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|The Coronation and the Coup, Part Five|
January 22, 2013
Previously in Air
Kuzarr is on the run; Zuko and Mai are on the hunt. Jeong Jeong, afraid that the Firelord may do something he'll regret, recruits Toph and Haru and hurries to the aid of the royal couple.
Chapter Fifty-Five: Best Served Cold
Three of the Dai Li sank into the earth at Kuzarr's command. Mai knew they would pop up again, probably behind them to cut off any escape.
Mai threw the knives. Her aim was always true, but a slab of rock jumped into the air to protect Kuzarr. The blades knives thudded into it, one after another. Mai glowered, but she didn't have time to try again.
The first Dai Li was upon them. He bent the earth and two slabs of rock burst up on either side of Mai and Zuko. The Dai Li slammed his palms together and the slabs jerked to follow suit.
An unspoken plan passed between the royal couple in a single glance.
Using Zuko's shoulder as a springboard, Mai leapt atop one of the slabs. She ran along the wall, pulling knives from her robes and flicking them at the Dai Li. The Dai Li agent punched upward, but Mai leapt nimbly over the rock as it burst up from beneath. Two stiletto blades flashed, nailing the Dai Li's robe to the ground.
Mai had no interest in the Dai Li. He certainly made an easier target now that he was pinned, but she sailed right over him.
The one she wanted was Kuzarr.
Zuko, meanwhile, had launched himself off one rushing missile. As the slabs collided, he vaulted over them back the way they had come. He landed hard, rolling back to his feet just as the three Dai Li erupted from the earth.
Flames laced the edge of his blade and Zuko flung fireballs at his opponents. The Dai Li blocked the glancing blows with rock shields. Whirling his swords for momentum, Zuko sprang forward. He thudded onto one of the rock shields, driving his fiery blades into it. The Dai Li staggered under his weight; the shield cracked.
A heavy missile slammed into Zuko's side. Knocked flat to the earth, pain raced through his torso. Gritting his teeth, he renewed the grip on his swords and forced himself back to his feet.
Mai landed in a crouch to absorb the impact, at the same time grasping for more knives and flinging them out from her sleeves.
Only three soldiers were left to guard Kuzarr. As she dropped to the ground before them, they produced a burning wall of flame to protect them. But fire couldn't stop her knives. They sliced through the flame and, over the crackle of the fire, she heard a few satisfactory clinks as the blades stabbed at their armor, and the pained grunts that followed.
The earth rumbled beneath her. No time for a second throw. Mai rolled away as a rocky spike shot up. She turned to locate the remaining Dai Li target and flicked a handful of darts in their direction.
Zuko dodged a second rock and sliced through another with his sword. There were three on him now, forcing him back. Swinging a sword over his head, building the power of flame from his chi, he released it in one hellish onslaught.
One Dai Li ducked past the blaze. In the shield of the haze, he moved to bend.
Mai appeared beside her husband, sending her sai sailing toward the Dai Li and pinning his arm to the ground. She knew it wouldn't take him long to break free, however. She stood back to back with Zuko as the others began to regroup.
"Five Dai Li and three firebenders." Mai watched as the Dai Li began to circle them. Fighting earthbenders always annoyed her. No matter how hard she threw, if her blade was in the earth they could merely soften the ground to mush and yank the knife out. "Is this exactly what you had in mind?"
Zuko managed a smile. "Did you think it would be easy?"
The wall of flame protecting Kuzarr faded. One of the soldier's struggled to loosen the knife holding his leader captive, but it refused to budge.
Kuzarr smirked at the royal pair. "It looks like I'll be getting out of this alive, after all." He turned to the Dai Li. "Kill Zuko. I'd like to keep Mai so she can solidify my cover, but if you must kill her, you must."
The Dai Li nodded.
The soldier reached to heave back once more on the veritable sword skewering Kuzarr's sleeve.
The Dai Li paused.
A rock beneath the soldier sprang, smacking him in the chest and hurling him back. He thudded to the ground, gasping for air.
"Ah-ah-ah," Toph tut-tutted. "I have a feeling he's going to stay locked up for a very long time."
She stood behind the circle of Dai Li, grinning with far too much eagerness. Beside her were Jeong Jeong and Haru.
"We thought we'd help even the odds," Toph said with a shrug.
Across the courtyard, Kuzarr laughed. "Even three more won't help you, not when you're against the Dai Li!"
Toph chuckled. "O ye of little faith. Three is plenty when one of them is me." She turned her attention to the Dai Li, cracking her knuckles with harsh audible pops. "Let's go again, shall we?"
Somewhere, among those grim faces, Toph knew Nguyen and Po were looking back at her. She was looking forward to this rematch with relish.
Toph moved her foot forward, jerking the earth under the two closest Dai Li. They dodged the blow with ease, but in the same movement Toph punched out. The blow caught a Dai Li in the back of head.
"Score!" Toph cried, fist pumping the air in victory.
The Dai Li tensed as they realized this was a worthy opponent. A few quick nods passed between them and, as one, they sprang into action. Four leapt at Toph, throwing stone missiles at her.
The last Dai Li, still dazed from the blow, was left to keep an eye on Zuko and Mai. The couple exchanged glances. Mai flicked her knives and Zuko loosed a torrent of flame. The Dai Li pushed up a barricade to deflect. Punching into it, sharp rocks shot out toward Zuko and Mai. Before either could block, a wall of pressured flame erupted before them, knocking the missiles off their course.
Jeong Jeong lashed his fire at the Dai Li's defense. Under the intense heat, the rock cracked. The Dai Li shied away.
Zuko took the opportunity to retreat. He grabbed hold of Mai's arm; he wouldn't be surprised if she decided to charge Kuzarr instead of pulling back. Grudgingly, Mai followed him.
Jeong Jeong shot off another hot blast to cover their retreat and fell back beside them, setting himself between the enemy and the Firelord.
Toph grinned as she dodged and blocked the attacks of her opponents. The earth rumbled beneath her; doubtless they were attempting an attack from below. Time for retaliation. Pounding her fist into the earth, she punched back the attack and sent one of her own rattling through the ground. It connected with the Dai Li so hard, it knocked him back through the crust of the ground.
Two Dai Li charged her from either side. Toph bent columns of rock at them, but they skipped out of the path. Cutting her hand through the air, she sent tendrils of earth snaking out from one of the columns. They slithered around one of the Dai Li's ankles and yanked.
The second Dai Li, supposing himself ignored for the instant, circled around the column and charged at Toph from the side. The Dai Li was within five feet and, in a surge of confidence, leapt directly at her.
But even being blind, Toph didn't have a 'blind side'.
She whirled to face the Dai Li who, in mid-air, was helpless. Flicking her fingers, four pillars shot up from the ground, closing around the Dai Li and clutching him tight.
Unfortunately, what would normally incapacitate a lesser earthbender was merely an inconvenience for someone with the skill of a Dai Li. In a matter of seconds they broke free of Toph's bonds. They backed away, regrouping for another attack.
Jeong Jeong scowled at Toph. "You said you could deal with them."
Toph looked disappointed. "Oh, all right." She turned her attention back to the Dai Li. "Well, this has been fun," she announced, "But playtime's over."
She unclasped the flap of her pack.
Haru tensed with anticipation. Finally, he'd get to see what she was hiding in there.
One of the Dai Li narrowed his eyes in suspicion. He nodded, signaling the others. They charged.
Toph grinned. Lunging forward, she stomped her foot into the earth. She swung her arm about in a figure eight motion and her pack leapt to life. The flap flew open, silver tendrils bursting forth. Thin and sharp, they glinted in the sunlight as they leapt toward the nearest Dai Li. One caught his wrist and a cry of surprise escaped him as the cold metal bit at his flesh. It twisted up his arm as another wrapped around his legs and two more snaked across his torso.
The Dai Li grunted, stumbled. He moved to bend himself free, but the silver tendrils squeezed, binding his legs together and pinning his arms to his sides. With a look of dumbfounded surprise, he toppled forward. As he crashed into the dirt, his companions hesitated. The Dai Li wriggled violently. The tendrils refused to loosen their hold.
Toph grinned. "That's more like it!"
One of the Dai Li dropped down to free his companion. He reached out to touch the tendrils. His brow creased in a dark frown.
"Yeah, yeah, that's right. Good luck getting him out of that."
The Dai Li stood. He exchanged a quick glance with his other three companions.
Toph stood eager, waiting for their next attack. The tendrils of thin metal hovered about her, quivering with anticipation. "Are you ready, or what?"
In reply, the four Dai Li turned and ran.
Toph frowned, momentarily stunned. "Seriously?!" She spurted after them, kicking up clouds of dust in her wake.
Haru didn't hesitate this time. She had said something earlier about a demonstration and told him not to get in her way. That had certainly looked like a good demonstration to him. Now she might not mind his help. He raced to catch up.
The Dai Li raced out, Toph and Haru hot on their heels, leaving only three soldiers to guard Kuzarr.
Jeong Jeong glanced uncertainly over his shoulder. "Your Majesty?"
Zuko's eyes narrowed. He could feel Mai's gaze on him, too, waiting for the order.
"He's not getting away," Zuko replied.
Jeong Jeong gave a curt nodded. He blasted the nearest soldier with a shot of intense flame. The soldier may as well have been a puppet for the way he reacted to the onslaught. He had no time to bend or even defend himself before the blast sent him hurtling back, limbs trailing limp behind him.
Mai moved the same instant, stepping out from behind Jeong Jeong and aiming darts with both hands. A soldier found himself nailed to the carriage alongside his master.
The last soldier wavered. His two companions had been picked off so easily from the distance. Gritting his teeth, he vowed he would not go down the same way. He may not survive, but he would do his lord one last great service.
Fists wreathed in sheaths of flame, the soldier charged forward with a great cry. Coaxing the sparks on his knuckles to blossom bright, he took deadly aim at the Firelord. The flame shot out, directly at Zuko's chest.
The soldier couldn't believe his luck. The blast seemed mediocre at best, and yet to the Firelord it appeared the end of the world. He stood there, watching as the blow drew closer and closer.
A victorious cry rose in the soldier's chest. He was going to kill the Firelord!
The flame was a hairsbreadth from him when Zuko stepped aside. In a single seamless movement he crouched down and kicked out, sweeping the soldier's legs out from under him.
The soldier did not even have time to register his defeat before he dropped to the ground in a painful heap.
Zuko righted himself before Kuzarr. His gaze bored into the traitor's, yet he said nothing.
A chill raced down Kuzarr's spine. He gritted his teeth, angry with himself, and tried to shake away the fear.
Jeong Jeong appeared at Zuko's shoulder. He glanced over the Firelord, but found Zuko's stony expression hard to read. The eyes of the Firelord and the traitor were locked together in a bitter struggle. Jeong Jeong could not see what thoughts raced in Zuko's head, but certainly they were not good. Not for him or for his nation.
Jeong Jeong turned to Kuzarr. "The Dai Li," he demanded, "Where did they go?"
Kuzarr did not reply. He could not wrench his eyes from Zuko's, but he managed a small smirk.
Zuko's grip tightened around his sword hilts.
Noting the movement out of the corner of his eye, Jeong Jeong tried to change the subject. "Your men have either failed or deserted you," he told Kuzarr. "You have lost."
With an effort, Kuzarr turned his gaze to Jeong Jeong. "Even a loss is not without its merits."
Jeong Jeong scowled. "You have nothing left," he said, stressing each word. "The Dai Li are gone and the Guild has betrayed you. The Prince has long since escaped your grasp. The Royal Palace is no longer under your thumb. By now your treachery has been revealed to the world leaders."
For his part, Kuzarr retained an eerie calm. His eyes flashed at the mention of Roh-Roh's rescue –doubtless a lucky Pai Sho tile he'd counted on having up his sleeve– but he gave no indication of mourning the collapse of his near victory.
Mai glared with unveiled hatred at the man who had threatened her children. All this talk bored her. She reached for a small dagger. "Do you have something special in mind for the traitor," she asked, fingering the blade, "Or can I take another stab at him?"
Kuzarr blinked. For the first time, his expression betrayed concern for his own skin. He glanced at Jeong Jeong, wondering whether the Admiral would let the Firelady take such an extreme measure. Jeong Jeong's severe face, however, was an unsympathetic mask.
"I trusted you."
Kuzarr turned back to Zuko. Those eyes were no longer cold. A burning ember had ignited, deep under the controlled emotions of the Firelord's heart. It burned clear in his eyes, and the intensity of that anger surprised Kuzarr.
Ten years, Kuzarr had placed himself in the service of the young Firelord and for six of those he had been considered a close and trusted friend. He had seen and heard many things in the Palace and behind closed doors. For all that time Kuzarr's opinion of the man had never changed. Zuko had a quick temper, but he was mellow. A pathetic ruler of such a mighty country, of a nation with so much potential. He put too much stock in simple things, and for that his government was neglected. These abominations were what Kuzarr saw in the Firelord.
But now, looking at those eyes burning with such fury, such power, so glorious...
"Why?" Zuko demanded.
Kuzarr raised an eyebrow, as if startled by the question. "You are weak, Zuko. I only had to exert a little pressure and you caved. You compromised your entire country, put all your people in danger, and snuck around the Earth Kingdom like the outlaw you once were, endangering your oh so precious peace treaty... All for the sake of one boy."
Kuzarr smiled, a man in defeat who would savor this last taste of victory. "You are weak, Zuko, and you are not fit to rule the might of the Fire Nation."
"Weak?" Zuko repeated. He shook his head with a quiet laugh. "You think me weak, Kuzarr?"
The Firelord's voice was soft, dangerous. Jeong Jeong reached out to stop him, but too late.
Zuko lunged. He caught Kuzarr by the front of his robe and slammed him against the carriage.
An involuntary cry escaped Kuzarr before the breath was punched from his lungs.
Their faces were mere inches apart. The Firelord's teeth clenched in rage and his eyes blazed, but his voice was deceptively soft.
"I protected my family. Whatever it took. And given the chance, I'd do it all again." Zuko narrowed his eyes. "If you think that's weakness, you don't understand the true meaning of strength."
Kuzarr wheezed with laughter. Why not? He was already caught. What more could they do to him that wouldn't already be done?
"If you think that," he gasped, "You're not only weak, you're a fool as well!"
"And what is strength to you?" Zuko asked, his words bitter. "You pretended to be my ally, my friend, and all this was lying beneath the mask. You had my son kidnapped, you held my wife and daughter hostage..." His fists tightened around Kuzarr's robe, pressing him harder against the carriage. "Is that what you consider power, Kuzarr?"
Zuko's eyes clouded with disgust. "What kind of man are you?"
Kuzarr smirked. "The question here, is what kind of man are you?"
Zuko paused. The righteous blaze in those eyes began to dim. What kind of man was he? He remembered the words he'd told his Uncle, what seemed like so long ago, that night before their meeting with Kuei:
"I always want my children to be proud of me."
Zuko's grip on Kuzarr relaxed.
He knew only too well that he, and he alone, controlled just what kind of man he became. "A long time ago, I decided to be the kind of man I would never have to be ashamed of, the kind of man that my children would never fear and that the world would not despise."
Zuko released his grip on the traitor, letting him fall away like a piece of unwanted trash.
"And I am the Firelord, whether you like it or not. My country has seen too much hatred and war and pain already, and I will do everything in my power to ensure it never happens again."
Kuzarr's face twisted in rage. He spat at Zuko. "The Fire Nation won't rest, Zuko," he snarled. "It is our destiny to spread our ways and wealth throughout the world! The people know it and they will always fight you. Nothing will stop us!"
"If you still think that," Zuko said, turning from Kuzarr. "You are the fool."
Kuzarr's eyes widened. He snarled and lunged, but the carving knife still held him fast. He screamed in rage, a cry both chilling and pathetic.
Zuko did not look back at him. He stepped to Mai's side and took her hand in his. Another dagger was fixed between her fingers but he slipped it out.
Mai's eyes remained fixed on Kuzarr, burning with unbridled hatred.
Zuko squeezed her fingers but her hand remained limp.
"I want to hurt him," she whispered. "For everything. For tricking you, for taking me, for touching my children..." Her voice broke and she swallowed hard. "I want to kill him."
She finally turned her eyes to Zuko. They churned with pain and confusion. "Why don't you?"
"He's not worth it," Zuko replied.
Mai narrowed her eyes. She glanced back at Kuzarr, measuring...
"Ursa and Roh-Roh are safe, Mai," Zuko said, wrapping his arm around her, pulling her close. "All the damage he's done has already been put right. He can't hurt us anymore."
Mai turned to her husband once more, but doubt clouded her eyes.
"Besides," Zuko said. "I wouldn't give him the satisfaction."
Mai's eyebrow arched. She glanced back at Kuzarr.
"He'll pay for his crimes," Zuko assured her. "And that's enough for me."
Mai eyed the traitor for a long moment. Her fingers itched to seize a shuriken from her sleeve and plant it right between his eyes... But Zuko was right; Ursa and Roh-Roh were safe.
She turned away from the traitor.
Zuko could tell she wasn't entirely satisfied. He squeezed her hand again, and this time her fingers wrapped tight around his.
"What shall I do with him?" Jeong Jeong asked as the two headed back for the Palace.
Zuko paused, glancing over his shoulder at his trusted Admiral. After a moment, he said, "Kuzarr will stand trial for his crimes. And since one of those crimes was an attempt to assassinate the future Earth King, I think Kuei should have a say in the final judgment."
A small smile tugged at the corner of Jeong Jeong's mouth. He bowed to Zuko. "As you wish, Your Majesty."
Hand in hand, Zuko and Mai made their way back toward the Palace.
Mai prodded him in the ribs. "What took you so long, anyway?"
Zuko laughed, and the inferno of anger burning within him began to dissipate as Mai walked beside him, her head leaning on his shoulder.
The Dai Li used their bending skills to skate over the earth, enabling them to move faster than any runner. It was a move which, to his surprise, Haru found quite easy to duplicate. Apparently, 'seeing' through the earth wasn't the only thing he was getting better at.
He could feel them all without even looking. Ahead of him, Toph chased right behind the Dai Li. Grudgingly, Haru knew she would always be better and faster than him, no matter how good he became. Some distance ahead of her –a distance shrinking by the second– fled the four Dai Li. And just ahead and to the right —
Haru frowned. There was somebody there. But who?
The Dai Li passed by the mysterious onlooker without seeming to notice. Must be a servant or something, Haru decided. Probably scared witless, too.
At least, that's what he thought before one of the Dai Li suddenly hurtled back as though struck.
Haru almost stumbled in his surprise, but he managed to right himself. He hadn't seen anything. More important, he hadn't felt anything.
The fallen Dai Li rolled in the dirt. Before he could gather his wits, Toph drew her hand out of her pack, a bulky bracelet on her wrist. It resembled something closer to a shackle, but she didn't seem to mind.
Grinning, Toph slid to a stop, pushing her arms forward. Cords of metal sprang from the odd contraption. They hissed sharply through the air, aimed straight for the Dai Li as he struggled upright.
He never had a chance. The instant he felt the cold steel swing around his legs, he moved to attack. The earth around him leapt to his bidding, but before he could retaliate, the metal cords wrapped themselves tight around him. With a particularly frustrated grunt, the Dai Li toppled over. Toph skirted her fallen enemy, obviously leaving him for later to focus on his escaping comrades.
Haru frowned. Toph had certainly finished off the Dai Li, but she hadn't initially attacked him. So who had?
Out of the corner of his eye, Haru spotted movement on the wall. A display of decorative iron lace shuddered. Metal, Haru realized. Didn't that mean it had to be Toph? He glanced at her, but Toph's attention focused on chasing down the other Dai Li agents.
Along the wall, the iron lace writhed. It quivered and jerked with awkward movements; nothing like the fluid grace of Toph's control. The metal slithered down the wall, thinning and lengthening on its journey. As it neared head-height, the metal leapt.
The Dai Li never saw it coming. The metal slapped into their chests and sent them careening back, winded.
Haru's frown deepened. He looked at Toph. "What—"
But Toph ignored him. She grinned. "Nice one!"
The remaining three Dai Li hesitated. Overhead, the possessed iron lace took another swing at them.
The agents balked. One punched a rock at it, but the black metal writhed like a snake in mid-air, dodging the blow with ease.
Toph made a forceful chopping gesture and the metal from her bracelet severed, leaving her conquered captive securely bound and her free to zero in on her next victim.
The three Dai Li whirled about. The first summoned a wave of earth to wash over Toph, who batted it aside with an almost bored expression.
The second plucked up several pieces of rock and flung them at Haru. Haru threw himself out of the way. He turned his head as a rock whooshed a hairsbreadth from his nose. He didn't stop to think about the close call. The Dai Li's stance shifted to throw more rocks. Haru stretched out an arm as he fell. He planted his palm in the earth and twisted. The ground under the Dai Li swirled, sucking in his feet and legs until only his face from the nose up remained free.
It wouldn't hold the agent long. Haru realized that as he hit the ground rolling. Even with the increased motion of his body, he could feel the vibrations of the earth all over. A cloud of dust enveloped Haru and he screwed his eyes shut as he came to a stop. The earth around the Dai Li was already beginning to crack. And footsteps. Someone was moving toward the Dai Li. Probably his companion, to free him. No, wait—
Haru jerked to the side. The earth beneath shattered as two hands erupted through the surface, reaching out to grab him as he rolled away. He kicked out small rocks to bash the hands as the third Dai Li clawed his way to the surface.
Haru's mind raced. He would have to bide his time. The Dai Li's arms were through now and there was his head.
Haru clenched his fists. The earth encasing the Dai Li's body hardened, squeezing out pockets of air and solidifying patches of soft dirt. The Dai Li froze, gasping for breath.
Haru took the opportunity to wipe at the dust in his eyes. He blinked and the involuntary tears helped to clear his vision.
Someone stepped toward him. It wasn't Toph. "Hey, that's not—"
Haru reacted, swallowing the newcomer in a shell of earth.
"—bad," the stranger finished.
Haru blinked away the last specks of dust. The stranger he'd caught was a man several years younger than himself. He treated Haru to an impish grin. In either hand, he held a pair of odd wooden shackles.
Haru glowered at him. "Who are you?"
To his left, the Dai Li began to wriggle again. Haru ground his heel into the dirt, twisting the hard rock around the agent.
In reply, the young man awkwardly tossed a pair of cuffs at Haru's feet. "You might want to stick those on him," he said, still grinning. "Before he gets away."
Haru's scowl deepened. "But who —"
"Just do what he says, Stache Man."
Haru glanced at Toph. Finished binding the second agent, she planted her foot triumphantly on her prisoner. The first lay already shackled, both hands and feet. He writhed to get free, but in vain.
Still skeptical, Haru gestured at the stranger. "You know this guy?"
Toph chuckled. "Oh sure. Poi's a..." She hesitated. "He's an old friend."
Haru raised an eyebrow, but he knew better than to question an order from Toph. Reluctantly, he released the stranger.
The 'old friend' dusted himself off as the earth slid away. "Thanks!"
Haru scooped up the wooden cuffs. He grunted under the surprising weight. "What are these?"
Poi turned expectantly to Toph. "I was just about to ask the same thing."
"They're heavy," Haru grunted, snapping them shut around the third's wrists.
"Of course they are," Toph snorted, "They're made of metal."
Poi's eyes sparked with interest. "But they're covered in wood?" Poi knocked on the cuffs to prove his point. The Dai Li they held didn't appreciate it. "Clever." Poi looked up at Toph with a twinkle of mischief. "But why the precaution, I wonder? Did someone finally beat you at your own game, O wise Sifu?"
Toph gnashed her teeth in a fierce grin. "It's just in case," she said. "They're designed specifically for the Dai Li. I had the Mechanist make them up. Pretty sweet, huh?"
"Sweet's the right word, Sifu" Poi said with a grin. He gestured at her awkward jewelry. "But I was going to use it for that weird little contraption." His eyes gleamed. "Is that really what I think it is?"
Toph didn't bother hiding her smug smile. "Probably."
Poi rushed forward. "Ooh, can I see it?"
Toph snorted, but inside she was eager to show off the new toy. She slipped it from her wrist and passed it to him.
"Ooh!" He turned the device over in his hands, running his fingers over the smooth metal surface. There was a small opening and the tip of the metal cord poked out. Poi took hold of it and gently pulled. The thin cord was wound around a large reel inside the contraption, but it slowly spooled out as Poi tugged.
His eyes lit up. "That is awesome!"
Toph nodded. "It's all one long cord," she explained. "You just whip it out, tie up your bad guy and slice it off." She patted the bracelet with affection. "Metalbender's best friend."
"So I get one?"
Toph snorted again. "What makes you think that?"
Poi pouted. "Because I'm your favorite student!"
Toph growled, her concentration suddenly focused on the device in her hand.
Poi shared a playful wink with Haru, who was still too suspicious of the newcomer to return a smile.
Perhaps 'suspicious' wasn't the right word. Poi was a metalbender. That was a big enough surprise; Haru had been certain that Toph was the only metalbender in the world. She had said so herself. And yet, Toph was not in the least surprised by Poi.
She scowled at the grinning newcomer now. "What took you so long?"
Poi pulled back, flinging a hand to his heart. "Is that all you can say?" he cried, in a fit of mock offense. "Oh the injustices of the world! Here I am, exhausted and still dusty from the road, breaking my back to save your butt, and all you can say is 'what took you so long'? Not even a 'hello, nice to see you' or 'how have you been' or 'Gee, Poi, I forgot how devilishly handsome you were'? No! Oh, what is the world coming to, when someone drops everything to answer a friend's call for aid, even if it was a nearly impossible feat, and gets only grousing in return! You're just lucky my brother Ping has the fastest cabbage cart this side of Omashu."
Toph remained unimpressed. She tapped her fingers impatiently.
Poi heaved a deep sigh. "Give me a break," he said in a more natural tone, "I only arrived this morning. I'm lucky I got in before the gates closed. And after that spectacular light show I noticed a distinctly important-looking individual slinking off. I figured somebody ought to follow him, and since everyone else seemed too busy..."
Toph perked up. "You found Fong?"
Poi shrugged. "How should I know? It was some guy in a general's uniform. Since he didn't seem too concerned with an attempted assassination on his king, I figured it was better to act first and ask questions later."
Toph started toward him. "Where? Where is he?"
Poi gestured off to the side. "He's sitting tight for the moment. Come on; I'll show you."
Poi headed off and Toph followed after. Haru tagged along, too intrigued to wait for an invitation.
They heard the shouts long before Poi's captive came into view.
"Sheesh," Toph said, "What did you do to the guy?"
Poi shrugged. "Well, I couldn't very well sit on him since you needed my help. This place isn't exactly big on metal so I had to find something to tie him up with."
The three rounded the corner and there, trussed up tight with an eclectic collection of livery tack, sat General Fong. His arms were wrapped around his legs which were bound tight to his chest with a couple of ostrich horse bridles. The man jerked back and forth, but he wasn't getting free anytime soon. He panted heavily and his face was red from shouting. When he caught sight of Poi, he glared at him.
"You! Do you know who I am? I'm a general! Release me this minute, or I'll have you charged with treason!"
Poi chuckled. "I think you'll have a hard time with that. Sounds like someone wants a word with you."
Toph grinned. "Lots of them," she assured the general. "I'm sure the Earth King and the Avatar want to know all about your Guild contacts."
General Fong paled.
Poi turned to Toph and grinned. "So he is important?" He flashed big puppy dog eyes at her. "Am I forgiven?"
Toph grunted, turning her face away to hide her blush. "Yeah, yeah, whatever. I guess you're not a complete failure."
Poi leapt for joy. "Did you hear that?" he demanded sarcastically of Haru. "Our all-powerful leader thinks I may be worth something after all. Now I can die in peace!"
Haru made no reply. His face felt uncomfortably hot and he shifted to avoid their noticing.
"Oh, I'm Poi, by the way. Toph's not big on formal introductions, even if I am her number one pupil."
"I never said that!" Toph cried in exasperation. "What I said was that you were a quick learner, so shut up about it already!"
Poi smiled fondly at her. "If that's what you have to tell yourself." He shared a wink with Haru. "She can't admit she's actually crazy about me."
Toph crossed her arms and scowled. "You're irritating," she muttered.
"And you're aggravating," Poi said cheerfully. "We make a perfect couple."
Haru glanced between them –Poi beaming at her, Toph scowling. He wasn't sure what to make of it. Uncertainly, he bowed in greeting. "I'm Haru."
Poi turned his attention back to Haru. "So you're my replacement, huh?" He stepped back to better examine him. "In all humility I must admit you're not that bad. And that terrific mustache makes you almost as handsome as me." He shot Toph with a roguish grin. "Looks like I've got competition."
Haru cocked his head. What did he mean 'replacement'? And –Haru gulped– 'competition'?
"Did you go to Toph's bending academy?"
Poi didn't seem to notice. "Bending academy?" He threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, you're fun."
Haru reddened, confused. Crossing his arms, he scowled. "I just meant... Well, you called her 'sifu'."
"Poi," Toph warned.
"Of course! Because —"
A chunk of rock slammed into Poi's chest. The blow sent him skidding along the ground, gasping for breath.
"He calls me 'Sifu'," Toph cut in, "Because that's what he calls me. The dunderhead," she muttered, ignoring his grunt of pain. She turned to Haru. "Well don't just stand there, Stache Man. Go find someone who can take these bozos into custody. I'm getting hungry."
Haru hesitated. There was something Toph wasn't telling him. Ever since the beginning, he'd been skeptical about why she'd insisted so emphatically about teaching him the finer points of earthbending. And now Poi suddenly appeared, a second metalbender when Toph insisted she was the only one.
He eyed her for a moment, but she acted as if nothing had happened. Another glance at Poi convinced him she didn't want to talk about it, either. Grudgingly, Haru obeyed.
Neither Poi nor Toph spoke until Haru's reverberating footsteps faded and finally disappeared.
Poi didn't bother getting up. "What was that for?"
Toph smirked. "That was one lesson you never did learn, Poi," she said; "You don't know when to keep your mouth shut."
"What did I do?" Poi protested. "I only—" He stopped as a thought struck. He pushed himself up on his elbows. "He doesn't know, does he?"
Toph scowled. She just knew he was smiling.
Poi threw back his head and laughed. "What, he's one of your precious chosen few and you haven't told him?" He squinted at her. "Why not? You told me right from the get-go."
She kicked at a nearby pebble. Her frown deepened. "Look, it was just something to pass the time, okay?"
Poi laughed again. "Sure it was. We both know that's not how you operate."
Toph grunted. "You really are irritating."
"But that's what makes me so endearing," Poi said with a grin. "What's the matter, turns out he doesn't have what it takes?"
Toph snorted. "Oh, he's got what it takes. Or at least, he will."
"Once you finish with him, you mean?"
"Right. But I think he's got other plans."
Poi considered. "Too bad, really. I like him. He'd be fun to work with."
Toph jammed her heel down, punching the earth into Poi's back.
"Right," Poi said with a grimace. "Mouth. Shut."
- I sat down to publish this chapter, glanced through it, and decided to rewrite the last half. Poi is such a fun character and he needed a little more face time.
- Poi was seen briefly in A:TLA. He and his twin brother Ping live in the mountain village along with fortuneteller Aunt Wu.
- The chapter title, 'Best Served Cold', refers both to revenge and metal. One of those nice little play on words. ;) Also, it reminds me of Megamind.
For the collective works of the author, go here.