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|More from Wordbender||Action/Adventure||PG||Positive||None|
|That Which Is Necessary|
Previously in 'Air'
While Toph and Haru sit on Nguyen and Po who they've managed to capture, Lee and Aang convince the Guild that there is more to the organization than they knew -or that they wanted to know- and one man has unwisely decided to stand between Zuko and the rescue of his son.
Chapter Forty: That Which Is Necessary
The cavern was abuzz with murmurs of treachery and lies. For the most part, the rebels weren't thrilled to learn the Guild's tactics included the underhanded blow of kidnapping a child, Fire Prince though he be. What enraged each and every one of them was that they had been teamed with two such heartless traitors as the Dai Li.
Wun was quickly placed under guard. Namar, Garrow and Jeb had decided to believe Lee because, even in a secret rebellion, they wouldn't entrust positions of power to those who had tricked and used them. No one said anything about the Fire Nation and Lee did not tell them there was a firebender on the cliff top just above them.
There was a lot to be done. Things to tell, decisions to be made. With both of their leaders incarcerated, the rebels couldn't simply sit here in this cavern and wait forever. Lee hadn't the first idea how to go about it; luckily, Aang, Namar, and Garrow did.
Lee was content to sit back and watch it all. After his initial speech, he didn't have much else to say. He'd done what he had to do, exposing the lies of the Guild. He'd done what was necessary.
After a time, Jeb joined him. He was silent a long moment, but Lee could tell there was something he wanted to say.
Finally, brow kneaded, Jeb asked, "How did you know about the Dai Li?"
Lee hesitated, but he couldn't see any reason not to tell him the truth. "It was Haru and Jen Yi who actually figured it out."
Jeb looked surprised. "Really?"
Lee nodded. "They're a little better at all this than they pretend."
Jeb glanced around. "And they're not back yet? There are a few questions I'd like to ask them myself."
"I wouldn't count on seeing them again," Lee said carefully. "I don't think they'll be staying."
Jeb raised an eyebrow. He opened his mouth to say something, but decided against it. He could put two and two together. Jen Yi and Haru were not who they seemed to be, connected with the rescue of the Fire Prince. Jeb still considered the Fire Nation his enemy. Some things were better left unsaid.
Jeb turned back to watching the others. "Why aren't you there, helping them figure out what to do next? You started this whole thing, it seems like you ought to have a hand in putting us back together."
Lee took a deep breath. A fist of fear clutched at his heart, but he knew Jeb deserved the truth. "I'm not staying either."
Jeb glanced at him.
"I guess I sort of lied, too." Lee smiled apologetically. "I never intended to stay with the Guild. But when I found out about the Dai Li, that nobody knew about the kidnapping..." Lee shrugged. "I thought people should know."
A moment of silence passed between them, each knowing what would happen next and neither willing to accept it.
"Why won't you stay?" Jeb finally asked.
Lee sighed. "I don't think the Fire Nation is still our enemy," he said softly, not daring to look in the eye him who he now considered a good friend. "I used to. But...now I'm not so sure."
He felt Jeb's gaze bore into him; he wondered if there was anger or malice in those eyes, like all the hatred Jomei's had borne.
Lee glanced up uncertainly. Jeb looked down at him with a brooding expression, but his eyes were thoughtful –maybe a little sad, maybe a little disappointed– but not angry.
"Do you mind if I ask why? I know what happened to your brother. How can you forgive that?"
Lee laughed bitterly. "I still haven't figured that out yet," he admitted. "Maybe I'll never forgive them and maybe I won't forget, but I can't justify taking more lives because of a single leg." Lee shrugged. He shook his head, completely mystified by his own resolve. "My guess is Sensu will help me with the specifics. He's always telling me that bad things happen in war, but when the war ends sometimes it's best to move on. I never bought it before, but that's what he did. It never bugs him. That always made me so angry." Pride shimmered in the young man's eyes as he pictured his brother, always standing as tall as he was capable. "Now I know it must take a lot of strength."
Jeb considered his words. He thought about his own sister, blinded in a Fire Nation attack when she was only a child. She never complained; she was never bitter.
Someone poked Lee in the ribs. Lee jumped in alarm, startling both Jeb and the young man who had poked him.
"Sorry." The young man was completely frazzled, his eyes wide and anxious. "You're Lee, aren't you, sir?"
Sir? He would have to curb that kind of talk, otherwise they might try to make a general out of him before he could explain he wasn't technically on their side. "Um, yeah, but–"
The young man looked relieved. "I think we have a problem."
Jeb frowned. "What's wrong?"
"The guard you placed on Jomei? He just let him go." The young man chewed his lip. "And Jomei looked ready for blood."
Lee jumped to his feet in alarm. "Where did he go?" he demanded.
"They both took off outside," the young man told him. "Do you think they're going to bring in back-up or something and lay waste to the cavern?"
"I don't think so," Jeb said.
The young man looked relieved. "Oh, good!"
But Lee knew exactly what Jomei had in mind. There was something he remembered about his old friend, when they would play games as children. Jomei was a sore loser.
"He's going to kill the kid," Lee realized.
Jeb looked alarm. "Why would he do that?"
"Because he knows that kid is the only reason I got involved," Lee said, starting for the cavern entrance. "Jomei hates to lose almost as much as he hates the Fire Nation and probably almost as much as he hates me now."
Jeb followed him. "Didn't you say someone was taking care of the kid?"
"Yes," Lee said, "But who knows how many people Jomei's got with him?"
Jeb sighed. "I can't believe I'm doing this..."
The two friends and partial enemies raced into the early dawn.
Zuko ducked another pot, kicking a fireball at the Dai Li agent. As the Dai Li parried, Zuko dove for his sword, grasped the handle and somersaulted back to his feet, pulling the blade away from the dirt.
A column of earth lunged toward him. Zuko sliced through the clay and the column split in two, flames sparking once in the dirt before sputtering out.
An earthen clamp shot up from the dirt, locking around Zuko's ankle. A second one reached for his other foot, but Zuko danced away in time. He swiped at the clamp with his sword but it was stuck firm. Only then did Zuko realize he had walked into a trap.
The floor was covered in a layer of clay, just thin enough to escape notice. The dirt writhed around his free foot and Zuko quickly kicked it away. The clamp around his other foot tightened. Zuko gritted his teeth. A little bit of dirt was not going to keep him from his son.
His foot flared with a sudden spurt of concentrated flame. The force of the heat as Zuko pulled his foot back broke through the clamp. Small bits of earth burst away as Zuko sped forward. He ran lightly across the dirt, weaving back and forth.
The earth snapped at Zuko as the Dai Li tried to catch hold of him. Once, twice, all misses and suddenly Zuko was upon him.
The Dai Li threw his arms up, forming a rock barrier between them. He backed away but found himself pressed against the wall. He moved to the left, instead, but the sword had already cut through.
Zuko caught the man by the lapels and threw him into the wall. He held the Dai Li there by nothing but his collar, his feet dangling inches from the floor. "Why? Who else wants to destroy the Fire Nation? Who do you work for?!"
The Dai Li slumped in his grip. He did not struggle, he made no move for the earth underfoot. He met Zuko's eyes blandly and remained silent.
Zuko gritted his teeth. He slammed the man against the rickety wood. "Who?"
The Dai Li winced, but refused to answer.
Zuko cried out in fury. He flung the Dai Li to the ground, a flame blossoming in his hand. Maybe fire would make him talk.
The Dai Li steadied himself, but still made no move to defend against attack. There was a half-smile on the Dai Li's lips, mocking the firebender.
Zuko hesitated. The crackle and hiss of his own flames snickered in his ears. They sounded like mad cackles. Like Azula. All mocking him, the Firelord who would gentle the Fire Nation, as he brutally beat the answers he needed out of his enemy. It wasn't right. Somewhere, in the back of Zuko's mind, a voice was screaming at him. He had a sneaking suspicion it was his own.
But he needed those answers. Someone out there wanted a war with him, and he was fairly certain it wasn't simply the Guild. Zuko clenched his fist.
That's not the real reason though, is it?
This man, Dai Li or not, he had taken Zuko's son from him. He had kidnapped Roh-Roh, held him captive, smuggled him into the Earth Kingdom, perhaps even harmed him.
I want answers from him, but not nearly as bad as I want to hurt him.
Zuko heaved a shuddering breath –and slowly closed his fingers around the flame. It sparked once in protest, then flickered out.
"If you won't talk," Zuko said darkly, "I'll find my answers elsewhere. Step aside."
The Dai Li narrowed his eyes. Zuko braced himself for a fight. The Dai Li stomped with his right foot and the dirt shot up from the floor to form a block; he punched out with his left arm and the block shot into the wall. Before Zuko could blink the Dai Li leapt through the gaping hole and raced into the night.
Startled, Zuko took a step after him. But he caught himself.
Right now, he knew, the enemy was not the most important thing.
He reached for the door handle, tried to turn it. It was locked. Of course it was locked. He yanked harder, wondering how strong the lock was. Zuko stepped back and in one swift move kicked the door in. Waving away the splinters and embers flurrying around his head, he stepped in, hardly daring to breathe.
The room was small and dirty. There was no window, a wretched mattress and a wash basin.
But other than that, the prison was empty.
"No," Zuko whispered.
It was all a trick? What was the point, if the guard ran off? Maybe, somehow, they had guessed he was coming. They could have taken Roh-Roh somewhere else, more clues he would have to dig up, another place he would have to find that could be twice as hard to locate.
Zuko shook his head, frustration heaving in his chest. He felt a burst of temperamental flame willing to be let loose, but Zuko refused to free it. Instead he let out a slow, deep breath. He would not let rage and anger control him, not again. Not ever.
Zuko tensed at the eerie sound behind him, suddenly aware he had dropped his sword in the outer room when he had seized hold of the Dai Li. Had the agent come back to finish him?
Slowly, Zuko turned his head.
A sharp fist punched into Zuko's back. Zuko's hand shot out, catching hold of the arm.
The door handle rattled.
Roh-Roh winced, squeezing as close into the wall as he could. He had heard the fight outside. It sounded like a bad one. But it didn't surprise him. His captors had been expecting it; he'd heard them say so. The Guild, that's what they'd called them. They said the Guild wouldn't let them stay much longer.
So, they had been right.
And now was Roh-Roh's chance to escape. He had been afraid that, when the Guild attacked, they would simply leave him prisoner here, unconcerned with his fate. But it looked like everything was working out. They were coming for him.
Roh-Roh clenched his fists. This time, he would get out.
He jumped as the door exploded. He had to step right to avoid the shattered pieces that still remained attached to the hinges as it slammed against the wall, but he was quickly grateful because it provided him a shield. Peering between the boards, he realized that the man couldn't see him.
Roh-Roh watched the man as he turned his head this way and that, surveying the room. He was tall, with thick black hair, and dressed in Earth Kingdom robes. Roh-Roh couldn't see his face. He couldn't tell if he was an earthbender or not. He wore a sheath across his back, but it was barren of a blade.
The young Fire Prince clenched his fist and pushed the door away. He winced as it creaked. The man's head jerked in surprise and Roh-Roh scowled. He took a deep breath, hoping it would make him feel braver, and leapt forward, punching out with an emphatic "Hyah!" just as his fighting mentor instructed.
His fist made contact, but as he pulled back to strike again, the man seized hold of his wrist. Roh-Roh wriggled violently. No! He had to get free. Even if he couldn't get free, he had to get off more than one punch! He tried to kick, to punch again, but the man was smothering him, pressing him so close he couldn't move.
Roh-Roh froze. Slowly, he lifted his head and looked into the man's face. Roh-Roh blinked. A familiar face. "...Dad?"
Zuko smiled, the tears running down his face leaving red trails of color on his right cheek as it washed away the white paste.
"Dad!" Roh-Roh threw himself into his father's embrace, burying his head in the dusty robes, suddenly crying too.
Zuko held him tight. "You're here," he whispered. "You're okay. Are you hurt? Are you alright?"
Roh-Roh shook his head and nodded all at once. He didn't want to budge, afraid that somehow this moment would vanish. Here, with his head buried in his father's clothes, he felt safe. He cried harder.
Zuko felt his son tremble, felt the violent tears rack the small shoulders and he felt like weeping himself. Instead, he pulled Roh-Roh into his arms and held him. "I'm here, Roh-Roh," he whispered into the boy's ear, holding him tight and ruffling his dark hair. "You're safe now. Everything's going to be okay."
Someone snickered from the doorway.
"Now, now, Fire scum; don't go making the kid promises you can't keep."
Zuko's eyes snapped open. In one smooth movement he stood, sweeping Roh-Roh protectively behind him.
One man stood in the doorway. Over his shoulder, Zuko could see a second hanging back. A lackey, he guessed. This one here was the man he had to deal with. He was smiling nastily, something clutched tight in his fist.
"Stay back," Zuko growled.
The man laughed. "I'm afraid I can't do that. This is my Kingdom, Fire scum, and until your Firelord pays my price, that boy belongs to me."
Zuko felt Roh-Roh's hand grip the back of his robe. "The Prince comes with me," he said flatly. "And if you don't step out of my way, I'll gladly remove you."
Jomei laughed sharply. "No need to be so melodramatic. You're determined and I'm determined. I understand. It's much better to make your point quickly than to waste time on idle threats."
"Idle?" Zuko snorted.
Jomei ignored him. "For example," he went on, "I made a deal with the Firelord. If he agreed to disarm and dismember his country, I would give him his son back. Obviously, he has chosen to resort to other means. Unfortunate for him. But I'm a generous man. And, like I said, determined. So if you agree to surrender peacefully into my custody, I will give the Firelord one last opportunity to accept my offer."
Zuko's eyes flamed. "I'm not a messenger."
"Pity." Jomei didn't look too disappointed. "I wasn't looking forward to a full-scale war, but it looks like you war mongers leave us with no other choice."
Zuko frowned. "War?" he repeated. "You must be joking. The Guild can't possibly hope to take on the Fire Nation on its own."
"True our numbers aren't terribly optimistic, but I have a feeling that will change in a few days." Jomei treated him to an oily smile. "But you won't be around to see it."
A few days? Zuko's mind raced. What was he talking about?
Jomei held up his fist. Clutched in it was a shiny wooden blow dart. "Not a very terrifying weapon, I know, but it gets the job done."
Zuko heard Roh-Roh gasp. The boy's fingers tightened around his robe.
"Perhaps the boy has told you we've stuck him with a few shirshu darts during his stay with us?" Jomei cocked an eyebrow at him. "He gave his first guards a little trouble, you know. They were afraid to open his cell without paralyzing him first."
Zuko clenched his fists, anger flaring in his chest.
Jomei gestured with the blow dart. "But this isn't loaded with shirshu venom now. No, this is the saliva of a grass cobra. One prick will kill you almost instantly. You will die first –very painfully, I might add– then the boy, and I will send both of your bodies to the Firelord just before the battle begins." He raised the blow dart to his smirking lips.
Zuko started forward, flame flickering on his fingertips. But he wouldn't make it. Jomei would shoot him before he could strike, and there was still the second man out there.
A cry of pain shattered the tense silence.
For a terrifying instant, Zuko thought Jomei had aimed at Roh-Roh instead. But Roh-Roh was still standing, his eyes wide and frightened.
The man in the outer room had disappeared.
Jomei staggered. The blow dart slipped from between his fingers, clattered and rolled across the floor. He half-turned, glancing down, and was surprised to find a small, pearl-handled dagger protruding from his side. His gaze rose again. "You..." It was more of a whimper than a snarl as the world spun around him, but the hatred gleamed clear in his eyes.
Lee tried to catch his childhood friend as he fell, blinking back stinging tears. But Jomei, in a maddened daze, shrieked and batted him away. Lee winced at the blow, stepping back.
Jeb reached around and held Jomei fast as he continued to writhe, clawing at the knife in his side.
Lee looked away. His eyes rested on the uncertain face of the Fire Prince as the boy started forward, slipping his fingers through his father's. Lee looked at Zuko. "Is he okay?" he asked quietly.
Zuko nodded. His eyes glanced at Jomei, wriggling in the dirt. He looked back at Lee. "Thank you," he whispered.
Lee swallowed hard. He had stabbed his friend in the back, literally and figuratively. He knew it was a moment that would likely haunt his sleepless nights for a while, but he didn't regret it. Watching the little boy curl his fingers tight around his father's hand, Lee knew he'd only done what was necessary.
What's this?! A chapter that actually ends with some kind of resolution!? I must be going soft on you, dearies. ;)
There are really so many things about this chapter that I love. The scene between Lee and Jeb, little Roh-Roh putting up a good fight, the culmination of Zuko, Lee and Jomei. Have I mentioned that Lee is a favorite of mine?
For the collective works of the author, go here.