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|By Dragon of The West||Genre||Rating||Reviews||Updates|
|More from Dragon of The West||Drama||PG - 13||None||None|
|The Wall, Part 2: Icarus|
June 29, 2010
The fight for the inner wall begins.
Azulon was determined to bring the war to a close and had no remorse in using even gangsters and hoodlums if he had too. He commissioned a number of regional military leaders with forming a special recruiting unit that would pull young, troublesome hood rats off the street and send them off to the war in exchange for a clean slate after service. One of these gentlemen was in Tengu's unit. His real name was Cho, but everyone called him Hong Se (Red). He was a Firebender, but he loved using knives, since they allowed him to draw blood from his enemies. At the end of a battle, he was usually soaking wet, hence the nickname. Hong Se was loud, brash, rude and enjoyed harassing his female comrades with lewd stares and/or comments. He also had quite a bit of fun picking fights with other soldiers for no apparent reason. In times of peace, he would have probably been court-martialed and given a dishonorable discharge (or at least a fine). However, his mean, vicious nature was a valuable commodity for Gin on the battlefield, so he usually played dumb when approached with complaints regarding Hong Se's improper behavior.
Hong Se's long list of character flaws included a particular fondness of picking on and trying to expose and humiliate private people. Tengu had caught on early in the campaign and did his best to avoid him. However, when Gin included Tengu in his entourage, trying to avoid Hong Se's radar had become an exercise in futility. Strangely enough, though, Hong Se did not engage him immediately. It was as if he was studying Tengu, much like the way Tengu studied his own victims. This made Tengu very uncomfortable, not only because he was not accustomed to having the roles reversed, but also because there was something strangely unsettling about Hong Se's appearance. As much as Tengu tried to put his finger on it, he was not able to pinpoint what it was exactly that was making his sixth sense tick. It drove him crazy.
The Fire Nation had just set up camp near the Inner Wall, after a week long truce requested by the Earth Kingdom to try and relocate civilians out and away from ground zero into provisional housing inside the outer ring. All tent locations had been rearranged, so Tengu no longer had reference as to where his targets were now quartered. At lights out, Tengu quietly left his tent to do some recon while trying to avoid being noticed by the soldiers who stood guard. Iroh's ornery tent was easy to spot, but Lu Ten's had to wait until morning, since most of the non-ranking soldiers' tents looked the same. Once he was done for the night, he returned to his tent, only to find Hong Se sitting on the ground, blocking the entrance.
"You a long ways from home, aren't you, Earthbender?"
Tengu did not respond, thinking perhaps Hong Se would lose interest or just go for a quick scuffle. Hong Se stood up and started coming towards Tengu.
"I asked you a question, Earthbender..."
"It seems like you already have your answers. You don't need mine." Tengu replied, as smooth as ever.
"Oh, I have plenty of answers you piece of Earthbending crap!" Hong Se circled Tengu once before spitting out on the ground. "I have that demon-bird tattoo there, that knife cut in your arm, the tri-staff thing..."
Tengu noticed that Hong Se was matching a description, but why ? Who had given him the details?
"Perhaps we need to agree on the question." suggested Tengu, looking for more information himself.
"Smart man! I like that..." Hong Se came face to face with Tengu. "Let's try this one: Who is a bounty hunter from Ember Island?"
Tengu remained expressionless, but his heart and mind were racing. How was it possible that this hood rat had blown his cover? Who had told him? Who else knew?
"I'm not a bounty hunter. Are you?" That was not a lie, but it wasn't a complete truth, either. Tengu was nearly out of ideas.
"Nah... I'm just the guy whose kid brother got killed in one of your 'missions'..."
Immediately, Hong Se lunged forward with one of his knives. Tengu jumped out of the way and dropped into a stance. He was ready to take him on, even though he was unarmed.
Just then, as they circled each other under the moonlight, the little detail that had been evading Tengu slammed him full force: Hong Se wore a twin top knot just like the gang-bangers he had run into at Ember Island three years ago! One of the surviving gangster must have sent Hong Se a detailed description of his brother's killer. Also, it seemed as if the Black Lotus was not that much of a secret in the Ember Island slums, and having people witnessing Des and Lu Ming take off with him had been a giveaway. He would have to take this man out...
Hong Se was a hard kill. He was rough, tough and hungry. Naturally, the noise from the fight attracted the guards and even woke up several people from the surrounding tents. Someone had sent for Gin, but it was too late: by the time Gin arrived, Tengu had already snapped Hong Se's neck and he lay lifeless on the ground. Gin was furious. He was about to tear into Tengu full force, when he noticed a nasty burn in Tengu's torso – Hong Se had managed to blast him at point-blank range on his right side. He was in intense pain. Fortunately for Tengu, Gin (for once in his life) managed to get the priorities straight: he ordered that Tengu receive medical attention first – they would investigate and interrogate later.
As Tengu's luck would have it, most of Hong Se's buddies had grown tired of the man's crude pranks and brutish antics, so they cast him as an unstable individual – an insidious trouble maker the army was better off without. Other ranking officers had no trouble pitching in, since Hong Se had always been generally avert to discipline and had his share of run-ins with many of them. And, although Tengu did admit to having killed Hong Se's brother (the gang leader), neither Gin nor any of the other officers involved were willing to lose a good soldier over a domestic incident involving Ember Island gang trash that had taken place years ago. They decided that his wound was enough punishment and buried the rest of the incident there. Hong Se's family was sent a note saying that their son had died a hero in the front lines, along with a medal and a Fire Nation flag.
It had been a terribly close call for Tengu, but he was hardly home free, since Fire Nation Army Doctors were very rigorous about recovery and put him out of commission for at least two weeks. Once someone signed into the Fire Nation armed forces, s/he became "Goverment's Issue", which basically meant s/he was now a military asset, so his/her body and its care became regulated by martial law. Therefore, the individual was liable - or even punishable - for decisions that could bring harm to his/her own body. So, forced to rest, and removed from the front lines, he was unable to approach his targets. Furthermore, even if he managed to escape the infirmary and terminate one or both of his victims, the gravity of his wound would not allow him to make a nimble escape. Hong Se had not managed to kill him or blow his cover, but he had neutralized him.
The following morning after Tengu's fight, at day 500 of the siege, hostilities began at dawn. Iroh was readying his catapults to begin battering the wall, when he saw a line of about twenty black, round boulders being launched from the wall. His lightning-benders were ready to dissolve the rocks. However, as they got closer, Iroh noticed that there was something unusual about these "stones", since they seemed to change shape as they flew through the air. His eyes opened wide and he opened his mouth to call out for the lightning-benders to hold back, but it was too late: the benders fired lightning against the flying objects, only to have them explode into a flash fire in front of them. How had his benders mix earth with oil into a mud-like concoction. They then bent this flammable mud into a more or less spherical shape and used them as projectiles. When struck with lightning, this would simultaneously atomize and ignite the mix, causing the firebenders' attack to literally backfire. The lighted mud mixture then splashed on and stuck to the front troops, burning many of them alive.
That single offensive/defensive action proved a turning point for the battle, since ground combat was once again viable for the Earthbenders. General How rapidly deployed his best benders at the base of the wall and began aiming for the catapults and the general infantrymen from afar. For a moment, the fight had lost its elegance and refinement. How had managed to turn the situation from a game of strategy into a contest of sheer muscle and grit, which is where most of his earthbenders excelled. One certain Fire Nation platoon was quickly overwhelmed by the earthbenders' attack and began to dig trenches in a desperate attempt to seek shelter from the flying boulders. Earthbenders feigned to ignore the firebenders' plan up until the last moment, when they had finally settled into the trench. Then they simply buried them alive. It was a bad beginning for Iroh and Gin.
Tengu had been seeing people flowing into the infirmary all day. The atmosphere had turned chaotic and he was forced to renounce rest and help the staff on several occasions. Tengu had never seen war this close before. He could stomach the wounds, the blood and the overall gore. However, the scale on which it was unfolding was simply mind-boggling. He could not find reason enough to provoke this much destruction and death, especially when these men and women were being sacrificed not for land or freedom, but for pure greed. As the madness prevailed, he began losing all sense of time. Only the elongating shadows of the twilight were able to signal that the day was finally over. He found an empty cot and carefully laid himself down, trying to rest his body as well as his mind. Much to his surprise, a dirty, grimy, and exhausted Lu Ten went to visit him that night.
"How are you holding up, corporal?" asked Lu Ten.
"Don't play with fire..." Tengu replied playfully.
Lu Ten laughed out loud, his hazel eyes twinkling just a tad dimmer than usual...
"Did you really kill his baby brother?"
"He wasn't exactly a baby – he was more of a teenage gang-banger harassing a couple of young, lost girls in an alleyway. They were about ten of them, so I decided I would step in for the ladies. I must have gotten carried away..."
"Wow! I'm glad I don't have to fight you... Anyone that could take on an entire gang or take down Hong Se and his knives unarmed is someone I would consider extremely dangerous..."
Tengu felt himself choking on the irony, so he sought to change the subject: "I'm honored that the Prince would come visit me first. I heard your unit was thrashed badly. You must have a full night of visits ahead of you."
Lu Ten's smile fled from his face: "There's no one else left to visit, my friend."
His head dropped, as he began sobbing.
Tengu was silent.
So was Iroh for a moment. He placed his hand on Lu Ten's shoulder. Lu Ten turned around and saw his father. He immediately stopped crying, but was still visibly upset.
"I was wondering where you might be, son." Iroh turned his sight to Tengu. "How's that burn?"
"It feels like it's doing better than me." All chuckled. "I'm doing better – little by little. Thanks for your concern, General."
"Oh it's quite alright." Iroh then addressed Lu Ten "Come with me son. Let's walk."
Tengu knew – it was time for that talk again...
Father and son walked a short ways off, to a nearby hill where a large sycamore tree grew on top. Iroh sat down on its roots while Lu Ten sat on a small rock that protruded from the ground, just at the base of the tree's trunk.
The walk had done Lu Ten good: the cool night breeze and the soft moonlight seemed to work together in soothing his anxious spirit. However, it had not been enough to erase the grief completely. Iroh looked intently into his son's face, waiting to be able to look into his deep hazel eyes. When he finally saw them, he smiled at his only son. Lu Ten still felt sad and torn, but his father's smile always managed to bring about comfort, so he smiled back.
"You fought bravely today my son. I just might be forced to admit that you're not a kid anymore!" Both chuckled.
"Well I'm honored to be able to fight side by side with the Great Dragon of The West." Lu Ten replied.
"It's a shame about your unit." Iroh observed "Such fine boys."
"I could not save them – not one." Lu Ten's voice threatened to fail him once again. The night breeze came to his rescue, helping to restore some of his sanity.
"Although I know you feel responsible, let me assure you – there was noting you could have done to predict their offensive. It even took me by surprise."
"Yeah – I guess you're right..."
"You know, Lu Ten. You are a good soldier – better than most men I've commanded in many years of fighting this war. You are a fierce opponent, a smart fighter and a noble man."
"You honor me, father. There is nothing I want more than to make you proud." Lu Ten was soothed by his father's words.
"Believe me son, you do make me very proud, but I still think this is not the place nor the life for you."
There was a brief, but taut silence.
"Please Father, let's not have this discussion again. Not tonight."
"Lu Ten, I'm only thinking of your own good. There's just so much you could do with your talents. You could become a lawyer, a doctor, an architect!"
"So you think I never could be as good a warrior as you, Is that it?"
"Not at all, Lu Ten. I think you very well could – better, in fact! But look at me, I'm an old man, yet this is all I've known all of my life – destruction, death, tragedy... Believe me when I say that this is not what you want for your life!"
"I think you're wrong father. When I look at your life, I see accomplishment, I see honor, strength, courage, the glory of the conqueror! What son could not aspire to lead the life you have led!" "I would give it all in exchange for a life of peace with you and your mother – in a heartbeat." Iroh's eyes welled up with tears.
"Lu Ten, not everything is as you make it to be. You lost your entire unit today. Me, I have lost hundreds of such young, fine Fire Nation boys." Iroh's voice began to quiver. "Ever since you were born, I see your face in each young man we bury, in each casket we send home."
Iroh's words became heavy as he poured out his heart in front of his son. "Please, son, let me send you home on the casualties ship tomorrow. You have fought well and bravely. Please – go home and wait for me there."
"NO! I WON'T! I am a man now and this is my place! Right by your side!" He shouted as he spat out each syllable.
Lu Ten began crying as memories began reappearing: "I will spend no more sleepless nights lying on my bed waiting for my father to return from battle! Ever since mother passed away you have been all I've ever had!" Lu Ten was now sobbing uncontrollably, almost unable to contain the rushing tide that were his feelings "I felt myself DIE every time you left! I thought you would die and leave me too – and I would finally end up alone in the world!"
Iroh's heart was rent by his son's words, but he could not bear the thought of losing him on the battlefield. He would never forgive himself. He fell on his knees...
"Please, son. This old man is begging you..."
Lu Ten bawled as he saw his father kneel before him. He too fell to his knees and hugged his father. They both cried.
Lu Ten then tried to reason with his father, in tender words, tears streaming down his face:
"Surely you don't want to send me home and have me look a coward to all of my family and friends? What about Little Zuko and Azula, what kind of example will I set? What will Uncle Ozai and Aunt Ursa say? What about Grandfather, Fire Lord Azulon? I will not dishonor you so..."
Iroh was desperate, as he felt the beckoning of the spirits press down on his heart. He held his son's face between his rugged warrior's hands. "Lu Ten, please.."
"What about the people? They will not buy it! Their sons get killed on the front line, but the Prince's son gets sent home when the fighting is the toughest?"
Iroh did not care to make sense any longer "They will understand – your family will understand..."
"We're royalty – that doesn't exactly apply to us! It's not how it works – at least for us! You've told me yourself a thousand times: a leader is nothing without honor!"
Iroh saw his son's face under the moonlight, and he came to fully realize that he was no longer the little boy with whom he played each summer in Ember Island. He had become a man. He could no longer order him around, at least not unless he acted as the General. But he would not do that, since that would strip his son of his dignity. He caressed his face, the closed his eyes and kissed his forehead, and hugged him as if were the last time he would do so.
"May your hands be strong in battle my son. May your eyes be sharp and your feet swift. I love you."
"I love you too, father."
Back in the hospital, after Lu Ten had left, lights had been put out. Tengu lay awake on his cot, forced to reflect on the awkwardness of the moment he had just lived. He started going through his mental records, adding, subtracting, calculating, until he finally had a solid estimate: it had been nearly a year and a half since he had signed on for this mission, yet he had absolutely nothing to show for it! He knew his targets' every move. He had earned their trust. One of them even came to pay him a visit in the hospital! To think that, in a way, he had become so close with them, yet he had not managed to put even a scratch in any of his them...? What exactly was wrong with him? Where the hell had his professionalism and effectiveness gone? Was the war getting to him?
Tengu cleared everything from his mind to deal with the issue at hand: what was it that had distracted him so? He tried, to the best of his recollection, to replay the events that had taken place in the last 16 months in his mind. He examined every frame over and over. He went through every imaginable scenario in his mind, and noticed that there had been not one, but several windows of opportunity where he could have followed through with his mission, yet he had not taken advantage of them. Why? He concentrated even harder, and noticed that, stored deep in his memories, there was some kind of mental soundtrack playing along with these images. He noticed that, every time he had the chance to execute, there had been a little voice inside his mind telling him to just put it off another day until conditions were more favorable. As he analyzed things further, he realized that, although it may have been simple precaution at the beginning, it was now nothing more than pure procrastination.
This discovery troubled Tengu, since he had learned the hard way that you never put things off in this business. One flinch, one split second of hesitation, could spell the difference between life and death. He came to the conclusion that his actions had not been rational, so he had no other option left, but to search his feelings. The ward was never really silent, as moans of pain and discomfort were constant throughout the night, but he did his best to concentrate and take a good look inward. He thought of the Pai Sho games, the literary meetings, the tea, the laughter, the jokes, the words of wisdom, and even of Lu Ten's tears...
A slight curse escaped his lips. He closed his eyes and clenched his jaw. He sighed and opened his eyes, staring intently into the tent's top.
They were his friends.
How do you kill a friend?
- Once again, many thanks to The Bos, for pushing me to take a deeper look into Iroh's plight. It was hard to do, but it was worth it.
- Many thanks to Twilitlink for helping me add some touches to the story.
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|My Own Savior Chapters|
|Colonial Childhood - The Tailor of Gaoling - Jailbird - Ember Island - The Contract - Corporal Lu Ten - General Iroh - The Wall, Part 1: Daedalus - The Wall, Part 2: Icarus - The Wall, Part 3: Apollo - The Wall, Part 4: Minos - The Lady Of Death - The Last Airbender - The Pursuit of Peace - Stengah - The Northern Air Temple, Part 1: Arrival - The Northern Air Temple, Part 2: Rebirth - Pride - Prejudice - Freedom|