12: Here, At The End of All Things
Two Days Previously
"Perfect time to learn then, isn't it, Recruit Liao?" Gainika asked sarcastically. "I'm giving you thirty seconds to come up with an idea or else you're both getting something unpleasant from me, got it?"
After a few seconds of contemplating, Liao nodded and ripped open the package. Bolin looked away, and Liao took a deep breath. He cocked back his arm, a whoosh echoed through the air, and a thwack echoed through the room as the belt made contact with Bolin's back.
Bolin screamed in agony, trying to curl into the fetal position as best as he could with his hands handcuffed to the wall. Bolin's arms, legs, and back received horrible, aching blows from the belt that Zolt had given Liao. Screeching in anguish, Bolin tried desperately to not move, or else the beating would continue even more harshly.
"Oh, Spirits!" Bolin sobbed, thrashing in his handcuffs while Zolt and Gainika howled in laughter. "Please, please no!" he begged as the belt came down with a particularly painful thwack. "Please, stop! Please!" He broke out into tears, sobbing from the utter humiliation.
"Liao? Hey, partner, hey, wake up, will you?" Liao felt a light punch to his shoulder and slowly returned to consciousness. "Wake up, kid."
"Whass'happ'ning?" Liao slurred, rubbing his eyes and sitting up in his cot. His twenty-nine-year-old partner loomed over him. "Section Leader need us?" Liao asked, swallowing a yawn. Xin rubbed his eyes, suddenly looking extremely tired. "What's wrong?"
"Kun says there's going to be a training session," Xin said warily.
"Goddamnit," Liao swore. "Another one? How pissed is Gainika at us? What'd we do to her this time?" He plowed on, not waiting for an answer. "Besides, we've been good. No one's gotten punished in almost a month."
"Yeah, but we're Recruits of the Kasai Mage Makumei, Liao," Xin said with a chuckle, "so instead of receiving flowers and balloons, we're getting training sessions. Get over it, kid, that's life."
"Fair enough," Liao said, getting up and lacing up his combat boots. He pinned his Recruit badge to his black jacket with the dull red trim. Buttoning up the three buttons on his jacket, he quickly put on his dark grey pants, ran a comb through his hair and turned back to Xin. "Look okay?" he asked, the question translating to will I look good enough for them not to beat me up?
Xin carefully looked him over, subconsciously adjusting his own uniform at the same time. "Looks decent, kid," was his response, loosely translating to I'm pretty sure you won't get the shit beaten out of you, as was custom during training sessions. Some Recruits were known to get burned or Bolin-style tortured if they forgot their badge or if their shirt was partially untucked. The last Recruit that had been on the receiving end of punishment had only lasted for a couple of hours after the beating. Liao, Xin, and several others had buried him in the backyard of the training compound.
"Good." Liao sat back down on the bed. "So…what do you think happened to B—the prisoner? Gainika hasn't talked about him in a couple of days."
"Dunno," Xin responded honestly. "Maybe she got sick of him and shot him in the head. Hope she did. I hate being stationed here. Republic City's way nicer."
Liao tried not to outwardly react at Xin's casual statement about shooting Bolin in the head. For some reason, torturing the prisoner had been imprinted in his mind for the last two days. He couldn't stop hearing Bolin's strangled sobs and screams, the whoosh of the belt and the thwack it made when it connected with Bolin's back, and the overwhelming emotion that left Liao barely able to stand up once the half hour had ended.
Why did he care for the kid, anyway? What had made him express such emotion? Liao had been an Agni Kai Recruit for almost three years and had had no qualms with killing or torturing before.
What made this so different?
"Liao," hissed Xin, and Liao jumped to his feet, standing ramrod-straight at the foot of his cot as the door to their quarters opened and a uniformed, well-polished looking CID stood in the doorframe.
"Attention," the CID commanded gruffly, and Xin and Liao straightened up, saluting the man. "As you were," he ordered, and the two men relaxed marginally.
"TS today, sir?" Xin asked politely, his hands behind his back and his head tilted.
"You delusional piece of shit, did you think you were having a party today?" snapped the CID, getting into Xin's face. Liao stiffened at the man's verbal abuse, but Xin kept his cool. "Idiot. You and your partner and the rest of the sorry morons Gainika calls Recruits are having a training session while someone from the Triple Threats will inspect your quarters. And if I hear any hint that you maggots are stashing junk, booze, or any pro-Avatar propaganda in here, I will personally wreak hell on your asses until you're too weak to fucking breathe on your own. Clear?"
"Yes, sir," Xin and Liao muttered.
"I can't hear you!"
"YES SIR!" they shouted, saluting the unadulterated asshole that was their current CID.
"MARCH!" roared the CID, and Liao and Xin nodded once in perfect unison before marching out of their shared quarters.
The two partners marched down the hallway, forming a single file line with Xin in front, Liao in back. They joined almost fifty other Recruits in the hall right outside the training facility, nicknamed the Arena by the CID's and the Hellhole by the Recruits.
"What's going on?" Liao whispered to Jiktun, who was biting the inside of his cheek nervously. Jiktun's partner, Chan, stood next to him, unmoving. Chan had always reminded Liao of a large boulder: gigantic, unmoving and intimidating. Chan was extremely cruel with his firebending, and Jiktun was extremely intelligent—rumor had it that he was being commissioned to become a LSP by Gainika. That alone made Jiktun intimidating to many other Recruits. Getting Gainika's attention and even approval was like gaining praise from the Spirits themselves.
"I don't know, bruddah," Jiktun whispered back.
"Gainika's pissed, that's all I think," Chan added. "Probably not even a big deal."
"'S not what I think," Xin muttered. Liao, Jiktun and Chan looked at him. "She probably had lousy sex with Zolt last night."
Liao almost broke a rib trying not to laugh.
"Maybe he wasn't impressed by her blowjobs," Jiktun added with a chortle.
"Bolin certainly was," Chan said, and he, Jiktun and Xin cracked up while Liao fought not to let his emotion show on his face and merely let out a fake chuckle.
The doors to the Hellhole clanged open, and standing in the center of the area and surrounded by treadmills, rifles, harpoons and other equipment were several drill instructors, including the unadulterated asshole of a CID. Liao shot the CID a death-glare once he was sure that CID Asshole wasn't looking at him or Xin.
"Alright, ladies, let's get down to it," barked CID Asshole while the Recruits stiffened. "I want the following Recruits to step forward and head off with their CID. The rest of you, stay where you are. Recruits Nyota, Wen, Izumi, Kai, Daisuke, Ayumu, Kikuyu, Takahiro, and Junichi, follow this CID right here. Recruits Keiko, Jiktun—" Jiktun nearly tripped over his own feet stepping forward towards CID Asshole, "Shang, Ai, Kun, Namihiko, Isoroku, Yadon…" the CID rattled off several more names until the only ones left were Liao, Xin, Chan, and about ten other poor saps who looked about ten seconds away from pissing themselves.
"Well, ladies," said CID Asshole with an evil-looking grin that probably would've made Gainika twitch, "looks like you're all mine. Give me fifty laps around this thing."
Liao swore inwardly in several languages. Fucking hell.
"Come on. Let's go." CID Asshole whistled, a long, shrill, piercing taxicab whistle that probably could've been heard from outer space. When no one moved, he growled and shot off a blast with a heater, causing everyone to flinch as some plaster fell from the ceiling and then immediately began to run.
Once the laps were over and Liao found it somewhat less painful to breathe again, they began to spar with one another, practicing especially with getting their flames to curl in characteristic spirals that CID Asshole himself had requested, saying he "liked the design" with a derogatory smirk.
If Liao weren't so tired, he would've given the man the finger.
He ended up doing it when the CID's back was turned.
The smirks on his friends' faces was worth it.
Near the end of the training session, Liao actually thought that this might not kill him. Xin, Chan, and Jiktun seemed to be doing fairly well and none of them had gotten punished or beaten up too severely (Chan had gotten a couple of lashes on his legs for being the last one to complete his fifty laps, but that happened almost every TS and the lashes healed quickly). Could they actually get through a session without any Recruits getting punished? That would've been a miracle in itself. Maybe Gainika would let them go on shore leave and Xin would take him to that nice sushi bar in Republic City with all the hot strippers…
Suddenly, the doors of the Hellhole clanged open again, revealing two tall, burly and extremely pissed off Triple Threat Triads initiates. They had a terse word with CID Asshole, whose face slowly turned an interesting shade of puce.
"Hey! Maggots!" roared the CID. Everyone stopped whatever they were doing almost immediately. "Listen up!"
They listened up.
One of the Triple Threats held up a ripped-out newspaper cutting, featuring the Avatar, Mako, Bolin, CEO of New Future Industries Asami Sato, General Iroh II and several other Republic City bigwigs. "Who does this belong to?" screamed CID Asshole, looking around at every Recruit. "We do not permit pro-Avatar propaganda in this compound! Whose is this?!"
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Liao almost fainted. He recognized it. It was his. He'd hidden it in one of his dresser drawers and had studied it to get some background knowledge of Mako so he and Xin could spy on him. Shit.He wanted to exchange a panicked look with Xin but didn't dare for fear of getting noticed.
CID Asshole stepped closer to Liao and Xin, tailed by the Triple Threat initiates. "This was found in your quarters," he snarled, "buried in your dresser drawer. Which of yours is it?"
Liao gulped, and the CID whirled on him. "It's yours, then!" he growled, raising a baton. "Isn't it?"
"Yes," Liao whispered, hating the sound of fear in his voice but couldn't stop himself. "But I only—"
"Shut up, you maggot!" yelled the CID. "Why, I'll—"
"Stop!" Xin suddenly barked. "Stop. It's mine."
Liao nearly gasped out loud. Xin. Xin. What the fucking hell are you doing, Liao thought, nearly trembling.
"Yours?" asked the CID.
"Yes, sir," Xin replied calmly. "My partner was covering for me. It's mine," he repeated, his eyes not showing the slightest flicker of fear.
Liao desperately tried to salvage the situation. "No, it—"
"Liao, it's alright, you don't have to cover for me," Xin said, lying through his teeth. "It's mine, sir," he said to the CID. "I apologize for storing it, but I needed to…see what Detective Mako looked like so my partner and I could spy on him."
"Senior Recruit Xin, this is your final word, correct?" inquired CID Asshole. Liao's breathing quickened. Xin, what did you do?
"Yes," Xin nodded.
"There's no need to call me sir, Combat Instruction Director," Xin retorted before he could stop himself, as was his wont.
Several Recruits gasped, although one of the Triple Threats snorted. Damn you, Xin, I could've handled this…what are you doing?
Before Liao knew what was happening, CID Asshole took out his baton and slammed it as hard as he could on top of Xin's head.
Liao would've screamed if Chan hadn't slapped his hand over his mouth.
Xin crumpled to the ground, a horrible expression of pain on his face. The CID kicked Liao's partner, his best friend, in the stomach until he coughed up blood. Liao rushed forward to help him, but the Triple Threat initiates pushed him back.
Holstering his baton, CID Asshole lashed Xin's back with his whip three times, and kicked him until Xin moaned in agony. "Now—you—see," the CID grunted, kicking him with every word, "don't—mess—with—"
"I believe that is quite enough, Combat Instruction Director LiShang," said a smooth, silky voice from the doorway, and the CID stopped. Liao nearly wept in relief. He'd never been happier to see Gainika in his life.
"Section Leader," said the CID in an oily voice, bowing down and dropping his whip onto the floor. Xin groaned softly behind him. "How are you?"
"What are you doing?" asked Gainika quite casually. "What has he done?"
"He was storing pro-Avatar propaganda in his quarters," explained CID Asshole. Liao wanted to strangle him with his bare hands until the man wept for mercy. You fucking son of a bitch—
"I know that. I happened to allow this infraction, CID LiShang," said Gainika. "He and his partner needed to see what the prisoner's brother, Detective Mako, looked like so they could spy on him. Bolin's brother is marked, LiShang. It's all explained in a note I left for you in your office."
This statement gave the CID pause, and Liao barely breathed. No one in the Hellhole moved except Gainika, CID Asshole, and the Triple Threat initiates, who were still holding Liao back. "Still," said the CID finally, "he was—"
"Senior Recruit Xin is a big earner, Combat Instruction Director," said Gainika with the air of a proud mother announcing her child's accomplishments. "He and his partner are excellent Recruits. Their records are virtually clean. I see no reason for this to go on. As for the rest of you," she raised her voice, now addressing the other Recruits, "this session is over. Go back to your quarters. CID LiShang, I'd like to have a few words with you, if you don't mind."
LiShang looked like he did, in fact, mind, but no one ever told Gainika no, so he nodded. "Of course." He turned to the Agni Kais. "Get this useless tub of shit to the infirmary," he ordered gruffly. "And let his partner go, Initiates." He then strutted calmly after Gainika and out the doors.
The Triad members nodded and released Liao, who nearly tripped over his own feet in haste to get to his now-unconscious partner. "Xin," he whispered, shaking his partner gently. He tapped Xin's cheek lightly. "Come on, wake up. Wake up. Rise and shine."
Fear, hot and sticky, rose in his throat and Liao almost threw up. Was he—no, no. He couldn't be dead. Not Xin. Not his partner. Not his best friend. As his hands shook, Liao felt for a pulse and didn't find one. He choked and jerked backwards into Jiktun. "He—he doesn't have a pulse. Jiktun, bruddah, I can't find his pulse," he panicked, because he couldn't lose his partner, he just, he just couldn't lose him…
Jiktun knelt next to Xin and felt for a pulse, letting out a small sigh of relief. "He's still alive, Liao. His pulse is a little weak, that's all. Look, see? Xin's breathing."
Liao calmed down a bit and just watched his partner's shallow breaths for a while before Chan, he, and Jiktun picked him up and carried him to the infirmary, relinquishing him to the meddies.
"What the hell happened to him?" asked the head meddie, whom everyone just called Doc. Doc laid Xin down onto a cot and barked out an order to the nurses to prepare an IV.
"CID LiShang beat the shit out of him," Chan said, because Liao had somehow lost the ability to speak, looking at his unconscious best friend.
"Fuck that asshole," muttered Doc. Liao's respect for the man rose. "Alright, you guys just wait out in your quarters. I'll ask Gainika to get you."
Liao shook his head. "He's my partner," he said boldly. "I'm not leaving him."
Doc hesitated, and exchanged a look with a pretty, dark-haired nurse that Liao normally would've been all over by now, but didn't feel the urge to flirt at that moment. Damnit, Xin. "You can stay," said Doc, "but stay out of our way, okay, Liao?"
Liao nodded. Anything to stay with his partner.
Nearly three hours later, Liao had vomited twice, Xin had gotten stitches in his head, back, and stomach and now sported an impressive bruise down the side of his face, and Doc had remained composed throughout the entire ordeal. Liao never knew how the meddies always were so tranquil—he'd never last one day as a doctor.
"Will he be alright?" Liao asked fearfully.
"I think so," said Doc, not altogether reassuring Liao, but the 'I think so' was still better than having Xin dead protecting Liao. He wasn't allowed to get hurt. Not ever.
"Can I just…sit with him for a little?" he pleaded with Doc, who sighed and eventually nodded. One of the meddies even pulled up a chair for him.
The Recruit half-smiled his thanks before sitting down and focusing on Xin. His eyes were shut, and he looked dead. An IV tube was in his wrist. He looked half-dead.
Liao shuddered. "Xin, you bastard," he whispered with tears in his eyes. "Why would you do this? I could've handled it. You utter moron, why the hell do you have a hero complex?" he wiped a tear from his eyes. "You better be okay, or…or I'm gonna—get better, Xin. Please."
He couldn't handle it anymore. Liao got up and walked away, his mind racing. He went back to his quarters, found the Pai Sho board game that he, Jiktun, Chan and Xin were going to play that weekend and walked back out. He found himself at a locked door and took a deep breath. Liao knocked and Zolt opened it.
"What do you want, kid?" barked the leader of the Triple Threats. Behind him, Liao could see Bolin panting and sweating with a fresh bruise down the side of his face.
"Sir." He saluted. "I'd like to continue what I started."
A look of bemusement fell upon Zolt's face for a few seconds until he began to laugh. "You've got spunk, kid," he muttered. "Come out when you're done. I was gonna finish up anyway."
With a last, contemptuous look at Bolin, Zolt left and shut the door behind him.
"What do you want?" Bolin spat angrily. "Come to torture me again? If you're Gainika's replacement for Ash, then just get away from me as fast as you can. People who like me end up dying."
"I wanted to know if you wanted to play Pai Sho with me," Liao said slowly. It sounded a lot less stupid in his head.
"Excuse me?" Bolin blinked.
"Can you play?" Liao asked.
"I need to use my hands, don't I?" Bolin gestured to his hands, which were handcuffed to the wall behind him.
"Oh." Liao felt stupid. "Er…I'll move the pieces for you. Just tell me where, okay?"
Confused, Bolin nodded. "Can you move that piece forward to the center, then three spaces to the left?"
"Sure." Liao did so, then moved his own piece. It went on for a while before Bolin snapped at Liao, who nearly knocked the game over.
"What're you playing at, scumbag? Gainika put you up to this, didn't she?" Bolin scoffed. "Are you trying to induce Stockholm Syndrome? Is that it?"
Liao scoffed right back. "What're you, a psychology major?"
Bolin's lips thinned and he looked down at his knees. "Maybe in another life."
They sat in silence for some time after that.
"But seriously…Liao, right?" Bolin asked, and Liao nodded. "Liao, what do you want?" Bolin sounded tired, like he'd carried the world on his shoulders for far too long. Definitely too long for a twenty-one-year-old—he was practically still a child.
"I want…" Liao hesitated. There was no turning back now. And even as he opened his mouth to speak, he knew that he was making the right choice. "I want to help you break out of here, Bolin."