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August 21, 2012
Previously in Air
The leaders of the Guild are keeping a lot of things under wraps, including the knowledge and identity of two traitors within the organization, and some of the rebels are growing impatient with the secretive policy. Zuko's control is deteriorating, and Aang finally received word from Toph with a location where they can meet her.
Chapter Thirty-One: Nothing
"I'm getting really sick of all this waiting. You told me this group actually did things."
"Hello to you, too," Jomei said with a smile.
Lee was lounging outside of Garrow's tent. There wasn't much else to do. Some people practiced bending or fighting, but Lee wasn't a bender and the guy who'd been teaching him a few fighting techniques was busy with other pupils.
Lee didn't bother opening his eyes. "Haven't seen you for a few days."
"Sorry," Jomei said, "I've been a little busy."
"Scheming more super secret top priority plans?" Lee asked ruefully.
Jomei chuckled. "You're not still sore about that, are you?"
"I'm not sore," Lee insisted petulantly; "I'm waiting."
"Well the waiting's almost over."
Lee cracked one eye open.
Jomei grinned at him. "You ready to do something?"
He took Lee to his father's tent. Tani was there waiting for them. He nodded grimly at Lee.
"What's going on?" Lee asked, glancing uncertainly between the two.
Father and son exchanged glances, but it was Jomei who spoke up. "There are traitors in our midst, Lee."
"Traitors?" Lee repeated incredulously. His heart raced. Could it be? "Who?"
Tani grunted. "Nguyen and Po."
Lee started. "But...but aren't they supposed to be head honchos or something?"
"By design, apparently," Jomei said. "I already told you they were never quite as dedicated to the cause. Now it seems they never believed in the cause to begin with. Some time ago, they approached our General with a proposition, a good one. That is how they influenced their way into the Guild."
Tani nodded. "But they are no longer trustworthy. The General wants them dealt with. For that, we need your help."
Lee frowned. "Why me? What can I do?"
Jomei cocked his head. "You're not the only person we'll ask, Lee. It will take a number of supporters to bring them down."
"If you're willing, lad," Tani said gravely, "That will be enough."
Lee considered. "How will you do it?"
Jomei smiled. "Unexpectedly. They don't yet realize that we know their allegiances lie elsewhere."
"And they won't," Tani cut in. "Not until it's too late. With enough man-power, we should be able to force the traitors to surrender. For that, we need men."
"We're only looking at the most trustworthy people, Lee," Jomei said. "You're near the top of that list."
A wolfish grin slowly spread across Lee's face. "Well I'd hate to disappoint. What's the plan?"
Aang lifted his finger and a small column of earth rose instantly at his bidding. He felt the comfortable tremor in his gut when the earth reacted to his bending, the solidity of his connection with the ground. He lowered the finger, and the rock sank back.
Aang and Zuko were camped in a small valley. It was filled with tall, brittle grass and hemmed in by the foothills of a mountain. They had come here directly, as per Toph's instructions. They had waited two days already, but still Toph did not appear.
Aang wasn't really worried about her. She wasn't the most punctual person on earth, and she could look after herself besides. No, right now all his worries rested on himself and Zuko.
To pass the time, the two friends dueled. They had practiced that afternoon and Aang's growing suspicions had been confirmed. Zuko was slipping. His fire had become volatile and unpredictable and the Firelord struggled to control it.
He was meditating now, and Aang glanced at him. Tiny flames hovered over each of his palms. The idea was to keep the fire steady, but they flickered and sputtered.
Aang's frown darkened. Zuko was not the only one with problems. He closed his eyes, remembering that moment of their duel when the wild blast of fire shot toward him. In his mind's eye, he reacted once more, calling on the earth for a shield. But when he had reached for that part of him that remained forever connected to the earth and disciplined strictly by the council of jing, he felt nothing. An empty void.
Again, he felt himself falter.
The fire sprang at Aang, scorching his face. He reacted instinctively, grabbing at the air and spinning it into a shield. The force of the wind dissipated the flame. When the fire died, Aang stumbled to his knees, his mind racing.
Blinking, stunned, Aang looked up at Zuko.
The Firelord stared at his own hands as though they belonged to someone else. There was panic and horror etched in his eyes.
"It's fine," Aang had assured him quickly. Right now, he needed Zuko to remain calm. To be Zuko. "Everything's all right."
Even as the lie slipped from his lips, he tried again, frantically, to connect to the earth. It remained beyond his reach.
Zuko slowly shook his head. "No. I don't think it is."
Now, watching his friend meditate, Aang couldn't agree more. He tugged at the earth again, just to assure himself, and was only partially satisfied when it bent effortlessly to his will.
He had been severed from the earth. The connection was only lost for a moment, quickly regained, but a remnant of that void lingered in his spirit.
And the shadow haunting his mind seemed to be laughing at him.
There was no doubt now that the feeling was getting much, much worse. He should leave. He should keep his promise to Katara and go in search of an answer; visit the Spirit World, perhaps, or talk to Kuei about getting access to any ancient records.
Aang glanced again at Zuko. The fire in the Firelord's palms wavered, nearly vanished, then burst with a sudden energy that threatened to ignite the grass around him. Zuko's frown of concentration had gradually grown into a hideous scowl as he fought to maintain control.
Aang closed his eyes. Breathed deep. Concentrated.
He should leave. But he couldn't. Zuko needed him. Ever since Ba Sing Se, Aang had known he was struggling. He knew Zuko would fight to keep it all inside, but how long would he manage? And Aang was afraid what his friend might do –what the Firelord would do– if his resurfacing rage got the best of him. Wasn't that also part of Aang's duty as the Avatar, to act as a mediator between the nations, to keep them at peace?
"I don't think they'll hurt him, Zuko," he said softly.
"How do you know?" His friend's voice was desperate.
"They don't really want another war; they just want the Fire Nation gone." Aang took a deep breath. "For now, I think they're going to try and negotiate for it."
"For now." Zuko repeated. He didn't sound very reassured.
Aang cracked his eyes open. The flames in Zuko's palms blazed; his face contorted as he fought to keep them down.
A long moment of uncomfortable silence passed before Zuko finally whispered, "I haven't felt this angry in a very long time."
Zuko drew a deep breath. "Every time I think about what they did..." His words trailed off, but the meaning was clear in the growing flames. Zuko closed his palms around the fire, squelching them. He looked at Aang, and his eyes were full of fear. "When I find them, Aang, I don't know what I'll do." He buried his head in his hands. "...I'm afraid of what I might do."
Aang frowned. Anger was tricky to deal with. Because of anger, he had done some things which he never thought himself capable.
"Anger itself doesn't cause grief or regret," Aang said quietly, "But what you do with it. How you handle that anger proves what kind of person you are."
Zuko laughed, but it was a harsh sound. "You sound like my uncle. Or Ursa."
"Ursa and Mai, they're waiting for you, Zuko. And so is Roh-Roh." Aang put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "But they're waiting for the real you. Don't forget that."
Zuko nodded, but his eyes were still troubled. "I won't."
The companionable silence was broken by an irreverent snort.
"Would you like us to come back later? Wouldn't want to ruin your tender little moment."
They both jumped to their feet.
"Toph!" Aang cried.
"Hey, Twinkle Toes. Long time, no see, huh?"
Haru ignored the joke, bowing to Aang. "Avatar Aang," he said with a smile. "Sorry it took us so long, but the Guild is very cautious. They hardly let anyone out of their sight."
"You're here now," Aang said. "It's nice to see you again, Haru. And you've still got the mustache!"
Haru smiled, but only to cover the grimace.
"You mean the Chick Magnet?" Toph snickered. "Traveling with this guy is a pain. Every where we go, some brainless chick has to fall all over him."
Haru scowled at her.
"If I didn't know any better," Aang teased Toph, "I'd say you were jealous."
It was only a vague shift in her posture, but from one bender to another her stance went from neutral to hostile. "Then it's a good thing you know better." She flashed him a steely grin. "Because if you even considered such a thing for an instant I would have to make you regret it for the rest of your life."
Aang swallowed back his grin. It had been awhile; he forgot how intense Toph could be.
Zuko had not moved. He was afraid to. He was afraid to ask the question, because he was afraid of the answer. "Have you...found anything?"
The others instantly sobered. It had taken time for Toph and Haru to learn the purpose of their infiltrating the Guild, but Iroh had finally managed to send them a message. They both preferred not knowing.
Toph wasn't one for tact, but even she spoke carefully. "I'm sorry, Zuko; that's the bad news. We haven't heard anything about Roh-Roh."
Zuko slowly sat down. He clenched his fists and tried to keep calm, but his nails dug into his palms.
"They're not talking?" Aang asked.
"They're a tight-lipped bunch," Haru said.
"But it's more than that," Toph butted in. "If you were a super secret rebel faction and you managed to kidnap your enemy's kid, wouldn't you be bragging about it? I know I would."
"Of course you would," Haru muttered.
Toph slugged him in the shoulder, hard. But Haru was getting used to this kind of abuse. When bending, if he did something wrong, he got a painful whack upside the head. If he said something she didn't like, she punched him in the shoulder. And if he actually managed to amuse her, she would punch him in the shoulder affectionately, which didn't hurt any less.
Toph folded her arms stubbornly. "My point is, the Guild isn't talking about Roh-Roh. Period."
Aang frowned. "You think someone else took him?"
Zuko shook his head. It couldn't be. He couldn't have spent all this time tracking down the Guild for nothing.
Toph frowned. She was thinking of Jomei and his smug grin. The guy was confident. Nobody was that confident without a reason. "No. I think it was the Guild. I'm just not sure the Guild knows they did it."
Aang and Haru blinked at her.
"Oh come on, Haru," she said impatiently. "We've been camped out here for weeks without any idea what's going on. You really think the Guild's leaders are suddenly going to include everyone in the game plan and announce they kidnapped the Fire Prince?"
Zuko laughed sharply. "Perfect! The Guild may or may not have my son and there may or may not be a way we can know for sure. What's the good news?"
"There is no good news," Toph said slowly. "There's only worse news."
Zuko snorted incredulously. Worse? How could things get worse?
Haru frowned and glanced uncertainly at Toph. After all, this was a lot to lay on Zuko.
True to character, Toph dove right in. "The Dai Li are here."
"What?" Aang cried. "But the Dai Li have been disbanded for years, ever since they were banished!"
Toph shrugged. "Look, I don't know the big answers, I just know they're here. There's two, and they're not exactly flaunting their identities. I only figured it out because I recognized their movements. The Dai Li have a very distinct bending style, and I happen to be a bit of an expert in reading body language like that."
"What are they doing here?" Aang asked.
Toph frowned. "Hard to say. I've tried to listen in on conversations, but they're good enough to spot me. I can't get close."
"The Dai Li have always been pawns," Zuko said. "First they were used by Long Feng, and then by Azula. I've heard rumors that some of the Dai Li hire themselves out as mercenaries. They must be working for someone here." He looked at Toph and Haru. "Who's in charge?"
"Two men," Haru told him, "Called Tani and Wun."
"You think they're holding the Dai Li's leashes?" Toph shook her head. "I don't know. They don't get along too well. Besides, I just don't see a bunch of anti-Fire Nation rebels teaming up with the guys who betrayed their country."
"Maybe they were desperate?" Aang guessed.
Toph shrugged. "All I know is that they're here, which means we'll probably have to fight them at some point. And by 'we' of course I mean 'I'."
Haru snickered. "Because the Avatar isn't a good enough bender to deal with some glorified rock pushers?"
Toph smiled. "He usually finds something better to do. Mark my words."
Zuko looked up at Toph. "I want you to keep a close eye on these Dai Li. I think they're our best lead."
Toph raised an eyebrow. "What makes you say that?"
"Roh-Roh was not taken," Zuko said quietly. "No one saw any kidnappers. He was standing in the courtyard and he was swallowed into the earth."
Toph clenched her fists and Haru felt sick.
"You think they kidnapped Roh-Roh," Toph said through gritted teeth.
Zuko's eyes burned. "Why else would the Guild want earthbenders with connections to the Fire Nation?"
Jomei handed him a package. No explanation, he just watched Lee with a knowing smile.
Lee cautiously opened it. He wasn't sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn't the knife. He eased it from the sheath. The blade was smooth and flawless, made of creamy pearl. There was an inscription on it as well. But Lee already knew what it said. "Where did you get this?"
Jomei chuckled. "I thought you might enjoy that. It had a touch of cruel irony about it."
Lee stared at him. "How did you know?"
"I was there, Lee," Jomei reminded. "I saw it all. And that's just the prequel. I want to show you something."
Lee closed his fist around the knife. "Is that why you dragged me all the way up here to this shack?"
"Yes." Jomei opened the door to a small room.
Lee had to admit he was curious. They had talked long with Tani and gone over the whole plan. After they'd left his father's tent, Jomei had led Lee outside of the cavern and up the cliff to a small, derelict building perched at its crest. One man, a guard, stood alone in the shack's main room, and he did not look pleased to see them. Jomei nodded at him, but the man only glared.
Lee didn't step through the doorway. He was almost afraid of what might lie inside. "What is it?" he asked.
Jomei chuckled. "You remember when I told you that this time we were sure to win? That we couldn't lose?"
Jomei nodded toward the room. "Have a look. Don't worry; he won't bite."
Uneasily, Lee poked his head in. The room was small and cramped. A tattered mattress was crammed into a corner, a small basin of water set beside the door. There was no window, no crack of sunlight. It was a prison, Lee realized. And in it, a child was held.
A young boy lay on the bed. He was dressed in the fine black and scarlet of the Fire Nation royals though it looked a little worse for the wear. There were marks on his face and scratches on his hands. His skin was streaked with dirt. A frown tugged at his features as the boy slept.
"Meet our lucky charm," Jomei said. "I present you with Prince Iroh of the Fire Nation."
Lee couldn't take his eyes off the unconscious boy. "This is how you plan on winning?" he breathed.
Jomei recognized the horror in Lee's voice and quickly moved to diffuse it. "We do what is necessary, Lee. The Fire Nation must be stopped. Remember what he did to you."
Lee remembered exactly what Firelord Zuko did to him. He just wondered if Jomei did.
"Remember what they did to your brother!"
Sensu, a bender who could no longer bend. Lee closed his eyes tight and clenched his fists.
"They must be stopped, Lee."
Lee looked down at the child again. Pangs of guilt stabbed into his heart, but Jomei was right. He had to do what was necessary. Lee knew what he struggled for was right and nothing was going to stop him.
- Oh, yay, the Gaang's getting back together again! Finally, after thirty-one chapters, Toph is reunited with a few of her old friends. And you can tell they really missed her winning personality.
- Seems Toph finally figured out why those two brooding earthbenders seemed so familiar at their first meeting, during her and Haru's 'initiation'. That's some bad juju coming down.
Another reminder,are in full swing! The awards mean nothing without its readers, so pop the popcorn, pull up a chair, and vote for some good fanons, yo!
- ...did I seriously just say 'yo'?
- *hangs head in shame*
I must be tired, yo.
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