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|The Boys Are Back|
July 17, 2012
Previously in Air
His most recent encounter with a firebender has pushed Lee to finally join the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet. Meanwhile, said firebender is still missing and Aang has gone out in search of him, while Katara -resigned to her new fate of motherhood- retreats with Appa to Ba Sing Se for her own safety and the safety of their unborn child.
Chapter Twenty-Six: The Boys Are Back
Lee didn't know where Jomei was taking him. He didn't really care. He followed his friend into the rocky wilderness, through clumps of flourishing green, barren patches of dirt, and piles of boulders. Soon, he lost all direction and they were too deep in the valley for him to tell where any city might lie.
"I'm curious," Jomei said. "What did you tell your parents?"
Lee shrugged. "I said I needed some time to myself to get my head straightened out. They're planning to travel to Ba Sing Se, for the coronation, so I told them I'd meet them there."
"The coronation?" Jomei shot Lee a decidedly mischievous grin. "That's perfect!"
"So...where are we going exactly?" Lee asked finally. They had been wandering the hills for quite some time, and he couldn't tell if they were actually making any progress. He had a sneaking suspicion that he'd seen that rock before. Was Jomei leading him in circles?
"Don't worry," Jomei laughed. "We're almost there. I had to take you the long way around, so you couldn't find the hideout on your own."
Lee frowned, raising an eyebrow.
"I don't doubt you," Jomei quickly assured him. "It's just standard procedure."
"You sound like you've done this a lot."
Jomei shrugged. "Well, you know. There are always a few rebels in every city."
Lee wasn't sure if he found this comforting or not.
Jomei halted before a cliff face in the small valley. "Here we are."
Lee nodded. "I've heard cliff walls are all the rage for secret rebel organizations this year."
Jomei laughed. He stomped a foot down, reached out with his hands and pushed out as though forcing apart a heavy, stubborn curtain. Slowly, the cliff face cracked down the middle. With a sound of rolling thunder, the two sides pulled apart.
"Welcome to the Guild, Lee."
Lee stared into the cavern within. It was massive. Tents were pitched in rows and there were nearly a hundred people milling about between them. Lee spotted odd contraptions, catapults and war machines lined up behind the patched tents. The Guild of the Granite Gauntlet was certainly preparing for something.
"C'mon, Lee." Jomei chuckled, starting forward. "You don't want to get left behind."
Lee hurried after his friend.
He had always suspected that Jomei was some kind of recruiter for the Guild, but as they pushed their way through the crowd, Lee got the feeling Jomei wasn't just another rebel. People nodded as he passed, and if someone stopped him for a quick word or question, they addressed him respectfully.
"Don't worry, you'll have time to look around later," Jomei assured Lee as he rushed him to the back of the cavern. "But first, I have to introduce you to some people."
Lee raised an eyebrow. "Important people?"
Jomei chuckled. "Don't be nervous. You'll do fine."
There were a few larger tents pitched at the back of the cavern and, without waiting for an invitation, Jomei slipped into one of them, dragging Lee along behind.
There was a table set in the middle of the room. A broad-shouldered man with a bushy brown beard was leaning on it as he glared at the two men across from him.
Jomei stepped in just as the bearded man bellowed "You do not order me!"
The two men stood so still they might have been mistaken for statues. They exchanged a quick glance. One answered quietly, "It is according to the plan."
Jomei muttered, "Your plan, perhaps."
Lee shot his friend a curious glance, but Jomei didn't seem to notice. He was too busy glaring at the motionless duo.
The bearded man suddenly spotted them. "Oh, Jomei, you're back."
The other two merely glanced at Jomei then Lee, turned, and brushed past them out of the tent.
"Sorry," Jomei said with an unapologetic smile, "Did we interrupt something?"
The bearded man snorted contemptuously. "Nothing important." He raised an eyebrow. "I see you've brought back a friend."
Jomei nodded. "Lee, this is Tani, one of the Guild's guiding hands."
Lee grinned. "You don't have to introduce your dad to me, Jomei."
Tani stepped around the table and clapped both boys on the shoulder. "It's good to see you, Lee," he said, looking the boy over carefully. "Jomei's been talking about you joining us for a long time now. I'm glad to see you finally have." His voice dipped. "How's your family?"
Lee's heart skipped. "Not here."
It was all the answer they needed.
"Someday," Jomei told him, "They'll see it too."
Lee only nodded.
"What do you think of our outfit?" Tani asked.
"It's...amazing," Lee admitted. "I didn't expect so many people."
Jomei laughed. "This is only one pocket, Lee, and we're out in the middle of nowhere. You haven't seen anything yet!"
Tani chuckled at the shock in Lee's eyes. "You're not the first person to underestimate us and I don't think you'll be the last."
Jomei perched on the table. "All the better for us. The greatest enemy is the one you don't see coming."
"Let's hope our luck holds," Tani said. "Why don't you give Lee the grand tour, Jomei? As much as I abhor it, I have some unfinished business to settle with my colleagues."
Aang's stomach grumbled loudly. He groaned. He had successfully ignored his hunger for the last hour. He needed to find Zuko as fast as he could, and surely he was getting close by now. But then, that's what he'd thought an hour ago.
From his glider, Aang scanned the earth below once more, searching for any sign of his friend. Zuko had made it much farther than Aang at first guessed. "Where are you?" he muttered.
He received no response, but the shadow coiled in the back of his mind reacted. Behind his eyes, the pressure intensified. Aang's head swam. For an instant his vision blurred. His glider dropped from its air current and the jolt of the fall startled him back to reality. Aang twisted in the air to catch a gentle downdraft and snapped his glider shut.
Maybe a quick break wouldn't be so bad, he thought, alighting to earth.
He crossed his legs and sank to sit in the tall grass. The small pack Sela had given him was filled with provisions and he retrieved one of the sticky buns. He took a quick bite, aware that the pain had not yet subsided. Not since he'd blacked out transporting the healer to Katara. What was once an uncomfortable sensation had evolved into an ever-present ache in his temples.
Aang quickly polished off the bun. He took a deep breath, rolled his neck, and straightened his meditative position. Hunger was not the real reason for resting from the search. He reached into his tunic and pulled out his beads. He carefully wound it round his hand and when the talisman of the earth insignia surfaced, Aang closed his eyes and snapped the string taut.
Kyoshi appeared before him.
She inclined her head. "Avatar Aang."
"Kyoshi." Aang chose his words carefully. "You experienced much in your life. Have you ever felt a...a dark presence?"
Kyoshi frowned. "I'm not certain I understand."
Aang let out a puff of air. "The last few days, there's been a shadow in the back of my mind. It feels like an extra weight, throwing off the balance of the world."
"I have felt such things," she confirmed with a nod.
Excitement shot through Aang. "You have?" he cried.
"Yes. All Avatars experience it, Aang. It alerts us to any threat that may disrupt the world's harmony."
The thrill of success petered out of Aang's system. "Oh." His shoulders slumped in disappointment.
Kyoshi's eyes, hooded by the blood-red paint, watched him carefully. She did not ask for an explanation, but her gaze demanded it. With a sigh, Aang gave in.
"It's not like that," he explained. "This feeling is...different."
"Different how?" Kyoshi pressed.
Aang sighed in frustration. "That's just it; I'm not really sure. Maybe it's more intense? I don't know, it's..." He frantically foraged for the right words. "It's darker," he told her. "And it's painful."
Kyoshi's frown deepened. "Painful?"
Aang shrugged. "Sometimes, I think it gets agitated. Like a boar-q-pine when you stray too close to its territory. When it's agitated, it attacks, but–" His hand strayed to his forehead, the ghost of that sharp twinge still haunting him. "– it's not really physical. It's more like it attacks my spirit." He frowned. No, that wasn't right. "My –my very essence."
Kyoshi studied him for a long moment, mulling over the muddled depiction. Finally, she spoke. "It does not sound good."
Aang couldn't help snorting. "No kidding. But what am I supposed to do?"
Kyoshi slowly shook her head. "I...don't know. This is unfamiliar territory for me." She looked back up at Aang sharply. "Is there anything else?" she asked, "Or is it only the feeling?"
Aang hesitated. He remembered the healer's account of their journey. How he had blacked out; how even Appa seemed to lose consciousness and they began to fall; how Aang had suddenly grabbed the healer, and told him about his unborn child, his eyes burning with a dying light that had not seemed his own.
Many things disturbed him about the story, not the least of which was the fact that Aang remembered none of it.
But the most disturbing thing of all –the part that filled him with a dread he could not shake– was how close he had come to death. If it had not been for the healer, all three of them would have plummeted to their doom. The situation had been little different than when he was a runaway, caught helpless in a storm. Then, the Avatar State had saved him.
So why hadn't it saved him this time?
Aang did not have an answer, but somehow he knew that it was not the way it was meant to be.
"I'm not sure," he replied.
Aside from Tani, there was another leader to whom Lee was introduced. His name was Wun and he was just as eager to see a new face. Wun, too, seemed to think the world of Jomei. He insisted they join him for a quick cup of tea, and as Lee listened to the two converse he began to realize that Jomei was not merely respected because of his father. Their visit was cut short as Wun was soon called to join Tani and the other two men to discuss 'matters of utmost importance'. Lee was more than a little surprised when his friend was not asked to join them, but he didn't press the matter. Jomei showed him around the cavern, demonstrated a few of the weirder contraptions, and introduced him to a few people. Finally they sat together looking over the whole camp.
"Are you going to tell me what the big plan is?"
Jomei chuckled. "No offense, Lee, but apart from the General and a few select leaders, nobody knows what the plan is."
Lee smiled knowingly. "You know what the plan is."
Jomei held a finger to his lips. "I'm one of the select. But that's kind of need-to-know."
Lee raised an eyebrow. "Big leagues, huh? I won't tell a soul." He cast his gaze over the cavern. But when someone caught his eye he frowned. "Who are the gloomy guys?"
Jomei blinked. "Gloomy?"
Lee gestured down at Tani's tent. The two men from before were stepping out.
"Oh. That's Nguyen and Po. They're also leaders in the Guild."
"Really?" Lee couldn't help sounding incredulous. They certainly weren't respected by Wun, Jomei or his father. And they were all leaders?
Jomei seemed to sense his thoughts. "They were...fundamental in a recent operation."
"So they got a promotion?"
Jomei hesitated, his eyes darkening. "Of sorts."
"You don't like them."
Jomei chuckled. "You're perceptive, Lee."
"It's blatantly obvious, Jomei."
Jomei smiled. "Perhaps you're right. No, I don't like them. They are not nearly as...dedicated to the cause. At any rate, it's nothing to worry about." He suddenly stood. "My dad will probably want a word with me now so I'm going to leave you in some very capable hands."
Garrow was a man used to hard work. Lee could tell by his heavy, calloused hands. Garrow reminded him painfully of his own father. It was to this man and his family Jomei entrusted Lee.
Clara, Garrow's wife, smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry, Jomei; we'll show him the ropes."
"I have no doubt," Jomei said with a smile. He nodded to Lee. "I'll see you later."
Lee didn't have a moment to watch him leave. Garrow caught him by the shoulder and led him into the tent with Clara shooing them in from behind.
There were several young people milling about inside. They glanced up as Lee entered, but only a few seemed genuinely interested.
One young man came forward. "New recruit?"
"This is Lee," Garrow said. "Jomei just brought him in. Lee, my son Jeb."
Jeb nodded. "Welcome."
Garrow took Lee around for introductions. Everyone nodded politely to him, though some seemed eager for a new face and others merely indifferent. As near as Lee could tell, none of them were actually related to Garrow. Doubtless many of these people –like Lee– had joined the Guild despite a difference of opinion with their family. And Jomei made sure they all found a place tucked securely under Garrow's wing where there could be no chance for regret. Very clever.
"And these," Garrow chuckled, gesturing at the last two, "Are a few of our newer editions. This is Haru and Jen Yi. Oh, looks like the wife needs help with dinner." He wagged a finger at the two rebels. "Play nice."
"Sure," the young woman snorted.
Haru bowed politely. He was a good-looking guy with an effective chick-magnet in the form of a neatly trimmed mustache. Already Lee noticed several girls glancing his way despite the tough-looking young woman by his side.
Jen Yi didn't budge. She slouched with her arms folded but treated Lee to a broad grin. It wasn't necessarily a friendly 'nice to meet you' grin; more of a 'don't cross me and I won't have to kick your butt' grin. He couldn't see her eyes for the long black hair that hung over her face and down her back, but he felt the unnerving feeling of being closely scrutinized.
"Nice to meet you," Lee said. He hesitated. "What brings you to the Guild?"
"The same thing that brings everybody," Jen Yi said sarcastically, "Didn't you come to learn origami?"
Lee flushed. "Right. Sorry. Stupid question."
Haru smiled apologetically, twirling a finger by his ear. "Who recruited you?" he asked.
"Jomei," Lee said.
"That guy gets around," Haru admitted.
Lee shrugged. "We grew up together. He's been trying to draft me for awhile."
Jen Yi cocked her head. "What took you so long to sign on?"
Haru elbowed her in the arm. "Sorry; she's blunt."
"Like a cudgel," Jen Yi agreed. "You going to answer the question or not, Lee?"
Lee hesitated. "It was because of my family," he said finally.
"Ah, that old ball and chain," Jen Yi said dismissively. "I'm an orphan. Never had to submit myself to that kind of tyrannical dictatorship. But Haru here, he's a classic case. His dad forced all his opinions on him and assumed Haru shared them. Then he went all high and mighty and started training Haru for this big important job that he didn't even want. So what's the matter with your family?"
Lee shifted uncomfortably. Haru was glaring at Jen Yi, but she ignored him. "They don't exactly see the Fire Nation as a threat," Lee said finally. "I didn't want it to be a rift between us but...I just couldn't take it anymore."
"I'm sorry," Haru said softly.
"Yeah, well, at least he's got a spine," Jen Yi said. She suddenly leaned forward eagerly. "You're in with Jomei, right? Heard anything juicy?"
Lee frowned, confused. "What do you mean?"
Jen Yi snorted. "The plan, doofus! Tell us what the big secret plan is. At least give us a hint!"
"You'll have to excuse my friend," Haru said quickly. "She's just a little impatient at the moment."
"I'm way past impatient," Jen Yi retorted, tossing her head. "I've been fed up for about a week now. I don't see why they have to keep everything so hush-hush. We're all on the same side, aren't we?"
"Sorry," Lee told her. "Jomei wouldn't tell me anything."
Jen Yi scoffed, but before she could call him something worse than 'doofus', Clara announced that everyone was welcome to dinner. Garrow suddenly appeared and hauled Lee away.
"New guy always has to entertain Dad through dinner," Jeb whispered as they sat.
Jeb grinned. "I hope you know some really bad puns."
Just as much as Garrow reminded Lee of his father, Jeb reminded him of Sensu. Partway through dinner he rescued Lee from a string of cheesy jokes.
"I heard you talking with Jen Yi earlier," he said quietly. "I wanted to apologize about what she said. She comes on pretty strong. It doesn't help that she's never had any family." He hesitated. "I was sorry to hear about yours."
Lee felt a lump catch in his throat. Wordlessly, he nodded.
"She's really not too bad once you get to know her," Jeb assured him. "She's just irritated because of all the waiting."
"What are we waiting for?" Lee asked.
Jeb shrugged. "Instructions. The General's the one who calls all the shots and he's based somewhere else. We just have to wait around until an order comes through."
"Oh." Lee suddenly chuckled. "I was a little worried. She made it sound like it was some big conspiracy."
"To Jen Yi, everything is a conspiracy. I don't know what Dad was thinking, leaving you at her mercy."
Lee glanced around, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jen Yi. "Where'd she go, anyway?"
"Hmm? Oh." Jeb chuckled, a twinkle in his eye. "Haru's gone too. I'm sure there are a few broken-hearted ladies because of Mister Stache, but Jen Yi isn't one of them. They sneak off sometimes. Every chance they get. To be alone." He stressed the word out while dramatically clasping his hands and fluttering his eyelashes.
"Orders form the General," Wun said. "It's time to eliminate the moles. They've outlived their usefulness and we can't afford their attention turning to Ba Sing Se."
Jomei grinned. "It's about time. I'm sick of playing pretend."
Tani frowned, stroking his beard. "They won't go down easily," he told his son. "Are you sure it can be done?"
Jomei nodded. "I've got just the right people in mind. The traitors won't know what hit them."
Tani hesitated, then nodded. "Do it." He smiled. "With any luck, we might make it back in time for the coronation."
The three men chuckled.
Zuko looked up at the sound of Aang's voice.
The Avatar watched him with uncertainty. The Firelord had been easy to find from the air. Smoke still curled up from the forest and bore an ugly scar from the fight.
"What are you doing?" Aang asked.
Zuko sat on a fallen tree, staring into space. The ostrich horse Silkie lay curled at his feet, sleeping. Around him, pieces of the forest were blackened from the fire. His fire. He slowly opened his hands and examined his palms. He had lost his temper when he fought Azula. But it was more than that. For the first time in twelve years, Zuko had fueled his fire with anger. Why? Because it was quicker. Because it was hot. Because it was there. He clenched his fists closed.
"Waiting," he told Aang. "And thinking."
There was a shadow in Zuko's eyes. Aang recognized that look. He decided not to mention it. There were some things that people were better off sorting out themselves. And if Zuko wanted help, all he had to do was ask.
Aang glanced about. "What happened to Azula?"
Zuko shrugged. "She took off."
Aang's eyebrows knit together. "What, she just attacked you and ran away?"
Zuko didn't look up at him. "She was playing games with me," he said softly. "Aang..." His voice was suddenly urgent. "She knew about Roh-Roh."
The news hit Aang like a falling anvil. He sat down. "What? How?"
"I don't know," Zuko said, but his eyes darkened.
"You...you don't think she's behind it all, do you?"
Zuko frowned. The kidnapping was just malicious enough to have Azula's stamp of approval, but it didn't fit with the knowledge that the kidnappers were earthbenders. He remembered when she'd attacked him, with no plan or clear intent.
"How long has she been out?"
Zuko blinked. "I...don't know." He hadn't even thought to ask the question.
"You would visit her, though, right?" Aang pressed. "When was the last time you saw her?"
Zuko's heart quickened at the thought of the asylum, but he thought back. "Just a few weeks ago, I think."
"Oh." Aang's shoulders slumped. "Then it couldn't possibly be her. There's no way she could have arranged everything so quickly."
Zuko scowled. If his sister wasn't behind it, then how did she know about it? And what was she doing here? Laying a trap for him?
Another thought chilled him.
Just who had let her out?
Zuko shifted, shaking the thoughts from his head. He would figure it out later.
He looked up at Aang. He suddenly felt guilty, because he hadn't even asked the most important question yet. "Katara?"
Relief slid over Aang's face. "She's fine now. It was close though. I sent her back to Ba Sing Se."
Zuko nodded slowly. "Good."
Aang wasn't sure which Zuko was happier to hear, that Katara was better or that she'd been sent out of danger.
"What do we do now?" Zuko asked. "Head to Gaoling?"
Aang chuckled wryly. "We don't need to. Iroh had a message for me in Ba Sing Se. Toph finally got in touch. She wants us to meet her."
Ahhh...Home Sweet Secret Rebel Hideout!
Wun, too... -I totally made that joke, hehe. XD
Long live the Chick Magnet, Mister Stache!
*gasp* Haru! How could you?! No wonder your dad is so worried about you! *bangs head into desk*
Garrow shares my affinity for puns of all kinds and super cheesy jokes. I love that guy, hehe.
What's this? you cry in amazement. Finally some semblance of a clue as to when we might see Toph?
- Guess you'll find out next week, won't you? In the immortal words of Sheldon Cooper: Mua ha ha.
This chapter's title is an allusion to the fact that we finally see Aang and Zuko teamed up again, Lee and Jomei have popped up again, and also the first appearance of Haru in this story. Wahoo! The boys are truly back.
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