The Madness of Dawn
Sooo, what can I say about this one shot? It took me a good while to write and translate it, and I probably couldn't have managed without Avocadolove's help. All hail her! Anyway, here is the reason why I stopped writing "To honour the moment" for so long. I hope I'll be able to go on with that soon.
Anyway, this fic may be considered as a Jetko AU although it well and truly takes place in the Avatar universe (I think you also say AU to mean that there's something drastically different from the original series...or I am mistaken?). Strangely enough, the element of change I'm using has never been tried before, as far as I can tell. I think I'd like to see more of them out there, actually. If anyone's interested in using my ideas, please do so!
But I should stop rambling so much. Have a good reading!
I dance in tune with what I fear
To do adrenaline
Completely rapt with what I hear
When passion colors everything…
Jet wasn't the kind to let an obstacle get the better of him. It wasn't something he boasted about: it simply was a part of who he was. One could always fight, somehow, could always adjust to a new situation or a new opponent; you just had to get the knack of it. And there always was a word, a gesture, the beginning of a smile given to the right person sometimes, some lever that could turn things to his advantage in the space of seconds.
It happened that Jet had a gift to find such levers and use them. It was almost a game to him. He liked to spot those signs around him, hiding in the eyes of men like allies in the dark, like knifes in his sleeve. That also was his nature, as much a part of himself as his litheness and physical strength. This was no ground for pride: he was a leader. Inspiring others, driving them to action. A Freedom Fighter.
To adapt to every event no matter what so as to always achieve one's aim, wasn't it what it meant to be free?
Satisfied, the teenager readjusted the hooked swords at his side, enjoying the familiar feel of the hilts against his palm as he absent-mindedly wiped the sweat from his eyebrows. It was crazy how the sun blazed here. He wasn't used to it any more, having spent most of his life in the forest, where you could hardly see the sky through blood red leaves. And more recently, there had been the lower ring of Ba Sing Se, with its weird, piled up stone houses that blocked out daylight.
There was none of that here: the air was dry, the sky empty. Everything was broad, open, blinding. No way of staying invisible: there were no dead angles.
If it wasn't for his adaptability, he probably would have missed the hidden paths in the woods, the narrow alleyways, the cool shadows and the pleasure to lie in ambush. But he could enjoy changes. And he had come to like it all, those stone paved roads and enormous buildings, the ridiculously high number of rooms he now lived in and their rich decorations, the golden epaulettes of his general's uniform whose belt, decorated with the Earth Kingdom emblem, shone around his waist.
General of Ba Sing Se, living in the upper ring. General Jet. He smiled, nearly burst out laughing at how weird it sounded, even though he had got the title more than a month ago. Deep down it pleased him.
The fact that he had spent all this time in the woods didn't mean he was any bad at being a general, anyway. On the contrary the city badly needed young blood, from what he had seen. The other high-ranked military officers weren't much good, especially that old Sung of the Council of Five. Most of them were old flabby guys, raised in the lap of luxury. They had never even considered having a look over their damn wall to see what the war really was like.
He, Jet, knew about wars. He knew quite a lot more than them about it, actually, despite his tanned countryman's skin, his tousled hair and the straw wisp he kept on nibbling, as much out of habit as to enjoy the faces the other generals would pull. He, who had never seen anything more peopled than a village before having to get by in the world's damn biggest city. It had taken time before getting here.
He had made mistakes -of course he had- but he had also learned. He knew what it looked like outside: the burning villages, the murdered innocents, the cruelty of all those Fire Nation scum.
Long Feng had been able to see that in him, his clear-headedness, as well as his gift for rallying men to his cause and turning them into soldiers. His adaptability, too. The Grand Secretariat had understood what was at stake and, rather than locking him up for armed aggression, fight and disturbance of the peace at night, he had enlisted him, thinking he might need his services against the Fire Nation.
Which had proved to be completely right.
Not that he boasted about it: he had seen that scum more closely than the capital's rulers, that was all. He knew what to expect from them, and he had learned to act quickly. So he had been the first to be suspicious of that princess when she had been caught trying to infiltrate the Royal Palace with her two accomplices and put in jail. It was mere logic, really: you couldn't trust a firebender, prisoner or not.
An adder-spider is still poisonous behind the bars of its cage, after all.
He hadn't had enough influence at the time for her head to be chopped off at once. Yet he had managed to convince Long Feng to clean out some of the Dai Li: their ranks were beginning to crawl with traitors, and that was a thing the Freedom Fighter couldn't tolerate. Once rid of the parasites, he had been able to find trustworthy soldiers, and thanks to them the invasion had been swept out.
A smirk was hovering about his thin lips. Too bad he hadn't been there when those bitches had been taken care of. They said the Fire Nation princess had howled like a crow-pig when her arm had been torn off (she had managed to escape in spite of everything, and killed several of their men while doing so. But sooner or later he would get back at her). The other two had been slaughtered on the spot; that was at least something. From now on maybe the Fire Nation would think twice before trying to take over the fucking Earth Kingdom's capital with three chicks.
Said capital had started to get moving: Long Feng was now taking as many prisoners as he could among the Fire Nation soldiers to brainwash them. He then sent them back to the colonies as spies. From what he had been told, some of those guys had been able to infiltrate their enemies' land so as to weaken their ranks. Let the Fire Nation itself be eaten from the inside, like a granary filled with rat-worms.
Ba Sing Se's armies had come out from behind the walls at last. They had been pouring out over the lands for a month and a half: the nearest towns had already been recovered.
Slowly but surely, the Fire Nation was losing ground.
Of course, it was a stressful time for the generals. They had to go on with the attacks as fast as they could so their enemies wouldn't have time to retaliate with their machines of war. Their defence still wasn't good enough outside the walls. They had to take care of that. The strategies weren't anything like before, a trained army having replaced his fighters hidden in the trees. And he couldn't afford a mistake.
But he was used to emergency situations. He even took some pleasure in shaking up his new comrades-in-arms during the war councils. It was for their own good. And he had done them too big a service during the invasion for them to tell him off for such details anyway…
No, Jet didn't brag about what he had done. He was satisfied of it, of course: how could he not? He had gotten what he wanted a lot faster than he could ever have hoped. He had made a fresh start, just like he had resolved to do after the Avatar had made him realize his mistakes. He was now doing things legally; he had dedicated himself to his land without giving up his own ideals. He was achieving his aims; he was free, fighting for the whole Earth Kingdom's freedom. Thanks to his support, Smellerbee and Longshot had been able to join the army as well and so find their place in this huge city.
As for Li…
He dragged out this last thought, savoring the turmoil and fondness the name inspired him. Yet he didn't finish the sentence.
It really was hot outside.
The paved roads stretched around him, broad enough for a whole army. There always were lots of people there, mostly rich civilians strolling in their complicated clothing, who smiled and bowed to him as he went by. And the teenager waved at each of them, as much to answer the smiles as to have them drop that silly bow.
Since the Fire Nation princess had infiltrated their city in spite of their precious wall, the Ba Sing Sei inhabitants liked to see the green soldier uniforms on their streets; a mark of trust that Jet valued. But still, he wasn't one of their damn nobles. Loyalty was enough: he didn't need anyone to lick his boots.
His eye was caught by a group of four girls with weird hair, seemingly pretty, but it was hard to tell with that whitish paste they spread on their faces. They walked huddled against each other, whispering frenetically as they watched him approach. Enjoying the attention, he immediately shot them a broader grin, suggestive enough for them to giggle behind their fans. Rich or not, they really were still girls.
He could have started up a conversation: it was going quite well already, and it wasn't like he disliked them. The girl on the right could even be worth it once he had wiped away all those things from her face, with her full lips and large green, almost yellow eyes…but no. He kept going without looking back, his walk lithe and nonchalant, until he got to the enormous house inside which could have fit fifteen people, at least. Yet the only ones living there were Longshot, Smellerbee and himself. And Li, of course. Jet was still smiling, for himself this time.
He had been quite busy lately. And there were still a few details he had to get settled. Complications, one could almost say.
But once again, Jet wasn't the kind to let an obstacle get the better of him.
It was cooler and a lot darker in the first room (the hall, he had heard it was called), because of the heavy red curtains he had had hung to the windows. To remind him of his forest. The contrast with the sun-filled streets was so strong that when he came in, he was nearly blinded by the large green patches distorting before his eyes. Disorientated, the teenager put a hand to his face and pressed his fingers against his eyelids. It was a gesture he avoided doing in public, for it could be understood as a sign of weakness. Wrongly, of course…
Under the eyelashes, he could sense the more sensitive skin of the purplish rings that had kept deepening the last weeks. Busy, he had been busy. It would fade soon, now.
He started walking again before being completely done with rubbing his eyelids, finding his way with ease among the various obstacles. It hadn't taken him long to memorize the place of everything in the room, the huge patterned carpet, orange and blue on the floor's pinkish marble, the many statues of exotic animals made of bronze or painted wood chaotically lined up against the walls.
When he had become a general, he had found himself with a great lot of money all of a sudden: it had been fun to spend it into filling this big building, cramming everywhere furniture and bright decorations.
The setting had caused a great deal of interesting reactions, especially from Li, who had frozen to the spot at his first visit, wrinkling his nose as if the rooms gave off some unpleasant smell.
"You have got to be kidding me," he had finally managed to say. "What's wrong with you? Are you trying to be taken for a parvenu half-kleptomaniac peasant?"
Whatever that meant…
Jet's steps echoed faintly in the empty corridors. Smellerbee and Longshot still hadn't come back. They had had quite a lot of work as guards those past days, a useful yet dull job that took most of their time. It didn't seem to bother them, though: they usually avoided being in Li's presence for too long. His two Freedom Fighters looked quite determined to dislike the young swordsman. It was sad, really, the proportions it reached sometimes: Smellerbee had even tried to talk to him about it the other day, tense as if she expected a disaster. She had come this close to begging him to throw Li out…
Jet shook his head. He wasn't angry at her. She was a clever, dedicated fighter, and he didn't doubt she had the best intentions in the world. She just didn't have his talent for observation or his gift for reading people's faces; so she often ended up misinterpreting.
Li's bearing for instance, probably noble, as well as his long silences and the pronounced tendency he had to ignore people around him, could easily be mistaken for arrogance. She might also have been driven to suspicion by his bad temper or by the sour comments he sometimes let out. It was understandable. But it didn't make Jet tolerate his friend's hostility to him.
If there was one thing he was sure about Li, after all, it was that he wouldn't hide anything from them…
And as far as he was concerned, he really didn't have anything against that frown that sometimes sharpened his sparring mate's features, like he was thinking hard about something, that stubborn look he had been wearing on the ferry when Jet had talked to him for the first time.
He quietly pushed Li's door open, entering a bright and sober room, almost bare among the great mess that was his house.
It was empty.
His smile became thin-lipped. For a moment he even stupidly swept his eyes over the room, several times, like it could make him reappear. Okay then. He knew things like that were likely to happen: it wasn't like he was expecting a miracle. Li's Dao swords weren't there either. So he must be training. Jet turned round and set off again, refraining from slamming the door behind him.
Li had the particularity of remaining completely silent while using his weapons, as if he was moving in a dream in which even his two heavy broadswords didn't weigh anything. Only once inside the training room (it had been built half underground in order to keep some coolness) could Jet hear the whistling of swords slicing the air, as well as the soft creak of his steps on the floor's matting.
Li didn't acknowledge him when he entered, nor when he waved at him. So Jet was the first to talk, careful to maintain a conversational, slightly curious tone:
"Weren't you supposed to meditate today?"
"I was. I couldn't concentrate," Li said without turning his head.
He wanted to press the point: meditating had greatly improved his health so far; he had to keep doing it. He couldn't talk about some lack of concentration and think it was any excuse. However Li didn't look in the mood for a lecture. It was probably smarter, for the time being, to put off the conversation and to let him slice off imaginary foes if it could soothe his nerves.
So Jet, stifling the annoyance he had started to feel in the empty room, sat down calmly against the wall and took off the top of his uniform, as well as the hooked swords at his side. The room's cooler air felt good through the cloth of his sleeveless shirt. It really was boiling in that damn armor.
The blades kept dancing around Li unperturbed. He must have been training for a good while already, for sweat had stuck threads of his hair against his temples. They looked very black against the white skin. Barefoot and bare-chested, he had a faraway look on his face, lost as he was in the sequence of his own gestures. He didn't seem aware of Jet's gaze on him.
It was interesting to watch him train. Li had a strange, precise style of fighting, a lot different from Jet's. Or from any swordsman's he had ever met, actually. The Freedom Fighter still didn't quite get how his movements could look so stiff and so fluid at the same time, so simple yet so impossibly graceful.
The minutes flew by without him taking notice.
The light filtering through the windows was dimming when Li suddenly stopped, as if waking from a trance. At last he noticed the other swordsman's presence in the room. He hesitated for a second, and then he gathered the hilts of his broadswords together, went to sit next to Jet and wordlessly took the towel he was being handed.
"Nice performance, Li. You're in form."
"Not enough," he just answered.
Li was still frowning. He used the towel to wipe the sweat off his neck and forehead before stretching out his arms. His stiff muscles made him groan slightly. He really must have been training for a long time, Jet thought. Since early morning, perhaps. The Freedom Fighter commented on it, very calmly.
"I guess I did," Li said with a shrug. "I didn't really pay attention to the time. I had to move. It keeps me warm."
He broke off, glaring at the darkness creeping over the room with a kind of resentment. The towel was still tightly wound around his bare shoulders. When he spoke again, it was in a quiet voice, as if he was talking to himself:
"Why is it always so cold around here…"
Jet rather enjoyed the coolness, on the contrary, especially compared to that oven outside. However he kept his thoughts to himself: Li's glare had fallen on his arms now, resentment still burning in his bright golden eyes. He examined the network of his veins and the outlines of his muscles, intensely, like he was looking for traitors hiding in his own flesh.
Maybe it's the cold, Jet thought weirdly. That cold the young swordsman often complained about, as if for a month he had never quite been able to get rid of it. Looking for the cold, trying to drive it out… But no, it didn't make any sense. He mustn't start thinking like that.
He found the straw wisp's smack was getting more and more bitter, a thing that usually never happened to him. He took the stalk out of his mouth with a grimace.
"Maybe you went a bit too far, don't you think?" He risked. "You know what can happen to you when you wear yourself out like that."
He had made his comment in the most sensible way he could think of, but of course it didn't stop Li from getting immediately offended. Body stiffening and face hardening, he replied in a loud voice "I'm fine, thank you very much. What business is it of yours? Do you think I can't fight anymore? I'm not disabled, damn it!"
"I never said that," Jet objected, rising his palms in a placating gesture. "I know what you are capable of, Li. But that's never stopped anyone from worrying about his friend, has it?"
Those simple sentences were often enough to disturb his sparring mate. Stopped in his tracks, he cast him a quick, wide-eyed glance. Then he focused his attention on the hilts of his swords, refusing to answer. He shrugged, hesitated again, and finally he gave him a short nod. Jet beamed.
The levers. The signs he was so gifted to see in people's eyes, with which he could do whatever he wanted: there wasn't anything more to it.
"What about you?" Li said at last, awkwardly, watching him out of the corner of his eye. "How was your day?"
Put in a good mood by his little victory, the Freedom Fighter made a casual gesture with his hand and modestly answered:
"Well, I mostly wasted my time 'till midday. Had to hear out some whiny old guy's complains; it kind of got on my nerves. But you know, no big deal.
General Sung did receive a few reports about the expeditions in the East. We have recovered a few provinces those past weeks, but the guy who's in charge is too soft: he lets all the Fire Nation soldiers make off instead of making prisoners. Long Feng's raving mad. I'll have to find a worthy lieutenant to do the job: the old Sung is too damn stupid to choose one himself. There is a report to write, all that paperwork stuff. It would be nice of you if you helped me with it, by the way."
"Or you could actually learn how to write."
Jet laughed good-heartedly. His, let's say, basic education (Li called it illiteracy, or another weird word of that kind) was one of the reproaches the young swordsman often levelled at him. Yet there had been no trace of hostility in his voice. And he hadn't exactly turned him down. He made a mental note to remember that for later, then went on:
"Also, we finally made some serious progress during the war council. A real attack, for once. It's too bad I can't tell you more about it for now. I swear you're going to like it when you hear it."
Jet paused. There was one other thing he had wanted to wait a little before telling Li. Like a surprise. But really, this wasn't such a bad time for good news. He made himself more comfortable on the floor's matting and stretched out his arms, like his sparring mate had done a moment before.
"Actually, there is one more thing I can tell you about. And you might also like it."
Li nodded, encouraging him to go on. He had his full attention now. Politics managed almost every time to awaken his interest. Jet had gotten the habit of starting with that subject when he wanted to tell him something.
"I put a word for you with General How from the Council of Five. Now that's someone worth talking to. He's looking for capable warriors to train them as a crack troop. Something that would make life really difficult for the Fire Nation. I didn't need more than fifteen minutes to have him ask to see your fighting skills. You know how good you are with broadswords: no way are you getting stuck as a guard like Smellerbee and Longshot. Give him a week, and he will beg you to join his unit."
Strangely enough, Li almost didn't react at all. In fact, all he did was swallow hard and look away to gaze at the hilts of his swords. There was a pause.
The teenager shook his head. But he was knitting his brows once again, accentuating the angry outlines of his scar. Jet turned towards him, waiting until he was ready to talk. He was unconsciously twisting the wisp of stalk in his hand, nearly destroying it.
He had been so sure the news would make at least a small impression on him…
"I have been thinking about all your offers," Li said at last, with a formal slowness that must be his idea of tact. "And I am grateful for your help. But I don't intend to join the Earth Kingdom's army."
Jet nearly jumped. Nearly glared openly at him, even, his eyes darkening in suspicion… But no. Impossible. He had to stay calm.
"Why not?" He merely asked, in a light tone that almost didn't sound fake. "You would do great. The Earth Kingdom needs people like you."
But Li just brushed the compliment aside with the back of his hand. His face was set.
"The Earth Kingdom can manage without me. I have made a decision."
The next sentence was way too long to come for Jet's liking. The straw wisp was smashed to bits in his palm.
"I'm going to search for the Avatar."
Now it was Jet's time to swallow hard. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw that Li's eyes, that bright gold from which he could never quite easily turn away, had lit up with what looked dangerously like enthusiasm.
"The Avatar has vanished. He must be dead by now."
"I don't think he's dead. His body was never found. He must have managed to escape from Ba Sing Se during the invasion. I'm going to find him."
"A kid who ran away? Even if you did find him, what good would that fucking do you?"
Li threw him a fierce look.
"I will join him," he said in a challenging tone. "Since Ba Sing Sei wasn't clever enough to do it."
"He's a kid and a weakling! Why the hell should we join him? Listen, I met the Avatar once, I know him a little. He has good intentions, I'll give you that. But he's stupid, and he hasn't got a clue about what's going on here. You're wasting your time. He's no match for the Fire Nation."
"You shouldn't underestimate him."
Li was almost smiling now, as if he knew something the Freedom Fighter didn't. Shit. His answers were getting shorter and shorter, more and more confident, while Jet felt the beginning of impatience tremble in his own voice. For a second his thoughts drifted to the purplish rings under his eyes.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
"So what are you planning to do exactly?" He heard himself say between clenched teeth. "Leave Ba Sing Se, wander around and hope you'll find a flying bison on your way?"
"Why not? I will surely find leads once I'm past that wall. And like I said, I'm not joining the army. There is nothing keeping me here."
What about me?
Jet drew in a deep breath before speaking again. This wasn't going well. It wasn't going well at all. He had to look calmer if he wanted to convince him. More self-assured.
"Yes there is: this is your country, your capital. We need you here. The Earth Kingdom is starting to turn things around. Why won't you give it a chance? It doesn't change anything if it is Ba Sing Se or the Avatar who defeats the Fire Nation after all…"
Li suddenly whirled towards him.
"It changes everything!" he said, eyes literally blazing. "The Avatar is the bridge between the Spirit World and our own, and the master of all elements. He's the only one who has the legitimacy to bring back balance to the world. But if Ba Sing Sei wins the war, then we have no way of knowing what will happen. Don't you understand? The Earth Kingdom has no interest in bringing back the harmony between the elements. It will only seek revenge. For all we know the situation may remain exactly the same: it will just be the Fire Nation's turn to get invaded by the other lands!"
"Can't say those guys didn't ask for it," the young general muttered.
His next words came on their own out of his lips, ice cold, barely audible. He didn't want to say that. Not really. He mustn't say that: it was dangerous to let Li get so worked up. But the impatience from before had turned into silent anger, hammering through his head and clouding his mind.
Ba Sing Se was going to win the war. Things would get better once Ba Sing Se would win the war, of course they would. Li was wrong: it was Jet who had been right to join the army. Li was wrong; Li had no idea what he was talking about. He wouldn't let Li crush his certainty.
He wouldn't let him go.
"You can't leave the city anyway. Not with your illness."
It really wasn't the smartest thing to say, Jet was aware of that. But the words had come out all the same. Li leaped up, shaking with rage. He was very imposing seen from below, with the tensed muscles of his chest and arms, so white in the dark. The broadswords were still in his hand.
In his right, widened eye there was nothing but indignation; however the left eye, narrowed by the burn and made almost inhuman, the left eye was glaring at Jet in pure hatred.
"How dare you?" He hissed. "Do you think I have grown weak? Is it a fight that you want? I'm perfectly capable of joining the army of Ba Sing Se, according to you. Why the hell couldn't I fight by the Avatar's side?"
"Of course you can fight. But with an army, a country. Not for some dumb kid who flies over the world on his fucking bison without seeing anything, without ever doing anything. You will fight for Ba Sing Se. For a cause worth fighting for, and with chances of success!"
He had to stop. His head was spinning a little; the green patches were distorting in the dark room once again. It was weird to still see such things: he hadn't been in the sunlight for a while. His head hurt. Busy, shit, he had been busy.
His head hurt; but he couldn't go on like this. Li was shouting now.
He really had to stop.
"I won't fight for Ba Sing Sei! I won't fight for Long Feng! Why the hell should I obey some miserable merchant who managed to steal a throne? Where is the Earth King? Why isn't anyone looking for him? How can this Long Feng get so many spies in the Fire Nation colonies and what does he need all those prisoners for? Are you out of your mind? Are you blind? I won't go down on my knees to some usurping traitor!"
His voice was a bit hoarse, yet it reverberated very well in the half-underground room. Without even considering standing up to face him, the teenager shut his eyes tightly, as if it could make him deaf. But Li was still talking in the dark, in a quieter voice filled with acid irony:
"And if I really am possessed by a spirit, isn't the Avatar the best person to help me? One more reason to leave. It's here that I have become like this, in this insane city!"
Why wouldn't he shut up…
Jet's teeth were clenched. He wished he hadn't destroyed the straw wisp: it would have been relaxing to have it now. Tiny lights were dancing behind his closed lashes, glaring flames and aggressive rays of white that crossed his field of vision and made him dizzy. He opened his eyes before he could hear the echoes of toneless voices.
Li was still there. His rage and rebellion, his shaking hand clutching the Dao swords. His bright golden eyes.
It wasn't what he had been meaning to stay. He couldn't remember what he must say. Busy, complications, Li had no idea what he was talking about, damn it all. He was massaging his temples and eyelids once again, sign of weakness, it was a sign of weakness; yet he couldn't bring himself to care any longer.
His voice wasn't helping, either. Hardly more than a breath.
"Li, stay. We'll…we'll leave Ba Sing Se, if that's what you want. You just have to wait a little longer. Listen…"
He vaguely remembered he had no right to talk about that for the moment. Jet drew in a breath, pressing his fingers harder against his temples. Well, fuck the war council.
"Listen, there will be an attack in a month. A big one. We're gonna gather the Earth Kingdom's armies. The underground passageways are being repaired. We'll take back Omashu and free his king. Once it'll be done, the Fire Nation will lose its main advanced post. You see what that means? It'll change everything: we'll get the advantage of that scum at last, after a hundred years…
We can do that together. So stay."
His voice had gotten firmer as he spoke. At last, he stood up.
Li was barefoot, wearing nothing but linen pants, while Jet still had his boots and most of his uniform on. That accentuated their slight height difference; it made the boy before him look younger, almost vulnerable. So the general stood up as tall as he could, as if to dominate him, to crush his rebellion and his plans. No, he wouldn't let him go.
Li was shaking harder and harder. His eyes had widened dangerously; maybe he already couldn't hear him at all. But Jet was out of control, he couldn't keep quiet: his last words came in a biting tone:
"Isn't it what you want? Butcher the Fire Nation once and for all, give them what they fucking deserve, get those bastards back for what they did!"
A strange, short scream. The swordsman's body was suddenly tense as a rope. His face as rigid as a mask. Frightening. At once Jet's anger vanished, blown away by shock.
Yet he knew it was too late. The fit had begun.
A madness fit. A possession by a wild spirit that ripped off the strength, shook the limbs.
Epilepsy, Li had said it was called.
And he was still holding his swords!
Jet swore again and rushed towards him. Li's fingers were contracted so tightly on the hilts that for a second, he thought he would have to snap them before they would let go. Spasms started to shake his limbs. The naked blades gashed his arm, yet the Freedom Fighter managed to snatch the weapons and threw them to the other side of the room, as far as he could into the dark. He was too focused to feel the pain anyway.
In his efforts to keep Li somewhat still, he had at some point found himself flattened against his chest. His skin felt incredibly hot against his bare arms and through his tunic. Too focused to feel the pain. Jet pulled a piece of cloth out of his pocket, folded it and tried to force it between Li's teeth so he wouldn't bite his tongue.
There was a hissing noise. A stream of smoke and embers suddenly poured onto his hand, swallowing him to the wrist in a reddish fog.
He couldn't make a more coherent thought. Couldn't pull away from the steaming body that stuck to his skin like a brand. Couldn't let go of the fabric that had caught fire in his hand. I'm burning…
Flames were coming out of the possessed boy, out of his hands, eyes and nostrils, blazing in the dark room; Jet couldn't see anything. A punch (or maybe it was a kick) tore him away from the fire and flung him to the centre of the room. Both fell to the floor.
Now he was feeling the pain.
He rolled to the side and wrapped his arms around his waist, struggling to breath. His right arm was bleeding. Both his arms were burning, his hands, his face, his whole body was burning. His groans were covered by the fire's roar behind him. Streams of flame kept coming out of Li's convulsed body, drawing out eerie shadows against the walls. Jet shut his eyes tightly.
It never happened before. Not that. Things weren't supposed to turn out that way. Not the flames. Not the fit, either, Jet was thinking desperately. Not the fit.
Li should have had meditated today; he shouldn't have spent the whole day wearing himself out. He should have accepted his offer, too; he should have been happy to accept his offer. He shouldn't have had that stupid plan to leave the city and start that argument, what the hell had come over him, talking like that without knowing anything, letting those flames swallow him, he shouldn't have done that, he should have…
He should have been Li.
"No matter what you might say about it, Zuko is a firebender. This is not a mere power that allows him to destroy things around him. Fire is a part of him. You cannot just erase it from his memory and hope it won't arise again."
"Shut the hell up about that. I didn't come and see filth like you to get a fucking lecture. Is it his fire that's possessing him, or is it a spirit?"
The old man had thought a little before answering, drawn features among tattered clothes.
"Probably both. Us Fire Nation people use to call "Agni" the spirit of fire, sun and vital energy. You may consider it our god. The illness you described must be due to its loss."
"So it's the fire…"
He had burst out laughing, a strange laugh that hadn't echoed in the cell.
"I knew it was its fault! "Agni", right? Fuck him! So he's the one possessing Li, what is he thinking, that I'm gonna give him back? He's the one that's made him like this, that damn fire spirit, he's the one trying to have him back, calling him…"
But the prisoner had stopped him without even having to say a word, just looking at him (bright, his eyes were also very bright, it made him sick to notice such a thing…)
"Unless it is my nephew who is calling his own bending."
Jet gritted his teeth. He couldn't stand that scum, the way he made his shitty assumptions sound like oracle's words.
But in the end, the old guy had had no choice but to obey him. He had given him instructions and a few cures to stop the fits, and it had all worked very well until Li had decided that he didn't give a damn about his advice, until he had stopped meditating and resumed wandering at night in the streets. It should have worked, Jet had been as careful as humanly possible. He knew he had to be especially watchful around midday and at dawn. It was a sun's possession. The madness of dawn.
But the sun was setting now. He hadn't expected that; this wasn't supposed to happen. Agni couldn't have the strength to call him in the evening…
"Unless it is my nephew who is calling his own bending."
Will you fucking shut up!
His fingers clenched on the burned fabric. It hurt, it hurt. His arms hurt, his stomach and his head hurt, he was feeling sick, everything hurt. Jet curled himself up tighter, pressing his cut arm against his tunic, trying not to lose too much blood. Li was still convulsing on the floor behind him. It felt like it had begun hours ago. It felt like he was going to break in two from being so tense. Yet he knew the fits were short: it couldn't go on for more than two minutes now. The fire engulfed him completely, screaming for him.
What if Smellerbee and Longshot came back and saw that?
He had to get out of this mess. Had to find something, somehow; had to adjust like he always did (wasn't it what it meant to be free?). It wasn't supposed to turn out that way. Not in the evening. Not that damn plan of leaving Ba Sing Se.
Things should have turned out well.
Things had seemed to turn out well, not so long ago, when he had been made general and acclaimed as a hero, people whispering around him that this peasant who had come to Ba Sing Se as a refugee might be the first to join the Council of Five in less than a year. Before, when he had changed, put all his mistakes right, when he had been fighting gloriously to free his land from the Fire Nation, when even Katara and her little girl's preaches wouldn't have been able to blame him.
When Li and he could spar for hours on end in this training room without having to get worried sick about some fucking possession. When Li had still been looking at him, talking to him just a little more often.
Before. That's to say, two weeks ago.
He had found the young swordsman at the top of an upper ring's building, standing very tall against the dark sky, watching the horizon past the wall. Jet had asked whether he could join him. Li hadn't refused. He had then asked what he was doing there, and Li hadn't refused to answer, either:
"I'm waiting for dawn. It really is cold."
A gentle breeze had been stirring their hair. The morning air felt great against Jet's skin, making his exhaustion almost bearable. He did have gotten a few days off recently, yet the dark rings were almost as deep as before under his eyes. Busy, he had been busy.
Everything was fine, now.
A faint, white dawn was starting to bring light on Li's profile, his golden eyes, his concentrating, yet almost peaceful face. What he had said could even sound like an invitation, Jet had thought. He had raised his hand carefully, intending to put an arm round his shoulders, or maybe to just brush a thread of his hair or his temple, at the corner of the unburned eye. Just for a second. And why was he so unsure anyway? It wasn't exactly his style…
Then the sun had risen before them.
A ray of light had touched Li, and at once his body had stiffened. His scream had frozen Jet to the spot. His eyes had widened up with an expression the Freedom Fighter had never seen before: surprise, fear. Maybe hatred. Jet had taken an instinctive step backwards. Madness of dawn.
He had had to go to him, however: that inhuman expression wouldn't leave his face, and Li was starting to convulse on the roof's edge. If he fell he would die. He had had to immobilize him, bearing the blows and jerks the possessed boy was aiming at him in his rage, without really feeling any of them, without fucking understanding…
That first fit had felt like days.
Jet was having trouble breathing for some reason. His mouth kept opening and closing stupidly, without making a sound. Hurt. His body hurt. He couldn't get a grip. And now, another fit…so it was the second one. Two fits in the space of two weeks.
That was what Li pretended, at least.
When he had woken up at last, the young swordsman had forgotten everything about the fit, astonished to find himself lying on the roof. He hadn't wanted to believe what Jet told him. In fact, he had yelled at him, denying everything, hardly quietening down when the Freedom Fighter had shown him his injuries, shaking his head in rage.
"No, I'm not epileptic!"
Jet had never heard the word before. It sounded strange, jerky and dry, like a stony road or a spasm. Like the madness that had just struck him. He had lowered his head, saying nothing.
In the end, Li had also become quiet. Jet remembered that he had stared a long time at his own arms, examining everything, veins, muscles and nerves. His face had darkened with a kind of silent panic, the face of someone who has just been betrayed.
It really had been the first epileptic fit; Li couldn't have lied. Not with that look of panic in his eyes.
Or maybe he had lied. Or forgotten, along with everything else. Maybe he had been having such fits for a very long time without Jet ever knowing it. Maybe it wasn't his fault at all…
But to be sure, he had to ask someone who would remember.
That's how he had found himself in that old firebender's cell for the first time, that Mushi whose name wasn't Mushi, that fucking spy who warmed up tea with his palms.
He had had to explain everything to him, in his most despising voice. Yeah, his nephew was alive. Shut the hell up, I'm the one talking. He wasn't his nephew any longer, anyway. Might as well get used to it. And his name was Li, damn it. He had had some kind of fit, too. Epilepsy, he had said it was called. It looked like a spirit's curse. How long had he been possessed by that shit?
He hadn't been able to read the old man's expression in the dark. Shock, probably. Whatever. At last he had nodded (or shook his head, it was hard to tell), slowly, his eyes still on him. And then he had started talking. Jet had had no choice but to sit at the other end of the damp cell and listen to his drivels, his shit about firebending, his fucking oracle's words. Iroh. His real name was Iroh.
After the invasion, he had gathered as much information as he could about the two prisoners, those spies he had been the first to unmask. His prisoners.
His real name was Iroh. He was part of the Fire Nation's royal family. He had been the one directing the siege of Ba Sing Se, almost a decade ago. A first-rate bastard who had grown into a good-for-nothing wreck, to sum it up. His nephew was called Zuko. He was the Firelord's eldest son. Both of them were tracked down by their own people. He had seen the wanted poster.
And destroyed, or made destroyed all the ones he could find, as far as he could past the wall (busy, he really had been busy those past months)…
Face hidden in the dark, hands clenched on the hilts of his swords, Jet had had to listen to that old fool's advice to protect Li from Agni's possession: his nephew must be spared too much stress as far as possible. His nephew had to meditate to keep his chi fluid. He should manage it, even brainwashed. His nephew must drink this and that regularly; Jet had to make sure his nephew got enough sleep…
Li was not his nephew, damn it!
Iroh would always speak in a quiet, almost soft voice. As if he was talking to an idiot or a nutcase. A fucking nutcase with twisted eyebrows and purplish rings under his eyes, playing with his precious nephew's life, with whom he must be very careful lest he would suddenly crush it in his hand, lest he would end up…
"Shut up. SHUT THE HELL UP!"
He had jumped to his feet, face contorted by rage without really knowing why: this guy was only here to obey him, after all.
In the darkness he thought he could see Li convulsing on the ledge yet again. His figure was reflected in the old man's gaze, he wanted to gouge out those damn bright eyes; he wouldn't bear for a minute more that fucking soothing voice.
"You think you're clever, right? You think you can fucking pin on me everything that's happening to Li, like it's always my fault? You think you can play the nice old uncle who takes care of his nephew, damn it, do you think I'm stupid?"
His voice was shaking, but he didn't care, he didn't give a fuck. He wasn't trying to convince anyone. That old scum wasn't even worth being manipulated.
"Come on, have at least the guts to admit it! It's what you wanted from the start, isn't it? Put it all on me, like I didn't fucking save his life, like your damn god wasn't the one destroying him from the inside! You want it to be my fault, you want me to think he would have been a lot happier with his damn firebending, in a land that betrays its own people! Don't you see I knowyou Fire Nation assholes are trying to do him in? If it weren't for you he would still have his face!"
In the silence that had followed, his breathing had seemed really loud. His chest was heaving. His hooked swords were in his hands. He didn't know when he had drawn them out.
The old man had nodded sombrely, his gaze never leaving Jet.
"There's some truth in what you say," he had said in a slow voice. "I'm not trying to justify the crimes of my land. Nor do I intend to denigrate the efforts you made to protect Zuko, since it was what you meant. But you don't know what you are doing to him. You have to understand that you cannot push him against his own nature, nor control his fate. You don't measure the consequences of your acts: they may be worse than you expect. It's because I made the very same mistake that I can warn you. I…"
And then he had paused. No, better: it was like he had choked. His face had darkened; he had looked away as if in pain. Or in shame…
"Yeah? Go on, it sounds interesting."
Jet had come to the bars separating them, a smirk contorting his lips, letting the hooks of his swords slide down the metal in a silent threat. The firebender hadn't even flinched.
"I can tell you, if you want. There is one thing I didn't have time to confess to my nephew. Something that wasn't supposed to put him in any danger. For his own good, you could say. How could I predict there would be an invasion a few days afterwards…"
He had shaken his head in a slow, tired gesture.
"No. I'm making excuses.
Like you said, my nephew and I were tracked down by the Fire Nation; we had come to Ba Sing Se in order to escape them. Zuko…never liked the idea of hiding, nor of running away. He didn't want to stay here. Perhaps he was able to feel that something was wrong in this city, who knows? He might very well have been more perceptive than I have. But you see, we were actually starting to belong here. We had a business; we were safe, and respected. I was respected, at least. So in my egoism I found legitimate, but mostly simpler, for my nephew to accept his new life. To calm down. Like you did, I acted while he was at his most vulnerable…"
There had been a pause. The hooks were screeching a little against the bars.
"A few days before the invasion, my nephew was struck by illness. He had had important decisions to make. Sacrifices, too. He was spiritually exhausted. I thought I was doing it for his own good. I gave him this…" A painful smile had darkened his face. "Not all the teas I make are meant to be sold. Some do relax the muscles and spirit. But others induce a false feeling of exhilaration, diminish the reactivity and critical sense.
I drugged him. Too much for him to escape the Dai Li during the invasion. It takes at least five days for the effects to fade completely. His arrest, everything that followed, the state he's now in…In the end, it is all my fault."
His voice had died away. Jet had roared with laughter, a very shrill sound in the dark cell. But he wasn't in any state to notice.
"Your fault!" He had said. "Say that again, I like hearing it. Drugs, uh? Well done, really. You Fire Nation assholes always impress me, in a way. You're even worse with your own kind, aren't you?"
The old man had said nothing. Jet had leaned towards him, his head nearly wedged between the bars. A sickly sweet smile was twisting his face.
"Well, you tried your best, I'll give you that. But if you ask me, you were wasting your time. He would have cleared off anyway. Sooner or later. A nice quiet life as a waiter in some dump in the capital? Please, don't talk as if you could compare with me.
I offer him the life he deserves. I give him a chance to fight, to change things in the world. And I ridded him of some fucked up family, too. Were you really thinking you could keep him forever? Look at you: why would he stay with some crazy, stinking old fool without any ambition?"
Every blow told. Each of his words seemed to deepen the wrinkles furrowing his prisoner's face. He wouldn't lift his head. Jet was exulting. He would have gone on like this for hours, but suddenly something had come back to him, a slightly hoarse voice, a strange mix of resignation and rebellion thundering in his empty mind:
"Swear nothing will happen to my uncle."
He had leaped backwards, struck by the sheer unfairness of this sentence, burnt by the biting jealousy that had spattered him like an acid.
"He wouldn't have stayed with you! You're alone, you'll fucking die alone! What the hell have you done for him, for him to stay? Like you deserve that, like you ever took any fucking risk! But me… Do you even know what Long Feng's gonna do to me if he finds out what I've done?"
He had frozen. His throat felt dry. He hadn't wanted to go that far; he hadn't wanted to say that to that filth. Nor to himself. Yet the grimacing words were there, now. They were still reverberating against the stones around them: Jet couldn't take them back.
What would Long Feng do to him?
He was hiding two members of the Fire Nation royal family. He had hidden the Fire Nation prince in his house, in the upper ring. He was about to open him the door to the highest levels of the capital's army.
Traitor. Those were the acts of a traitor.
Jet had to make himself breath deeper. No, damn it. He mustn't see things like that. Pain was making him think stupid things. He wasn't a traitor, he was a Freedom Fighter, dedicated to his land. He was a general of Ba Sing Se. He had saved the city from the Fire Nation; he was the one protecting all these people. He walked proudly in the broad open roads of this giant city, among those thousands eyes he could read better than any book, among those thousands truths he could manipulate as he pleased.
He wasn't a traitor. Nobody gave a fuck about that old fool rotting in his cell.
And Li was not a prince, any longer. Li was an Earth Kingdom swordsman, a refugee and an outcast. Someone like Jet.
That day he had slammed shut the door's cell, swearing he would never come back. Let that filth fucking rot underground. Let him think his nephew had died during a fit, let him think that his precious god had killed him, burned him alive, broken his bones, that it had stolen him forever.
And days had passed. Li had gradually grown tired of his advice, ignoring it more and more often. This morning Jet had decided to go and see the old man again, even if it meant to listen yet again to his whines for hours on end: Li had taken the habit of leaving the house in the middle of the night, "To think about things" he said. He wasn't supposed to do such a thing; Jet didn't know what he must do so he would sleep.
Iroh didn't know, either.
Old fucking, useless fool.
His advice had been almost the same as before, actually. He really had wasted his time. The firebender still spoke in his patient, unbearably calm voice, like the shouts and insults of their last meeting had never occurred. Suddenly he had fixed his gaze on him. And then, not even sounding like he was pleading him, with his damn tone of would-be oracle:
"Let me see Zuko. I beg of you, let me see him again."
A short laugh shook his shoulders, awaking the pain in his arms. Really, what was this nutcase thinking? That he would say yes? "Hey, Li, meet Iroh, a Fire Nation asshole you've never seen in your life. He's the Firelord's brother, and he would really like to talk to you. Doesn't that sound great? Oh, he's also gonna call you "nephew" from time to time. But you know, nothing to worry about."
The flames had stopped roaring behind his back. The fit was over at last. For how long had it lasted? He had no idea; he hurt everywhere, he felt like he was delirious. Rays of white light kept dancing behind his eyelashes. Voices had started to reverberate around him, hundreds of dead voices raising from hundreds of brainwashings, all of them; he wanted them to shut up. He felt sick.
His shirt was soaked with blood now. It would be all right, still: his arm had almost stopped bleeding. He had been through much worse than that…
Resting on his less burned hand, he tried to turn towards Li. He too had fallen, lying with his arms stretched sideways, unmoving. His head was turned towards him, yet Jet couldn't see his face through the smoke covering his whole body and rising slowly, like it came out of a village in ruins.
He looked like a corpse. One of those countless burned corpses scattered on the streets around his home, years ago. Li's breathing was noisy, very hoarse, and yet hardly raising his chest. Jet let his head fall back against the matting with a grimace.
Li got covered in flames during the fits. Agni wanted him back. Even in the evening, it could happen at any time: he had no way of foreseeing them, any longer. What if he lost consciousness outside, what if someone saw him? Anyone could see through him now. What if they found out…
What if Li found out?
Overcome by a sickening doubt, Jet made himself open his eyes.
His hand was covered with red marks against his chest. Blisters were appearing on his fingers, sticking to the scraps of blackened cloth. The evening air felt ice cold against the wounds. His arms and forehead were burning too; would it also leave marks, how was he going to hide all that shit, what if Li woke up and saw the burns…
If he came to realize that…
No. The general clenched his fists, ignoring the pain that immediately scorched his palms. No, no way. Not after all of this. No way was he giving up, letting all his efforts go up in smoke. He had to get up, right now; he was going to find something. This was just another obstacle after all; he was going to get through it like he always did.
Agni, the flames, Li's stupid plan to search for the Avatar, the rebellion in his bright golden eyes… Obstacles, all of them.
He wouldn't let Li go. He wouldn't let him get away from the walls of Ba Sing Sei, out where the Fire Nation would kill him, where the Earth Kingdom would kill him without him suspecting anything. What could he suspect? He had no way of knowing the whole world wanted him dead, outside…
He had to get up, but for the moment pain kept him pinned to the floor, curled up like a fool on the matting. Li wanted to get away. He couldn't think past that, couldn't get a grip of himself. Li wanted to get away.
Exhaustion fell back on him all at once, like the roof of a cave. The exhaustion, the deep purplish rings under his eyes, the weight crushing his brain. The exhaustion darkening the corners of his vision, dragging him underground, several feet under a lake and almost two months back when the truth had changed so much he didn't know what to do with it, when he thought he had begun asking himself that damn question:
Had things actually gotten out of control?
Sometimes it felt like he had been asking himself that question forever. Or maybe since the ferry that had taken him to Ba Sing Se, since that light wisp of steam, rising from a cup that should have been cold. Maybe.
Or maybe it had started after the invasion, when Li (Zuko, it was Zuko back then) and his uncle had been arrested by the Dai Li. They had been seen firebending. Jet had been at the height of his glory then, and he had been right, even Longshot and Smellerbee couldn't deny he had been right to watch those guys, those spies, those traitors… All was finally back to order: he was a victorious general, and Li, whose name wasn't Li, with his silences, his golden eyes and guilty secrets, Li was chained and locked up like the Fire Nation scum he really was.
And if he hadn't even deigned to acknowledge him, aside from that brief furious glare he cast at everyone anyway, as if he had completely forgotten about him since their duel, it didn't change a thing to his victory, not at all…
But now exhaustion was darkening the scene in his mind; Zuko's eyes were blazing in the dark, just like Li had looked when they had stolen food together. He was standing very tall among the guards, proud and scornful like Li had been among the refugees of an unknown city.
The thing was, Zuko looked a lot like Li.
It was that stupid thought that had filled his head, stubborn and absurd, reverberating all around him in the dark where he had been lying with his eyes wide open. A wanted poster was crumpled in his fist.
Zuko. Prince Zuko. Hunted down by the Fire Nation. Zuko, Li.
A mere firebender would just rot in a cell and soon be forgotten. A soldier or a higher-ranked warrior would be brainwashed and used as a spy.
But a member of the royal family hunted down by the Fire Nation, a member of the Fire Nation they wouldn't need alive… Zuko, Li. Li, Zuko.
Ba Sing Se wanted revenge. They hadn't been able to lay hands on the princess who had almost destroyed them all.
Now that they had her brother, they wouldn't just kill him. It would probably be the same for her uncle. (They may know that, both of them, they may be already counting the days before someone would recognize them and have them tortured to death…)
Zuko, Li. Li, Zuko. It reminded him a little of those betting coins with a green and a red face, which he must have rigged thousands of times since he was a kid. He was really good at it… Li, Zuko.
At some point, the wanted poster had been smashed to bits in his palm.
Zuko looked like Li…
At some point, Jet had found himself standing before Long Feng, confident, armed as he was with his new glory. He didn't really want to remember all those things. But exhaustion kept sending him back there, darkening the room, darkening the day he had become part of the secret brainwashing unit. Darkening the Grand Secretariat's slightly raised eyebrows and weird smooth features, the slight suspicion in his eyes.
Of course he knew that he would have to beware of that guy. That he would try to manipulate him. That he would surely use it against him if he was to find out what Jet intended to do with that brainwashing. But still he had made his demand with a smile.
He could make do. He too was good at those games: Long Feng had his levers like everyone else. He knew what he was doing. He could reconcile several truths, quite well actually. There would be one for that guy, one for the outside world, another one for Smellerbee and Longshot. He was going to separate Li from Zuko, to cut the link between them with these truths. He could do it…
He was good with truths. However exhaustion was dragging him farther underground, in dark stone corridors oozing with damp. He was under the Lake Laogai. The floor stuck a little to the sole of his boots: it made a sludgy noise as he walked. He was holding a small stone in his hand, lighting the way with its greenish glow. An earthbender was opening and closing the doors that stood in their way, silently. It was one of the guys he had trained before the invasion. Someone he could trust. He was deaf and mute, too, which in this case was a definite pro.
He couldn't remember his own thoughts on that day. Determination, probably. Nothing but determination.
Determination, when the door cell had slammed against the wall and Zuko had woken up with a start, the green light staining his face.
"I know who you are."
Jet didn't know how the firebender had managed to stand up as fast as he had in spite of his bound hands and to adopt a defensive stance, defiantly. At first, he hadn't said anything more. He had thought of hundreds of speeches before opening that door, to reassure or to scare him, he wasn't quite sure. They had all been very long. But in the end, all he had been able to say held in one sentence:
"You wanna die so your uncle won't?"
Zuko had looked at him a long time in the dim light. And then he had nodded, just once. Jet couldn't say whether the boy had recognized him at last, or whether he still wasn't seeing anything but his uniform. One Earth Kingdom soldier among thousands.
But what did it fucking matter, since Zuko soon wouldn't exist?
The firebender hadn't said anything that could get him farther. In fact he hadn't said a word. He had walked in the underground corridors with his head held up high and his shoulders tense, looking like someone who's about to die, who's afraid and who doesn't want to show he is afraid.
The sound of their steps had seemed deafening.
They had gone a very long way down on that day, getting past doors from which came out weak, almost dead voices that all sounded the same and that all repeated the same things over and over again. Zuko had slowed down when he had seen the passing glow of a small flame, but Jet had gestured the earthbender to push him forwards without turning his head.
He knew that trick pretty well now: a few weeks had passed since he had come to Long Feng. He had already brainwashed a good many soldiers. That flame had passed hundreds of time before his eyes, imprinting on them green lines that never faded.
Of course there hadn't been any fire where he had taken his prisoner, at the far end of the dank stone maze. At first glance, the room Zuko had walked in seemed completely empty. He had had to take a few steps further inside before he could make out a stone chair cut into the wall. Then he had looked up to the ceiling, frowning uncomprehendingly at the rails twisting several feet above their heads. Small white, very bright stones were fixed to them, as well as several mirrors.
Those mirrors always made a strange impression the first time: they were hanging too high to reflect faces, always empty and white like the eyes of dead animals. The only thing they reflected were the rays of harsh light radiating from the stones and falling on them, hurting the eye without making the room any brighter.
The teenager had shaken his head in scorn; yet his shoulders hadn't relaxed.
Jet had gestured to the chair with his chin. His throat felt dry for some reason. Zuko hadn't moved at first, watching him with his golden eyes, stiff shoulders and tense spine. Resignation and rebellion.
"Go on, damn it," he had said between clenched teeth. "Don't make things difficult."
"Swear nothing will happen to my uncle."
Jet had had to close his eyes for a moment. He didn't want to talk to this firebender. Why couldn't he just obey him, shut up and disappear? He had quickly nodded, but his prisoner still had taken a step forward, almost threatening in spite of the stone handcuffs and the soldier preventing him from getting closer. His two last words had shaken the whole room, those walls between which nothing was heard besides the echoes of toneless voices.
So he had sworn (why wouldn't he? It wasn't like anyone gave a fuck about that old nutcase). Zuko had finally sat up. His hands had tensed up a little when stones had bound his arms to the armrests and his feet to the ground, but he hadn't said anything more. Jet had gestured to the big, deaf shadow standing next to them. The stones and mirrors had started to move above their heads. Rays of light had cut across their fields of vision like naked blades, and so the brainwashing had begun, the first night of a never-ending series of sixteen in that chilling room.
Sixteen nights. Even Long Feng had never dared try such a work. But Jet wasn't the kind to let an obstacle get the better of him. He knew what he was doing: he had thought about everything he would have to erase, everything he would have to build. It would take as long as it had to; it wouldn't be the first time he would lack sleep anyway…
He could work only at night, having to do his duty as a general during the day. He slept whenever he could, rarely more than two hours at a time. He let the dark rings deepen under his eyes without paying them any attention. He let the toneless voices reverberate in his head and prevent him from thinking at all. His own voice. Zuko's voice, Li's voice, who had protested loudly and demanded explanations until the rays of light had emptied his glare, until new truths had made their way to his brain and all he had been able to do was repeat them after Jet, every sentence, thousands of sentences that still made his head ache. Two weeks…
He had gotten better, of course. But on some evenings he felt like he could feel it again, the wound left by exhaustion that opened like a crack to a deep, suffocating void…
Like he felt now, although everything should have been over a month ago at least. Jet pressed his forehead against the floor, hard enough to hurt, like it could close the wound inside his head. His less burned hand was fumbling for a support, yet he still couldn't stand up. Night had fallen. He couldn't see a thing in this fucking room; it was getting colder and colder. He kept swearing in a low voice, desperately urging some strength back to his muscles, trying to find his way back to the outside world.
Li seemed to be talking behind him, in a thick, unconscious voice. It was strange. He had never noticed he used to talk in his sleep…
He was saying nothing but one sentence, in a neutral tone. A sentence you almost couldn't hear among his hoarse breathing. Just one, short sentence… Yet again, Jet was frozen to the spot, his heart almost stopped beating, his whole body shook briefly with what looked like a sob, but it wasn't a sob, damn it, he hadn't cried for more than ten years now…
For two weeks he had heard Zuko's voice die away. For two weeks he had heard new truths, Jet's truths, because heknew how to adapt to events and turn things to his advantage, and that, damn it all, that was what it meant to be free. If that Fire Nation guy hadn't been smart enough to get it and had now no other choice than disappear, he could blame no-one but himself. His own truths, then.
He had spent hours on end telling Li's story: his birth in an Earth Kingdom harbour town, the first years of his life there. How he had learned to handle Dao swords; how he had rebelled against the Fire Nation until he had gotten arrested, until firebenders had tortured him and burned half of his face. How he had managed to escape and wandered through the land. How, in order to escape his opponents, he had decided to reach Ba Sing Se. Alone, of course.
Li's family had been killed during a raid while he was still in prison. He had never had an uncle.
Jet had had to repeat that one part for a long time before Li would say it at last. I never had an uncle. I never had an uncle. His eyes looked dead, lost among the rays of light dancing over his skin. Almost greyish. But that too would get better soon. Once it would all be over…
Dark rings had also appeared under his eyes: Li didn't sleep much, either. Jet had made sure there were blankets in his cell, but still the teenager spent most of his time lashing out at the stone walls, protesting at the top of his lungs, and how could he not? He had forgotten why he was held prisoner in the first place. Sometimes he would get in a delirious state and scream about white insects making him go blind.
The thirteenth day, he had fallen silent.
From then on he had been very quiet, hardly struggling when they bound him to the chair. His arrival to Ba Sing Se in the ferry had mostly remained the same, minus the uncle. Jet and he had had trouble finding each other again after having gotten to the city. He had had to accept that shitty job as a waiter until they had met again, a few days before Jet was enlisted by Long Feng. They had been friends ever since.
Those past two weeks, they had taken it into their heads to have an intensive training together by the Lake Laogai. That was why they were both so exhausted now.
The brainwashing had lasted fifteen days already. There had been nothing but one sentence to say, one that Jet had chosen to keep for the very last night. Just one sentence…
The sixteenth night (the last night), they had begun much later than usual. There had been that Fire Nation lieutenant Long Feng wanted him to brainwash. As if he wasn't already fed up with those fucking toneless voices… The night was almost over when Zuko had been brought to the room.
He was asleep; a deep, unhealthy sleep. Jet had had to shake him by the shoulders to make him react. And then he had said that sentence, those last words that could have been the first, in a toneless voice he was almost used to hear now.
He had thought that one sentence would be harder than the others. And indeed, after a few minutes, the firebender's eyes had suddenly grown wide, like he was waking up a second time. He had lifted his head. Jet could see his scar very clearly in the dark room. His hands had started to writhe against the stone shackles. Tiny flames had come out from between his lips, making his eyes look brighter.
"Don't. Don't you dare…"
A hand of stone had gagged him, engulfing his protests. Still he had kept on struggling, shaking his head in rage, in burning hatred. He had scratched the armrests until blood had run under his nails. The smell of smoke had mingled with sludge.
It had been a lot warmer in that room, all of a sudden.
Yet Jet had repeated the sentence over and over again, not even feeling the shaking of his hands. The teenager's eyes had dilated in the dark, as bright as the fire that roared around him, the fire that had come out of his hands and nostrils, out of his whole body tense as a rope. He had struggled with such fury he looked like he was going to break his bones against the stones. And still Jet had said that sentence over and over again, letting heat waves sweep over him, ashes engulf his face; letting the young man's body convulse before him without ever making a move.
He couldn't have noticed at the time, several feet as he was underground, but it had happened at dawn. Agni wanted his son back, "unless it is my nephew who is calling his own bending…" So it meant there had been one more fit after all: Li just couldn't remember the first one that had struck him under the lake.
Three epilepsy fits in one month…
But in the end it didn't matter: his god couldn't do a thing. After a while the fire had come down and died away. A dank, cold darkness had swallowed the room once again. The teenager had lost consciousness, the stone gag and shackles the only things keeping him from falling off the chair. Jet had won.
The thought had slowly made its way to his empty mind, finally stopping the stream of toneless words. The silence had felt suffocating.
The fire was dead. The god was dead. He had won.
Very slowly, he had gestured the earthbender to take off the stone gag, and almost at once the prisoner had started to talk, in a hoarse, toneless voice, saying over and over again the same words, the last words.
Jet had won.
He had opened his mouth to laugh, but the taste of ashes still overwhelmed him. All he had been able to do was hit his knees, hands shaking, bathed in sweat, and throw up that taste on the stones. The dead voice kept reverberating in the room, all around him, in each of his dream, each of his sleepless nights. And even in this very training room, now.
He would have given his life for him to just shut up…
But it was a stupid thing to think, really. Worrying about that damn sentence Li kept saying in his sleep wouldn't take him anywhere: a sentence wasn't going to have him killed, or make Long Feng discover that ugly secret Jet had drown in the Lake Laogai. A sentence wasn't going to make Li get away…
No really, it didn't matter: what he had to worry about was this situation right now, the young swordsman who could wake up at any moment and see the burns, his stupid plan of searching for the Avatar and his naïve claim that no-one would keep him here, fuck him, no way was he going to let him escape like that.
The pain didn't seem as overwhelming any more: he even felt like he would be able to propel himself on his arms. He was going to find something, one way or another. You could find all sorts of useful things in Ba Sing Se, even in the upper ring: you just had to go to the right places, with the right amount of money.
Poison, for instance. That really wasn't hard to find.
Of course he didn't need anything dangerous. Just keep Li from getting out of the house for a week or two, to make sure nobody would see him during a fit. Just buy a little time to think of what he would do next…
Li was still talking. One sentence. His hoarse voice was enough to keep him crushed against the floor, it seemed. Jet gritted his teeth.
He had won. Had woven thousands of truths between each of Ba Sing Se's walls, so many truths that he could at every step strangle himself on them; but Li kept struggling at the centre of the web. He had won but Li wanted to get away, make it all collapse, tear each of his strings without seeing any of them in annoyed, graceful gestures. He would leave him for the outside world, far past the walls, driven by the madness of dawn…
He loved Li. However all he could see in his golden eyes were tiredness and rebellion, the other side of the mirror, those too high mirrors that didn't ever reflect faces, that first fit and last sentence, shut up, shut up, please shut up…
"My name is Li; I'm not a bender.
My name is Li; I'm not a bender.
My name is Li; I'm not a bender…"
…When passion colors everything
The songs I sing
From way out there to deep within
The face I wear behind my grin
The price I've paid for my original sin
Poets of the Fall
When passion colors everything