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|The Waiting Game|
Sept. 25, 2012
Previously in 'Air'
With Lee's help, Zuko and his friends now know where Roh-Roh is being held. A rescue mission is put into motion, as well as a plan to capture the Dai Li and reveal to the rebels all that Jomei has been keeping from them. Aang, although he has lost connection with the Avatar Spirit, has decided to remain just long enough to help Lee share the truth with the rebels.
Chapter Thirty-Seven: The Waiting Game
Sneaking Aang into the camp had been far easier than they'd imagined. Per Toph's suggestion, he had swapped clothes with Haru. With the straw hat pulled low over the Avatar's eyes, the guards hadn't even noticed the difference. But every moment, he expected someone to recognize him, to point him out. He kept waiting for the plan to fall apart.
The wait was excruciating. Aang's heart pounded in his ears. Blood laced with adrenaline rushed through his system, choking him.
A strange sense of déjà vu came over Aang. The suspense, the anxiety of lurking in the enemy's camp, awaiting a successful rescue or a disastrous end –it seemed so familiar. He just couldn't place it. And he couldn't shake an ominous foreboding that something was about to go wrong. That somehow, something already had.
The vague outline of a memory flashed before him. He cradled a limp body, weeping as though he had lost his dearest friend.
The image was unclear, the figures fuzzy. Before he could identify the foreign memory, it flickered from his mind.
A frown tugged at Aang's mouth. He recalled no such incident and yet it felt...old. As if it had long since passed.
He shook his head. The tension must be getting to him.
Aang glanced at Lee. He had been watching the young man carefully all day. As if Lee wasn't fidgety enough, mingling with the other rebels and knowing that in a matter of hours they would probably all hate him.
"Can I ask you something?"
Lee jumped at the question, his wandering gaze snapping back to Aang. He flushed, looking sheepish.
"Ask away!" Lee tried hard to keep his tone aloof, but something slipped. His heart pounded. Sweat trickled down his spine. The notion that someone watched them, suspected them, nearly bowled him over. He fought to keep his eyes from darting across the cavern on the lookout.
It was night now. He and Aang sat alone around a small campfire while most of the Guild slept. Their night vigil didn't cause undue suspicion; here and there around the cavern small fires were stoked for faces too alert for sleep.
Aang and Lee merely waited for the right moment to strike.
"Why are you helping us?"
Lee blinked in surprise. Wasn't it obvious? "They kidnapped a kid."
Kidnapped. The forgotten memory in Aang's mind stirred again. Bitter wails screamed to the sky, refusing to be consoled. This image was sharper. He was reaching out for a young woman –an Air Nomad– as she was rent away from him. He was cradling her in his arms once more, weeping.
Aang rubbed his temple, his frown deepening.
"You okay?" Lee's brow knit with concern.
Aang waved the question away. "Yeah, yeah." He turned to face Lee. "Doesn't it make a difference to you that they kidnapped a Fire Nation kid."
Lee's eyes glinted in the flickering firelight. "What did he ever do?" he asked softly. "If you want to have it out with someone, fine, but nabbing their kid...that's crossing a line."
Aang nodded slowly, his gaze never wavering.
Lee felt like a Pai Sho table under that scrutinizing gaze. "It's kind of a sore spot with me," he admitted.
"Even though you hate the Fire Nation?"
Lee looked genuinely surprised. "What makes you think I hate them?"
"Why else would you join the Guild?"
"Oh." Lee smirked. "Just what did your buddy tell you about our last encounter?"
"Well..." Aang glanced around to make certain no one was around to hear. "He said that your farm was attacked."
"Doesn't like to mince words, does he?" Lee chuckled. "I didn't trust him, not from the start. And when that woman showed up..." He shuddered at the memory of her face, thick with melted and deformed paint. "I made him tell us what was going on. He didn't say much, but he told us that the–" He glanced around quickly, but they were still alone– "That the kid had been kidnapped, and he was here looking for him. Without permission."
Aang frowned. "Then...?"
"My buddy, Jomei, has been trying to draft me into the Guild for years. But recently..." The thought of Jomei's confident smile sent chills up Lee's spine. "Recently he's been talking about this lucky charm he's got that will ensure their victory." He shrugged. "After I heard about the kid, I wondered if maybe that was what Jomei meant. So I told him I wanted in."
Aang stared at him. "You joined just to look for the Prince?"
"Like I said, kidnapping kids is kind of a sore spot with me." He snorted. "Of course I didn't know about Madam Gung Ho and her drooling lackey."
"So...you don't hate the Fire Nation?"
Lee frowned. That was the question, wasn't it? "I haven't figured that out just yet," he said quietly.
Aang was silent for a long moment, studying Lee, toying with the question. It was obvious in the haunted depths of the young man's eyes. Finally, Aang asked it. "You were kidnapped once, weren't you?"
Lee swallowed hard. "It was a long time ago."
Aang wanted to know more. He wanted to know just what Zuko had done in this boy's past, but he could see Lee didn't want to talk about it. Aang patted him on the shoulder. "What you're doing –what you've done– is very brave," he said. "I'm sure that, if the Firelord knew, he'd thank you."
Lee snickered. "Are you sure he hasn't already?"
Aang withdrew his hand a little too quickly, responded in a tone a little too guarded. "What do you mean?"
Lee gave him a look. "Come on, I'm not stupid. If he was willing to rescue someone he barely knew from a fight that wasn't his, Firelord Zuko would definitely step up and do something to save his own son."
Aang fought to keep his face impassive. "What are you saying?"
"The Firelord knows Li is here. Either that–" Lee shot a sly glance at the Avatar– "Or he's here himself."
Zuko waited. It was the last thing he wanted to do, but moving quickly would be foolish. The night was dark, but from the light cast by a lantern inside he could see the silhouettes of Nguyen and Po still in the shack. He couldn't take on two Dai Li, not with Roh-Roh in the crosshairs. No, dealing with the master earthbenders fell to Toph and Haru, though he suspected Toph might hog the task to herself. The one bad thing about being the Greatest Earthbender in the World, apparently, was finding a decent challenger.
As hard as he tried to deny it, Zuko was disappointed he couldn't deal with the Dai Li himself. They were surely the actual kidnappers and Zuko could think of various ways to demonstrate his displeasure.
He just hoped Lee's intel was right. Toph had not detected any deceit when Lee told them everything he knew, but it was possible Lee himself was being set up. There was always the chance, too, that perhaps Lee was a very good liar. Toph had been stumped before.
Zuko tried to picture Lee intentionally leading them into a trap, but he couldn't. When he thought of Lee, the only face he saw was that of an eight year old boy, looking away from him with eyes still very young and innocent, filled with hurt and anger. Perhaps it was only wishful thinking on Zuko's part, but he believed Lee was truly helping them, even if it was only out of empathy.
Sparks crackled on his fingertips. Zuko gazed into the star-studded darkness, searching for any sight of dawn. Still the morning eluded him.
Think of Roh-Roh, he told himself. Roh-Roh needs me now more than I need my anger. Zuko took a deep breath to fight the heat of frustration burning in his chest. He turned his eyes back to the shack, leaned back, and waited.
Haru was still eating. Aang had given him some of his food supplies out of pity when Haru's stomach interrupted their strategizing with a loud, cantankerous growl.
Toph was doing her best to curb his appetite. "Fat!" she hissed, chopping her hand into his stomach. "Is that what you want to be?"
"I haven't eaten all day!" Haru protested, tearing into a steamed bun. It was cold and rather soggy, but his stomach wasn't complaining. "What is your problem?"
Toph huffed. "There's no point endowing all my wisdom on you if you're too fat to maneuver!"
She made a grab for the bun, but Haru managed to ward her off. She was very touchy today. It must be the stress and anticipation. He'd done his best not to irritate her, but apparently that was an impossibility. And a guy could only take so much of someone trying to steal his food.
"How is one meal a day going to make me fat?" he demanded –quietly, of course. "You dragged me out of the cavern before I could get breakfast and you wouldn't let Aang and Zuko feed us. I've only had–"
Toph clapped a hand over his mouth. "Shut up!"
Indignant, Haru actually contemplated biting her hand. That the mere thought popped into his mind told him he'd been spending way too much time with Toph.
"They're coming," she whispered, body tense. "Can you feel them?"
Haru closed his eyes, dug his toes deep into the irritatingly loose dirt underneath, and listened very hard. Luckily, Toph had made certain to tease his skills with all varieties of rock texture. He could feel them –just barely. Unlike the footsteps he'd been practicing with in the cavern, Nguyen and Po practically glided over the rock, the movement so gentle it whispered into his toes. It almost tickled. And when Toph decided to take the opportunity to relieve him of his small sack of food, he felt that too.
A conductor of rock instead of music, Haru shifted the soft earth beneath the sack with a sweeping flick of his wrist. Just as Toph's fingers brushed it, the sack swerved left.
Toph backed off, impressed despite herself. "Well, at least you're getting better."
Haru pointed toward the two figures, blacker even than the dark sky. "I can see them," he added quickly, hoping she hadn't detected his oh so helpful gesture.
The stars still glittered above. There was no sign of dawn.
"Do you really think they're headed back to the cavern?" Haru asked. "It's still dark out."
Toph snorted. "You and your eyes. There might not be any light yet, but dawn is coming. Can't you feel it? Underground, all the critters are waking up." She pointed to the left. "Over there a temperamental badgermole just whacked an overenthusiastic prairie gopher."
Haru's eyebrows knit in concentration, but he couldn't feel it.
"Don't give me that look," Toph said defensively, for once misinterpreting his silence. "Nguyen and Po can feel it too. They know it's their bedtime."
Haru's lips twitched in a mischievous smile. He punched a hand into his fist. "Then let's give them a reason to say nighty-night."
Toph frowned disapprovingly.
"A macho man you are not."
Haru dropped his fist, disappointed.
"Actually," Toph said, feeling the Dai Li's progress, "I'm surprised they aren't being a little more cautious."
"I thought they wouldn't be able to feel us," Haru said, wriggling his toes in the sand. Toph had worked a good hour or so, grinding the rock and dirt down to the tiny consistency. "Wasn't that the whole point?"
"I said they probably wouldn't feel us," Toph corrected. "Most earthbenders don't bother learning to deal with sand unless they plan on visiting the desert. And I don't think the Dai Li would have needed it from Ba Sing Se to the Fire Nation. If I'm right, the sand would hide our presence. But they wouldn't be able to feel anything else through it, either. It would just be a blurred patch in all this solid rock." She interlaced her fingers and stretched out her arms, palms forward. A few knuckles popped audibly and she rolled her neck to loosen the muscles. "They should at least be suspicious."
She sounded a little disappointed, Haru noted with surprise. Toph must really be looking forward to a challenge.
"Maybe they're lulling us into a false sense of security?" he suggested.
He could hear the hopeful smile in her voice. "I guess we'll find out," she said, balling her fingers into a fist.
Excitement bubbled in Haru's chest. If he listened very carefully, he could even hear the sound of his pounding heart through his own feet. It was eerie, hearing all that adrenaline bursting through his system, and exhilarating at the same time. "All right, let's kick some Dai Li!"
Toph heaved a sigh. "Stick with being sensitive. You're good with sensitive."
She pulled her arm back and punched into the rocky ground just beyond her patch of sand.
"So this is where you've been hiding, Lee."
Lee started violently at the sound of Jomei's voice.
"I've been looking all over for you," Jomei went on, stepping into the firelight. He cocked his head at Lee, an amused smirk on his face. "What have you been up to all day?"
"Oh, well..." Lee gulped. "Nothing much."
Jomei's gaze darted to Aang. "Find a new friend?" he asked. A frown tugged at the corners of his eyes as he looked the new face over. He didn't remember ever seeing him before.
Aang leapt to his feet and gave Jomei a quick bow. "Bonzoo!" he said with a grin. "That's my name. You must be Jomei. Lee's told me a lot about you. We were just swappin' stories, you know, to pass the time. It's a real pleasure to meet you, sir. Any word on when we move yet?"
"Not yet," Jomei said, clearly uninterested in Aang. He gestured at Lee. "You mind if I borrow him for a moment?"
"Um..." Aang shot a quick glance at Lee.
"Thanks." Jomei seized Lee by the arm and began leading him away.
Lee stumbled after him. "It was nice talking to you, uh, Bonzoo!" he managed to call over his shoulder without sounding completely terrified. Jomei was up to something; he could tell by that sneaky smile on his friend's face. Had Jomei somehow figured out that Lee wasn't nearly as dedicated to the cause, either?
"I hope you weren't talking too much, Lee." Jomei's voice was soft, almost friendly, but there was a hard under layer that sent chills up Lee's spine. "I've told you some things that shouldn't leak out."
Lee fought the panic rising in his chest. Jomei's grip on his arm wasn't too tight; his first instinct was to fight free and run, but he took a quick breath instead. "Relax," he told Jomei in as calm a voice as he could muster. "I was just telling him about the time old man Prachett was convinced the dirt in his yard would grow boulders if he watered it enough."
Jomei laughed softly. "I forgot about that one. Prachett was pretty crazy."
The sound of his friend's laugh eased Lee's panic. Surely if Jomei thought he was a traitor he wouldn't chuckle and reminisce with him.
"So what's going on?"
Jomei turned to him; Lee could just make out a smile in the dim cavern. It was a smile that scared Lee, looking both eager and absolutely mad at the same time.
"We strike tonight," Jomei told him.
Lee's breath caught in his throat. "Tonight? But–"
"Everyone's ready to move." Jomei shook his head. "We've been preparing all day. It's a good thing I found you. We were about to leave."
"Leave?" Lee repeated.
Jomei nodded. "Nguyen and Po should be coming back from their night vigil soon. We plan to ambush them before they reach the cavern."
That was exactly what Haru and Jen Yi planned to do. Lee's heart beat faster. He couldn't risk the rebels and the two spies bumping into each other. If the ambush turned into a three-way battle, the Dai Li had a better chance of escaping.
"They'll never know what hit them," Jomei went on. "And the bonus is we can make it look like they were attacked by an enemy."
Attacked by an enemy? Lee frowned. "Why?"
Jomei chuckled. "Come on, Lee; you're smarter than that. Why bother explaining it all to these people if we can manufacture a quick, uncomplicated cover? Besides, when the rest of the camp hears that two of our leaders have been killed, they'll be begging for blood."
"Killed?" Lee's mouth went dry. "You never said anything about killing them!"
Jomei paused. "Lee," he said quietly. "We only do what is necessary." He patted him on the shoulder, gave him a reassuring smile. "Just remember your brother. Remember what you're fighting for."
Jomei turned on his heel. "We're almost ready to move out, Lee. You wait here while I get the others." He cast a grin back at his childhood friend. "This day is a victory for the Earth Kingdom. Remember that, too."
Lee watched as his friend's back disappeared into the darkness beyond the nearby firelight. Yes, today could be a victory for the Earth Kingdom, he thought; but it will be a definite lost for the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet. They deserved nothing less. The Guild was an instrument of violence, fueled by anger and hatred. Jomei only made it worse, justifying their crimes with all his talk of what was 'necessary'.
What was necessary, Lee decided, was the permanent removal of the Guild.
I'm happy to announce that, thanks to my wonderful readers, 'Air' has now achieved Fanonbending status! Yay! ^_^
Tsk, tsk. I think Aang's greatest weakness is probably his devotion to his friends, especially because he is the Avatar. Like we saw in 'The Guru', he put the need to help Katara above his necessity to control the Avatar State. As far as weaknesses go, it's quite an admirable one, but a weakness nonetheless.
Poor Haru. Toph's been on his case since she took stock of his weaknesses vs. his potential.
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