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In the Dark of the Night
Chapter information
Series

Air

Chapter

Twenty-One

Written by

Wordbender

Release date

June 5, 2012

Chronology
Last chapter

A Million to One

Next chapter

Somewhere In Between

Previously in Air

Katara was mortally wounded by saving Zuko from Azula's lightning bolt. Aang has flown back to Ba Sing Se in search of a healer, while Zuko takes Katara to the secluded farm of their new friend, Sensu. Zuko isn't certain safety awaits them at the farm, especially when he realizes that Sensu is the older brother of a boy from his past.

Chapter Twenty-One: In the Dark of the Night

"Why do you hate them so much, Lee?"

Lee stared at his brother. How could he ask that? Wasn't it obvious? Sensu had only just returned home from the horrors of a Fire Nation prison; he still struggled to master his crutches.

"Because of the war, Sensu!"

Sensu frowned. "You need to stop thinking like that," he said. "It took one hundred years to end that war. There's still a lot to be fixed, but the peace will only last if people believe it will, and strive for it."

"Don't you hate them?" Lee demanded, confused and angry. "For what they did to you?"

Sensu paused, struggling with his crutches. "Only one man cost me my leg, Lee," he said. "And I gladly gave it to protect my friend."

"So you let the monster who did that to you just walk away?!"

Sensu looked at his brother sadly. He hadn't told him how it happened; he'd hoped he wouldn't need to. "The soldier who hurt me is dead, Lee. He wasn't just going to stop at my leg. My injured friend –the one I was protecting– killed him to save me. I can't blame an entire nation for the act of one man's violence in the middle of a battlefield."

"But they started the war," Lee protested.

"Firelord Sozin began the war," Sensu consented. "And his son continued it, and so did his son's son. But Firelord Zuko ended it." He shifted so he could better look his brother in the eye. "It all comes down to the people, Lee, what they do, and what they believe."

Lee wouldn't look at his brother. He scowled into the distance.

"It seems you've been wounded more by the war than I have." Sensu frowned in concern. "What happened to you, Lee?"

***

Lee needed solace. He'd taken a lantern out to the barn, and settled onto a haystack for the night. Hard as he tried to block them, Sensu's words wouldn't leave his head. Just that afternoon, Jomei had set before him an ultimatum, and now there was a man from the Fire Nation under his very roof. Lee knew he was at a crossroads; the choice loomed before him, but his soul spiraled in turmoil. More voices swam in his head, each attempting to sway him.

There was Jomei, soft but determined, eyes blazing at the thought of his own kind of justice. "You know you're meant to do this."

Lee frowned at the memory. He wasn't so sure.

His father so often said, "It's not the fine clothes, or the handsome face, or the nation" –this with a significant emphasis at Lee– "it is the actions that make a man."

Lee heard his mother's voice then, gentle and worried. "I'm worried about you, Lee."

Lee was worried, too. This hot anger that so wholly consumed him...He didn't want it; he didn't even understand it. It was like his being was split in two, half of him just Lee, a farmer wanting a simple life, but the other side...The other side was full of hatred. It wanted vengeance for the injustices done to himself, his family and his brother. That was the side that scared him.

"...these are dual swords." The glint of moonlight on sword blades flashed in his memory. A dark night, someone he thought was his friend. "Two halves of a single weapon. Don't think of them as separate, because they're not." The blades sliced effortlessly through the air in fluid motions. "They're just two different parts of the same whole."

Lee blinked in surprise. That was one voice he had never expected to hear again, especially from his own head. Two different parts of the same whole... Maybe that was the answer. Maybe there was a reason for his anger. Maybe it was a tool he had to harness, the key to helping him figure out the right thing to do and doing it.

Maybe it completed him.

"I remember him, Lee, what he did to you." Jomei again, eyes dark, boring into Lee's most secret thoughts.

Lee's blood boiled at the memories. He had been young, impressionable. He'd trusted a man who lied to him, a man who was his enemy. But it was more than that. He was the first firebender Lee had ever seen; in the boy's eyes he became the Fire Nation, responsible not only for the horrors of the war, but the capture and injury of Sensu. It was a connection, a hatred Lee could never quite shake. And that man truly became the Fire Nation, its lord and sovereign Zuko. Lee had been burned once; how could he ever trust them?

Lee clenched his fists.

He could see Jomei's smug smile. "You know you're meant to do this."

"...never give up without a fight..."

Lee stared up into the barn's rafters, his brain churning.

He almost decided then.

Almost.

But the farm animals began to squawk and snort restlessly. Lee sat up, alert. Who would be out this time of night?

***

Zuko heard the cries of the animals, too. But he knew exactly what it meant. He paused only long enough to retrieve his dual blades and kneel for an instant at Katara's side. "Aang will be here soon," he promised her. For the first time, Katara stirred. It was only a small frown that tugged at her features, but Zuko liked to imagine she heard him. Slinging the swords over his shoulder, Zuko hurried out.

In the main room, Sensu and his family stirred in confusion at the warning cries of their animals. At the sight of their guest, armed and alert, they froze.

"What is it?" Sensu asked.

Zuko didn't answer. "Stay inside," he told them as he headed for the door. He paused, and turned back with a frown. "Where's Lee?"

***

The animals didn't act up this much unless someone was on the road. Lee pulled at the door, opening it slowly to avoid its infernal creaking. Before he could peer out into the night and catch sight of the prowler, he smelled the smoke.

***

Flames licked their way up the barn's walls in its all-consuming hunger.

Gansu jumped for the door as Sela gave a strangled cry. "Lee!"

Zuko grabbed his shoulder, holding him back.

Gansu glared at him. "Let me go."

Zuko shook his head. "That's not just any fire. Stay inside. I'll get Lee."

Gansu tried to protest, but Sensu cried, "Dad! Let him. He'll know what to do better than any of us."

Gansu didn't look pleased, but he stepped back.

Zuko moved to the doorway, peering out into the night. He could see nothing clearly in the flickering light of the flames. He reached over his shoulder, drew his dual blades and stepped into the night.

***

The same instant he caught the whiff of smoke, Lee saw the light flickering against the barn door. He whirled around and gasped in horror.

The far corner of the barn was alight with fire.

Lee's thoughts instantly went to the animals. He was a farmer first. Instead of running out of the burning building, Lee threw open the barn door and ran back in. He opened the few stalls within, dragging out the shrieking, protesting animals. The last animal, their ostrich horse, cowered in the back of her stall. Terrified, she refused to move.

"Come on!" Lee shouted, but the creature only shuffled farther back.

With a frustrated cry, Lee jumped into the stall and grabbed at her neck. The creature shuddered violently, shrieking at his touch. But Lee held on. He swung himself up onto the creature's back. He dug his heels into the ostrich-horse's side, startling her, and spurring her out of the stall.

Once the creature caught sight of the fire, she bolted for the open barn door. As the ostrich horse raced out, Lee cast a quick glance over his shoulder, moaning the loss of their barn.

A bolt of fire flashed before the ostrich horse. Shrieking in terror, the creature reared back to avoid the flames.

Lee was sent flailing into the air. He crashed painfully to the dirt. Dazed, he watched as Li charged at him, swords trailing along behind him.

Lee gritted his teeth. Hadn't he known never to trust the Fire Nation? Jomei was right, he realized, clenching his fists. Well, Lee wasn't going down without a fight.

Li whirled in a circle, fire dancing down his arms and sword blades. He let fly another strike.

Lee blinked. The flame wasn't the same color. And it wasn't aimed at him.

Once Li let the fire loose, he fell right back into stride, racing for the barn.

Lee looked toward it and realized why.

***

Azula laughed with maniacal delight as Zuko ran toward her. He fired a missile, but it was easy to block, even balancing on this roof. As his useless blast dissipated into the night, Azula danced back a few steps.

Zuko shouted something at the boy who'd leapt out of the barn. She couldn't hear his words, but she could guess them.

"Come on, Zuzu," she sang softly, "Come and get it."

Zuko did not disappoint.

***

"Get inside!" Zuko ordered Lee. He didn't even stop to see if the boy was injured. Azula's presence was more pressing. He needed to drive her off, or the whole family would be in danger.

Zuko bounded atop the fence and leapt to the roof. He crouched to secure his footing, swords raised defensively.

Azula peered at him disdainfully. She perched at the roof's pinnacle, rigid and erect. She cast an imposing figure, almost regal, until Zuko crept closer. The light of the manic flames danced over the absurd costume from the theatre troupe. Her loose, tangled hair rippled in the breeze and her eyes were wide and wild, blazing madly as the flickering fire. She still wore the same heavy makeup from when she had attacked him on the stage. It was smeared over her face now, half-melted from the heat of her flames.

"I told you I'd find you," she said coldly. "Did you and Uncle really think you could run?"

Zuko didn't process the comment. He cautiously scaled the roof. His swords were raised for defense and his eyes never left Azula's.

Azula sighed theatrically. Wouldn't he ever learn that resistance was futile? He could never win, not against her. "Chasing you down really is growing tiresome, brother. Why don't you just surrender?"

Zuko joined her on the wooden beam topping the roof's taper. He leveled his swords at her. "You should know by now, Azula; I never give up without a fight."

Azula sighed again, flicking her hair back with long fingernails. "Oh well." She smiled. "This is the fun part, anyway." She unfurled a whip of blue flame from her palm.

It snapped at Zuko. He raised his sword to deflect. The thin strip of flame encircled his blade. He spun toward it, and sliced his second sword –burning with his own fire– through the whip, cutting it off from its wielder.

Azula laughed, tried to step back, and teetered on the brink of the roof. She glanced down, realizing there was nowhere else to go. She looked at Zuko. He hesitated, waiting for her to strike again.

Zuko couldn't bring himself to charge Azula as she struggled for balance.

Azula leapt into the air, kicking down a wave of blue fire at Zuko.

Zuko raised his blazing swords and sliced through the onslaught. But it was stronger than he expected. He lost his footing, stumbled, and slid down the side of the roof.

As he hurtled to the ground, Zuko managed to grab hold of the roof's edge. He lost one of his swords and watched the reflected flames as it fell.

Azula somersaulted neatly in midair, landing in a crouch at the far end of the roof. She watched, bored, as Zuko swung below her, struggling to pull himself back up. She looked over her shoulder, at the quaint little farmhouse, and her brightly painted lips curved upward in a psychotic smile.

Zuko heaved himself up with one arm, determined to keep hold of his other sword. He managed to get his elbow onto the roof when he saw Azula take flight.

Racing along the beam, Azula threw herself off the edge of the roof.

No! Zuko's brain screamed. But he didn't waste time on words. He pushed away from the roof, dropping to the ground below in a crouch. He cast about for his other sword, but he couldn't see it in the dim moonlight. He turned and raced after Azula.

***

Lee had been too frozen in shock to run inside, and when the sword clattered to the ground, he'd seized it. As the grinning woman charged for his home and his family, encompassed in blue flames, Lee swung at her.

Azula saw the glint of the blade. She bent back, under the thrust, to the great surprise of its wielder. Once she cleared the sword, she kicked out and caught her foot on the back of Lee's legs, toppling him. She spun as she straightened, moving quickly to recover her balance.

She paused, towering over Lee. Her sadistic smile lengthened. She curled her fingers around a ball of flickering blue fire and pulled back.

Zuko's arm curved up from below, throwing her aim into the sky.

Azula snarled and loosed a spurt of fire at him. Zuko cut easily through the flame and retaliated.

They fought hand to hand, punching, kicking, shooting burst after burst of flame. They struggled in stagnate combat, every attack blocked by the other. But Azula knew she held the ace. She kicked at Zuko once more. He caught her foot, twisting it. She spun with the movement, taking the opening to punch a stream of flame toward the innocent farmhouse. She felt his grip falter in surprise. Azula pulled free and jumped back into a ready stance.

Lee raced blindly toward his family. Zuko saw the pleasure that the boy's panic stirred in Azula; the way her eyes danced, her smile never wavered.

He swallowed hard. "Azula," he began gently. "You have to listen to me. You're not well; you're sick."

Azula laughed. "Are you actually stalling?" She shook her head. "I didn't come to talk; I came to fight."

She hurled a fireball at his head. Zuko neatly dodged, but he refused to retaliate.

"You need help," he shouted. "Don't you remember?"

Azula's smile slipped from her face. She aimed her hands at the farmhouse again. "Do I have to set someone on fire?"

Zuko's eyes blazed, but he forced himself to take a calm breath. He lunged forward, thrusting his hands out. A torrent of flames surged from his palms, hot and fierce and unexpected.

Azula was caught off guard, her aim in the wrong direction. She could not ward off the attack; she could only throw her arms over her face for protection. The rush of flames was so strong it drove her back several feet.

Zuko raged inwardly and the fury leaked into his fire. He could see the edges of his flame sputter violently, but still he pushed it. He had to get Azula away from here, he had to protect this family. He finally eased back, the wave of his onslaught dissipating, igniting small fires in the grass around him.

Azula was nowhere to be seen.

He scanned around him in the light of the flames, but he did not see her. He knew better than to think she had fled. She was lurking close by, waiting...

Desperate shouts pulled his thoughts from Azula. He turned to the farmhouse, expecting to see Sensu's family on the lawn in a panic. But no one was outside. In horror, Zuko realized Lee had bounded in the house to rescue his family, only to be trapped with them.

Zuko raced for the farmhouse. He aimed his hands at the flames flickering farther up the walls and sucked in a deep breath. He concentrated his bending not at the flames, but on the heat within them. He closed his eyes as he felt it dancing through his fingers and thrust one hand toward the sky. The heat of the fire flowed through him, shooting out his fingers as billowing steam. Slowly, grudgingly, the flames began to dim and die. Lee and Gansu burst out of the house, carrying Sensu between them, all of them coughing violently. Sela ran instead to Katara.

Zuko did not pause to rest, but preformed the same form on the flaming barn. This heat blazed violently, volatile and harder to control. He wrestled to bend it to his will. As he sent steam streaming into the night sky, the fire fought back, licking hungrily at the charred structure. It took longer, and there was less of this building to save, but Zuko refused to let it fall.

Sweat beaded his brow from the heat, but a chill remained with him from his encounter with Azula. Where had she gone? Not far, he was certain of that. And he couldn't put this family in any more danger. He chided himself for coming here in the first place.

Zuko finished the task, lowering his hands before him and exhaling. He opened his eyes, and turned to them.

Lee's face was streaked with sweat and soot. He coughed violently from the smoke. "Who was that?" he demanded.

"The one who attacked us in Oscree," Zuko said softly.

"So you led her here." It wasn't a question, but an accusation.

Sensu leaned on his father. "It's my fault," he choked through his own coughs. "I didn't think she'd find you."

Sela appeared in the doorway. Her face was drawn, and her eyes frightened, but she nodded. Katara was safe.

"Please," Zuko pleaded. "Take care of her. Aang will be here soon, I know it."

Gansu frowned. "Where are you going?"

"Anywhere but here," Zuko said. "I can lead her away; she'll follow me."

Lee glared at him. "How do you know?"

Zuko scanned their surroundings for any sign of his vengeful sister. "She wouldn't pass up the chance."

"Why should we let you leave?"

"Lee," Sensu admonished.

"That crazy woman tried to kill us all! He led her right to us!"

"I know," Zuko admitted. "I–"

"Why is she chasing you?" Lee shouted. "Why does she want so badly to kill you, and why are you traveling with the Avatar? What are you hiding?!"

For a moment, Zuko did not answer. He stared back into Lee's hot, angry eyes...and saw himself.

"I'm from the Fire Palace," Zuko said.

The fire in Lee's eyes burned brighter. "The Firelord sent you?"

Zuko hesitated. He found himself suddenly compelled to tell Lee everything. The truth. He felt he owed him that much. But Zuko wouldn't endanger his son. He shook his head. "No. The Firelord doesn't even know I'm here."

"Why?"

Zuko closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "There's a group of rebels," he said softly. "They've–" His voice caught. "They've kidnapped the Prince. I came to find him."

Lee narrowed his eyes incredulously. "And the Firelord doesn't know?"

"He can't know." Zuko couldn't look at any of them. "The demands were very clear. No one is to look for them, no one from the Fire Nation can set foot in the Earth Kingdom, and the Avatar can't know. That's why we were traveling with the Theatre Troupe, so no one would notice us."

"The Firelord won't try to rescue his own son?" Sela whispered, too appalled to keep quiet.

"The Firelord fears for his son's safety," Zuko said quietly.

Not enough, Lee thought. Not if he just lets them keep his son. He couldn't imagine the Firelord stepping back if his son was kidnapped, not if he loved him. He would rescue him. He'd done that for a boy he barely knew.

Lee stared hard at the stranger. "I'm not sure I believe you. You expect us to buy that the Firelord won't take the chance to rescue his own son but a Palace soldier would?"

Zuko did not answer. How could he? He was taking that chance. It was why he was standing here; it was why his Uncle was digging into the underworld of Ba Sing Se and his friends were chasing down wild, probably useless leads all over the Earth Kingdom; it was why Katara was lying fatally injured within the house.

"The woman who attacked us..." Zuko hesitated. How did he explain Azula? He didn't even know what she was doing here. "She's an old enemy. She's bent on killing me and that's how I know she'll follow me. If something happened to you and your family for helping us," Zuko told Lee, "I'd never forgive myself. Let me lead her away."

Lee fell silent. Sela ducked back into the house.

"Aang will bring a healer," Zuko insisted. "It shouldn't take him more than a few days." He looked around, at the scarred farmhouse and the dilapidated barn. He sighed. "I'm sorry."

Gansu shrugged. "Sometimes the price for helping others is steep, Li. But it's always the right choice." He looked at the barn. "Besides, I've been meaning to fix that old place up for some time now."

Sela reappeared with Zuko's pack. He took it, feeling the difference in weight. No doubt she had slipped in a few days' worth of food.

Zuko bowed to them. "Thank you," he said. "Someday, I'll find a way to repay your kindness."

Sensu glanced at his father, who nodded. "In the meantime, take Silkie." Sensu gestured at the ostrich-horse. "She might give you the advantage."

***

"You, corporal!" War Minister Shinu pointed to a random man in the line. "What's your name?"

The soldier attempted to straighten his already rigid stance. "Hoo, sir!"

The War Minister gnashed his teeth in irritation. "You, the one I'm pointing at! Don't get smart with me, or I'll demote you. Answer the question."

Hoo sighed and wondered for the millionth time why his parents hadn't named him something sensible, like Lee or Wang. "Sorry, sir. My name is Hoo, sir."

"Oh." Shinu deflated. He blinked at the corporal. "Very well, Corporal Hoo, I want you to perform a task for me."

Hoo's chest puffed with pride. Though the other soldiers in the line didn't stoop to muttering, he could feel the wave of jealously sweep through them.

"Yes, sir!"

"You must travel to Tenzi Island and relay a message to Admiral Jeong Jeong."

Hoo nodded his comprehension. "And the message, sir?"

"You will tell Admiral Jeong Jeong to watch his step. The rebels are becoming more violent and unpredictable. One of the forces seeking them out, Division 42, was attacked. These remnants of the Loyal are much stronger than we first imagined. They are no longer toying with us. The attack was brutal and few survived. General Tzen has marched out with a defensive force to retaliate."

Hoo nodded again.

"You will leave immediately," Shinu instructed him. "And you will obey any orders Admiral Jeong Jeong gives you. He may need another soldier to add to his ranks, or he may send you back with a message of his own. Dismissed!"

"Yes, sir!" Hoo cried energetically, and pivoted to depart. He stopped himself skipping with joy at such a specific task, because that would be unprofessional.

Author's Notes

  • In the Dark of the Night is also the title for Rasputin's very catchy number in Anastasia. It seemed appropriate. When my sister starts humming this, I get it stuck in my head for days. I ask you, why do the villain's always get the funnest songs?
  • Resistance is futile -Oh yeah, baby, that's a Borg quote right there. Who could resist a little Star Trek?
  • There are a lot of callbacks and parallels to Zuko Alone in this chapter. I may have mentioned that it's one of my favorites...? ;)
  • Zuko uses the same technique that Sozin employed to help hold of the volcanic explosion in The Avatar and the Firelord.
  • Poor Hoo. The frustration and indignation of such an embarrassing name! The opportunity for so many punny jokes! I really am evil, aren't I?
  • ...his parents hadn't named him something sensible, like Lee or Wang -This is yet another callback to Piandao's comment about there being 'a million Lees.' Why do I keep bringing this up? I honestly don't know. Apparently, I find it humorous.
    • 'Wang' is a veiled reference to Sokka's bearded alter ego 'Wang Fire' in The Headband.

Bonus! After posting the chapter late last week (which again I'm really, really sorry for!) I've decided to start a subscriber list, so don't forget to head on over to the main page and sign yourself up!

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