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|The Coronation and the Coup, Part Three|
Jan 9, 2013
Previously in Air
It was only published yesterday. Do you really need a recap? Well, see, there's this group of disillusioned Earth rebels called the Guild led by Kuei's wife Tora and they plan to take over the kingdom, and there's an assassin waiting to kill Kuei before he's crowned king, but Ursa found out about it, escaped her captors with her mad skillz and screamed "LOOK OUT!" just as the blow was struck. But was she too late?
Chapter Fifty-Three: Here For the Party
No one knew where the shout had come from.
Aang didn't care. He dove for the nearly crowned Earth King.
Sokka heard it too. He dropped his tray and forced his way through the crowd. "Of course they had to wait for that moment!"
As Aang collided with Kuei and shoved him to the ground, a bolt of lightning hissed over their heads.
People screamed. They scattered, pressing against each other in their panic. The conscientious air from a moment before evaporated as terrified citizens fled for their lives.
Lee found he couldn't move as he watched the tendril of lightning scar the wall of the Palace. It left an ugly black burn along the stone. He swallowed hard, fighting back panic. "That was unexpected."
Lightning. His eyes flicked up to the Fire Nation balcony. Had it been the Firelord? Had Lee been taken for a fool? He couldn't bring himself to believe it. He didn't want to believe, not after the past few days void of that old hate.
He didn't have time to dwell on it. Sensu caught hold of his sleeve. "Time to go." His brother's voice left no room for argument. "We have to get out of here, fast. This is not going to end well."
Lee couldn't help snorting. The crowd was already surging for the exits, plowing down anyone not fast enough to keep up. 'Not going to end well' was a major understatement.
Tora reeled back in shock as the lightning barely missed her husband. Time froze around her. The Avatar lunged at her husband, along with half a dozen assorted Generals and servants. The pompous herald was knocked flat. Gorou was enveloped in the hold of the two crown bearers. Fong leapt up the steps, grabbed Tora's arm and pushed her behind him.
People screamed and the flicker of the lightning died.
Tora watched, numb, as the crown of the Earth King slowly rolled down one step, bounced off the next and disappeared underfoot in the confused, panicked crowd.
Rage boiled in her chest. She fought out of Fong's grasp, shoving past him.
"Traitors!" she screamed, pointing up at the balcony of the Firelord. "It was the Fire Nation. They tried to assassinate the Earth King!"
"Perfect," Katara muttered, catching hold of the Earth royal before she said anything else stupid. But the damage had already been done. The words 'Fire Nation' and 'assassinate' had already reached the crowd.
The reaction was not favorable.
Terra shook to the core as the lightning flashed across the courtyard. She gave an involuntary cry and clapped a hand over her mouth. Beside her, Rin showed less composure.
"The fiends," he snarled, hands clenching into fists. As Her Majesty's accusation rang through the courtyard, Rin charged forward.
Terra, for the first time, made no move to stop her hot-tempered companion. The Guild was lying in wait throughout the crowd, ready to move. They were supposed to wait for the signal, but no one had counted on such a blatant act of treachery.
It was enough for her. Terra signaled her underlings.
"Time to move."
An assassination! General Fong couldn't believe the Firelord would go so far, would be so blatant. And he, with no clue of what was going on under his nose!
Fong felt someone step to his side and whirled round. But it was one of his confederates, guised for the moment as a Palace guard. He waited silently for instructions. Fong cast about the disastrous ceremony; the crowd fled in panic, stray sparks of lightning still flickered overhead. Tora had been caught up along with Kuei and Gorou, tucked into a massive earth cocoon formed by the Avatar. Just as well; she would be safe enough there.
It was time.
Fong nodded to his ally. "Attack!"
Hakoda leapt to his feet. "Isn't that the Firelord's daughter?"
Arnook squinted. "Possibly..."
Pakku didn't bother looking across. He squinted down, watching the sudden shift in the crowd. Most were pulling back in horror, fear and surprise. But some held their ground against the vicious tide, even began to push forward.
"Hmm." Amusement tugged at his lips. "I think this just got interesting."
No one was certain who threw the first rock, but it couldn't happen at a worse time. The crowd had just burst on the courtyard gates to find them not only shut, but locked and guarded. No one was getting out.
"And it just keeps getting better," Lee muttered.
Gansu planted himself in front of his wife and sons, trying to shield them from the crowd.
Someone pushed roughly against Sensu and Lee, without thinking, struck him away, hard. Surprised by his sudden ferocity, Lee flushed. "...sorry."
Sensu leaned heavily on his crutch. His forehead was slick with sweat. He had pressed on fast, to keep up with the crowd, and the exhaustion was clear on his face. Still, as he caught his breath, he took in the scene, thinking. He could see the guards lining the courtyard, slowly pressing forward; spectators within the crowd –doubtless the Gauntlets that Lee had mentioned– moved toward the Palace.
"It's a coup," he said, matter-of-factly. He felt the eyes of his family turn to him, shocked, but he was judging the crowd again. It was worse than a coup, he knew; two sides were about to engage in all-out battle, but the second danger lay in the crowd who, panicked as they were, could blindly kill and be killed without it ever fully registering. "And we're caught in the middle of it."
Sela paled. "But...isn't there anything we can do?"
Sensu started to shake his head; he'd seen battle and he'd seen panic, and there was very little that could stop either. But he paused.
Lee saw the glimmer of hope in his brother's eyes. "What is it?"
"If we can cut the crowd off from the battle," Sensu said, the idea only half-formed in his head, "Maybe we could calm them down. At least we'd eliminate half the problem."
"That's actually a pretty good idea."
Lee blinked. He knew that voice. He whirled. "You!"
Toph grinned. "In the flesh. You always seem to turn up in the thick of it, don't you?"
Lee frowned, mystified. "But what–"
"Discuss it later," Sensu said, not unkindly. He turned to Toph. "I think a simple wall will be sufficient."
Toph cracked her knuckles. "I think you're right. Come on, Stache Man," she called over her shoulder.
"You, too?" Lee cried as Haru appeared. His face darkened. "You knew this was going to happen."
"We suspected something," Haru replied diplomatically.
"Later!" Toph snapped. "You take the left and I'll go right. Make it thick."
But a sudden suspicion leapt in Lee. He would not be ignored. As Haru moved off, he followed after him, despite a cry of protest from his parents.
"What about that lightning?" Lee demanded.
Haru spared him a quick glance. He didn't know Lee's story, how he seemed to know Zuko, but he could tell it was checkered. "It wasn't us," he told Lee. "And it wasn't him, either. I've really got to go, Lee. Stay here. Try to calm everybody down."
Lee stopped. "Who, me?"
"Just give them another one of your speeches," Haru called back, hurrying on. "You've got a way with words, kid."
Lee didn't move right away, even with the desperate, harried crowd jostling him. He blinked. "Really?"
It was the work of a moment for Toph to erect her half of the wall. It would take some work to get the cobbled courtyard and elaborate wall back to its original grand state, but wasn't the first time she'd inflicted so much damage to the Earth Palace.
Toph winced. Underfoot, it was hard to decipher what was going on. There were so many footfalls, so many vibrations running through the earth that it hurt her head.
Toph fought her surprise. She'd felt the footsteps move close by, but she hadn't recognized Haru. Pathetic. "Now," she growled, "We make sure the Earth Kingdom doesn't fall into the grip of the Guild's idiot General."
"Right..." Haru stole a glance at his earthbending mentor. "Any suggestions?"
Toph frowned. "Well, identifying the threat is usually a good first step."
He'd only been half-feeling for the vibrations; there were so many, so sharp, that it made his feet ache. Nevertheless, he concentrated on the rumble beneath him. After a long moment, however, he gave up in frustration. "All I feel is mush," he admitted darkly.
"So much movement in so small a space," Toph went on, "All those vibrations are going to jumble up together. I can barely tell what's going on."
"Then how do you expect me to do it?" Haru cried, feeling a pang of frustration at the unfairness, despite the dire situation.
Toph snarled. "Do I have to spell everything out for you? You have eyes, Haru; use them!"
Haru blinked, caught completely off guard. "But you...The blindfold..."
Toph shook her head. "I'm training you to feel vibrations; of course I don't want you relying on your eyesight for that! But use your head, Haru. You've got your feet and your eyes. That's a twofold advantage and only an idiot wouldn't use them both together!"
"Gee, thanks," Haru muttered.
"That's a compliment, birdbrain. Now what do you see?"
Now that most of the crowd had been penned off, Haru's visual perceptions cleared considerably. "Palace guards," he relayed, "Along the courtyard, moving in. Looks like the Guild is here in full force, too."
"Guards along the walls?" Toph repeated, leaning in to her vibrations. A slow smile spread across her face. Suddenly, the flurry of movement fell into discernable patterns. "Let's get 'em."
A cloud of dust billowed at the far end of the courtyard, the deep rumble echoing off the walls.
"What was that?" General Fong exploded.
"We'll know soon enough," How snapped. "Be on your guard; we're supposed to be heading off an insurgence."
Fong blanched. "Insurgence?" he cried, voice cracking. "Wh-what are you talking about? Where did you hear that?"
How looked at him as though he were insane. "Rebels," he said impatiently. "Weren't you informed? The Avatar discovered a plot by Earth rebels to take over the Palace!"
Fong looked sharply at Aang. How much did the Avatar know? And how had he managed to warn Kuei in enough time to actually accomplish anything? He'd been so careful...
A glimmer of light. Of course he'd been careful! This was probably just the appearance of being prepared. Surely, once the Guild exerted some force, the Palace would fall. Yes; yes, that had to be it! Fong looked back out over the courtyard with new eyes.
What he saw did not reflect this newfound hope. The crowd was only half as large as it used to be –evidently someone had decided to shrink their workload. Palace guards pressed in on the crowd and surging toward the steps was a sea of green and gold uniforms. He knew those uniforms –tea servers at The Jasmine Dragon. And there were a lot of them. Not good. Not good at all. In fact...
Fong knew the chances of getting out of this were slim. It was time to take one for the team. He glanced at the earthen cocoon where Tora was locked away. At least, he consoled himself, the dream would live on.
He chanced one last glance at the Avatar. Some of his Gauntlets had managed to clear the steps and Aang and his wife were distracted keeping them at bay.
Silently, the General slipped away, unnoticed.
"On your right!" Haru warned.
"Yes, thank you," Toph muttered tersely, already drifting seamlessly from one bending position into the next to send the would-be attacker hurtling over the cobblestones. "I've got it now. You don't have to keep giving me updates."
Haru didn't reply, a little occupied dealing with a few Gauntlets himself.
Five sets of footsteps circled Toph. Bending vibrations erupted through her feet.
"Finally," she said.
Pakku stood, stretched, and made his way toward the door.
"You really think they need help down there?" Hakoda asked.
"I really don't care," the crotchety old man said, brushing past the protesting Palace guards. "I'm bored."
"Ooh, hahahaha!" Bumi cackled. He stood at his balcony's rail, moving his gaze back and forth over the courtyard, trying to follow the action. "Quite a show! I wonder why I didn't think of something like this for my coronation..."
The Palace guards exchanged uncertain glances. Unlike Bumi's two personal guards, they were not accustomed to the King of Omashu's eccentricity.
Bumi popped his knuckles. All four guards winced at the loud, sharp cracks. "I wonder if they have room for one more," Bumi wondered aloud, rolling his neck.
"Your majesty should remain here," one of the Palace guards said, "Where it's safe." The frail king could obviously do nothing; they were just the words of an old man who needed to feel useful.
"Safe?" Bumi laughed, snorting. He straightened suddenly, unfurling his hunched back to the sound of more creaking bones. His robe was deep green, heavy with gold embroidery that reflected the sun like a person-sized mirror. Bumi unhooked the robe and easily flicked the weighty garment with an admittedly overdramatic flourish, revealing to the world muscles so thick and toned that twenty-year-old men would be envious.
"So patronizing," the ancient man tutted, ignoring the grunt of exertion as his guard tried to catch the gaudy garment.
"What do they teach young peoples these days, I wonder?" Bumi mused as he vaulted himself over the railing.
All four guards moved to the rail, the two Palace guards in a panic while Bumi's own with a merely resigned curiosity. They watched as the King of Omashu –all signs of his 'old creaking bones' gone– thudded onto the cobblestones far below, sending a harsh ripple through the courtyard.
The Palace guard who had spoken stared in open shock. "Is he always like that?" he marveled.
One of Bumi's guards sighed and shook his head. "Yes," he groaned. "The old man not only refuses to grow up, he refuses to get old!"
Toph grinned. "All right, boys," she said to her five opponents. "Are you all going to come at me all at once, or do you honestly think you can take me down one at a time?"
Someone snorted. Sometimes, Toph wanted to embroider a jerkin with her name, declaring her identity to the world. At least then she might get some serious opponents.
"Toph..." She heard the uncertainty in Haru's voice. "Do you want me to–"
"Back off, Stache Man," Toph sang, "These five are mine. You just get to Aang and make sure no one gets near the Kuei."
Haru shrugged. "All right." He turned and raced for the steps.
"Stop him," one of the Gauntlets instructed.
Without hesitation, one of the five broke away after Haru.
"Uh-uh-uh." Toph spread her feet apart and bent down, scooping up the earth beneath the Gauntlet. The man was hurled back into his companions but quickly regained his feet. "You challenged me, remember? Don't even try to get out of it. I'm going to fight you five to one whether you like it or not!"
The lead Gauntlet snarled. "Crush her!"
Toph tightened her stance, ready for the attack. The five charged. She moved to retaliate–
–and something hard and powerful crashed into the cobblestones between them. A storm-worthy wave swept through the earth, knocking all five Gauntlets flat on their backs.
"Hey!" Toph protested. "They were mine!"
Bumi turned, peering down at her. "Oh, really?"
"Yeah, really," Toph retorted. "Find your own targets, old man!"
His eyes twinkled. "Maybe you should move quicker if you want to keep your self-proclaimed title of 'Greatest Earthbender of All Time'."
Toph snorted. "Self-proclaimed nothing! I invented metalbending, remember? And I so would have beaten you last time, and you know it."
"Says you," Bumi retorted, sticking his tongue out at the blind earthbender.
Toph gnashed her teeth in a harsh grin. "Oh, it's on!
Bumi cackled. "You wouldn't know 'on' if it was under your feet."
Toph growled, clenching her fists.
A pair of feet stopped beside them. "You there!" someone demanded. "Are you for the king, or the General?" It was quite obvious by the Gauntlet's tone who he was for.
"You're interrupting," Toph snapped, stomping and sending the Gauntlet flying on an earth rocket.
"And quite impolitely!" Bumi agreed, batting a head-sized rock after the hapless individual. "Come back when you've learned some manners." He turned to Toph. "As for you, little girl, I just have one question."
Toph snorted. "Oh yeah? And what's that?"
Bumi leaned toward her, grinning. "Is that the best you've got?"
"Me? I'm just warming up." She smirked. "I didn't want you to realize how old you're getting."
"Old?" Bumi repeated. "Old?! We'll see which of us is old!"
"All right." Toph rolled up her sleeves; she could feel the parade of footsteps just as well as Bumi could. "If you're so set on this, how about a little wager?"
Bumi's eyes sparked, intrigued. "For the title?"
Toph nodded, her face completely serious. "Whoever creams the most opponents will be officially recognized as the Greatest Earthbender of All Time." She beamed a sweet smile at the mad genius. "But don't say I didn't warn you, Creaking Bones."
"Ha!" Bumi cried.
The two earthbenders waded into the charge of Gauntlets side by side, grinning like maniacs.
Tora shook her head. "I don't believe it," she murmured.
Kuei held his wife's hand tight. She was obviously in shock. "Don't worry," he assured her, "Everything will be fine."
Tora shook her head. "No, no. It wasn't supposed to be this way..." She stared down at nothing, eyes wide. "How did they know?"
Kuei smiled. At least that was one question he could answer. "The Avatar told them."
Tora froze. Slowly, she turned her eyes to her husband. "What?"
"The guards knew because Aang managed to catch wind of the attempted coup. He told me this morning." Kuei gave her hand a squeeze and smiled. "Everything will be okay."
Tora shook her head, whispered, "You don't understand."
She wrapped an arm around him, slid the knife from her sleeve and pressed the blade against his throat.
As the crowd had piled into the courtyard for the coronation, several had wondered about the odd placement of ---The Jasmine Dragon---'s clunky tea cart. The delicious waft of brewing tea had quickly banished any such idle thoughts, but if they could see it now, it would all begin to make sense. The cart was centered with the steps of the Palace, placed several paces before it with just enough room for a few bodies to squeeze by; a nearly perfect tactical position.
"PUMP!" Xin Fu bellowed.
The Duke scowled. "We are pumping!" he shouted back.
Pipsqueak glanced at his little friend in surprise. Usually, The Duke's temperament was cool and collected, but at the moment he sounded downright vehement. Not that Xin Fu noticed. The ex-wrestler was busy aiming the nozzle of the Mechanist's contraption. Master Yu had his hands full shoveling compacted dirt balls into the fires fast enough for Xin Fu to shoot them and Pipsqueak himself sweated over the bellows, pumping concentrated air into the bank of small fires to keep them nice and hot. The Duke, he finally decided, had a right to be out of sorts. Xin Fu's irritating shouts were like the straw that broke the camelephant's back.
The Mechanist's contraption was, doubtless, an incredible and terrifying innovation. Unfortunately, it was also terribly rushed. There were several...hiccoughs.
One such flaw was that the bellows' tip was just the tiniest bit too small for its opening into the blazing fires. Normally a quick fix, but there hadn't been the time or parts to mend it. And so The Duke's uncomfortable job was to keep the bellows inserted into the hole with his bare hands, despite the blistering heat. Literally blistering; Pipsqueak noticed his friend's raw hands and winced. As if that wasn't enough, The Duke wasn't quite tall enough to reach the bellows tip and he was forced to straddle the bellows itself, fighting against the motions as Pipsqueak pulled up and pumped down.
Under his breath, The Duke threw a few threats in Xin Fu's direction. Their only real purpose was to make him feel a better and he found himself smiling.
Master Yu was not nearly as content. Molding balls and hurling them into the fire was not his idea of fighting. What he'd like was a turn to control the firing contraption to keep the charge of Gauntlets at bay, but Xin Fu had that look in his eyes. Perhaps, Master Yu thought, he could press upon Manish for the opportunity. His back was killing him from bending over and the chance to stand upright would surely prove–
A Gauntlet nimbly ducked under a spray of hot ammo and, with a furious cry, leapt at the cart.
Manish swept up an abandoned tea pot. Before the Gauntlet could lay a finger on his employer's cart, Manish dumped the boiling hot water over the man's head.
The Gauntlet howled in pain. Two more jumped to his aid at the pitiful cry, circling the head tea server. Manish glanced between them, not appearing unduly concerned.
One Gauntlet lunged for him while the other bent the earth underfoot. Manish danced easily away from the first, using the full-momentum to best advantage as he swung the iron pot into the small of the man's back. As the earth beneath him thrust upward, Manish kept his balance, his feet alighting from one peak to the next as he ran along the upheaval toward the bender.
The bender flinched as Manish neared, but the tea server did not strike. Instead, he vaulted into the air, sailed over the attacker's head and landed gracefully behind, whirling in a tight circle as he kicked the bender's legs out from under him.
Manish straightened himself. He brushed the dirt from his normally immaculate uniform. His two opponents groaned. "Next time," Manish said stiffly, "Come for the tea."
Master Yu gulped, loudly.
Manish turned to him, face a mask of polite calm. "Is there a problem, Master Yu?" he asked, eyeing the unformed earth dribbling between Master Yu's stiff fingers.
Master Yu started. "Ah, no. No, sir! Of course not." He bent over, pain in his back forgotten, and hurriedly returned to work.
Manish nodded in approval. "Good."
"This is quite a turnout!" Suki casually batted a Gauntlet away from the steps with her golden fan.
"Youch!" Sokka cried, not in reply to his wife, but to the Gauntlet who lunged at him from behind and caught hold of a chunk of his hair and skin.
It was, however, Momo's tail that caught the full force of the grip as the Gauntlet had mistaken it for a ponytail. Momo's yowl of pain nearly drowned out Sokka's cry and the flying lemur shot straight up. The Gauntlet cried out in terror as it appeared Sokka's cap had floated up all on its own. The man quickly let go of the tail but there was no escaping the wrath of Momo. To the Gauntlet, it seemed the cap was possessed, lunging at him and suddenly sprouting sharp nails to claw at his face.
Ty Lee –practically glowing in pink– blocked the left-arm chakra of an opponent and flipped him over her back in a fluid judo movement. "The Guild's a lot bigger than I thought it was," she admitted.
The Mechanist's tea cart was keeping the bulk of the attack at bay with its store of heated missiles, but still the disguised Kyoshis and Fire Nation soldiers had their hands full guarding the steps to the Palace. At least it had stopped Ming and the others from complaining that their job was to guard the Fire royals, not the Earth King. Aang had still not moved Kuei inside; he couldn't be certain there wasn't some kind of ambush waiting for them there. Out here, even though it was open to the Guild, at least there were plenty of allies to protect them.
Another Gauntlet charged at Sokka but a shift in the earth pushed him back. Sokka glanced up, expecting Toph, but it was Haru standing before him.
"Wow," Sokka said, "Long time no see!"
Haru smiled. "I wish the circumstances were better."
Movement behind him tugged at his sense as a Gauntlet prepared to charge him. Haru slipped into a bending stance, but before he could attack, a flash of pink exploded before his eyes. Whatever she did, it was fast. Haru had barely registered her presence when the Gauntlet hit the ground, paralyzed.
Ty Lee winked at him. "Nice moves. You just need someone to watch your back."
She danced away to find her next target, but Haru's cheeks had already flushed same color as her robes.
"Well, you know how it is." Sokka had his back to the flirtatious episode as he dealt with a new opponent. "It's hard to get anything scheduled unless the fate of the world is at stake." He finished off the his untrained opponent with a right jab. "Where's Toph? Didn't she want to kick Gauntlet butt?"
Hearing his sensu's name reminded Haru of what she'd said about party tricks and flighty chicks. He blushed harder. "She, um, found some of her own, I think." He managed, with a vague gesture to the thick clouds of dust obscuring the battlefield.
Sokka rolled his eyes. "Typical."
"But," Haru said, forcing a smile, "She sent me to help."
Sokka appeared unimpressed. "Well, I suppose we could always use a helping hand..."
Haru snorted. "Gee, thanks for the warm welcome."
Sokka raised an eyebrow. "Exactly how long have you been hanging around Toph?"
Haru reddened. "Is it that obvious?"
Sokka only laughed.
"Sorry." Haru glanced around. "Have you seen my dad anywhere?"
"Hmm? Oh, uh..." Sokka quickly cast about. "I think he's up there," he said. "With Aang."
Haru nodded. "What are you doing here?" he asked, though it was obvious he wanted nothing more than to race up the steps and join his father.
"Just defending the life and liberty of the Earth Kingdom as we know it," Sokka said off-handedly. "But, you know, I think we've got it covered. Go see if Aang has any special jobs for you."
Haru didn't hesitate. He ducked through the crowd of defenders and raced up the steps.
Suki grinned at Sokka. "Softy."
Sokka turned away as his cheeks reddened. "Yeah, yeah," he muttered, bouncing his boomerang off the forehead of an advancing Gauntlet.
The Palace guards steadily closed in from their stations ringing the courtyard. The Kyoshis and disguised Fire Nation staunchly held their ground before the Palace stairs. Between them, the Guild was trapped. They just didn't know it yet. But Smellerbee saw.
She stood back to back with Longshot in the midst of Jasmine Dragon uniforms worn by strangers who were most definitely not tea servers. When Iroh said he'd handle his end of things, he really meant it.
"I think we're actually going to win," Smellerbee said over her shoulder.
Longshot glanced at her, taking his gaze from his arrow's shaft for only an instant.
Smellerbee could feel his gaze. She rolled her eyes. "I know, you never doubted it."
Longshot loosed the arrow and in the same movement reached for another.
They never saw him coming.
Longshot's finger just brushed a feather in his quill when Rin slammed into him. Longshot gasped and staggered back.
Smellerbee felt her friend fall. As the familiar weight at her side was wrenched away, a sudden panic seized her. The feeling was too familiar, just like when the Freedom Fighters disbanded; when Jet had died; when, for those few terrifying days she'd thought she'd lost Longshot forever. She whirled round and the tip of his bow cut across her face as he was knocked back.
"Longshot!" She reached to catch him but someone struck her hard in the gut. Crying out, she doubled up in pain.
Rin was rash and hot-tempered, but he was not stupid. He'd warned Terra, but she was far too trusting. Maybe this would finally show her. Rin tightened his grip on his thick club. At least he would make them pay!
Longshot scrabbled for an arrow. He had no other weapon and he cursed himself for it. For the second time his fingers brushed the feathers in his quiver. Rin kicked his hand away.
"I never liked you much anyway," Rin growled, pulling his weapon back to strike.
With a terrible cry, Smellerbee leapt on him. Wrapping her arms and legs around his torso, she clung to his back like a reckless rider on a wild komodo-rhino. Rin tried to wrench away, but Smellerbee held fast. Rin snarled. He jerked round, hoping to dislodge her, but nothing would break Smellerbee's determination.
She held tighter with her arms and Rin spluttered for breath. He seized her wrists in his powerful arms and yanked them away. Smellerbee yelped. Rin shook again, throwing her off as easily as a rag doll.
Normally, a fall like that would do nothing but anger Smellerbee. But this time she did not roll right back onto her feet and charge again. This time, her body slammed into the massive stone staircase, the edge of the step catching her upper back, and went limp.
The world slipped away from Longshot as he watched her body crumple.
As Haru cleared the last steps, he was disconcerted to see the defeated eyes of Aang and Katara. It was obvious they were winning. Believing to be the ambushers themselves, the Guild was not prepared to find themselves ambushed.
Haru frowned. "What's wrong?"
Aang looked at him, a faint glimmer of hope sparking in his face. "I don't suppose you're here to tell us that you and Toph caught the General?"
Haru shook his head. "He got away?"
Aang sighed. "It was my fault–"
"It was nobody's fault," Katara insisted. "We should have made sure someone was keeping an eye on him."
"Everyone was too distracted by the onslaught," Tyro said, coming to stand by his son. "But we'll catch him sooner or later. I can't see him getting out of here easily." He clapped a hand on Haru's shoulder and smiled. "Glad to see you're unhurt."
"You, too," Haru said, but a frown tugged at his features, distracting him. Something felt...wrong. He turned to Aang. "Where's the King?"
Aang raised an eyebrow but gestured back at the earthen cocoon. As his attention shifted, his eyes darkened.
Haru rent the cocoon apart.
Katara, confused, cried, "Haru, what are you–"
None of them moved, frozen to the spot as the rock crumbled away. Tora jerked around to face them, holding her husband before her like a shield, the knife still pressed against his throat. She stared back at them, stumbled away, but realized there was no escape. Her eyes darted from one enemy's face to the next.
"It...it wasn't supposed to be like this!" Tora insisted. Her voice –and the hand that held the knife– trembled.
No one dared to move. The knife was too close to Kuei. Already, a small bead of red showed against his white flesh. One sudden movement from Tora could kill him.
Aang slowly held his hands up, palms out, in a calming gesture. "What wasn't supposed to be like this, Your Majesty?"
Tora only shook her head, knife quivering in her grasp.
Haru's breath caught with the sudden realization. "Fong isn't the General," he said, shaking his head grimly. "She is."
The others looked at Haru, then back at Tora.
Tora looked around at them. "No one was supposed to get hurt!" she shouted. Tears welled in her eyes. "It was a seizure of power; a bloodless revolution. No one was supposed to try to kill him!"
"We know," Aang said soothingly, trying to placate her.
"Oh, do you?" Tora snapped. "Do you know what your dear friend the Firelord does behind his war room curtain, Avatar?"
Aang's eyes narrowed. "Firelord Zuko had nothing to do with this, I assure you."
Tora laughed sharply. "Of course not! A firebender tries to assassinate the Earth King, but we all know it can't be Zuko because he's so invested in your peace treaty." Tora shook her head. "You're just as blind as the rest of them! The Fire Nation doesn't want peace; they never want peace. They're warmongers. All they know is battle and death!"
Kuei seemed to wake from his daze. He felt the cool blade at his throat, but he turned to look at his wife anyway. "But...why, Tora?"
Tora blinked, taken aback. "You wouldn't listen. I told you. I told you not to trust them but you fell for their tricks all over again. The Fire Nation was making a fool out of you. Why can't you see that?"
Kuei stared at her. "You helped kidnap the Firelord's son."
Tora flinched at the horror in his voice. "It was the only way!"
"You kidnapped a child," Kuei snapped. "And you threw your lot in with the Dai Li, with those traitors?"
Surprise flashed through Tora's face. He knew about the Dai Li? Would her shame never end?
Kidnapped a child. Traitors. His words seeped into her, his disgusted words stabbing at her heart.
The knife slipped from Tora's fingers and clattered on the stone. "I...what have I...?" She staggered back, sobbing, and fell to her knees.
Aang jumped forward and kicked the knife away, Katara called for General How, but Kuei did not move, watching his wife.
"You know who tried to kill me, Aang?" he asked without looking up.
"Pretty sure," Aang replied. He had told Kuei all about Kuzarr's treachery and the Dai Li's still unclear involvement, but he couldn't bring himself to mention Azula.
"And it wasn't my wife?"
Tora's breath caught at those words. She pressed a hand over her mouth to suppress the sobs as the tears streamed from her wide eyes.
"No," Aang replied.
Kuei frowned at her, angry, confused. "You would betray me, ally yourself with traitors, rekindle a bygone war and usurp the crown from me." His scowl darkened. "If you were willing to do all that, then why not just kill me as well?"
Tora trembled. She buried her face in her hands, shaking her head. "...trying to...protect..."
Kuei's eyes narrowed. "Trying to protect what?"
Tora's head jerked up. She lunged at Kuei. The others tensed, but the Earth royal only caught hold of Kuei's garment and stared up at him.
"They wouldn't tell me what would happen after!" she cried. Her voice broke, tears streaming down her cheeks. "The Dai Li...they assured me their plan would bring down the Fire Nation, but..." Her eyes never left his as her voice dipped to the faintest whisper. "...I thought they were going to kill you."
Tora buried her face in her husband's robe.
Kuei blinked in surprise. He staggered back a step. Confusion, pain, betrayal, possibly even love; they all clouded his eyes. He didn't know what to think. What could he think?
But slowly, he knelt beside his wife and took her into his arms as she wept.
Longshot stared at Smellerbee's limp body.
Rin snorted. "So you can talk."
Something inside Longshot snapped. He lashed out at Rin with his fists. One blow caught the burly Gauntlet off guard and he stumbled back. Longshot seized his bow, the only thing left to him. His arrows were scattered across the courtyard but he didn't dive for one. He lunged after Rin, looping the bow around his neck and pulled with everything he had left, and when that was exhausted he somehow found the strength to pull harder.
Rin reeled back, clawing at the bow, fighting for air. But Longshot held tight, avoiding the flailing, feeble blows. Rin reached back, weakly pulling at Longshot's tunic. He caught it, tried to pull, but the fabric slipped between his numbing fingers. Rin choked, eyes dancing madly, tried to howl and dropped to his knees.
The world blurred, a flurry of indiscernible motion. And finally, everything went dark.
Longshot leapt away as Rin fell. Whether the man was dead or merely unconscious, he didn't know, nor did he care. He ran to Smellerbee's deathly still form and knelt beside her.
Was she dead? Longshot's head reeled. For an instant he couldn't bring himself to check. His heart pounded. What if she was dead? What if Smellerbee died?
Not a word passed his lips but inside Longshot screamed. She couldn't die. He wouldn't let her. She couldn't leave him, not like this.
Longshot reached out with an unsteady hand. Through his trembling fingers he felt a strong heartbeat. The world flipped upside down. Longshot gasped, releasing a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. He slumped, dizzy with relief, cradling his face in his hands.
He knew it for certain now, what he had been trying to avoid and ignore. But he couldn't think about that. Smellerbee was alive, but she would be injured after that blow. It only took a moment for Longshot to compose himself with a few deep breaths.
Bending over his unconscious friend, he checked for wounds. A few cuts and scratches were visible but he prodded deeper. Several of her ribs were cracked and her right forearm was broken.
Longshot breathed a sigh of relief. He took her in his arms and pressed her against him, leaning her back against his chest. He'd had a broken rib once; lying down was not a good idea.
Smellerbee stirred at his touch, frowning. When she opened her eyes, she found herself wrapped in Longshot's arms.
What was he doing?
She started violently, confused. Pain shot through her chest. She cried out.
Longshot carefully leaned her back against him. "Don't move."
Smellerbee put a hand to her ribs, wincing at the touch. "Broken?"
Of course they were broken. She blushed, feeling stupid. Why else would he hold her like that? She cast a glance at him to make certain he hadn't interpreted the blush for something else.
Longshot's gaze rested on her, but his gaze was far, far away. Usually, Smellerbee could read any expression on her friend's face, the simplest flickering of his eyes. But right now, she couldn't tell what he was thinking. It scared her.
She gulped. "Is it bad?"
Longshot blinked, focus shifting back to her. He shook his head.
So, nothing a waterbending healer couldn't fix up. Smellerbee wasn't sure whether or not to be relieved.
If her injuries weren't serious, then what was that look in his eye? The one she didn't recognize?
TO BE CONTINUED...
Happy Air-iversary, my dear readers! Thanks for a great year, and I'm looking forward to more good times to come!
- *sniff* This chapter was an emotional roller coaster.
- I had a little fun with the recap today. In case you didn't notice. Hehe.
- Did everyone notice this chapter is uber-long? I figured it would be an equally nice treat for the Air-iversary. (That, and it would have been sad to chop into sections. ;_;)
- "What do they teach young people these days?" Quick, who can tell me from what literary classic this was pulled? *hums Jeopardy theme*
- Bumi and Toph! This serves as a rematch for the two great earthbenders after their first competition was interrupted (see comic 'Bumi vs. Toph, Round One').
For the collective works of the author, go here.