Before anything else, I'd like to say that this story would never have been written if not for the help of my friend and beta, Stingrae. She's been devotedly helping me write this thing since the very beginning - and since the very beginning was over two years ago, that's a lot of devotion. Without her patience, suggestions, and amazing capability of listening to my nonsensical rambles, I never would have managed to actually WRITE, and this story would have died a quiet death in some dark corner of my brain years ago.
So thanks, Stingrae. For everything.
Things you ought to know about this story:
It's rated T for nasty details involving warfare, death, and brainwashing. Especially the brainwashing. Later chapters may be given a higher rating. It's not a gorefest, though; it's just disturbing. It's hard to make brainwashing not be disturbing, after all.
It features a rather large cast of original characters. This is necessary due to the fact that it focuses on the Dai Li, and seeing as the only Dai Li who ever got a name, personality, and backstory was Long Feng, I had to create the other members of the organization from scratch and screenshots. If you like well-developed, shades-of-gray OCs, this is the place for you. If you aren't an OC type of person, you might want to turn back now. If you don't know how you feel about OCs, I highly suggest that you give the good ones a try. You might just like them. After all, I did.
And that's all I have to say for now. Hope you enjoy the story!
Prologue - The Strategy of Victory
It was a beautiful spring night in Ba Sing Se. The air was cool, still recovering from winter's chill, and the breeze carried a faint smell of lilacs from the Upper and Middle Rings. The near-full moon cast her gentle glow over the city, lighting the way for the green-robed figure hurrying down the streets of the Lower Ring.
Agent Enlai Tong moved swiftly through the slums, staying close to the walls so he didn't draw attention from the few civilians on the streets. If anyone did see him, though, they'd assume he was just another Dai Li agent on patrol.
They wouldn't be mistaken, either. He was Dai Li, and he was patrolling.
The fact that he was far, far away from his assigned district in the Upper Ring, and getting farther still, complicated things a bit.
Enlai refused to think of the consequences should anyone discover he'd abandoned District 87. It was highly unlikely that anyone there would even realize he'd left. The real danger was running into agents on patrol in the districts he was crossing. If they saw him and realized he wasn't where he was supposed to be...
He'd really rather that not happen, to say the least.
Enlai wasn't just abandoning his district on a whim, however. He had a meeting to get to - a meeting that hopefully wouldn't be completely worthless. With any luck, he'd be back in the Upper Ring by daybreak, hopefully with something to show for his trouble.
His heartbeat quickened as he turned down another street and saw, way down at the other end, the wall that separated the Lower Ring and the Agrarian Zone. Enlai stared up at the wall, but the stone reached so high and the night was so dark - even with the moonlight - that he couldn't see the soldiers he knew were patrolling on the top.
He decided that meant they wouldn't be able to see him, either.
He picked up his pace, hurrying the last few blocks to the wall, and soon found himself standing at its base. He ran rock-clad hands over the stone, getting a feel for it. He took longer than he needed to, hands shaking slightly. "Highly illegal" was an understatement for what he was about to do.
Taking one last look around to be sure no one was watching him - and another glance upward, just in case - he stepped back and made a punching motion at the stone. A small tunnel formed, just big enough to walk through, and Enlai stepped in, sealing the entrance behind him.
The first thing he thought was that he should have brought some sort of light, because while the world was dim in the moonlight, it was utterly dark without it. But this was his element Enlai was encased in, and so he felt nothing more than mere annoyance as he continued down the tunnel, bending more stone out of the way as he needed and trying not to think about how many city laws he was violating. It took some minutes before he finally came to the last few feet of rock between him and the Agrarian Zone, and he effortlessly bent it away and stepped out into the night.
Before him were vast cornfields, filled with small, young green plants springing out of the dirt. The Outer Wall was far enough away that he couldn't see it in the darkness, and that was perfectly fine with him. He didn't want to see the gap where the Fire Nation had broken through.
"Precise as ever, I see," a voice greeted him, and Enlai suppressed a start before carefully turning around to face his contact. The man was leaning against the wall, just a few feet from the hole Enlai had put in it. He wore a long black cloak, and Enlai could just make out the armor underneath. Though it was impossible to tell with the lack of light, he knew it was red.
"Hello to you too, Lee," Enlai answered.
The Fire Nation soldier smiled, but it wasn't very pleasant. Enlai decided he wanted to get this over with as quickly as he could.
"You said you have information the Earth Kingdom needs," he prompted.
"So quick to get to the point," Lee observed. "I thought you Earthbenders waited and watched. Fire does the outright attacking."
Enlai inwardly scowled at the jab. Still, he was an agent of the Dai Li. Two could play at this game. "Of course," he said. "Which is why you make for such good spies."
The other man glared at him. "Watch it, mud slug."
Enlai restrained a smug smile, but made no additional jabs at Lee's espionage skills. No use antagonizing his contact further. "Come on, Lee. Let's get down to business."
"I swear, Shu, you're the oddest Earthbender I've ever met," Lee muttered, rummaging for something hidden in his cloak.
"How so?" Enlai asked, glad that the alias he'd given Lee all those weeks ago still worked. No way would he have told his real name to a man who'd managed to sneak into the Middle Ring unnoticed.
He was pretty sure Lee's name was fake, too.
"You're like fire and earth," Lee answered. Enlai stiffened slightly, wondering if he should take that as an insult, but Lee merely added, "Weird combination." He pulled a packet of paper out of his cloak. Enlai eyed it warily. "This," the soldier said, waving the packet, "contains some important battle plans I took the liberty of copying while General Iroh was out of his tent. It's very specific; nice and detailed." He looked down at the papers in his hands, regarding them in a thoughtful manner.
"How much?" Enlai asked, grateful for the gold pieces he'd thought to put in one of his robe pockets.
"Oh, you're going to pay me? I was thinking this could just be a thank you for not turning me in when we first met..."
"Right. Because you're so grateful."
"Well, considering how many of our spies go into your blasted city and are never heard from again...yes, I think I am grateful."
Nice of you to warn us about the Fire Nation's imminent break through the Outer Wall, then, Enlai thought sarcastically, but he didn't say anything. Lee was a double agent, and those sorts of people only ever looked out for themselves. "How much?" he repeated.
"Wasn't kidding, kid," Lee smiled, and Enlai had to keep himself from scoffing at being addressed as such. He was twenty-four, for Hu-Tu's sake! "This is absolutely free."
After five hundred ninety-five days of besiegement, the prospect of free information from a Fire Nation spy was fartoo good to be true, no matter what Enlai had done for him. "Free," the Dai Li agent repeated dubiously, clenching and unclenching his fists to feel the reassuring pressure of his rock gloves.
"Free," Lee repeated. "On one condition."
Of course. There had to be something. Whether or not it was something Enlai felt like giving was another matter.
He glanced at the tunnel he'd made through the wall. It was only a few feet away, and there was nothing between him and the entrance, should he need to make a speedy escape.
To turn tail and run after all the trouble he'd gone through, though, would be unacceptable.
Enlai dug stone-clad feet into the ground, felt the earth around him. He had his gloves. He had the chains hidden up his sleeves. He had the wall above him, and miles of farmland at his disposal.
The Dai Li agent tilted his head forward ever-so-slightly, allowing his hat to hide his smile. If Lee's price wasn't to his liking, he was more than capable of taking the information by force.
Lifting his head, he focused on the Fire Nation man. "And what condition would that be?"
Lee smiled again. "In this attack," he said, waving the papers, "there will be a main force of invading soldiers, flanked by two more forces to the north and south. The plans are yours for free if you swear to completely wipe out the north flank."
Enlai blinked and stared at the papers, any and all thoughts of attacking the man coming to a sudden and unexpected stop. Cautiously, he asked, "That's it?"
"That's it," Lee nodded. "The entire north flank needs to die. All of them. No survivors. No chance of survivors. You make that happen, these are yours for free." He waved the packet again, enticingly. "Furthermore, you make that happen, and I guarantee you'll deal a critically heavy blow to Fire Nation morale. How's that sound, Shu?"
A week ago, reports had indicated that Fire Nation morale was already teetering on the edge. Camping around a wall for nearly two years knowing it wasn't doing any good could ruin an army's confidence. Since breaking through, however, the Firebenders had gotten quite the morale boost. The sooner their newfound good mood was crushed, the better.
But Enlai knew better than to just take Lee on his word. Especially when the information he offered was practically free. Enlai was Dai Li - he knew just how complicated risky strategies could be. Maybe this was all an elaborate plot to trick the Earth Army into attacking the wrong regiment of Firebenders.
He couldn't exactly ask that, though, so instead he asked, "And exactly how will wiping out a single flank of soldiers discourage morale?"
Lee looked annoyed. "Do I need to explain everything to you?"
"I don't like getting scammed," Enlai said plainly.
"Fine," Lee said. "The leader of that particular flank happens to be someone very important to Prince-General Iroh." He grinned. "Wipe them out, and the Dragon might just decide to call it quits."
Or wipe us off the map, Enlai thought to himself. He knew better than to think that Lee cared about the fate of Ba Sing Se - the spy would probably say anything if it meant Enlai would agree to his terms. "And why would that be?"
"I take back what I said before," Lee grumbled. "You are stubborn as dirt."
"And you're a double agent. I know how people like you work, Lee."
Lee snorted. "I don't really think of myself as a double agent..."
"You're selling secrets to the enemy," Enlai pointed out.
"Giving. Not selling. I told you, this is free. Mostly."
"Even worse, then. You're working with the enemy, and you aren't even getting anything out of it."
Lee frowned for a moment, studying the Earthbender. And then he sighed. "Look Shu," he said. "You want to know the truth? I don't work for General Iroh. I answer to Prince Ozai." He paused for a moment to let that sink in. After a moment, he added, "I'm actually glad we ran into each other. It's given me the opportunity to accomplish something extremely important for my boss. I just need your people to wipe out that flank of soldiers."
So Lee wasn't a double agent, then, in a weird, twisted sort of way. He wasn't betraying General Iroh; he was fulfilling orders for another master that ran contrary to what Iroh would want. Enlai didn't know much about Fire Nation politics, but he did know about politics in general - one didn't last long or get far in the Dai Li without understanding at least the basics, after all. He filed the piece of information away in his mind. Maybe one day he'd be able to put the puzzle together, if it ever became important. For now, if General Iroh's brother was willing to sacrifice the Fire Nation's victory for some personal gain, it was good enough for him.
"Fine," Enlai said. "Deal."
Lee held out the packet, and spoke as Enlai reached for it. "Do you swear, upon your honor and your life, to see to it that the north flank is completely obliterated?"
Somewhere in the back of his memory, Enlai remembered that honor was an extremely important concept in the Fire Nation - far more so than it was in the Earth Kingdom. For a citizen of the Fire Nation, swearing on your honor was a serious oath not to be taken lightly.
Enlai could have smiled at Lee's ignorance. Agents of the Dai Li were not known for their honorable natures.
Swearing on his life was a slightly different matter, but agents of the Dai Li were not known for their poor fighting skills, either.
"I do," Enlai nodded, and Lee let go of the papers. Enlai held them close, with the vague realization that the fates of two nations were in his grasp.
"Allow me to congratulate you in advance on your victory," Lee said, making a proper Fire Nation bow. "Nice working with you, Shu," he added as he wrapped his dark cloak tightly about him and turned away from Enlai. He made his way into the cornfields, stepping on the little plants as he went. Enlai watched him for a moment before calling after.
"And if that doesn't happen? If the north flank isn't wiped out?"
Lee stopped and looked over his shoulder. "I'm a spy. I've snuck into this city plenty of times." He may have been from the Fire Nation, but his smile was downright cold. "I think I'd find a way to extract payment. Enlai."
Enlai felt a chill run down his spine. Lee merely smiled again, turned, and walked off.
Enlai looked down at the packet in his hands, running his thumbs along the parchment.
This was it. Ba Sing Se's freedom. The Fire Nation's defeat. One more step in building up his reputation among the Dai Li. It was all right here. All he had to do was make sure the Council of Five knew to completely wipe out a single flank of Fire Nation soldiers.
And if they didn't? Well. Enlai was a highly skilled Earthbender and a member of one of the most elite bending organizations in the world. He was pretty sure he could handle a single Fire Nation spy.
Enlai smiled in satisfaction. Tucking the packet into his robes, he reentered the tunnel he'd made in the wall and walked back through, sealing it up behind him as he went. Once he was back on the other side, he headed for the Upper Ring at a brisk pace, intent on getting back to his district, finishing his rounds, and seeing the Grand Secretariat the moment his shift was over.
He had no idea just how many destinies he was helping to carry out.
Dawn was a crack of light on the horizon, and Long Feng was still awake.
He wasn't exactly conscious, though. Half his mind had shut off, which was quite a pain for the other half, as he needed both of them if he was ever going to finish reading this report.
And the three others he needed to review.
And the stack of papers filled with requests awaiting his approval.
He stared at the writing on the parchment before him, trying to bring the tiny characters into focus. Then he sighed and placed it on his desk. For a moment, he leaned back in his seat and let his eyes close, and then he stood up and started pacing in an effort to wake up.
The third time he passed the fireplace, Long Feng idly bent the chalcanthite crystals out of the hearth, letting the flames resume their natural orange color. Green fire wasn't exactly bright, and the dull lighting didn't do much for his already groggy mental state.
The bright yellows and oranges, on the other hand, didn't do much for his mood. Long Feng scowled into the flames. Over the past five hundred and ninety-five days, he'd really come to hate fire.
He sighed and leaned against the mantle, still trying to wake up and ignoring the voice in the back of his head that was telling him he should really get some sleep. These all-nighters were becoming far too frequent, and he worried they'd become even more so now that the Fire Nation had broken through the Outer Wall.
Great Hu-Tu...the Fire Nation had broken through the Outer Wall. Long Feng hadn't been sure what to think when that report had landed on his desk. He'd first thought - hoped - that General How had suddenly sprouted a sense of humor and it was his horrid idea of a joke. Then it had turned out to be very, very true, and his entire world had come crashing down on him.
He hadn't worried much about the Siege up until five days ago. Ba Sing Se had been besieged many times over the centuries, and every effort ended in failure on the enemy's part. The walls were unbreachable, and the Agrarian Zone provided enough food to support the city. The idea that the city would ever be taken was inconceivable. So, when the Fire Nation had set up camp outside their walls, Long Feng hadn't been terribly nervous. He had let General How and the rest of the Council of Five take care of the city's defense, and for his own part had set about making sure that the citizens were none the wiser.
The first precaution he'd taken was to shut down the Full Moon Bay ferry station. A hard decision to make, but a necessary one. The last thing he'd needed was for the Fire Nation to discover it - or worse, panicking refugees enlightening Ba Sing Se citizens to their predicament. Refugee traffic to the city had dwindled since the Siege had started, anyway.
And so the people of Ba Sing Se had spent nearly the last two years without any idea about what was going on. A good number of them knew about the war, of course, but pretended not to for fear of the Dai Li. That was fine. As long as they didn't spread panic and disorder, or talk about the war's existence, they were nothing to worry about. And even if they did know that the war existed, they certainly did not need to be aware of the fact that the Fire Nation was currently hammering on their walls. All they needed to know was that they were perfectly safe.
Then the Fire Nation broke through the Outer Wall.
The Earth Army was already working on a contingency plan, building two more walls on either side of the gap so as to contain the Firebenders in only a small stretch of the Agrarian Zone, but Long Feng was coming to the conclusion that such actions might be moot. Yes, it had taken an enormous amount of blasting jelly to break through, but if the Fire Nation had stockpiled enough of the stuff once, they could certainly do it again. Before long, they'd probably have the entire Agrarian Zone in their grasp, and after that, it was only a matter of time until the city starved. General Iroh wouldn't even have to fight - he and his troops would only need to merrily squat on their farmland while Ba Sing Se's food supplies dwindled. From there, the city could only descend into panic and disorder. The citizens would do the Fire Army's job for them.
For the millionth time, Long Feng cursed General Sang Shi. Spirits damn that man. It was his fault the Fire Nation had managed to break through the Outer Wall. And then he'd gone and actually surrendered. Pathetic. General How still needed to find his replacement, but seeing as he was busy readying the troops for the Fire Nation's inevitable push inward, it looked like the Council of Five would remain the Council of Four for now.
Long Feng wasn't even going to try and pick out a new general. He and How didn't exactly get along. They had an unspoken agreement - Long Feng handled the city's domestic affairs, and How took care of the war problem. There'd be no use in antagonizing him or trying to do his job for him. Besides, How probably knew who the best candidates were anyway.
In the meantime, Long Feng needed to find a way to explain to the Earth King why his Council of Five was now a Council of Four, why Sang Shi had suddenly disappeared, and why throwing random feasts was notgoing to be a good idea for the time being. It was only a matter of time before the food shortages started. He supposed he could tell Kuei that Sang Shi had decided to retire...and immediately leave the city...without giving any prior notice...
Well, since Kuei didn't know there was a war on, he had no reason to think that he had to keep up to date on the Council of Five's doings. He hardly met with them as it was. If Long Feng told him that General Sang Shi had retired, he'd probably believe it without too much wondering.
Maybe he should claim that Sang Shi had gone insane, just in case the Earth King questioned it. And if the miserable, cowardly excuse for an Earth Army General did show up again, he'd just have the Dai Li's Reeducation Branch recondition him into oblivion so he could be turned into something that was actually useful.
There. Problem solved.
Or, at least, part of it was. The real problem was the Fire Nation, and the effect their imminent victory would have upon the citizens of Ba Sing Se. Once they took the Agrarian Zone and the city started suffering food shortages, the citizens would know something was wrong. The Grand Secretariat could envision it with terrifying clarity - the fear, the panic, the riots, the utter chaos. It was only a matter of time before those visions became reality.
Long Feng stopped pacing and stood in front of the fireplace, staring into the flames. No. It wasn't going to end this way. He wouldn't let it. He hadn't come all the way from the Lower Ring and worked his way through the University and the Dai Li and Upper Ring politics and become Grand Secretariat just to watch his city fall apart and burn.
There was a way out of this. There always was.
The office door opened. "Grand Secretariat?"
He turned from the fireplace to see his visitor approaching his desk. He didn't recognize the agent, and he didn't remember having any appointments.
"I'm Agent Enlai, from the Surveillance Branch," the newcomer said, drawing a packet from his robes, and Long Feng stifled a groan. More paperwork. Fantastic.
"Put it on my desk," he ordered, turning back to the fire. "I'll review it after I've gotten some sleep."
"Sir, if I may be so bold, this is extremely important - "
"Everything is extremely important," Long Feng snorted. "I'm sure that whatever it is that needs my signature can wait."
"With all due respect, sir, this is not any sort of legal paperwork," the agent insisted. "It could very well be the salvation of this city."
That got his attention. Slowly, Long Feng turned around to face his visitor. The young man looked to be in his mid-twenties, with the broad facial features that were common in the Earth Kingdom and the long braid that was standard among the Dai Li. He looked like just another agent. But there was something about his expression that piqued Long Feng's interest, almost as much as his words had.
His eyes were unflinching. There was no spark in them - just a single-minded, resolute, stone-cold determination.
Long Feng knew that look. He'd worn it himself, long ago.
"And how," he asked, "could these papers possibly save Ba Sing Se?"
The agent dropped the packet on his desk. It landed with a heavy thud. "I received these from a contact in the Fire Army," he said. "They're detailed battle plans for the upcoming invasion of the Agrarian Zone."
Long Feng felt his eyes widen, and his hand reached out to touch the parchment. "What did you say your name was, Agent?"
"Enlai Tong," the other answered.
"Agent Enlai," Long Feng said, and he smiled. "I believe we have much to discuss."
General Iroh looked up from the letter he was writing to see his son standing before his desk. Lu Ten had a tea tray in his hands and a smile on his face that Iroh could barely see in the dim dawn light. He loved having his workspace outside, especially now that he could view the break in the Outer Wall from his tent, but the lighting in the early morning was terrible. Tents, at least, kept the wind from blowing out the candles.
"How's the letter coming?" Lu Ten asked, placing the tray on a patch of space his father cleared on the desk.
"Very well," Iroh answered, taking one of the teacups. He held it just under his nose, inhaling the steam. "Ginseng?"
"Your favorite," Lu Ten nodded, taking his own cup. Iroh smiled appreciatively and took a sip. Lu Ten's eyes roamed over his father's desk, and paused on the small wooden cases sitting on the far end. "You're sending gifts?"
"To your cousins," Iroh nodded. He reached for one case and opened it. "This is for Zuko."
Lu Ten recognized the knife immediately. General Sang Shi had given it to his father upon surrendering. "Don't you think that'd be more appropriate to send to Grandpa? It is the symbol of the enemy's defeat..."
"While you have a point," Iroh chuckled, "you should know by now that your grandfather cares little for pomp and tokens. Besides, Zuko would benefit from it more, I think. That boy needs something inspirational."
Lu Ten plucked the pearl dagger from its case and turned it over in his hands. "Of course. Because 'Made in Earth Kingdom' is such an inspirational phrase."
"You know perfectly well what I mean, Lu Ten," Iroh smiled.
"Wonder why they even need to say where it's made," Lu Ten mused. "The green gives it away." He placed the dagger back in its case. "What are you sending Zuli?"
Iroh opened the other case, and Lu Ten suppressed a grimace. "Ah," he said, as politely as he could manage. "Very nice."
"Yes, I thought so," Iroh said, picking up the little doll. "Hopefully she will like it, despite all the green."
Lu Ten refrained from slapping his forehead. He loved his father dearly, but unlike his son, Iroh didn't know Azula very well.
"When are you sending this?" he asked.
"Today," Iroh answered. "Do you have anything you'd like to send along?"
Lu Ten finished his tea. "Actually, yes. Yes, I do." He set the cup on the tray. "I'll just go to my tent and get it." He had three letters written already, one for his grandfather, one addressed to Uncle Ozai's family in general, and one for his old friend Min Lee, but if he could find something to send Azula, something that would fit her personality better...
"Very well," Iroh said. "Don't take too long. We have much to do today in preparation for the advance."
"Of course," Lu Ten said, bowing quickly and hurrying to his tent. The letters sat on a table inside, ignored as the prince started rifling through his things. Clothing, papers, armor, and blankets were tossed aside as he searched for something - anything - that Azula would actually appreciate. He loved his cousins dearly - both of them - and he didn't like giving special treatment to either of them; not to Azula for being a prodigy, and not to Zuko for being average. If Zuko got a fancy dagger, Azula shouldn't have to make due with a silly doll. Treating the kids as equals was important if they were ever going to get along.
That, and the fact that Azula still hadn't quite opened up to the wonder that was tea, and Lu Ten had the sneaking suspicion that his father was the cause. Azula had always regarded her uncle as being rather odd, and if he let his father send her that doll, he knew her opinion of Iroh would only drop. And then there definitely wouldn't be much chance to convert her to tea-ism.
He wasn't obsessed. He was an enthusiast.
The tent flap opened, and an officer stepped in, eyes fixed on the scroll in his hands. "Sir, we need to make some inspections of the troops that will make up the north flank during the advance - what in the name of Agni are you doing?"
"Hi Jouin," Lu Ten said, pawing through a pile of dirty laundry that had accumulated along one side of his tent. Maybe there was something under it he'd forgotten about. Surely he had some random loot lying around somewhere. "Did you sleep well last night?"
Lieutenant Jouin watched the prince of his nation toss smelly socks and tunics aside for a moment before replying. "Sir," he said, "what are you doing?"
"I need a present to send to Zuli," Lu Ten answered, deciding that there really was nothing worthwhile in the laundry pile and moving on to his desk. "Any ideas?"
"...I thought General Iroh was sending gifts," Jouin said carefully.
"Oh, he is," Lu Ten said. "Zuko's getting a knife, but he's sending Azula a doll."
"Ah," said Jouin, nodding in sudden understanding. Now it all made sense.
"Exactly," said Lu Ten. "So. Any ideas?"
Jouin rolled up the scroll and thought for a moment. "How about another knife?"
"Um, no. She's a firebending prodigy. She doesn't care much about knives."
"Some sort of Earth Kingdom armor? A helmet, perhaps?"
"I don't think Zuli cares much about helmets."
"I'm assuming some looted Earth Kingdom jewelry is out of the question?" Jouin asked.
"Yes," Lu Ten answered, irritation lacing his voice. Azula didn't care much for jewelry, either. "Yes, it is. Besides, I need this now, and I don't exactly have looted jewelry hanging around my tent."
Jouin grinned, almost mischievously. "Not anymore, you mean."
Lu Ten gave him a look. "That train of thought won't help me find Zuli a present," he said, and Jouin dropped the subject to continue thinking of suggestions. "Why is it so hard to find a decent present for an eight-year-old girl?" Lu Ten grumbled.
"Well..." Jouin said slowly, "how about a piece of the wall?"
Lu Ten stared at him. "A piece of the wall," he repeated. Jouin sighed.
"Alright, sorry, bad ide - "
"Jouin, you're a lifesaver," Lu Ten proclaimed, and he dashed out of the tent, leaving his lieutenant to stand there.
"Um...you're welcome, I guess," Jouin said to empty space.
It was easy enough to find the piles of rubble that used to be a section of the Outer Wall. Fire Nation soldiers had carted the rocks away as the wall was blasted apart and torn down, so there were many small mountains of stones throughout the camp. Lu Ten chose a fist-sized chunk of rock from one of the piles and carried it back to his tent, where his lieutenant was still standing.
"We can get down to business in a few minutes, Jouin," he promised, sitting at his desk to write a quick note to go along with the gift. "Right now, could you go find me a box this rock would fit in?"
"Of course, Sir," the other replied, and with a longsuffering sigh he left the tent. Lu Ten smiled and rolled his eyes before going back to the note.
A few minutes later, the rock and the parchment were sealed away in the little box Jouin had procured, and Lu Ten and Jouin made their way back to General Iroh. They reached his desk just as the older man finished his own letter.
"Everything set?" Iroh asked as Lu Ten placed his own letters and the box with Zuli's rock beside the other things that were going back to the Fire Nation.
"Yes," Lu Ten answered. "Everything's set."
"Good to hear it," Jouin said, unrolling his scroll. "Prince Lu Ten, we need to make some inspections of the troops that will be under your command in the north flank."
"Very well, then," Lu Ten nodded. "I suppose we'd better do that. See you at lunch, father?"
Iroh wasn't looking at his son. His gaze was fixed on the Outer Wall as he sipped from his teacup. "Look at that sunrise," he murmured, nodding toward the wall. Lu Ten and Jouin turned around to see the sky awash in oranges and pinks, with the slightest tint of blue around the bright yellow beacon that was the sun. The Outer Wall thrown into dark contrast against the bright colors.
"I can't wait to see what the city looks like on the inside," Lu Ten murmured.
"I couldn't care less about what the city looks like," Jouin grumbled. "I don't care if I never see it. I just want to get away from this stupid wall." Despite his tone, his eyes were shining at the sight of Agni's light.
"We will see the city soon, I'm sure," Iroh assured them, taking another sip of tea. "I had a vision of it, after all. It's destiny."
Next time: Lu Ten gets stuck six feet under.
Update should hopefully come in a week or two, depending on my schedule. It's a very hectic, twisted, constantly-changing schedule that is often held hostage by my job's computer system, so I can't give you an accurate update forecast. Sorry.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it!