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|Life and Death|
May 28, 2013
Previously in Air
Toph is still recovering from her encounter with the darkly talented Min. Zuko, Jeong Jeong and Aang met for negotiations with Ozai in an attempt to deter him from his plan to make a deal with Koh, and arrange the release of his captives, Captain Jee and Corporal Si Yung. Ozai was not interested in their information. Azula attacked, and Jeong Jeong took a lightning strike intended for Zuko.
Chapter 69: Life and Death
Zuko and Aang agreed it would be best to keep the Faceless in the dark until after this crisis was over. They had been through a horrific ordeal, and the last thing they needed to learn was that some of them could now be hundreds of years old and they had landed in the middle of a power struggle that might get them killed.
The farm was an easily defendable structure, already closed in with a high wall, and Zuko and Sokka ensured a constant guard. No more slip ups, not like with Azula.
The Faceless were being kept occupied by Kaori and Teya, who assigned them menial tasks, and a few of the soldiers helped to entertain them with tales.
Katara watched them all from the window. She frowned. "They know something's up."
From her unhappy position on the makeshift bed, Toph snorted. "You really think people who just got their sight back aren't going to notice everyone dancing around the truth?"
"I guess you're right." She pulled away from the window, returning to her patient. Kneeling beside Toph, she ran her water-encased hands over her chi paths. "How are you feeling?"
Toph shifted impatiently. "I've already told you. I'm right as rain. Ready to meet this Min person again and whoop her dark little butt!"
The ghost of a smile haunted Katara's face, but she wondered how much of Toph's words were false bravado. "Your chi paths look good. The energy is flowing normally—"
"See! I told you; right as rain."
"—but I think you should take it easy for awhile. There's still so much even I don't know about energy. The strain has taken quite a toll on your body, and I want to make sure there are no unpleasant side effects."
"Are you saying you won't let me fight?" Toph cried, bolting upright.
"I'm sorry, Toph. I think that's best."
"But I feel fine! I shouldn't even be in this bed!"
Katara had to admit that Toph did look fine, healthy even. "Look, Toph. I don't even know what this Min did to you. If she really manipulated your energy, there's no telling what might happen." She sat back, folding her hands in her lap, and her face grew serious. Have you even tried bending yet?"
"Bending is rooted in your energy. The original benders didn't manipulate elements, but energy itself. It's changed through time to the four basic elements, but our ability to bend still resides in our energy. That's how Aang was able to take away Ozai's firebending."
Icicles formed in Toph's blood stream. "Are you saying..." She swallowed hard. "That woman– she might have taken my bending away?" Her voice grew shrill in panic. "Wouldn't I notice that?"
Katara bit her lip. "I don't know, Toph. Energy –" She shook her head. "There's still so much I don't understand."
Toph sat upright. Inside, her body raged from hot to frozen in seconds. She swung her legs over the blankets and rested her toes on the earth floors. Please. Please, let me feel.
Her heart thudded so loud in her ears, she felt nothing with her feet. Was it possible that the greatest earthbending master in the world had just lost her bending ability?
Her heart skipped a beat and she realized that the noise was twice as loud as it should be. She heard it inside of her, but she also felt it thudding through her own vibrations into her toes.
She almost laughed with relief. But the sharp cold panic still had not left her. She just had to make sure. Beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Wriggling her toes into the dirt, Toph probed her gut for the familiar tug of the earth and she grasped hold of it. Tightening her fist around the feeling, Toph raised her hand.
Even before Katara clapped with delight, Toph was smiling. To her embarrassment, she even felt a tear track down her cheek. Because she could feel the earth, answering her call.
Shoving the dirt unceremoniously back into place, Toph clapped her hands. "So, everything's all good here! When's the fight?"
Katara smirked. "Nice try, but you're still on bed rest."
"Aw, come on!"
But Katara would border no argument. She eased –forced– Toph back into bed, tucking her down with a blanket.
"I didn't think it was possible," Toph sulked from beneath the covers, "But in your condition, you're even more motherly than usual."
It wasn't intended to be a compliment, but Katara beamed.
"Oh, stop sulking, Toph. Missing one fight won't kill you."
Toph grumble unprintable threats for a moment before saying, "I'd just like to give her a little payback."
A dark cloud descended upon the room at the mere idea of Min. Though she had never seen the woman, Min had taken up a black image in Katara's mind and she felt that shadowy presence crawl over her skin. She shook her head and, in banishing the thought, she found another, happier one.
A mischievous grin sprang to Katara's lips. "Cheer up. I'm sure Haru will keep an eye on you."
Toph faked a yawn and ducked under the covers to hide the blush she felt creeping over her cheeks. "Haru?" she asked innocently.
Katara laughed. "Come on," she teased. "How many times has he been to visit you?"
Toph didn't reply.
Katara's grin grew wider. "Once? Twice? Every five minutes?"
From beneath the blankets came the muffled reply.
The playful grin slipped down. She couldn't have heard right. "What was that?"
Toph threw the blanket off in exasperation. "He hasn't, alright?"
"Really?" Katara blinked, dumbfounded.
Toph snorted. "I guess he's still upset. About...things."
"I have a bone to pick with you."
"Oh?" Haru asked, amused. "And why's that?"
Katara glanced about to see if there was anyone else within earshot before leaning in. "You haven't been to see Toph. Not even once."
All signs of amusement quickly dropped from Haru's face. He became immensely engrossed in his task of pulling weeds. There were a lot of them on the farm and, like the Faceless set about the task, he needed something to occupy his mind and hands. "So? I've been busy. There's a lot to do, you know."
Katara snorted. Even Haru knew it was a weak excuse.
"You wouldn't leave her side when I was healing her. I should know; you got in my way more than once."
Haru made no reply. Pull, toss; pull, toss.
"She didn't know that, Haru."
He blanched. Shoulders stiffening, Haru whipped round to seize hold of her arm with surprising force. "You didn't tell her, did you?"
Katara took a step back. "No. No, I didn't, Haru. I thought you should be the one to do that."
Releasing her arm, Haru drew a breath of relief. He turned back to his task, shaking his head. "No. I don't think so."
Katara scowled at him. "Why not?" She stamped her foot, taken aback by her own impatience. "You like her, don't you?"
She expected one of two answers from him. Either a blatant rejection, which meant he really was in love with Toph, or a laugh, which could have gone either way.
Instead, he remained silent.
Her frown deepened. What was the matter with him? "You were obviously worried about her, Haru. Very worried. But the instant she was out of danger, you left. Why?"
Color slowly shaded his cheeks in embarrassment. "I didn't want her to know."
"Oh." Katara shook her head with a smile. Everything was beginning to make sense now. "You're afraid she doesn't feel the same way."
Haru's fumbling fingers returned to their work, yanking the weeds out and flinging them onto the communal pile. "No."
Katara only watched him, her puzzlement scrawled like lines on a parchment.
Haru sighed, turned to look Katara full in the face. "I left because... I might have feelings for Toph. But I don't plan on telling her."
Katara blinked. After a moment, she blurted out, "That sounds like the stupidest thing you could do!"
He managed a chuckle, but his eyes were dark.
Katara shook her head, trying to understand just what was going on in his head. She took the seat across from him. "Why not, Haru? If you don't tell her, there's no way she'll ever know."
Katara cocked her head.
Again, Haru sighed. "I just... I don't think any kind of relationship between me and Toph is possible right now."
Katara laughed softly. "You'll never know until you ask her. I know she's kind of scary, but she might surprise you."
"That's not what I'm afraid of, Katara," Haru said, his voice quiet and grave.
Rejection wasn't what he feared? Any hope that Haru was held back by some silly misunderstanding vanished.
"She might react okay if I told her; she might tell me to hit the road. But if she did...like what I had to say, what then?"
"People would usually consider that a victory, Haru."
Haru managed a small smile. "Maybe. But with us..." He shook his head. "I just don't think a relationship with us would last."
Even as he spoke the words, Haru was hit by the realization of how sincerely he felt it.
"Haru, that's not fair," Katara said. "You can't hold yourself back just because you're afraid something might not work out."
"That's just it, Katara. This isn't some niggling doubt. I can see it in my head, right now. If Toph and I were in a relationship, it wouldn't last long. It would explode. I don't want to put myself through that."
And if Toph and I are ever in a relationship, he realized, I want it to last.
"She's strong and stubborn, and I'm learning that one of the things in this world that really irritates me is someone who won't admit when their wrong."
Katara grimaced. She understood that, at least.
"Toph doesn't like to back down, and that's a good quality in her. But she also likes to be right, and those two together..."
"Not a great combination," Katara agreed.
"When I realized she was trying to change my mind about going back to the village, it infuriated me. Maybe more than it should have. But it wasn't just because she thought I was wrong. She was so certain she was right that she tried to change my mind without me even realizing it. Without even telling me why she thought I was making a mistake."
He heaved a heavy sigh. "She's stubborn, and she likes that. She doesn't want to change, Katara, but that's the only way I see that it can work. And I don't know of a way to ask her to without making things worse." He shook his head. "What does it even matter? After this is all over, I'll go back to my village, and she'll go back to the Academy. Nothing's going to change that."
Katara opened her mouth to encourage him, but she realized she had no words. What did she tell him? What kind of advice did she give him?
After a long moment, she squeezed his hand. "Be careful, Haru."
Surprise sparked in his eyes. "That isn't at all what I expected you to say."
She smiled and shrugged. "This is your decision. Just one thing: promise me you aren't making up excuses. Promise me you're not just afraid of a relationship, that you really don't think this could work. I don't want you to wind up alone and miserable."
Haru returned her smile with a sad one of his own. "I promise, Katara. It's not cold feet. I really don't think it would work, and I don't want to put either of us through that."
"Do you think it will ever be possible? Someday?"
Haru laughed. "I don't know, Katara. Maybe. If she –well, if both of us are willing to change."
Katara sighed. Her disappointment was obvious, but then she didn't try very hard to hide it. "All right, then." She gave his hand a final squeeze and rose. "I promise I won't tell Toph. I just hope you know what you're doing."
That made him smile as she walked away. I hope so, too.
A muffled shout from some distance brought Hoo to attention. He peered cautiously over his perch on the wall. Just as he opened his mouth to cry 'Who goes there?', he recognized the figures hurrying toward him as Firelord Zuko and Avatar Aang. But their steps were haggard, and between them they carried a heavy and cumbersome burden.
"Open the gates!" Hoo shouted down below. "The Firelord's returned. Open the gates now!"
He watched the flurry of motion as soldiers rushed to unbar the gate and heave it open.
"Wei," he called to his friend, in a voice as quiet and coherent as he could manage. "Get Katara."
Zuko and Aang stumble into camp, carrying Jeong Jeong between them. The soldiers quickly parted to give them room, staggering back when they caught sight of the Admiral's wounds.
They lay Jeong Jeong down on the grass just as Katara rushed from the farmhouse, a soldier on her heels.
She crouched down beside the old man to examine his wounds. "What happened?"
Zuko collapsed to the ground, unable to take his eyes from his injured friend, almost unable to move. Aang had the opposite problem. He paced frantically, beside, behind and between the soldiers. Back and forth with quick steps, stammering.
"They attacked. They were never going to release those men. He just wanted to hear what we had." He clasped his head in his hands, eyes wild with panic. "And then Azula attacked—"
"Aang." Katara looked up at him, her blue eyes even brighter through her glistening tears.
A crowd had gathered and a wave of terror rippled through them at the sadness in her voice.
Katara caressed the old Admiral's face. A lone tear trickled down her cheek as she reached up and closed his eyes for the last time.
"I'm so sorry, Zuko," she whispered. "He's gone."
Zuko did not answer. He sat at the foot of his long-time mentor, his face buried in his hands like an ostrich horse with his head in the sand against the reality of a predator. Friends and family gather around, the still quiet of shock unnerving. He felt Mai's arms wrap around him, his children's hands slipping into his, trembling with tiny sobs.
"What happened?" Sokka asked softly.
"They didn't want to hear about Koh," Aang said. "They wouldn't listen to me."
Zuko finally raised his head. "I told you it wouldn't work, Aang."
Aang sighed. "I know, but—"
"Why didn't you listen?" Zuko cried, the rage and pain finding an escape through his frustration. "I told you it wouldn't do any good, now Jeong Jeong is dead, and Captain Jee is still a prisoner!"
Aang took a step back, dumbfounded. "Zuko..." Defiance sparked in his eyes, and he stood taller. "Ozai is still a person, no matter what he's done, and deserves a chance. I had to warn him."
Zuko scoffed. "He's already wasted more chances than he deserved."
"Stop," Mai said gently. Around them she could feel the shock and tension of their audience. She squeezed Zuko's hand. "You know this isn't Aang's fault."
When Zuko did not respond, Mai frowned. She took his face and turned him toward her.
"It was meant for me," Zuko whispered. "Azula was trying to kill me."
Mai stroked his cheek. "Jeong Jeong knew what he was doing, Zuko. He knew the risks, just as you do. Now it's time to honor him."
A surge of rebellion ripped through Zuko. He couldn't acknowledge this. Acknowledgement meant acceptance, and acceptance meant that his friend and teacher truly was dead.
Zuko shook himself. Denial was a fool's course, and Jeong Jeong taught him better than that.
Mai stepped aside, drawing the children with her and into the waiting arms of their grandmother.
On trembling knees, Zuko stood. "Aang. Will you help me carry him in?"
Aang swallowed back the lump in his throat. "It would be my honor."
The two friends gently lifted the body of their companion, the others following behind in a solemn procession. Kaori cleared a space in the farmhouse and Teya laid out a blanket. It would not be his final resting place. Zuko vowed to return his friend to the mainland, for a proper burial among his surrogate family, Rozen and Alana, but for now, Jeong Jeong lay as if in peaceful slumber before his friends.
You may have us outnumbered, but you're definitely outclassed.
When Si Yung said those words, he'd meant them. But now, looking out at the size of Ozai's army and remembering their own small numbers, a hollow doubt opened up, gnawing the pit of his gut.
He tried to bolster his confidence with the remembrance of the last time Ozai was defeated. Then, it had been his entire army against four individuals. Surely they could beat those odds?
But one of those people had been the Avatar. And they'd also had surprise on their side. It's easy to confuse an army by sneaking onto their vessel and dumping them into an ocean. Harder to use that particular tactic when your enemy knew exactly where you were.
"What's the long face for, Corporal?"
Si Yung managed a smile. He wondered how Jee kept his head up. It was as if the Captain refused to even entertain the possibility of defeat.
"Just contemplating our odds, sir," he admitted. His frown grew darker. "Do you –do you think we have a chance?"
One of their guards snickered. The Loyal had upgraded their armor from the distinct Fire Nation colors to the more ostentatious gold of the Phoenix King. Sunlight bounced painfully off the bright color, all along the beach.
Jee ignored him. He shot the corporal a cheeky wink, which seemed most out of character for the captain. "As long as we've got hope, there's always a chance."
As if in reply to his words, a sudden cry went up along the beach. The cries picked up speed and volume as they spread through the camp.
Si Yung's heart leapt. Was it an attack? Had someone come to their rescue?
But no, the soldiers were pointing up into the sky.
Jee and Si Yung craned their necks upwards –and their hearts plummeted in dismay.
The guard laughed outright. "What do you think of your odds now, traitor?"
Staring up at the glistening belly of the airship, Jee knew they were bad.
A smile graced the Phoenix King's face at the sight of the airship coming to anchor off the shore. It hung suspended over the water and, with the forest between them, he knew Zuko would not have witnessed its arrival.
"Excellent." He turned to Admiral Liang. "And here I thought you said an airship was unattainable?"
The Admiral blanched. "My humblest apologies, Phoenix King. I did not believe it was so."
Ozai chuckled. "That is why I did not send you. To accomplish a mission, you must have faith that you will succeed."
"If I may, Your Majesty... How did you manage it?"
The Phoenix King smiled, and the cold sight sent chills through the Admiral.
"I sent someone with faith."
Toph heard the commotion in the yard. Since no one was around to satisfy her curiosity, she decided to prove to Katara she needed no more rest and staggered out to investigate.
She wished she would have stayed in bed. Even from a distance, and through the chaos of stampeding feet, she knew what had happened. Zuko was obviously devastated, but Toph was surprised when she saw Ty Lee break away from the crowd in a storm of tears.
Without quite realizing it, Toph started after her. By the time her mind had woken enough to question her actions, she had already found Ty Lee, shivering and crying against the back of the farmhouse. "Are you okay?"
Ty Lee jumped, yelping and hiccoughing in surprise. Her tear-soaked eyes stared up at Toph, and the pure terror there sent a chill of fright through Toph.
"They killed him," Ty Lee whispered, and Toph knew even as she spoke the words they still had not fully registered. "Even though it was a truce meeting, they– they—" A sob of panic caught her voice. She buried her face in her arms.
Toph's eyes were wide, stunned. "I-I'm sorry, Ty Lee. I had no idea you two were so close."
This activated a fresh bout of tears from the pretty acrobat. Words squeaked between the sobs, but it was a while before Toph could make anything out.
"...horrible –I'm such a horrible person!"
Horrible? The acrobat was ditzy, a little self-absorbed, and too focused on boys, but that didn't make her horrible. "What are you talking about, Ty Lee? You're not horrible."
A sob hiccoughed from the acrobat. "Yes I am!" she wailed. "Jeong Jeong's dead and it's horrible and—" Another sob hitched her voice. "–and I'm not even crying for him!"
Toph frowned. A weight of dread plunged into her stomach. She didn't know what the acrobat was crying for, but somehow her heart did.
Usually, Toph avoided sickly emotional situations. But she couldn't leave Ty Lee's side. Something compelled her to sit beside her, and even take her hand.
Ty Lee clutched at the offered comfort. She lay against Toph's shoulder and cried. Cried with all her strength, the panic and woe racking her body. The intensity of emotion surprised Toph. She'd always thought the acrobat silly, and overpowering emotions sissy. But she learned a new word for them now. Powerful.
As Ty Lee's sobs began to peter out, Toph knew she had to ask. "Why were you crying?"
Fresh tears stung at her eyes, but Ty Lee bit back her sobs. "It's Si Yung."
Toph frowned. "One of the guys Ozai caught?"
Ty Lee squeezed her eyes shut, tears escaping past her lashes. She nodded. "I didn't think– I've been trying to–" The words wouldn't come and she shook her head. Opening her eyes, she looked into Toph's unseeing ones. "If Ozai was willing to have Jeong Jeong killed during a truce of battle, what hope is there for Si Yung? What if he's already dead?" Ty Lee's voice grew very quiet. "What hope is there for me?"
Realization hit like a ton of bricks. "You weren't lying before," Toph realized. "You're in love with Si Yung, aren't you?"
"Thinking about a pretty girl?" Jee needled, wincing at the cuts on his face. The arrival of the airship hadn't dampened the Captain's good humor. In fact, it only strengthened it.
Si Yung chuckled. "I was just thinking– I'd tell her, right now, if I could, how much I like her."
Jee smiled. "Young love. You never know, maybe she's thinking about you, too."
"It might just pull you through."
Two soldiers guarded them now that Tao had retreated for other duties. Si Yung, with great effort, forced his body to obey commands and lifted his head to confirm the soldiers paid them no mind.
"Why are we still alive, Cap?" he whispered. "By now they must know we won't tell them anything."
"Can't kill us," the Captain replied with a grin. "What a waste, if the world never saw these handsome mugs again."
Si Yung smiled, but it hurt. He wished the Captain would be serious. But maybe Jee knew that life had become a temporary thing. Perhaps he was only trying to distract him from the fact that they had become no longer useful.
Si Yung closed his eyes. There was a girl of late. A girl he thought he might like to know better. What do you say, Ty Lee? he thought, picturing her brilliant smile. Will you pull me through this?
The dissatisfaction of the Faceless only increased. Already they were aware they might be in some kind of danger, but now a man was dead, and the sight of his savagely burned torso beckoned panic.
As Zuko and Aang and the others laid their friend to rest, the Faceless gathered outside.
It wasn't a planned gathering –no underlying intent to rise up– only the need to be close to one another, to feel the presence of others among the uncertainty and panic. As the Faceless, touch had been the relied upon sense, and for these poor souls, it would remain the most important of all.
They huddled together for comfort, whispering of the mystery of their fate. Fear grew to anger, and anger clamored through them.
They waited for someone to emerge from the house, someone to answer their questions. But the mourners wished to pay their last respects and did not return.
"Why are they keeping us here?" Someone demanded. "If there is danger, why won't they let us flee?"
"Perhaps they do not want us free," someone whispered.
Panic greeted this thought. "What if they will never let us leave?"
The anger among them turned black as rebellious thoughts sprang to mind.
Haru looked about for Zuko, Aang, anyone to calm the Faceless before they turned on them in fear. But there was no one.
No one but him.
Springing atop one of the earthen tables, Haru cried, "Stop!"
The Faceless paused. The ripple of rage deadened in their surprise.
Haru swallowed hard. Good, he'd gotten their attention. Now what?
"Please calm down. No one is trying to hold you here against your will." His voice wasn't as strong or steady as it might have been, but it seemed to carry.
A reedy man stepped forward. "How can we know that for sure?"
How, indeed? "It– it isn't safe–" Haru began.
"Not safe for you, perhaps," the reedy man shot back, "But what about for us? We have no quarrel with your enemy. What should we fear?"
"Trust me, Ozai won't care if you've made yourself his enemy." Haru's eyes darkened, thinking back to the beach. "If he even suspects you'll oppose him, he'll be after you. That's why no one is leaving this farm."
"For how long?" Someone demanded. "We can't stay here forever. You've already said we don't have any food."
Haru sighed. "Look, this confrontation is going to end, tonight. One way or another."
If he thought this news might comfort the Faceless, he was very wrong. 'One way or another' added a finality –an uncertain fate in this time of confusion– that drove his words home.
The Faceless took up a cry of protest that rang through the Forest. Soldiers scurried in from their posts to investigate the commotion. They attempted to silence them with false assurances and bravado.
A woman pushed through the crowd, closer to Haru's soapbox, panic etched in her eyes.
"How can we trust you? You won't even be honest with us about what happened, where we are, or how we came to be here. And now you tell us we're going to die?" She turned away from Haru. "It is cruel, sir."
Haru stepped down from the table. Taking her hand in his, he said, "You're not going to die."
Her tear-streaked face gazed up at him. "I only want to see my family. It seems so long since I've– I can hardly remember their faces."
An unsettling shift in Haru's gut greeted these words. "What's your name?"
"Nini–" Haru hesitated. But he swallowed hard and continued. "Nini, what year do you remember?"
The woman frowned. "It was... Yes, it was 108."
It was probably a stupid question, but he knew the dread wouldn't leave until he asked. "Before Sozin's Comet or after?"
Nini's hand went very still in his. Tears coursed anew from her eyes, though she was not certain why.
"What is Sozin's Comet, sir?"
Stillness once again had overtaken them as the possible implications crept over before actual comprehension, and the whisper carried like a scream to each and every one of them. In that instant they knew, whatever had happened to them, time was not a factor. If this woman did not know of the Comet, then how long had she been trapped? How long had they all been trapped?
As her hand fell limp, Haru wrapped it tight in his. "Nini," he said, and now his voice –at least for her– came like a sturdy lifeline in an ocean of despair. "I promise that we will get you out of here. I know that the Firelord and the Avatar won't rest until you're safe. Until all of you are safe," he added, looking out at the others.
Haru's own heart ached with sorrow for them, and so he did not see in his own despair that his words actually broke through theirs with a glimmer of hope. He did not see that they stood taller, that their heads rose high and their eyes burned with determination.
And he did not see, at the back of the crowd, that Toph had appeared and stood feeling and listening to his effect on them all.
"We will make certain that you are returned to your homelands, to find your remaining families. You will not be forgotten," Haru said, squeezing Nini's hand. "Not if I can help it."
When Haru looked out, he was surprised at the intensity of their attention.
"I know it's hard," he said. "But I need you to stay strong and to stay calm. We will survive this, but only together."
"Wow," Wei muttered, pausing beside Toph and Ty Lee. "I thought for sure we were going to have a riot. But look at them."
Toph didn't have to see with her eyes to know that with just his few heartfelt words, Haru had calmed the rising beast.
"That was amazing," Ty Lee breathed.
Though she suspected Ty Lee might still be playing at her matchmaking game to cheer herself up, Toph had to agree with her.
"You're right. Huh. I guess he is pretty good at this."
Toph remained there after the others left, feeling the motion of the crowd as they came to speak with Haru. She felt both the devastation and the joy as each learned what year it was. And she felt in Haru a strange calm. There was no pounding heart now, among these people, only a steady, confident beat.
The moments passed quickly and yet stretched for an age. The friends laid their fallen comrade to rest, passing a few moments with him in silence before grudgingly slipping from the room, leaving Jeong Jeong to death.
They stood together in the large front room of the house. They shared no words, only a few unabashed tears, as they forced themselves to accept the hand fate had dealt them.
It was the commotion wrought by the Faceless in the yard that finally drew them back into reality.
Sokka peered out the window.
"What's going on?" Katara asked, wiping her eyes.
"Not sure," her brother replied. "But it looks like Haru's got it under control."
He retreated from the window, returning to his position among his friends. Katara, exhausted, sat on the blankets that had been Toph's bed; Aang stood in the middle of the room, back straight, affixed to no support; Zuko leaned heavily against the wall, Mai's hand in his.
The rest of the mourners had petered out some time ago. Lady Ursa had taken her grandchildren outside to dry their tears. They had said goodbye to the old Admiral they had known their entire lives but, like Mai, Ursa knew that the presence of death was no place for children.
"This must end."
Zuko's words broke through the awkward silence that reality had brought with it.
"Great," Sokka said. "But how?"
"We need to disrupt the anchor," Aang replied. "The passage has already begun to take place –I can feel it forming– even if it isn't built yet. The anchor is connected to both worlds. If we can disrupt it before the passage is set, we should be able to stop Koh from manifesting in this world so permanently."
"Sounds like a plan," Sokka cried, clapping his hands together. "Just one question: Where is this anchor?"
It was Zuko who replied. "The only place we know where there's someone who can form such a passage."
"Right." Sokka glanced about to see if anyone else was as lost as he was. "Who would be...?"
"Min," Katara said. "Aang says that the anchors are created by connecting something or someone to both our world and the Spirit World, not just physically, but spiritually. That's almost exactly what happened to Toph."
Suki frowned. "You think Min wanted to use her as an anchor?"
"No," Aang answered. "Katara only means the acts were alike. However Min managed it, she manipulated Toph's energy. A person's energy is their essence, their life force. It's also the source of their bending. It is neither spiritual, nor physical, but instead lies somewhere between. Min forced them together and, by doing so, tainted them. That's what she's going to do with our world."
A cold silence settled over the room as his words sank in.
"Ozai is almost ready," Zuko said, after a moment. "I could see it in his eyes. He can almost taste victory. That means we have to move fast."
He exchanged a quick glance with the Avatar.
"Aang and I have an idea, but..." Zuko sighed. "It's a long shot."
"Is it true, Corporal?"
Wei turned at the familiar voice, realizing he was not surprised to hear it. Lieutenant Ling stood at his shoulder, face worn and concerned.
"Are you really going to attack?"
"Yes, sir," Wei replied, knowing what was coming. He, along with most of his battalion, were preparing to move out. Their orders were to scout ahead and make camp along the edge of the forest to ensure the enemy made no surprise attack against the farm. They were to lie low and quiet. But they were also to make an effort to be observed doing so.
"And the Faceless are all to stay behind?" Ling asked, clenching his fists until his knuckles bleached.
Wei sighed. "I'm sorry, sir. But those are the orders."
"Why?" Ling demanded. "Do you not trust us?"
"That's not it, sir," Wei protested. "You've been through an ordeal, and we still don't know how it might have affected you. The Firelord doesn't want to place any of you in a dangerous situation–"
"The Firelord ought to know that we deserve to fight alongside him!"
"The Firelord," came Zuko's voice from behind the surprised lieutenant, "Will not have so many people who have just escaped captivity take such a risk."
Wei and Ling dipped their heads in a quick bow of reverence, the lieutenant's face brightening to the color of a beet.
"What if," Ling dared, "They are willing to take that risk, Your Majesty?"
Zuko examined him. "What's your name, lieutenant?"
"I understand, Ling. But there's no telling what kind of long-term effects such an...experience might have had on you. I'd like all of the Faceless to stay behind, where it's safe. I think you've been through enough already."
"But it's my duty, sir!" Ling protested.
Zuko smiled at him. "For now, you'll have to be content protecting the others here. There's no guarantee we can keep our enemies away, so we still need precautions. Are you up for it?"
"As you command, Your Majesty," the lieutenant managed, though the words caught in his clenched jaw.
Zuko knew his frustration. "After this is over," he said, "When we return, we'll have you examined and reinstated as quickly as possible."
Ling mumbled his thanks in a bow. As the Firelord walked away, the lieutenant watched.
He means if we get back, he realized.
"We need to fortify the barn," Sokka said, taking instant command of the situation.
"What happened to the idea of taking the fight to them?" Kaori asked. "Has the Firelord's decided to hole up here?"
"No, sir!" Hoo cried hotly. "The Firelord does not 'hole up'."
"It's for the others," Sokka explained. "Not everyone is going to fight. The Firelord's children will remain, along with all of the Faceless."
"None of them are willing to fight?" Kaori queried.
"We haven't asked," Sokka said patiently. "Aang is concerned about the effects their long time captivity may have. He doesn't think it's wise to bring them into a battle."
Kaori gave a curt nod. "Alright then, I've got something even better than the barn in mind. Follow me."
Curious, Sokka and Wei diligently tagged after the Caretaker, to the back of the house. The old man crouched down. He pounded a few times on the lower side of the house, and heaved upward with a heavy grunt.
"Well?" he asked, sitting back on his haunches, wiping the sweat from his twinkling eyes. "What do you think?"
Sokka grinned. "I like it. I like it very much. Hoo, go find Toph. I saw her milling around earlier. Tell her we've got a job for her, if she's up for it."
"Ho, ho, ho!" Toph cried in delight as her toes touched metal. "That's quite a bunker, Kaori."
The Caretaker shrugged. "My family built it when the villagers first learned of the Faceless. They feared an uprising."
She wagged a finger at him. "You sneaky little blighter." Cracking her knuckles, Toph set to work. The bunker was a nice hidey hole converted from a cellar beneath the house, but it was amateurish. Not even built by earthbenders. There were weak areas to be fortified and leaks to be fixed. In a pinch, it would fit several dozen bodies, but it wouldn't be comfortable.
Pacing the length and breadth of the bunker, Toph ran calculations through her head. She tapped her toes, clicked her heels against the earth, and knocked against the dirt walls.
"I can expand it," she said finally. "If I put up a few pillars, I won't even bring the house down."
A choked gasp echoed from the other side of the room, and Toph grinned. She would have paid twenty gold pieces to see the look on Kaori's face right then.
"I really don't think you should be doing this." Oh, so Katara had showed up to hover in the doorway, fretting as always.
"Relax, Mother Hen," Toph said, as she began compacting the dirt in the walls for a sturdier enclosure. "I feel fine."
Okay, maybe she was exaggerating. As she outlined the pillars within the soon-to-be-moved walls, she did feel a little lightheaded. But it was nothing really. And this needed doing.
She clapped her hands, satisfied to feel the dirt fly from them into her face. Time to get to work. Assuming a sturdy stance, Toph called on her bending abilities and pushed.
The wall beyond trembled. Dust and small clods of earth fell from the ceiling above. But the wall did not move back.
Growling, Toph pushed harder. The wall quaked. The bunker shook. From the open doorway drifted the shouts of alarm from up above.
"Are you sure this is safe?" Kaori croaked.
Sweat pored down Toph's neck. The tug of the earth in her gut was being stubborn. Usually, she had only to coax it, but she pushed hard against it now, and it barely budged.
"You know, if you're not up to this," Sokka said, "we could get Haru."
Toph ignored him. She pushed once more, with all her might, and the wall obligingly jerked back.
Now thoroughly caked in dirt, Toph grinned. "See? That wasn't so hard."
However, much to her dismay, the longer she worked, the harder it became. She was obliged to take a couple of breathers during her efforts. A few times the vibrations around her swayed and meshed in an uncertain pattern. She was certain she would black out any moment, but somehow always managed to retain her feet.
She finished without incident, even if her breath was haggard and her head was pounding.
"Looks great, Toph!" Sokka beamed as he examined his shiny new toy.
"Great," she wheezed. "Glad you like it." Toph wiped her sweating brow. She staggered toward the exit and stumbled.
Strong hands were ready to catch her. "You could use some rest," Katara said.
This time, Toph didn't protest. She was just glad Katara didn't say 'I told you so.'
"War Minister Qin. I'm so glad you could make it."
The airship's commander bowed low before the Phoenix King.
"I see you managed to procure a prize."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Qin said, unable to hide his triumphant smile. "She is the pride of the Firelord's fleet."
Ozai examined the airship from the ground, and as the sun glittered off its sides, he smiled. "And now she is the pride of the Phoenix King's."
"As it should be, Your Majesty. Soon, it will be flanked by a dozen more. Have you the materials I requested?"
"They are waiting for you," Ozai replied. "Although it seems we won't need them as quickly as I first surmised."
"The Firelord is here, War Minister."
Qin coughed in surprise. "That is –that is extraordinary news, Your Majesty!"
"Indeed. When we are through here, we shall return as victors to Capital Island. And after the Firelord's demise, the rest of his fleet will be easily claimed."
Ozai noted the bead of sweat trickle down the War Minister's brow. Qin was not a brave man. His brain and his inventions made him invaluable, but he would just as soon not see his devices in action. "You should be glad, War Minister. This has just made your job easier."
The War Minister dipped his head once more. "Of course, Your Majesty. I am merely stunned. Such fortune –it is fate indeed that the Phoenix King returns to his throne."
"Yes," Ozai agreed, and it seemed to him that Fate cast a brilliant glow on him, like a spotlight. "Tell me, War Minister, were you able to convince your brother?"
The happy look faded from Qin's face, replaced by a dark cloud. "Unfortunately not, my lord. I was forced to...neutralize him."
"A pity. You have my sympathies, War Minister. It is never easy to leave behind those who do not see the tide shifting."
Qin nodded, the dark cloud weighing on his eyes.
"And there was no further incident during your mission?"
"No, Your Majesty," the War Minister replied. "I was able to gather what few Loyal remained in the Capital, along with my own men." A gleam shone in Qin's eye. "That reminds me, my lord. I believe I have found a way to enhance the reach of the navy's trebuchets. My mechanics are prepared to make the proper adjustments to your entire fleet. If it pleases the Phoenix King, perhaps you would like to demonstrate this new advantage to the Firelord before his demise.
Ozai's smile broadened. "It pleases me very much, War Minister Qin. You have done well."
Qin bowed deep as the Phoenix King departed. As those last words echoed around his head, the War Minister released a breath of relief.
- Phew! I really didn't think this chapter would be ready in time. Guess there's something to be said about a nose to the grindstone work ethic. Definitely something to look into, folks.
- Despite the death of Jeong Jeong, this turned out to be a very Toph and Haru centric chapter. Hmm. Sorry about that, Admiral. For this reason –having both the death of a character and such a common, everyday struggle between two others– I decided to call the chapter 'Life and Death'.
- Again, I realize that the BG/AG isn't used accurately, considering the year Nini disappeared wouldn't have been called 108 in her time, because there was nothing to count down to at that point. But, since I already used this illogically before, I figured I might as well be consistent. ;)
- Fruipit has just pointed out that my subconscious is more of a fangirl than I am. Two unintentional references:
- "Ozai is still a person, no matter what he's done, and deserves a chance." -Doctor Who
- "What a waste, if the world never saw these handsome mugs again." -Firefly
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