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|In the Face of Victory|
Previously in 'Air'
Roh-Roh, unharmed, was successfully rescued from the clutches of the Dai Li. The Guild, however, is in a state of uncertainty, having imprisoned their leaders after learning of their treachery and leaving themselves with many questions they cannot answer.
Chapter Forty-One: In the Face of Victory
The answers lay in Ba Sing Se. Aang was certain of it. The University there held the world's most extensive collection of knowledge in the world –at least, since the disappearance of Wan Shi Tong's Library. 'Destruction' was probably the better word. After all, he and his friends had watched the magnificent place swallowed by the merciless desert sands, but Aang couldn't bring himself to admit it. Somehow, he hoped that the collection was still very much in tact, not merely for the sake of the knowledge it contained, but for the professor they had befriended who could not be parted from it.
Thoughts of the Library sent chills slithering up Aang's spine. He and his friends had essentially betrayed the trust of its guardian. Now he could only hope the Spirit of Knowledge didn't hold grudges. The last thing he needed was Wan Shi Tong sending his Knowledge Seekers to snatch the information from Aang's fingers when he so desperately needed it.
But he was getting ahead of himself. Though his next step would be to learn more about Avatar Haku and how his past might help him regain the Avatar Spirit, Aang still had things to settle here. Like what to do with the hundred or so rebels now freed from their shackle of lies, or trying to get answers out of their former leadership.
Wun, however, wasn't talking.
Aang followed Garrow and Namar past the posted sentries and into the tent.
Wun sat in the middle of the room. His hands were shackled, but his back was straight, his shoulders squared, his jaw set in defiance. He ignored the Avatar, glaring instead at his former comrades.
"You will regret your choice," he growled. "Those who turn on the Guild will soon meet their demise. It is only a matter of time."
Aang leaned forward, sensing a clue. "Tell us about it."
But the Avatar's words were drowned out by an enraged snarl from Namar.
"Turn on the Guild?" He clenched his fists tight. "It was the Guild who turned on us!"
Aang glared at Namar, but it was lost on him as the man continued to rage.
"We did nothing but follow, but believe you had our best interests at heart. And you lied to us! You are the traitor here, Wun, not us."
Wun shook his head sadly. "Your emotions blind you, Namar, even now. Instead of trusting us to do the right thing –even if that is making deals with the Dai Li– you've turned your back and now stand with the Avatar. That is why the lies were necessary."
A growl built in Namar's throat. He stalked forward, fist rising.
Garrow held up a hand. "Peace, friend." His tone was calm, but it allowed for no argument.
Namar's glare still bored into Wun's skull, but he stepped back.
Garrow nodded at Aang. This was, after all, his interview, as requested. They weren't thrilled to allow the Avatar potential access to any information Wun might posses but they had to admit they owed him. And what other horrible secrets might the Guild be keeping?
Aang crossed his legs, sinking to the earth before Wun, holding his gaze.
"I want to know what the Guild is planning next."
Wun blinked, stunned. Then he threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, is that all? You don't want to know how we managed to sneak into the Fire Nation without being caught or the identity of our General?"
Aang's face betrayed nothing. "Those answers I already know, Wun," he said quietly. "Though I doubt even you are entirely certain how the Dai Li managed to escape the Fire Nation."
The bitter mirth drained from Wun's face. Real fear crept into his eyes. "You know nothing," he snarled, but the words were hallow.
Aang smiled indulgently. He hadn't forgotten Bumi's warning about General Fong. Now that was definitely the type of man Aang could picture starting up an anti-Fire Nation rebellion. And he was a general.
"Sure, whatever you say. But 'The General' really wasn't the best pseudonym for your secret leader. Maybe 'The Conqueror' or 'The Enraged Earthbender Bent Against the Fire Nation'. But 'The General'? Way too easy to decipher."
"Im-impossible," Wun muttered.
Aang shrugged. "Even the King of Omashu figured it out. By now, I guarantee Kuei already knows. So whatever you're planning, there's no–"
Wun surged to his feet, screaming, "You fools! Do you realize what you've done?!" He strained against his shackles, clawing in vain for Garrow's throat. "You've jeopardized everything! If they close it off–"
Horror dawned in Wun's eyes. He clamped his mouth shut, unconsciously glancing in the Avatar's direction, hoping he hadn't caught the slip.
Cold panic dropped into Aang's gut. Slowly, he rose. Ignoring Wun, he made his way out of the tent, nodding his thanks to Garrow as he passed.
"Thanks," he said, forcing a false cheer into his voice. "I think I've got what I need."
As he left the tent behind, Aang was afraid he would hear the voice of Wun reasoning with his captors. But the imprisoned leader seemed to realize it was past time he kept his mouth shut.
"I'm really sorry, Zuko," Haru said for perhaps the hundredth time.
"Would you shut up already?" Toph snapped. "He said to forget about it; there's no use drudging it all up again." She continued nursing several nasty scrapes, a goose bump on her head and, worst of all, a bruised ego.
Haru didn't even bat an eye. He was not nearly as scraped up as Toph; but then, he hadn't been able to put up as much of a fight, either.
The third Dai Li agent, who Zuko had fought in the shack, had realized there was no recovering their operation. Apparently he did not consider the Prince a valuable enough prize to risk his life over. Whether Roh-Roh was important to their plan or the Dai Li was simply a coward was something that remained to be seen. The agent must have guessed that Toph and Haru's earthbending abilities closely matched his own because he took no chances when he came to rescue his comrades. Toph had barely registered they were under attack when Haru suddenly found himself encased in a hard rock shell from the neck down and the pillars holding Nguyen and Po began to crumble. Unfortunately, the two Dai Li had already regained consciousness and managed to catch themselves before they could splat into the ravine far below.
Toph probably could have taken the three Dai Li on her own. At the very least, she would have given them a tough fight. Unfortunately, this was something of which the Dai Li were also aware. Instead of settling for a fair three-to-one fight, they'd decided to use their one advantage: Haru. So Toph had to make the choice of saving her protégé's life or taking on the bad guys. Really, there was no contest; she was pretty sure the others would never forgive her if she let the Dai Li crush Haru into a pancake.
"It was my fault," Haru insisted.
"Yeah," Toph snorted sarcastically, "Because I completely expect a rookie to take on three fully trained Dai Li. Please, Haru, give it a rest!"
This was something new Haru was beginning to realize about his quote unquote mentor. She was almost as defensive of the skills of her apprentice as she was of her own. He wasn't entirely sure he appreciated that.
"She's right," Zuko said. "Don't worry about it, Haru. I have a feeling we wouldn't have gotten any information out of them anyway."
He didn't mention his own encounter with the Dai Li, and no one asked. To everyone's relief, since Zuko had been reunited with his son, his dark mood had lifted.
Roh-Roh lay now with his head in his father's lap, dozing.
"Fortunately," Aang said, strolling into the camp, "I had a little more luck getting answers out of Wun." He took a seat beside Zuko with a heavy sigh, propping his legs out before him.
Toph snorted skeptically. "You actually got him to tell you something?"
"Well, he let something slip," Aang admitted.
For the first time that day, Zuko's eyes clouded. "You don't sound very happy about it."
Aang winced. "That's because it's more bad news. I think the Guild plans to invade Kuei's re-coronation."
"And how do the geniuses plan to manage that?" Toph demanded. "Even if they've got someone on the inside, crashing a coronation isn't exactly a piece of cake. There are guards, not to mention the sheer number of military present for ceremonial purposes, and the throne room itself is a fortress!"
The other three turned to stare at her. She didn't need her feet to feel all their eyes boring into her in disbelief.
"You...don't know?" Haru asked uncertainly.
Toph ground her teeth. "Know what?"
Haru glanced at Aang before he explained. "Prince Kuei is determined to bring equality to Ba Sing Se," he said. "His goal is to bring down the Rings within the city, in time. And his first true vision of equality will be his coronation."
Toph tapped her fingers impatiently. "Blah, blah, blah! I already know this stuff, Haru; spit it out."
This time it was Aang who answered. "Kuei has insisted that his coronation be open to the public. The entire public. He will be crowned on the steps of the Palace and the courtyard will be used as a viewing ground for his subjects."
Toph's fingers went still. "Oh."
"How did you not hear about that?" Haru asked, though he knew he should probably keep his mouth shut. "Even I knew the coronation was public, and I'm a peasant halfway across the country!"
"Maybe," Toph growled, "I don't have an interest in politics!"
"Enough," Aang said, his heavy tone cutting the argument short. "The point is, Wun said their plan would fall apart if 'it' was closed off."
"The coronation," Zuko guessed.
Aang shrugged. "It makes sense. When I mentioned Kuei, he lost it."
"You think there's going to be an assassination attempt?" Toph asked.
Aang frowned. "I don't know. Killing Kuei really wouldn't serve their purpose. They're not looking to make more enemies; what they need are allies."
A cold chill caught Zuko in its clutches. "Jomei mentioned something like that," he remembered. "He seemed to think the Guild's number would increase drastically within the next few days." He looked at Aang. "What do you think they're planning?"
Aang had no idea. But what he and his friends needed now was a victory and so instead he shared with them what he had pieced together. "For one thing, I know Fong is somehow behind it. If we can reach Kuei before him, we'll have the advantage."
Toph leapt to her feet. "Then what are we waiting for? Let's get going!"
Haru glanced at Aang. "There is one last thing to do, isn't there, Avatar Aang?"
Aang nodded slowly, a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Zuko's muscles tensed. "What have you decided to do with them?" he asked softly, fighting to keep all emotion from his voice.
Aang shifted uncomfortably. He had thought long and hard about how to deal with the rebels of the Guild. He was the Avatar, so he couldn't exactly let it slide that they had tried to permanently upset the world balance by taking down one of its major countries. But he was also in a hurry.
"There's not much we can do with them," Aang said slowly. He chose his words carefully, because he honestly didn't know how Zuko was going to react. "I can't exactly make a chain gang out of them and haul them along with me into Ba Sing Se. That would be impractical."
Toph snorted. "Not to mention ridiculous."
Aang took a deep breath. "I'm going to let them go."
For a moment, no one said anything.
"I've already spoken to Garrow and Jeb," Aang explained quickly.
The father and son had unofficially resumed the leadership of the rebels. Aang liked them; they seemed sensible and neither was pleased to learn they had unwittingly been accessories in kidnapping a child. But they did still hate the Fire Nation, which made talking to them a little tense. Technically, Aang hadn't taken them prisoner, but the Guild hadn't actually surrendered either.
"Thanks to Lee, some of the rebels are beginning to question their motivations. None of them knew what the big plan was and now they're not sure they want to."
"What about the ones who still want to destroy my country?" Zuko asked coldly.
Aang decided it was best ignore his friend's icy tone, but he tread carefully. "There are some still determined to do that," he admitted. "But the Guild's own paranoia is working to our advantage for the moment."
Zuko raised an eyebrow.
Aang glanced between his friends, unable to suppress a smirk. "They don't know where the rest of the Guild is located."
An instant of stunned silence greeted his words. His friends stared back at him, blinking, as the implication set in. A bark of laughter escaped Haru.
"So they're kind of lost anyway," Aang went on, eyes twinkling. "I think it would be best to make sure the rebels split up from here. Maybe I could try to give them all some advice, but that's probably the best I can do. They're going to have to make their own decision. If they want to forget about the Guild, they can just go home."
"And if they don't?" Zuko asked.
Aang shrugged. "They'd have to find another Guild encampment somewhere, and that could take some time."
Zuko nodded thoughtfully. "I'm not thrilled about just letting them go," he said quietly. Even though these rebels hadn't actually had a hand in kidnapping his son, they still wanted to dethrone him and tear his country apart. "But under the circumstances, I don't see any better alternative."
"And in the long run," Haru added helpfully, "It may not matter much anyway, if we really are going after the General. You know what they say, cut off the rock snake's head and the body dies."
"Let's just hope we can stop the General before it's too late," Zuko muttered.
Toph turned her head from one friend to another. She could feel the atmosphere plunging in a quick decline. Roh-Roh stirred in his father's lap, still zonked out and oblivious to the rest of the world. This was not the time for wallowing in despair, she realized.
"Look," she interrupted tersely, "I know finding the bad guys and beating them up is top priority and all, and I'm totally for it. But in case nobody's noticed, we're supposed to basking in victory here." She turned to Aang. "So before we all plummet into a depression, tell me about you and Katara."
Aang blushed. "Uh...tell you what exactly?"
Toph sighed heavily. "Look, I know I'm not exactly great on keeping up with communication, but you're not too good at it yourself, Twinkle Toes. I know you've been gallivanting all over the world with your wife and your lemur and your big hairy bison, but what have you been doing?"
"Oh, uh..." Aang floundered for a moment. "We've kind of just been doing the Avatar thing," he said, lamely. "You know, bringing peace by settling one squabble at a time."
Toph flung up her arms in exasperation. "Are you seriously going to make me spell it out for you? Sokka and Suki have got two little daredevils; Zuko and Mai have two adorable angels. Have you two got any plans? The Air Temples aren't going to replenish themselves, you know."
Aang blushed even harder; even Haru groaned sympathetically.
Zuko, on the other hand, began to laugh. The mirth poured out of him until tears streamed down his cheeks and his sides ached. After weeks of hopeless despair, even in the face of all they still had to accomplish, the laughter tasted sweet.
Aang eyed him suspiciously. "You know, don't you?"
Catching his breath, Zuko wiped the laughter from his eyes. "I've got two kids, remember? I think by now I know the signs. And Katara did seem a little emotional, even for her."
Aang winced, his head dropping into his hands. His words were muffled, tainted by an unrivaled and mysterious panic all would-be fathers are destined to face. "It's bad, isn't it?"
Toph sat bolt upright. "Wait a minute, are you saying you're pregnant?!"
"I'm pretty sure he's not pregnant..." Haru chipped in.
Toph slugged him in the arm so hard he toppled off his rock perch. Groaning on the ground, he decided it was better not to try getting up.
Zuko ignored them, placing a hand on his friend's shoulder. "The emotions are a little tough to get used to," he confided to Aang. "When Mai was pregnant with Ursa, everyone told me to be careful, to be attentive, not to do anything to upset her. I was treading on thin ice for months, but it never seemed to help. She leaned a little more toward irritable than emotional."
Aang nodded sympathetically. "I can imagine."
"I finally realized that treating her as normally as possible was the best solution," Zuko said. "Mai hates to be coddled, so even though everything she did and every time she grunted nearly sent me into hysterics, I had to act as indifferent as I could manage."
"How long?" Toph lunged forward, seizing Aang by the shoulders and shaking him in her excitement. "I can't wait for more little midgets to corrupt!"
Zuko started in alarm. "I don't like the sound of that. Just what were you teaching my children when you shanghaied them last year in Ba Sing Se?"
Toph waved her hand dismissively. "Just some basic earthbending."
No one questioned why Toph was teaching two firebenders the basics of earthbending. Zuko knew from experience that the forms of other elements could expand and develop one's own bending. By watching the waterbenders, Uncle had invented a move that would allow a firebender to (somewhat) safely redirect lightning.
"She's about four months along," Aang managed, once the world stopped spinning around him.
Zuko nodded slowly, for once looking all the world like his sage old Uncle preparing to impart the wisdom of the ages upon the younger generation. "Then prepare for the cravings, my friend. Once you master handling the emotions, the cravings are really the only thing left to watch out for."
Aang raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Cravings? That doesn't sound so bad."
Zuko chuckled wryly. "They're ruthless. Mark my words, whatever she craves will likely be rare or out of season."
"What," Toph snorted, "You think she'll want a blue papaya from the Green Mountains in the middle of a snowstorm?"
"I wouldn't doubt it." Aang would have been inclined to think Zuko was joking but the firebender's face was completely serious. Besides, Zuko wasn't really the pranking type.
"Well," Aang said, trying to swallow back his misgivings, "At least I'm safe there. Katara hates papaya."
Zuko smiled pityingly at his naïve friend. "That's no guarantee she won't want one. I once had to send my fastest ship to the Southern Air Temple for snow-berries," he remembered, grinning. "Mai had only tasted them once, when she was little, and she hated them. But Mai craved snow-berries."
Needles prickled Aang's palms. "Let me guess. It was the middle of summer, right?"
"You're catching on."
Lee sat alone on a single rock in the middle of a flat field. He stared up at the sky, at the world around him, and wondered. He wondered about a lot of things, like how exactly he had let himself get so angry and what he was going to say to his parents and Sensu when he met them in Ba Sing Se.
Beside him, cleaned and glimmering in the sunshine, lay the pearl-handled knife.
He heard the wheat ripple behind him. There was no wind today, so Lee turned to look. Moving slowly toward him was Li, the supposed bodyguard. The Fire Prince held tight to his hand. When he noticed Lee watching him, the boy smiled shyly.
Lee stood as they approached.
Zuko paused a few steps away from Lee. He wasn't sure what or how much to say; Lee didn't look too certain either. A long, awkward moment stretched by. Roh-Roh, shy as ever, was half-hidden behind his father's robes. But the boy was determined, too; he tugged at his father's hand.
Zuko managed a smile. "I heard you were leaving soon."
Lee shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah, I've got to get back to my family."
Zuko nodded. He glanced down at his son. "We wanted to thank you."
Lee swallowed hard. "You-you really don't have to–"
Determined, Prince Iroh stepped forward. "Yes we do," he said quietly. "My father told me what you did."
To Zuko's surprise, Lee didn't seem in the least fazed at this revelation. Lee was startled, however, when the Prince suddenly jumped forward and hugged him.
"Thank you, Lee," Roh-Roh whispered.
For a moment, Lee was stunned. Slowly, a smile spread across his face.
Roh-Roh pulled back, suddenly shy again, and took his father's hand once more.
Zuko studied Lee thoughtfully. "Did you know all along?"
Lee thought about this. How long had he suspected 'Li' was actually the Firelord himself? He shrugged. "I'm not really sure. I guess after a while it just made sense."
Zuko nodded. He took a deep breath. There were years of hostility and misunderstanding between the two of them. It may have merely been a moment in his life, but when that boy had refused to look at him, said he hated him –For good or ill, that moment had stayed with Zuko.
"I'm sorry I lied to you, Lee," he said sincerely. "I would have told you the truth, but if anyone found out I was in the Earth Kingdom..." He shook his head, unable to finish. His gaze dropped down to his hand, wrapped tight around his son's.
"Forget it." Lee shared a wink with Roh-Roh. "You had a pretty good reason."
Zuko hesitated. "I'm sorry about last time, too."
Lee tensed suddenly. He was silent for a moment. Just when Zuko thought he would not reply, that that day would remain what it was, Lee spoke. "I don't think you should really be the one apologizing." He swallowed hard. "I'm sorry about what happened."
Lee felt a surge of relief at the words, realizing fully for perhaps the first time how truly honest they were. A heavy, hot burden of anger and hatred seemed to slip from his shoulders.
Zuko cocked his head thoughtfully. "I don't know that I've ever blamed you for that, Lee. The world was...different then."
Lee had to admit he was right.
A bout of wind rippled through the field around them, filling the air with the raspy singing of the wheat.
"How is he?" Zuko asked finally. "Jomei, I mean."
Lee licked his lips. "He'll live," he said carefully. He couldn't look Zuko in the eye; he didn't want the man to see his pain. Lee didn't want the Firelord to think he regretted what he'd done.
Jomei was in pain now, but he would heal. He'll live, Lee thought bitterly, But he'll never stop hating me. Any words that Jomei had uttered, they had all been about Lee. And they had not been kind.
Zuko wisely didn't press.
"So is that all?" Lee asked, quick to change the subject. "You've got your kid back safe and sound. Now you head back to the Fire Nation?"
Zuko looked away. "Soon."
"Ah." Lee didn't press either.
"Before you leave," Zuko said, "I still have your ostrich-horse. I'm afraid I ran her a little hard, but she's had a few days to rest up."
"Oh. Great. I've got something here too." Lee scooped up the pearl-handled knife from the rock and knelt before the Prince. "I think this belongs to you."
Roh-Roh beamed. "My knife!" He took it gently, holding the sheathed blade. "Where did you find it?"
Lee only smiled. "You've got it back now," he said. "It would be a shame to lose."
Roh-Roh ran his thumbs across the sheath. He glanced up once at his father and turned back to Lee. He pressed the knife gently back into Lee's hand.
"You keep it," the Prince said.
Lee started. "I don't think–"
"I'll never forget what you did for me," Roh-Roh insisted. "And I want you to keep it to remember that I'll always be grateful."
Lee slowly closed his fingers around the knife. He smiled at the boy.
"I'll keep it forever," he promised.
- This title is a twist on the phrase 'Victory in the face of defeat'. Instead, we see the friends struggling against the notion that they may already be defeated in spite of their recent victory. So yes, another punny chapter title. Be honest. By now, does that really surprise you?
- As I was editing/rewriting this chapter, I intentionally made it longer instead of breaking it into two. Now that I realize my readers really want longer chapters, I strive to please. Oh, the sacrifices I make for my devoted followers... ;)
- Aang had a little Sokka Moment while interrogating Wun, but what can I say? They are related now.
- I felt I needed to lighten everyone's mood this chapter and, honestly, I loved taking a look at what it must have been like for Mai and Zuko expecting their first child and Zuko being able to pass on what knowledge he's gleaned. Watch out for papayas, Aang.
- I'm actually sorry to disappoint everyone who was so happy with Jomei's 'death' last chapter. But I must admit I'm thrilled to have such bloodthirsty readers. XD
Aw, and Lee winds up with the dagger in the end after all!
- *nods* All is as it should be. ...well, except for Aang losing his Avatar powers and the Guild still very much a threat and Kuei's life possibly in danger and the still uncertain fate of Mai and the Kyoshi Warriors. But I've said too much.
... Is it time for the next chapter yet?
- Muahaha. XD
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