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April 24, 2012
Previously in Air
Fire rebels have been raiding island villages as a message to the Firelord and the Kyoshi Warriors suspect a traitor in the Palace.
Chapter Fifteen: Suspicion
"Reports from the base say that they arrived safely, and the Prince is secure. Received message concerning the Firelord's spies and have located them in Ba Sing Se. To be dealt with in Omashu. Ba Sing Se base has not been compromised. Proceed with plan."
Jeong Jeong finished reading the scroll and glanced around the room. It was mid-day and the same secret gathering met once more in the Firelord's chambers. The scroll had been intercepted coming into the Fire Nation. With it came the news of more riots. And this time, people had been hurt.
Dead silence filled the room.
Mai stood, staring out the window. Her face was blank, but pure white. Her knuckles were white, too, clenched in desperate fists.
Finally, someone spoke.
"It goes deeper than we thought." It was Kuzarr. His voice was soft, shocked.
"Great," Sokka muttered. This confirmed their suspicion of a spy inside the Palace, but it didn't help to tell them who. In fact, intercepting this message might do them more harm then good. He could see General Tzen's eyes, dark with suspicion, darting over his comrades.
"How did they know?" Tzen growled.
The others turned to him in surprise.
"How did they know about the spies?" Tzen demanded, leaping to his feet as his voice rose to a shout. "That was not discussed outside of this room!" Again, he glared around him.
The others shifted uncomfortably, suddenly alert, suspicious. They hadn't thought of that; Sokka could see it in their eyes. Beside him, Suki tensed.
"One of us," Tzen said softly, "Is a traitor."
Mai snapped her gaze on him.
"General!" Jeong Jeong barked. "Control yourself."
Tzen's face went red with fury. "How else would they know, Admiral?" he said hotly. "Perhaps you told them."
The intensity in the room climbed another notch. Jeong Jeong did not react under Tzen's unfaltering gaze, but Rozen bristled. Mai watched coldly, though her eyes burned. The others shifted their eyes uneasily between them.
The rigid silence was suddenly broken by a light laugh. "Don't be ridiculous," Sokka said with a grin.
The others turned to stare at him. Ty Lee was more than a little surprised. Of all people to be so calm, it was Sokka!
"There are a dozen different ways someone could have got that information," Sokka assured the General. He knocked lightly against the wall. "These aren't always soundproof, you know. Besides, the note alone proves that it wasn't one of us."
Tzen blinked. "What?"
"The note," Sokka repeated. "It said 'received message concerning Firelord's spies'. If it had really been one of us, then the Guild would know it was Zuko and Aang, not just a bunch of spies."
Tzen's brow furrowed in thought. Slowly, he sank back into his seat.
Jeong Jeong nodded. "Somehow," he said, "The information was leaked."
"Right," Sokka agreed. "And what we need to do now is relax."
"Relax?!" Kuzarr demanded, his voice edged in panic. "It says they found the spies. Doesn't that mean they have the Firelord?"
Ty Lee's pretty face crinkled into an angry scowl.
Kuzarr flushed and cast an anxious look at the Firelady. They all glanced at Mai in concern. She did not seem to notice them. She had turned her eyes back to the horizon. "It's impossible to tell," Jeong Jeong said quietly.
Mai spoke, her words firm. "Zuko knows how to take care of himself."
From her voice, you would never guess that she was crying.
"Of course he does," Ty Lee assured her. "He's going to be alright, Mai." She placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "And he's going to find Roh-Roh."
Mai didn't reply, but she didn't pull away from Ty Lee.
Jeong Jeong carefully rolled the scroll up. "This proves our enemy is near. We must be diligently on guard, but cautious. This spy must not suspect we are on to him."
Sokka nodded encouragingly. "That's what I meant by relax."
Suki elbowed him gently in the stomach.
"That's all well and good," Tzen muttered, "But what do we do to catch the lowlife?"
"Well..." Suki suddenly grinned. She exchanged a glance with Sokka. "We did have one idea..."
"Sokka? May I speak with you?"
Sokka raised a suspicious eyebrow at Kuzarr. "What about?" He didn't know Kuzarr very well. He'd heard a few stories about him from Zuko and usually, a friend of Zuko's was a friend of his, but Sokka was suspicious of everyone. He had to be.
The meeting had come to a close after approving his and Suki's plan. He was eager to put it into action.
Kuzarr hesitated. "I think I might know who the traitor is."
Sokka blinked in surprise, but his eyes quickly narrowed to suspicious slits. "Why tell me?" he asked. "Why not tell Jeong Jeong? Or Tzen? I'm not in charge."
"You're the one investigating," Kuzarr pointed out. He glanced around to make certain, for the eighth time, that they were not overheard. "And I don't think anyone else will listen."
Sokka was curious in spite of himself. "Why?"
"They wouldn't let go of their preconceptions."
"You think it's someone they trust?"
Kuzarr shook his head gravely. "I think it's one of them."
Sokka decided the soldier was right to be twitchy; this wasn't a conversation for the open corridor. He led Kuzarr to the Kyoshis' chambers.
"Why would you think it's one of them?" Sokka asked him. "That note really does imply that the spy doesn't have all the facts."
"I know." Kuzarr rubbed his face in frustration. "But he could be tricking us or intentionally misleading us." The soldier looked up at them, confused and uncertain. "Couldn't he?"
"Who do you think it is?" Suki asked gently.
Kuzarr took a deep breath. "I don't have any proof but...Rozen has been acting suspicious lately."
"Rozen?" Keiko repeated skeptically. "But Jeong Jeong practically swears by him."
"I know!" Kuzarr buried his head in his hands. "I don't know what to do. The traitor could be right under our noses, and we'd be too blind to see him!"
The Kyoshis exchanged glances. His words were true. The Kyoshis had never met most of those in the trusted circle and they easily suspected many of them. Including Kuzarr. Before he left, Zuko told them, These are my most trusted allies. Don't doubt them. But it was hard to trust someone you didn't know, especially under such circumstances.
"How has he acted suspicious?" Suki asked.
"He's nervous. More nervous then I've ever seen him. He jumps at every sound, always looking over his shoulder. He tried to excuse himself from the council this afternoon, but the other advisors insisted." Kuzarr sighed. "I insisted, too; I was afraid to let him out of my sight."
"Okay..." Sokka said slowly. "I admit trying to skip out on a council meeting is a little weird. But it's not much."
Kuzarr glanced around the room, at the door, expecting someone lurking in a corner or peering through the keyhole.
"I've been keeping a close eye on him," he said softly, as though afraid someone might overhear. "I saw him pass off a secret scroll."
Sokka and Suki exchanged skeptical glances. "How do you know it was secret?" she asked.
"It could have been a report or a plan," Sokka put in. "Or a letter to a friend!"
Kuzarr shook his head. "It was last night, late. Rozen didn't want to be seen. He met someone in the north tower, in the dark, and passed it off." He eyed the Kyoshis. "I know a secret meeting when I see one."
The warriors exchanged glances. In those looks, an entire conversation took place.
"All right," Sokka said. "We'll look into it."
Sokka peered surreptitiously around the corner and instantly jerked back to process what he'd seen. One female servant and a valet waiting outside the door. Impatiently.
Sokka straightened out his clothes, the towel on his arm, and the tray on his hand. He stood straight and attempted to rearrange his features in a dignified and complacent expression. It looked more like he had recently sucked a particularly bitter lemon.
Briskly, but gracefully, he rounded the corner.
"Where have you been?" The valet demanded angrily. But softly, so no one would overhear.
"I apologize," Sokka replied rigidly, in what he supposed was a dignified tone that came across about as well as his expression. He sounded looked an old, winded man, gasping for breath. "But you do know how the cooks go on and on and on and–"
The female servant rolled her eyes. "We've been waiting for the Firelord's breakfast for fifteen minutes! We can't go in without his breakfast."
"Hey!" Sokka said, forgetting his 'composure'. "Don't look at me! Blame it on the cooks!"
"Shhh!" both servants insisted.
Sokka cowed slightly. At the impatient toe-tapping and gesturing of the female servant, he cast a glance down at his collar. She was right; it was crooked.
"I wonder how I could have missed that," Sokka declared softly, biting back sarcasm and fighting the instinct to roll his eyes. He had to juggle the breakfast tray awkwardly to get at his collar, and neither the chamber maid nor the valet seemed all that inclined to help him. Sokka was tempted to draw it out purely out of spite, but he fought the conniving instinct. After all, he was going to need these people to talk to him.
"Are you quite ready?" the valet droned.
See?! Sokka felt like shouting. He can pull off the dignified, hum-drum tone and everything! ...why can't I do that? He wasn't entirely convinced that he couldn't. It was just the laughing fit that Suki and the girls had when he demonstrated his cover that had him a little disconcerted.
The valet opened the door, ushering Sokka in first. The chamber maid entered second, and immediately began straightening out the sitting room. The valet entered last, and stood ready near the chest of clothing.
The Firelord was already awake. He stood before the window, garbed in a morning robe, and stared over the Palace courtyards, the city, and the bay beyond. He looked the epitome of a defeated man.
The valet stepped to the corner where he stood stoically at attention and the chamber maid buzzed about the room straightening things up. Although what she was straightening Sokka had no idea. As far as he could see, the room was spotless. She was probably picking at miniscule dust specks that dared to settle in her cleaning domain.
Sokka made for the small table at a respectful amble and set the tray down. He removed the silver lid with a dramatic flourish. "Breakfast is served, your majesty." He heard a tsk-tsking from the chamber maid and a sardonic cough from the valet.
The Firelord glanced at it over his shoulder. "Thank you," he said, but didn't seem inclined to partake. He turned back to the window.
Amazing, Sokka thought. Not even a hint of surprise!
Sure, the secret council had known he and the Kyoshi Warriors were going to disguise themselves and penetrate the Fire Palace's servants, but they didn't know where or when one of them might pop up. On his way here, Sokka had bumped into Rozen. The young man had almost said something, too. He'd stared at Sokka for a long moment, pale as the fur on Momo's back. But then he'd moved on.
Kuzarr was right. The guy was definitely on edge about something.
It only took the chamber maid a few moments to straighten the askew bookends and wipe down the unsoiled bureau top. She and Sokka left together, while the valet stayed behind to help the Firelord dress.
The chamber maid shook her head sadly, clicking her tongue. "Such a pity about the Firelord and his Lady," she whispered. "Such dastardly things can pull people apart, but I always reckoned theirs was a stronger love." She sighed wistfully. "I hope everything'll work out in the end."
Rumors were buzzing all over the Palace as to why the Firelord had moved to temporary quarters. Nothing had actually been said to explain it, but there were theories floating about. A few people believed that Lady Mai, distraught beyond reason by the loss of her son, blamed the Firelord for the kidnapping and refused to see or speak to him. This theory was hugely unpopular because it was common knowledge what a happy and strong relationship Zuko and Mai had. Everyone knew they were very much in love. Sokka wondered how the rumor had even gotten started. Probably those crazy people who are still holding out that Zuko's gonna up and run off with Katara, he thought, shuddering. It was a ridiculous theory started by that idiot Puon Tim and his ludicrous play on Ember Island, but it was a fervidly treasured belief even today. People, he decided, were weird.
Most people figured it was Zuko who was distraught and that he blamed himself for the kidnapping. He would not be consoled and refused to believe himself worthy of even the small comfort he and Mai could grant one another. So he had moved himself into temporary chambers until a solution to the kidnapping were found.
What the servants couldn't figure out was why Zuko wasn't doing anything. Whispers of the ransom demands floated through the Palace, and even the servants knew the Firelord would never bow to them. But they couldn't believe he would sacrifice his son, either. As far as they knew, Zuko was musing over his few options, trying to buy time until the right solution could be found.
The whole Fire Palace was tense awaiting that decision.
An eerie mist coated the landscape. Mammoth trees –their roots rising up from the earth like the crooked legs of giant insects– were reflected in the mirrors of water scattered amidst the long grass. The sky was alight with a strange yellow glow, seemingly without a source. Dotted in the air all around, tiny lights –fireflies, he knew– hung motionless in anticipation.
Aang knew he was in the Spirit World. As the Avatar, waking up in this parallel reality was not a new experience. But why had he been brought here? Did the spirits need to tell him something? About that feeling, perhaps?
"Haku," a stern voice admonished, "Stop twitching."
Aang didn't even flinch. He smirked –no, Haku smirked. "Sorry," he said lightly. He sat, cross-legged, on an earthen pavilion, waiting.
Beside him, his meditating companion sniffed disdainfully. "Humans," he muttered, lashing his tail. "So impatient. Can't sit still for even a moment."
Haku shot him a sidelong glance, eyeing the monkey's swaying tail. "Actually, Enma," he chuckled, "The twitching I think I picked up from you."
The tail froze and Enma's face twisted in the monkey equivalent of embarrassment. His cheeks puffed out in resentment. Even his monk's robes seemed to go rigid. "I...Well...You...Hmph!" He grunted grudgingly, letting the air out in a sudden whoosh.
"Don't worry, Enma," Haku said, patting him on the shoulder. "Even spirits have some bad habits."
The odd monkey opened his mouth to retort, but somewhere in the distance a shriek of rage tore across the constant twilight.
"Hmph," Enma grunted again. "Speaking of which..."
A dark form appeared in the sky, spiraling through the yellow, moving closer every second.
A cold chill broke over Haku. He seized his glider staff from beside him and gripped it tight. It wouldn't do him much good, not without bending, but he felt a little more confident with it in his hand.
Enma glanced at the human from the corner of his eye. He cleared his throat, ignoring the particularly unpleasant form of doom headed their way. "...You could still leave."
Haku turned on the monkey with mock surprise. "Enma, I'm touched! You're concerned about my well-being."
Again, the monkey looked embarrassed. He huffed, irritated. "I'm giving you one last chance to run," he retorted hotly. "I don't want you losing your wits when you see him up close and leaving me on my own to deal with him."
Haku smiled. "Don't worry about me." He closed his eyes and reached deep into himself, past his own soul, into that part of him that was as ancient as the old spirit beside him, where the familiar power lay dormant.
"After all," he said, opening his eyes to release the white glow, "I am the Avatar."
The shriek came again, louder now. They both turned to look; the creature was so large –so close– it nearly blotted out the sky. It did not fly toward them so much as coil and uncoil its snake-like body through the air. Smoke billowed from its nostrils, its crocodile jaws snapped together and the giant ram's horns at either side of its head glowed with a malicious red sheen.
Haku stood, gripping his glider as though it were a spear. "Shall we–"
Enma interrupted him with an insistent cry. "Aang!"
Haku frowned, confused. "What?" He glanced at the monkey and –
"Aang!" Katara called again, louder this time, shaking him hard.
Aang started upright. He banged his head on the low ceiling of the prop wagon and fell back to his makeshift bed. He shook his head, trying to clear it. "Ow," he said, for lack of anything better.
"Are you okay?"
Aang opened his eyes slowly, peering up at Katara. She hovered nearby, her face tense with worry, standing on tiptoes to get a good look at him on his high perch.
"It's nothing," he assured her, trying to shake off the vestiges of that strange dream. "Just a bonk on the head."
"I wasn't talking about that," Katara said impatiently. "What were you doing?"
Aang frowned. "I think I was dreaming. It was really weird. I wasn't me, I was–" He stopped. Katara's expression didn't relax. Her eyes even looked scared.
"Aang," she said quietly, "You lit up."
Aang blinked. "What?"
Katara glanced quickly over at Zuko, but their friend was still sleeping fitfully. She turned back to Aang, the worry deepening. "You were really dreaming? I hoped maybe you were meditating, or talking to Roku, or–"
"Katara." He sat up –carefully, this time– and took her hand. "What's the matter? What do you mean I 'lit up'?"
Katara looked him right in the eyes. Deep in that soul-searching ocean of blue, Aang saw fear there. A kind he hadn't seen in her for a long time. "You went into the Avatar State."
Now the worry seeped into Aang's eyes. Ever since he had mastered control of the Avatar State, he had never unconsciously entered it. Certainly it would still activate if his life were in peril, but he was bumping along on a wagon in the midst of a theatre troupe's caravan.
"It wasn't just a dream, was it?"
Aang tried to ignore the chill that began to creep up his spine. "It was nothing," he told her.
Katara shook her head firmly. "You're a terrible liar, Aang." She crossed her arms stubbornly and nailed him with her penetrating, captivating eyes. "It was that feeling again."
For a moment Aang didn't reply. He could still feel it, in the back of his mind, steadily growing weightier as each day passed.
Katara shook her head decisively. "That's it. You can't wait any longer. You have to go and find out what this...this thing is. I'll stay here with Zuko and–"
Aang cut her off. "No," he said, just as determined. "Right now Zuko needs us. Roh-Roh is in imminent danger; he has to come first. Whatever this thing is can wait. Besides," he added, seeing the dissatisfaction gleaming in his wife's eyes, "Who knows? Maybe the Guild is causing the feeling; maybe that's why everything feels out of whack."
Katara didn't buy it for a minute, but she said nothing. She knew why Aang was so set on staying together. He didn't want to leave her in a path of probable danger, whether she could fend for herself or not; and it was obvious the kidnapping was beginning to take its toll on Zuko. She unconsciously glanced over at the Firelord. This was the first time he'd slept on their journey –probably since leaving the Fire Nation– and he had collapsed from sheer exhaustion. But the real reason was Roh-Roh. Their surrogate nephew was so young, so innocent; such senseless cruelty, especially against a child, made them both angry.
She sighed in defeat. "At least talk to Roku," she insisted. "Maybe he or one of your other lives has some idea what it might be. It's a place to start, anyway."
Aang smiled. "Deal," he said. He yawned. "But it's going to have to wait til morning." He eyed his wife seriously. "You should really get some rest."
She wagged a stern finger at him. "Don't you baby me, Avatar Aang," she said, fighting back a yawn of her own.
He smiled as he watched her wade through the miscellaneous props to her almost-comfortable corner. "Whatever you say, Sifu Katara."
- Every story, at some point, has to involve Sokka going undercover. It's unavoidable. ;)
- I poked a little fun at the Zutarians. I couldn't resist; Puon-Tim left such a good opening! Don't be offended, it's all in jest.
- Here we see more of Aang's 'feeling' and issues that arise with it. I've been honest with you all up to this point, so I shall continue: I wrote this scene just a few days ago and stuck it in. Aang's little subplot was already laid out (see review to 'intensify' it. Always heed advice, my readers; you never know what wonders someone else's ideas may reveal to you.) , but I was prompted by Omashu Rocks'
- I've had this little controversy in my head concerning the name Haku. I really like the name, thanks mostly to the so named characters in Naruto and Spirited Away, yet I hesitated to use it for any of my characters. I realized this was because I didn't want to bestow it on any random minor character; if I was going to name a character Haku, he would have to live up to his anime predecessors. This dream sequence of Aang's only came to me recently and, while pondering a name for this unknown Avatar, I knew 'Haku' was absolutely perfect.
- The monkey spirit is officially called the 'odd spirit' here on the wiki, but delving through my old notes I remembered that somewhere I actually learned it was Enma. Where, I cannot now recall, but I liked the name.
- The monkey spirit amused me from the first time I saw him. He reminded of a Grumpy character and I thought it would be fun to show him actually getting along with someone.
- Obviously, I should have forewent the trivia note's for a special edition commentary blog. XP
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