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|The Spirit of the Matter|
September 11, 2012
Previously in 'Air'
Lee has grown suspicious of the rebels he knows as Jen Yi and Haru; he decides to keep an eye on them. Toph and Haru are keeping an eye out for the two rebel leaders they know to be former Dai Li. Aang had a disturbing dream of Yue, calling out to him for help. He decides to attempt contacting the Avatar Spirit for answers.
Chapter Thirty-Five: The Spirit of the Matter
Stars. There were hundreds of them. They winked at Aang as he hovered in the eternal cosmos. The blackness encompassing him was nothing like the void that had threatened his dreams; this had substance, a spiritual energy buzzing with the life force of the universe.
Aang drew in a slow breath. He reached farther into himself, though he wasn't sure what exactly he was looking for or how to find it.
How did one commune with one's own essence? It was simple when he needed to talk with Roku or Kyoshi. He knew how to draw on them, because they were linked by the Avatar Spirit they shared. Now he needed to find a way to call on the Spirit itself, without drawing with it one of its mortal hosts.
If he was honest with himself, Aang wasn't even certain this feat was possible. Being embodied on the mortal plane, the Avatar was not like other spirits. When Aang lapsed into the Avatar State, he had access to every one of his past lives –knowledge, skill, power, even emotion. But as far as the Avatar Spirit itself, nothing. He was uncertain if it even had a consciousness of its own.
In his mind's eye, Aang envisioned an old memory. The giant phantom of himself –locked in the Avatar State– that had appeared when Guru Pathik tried to help him unblock his charkas so long ago.
The vision sent a thrill through him. Aang grasped at the feeling, drawing it out.
Before him, the image began to shape, shimmering dimly into view like a spectre in the darkness. The stars beyond twinkled vaguely through the phantom. Aang tilted his head upward and found his own eyes staring back at him, alight and devoid of emotion.
"I-I don't know what to do," Aang admitted. "Yue tried to warn me about something, but I don't understand."
The ominous ghost did not reply. Its unnerving gaze remained fixed on him. Floating together in the eerie expanse, they stared at one another for a long moment.
Aang waited, not sure what to expect. He wasn't even sure it could help him.
Just when he was certain this plan was fruitless, an aurora borealis sprang from the giant. It snaked forward, forming a path of shifting colors across the dark expanse between the two before coming to rest at Aang's feet.
Toph and Haru sat in silence. There was no real reason for the silence, Haru tried to reassure himself. They had just run out of things to say. After all, when you were waiting for two hermits to appear from their abode, topics of conversation didn't exactly fall into your lap. That was most certainly the reason. It couldn't be that there was anything...awkward between them. Right?
He got the feeling she was still annoyed about the hermit lizards. She hadn't mentioned it, but she had put him through some rigorous and tedious exercises. His muscles still ached and his bruises had bruises. He wondered if she'd guessed why he'd held back. Not that it would make any difference. It didn't mean anything. He was only being considerate. Certainly she wouldn't hold that against him.
He glanced over at Toph. He thought about thanking her, for helping out with Lyra. But one look at her prominent scowl and he knew Toph would only see it as a sign of weakness. The last thing he wanted was one more trait for her to complain about.
"Someone's coming," Toph muttered.
Haru glanced left. "It's the tea man," he said. As far as they could tell, the tea was always delivered at the same time every day.
Toph scoffed. "That's all they ever do, sit in their tent and drink tea. You'd think guys like that would have to stay in shape."
"I guess fighting them won't be as hard as you thought," Haru said with a smile.
"Challenging," Toph insisted. "Not hard. And if they never set foot outside of their tent I won't get the chance to fight them."
Haru watched as the rebel carried the tea tray into the tent, disappearing only momentarily behind the flaps before reemerging. A thought struck him. "Jen Yi," he asked quietly, stroking his mustache, "what do they do at night?"
Toph frowned. He was using that voice, the one that meant he'd just mastered the newest technique she'd thrown at him. "At night?" she repeated incredulously. Her own tone was a cover though. She felt her heart sink. "Sleep?"
Haru shook his head. "We were outside, what, two days ago?"
"By my reckoning," Haru went on, twirling one side of his mustache around his finger, "The sun is probably setting just about now."
Toph groaned. "Don't tell me..."
Haru sat up, suddenly excited. "Maybe there's a reason they only drink tea in the evening. Maybe we never see them come out of their tent because–"
"Stuff it, Haru," Toph snapped tersely. "I get it."
Haru frowned disapprovingly at her. "I may have just solved all our problems. You could at least let me say it."
Toph cracked her knuckles. "Have I mentioned how much I want to bash some heads together?"
"I can't believe I didn't think of that," Toph muttered.
Haru couldn't resist. "You have to learn to think outside the box," he told her. It was something his dad always said to him, something he'd never truly appreciated before. "You have to be open to all possibilities, not just the ones you expect."
For a brief second, Toph wasn't sure whether to be amused or irritated. Finally she snickered, slugging his shoulder. "Okay, so maybe there's hope for you after all."
Tentatively, Aang alighted on the narrow rainbow bridge. He raced across it, balancing precariously on occasion when he lost his footing. As he drew closer, the white glow of the Avatar State leapt like a catching flame to his own arrows. His tattoos sprang to light with power. They floated face to face in the expanse, the Avatar and his Spirit. A matching set illuminating the darkness.
The phantom did not move, but Aang felt its presence weigh down on him. Impressions, more than words, seemed to answer Aang's uncertainty.
A vision of the Spirit World blossomed in Aang's mind, overcoming his senses and drowning out the cosmos surrounding him. The eerie place looked much the same as it always did, but an unshakable dread overshadowed it. The ugly gouge had swallowed a third of the sky. Black tendrils oozed from the open wound like greedy fingers stretching out for forbidden cakes.
A shiver snaked down Aang's spine.
"Yue showed that to me, but I wasn't sure if it was a dream." Under his breath he muttered, "I wish it had been."
A sense of understanding met his comment, but not much pity.
The vision faded away, returning him to the cosmos. Aang found his gaze locked with the glowing eyes.
"What is it?" he asked.
Only a picture of the ink-black void in response.
Aang shook his head. "I know that. I saw it. I felt it. But what is it?"
Frustration boiled in Aang's chest. "Then what am I supposed to do about it?" he exploded. The glow of his arrows brightened with each shout, casting an eerie glow on the phantom's mostly black form.
To his surprise, Aang received an answer. Another image, the face of a man.
The image grew stronger, engraining itself in his mind's eye.
"How do I–"
Terror –sudden and inexplicable– seized his chest. Aang staggered. The hairs on his neck stood on end. Wrenching his gaze from the phantom's, Aang glanced over his shoulder.
Across the sky, stars shuddered and blinked out. A jagged crack split through the expanse.
"No," Aang breathed.
An icicle of pain pierced his heart. Aang gasped, clutching at his chest.
The crack stretched out and the aching cold shot through his body as his blood turned like ice in his veins. The darkness soaked the buzzing energy as the coldness sapped the warmth from Aang. His limbs fell limp and useless at his sides.
The terror clawed its way up Aang's throat, igniting panic in his head.
Aang turned back.
The void now loomed all around him. The giant spectre seemed suddenly inconsequential shadowed by the immense darkness. The void flickered around it, its tendrils caressing the glowing arrows. The light began to fade.
"No!" Aang cried, though his voice was choked and sluggish.
As the Spirit's glow bled out, his own strength was ripped away. The white glow drained from his arm, replaced with a black so black it shimmered. He stumbled back, swiping at his arms. The shadow clung tight. It encroached farther down his arrows. A surge of pain followed its wake as it crept over his skin, both blazing hot and bitterly cold. The agony sank deep into his bones, eating away at his soul. A landslide of despair, horror and helplessness swept over him. Memories, emotions, his very essence began to fade into the darkness, into nothing.
A desperate scream ripped from Aang's throat.
With the last vestige of light wavering in its eyes, the Spirit looked at Aang. The speck of light flashed.
For an instant, the light overcame the darkness.
Aang gulped down a breath of air, unaware he had been drowning in shadows. In the light of the Spirit, the black stain on his tattoos squirmed. Holes punctured the darkness and it shriveled into nothing.
Hope surged through Aang. He waited for the return of the glow. He waited for the power to seep back into his soul. But beneath the darkness lay only the mortality of a simple blue tattoo.
Dread encompassed him. He looked up at the Spirit just as the flash faded. The pinprick of light clung for a moment, refusing to bow to the darkness. The last of the Spirit stared into Aang and Aang knew there was no hope.
The darkness pounded at them. Their burst of strength was gone. Their only hope of survival had bought them a mere moment, as precious as it was. Somehow, Aang felt the Spirit already knew this. Then why had it bothered? Aang was free from the darkness now, but he could feel it latching onto him once more.
At this, it seemed that the Spirit laughed. Bitter amusement rang through Aang's head.
There is always hope, Avatar.
Under Aang's feet, the rainbow bridge shuddered. Halfway between him and what remained of the Spirit, the glowing line that connected them split.
Aang gasped. An excess weight seemed to lift from his soul, leaving him light-headed and ungrounded. Setting him free. He hung for an instant, surrounded by the void on all sides.
The last speck of light winked at him before fading into shadow.
As he plummeted, he found himself looking up. In the eternal darkness, a soft glow shimmered above him. Yue. In the same motionless state from his dream. Eyes desperate. Still reaching out for him. Was she really there? Or only another vision?
The darkness around him flickered to life. Images flashed in a sickening blur. Memories of his life. Seeing Katara for the first time. Their first kiss. Defeating Ozai. Talking with Roku. Sitting around a table with his friends.
But there were other moments. Moments he could not recall. Weddings for children he didn't have, battles with people he'd never fought, funerals for dear friends he didn't know. They forced their way into his head, cramming his mind with the experiences of a thousand lifetimes.
Still he fell.
Something lurched in Aang's chest. Emotions plowed into him as though breaking free from a floodgate. Confusion, terror, and a horrible sensation of emptiness. Pain and panic roared in his head. Unbidden tears streamed from his eyes. A scream tore from his throat and echoed above him as he left it behind.
Mercifully, unconsciousness claimed the Avatar and he felt no more.
"What are you doing, Lee?"
Lee started violently at the voice, cracking his head on the low overhang he forgot he was crouching under. "Ouch!" Rubbing carefully at his sore cranium, he glanced over his shoulder.
Jomei stood over him, chuckling. "Counting cavehoppers? You really must be bored."
Lee blinked sleepily. He must have drifted off again. Idiot! He stole a peek at where he'd last spotted Jen Yi and Haru. To his relief, they were still there. "Nah," he told Jomei. "I just needed some space."
Jomei raised an incredulous eyebrow. "So you picked the tiniest cubbyhole in the cavern?"
"But how long did it take you to find me?" Lee pointed out with a wink.
Jomei chuckled. "I guess I can't argue with that." He sat cross-legged beside Lee, leaning back against the cavern wall.
Inwardly, Lee groaned. He'd been watching Jen Yi and Haru for hours. Already, most of the camp had turned in for the night. He could barely keep his eyes open, and the two of them just sat there, staring into the distance. Every moment he hoped they would decide to call it a night, but still they sat there. The last thing he needed was Jomei sapping his attention when the two finally did move. But Lee had already decided that he wouldn't tell Jomei what he was up to. After all, it could turn out to be a worthless surveillance.
Lee wriggled out of his hidey-hole. "What have you been doing?"
Jomei shrugged. "I've been putting the finishing touches on the plan," he said with a mysterious grin.
"I don't suppose you'll share?" Lee prodded, more from habit then actual hope.
Jomei shook his head. "Not just yet."
"I didn't see that coming. Honest."
Jomei smiled. "The pieces are coming together," he assured Lee, "Whether you can see them or not. The time is approaching. Tani's already been called away by the General."
"Really?" Lee was surprised.
"You've been missing out, running off to find your quiet place," Jomei told him. "He left this afternoon."
"So Wun's holding down the fort?" Lee asked.
Jomei nodded. "We only have to deal with the traitors. After that, you and I will follow after my father and join the spearhead of the resistance."
"That sounds big and important," Lee said with a grin.
Jomei shared his smile. "You have no idea."
Out of the corner of his eye, Lee saw Haru stand up. He had to get rid of Jomei. Lee opened his mouth in a wide yawn that only started as a fake and stretched his arms.
Jomei chuckled. "You look exhausted."
"You should get some rest." Jomei stood. "The battle may be closer than you think."
The Dai Li slept during the day. It was such a simple explanation. Toph still couldn't believe she hadn't thought of it. And after all that sitting and waiting, she and Haru still didn't know what the two of them were up to. They had followed Nguyen and Po to the cavern entrance, but there they had to stop. While their Dai Li prey exercised their authority for a night romp, Toph and Haru were stuck inside. Lowly soldiers like them were only allowed out once every few days, and they were never released into the night.
Jomei said it was a necessary step to keep away unwanted attention; Toph suspected he just didn't trust his 'brothers' in arms.
Toph huffed loudly, blowing her long bangs from her face. Jomei was a guy to watch out for. He was slick, deviously clever and wasn't afraid to lie through his teeth. She hated that combination.
There was a soft snore beside her. Toph frowned down at Haru.
Now he was at the other end of the extreme. He was moderately smart but it would never amount to much because he was too nice. To the point of nausea. As if that wasn't bad enough, he was naïve; he optimistically saw the best in people. The only thing going for him was his knack at reading between the lines. Haru could listen to someone talk, push past what they were saying, and hear what they meant. And even that he screwed up because he was too polite to butt into their business. Idiot.
Toph punched him.
Haru bolted upright. "Ow!" He glared at her, rubbing his sore shoulder. "What was that for?"
"Is it morning yet?" she demanded. "I want to find whatever those two bozos thought was so interesting."
She and Haru had camped out near the cavern entrance most of the night, waiting for Nguyen and Po's return. They had assumed that the Dai Li were going out for a breath of fresh air, and maybe to hone their skills, but it wasn't until two guard duties later that the men reappeared. By then, Haru was fast asleep, so after she made certain the Dai Li returned to their tent she tried to rest herself. She couldn't sleep, of course; she was too wired.
Haru glanced around blearily. A handful of people were moving about the camp. Some of them were cooking. "Looks like it."
"Great!" Toph jumped to her feet. "Well don't sit there all day, Sleepy Head; come on!" She stomped a foot into the ground and a column of earth erupted under Haru, flinging him upright.
"What about breakfast?"
"All you ever do is eat," she declared. "You don't need a fat stomach, on top of everything else."
Haru blinked, thoroughly confused. "On top of what?"
Toph pushed him forward. "A fat stomach impedes earthbending!"
"Okay, okay; stop pushing!"
Haru looked out over the barren plain. He half-expected to find some rocky spire he had somehow missed before, but there was nothing. Just dirt and boulders and brittle grass. Not exactly the venue to mesmerize two former Dai Li agents for over six hours.
"What do you suppose they were doing?"
Toph froze, throwing an arm out to stop Haru.
Haru pressed his lips tight.
"Someone's following us," Toph whispered.
Haru glanced around, but couldn't see anyone. It didn't mean much, though. There were plenty of boulder clusters for a person to duck behind. "Do you think Nguyen and Po followed us?"
"There's only one. I don't think it's either of them. The footsteps are wrong." She frowned suddenly. "What part of shh don't you get?"
Haru rolled his eyes.
Toph acted. Turning quickly, her arm blurred in a sideways chopping motion.
Somewhere close behind they could hear the shift of displaced earth and a pained oomph! Toph and Haru raced toward it.
The missile of rock still loomed out of the earth. Beneath it laid Lee, dizzily shaking his head and rubbing his sore midriff.
Toph placed her hands on her hips. "What are you doing here?"
"What are you doing here?" Lee shot back.
"Considering that she's not in a very good mood," Haru advised him, "I suggest you answer."
Lee raised an eyebrow, wondering for an instant if that was a joke. Then the lump forming on his head twinged painfully. "I...just came out to get some air."
Toph smirked. "You're lying."
Lee blinked in surprise. "How'd you know?"
Haru was glaring at Toph, but she only shrugged. "It was written all over your face."
Lee relented; he knew his face often betrayed more emotion than he would like...He stopped and frowned up at the blind girl.
Haru quickly ran interference, since Toph was too busy grinning to alleviate suspicions. "What do you want, Lee?"
Lee averted his gaze.
"Were you following us?"
"Look, Lee," Toph said. "I know we're 'buddy-buddy' and all, but sometimes we just need some space. So scat."
Lee grinned. "You know, they all think you're running off to be alone together."
A sound escaped Toph. It was something like a yelp strangled by a cough. "Hyurkph!"
Toph fought to keep her composure. "Well, maybe we are," she croaked.
Lee smirked. "I don't think so." He stood slowly. "So what's your real excuse for sneaking off?"
Toph's scowl returned. She stomped into the earth and jerked her arms up, trapping Lee in a mound of rock. Haru shook his head pityingly.
"I don't need an excuse," Toph snapped. "I do what I want, when I want!" She pointed threateningly at Lee. "You better remember that next time you try and sneak up on me, buddy boy. Because next time, I might not be so nice."
Toph wrenched her hands apart, shattering the temporary prison.
Lee staggered back, wincing. There would be a few bruises forming over that one.
"Now get out of here before I decide breaking your legs sounds like a good idea."
Lee didn't budge. "If you broke my legs," he said, "I wouldn't be able to show you."
Haru frowned. "Show us what? What are you talking about?"
"Ignore the little termite roach!" Toph snapped. "If you don't encourage him maybe he'll go away."
"Come on, Jen Yi," Lee chuckled. "It's obvious. You two are looking for something."
Toph and Haru froze.
"Of course we're looking for something," Toph said quickly, her brain churning. "We're looking for a way to stick it to the Fire Nation!"
"Uh, right." Haru nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah!"
"No." Lee shook his head. "That's not it." He cocked his head and examined the two. "You're looking for the Prince, aren't you?"
Toph dropped the act. She didn't remember lunging, but suddenly she had Lee by the collar and Haru was telling her to put him down. "How do you know about the Prince?" she demanded. "Nobody's talking about him. Nobody's even mentioned him."
"I'll take that as a yes." Lee's toes barely brushed the ground but he remained perfectly calm.
"Who told you?" Toph demanded, shaking him with gusto.
Lee waited for his head to stop spinning. "Jomei."
Toph tightened her grip. "I knew it!"
"Why?" Haru frowned at Lee. "You're supposed to be Jomei's friend. Why are you telling us?"
Lee smiled and shook his head. "It doesn't matter."
Haru was surprised by the determination burning in the boy's eyes, but he held Lee's gaze. "What does matter?" he asked.
"You don't know where the Fire Prince is." Lee gave him a lopsided grin. "But I do."
Aang opened his eyes. That in and of itself came as a surprise.
He blinked in the early morning sun, wondering if he had fallen asleep during his mediation. If it had all been some strange and horrible nightmare. It seemed so distant now as he sat in the warmth of the sun, tickled by the swaying grass. He could see Zuko sitting up against a large boulder, fast asleep. The scene seemed so normal, so real, nothing like the cosmos and the phantom version of himself.
But Aang knew better.
There was a bitter void deep, deep inside him. He reached for his heart, half-expecting to find it missing.
He remembered the last spark in the Spirit's eyes, the only words it had spoken. There is always hope, Avatar.
But would hope be enough? Aang wondered, reaching inside his shirt. He gripped the string of talismans tight, drawing them out. Closing his eyes, he tried to call on Roku.
In desperation, Aang tried to summon the Avatar State. He waited for his tattoos to shimmer to life.
The arrows remained blue and powerless.
Aang let out a long, slow breath, forcing the panic back.
The glowing bridge, he realized, had not been the only thing severed between Aang and the Avatar Spirit.
- Oh no, poor Aang! He's got no Spirit!
- The idea that the Avatar is a spirit incarnated in a mortal form really intrigued me. I decided to explore a little of this aspect, as seen when Aang contacts not his former lives, but the Spirit itself.
- I experimented with a different writing style for pieces of this chapter. Could you tell?
- No, really? *drips sarcasm*
Sending people undercover is apparently something I really enjoy. Initially -hmm -hang on a sec -
*plucks unsuspecting character up, rewrites their outfit, and deposits them in an enemy camp under a pseudonym* There! Much better!
Where was I? Oh, right. Characters undercover. Initially, I had Smellerbee and Longshot meet up with Toph and Haru, all under the guise of their different alter-egos. It was fun, especially considering neither pair had met the other before. It was also confusing.
But it did contain a rather brilliant if forced, which apparently I cannot bear to have hidden from the world, as I'm providing a direct link to said hidden scene. Enjoy.
For the collective works of the author, go here.