was crazy.
"What the Hell is wrong with you?" he cried. I couldn't tell if his face expressed a disappointment that he failed to shove me off the cliff or a genuine confusion.
"Just... tell me what my job is," I spattered, flustered.
Electing to pretend my freakout hadn't happened, Jirou got to his feet and walked over to Uma. "When I go in as an 'inspector,' the Sages will probably follow procedure and have one or two show me the entire temple. That means the rest of them have time to hide the Avatar while I'm distracted. What you need to do is sneak in completely undetected and look for anything suspicious in the other parts if the temple while I'm busy 'inspecting.' Try to stay on different floors than me and keep an eye out for any Sages rushing somewhere or discussing my arrival."
"Sounds like I got the raw deal," I protested. "I mean you're gonna be safe the whole time."
"No. My safety will depend on you doing your job right. So, given your record, who's really at risk here?"
That was enough to silence me, and we exchanged a few awkward looks. Noticing my unease, Jirou sighed. Then, he gave a face that made it seem like he was pondering something, and he looked at me intently before reaching into his pocket and retrieving some parchment.
"Here," he said plainly, extending his arm. "This letter was meant for you, but I kept it for when you'd need motivation the most." After I hesitated, he placed the paper in the palm of my hand. "Come on. Read it."
Unsure of what to expect, I unfolded the letter and slowly allowed my eyes to read the ink. From the office of Fire Lord Sozin, it began, Nalia, this letter is to confirm your release from the Shepherds effective immediately after the Avatar is terminated.
That was it. One sentence. One sentence was enough to make time freeze. Utter silence. There weren't any waves crashing against the rocks, Uma and Nightmare didn't make a sound, and I wasn't anywhere near a Fire Sage. I thought I would cry, but I couldn't. All I could do was whimper and clench the paper in my grip.
"Is this true?" I squeaked, struggling to look up at Jirou.
"It's from the Fire Lord," he responded emotionless. "Are you ready to go?"
I had never felt so invigorated, so determined. Reluctance to kill, the morals of my father, my humanity. Gone. The Avatar was going to perish at my hands so that my sister could be safe. Upon that realization, the old Nalia died. That assurance, that hope, was what made me forget who I was. "Hell yeah I'm ready."
"Good," he smiled, then gesturing to the letter, he said, "You know the rules."
I dropped the paper, leaving it to be slowly devoured by embers of sapphire blue.
|Prologue - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
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