Things Fall Apart- Part 2
The rankings of the Dai Li do not correspond exactly to those of the military, or of the guard. Those who catch sight of them generally don't keep looking to try and differentiate between them, and the markings of rank are subtler than the amount of braid on the coat or the pattern of bandana on an agent's queue.
But there is an awful lot of green-black and gold converging on the street where the old teashop stands. Is mostly still standing. Those blinds needed replacing anyway.
The commotion has mostly died down, but there's a girl sobbing, and the boy has run, and a stone-gloved hand motions information that halves the number of visible agents on the ground. The crowd disperses, understanding by merest glimpse of that certain profile that everything is under control, and those that remain are the ones with the most information to share.
The old man is as cooperative as any in his position might be.
"Gentlemen, my niece has just been through a very trying incident, surely we could speak inside…?"
The swords clang to the ground as Pao's teamaster firmly sweeps them all indoors.
How did we get from saying I love you-
A look of utter betrayal spreads across Jet's face, a rising horror that speaks of tasting poison in a lover's meal, of blades nestled just next to the vulnerable flesh of a beating heart.
"It wasn't just the baby. It was you- all of you. You're all Fire Nation."
Zura reaches out, then holds back. "Jet-"
"No! It can't be- you-!" he's rising now, pacing, weaving back and forth like this is some blundering opponent he can dodge. "-NO!"
Zura knows she could take him down with one blow if he looked like he was about to run or to shout or to attack. She stands- ready, but without intent. Her arms are at her sides. She looks at him with hurt, not with anger.
This can change at any moment.
"Mushi's in on it- he's the leader, isn't he? Or- is he the fath-" He's scrambling, trying to save this situation for himself, for her, to come out of it without the need to destroy what he's come to hope for.
"No," she says firmly, looking at him dead on. She cannot let him have that illusion, not even as a saving grace. "No. My uncle- is my uncle. He always has been."
Jet's looking at her like he's begging her to recant, like he wants to tear his hair out. She turns her face away, and suddenly he reaches out, turns her toward him so that her scar is where he can see it.
"What about this? The exile- I thought-" She bats off his grip, leveling a glower at him that fades in the wake of his devastation. "-thought they'd held you down, or afterward- for colluding-" Still trying to save her honor to himself. It would be sweet if it didn't make her so angry.
"I was branded as a coward, shaved as an adulteress, and exiled," Zura says in a dead voice. "For my sins against my family's honor and my country's."
"Were you a renegade?" A month ago, he wouldn't have even thought about that possibility. He wouldn't have needed to ask it.
"…not the way you're thinking," she says quietly. I just wanted to keep my daughter safe, that's all I ever wanted; I wouldn't dream of conquering the Earth Kingdom, the thought never crossed my mind; I spoke out against an untenable policy, I'm good Fire Nation; a thousand mitigating half-truths come to mind, but the thing about half-truths is that they're half lies. I want my honor back, I want my glory, my destiny, to be worthy of my father and never fall out of line again. I want my daughter and I safe high above this muck.
She hates lying, not least because she's so bad at it.
You're not supposed to lie to people you like.
She's not supposed to like him.
"I told you you didn't want me in your gang."
"You lied to me." He's backing up, letting his hands drop away from her. The revulsion in his face is frightening.
More, it's pissing her off.
"I never lied to you- and you were the one who kept pushing! I told you to go away, and you wouldn't leave me alone!"
How did we get from saying I love you-
To I'll see you round some day?
The night is cool and dark and green, and the fury's bleeding off him in chunks, like billows of red steam, and he can't-
Jet knows how to stay in a good mad. And it makes him furious that he can feel how it's slipping away even now, knowing that she's turned his head around, his stomach inside out. His swords rattle on his back, his fists clench as he stalks down the cobblestones, and it fits that there is no one brave or stupid enough to cross his path.
And if it's angry tears that are running down his face, it's just as well that no one can see them either.
The alleys take him towards the district where Smellerbee and Longshot are waiting for him, ready to get on with tonight's job- the one that's going to get them in closer, where they can finally do some real good. His heart's not in it. Jet curses the city and its false-peace for making him soft, for filling his head with poisoned dreams. Ba Sing Se is a trap, lulling like a poppy-granate that dulls the edges even while it pretends to feed a starving boy's hunger.
The worst part? He's ready to turn around and head back to where he left her, throw away his plans and his brains and his instincts to try and wipe those raging tears off her face, when Big Yan's men loom out of the alleyway.
Even in the city- it's a sign when all the little animals go quiet, and the trail seems deserted.
His back arches like a cat's while he grins friendly to his unsmiling companions.
"You just couldn't pipe down and keep quiet, could ya."
It's going to be like that.
"Always figured discretion for the better part of cowardice, myself," this country-boy drawls, and his hooks flash out. He officially does not have time for this.
Neither do they, and Big Yan's men have been doing this to talented upstarts for a lot longer than he's been alive. Pain is a bright burst in the back of his skull, and Jet spits blood and disbelief as their hulking shapes close in.
"Pity you couldn't just have stolen from the boss or fouled up a job- naw, you had to get public about that little tiff. Public's not a word we can afford, you understand." Heavy arms wrap around his.
"Floating in the canal woulda been easier- you got a date with the Dai Li, boy."