A/N: I'm so terribly sorry for the delay. My new job is time consuming and I often get back exhausted. This is the first weekend I've had where I feel refreshed enough to write and have the free time to write. Last weekend was my first weekend of mostly nothing and this is my first weekend withnothing to do. Thus, this update.
Azula is coming.
Chapter summary: In which Tengfei is seriously beginning to reconsider his sanity while his ability to be surprised seems to have increased. How unfortunate.
78: Not-So-Strategic Planning
The insistent tugging at the back of his mind was testing Tengfei's patience to the limit. He was loyal to Ba Sing Se. He was loyal to Long Feng. Never had those two loyalties been at odds before the events of the past few days. One had always been synonymous with the other. To be loyal to Ba Sing Se was to be loyal to the Grand secretariat. To be loyal to the Grand Secretariat was to be loyal to Ba Sing Se.
How wrong that belief had been. In a way, Tengfei wished he didn't know what he knew now. But on the other hand, he could only imagine how disastrous the events of the past few days would have been if he had given in to his initial loyalties and arrested Li for suspicion of firebending. The Kuchisake-onna murdered two Master Dai Li with ease and, from what he'd been able to gather, broken into Lake Laogai and promptly escaped. He wasn't looking forward to reading the list of names on the deceased list from that.
Shaking himself out of his dark thoughts, Tengfei regarded the young firebender in front of him. There were signs of exhaustion around the corners of Li's eyes, but the young man held himself upright with his shoulders square. The only visible sign of discomfort was in the downturn of Li's lips and the subtle twitch of his fingers.
The Knowledge Seeker had obviously elected to remain in the room with Shanyuan. That meant she was already aware of what Li wanted to say and likely how Tengfei was going to respond to it. He sent up a silent prayer to Yu Huang that this wouldn't be too serious.
"What did you do?" he said firmly, crossing his arms and staring at the young man with a serious gaze.
Instantly, Li's shoulders tensed and his gaze dropped. A moment later, they lifted and held Tengfei's evenly. "I know you know my true name," he said in a soft voice. "I also know every law you know demands you turn me in."
"But I also know that you vouched for me and went out of your way to protect me, despite your standing orders to do otherwise. And for that," he pressed a fist into his open palm, the fingers of his open hand pressed together and held up in the Flame, and bowed deeply, "I humbly offer my gratitude."
Startled speechless, Tengfei blinked and stared wide-eyed at the Fire Prince's unexpected display. He was too sleep-deprived for this. Still, he folded his arms in front of him, tucking his hands into his sleeves, and bowed in return. His tired mind couldn't find the right words to say in reply.
"I made a deal with a Spirit."
He should probably get some shut-eye before heading back to report to-
Tengfei froze mid-bow and began contemplating the meaning behind that simple sentence and how he should interpret it. He could only come up with one way.
Straightening, he took a slow, deliberate breath to keep his exhaustion-powered temper in check. "I beg your pardon?" he said, leveling a cool glare at Li.
To his credit, Li looked ready to bolt. Whatever willpower he managed to dredge up to keep him in place facing down Tengfei was probably due to the lack of available escape routes and hiding places more than anything else.
"Surely, I must have misheard you," Tengfei said smoothly.
Li gulped and shook his head, stubbornly refusing to back down or wilt under Tengfei's glare. "You didn't," he said.
"Are you referring to the deal you had with the Kuchisake-onna?" he asked. "Because I'm certain," he narrowed his eyes, "you don't mean you made another deal," Li finally began to wince, "with another Spirit. I'm sure I warned you of the dangers of that sort of thing. In fact," Tengfei dropped his chin so the shadow of his conical hat fell over his eyes, "I'm certain your own personal experience with dangerous deals was enough of a warning."
Li's shoulders drooped but his face remained determined. Stubborn idiot.
"It was," Li said grimly. "But…"
He pressed his lips together and let his gaze drift back to the closed door to Shanyuan's room. With a sigh, he looked up at Tengfei once more.
"I did what was necessary. I won't say 'I had no choice' because I did have a choice. I could do what my uncle wishes and fight against Ozai-" Tengfei's gaze hardened at that hated name "-with the Avatar on the side of the Earth Kingdom and eventually take the throne as my position of Fire Prince dictates, banished though I may be."
There was pain in Li's pale gold eyes. Some of that pain, Tengfei could sympathize with. The rest he could barely name.
"Or," pale gold hardened to gleam embers, "I could reject my uncle, reject freedom and the Earth Kingdom and Ba Sing Se and Shanyuan and Jet and everyone and everything I've come to love and care for," a slow burning anger have a hard edge to Li's words, "and follow in Ozai's footsteps as his loyal and obedient son. I could become Fire Lord by any means necessary and stop the war. After all," Li lifted a single eyebrow and tucked his hands up his sleeves with a suspiciously passive expression, "there would be no need for war if there was no Earth Kingdom, no more Ba Sing Se."
A cold chill began to crawl up Tengfe's spine and a fear that threatened to bury him alive began gnawing at his heart. He wouldn't dare. Li wouldn't dare!
"Or," Li continued, his expression crumbling away to reveal a lost child who has finally begun to see just how cold and cruel the world really was, "I could reject any path another has laid out for me and forge my own way." He bowed his head. "I chose this one." His eyes squeezed shut as if fighting back tears. "My… Uncle isn't pleased with my choice. I kept trying to convince me that I'm wrong and his choice is best. But I refuse," he hissed vehemently, "to be an ember in someone else's fire unless I wish it!"
Pale gold eyes locked with Tengfei's own emerald green. "So I did what I felt I had to do to both convince my uncle that I would not be swayed and to request aid in what I plan to do in the future." Li straightened his back and squared his shoulders. Although Tengfei noted how pale the visible knuckles of Li's hands were. "I have to fulfill my deal with Wan Shi Tong. But I wasn't sure how I could do that in the world as it is now. So I asked for aid from possibly the only Spirit who still has any true love fire the Fire Nation and its people."
Tengfei furrowed his brow in thought, running through a list of names of Spirits and trying to come up with one who wasn't… No.
"I made a deal with Agni."
Merciful Jade Emperor.
Struck speechless, Tengfei could only stare at the young firebender- the young boy in horror. A deal with a Spirit was bad enough. But a deal with a Great Spirit… No one Tengfei knew of personally, in history, or in legends ever dared to do something so inherently dangerous. A deal with a Spirit followed the person into death and even on into their next life. But a deal with a Great Spirit… Tengfei could only imagine the consequences of doing something so.. so…
"Do you have any idea how stupid that is?" Tengfei demanded in disbelief. "The Spirits aren't like us. They won't let you off the hook. You've given over your entire life and all of your future lives to that Spirit with just a few words."
"I know," Li said calmly. One of his hands reached up to grasp at his throat, hesitating when the questing fingers found nothing and were forced to return to the shadow of his sleeve. "I know," he repeated softly. "But I need help and I needed to know what I was doing, what I'd chosen to do was the right thing. I needed to know if it would help my people. So I asked Agni."
A shudder danced through Li's thin form. "You have no idea what it was like Tengfei," he whispered, his eyes closed. "For a moment, a mere moment, I knew… everything. I understood eternity in all its complexity and it was killing me." Li's eyes opened and there was an age to them that didn't match the appearance of the young man himself. "Agni offered me his support and gave me a task to do. It doesn't conflict with my deal with Wan Shi Tong. Actually," he added thoughtfully, "I believe it will make fulfilling Wan Shi Tong's deal easier."
"What was it?" Tengfei asked. "The deal. What did you promise Agni in exchange for his help?"
Li shrugged. "My life, I suppose," he said.
"I'm already a child of Agni, as both a Fire Nation citizen and a firebender," Li continued, either ignoring or completely unaware of the Dai Li's mounting horror. "By giving him my life, I merely gave him what he already had. In exchange, he wants me to find the next Fire Lord and make sure they take the Dragon Throne." Fire gleamed within molten gold eyes. "Both Agni and I have openly rejected Ozai as Fire Lord."
"Ozai is Fire Lord in name only now," Li said, his voice hard and uncompromising. "Agni's blessing has been removed from him and given to another. It's my job to find them." His chin tilted down slightly. "If my suspicions are right, then I won't be able to remain by their side for very long. As they are now, they would kill me as soon as look at me. But I won't abandon them or betray them. They will become the new Fire Lord. And nothing," a thin black eyebrow lifted in challenge, "and no one, will keep them from it. I'll make sure of that."
Sadness nipped at his heart as the grim meaning behind Li's words began to settle in Tengfei's soul. "So we will become enemies then?" he said in resignation.
But Li shook his head. "No," he said firmly. "We will not. I said I would ensure the new Fire Lord took their rightful throne. I did not say I would help them finish the war and conquer the world. Ba Sing Se is not my enemy. You," he emphasized, "are not my enemy."
Li sighed and his eyes sparkled pleadingly. "This war must end, Tengfei. It's killing more than just people. It's affecting the Spirits. Wan Shi Tong wishes the war to end. Agni demands it to end."
"Nothing is that simple," Tengfei said wearily.
"No," Li agreed, letting his gaze drop. "Nothing is. But if I can find a place where those like you, like Shanyuan, and Jet, and Jin, and anyone who wishes to may live and learn in peace, then we might have a chance. People from all four nations will be welcomed to come, live, and learn. The War will be over and we can begin working on a peace."
It was such an optimistic dream Tengfei almost didn't believe it. Almost. Had anyone other than Li been the one to tell him such a dream, Tengfei would have thought them sun-struck. He snorted. Well, Li probably was sun-struck. Literally.
The reminder sobered him quickly. This was beyond him. He was just a Dai Li. His job was the protection of Ba Sing Se only. His jurisdiction ended at the Outer Wall. He loved this city and he would do anything to ensure its protection.
"I know who's in the palace," Li said quietly.
Reluctantly, Tengfei sighed. "I thought as much."
"I want to talk to her."
That was a surprise. Intrigued, Tengfei tilted his head. "May I ask why?"
Li grimaced. "Why do you think?"
He could think of a lot of reason actually. Most of then tended to end unpleasantly. Oh. Oh dear…
"You do then."
Sweet Yu Huang, they were doomed.
"I don't know what will happen after I leave," Li said. "If all goes well, then she and I will leave and I will begin fulfilling my deals with Agni and Wan Shi Tong."
"And if it doesn't?" A much more likely scenario.
Li shrugged. "I die, I guess," he said flippantly.
That is not something to be flippant about?!
"Although," Li added after a moment of consideration, "I think it's far more likely that she'll capture me at this point. From what I can remember, killing me now would be pointless."
That didn't add up. "Why do you say that?" Tengfei asked. "I thought she already tried to kill you."
"She did kill me, I think," Li said. "Zuko died in that ghost town. I've been 'Li' ever since. I don't think I can be Zuko as he once was anymore." His form drooped wearily. "Despite how badly uncle and others wish me to be."
As odd as it was, Tengfei was beginning to understand. "No one is ever unchanged," he said. "Time waits for no one and will leave no one the same. You are wise to see that so young."
Li snorted. "Wise," he said dryly. "Zenko would tease me relentlessly if she ever heard that."
They shared a tired smile of amusement before Tengfei was forced to return to the topic at hand.
"Azula," he began grimly, "as long as she's in the palace, she's a threat to the Earth King. I'm certain the Grand Secretariat will do his best to keep her at bay, bu-"
"-t there's only s much he can-" Startled, Tengfei blinked. "Beg your pardon?"
"The Grand Secretariat," Li clarified. "He'll fail. If he insists on making himself an obstacle, Azula will kill him."
Incredulous, Tengfei balked at the idea. "She's fourteen. Long Feng has seen many seasons of-"
"You don't understand," Li said, his voice cutting viciously through Tengfei's words. "She will kill him. She might keep the Earth King alive if she decides she wants a toy or thinks he'd be a useful puppet. You and I both know the Earth King's power is nigh on zero."
"That means the Grand Secretariat is the only real obstacle between my sister and the Earth King's throne," Li continued. "She'll use him until he's outlived his purpose, then kill him. She never tolerates being wasteful. Everything she says and does is carefully calculated. Never too much, never too little." His smiled wryly. "Ozai taught her well."
That was a disturbing truth Tengfei had always known but never actually realized until now. He had only ever heard stories of the Fire Nation royalty. Ozai was the distant, faceless monster whose looming shadow threatened the people of and Spiritual sanctuary that was Ba Sing Se. Crown Prince Zuko was the faceless elder son whom Tengfei, Long Feng, and every Dai Li in the city believed would follow in his footsteps. And Azula was the lesser known youngest daughter of the Fire Lord. She might be Fire, but she was never considered a real threat.
Until now. Damn.
How many long-held beliefs had Tengfei watched crumble beneath the unstoppable blundering of Li and his Knowledge Seeker? More than Tengfei alone could count. But if there was one thing Tengfei could still find comfort in, it was the surety that Li was not lying. Jet was right. The boy wore his every thought and emotion on his face for all to see.
It was either the undeniable truth, or a masterful disguise. Tengfei sincerely hoped it was the first. Because if it was the latter, then what he was about to do would haunt him for the rest of his no-doubt short life.
"If I can get you inside the palace," Tengfei said, studying the surprise on Li's face, "do you think you could get Azula out of my city?"
Li bit his lip. Finally, he sighed. "Possibly. It won't be easy and," he rolled his shoulders self-consciously, "it won't be comfortable either."
His gaze turned to Shanyuan's room and Tengfei watched those pale gold eyes he had long ago learned to fear and despise melt with sadness.
"Will the other Dai Li come looking for you?" Li asked, glancing at him.
Tengfei nodded. "Probably within the hour." His brow furrowed suspiciously. "Why?"
"Because I believe you are watching your apprentice heal, am I correct?"
"You wouldn't be aware of the current events of this day or yesterday."
Ah. "No," Tengfei agreed slowly. "No, I suppose I wouldn't be."
Li nodded. "Then if you can get me over, heh or under, the palace walls," he grinned wryly, "then I'll do my part. Then you come right back here and you stay here. The Dai Li owe Qiao a debt and Qiao owes me. I'll ask her to shelter and vouch for you. That will settle that. Do we have a deal?"
Tengfei hummed. "And what of your uncle? If the Dai Li discover your true identity, they will find out your uncle is the Dragon of the West and they will not be merciful in dealing with him." Old man or no. "The general's crimes against this city are too great and Earth is very good at holding grudges."
Li nodded. "I give you my word that the moment uncle learns what I've done, he will flee the city."
"Good. And Jet?"
Li's face froze in shock. Clearly, he had been hoping to avoid that topic.
"A blind person could see the bond you two share," Tengfei continued, watching Li blush and look away. "Are you so quick to abandon him?"
"I'm not abandoning him," Li said sharply, before sighing and letting his shoulders droop. "I'm not abandoning him," he whispered. "The Avatar is still here in the city, right?"
"I'm not sure actually," Tengfei admitted. "I believe so."
Li reached up to grasp his throat, clawed at air, then ended up biting his thumb. "If I go alone, I know Jet will follow me and make a fool out of himself," he said in fond annoyance.
"He'd probably do more than that," Tengfei said.
Li nodded in agreement, still nibbling his thumbnail nervously. Then he stopped. "Jet is an official messenger of Qiao's," he said suddenly.
Tengfei blinked. "I wasn't aware. When did that happen?"
"The morning, I believe," Li said, a sparkle of amusement in his eye. "She got Jin as well."
Damn, that girl worked fast. She had talent.
"I might be able to use that," Li murmured. Louder, he asked, "Have you ever heard of 'the darkest day in Fire Nation history'?"
The Dai Li frowned and tilted his head. "No, I haven't. Why?"
"Because whatever that is was important enough for the Avatar to lie to Wan Shi Tong and then steal from him," Li said darkly. "Professor Zei didn't give me many details but- Uh. Are you okay?"
"Zei?" Tengfei gasped, thunderstruck.
"You know him?" Li asked, brightening.
"In a way, yes," Tengfei said carefully.
Li hesitated, studying the Dai Li's expression, then frowned. "He's dead. I'm sorry."
Ah. "May I ask when?"
"When the Avatar left Wan Shi Tong's library," Li replied. "The professor decided to stay there. He died. Now he lives in the library."
Um… "You know," Tengfei said, picking his words, "most people don't 'live' after they die."
"They do when they become Spirits," Li said.
"Become a-" Some many thoughts raced through his head that Tengfei couldn't even begin to figure out what to say or if he should say anything. Most of it was curses and denials anyway. And yes, that was definitely a smirk on Li's face. The scoundrel.
"I'm sure you want to alert the Grand Secretariat of your whereabouts," Li said, as if he hadn't just buried Tengfei's mind in impossibilities come true. "I doubt anyone would consider it too odd if you sent someone who's both an official messenger as well as an informant for the Dai Li to do that job. Jet's position as a messenger of Qiao's family would lessen any doubt that you're here."
"It would be unusual," Tengfei admitted, "but not necessarily unheard of. Though typically, we deal with our own only."
"Except," Li said sharply, "when your apprentice is recovering from near fatal wounds and you are recovering from dealing with the Kuchisake-onna, arresting the person responsible for her creation, and protecting your apprentice. The woman sheltering you offered her messenger for your use. If something were to happen to that messenger in the meantime, well," Li shrugged, "things happen."
"Why are you trying to help me?" Tengfei asked after a moment.
"Because you aren't my enemy," Li said. "I hope that you're my friend."
Before Tengfei could respond to that, Li spoke once more. "My… Than and Ying…"
Ah, yes. "Nothing will come of them. You have my word."
Li relaxed, slumping in relief. "I'm hoping I'll be able to speak to my sister then get out of there and out of Ba Sing Se. But if my luck is as bad as usual," he shrugged, "then I want them to know I didn't leave them deliberately."
:If it is that bad,: a familiar voice said moments before a gray-black blur bounded up into Li's arms, tails swishing, :then I believe everyone in Ba Sing Se will be aware of Azula's presence.:
"That's what I'm afraid of," Tengfei muttered.