Disclaimer: I own nothing but the plotline.
Summary: Things aren't always what they seem, but some things transcend appearances.
Rating: Call it PG for now.
Notes: This is gonna be short. The bunny's been bugging me, but I'm trying not to take on too many fics right now. That means that if someone, as I so frequently say, wants to try this out as a longer, more epic story, feel free. It'll be a few chapters, just . . . only a few dammit.
Lee woke at dawn, and as he did every morning, leaned over his wife to admire the way the first rays of sunlight fell over her dusky skin. Then he did the next thing on his schedule, which was one of his favourite things to do first thing in the morning, kiss her awake.
He had a method. First, he'd gently press his lips against hers in a small, chaste kiss. Usually that made her nose wrinkle adorably and the rest of her would wiggle a little as she burrowed back into sleep. Then he would kiss her a little more firmly, carefully slipping his tongue out to brush against her lips. This morning he was lucky and her mouth opened a crack, letting him kiss her more deeply right away.
Then he got to lean back, watching her blue eyes flutter open. "Morning," she yawned. He was about to start getting up when her slender arms slipped around his neck and pulled him back in for a very deep, very satisfying kiss. Eventually, however, they had to stop.
"As much as I want to stay right here," she told him regretfully, "You have to get to the dojo and I need to check on Pai. She's very close to her due date."
So another day started. They got dressed, Lee happily watching his beautiful wife put on her Water Tribe underwraps, which were just so tremendously exotic that he never tired of seeing them on her before she covered them up with proper clothes. He pulled on his clothing, scooping up the blades and heading for the dojo where he was the assistant, and likely to inherit from its current owner.
This day was just like any other, its share of small irritations and small triumphs. That boy Hui, probably his most average student, was just not getting the kata combination, while his worst student, Guo, had learned it on the first try. He crossed the street of their village to Yan's for a bowl of noodles at lunch when a startling sight came through the village.
After the war had ended and the Avatar had defeated Fire Lord Ozai, the new Fire Lord had been installed on the throne and had declared an end to the war, and had begun making reparations to the Earth Kingdom. So far, he seemed a just ruler, but Lee was still holding his breath on that to an extent. Particularly in relation to himself. He had been a raw, new recruit to the army, hopped up on Fire Nation propaganda when he first found himself on the front lines. Three weeks out there, and he'd decided that this war wasn't for him. He would fight to defend his country, but not to take over another.
So he deserted.
Now he was living in a small village, one that had accepted a firebender like him, with a job that made him happy and a lovely waterbending wife. He had no intention of going back to the Fire Nation. He had deserted and he didn't know how the consequences had played out since the change in administration. So rather than take the risk, he was just going to stay where he was and hopefully raise his children there.
But now there was a small contingent of Fire Nation soldiers walking down the street.
There had been an armistice, and there was no reason why anyone should be nervous about them, but old habits die hard, and besides that, no one could think of any reason for Fire Nation soldiers to be there, anyhow. Lee shifted a little on his stool, watching them carefully for any aggressive moves.
His own movement caught their attention, and one in the front nudged the man beside him, saying something too quietly to be heard by anyone else. Within moments, the whole group had come on point, like a pack of hunting animals, and that point was Lee. They all trooped over, and Lee, aware he was the centre of attention, got off the stool and moved out to the street where there was more open space to defend himself. "Hey!" said the one who seemed in charge.
He inclined his head a little. No reason to offend before it was necessary. "Afternoon," he said carefully.
"What's your name?" asked the soldier.
He took in a careful breath, but answered nonetheless. "Lee."
"Lee, huh?" said the man with a strangely friendly smile. "You should really come with us."
A sick feeling filled his gut. This was it. They'd come for an army deserter and he was going to be taken to the Fire Nation for some sort of sentencing. "I'd really rather not. I have a class waiting."
"Oh, they'll be happy enough to let you go," the man said, still smiling.
He smiled, rather faintly, back and said, "Maybe so, but I have an obligation. Now if you gentlemen will excuse me." He deliberately started walking toward the dojo.
One of them lunged at him, grabbing his arm and pulling him into the crowd of soldiers. Lee reacted on instinct and spun, using the combination of momentum to backhand his captor. The man let go and Lee tried to duck between them, failed to escape and drew his swords. The next few minutes were a blur as he tried to fight his way out. He was good, but there were too many and they were all carrying polearms. He blocked one spear, another, a quarterstaff but the next staff got through his guard, striking him across the shoulders and making him stumble.
Before he could recover, the next hit arrived, a strike across the back of the head. He didn't even feel the pain as everything went black. When he woke next, he was bound hand and foot and lying uncomfortably over the back of a war rhino, the ridge of its back digging uncomfortably into his stomach.
And the day had started so well, he thought wistfully. "Hey!" He shouted. "Where are you taking me?"
"Home," replied the man riding the rhino. "Where did you think?"
Rolling his eyes in aggravation, he replied. "If you hadn't noticed, my home is back in that village with-" he cut himself off before he mentioned his wife. Spirits only knew what would happen to her if they knew. "With my job and my friends," he hastily corrected.
"Well, you'll just have to get used to new friends and another life," the man said with a weirdly pleasant chuckle. "Don't you worry."
Deciding that this man was clearly unbalanced, Lee sighed and shut up, waiting for a chance to escape. The opportunity came when they stopped for the evening. They took him down off the rhino and untied him so he could relieve himself and eat something. The whole time he was under close watch. But after that, they tied him up, then left him to his own devices as they settled in to sleep. He was plonked into a well-appointed tent with comfortable pillows and a sleeping mat, but they seemed to feel the rope binding him was sufficient and didn't leave a guard on the tent.
When the sounds of movement had settled down, Lee reached down and carefully summoned his inner flame to burn his way out of the rope. It was a slow, careful business. He didn't want to set fire to the tent, or burn himself. It took a lot of focus to narrow the burning to one specific spot on the rope which he couldn't see, but he managed. Getting his feet undone was a lot easier. Then he crept to the tent flap, moving it open a crack to peer around the camp site.
Complacent about their prisoner, the men seemed to have all gone to sleep. Lee crept out, freezing every few steps to be sure no one had awakened. He was just sneaking past the last of the men when he saw his blades hanging from the saddle of one of the rhinos. It was dumb, he knew it then, but he wanted his swords back. They were his and they meant a lot to him. Carefully hushing the rhino, he cautiously undid the straps holding them on, pausing with every clink of metal and movement of the animal.
He would have made it fine if he'd either not stopped or if that stupid cat-owl hadn't shrieked. But it did and half the camp woke up to the sight of him taking his swords. The shriek had also startled the rhinos, who bucked and lowed and generally made a fuss that woke everyone who hadn't been sleeping before. Lee let the swords go and started off running, but the nearest soldier took him down with a flying tackle, and the rest piled on, immobilising him.
From then on, he was always under guard, and the rope was replaced with chains.
They continued on for another day. At the end of the day, he found himself staring into the loading bay of one of the Fire Nation airships. Half of the soldiers came on board, dragging him with them. They put a bag over his head and stuffed him into a corner, then refused to answer any of the questions asked by the ship's crew. He spent the next period of time – longer than a day, but less than a week – with the bag over his head all the time but when he was being allowed to eat.
Strangest of the whole experience was the pleasant chatter the kidnappers insisted on having. It was as though they thought he should be enjoying the experience and thinking of them positively. It was positively bizarre.
They landed and he found himself loaded into a covered cart. Finally they took the bag off. "Sorry about that," the soldier told him, still smiling. "But we didn't want to ruin the surprise for anyone."
"The . . . surprise?" Lee asked. This was the craziest thing that had ever happened to him and it was so strange he wouldn't have been all that shocked to discover it was an elaborate practical joke.
The other man, Lee refused to learn any of their names, nodded with a wide grin. "Yes. Everyone, the Fire Lord in particular, are going to be very surprised." He sat back, a smug look on his face. "I'm hoping to get a commendation out of this."
"Really?" Lee replied, unable to think of anything else he could possibly say to this.
They passed into the palace courtyard after a security check that involved them putting the bag back on his head. Then they dragged him out of the cart, and up some stairs, down one hallway, then another, until finally he was in a room that felt large, if the sound of voices echoing off the walls was any way to judge. He stood there, hearing the crackling sound of a fire.
His captors knelt, and Lee just stood there, awkwardly aware that he still had no idea what was going on. The one who'd been expecting a commendation for the kidnapping and return to the Fire Nation of a minor member of the army who had deserted spoke. "Your majesty," he said. "Me and my men are here because we've brought you something . . . someone you have been searching for."
From somewhere in front of them, Lee heard the man reply. "And who is this under the bag?"
One of the soldiers stood, yanking the bag over Lee's head. He blinked into the sudden change of light. He was in an enormous hall, lined with columns. To the front of the room was a dais which was partially hidden by the curtain of fire rising from the floor in front of it. He felt a little sick as he realised he truly was in the throne room and in front of the Fire Lord.
The curtain fell away suddenly revealing the man who held the throne now, after Ozai's defeat at the hands of the Avatar. Pale, the man stood, looking as though he was seeing a shocking sight. The flame crown glowed in the topknot on his head and the robes gave him an even more impressive aura than he had by his simple carriage and presence.
The moment was broken as the man suddenly gasped, smiled widely and ignored all convention and tradition as he rushed down the few steps of the dais, down the floor and up to Lee.
Dreading whatever was to come next, Lee raised his chin, determined that if he was going to die or be sentenced to execution or anything else, he would take it without cringing.
And then the other man grabbed him, pulling him into a hug, saying, "Nephew! Oh Zuko, you are safe!"