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|Nothing But Air|
Sept. 19, 2012
Previously in Air
Warned by Yue in a nightmare, Aang tried to ask the Avatar Spirit about the strange darkness ailing him, but the darkness severed them. Toph and Haru managed to figure out how the Dai Li spend their time, though they could not follow them. Lee tells them he knows where Roh-Roh is.
Chapter Thirty-Six: Nothing But Air
They were just as lost to Aang as his past lives. As the Avatar State.
Just as lost as the Avatar now was to the world.
He remembered this sensation, this sudden emptiness in his soul. He had died once, at the hands of Azula. As the lightning jolted his heart, he had felt the connection to the Avatar Spirit rent from his mortal essence.
This was no different. Only this time, Aang didn't think any amount of spirit water would make him whole again.
He opened his palm. A simple twist of the air sent a tiny whirlwind dancing across his skin. He watched it sway to its own rhythm, oblivious to the blow he had suffered.
Air. It was the only thing left to him. But at least it was something. He had a feeling he would need it, wherever he was going.
The image still burned in his mind. The face of a man, one he had seen before. It was an Air Nomad, the same he had dreamt of the night he unconsciously entered the Avatar State. Haku. Obviously he was a past Avatar, but with past lives severed from him, Aang would have to learn more about his fellow Nomad the old fashioned way. The University in Ba Sing Se had an extensive library, with a special section dedicated to the works and writings of and about the many different Avatars. It was as good a place to start as any.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Zuko rise.
Aang closed his fist around the whirlwind as Zuko sank into the tall grass across from him. He didn't look at his friend when he asked, "Sleep well?"
Zuko snorted. His eyes were dark and haunted; he rubbed at them to wipe away the remnants of sleep and nightmares. "You?"
A bitter laugh escaped Aang.
The lines of worry around the Air Nomad's eyes came into focus. Zuko shook his head. "We make quite a pair."
Silence reigned for a moment as the friends contemplated their own troubles.
I have to tell him. Aang knew he had to, but he wished he didn't. He knew his friend needed as much help as he could get. But, though Aang hated to admit it, his situation was more dire than Zuko's.
Aang glanced up in surprise to find Zuko watching him carefully.
Zuko's gaze was steady, cautious. He already knew something was amiss. He could sense it. "Did something happen? You were meditating for a long time last night."
Aang took a deep breath. "Yes," he admitted. "Something did happen. It has nothing to do with the situation here, but..." He hesitated.
"But you have to go." Zuko nodded slowly, averting his eyes toward the late morning sun to hide his expression.
Guilt settled in the pit of Aang's stomach like a bad batch of fire flakes. Zuko didn't say it, but Aang could tell he was disappointed. Maybe angry, even.
"Zuko..." Aang began.
The Firelord raised a hand to stop him. "You think I haven't had to make those kinds of choices? I'm not thrilled you can't help me, but frankly that's because I know the only reason you would leave was if there really was a situation more urgent than this." Zuko glanced back at his friend. "I understand, Aang. You have bigger responsibilities. You're the Avatar."
Aang winced, but he quickly looked away. "Right. The Avatar."
Zuko frowned. He narrowed his eyes at Aang, trying to discern his reaction. There was something weighing on his friend. What could be so horrible to pull him away? Zuko tried to consider any event that would require immediate attention, despite Roh-Roh's kidnapping and the Guild's unknown plans, without Zuko himself hearing about it. Nothing came to mind. He was about to ask, when Aang pointed across the plain.
"Here comes Toph. Maybe she's got some good news."
Zuko grunted doubtfully.
But when Toph approached, she was grinning broadly. Zuko allowed himself a glimmer of hope.
Not one for small talk, Toph didn't bother with pleasantries. She stomped a chair out of the earth, fell into it and declared, "I've got some good news and some maybe not so good news. Which do you want to hear first?"
Zuko scowled at the oblivious earthbender.
"The good news," Aang said quickly. The last thing any of them needed was a hot-tempered contest between earth and fire.
"Optimist," Toph snorted. "Alright, Twinkle Toes, the good news is that we've found ourselves a snitch."
Neither Aang nor Zuko seemed capable of speech. They stared at Toph, uncomprehendingly.
"You know," she pressed, "A snitch? Someone who tells you things about other people that said other people really don't want you to know? In this case, someone who's willing to tell us a few of the Guild's secrets. Like where they're keeping a certain kidnapped Fire Prince."
Zuko clenched his fists. His heart pounded against his ribcage. Someone knew where Roh-Roh was? The tiny spark of hope inside him wanted to burst, but he squelched it.
"What's the maybe not so good news?" he asked, hardly daring to breathe.
Toph's grin slipped fractionally. "There is the chance that this snitch is just playing us," she admitted almost meekly. "He might be leading us into a trap."
"But can't you tell if he's lying?" Aang asked.
Toph frowned. "The kid's hard to read. His heart rate is all over the place. I only know two things for sure. He's convinced Roh-Roh's here, but there's a good chance he was lied to."
"And the other?" Aang asked.
She huffed. "He's super nervous. Whichever side he's on, he's clearly in over his head."
Zuko nodded slowly. He appeared eerily calm, but his knuckles blanched as he dug his fingers into his palms. "So we can't trust him."
"Not entirely," Toph agreed. "But the guy's been following us around for the past few days. I caught him trying to tail us. Knocked him around pretty good, too, but he kept it up."
"So at least he's determined," Aang said.
"And not stupid," Toph said grudgingly. "He kind of figured out what we were up to."
"But instead of turning you in," Aang clarified, "He approached you. That's encouraging, isn't it?" He glanced hopefully at Zuko, knowing this could be the break he needed.
Toph shrugged. "Probably."
She turned toward Zuko as well and he felt the triumph in their hearts weigh him down. This could be the final piece to the puzzle; the last night he would be haunted by the thought he might never see Roh-Roh again. But it could also be a trap. That was why he caged the flutter of hope in his chest. He could not give into it. A false hope, now, would surely break him.
Slowly, Zuko said, "I'm suspicious of anyone who suddenly decides to change sides."
Aang stared at him. Toph guffawed.
Zuko couldn't help but smile at the irony. "Suspicious, but not stupid. I know it happens."
"You're living proof," Aang said. "But you're right; we should be cautious."
Toph jumped to her feet. "I'm so glad you both agree. Otherwise, this would have been really awkward."
Zuko frowned. "What would have been awkward?"
Toph stretched her arms over her head. "When Haru showed up in about ten minutes with our new best friend."
"You brought him here?" Aang cried. "How is that at all cautious?"
"Relax, Twinkle Toes. It's not like we were just going to march him right into the camp of the Firelord and the Avatar. We've got him blindfolded."
Zuko was not reassured. "Because that was so effective with you."
Toph flashed him a dazzling smile. "I'm special. Now would you guys just ease up? Even if he is a spy, he's no match for any of us, let alone all of us together. The worst this kid could do is talk us to death." She laced her fingers behind her head and began to stroll away. "I'll just go grab them."
Lee didn't particularly like being blindfolded.
His toes stubbed on another protruding rock.
No, he hated being blindfolded.
He wouldn't mind it nearly as much if Jen Yi would direct him around the rocks, instead of into them.
"Do you mind?" he grumbled. "My toes aren't made of steel, you know."
He'd been glad when Jen Yi wandered off to announce their arrival to the pair's mysterious friends; it gave his poor feet a rest. Haru had sat him down in the tall grass, or maybe it was wheat, and started up a conversation. Lee was surprised how easy Haru was to talk with. It had felt like a normal afternoon spending time with an old friend. Except for the blindfold, of course.
Lee tripped over another stone.
"Rock," Jen Yi cautioned.
Behind the blindfold, Lee rolled his eyes. "Gee, thanks."
The words were hardly out before his shins smashed into a small boulder. He yelped.
Jen Yi snickered. "I warned you."
"Okay, that's enough." Haru took hold of Lee's arm.
"I think I'm entitled to a little fun," Jen Yi insisted. "I am, after all, the master here."
"As a merciful human being, I'm vetoing your master power," Haru said. "You're abusing your privileges."
Lee didn't hit any more rocks after that. The only sensation that accosted him was the tickle of the long grass against his skin. It was only a few moments before Haru tugged him to a stop.
"Well, here we are!" Jen Yi said, clapping her hands.
Lee wriggled his eyebrows under the blindfold. "Wow, I'm so impressed."
Jen Yi chuckled.
Lee fought to keep his composure, but his heart beat madly. He was terrified. There was no guarantee that Jen Yi and Haru's friends weren't waiting to ambush him. He suddenly longed for earthbending skills. Maybe then he would stand a chance if something went wrong. If he were Sensu... Lee swallowed hard, pushing the thought away.
It was the revisiting taunt that Sensu would never be the bender he once was that occupied Lee's thoughts as the blindfold was yanked away.
Zuko felt his chest tighten. Apprehension crept up his spine. "He's their contact?"
Aang frowned. "Do you know him?"
Zuko did not reply. He inhaled deeply; slowly let it out.
"I've met him," Zuko said grudgingly. "His name is Lee. He's Sensu's younger brother."
Aang's eyes brightened. "Then he really is on our side!"
Zuko shifted his gaze. "...We'll see."
Aang frowned at his friend. "Is there something I should know?"
Zuko hesitated. His eyes grew distant. "Lee isn't exactly a fan of the Fire Nation."
"Any particular reason?" Aang pressed. There was something in Zuko's face. He wasn't sure, but it looked suspiciously like dread. "Maybe something that pertains directly to, oh, say, you?"
Zuko grimaced. "He might have had a run-in with Fire Prince Zuko, back in the day."
"I see..." Aang said slowly. Everyone knew Zuko had done things in his past of which he was not proud. It was a long list, and it included setting the occasional village on fire.
It didn't escape Lee that Li –the other one– didn't look entirely thrilled to see him. Honestly, though, Lee couldn't blame him. He had suspected that the Fire Nation soldier might be Jen Yi and Haru's contact; in fact, Lee had been secretly hoping it.
Jen Yi gestured at Lee with a flourish, obviously pleased with her accomplishment. But before she could introduce him to the two men, Lee decided to burst her bubble. A little pay-back for the bruises forming on his shins.
Lee nodded at the other Li. "Hello again."
Slowly, the firebender returned the greeting. "I have to admit, I'm surprised to see you here."
Jen Yi glanced between them. The confused frown that tugged at her mouth was priceless. "Hang on a minute –you guys know each other?"
"We've met," the other Li told her.
"When?" she demanded. "Where?"
As the other Li impatiently explained about meeting Sensu, Lee turned to the second man. He was wearing a bandanna across his forehead and a conical straw hat on top of that. "You must be the Avatar."
Aang gave him a cautious smile. "So you're Sensu's brother?"
Lee blinked in surprise. The other Li must have told him that. He nodded dumbly.
The Avatar's smile relaxed a little. "He's a good guy; I like him."
"Uh, thanks," Lee replied uncertainly. "So do I."
"She says you know where the Prince is." Aang nodded at Toph, wishing she'd picked an undercover name that was easier to remember. There were so many right now. He was having trouble keeping them all straight.
Lee nodded slowly, but his eyes narrowed. He glanced at Jen Yi. "Your name's not really Jen Yi, is it?"
Toph grinned. "Nope."
Lee waited for an explanation. He didn't get one.
Zuko turned to Lee. He was wound tighter than a corkscrew; they could all feel it. "Where is the Prince?"
Lee raised an eyebrow. The man's voice was calm, level, cold even. Nothing like the desperation he'd exhibited back at the farm. Lee looked at the soldier for a moment. It only took him a second to see past the cool exterior, to the raging inferno inside.
He took a deep breath. "I'll show you where the Prince is. It's why I came. But..."
Zuko narrowed his eyes. "But?"
Lee hesitated under that glare. He fought the impulse to run and instead returned it as steadily and with as much determination as he could manage. "I have one condition," he said. "You have to promise not to hurt anyone."
Zuko didn't blink. "I can't guarantee that. We're only four against a hundred and they won't be happy to see us. The Guild will try to stop us. They're going to fight back."
"There are five of us," Lee corrected, surprised at his own annoyance. "And we won't be going up against a hundred. The Prince is being kept outside the camp. There's only one guard. The kid's safe for now, but we have to hurry."
Suspicion flickered in Zuko's eyes. "Why?"
"Because the two men responsible for the kid are about to be ambushed," Lee explained. "And after that happens, I don't know what Jomei plans to do with the Prince."
"Wait a minute –an ambush?" Jen Yi repeated in surprise. "Which two guys are these?"
"Nguyen and Po," Lee said impatiently.
The four friends exchanged quick glances.
Lee frowned. "What?"
Haru responded with another question: "Why?"
Lee thought about holding out. After all, he had questions of his own. But he gave in. "They're not trusted. Jomei says the only reason they were even let into the Guild in the first place is because somehow they figured out how to pull off the kidnapping."
Toph glanced at Zuko. "Looks like you were right after all."
Zuko's eyes were dark. "Not about the important things," he muttered. He turned to Lee. "You're sure the kidnapping was their idea? It wasn't the Guild's?"
Lee was taken aback by the intensity of his voice. "That's what Jomei said. I don't think he'd lie about that." He glanced at the four gloomy faces. "Is it that important?"
"Not right now." It was Aang who answered, because Zuko scowled at the dirt as though it had irrevocably offended him, Toph repeatedly punched her fist into her hand with frightening determination and Haru rubbed at his mustache thoughtfully.
Lee narrowed his eyes at Toph and Haru. "I'm not buying it. You guys were watching Nguyen and Po; why?"
Haru glanced at Zuko. "We suspected they had a direct connection to the kidnapping."
Lee raised an eyebrow, waiting for more explanation.
Toph smirked. "They're Dai Li."
All color drained from Lee's face. He knew the name. Everyone did. He shook his head. "No. No, they can't be! It doesn't make any sense. Why would..."
His voice trailed off as the pieces began to fall into place. He'd heard the stories. The Dai Li could have lived in the Fire Nation for years. After they were banished by Kuei, where else was there to go? And while they were under Azula's rule they would have learned their way around the Palace. Jomei even said it was Nguyen and Po who figured out how to kidnap the Prince from his own home, and he obviously hated them.
"Oh man," Lee breathed. "I –I don't believe it."
"Believe it, kid," Toph said, throwing him an easy punch in the arm.
Zuko gazed into the distance as he watched this latest piece of the puzzle fall, not into place, but straight through. Another mystery to solve. He turned to Lee. "You say there's only one guard on the Prince?"
Lee nodded uncertainly. "The last I saw."
"When does this Jomei plan to ambush the Dai Li?"
Lee shrugged. "He hasn't pegged a specific date yet. Knowing him, he probably won't give anybody a whole lot of advance notice."
Zuko nodded slowly. "We have to get to them first. I have some questions for them. I'll go after the Prince."
Aang frowned in concern. "Are you sure that's such a good idea?"
Zuko gave him a wolfish smile. "I'm more than a match for one guard, Aang; don't worry."
Aang was worried, but not about that.
"The rest of you should go after the Dai Li," Zuko finished.
Toph popped her knuckles loudly. "You hear that, Twinkle Toes? I guess we'll find out if you've gotten better than you're old earthbending master."
Panic seized Aang's heart. His head swam as he scrounged for an excuse, any excuse. The last thing he wanted to do was tell his friends about his vision, about the darkness. That he was no longer what he once was.
"Actually," Zuko said suddenly, "Aang has ...another matter to attend to."
"What?" Toph cried, offended. "Am I that bad of company?"
Haru tactfully averted his gaze. Lee snickered.
"No," Aang stammered, his face reddening from frustration and embarrassment. "It's –I –"
Toph huffed, blowing a lock of hair out of her eyes. "Forget it, Twinkle Toes. You're too easy to mess with."
Aang fell into an uncomfortable silence, his face hot. He was thankful that Zuko answered for him, but he felt guilty.
"I guess that's it then," Haru said, shrugging. "When should we–"
The four friends turned to look at Lee in surprise.
"What about...everyone else?" he asked, uncertainly.
Toph shrugged. "What about them?"
"Well," Lee said slowly, uncertain how to put his thoughts into words. "They're obviously being misled."
"And maybe they are misleading themselves," Lee agreed. "But the Guild's helping a lot. I mean these people..." He thought about Garrow and Jeb and Clara and his voice grew more confident. "They're all so...normal. Farmers, merchants, villagers –they shouldn't be here. They're just angry and confused and they don't know what to do with any of it and the Guild is just a convenient outlet, I guess, so–"
Lee swallowed back his words, suddenly aware that they were staring at him. He was babbling again. He had to be clear and succinct. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
"These people don't even know what's going on around them," he said softly. "The Guild is using them. It's wrong."
"Maybe," Toph said, crossing her arms. "But what do you expect us to do? Between the Prince and the Dai Li, we've kind of got our hands full. Besides, isn't it their own fault for getting into this mess anyway?"
Indignation swelled in Lee's chest. "So you're just going to let Jomei lie to them? The Dai Li are traitors; everybody knows that, but they're blindly working alongside them. Those people need to know the truth!"
"I don't see how it's my problem," Toph snapped, irritated. "Who says they even want our help, anyway?"
Aang held up his hands for peace. "No, wait, I think Lee's right."
Toph snorted. "You would, Twinkle Toes."
"Who knows?" Aang said. "Maybe if they find out what the Guild's really up to, they'll reconsider."
Zuko chuckled softly. "I think that's a little optimistic. But," he added thoughtfully, "I suppose it's worth a try."
"I'll do it," Lee said suddenly.
"You?" Haru asked, surprised. "But... Jomei's your friend."
Lee looked away. "I know," he said, "And so does everybody else. That's why if someone's going to expose him it has to be me. I'm the only one they might believe."
The four friends nodded in silence. Haru gave Lee a sympathetic pat on the arm and, though she didn't say it aloud, Toph looked a little impressed.
"They may not listen to you," Zuko said quietly.
Lee nodded again. "But it's worth a try, right?" he said, with a hopeful smile.
Aang watched in admiration swelled as the young man scrounged up his every ounce of confidence. He barely knew Lee, but he reminded Aang so much of himself. Though the odds were obviously stacked against him, Lee was determined to do the right thing. He couldn't bear to see people used and abused, and he was willing to fix it with words instead of violence. It was the way of peace that the Air Nomads had always taught Aang. It was the way of the Avatar.
"I'll go with him," Aang announced.
Zuko looked alarmed. "I thought–"
"I know," Aang said quietly. "But now that we know... It just seems a waste to leave when Roh-Roh could be right under our fingertips."
Zuko lowered his voice. "Are you sure?"
Aang considered, frowning. "No," he admitted, rubbing ruefully at the ache in his heart. "But I think this is what I need to do. After all–" he flashed a big smile– "it's the Avatar's job to try and resolve things peacefully."
Toph snickered, elbowing Haru in the ribs. "See? What did I tell you? He always finds something better to do."
"Relax, Twinkle Toes," she told Aang; "I will handle the big bad Dai Li." She slugged Haru in the shoulder. "My protégé can watch and take notes."
Sorry this is a day late, everyone. My week's been crazy. Mostly good crazy, though. ;)
Someone asked me why this fanon is called 'Air'. This is why.
Wait a minute, that's what happened to Korra in the finale!
I know. Believe me, I know! The moment Amon took her bending I was like 'Hey!', all indignant. And then she busts out with airbending and I exploded, 'That was MY IDEA!' Immediately I was overcome with shame for allowing my fanon to interrupt this glorious, epic moment of canon.
And then it occurred to me that Bryke just employed a concept similar to one I came up with.
For the collective works of the author, go here.