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|The Meet at Omashu|
March 13, 2012
Previously on Air
After receiving a message from a 'friend', Zuko, Aang, Katara and Tyro set off for Omashu in search of information regarding the Guild. June was hired to hunt down a 'firebender making trouble.' Her reward is her life.
Chapter Ten: The Meet at Omashu
Omashu was warm and busy. People bustled down the streets and through the loud, dusty bazaar. The marketplace was more chaotic than usual, the pounding of construction ringing through the square. New buildings were being erected and old ones refaced. Many of them were braced with scaffolds, a criss-crossed pattern to support them as they continuously stretched for the sky. Up above the passersby, the delivery chutes buzzed with activity, transporting crates of wares at rip-roaring speeds. It was amazing they had survived after all the abuse they'd been put through.
"This isn't a good idea," Katara muttered, for the hundredth time.
Aang nudged her lightly, but she ignored the hint.
Zuko bit back a hot retort, grinding his teeth. Of course it wasn't a good idea! It had taken them three precious days to get here and it could turn out to be a wild goose chase.
It was only two days since they received the cryptic message. Zuko had insisted they take Appa, traveling by night despite the danger of attracting attention. They had hidden Appa early that morning in a cave not far from the city.
Hue, Due and Tho had been sent to investigate along the rivers. Better to have them in their element. They would snoop around any villages they found, keeping their ears pricked for any news of the Guild or the kidnapped Fire Prince. Xin Fu and Master Yu had struck out in the opposite direction, bickering at each other the whole time. Iroh remained at his tea shop, ready to transmit new information to any of them as it came. Pipsqueak and The Duke remained with Iroh, masquerading as tea servers, in case Longshot and Smellerbee called for help. They still had no idea where Toph was.
The four friends wound their way through the crowded market on the east side of Omashu, searching for an abandoned cabbage cart. They tried to remain inconspicuous, garbed in Earth Kingdom colors. But even with his disguise, Zuko felt naked.
"Someone had to investigate, Katara," Tyro said kindly.
Katara sighed. "I know, I know. I need to relax." She eased in a deep, controlled breath to quell her tempestuous tide.
Momo chittered and rubbed his fuzzy head consolingly against her cheek.
"After all," she said, "We have more important things to think about." She looked to Tyro. "You're sure you don't have any idea where Haru might be?"
Tyro's brow furrowed. On the long ride from Ba Sing Se, it was clear to the others that he'd had something pressing on him. Tyro had given in, admitting that he was worried about Haru. His son had ventured off several weeks before and hadn't been heard from since. "Positive," he said shortly.
"Isn't that odd?" she pressed. "I mean, it really isn't like Haru."
Clouds darkened Tyro's eyes, but in her flustered state Katara didn't notice. Aang laid a hand on her arm. It was a silent signal, something he'd had to resort to when Katara became a little too outspoken during negotiations. As the Avatar, Aang did a lot of negotiating and sometimes his wife forgot that it was solely his responsibility.
Zuko stopped. "This is it," he said, pointing at a worn and broken cabbage cart in a corner of the market. He glanced around. "I don't see anyone."
"He never specified when to meet this 'Gorak'," Katara pointed out.
Zuko's temper flared. "So we're just supposed to stand here and wait? We don't have time for this." He didn't raise his voice, but it was bitter and impatient.
Katara frowned in concern, laying a hand on her friend's arm. "He's probably keeping an eye out," she encouraged.
As though summoned, a figure maneuvered his way from the busy street beyond them into the small, forgotten corner. This had to be Gorak.
He stood firm, arms folded across his chest. His air was cocky as he studied them, matching the smirk on his lips. "I didn't expect you to get here so fast."
"The message was pretty cryptic," Tyro told him. "But it sounded like you could tell us what we need to know."
"And we don't have a lot of time," Zuko snapped.
Aang spotted another figure slip from the crowded street and amble toward the obscure square. And another. And a third. "Um..."
"I see them," Zuko bit out.
Their supposed 'friend' shook his head, chuckling. "We told the Firelord not to send anybody."
As Zuko was too busy glaring at Gorak to reply, Aang elected himself spokesman. "The Firelord?" he asked, feigning surprise. "The Firelord didn't send us."
"Do you think we're stupid?" Gorak spat. "Of course the Firelord sent you! He won't sit by while we're here to threaten his plan."
The inner tide surged; Katara's eyes flashed. She snapped, "And I suppose his son has nothing to do with it?" The words spilled out before she realized she'd blown their cover.
Aang winced, but no one else seemed to notice. Tyro had joined Zuko's with his own thunderous glare and Gorak was so wrapped up in his tirade he probably didn't even hear Katara.
"Of course, we knew he'd send someone in," Gorak said with smug satisfaction. The four Gauntlets slid into attack positions. "But after we finish with you, the Firelord won't be inclined to send in anymore spies."
The buildings surrounding the friends began to tremble. The Gauntlets jerked downward and the buildings shuddered violently, leaning dangerously inward. They began to crumble, showering chunks of rock down onto Zuko and the others.
Aang punched into the ground; spikes shot from the dirt, skewering the buildings in an attempt to steady them. Tyro dug his heels in and thrust his arms up to keep the structures from crashing down. Still, the walls collapsed.
"This...isn't...working," Tyro muttered, veins pulsing as he reached his limit.
A cornerstone wobbled, uncertain, and tumbled down. Zuko caught Katara's arm and hauled her from its path.
Aang's hands rested on the earthen pillar. "I know!" Through the pillar, he could feel the stone buildings quake. They wouldn't hold much longer. His mind raced. What could –
With a deafening roar, the last foundations ruptured. The buildings toppled. Slabs of cracked stone rained down one after the other, forming an impenetrable grave. Finally, the avalanche ceased. The last stray pebbles bounded down the mound and skidded to a stop at the feet of the Gauntlets.
"That'll teach 'em," one snickered, clapping away the dust on his hands.
"Long live the Earth Kingdom," Gorak intoned to the silent rubble.
As if indignant at this comment, the rubble shifted.
The four Gauntlets reared back. One yelped involuntarily.
"Do you think..." he gulped, "They might be...?"
Gorak snorted contemptuously, but his friend edged forward cautiously. He poked at the rubble experimentally with his toe.
The top of the heap shot up. It arced through the air and crashed at Gorak's feet. Before the Gauntlets could react, the fallen foursome rose from their intended tomb.
Zuko erupted with a vengeful cry. Gorak had guessed they were Fire Nation spies and Zuko saw no reason to hold back. He charged the Gauntlet, fire surging through his arms and down the extension of his blades. Gorak struggled to defend against the fierce onslaught, but hardly could he raise a rock before Zuko sliced through it.
Skins hugged either of Katara's hips. She flicked the caps off, drawing out the cool water and lacing it through her fingers. The whips lashed out, one stretching thin to catch a far Gauntlet, the other cascading into the chest of a second, pitching him back.
Tyro and Aang perched atop the mound. They couldn't ask for a better arsenal. They watched the movements of their opponents and when a Gauntlet made a move for Katara or Zuko, a sizable boulder crashed into their path. If a Gauntlet raised a rock, Tyro sent one of his own on a collision course.
The enemy was quickly overpowered. But Zuko guessed they hadn't come alone. At the first sign of trouble, reinforcements emerged. They stepped out from shadows and dropped down from rooftops and seemed to crawl from the very woodwork.
The friends fought hard, but for every rebel they bested two more replaced him. The sheer number of foes was too much. Aang and Tyro's rock pile was quickly exhausted and the Gauntlets managed to encircle them. Katara and Zuko were cut off from any hope of escape, steered by the earth into the enemy's center as the Gauntlets maintained a careful distance.
The four friends stood back to back, panting heavily. They watched their opponents warily, poised to attack or defend at any moment.
Would it end here? Zuko refused to believe it.
"What do you suggest we do now?" Tyro asked quietly.
Nobody had an answer. The Gauntlets began to close in.
Aang gritted his teeth. The most frustrating part was that he knew he could save them. But Zuko had made him swear not to exhibit any Avatar abilities as to shatter the Guild's illusion of cooperation. Aang weighed the options. What was the use of keeping up pretenses if they were captured or killed?
Zuko seemed to feel his thoughts. He caught Aang's eye and shook his head.
Aang set his jaw and nodded.
Each of the four friends was seized by the arms. Even Momo was caught by the tail and held in a tight grip. The encircling crowd of enemies parted to allow Goark through. "Now," the earthbender sneered. He stomped into the earth and a waist-high platform of rock shot up. He punched through it, invoking a cloud of dust. Instead of shattering, the rock scurried up his arm and shoulder, encasing it in a jagged misshapen gauntlet. Gorak tightened his stony fist and grinned. "Let's make certain the Firelord gets the message." He gestured. "The firebender first."
Two Gauntlets forced Zuko forward, inches from Gorak's face. Zuko averted his eyes, shifting his thinly veiled scar from view.
Gorak mistook the downcast expression for shame or fear. "Face the pride of the Earth Kingdom, coward," he growled, "And think twice before you trespass on our borders." He pulled back his gauntleted arm and slugged Zuko in the stomach.
Zuko gasped for air but gave no cry of pain.
"Wait!" Aang tried to negotiate, "Can't you just tell us the message and we'll take it to the Firelord?"
Zuko managed a rueful chuckle, sagging between the two Gauntlets holding him in place. "It's not that kind of message."
"That's right, firebender," Gorak said grimly, pulling back for another punch.
Zuko ran his eyes over the ranks of enemies, just as his friends did, looking for any chance of escape.
It came, as it so often did, in the most unexpected way.
A hulking beast barreled around the corner, powerful forelegs pumping. Its rider barely registered the unexpected crowd before the beast plowed through the back ranks of the rebels, bowling them bodily over. The Gauntlets cried out and scurried from the creature's path.
The rider jerked back on the reins. The beast reared up with a shriek of protest. A whip cracked, a tongue lashed out and Gorak –with a look of stupefied surprise– fell, paralyzed, to the ground.
The friends took advantage of their enemy's shock. Aang nimbly somersaulted over his captor's head, his arms easing out from the Gauntlet's stiffened grip. He planted his feet on the man's shoulders and shoved him forward.
Katara's hands were pinned to her back. The grip of her captor faltered on sight of the mammoth beast. As his grip loosened, she twisted her hands and caught hold of her captor's wrists. The Gauntlet yelped as she spun out of his grasp, manipulating his arms like the strings of a puppet.
Tyro was too tired for any fancy tricks; he merely jerked back and head-butted his captor. He heard a satisfying crunch. With a cry of pain, the man stumbled back to coddle his injured face.
Zuko breathed deep through his nostrils, fueling the heat in his core. Twin flames blossomed in either palm, searing into the stomachs of his captors. Despite the pain in his gut, Zuko maneuvered their hold on his arms and slammed them together. Their heads knocked painfully together and the two men crumpled at Zuko's feet, unconscious.
"Well, well," June smirked, reining in her shirshu. "What are the chances? Hundreds of people in Omashu, and I run into the one man I'm looking for."
A Gauntlet sought to avenge his fallen comrades. He struck a boulder at the bounty hunter's head just as she leaned back. The stone barely missed her as it hurtled past. Was it a coincidence? There was no way she could have spotted the missile coming, and yet in the next heartbeat she whirled her shirshu on him with a crack of her whip.
"Do you mind?" She leaned forward in the saddle. The Gauntlet went still as the shirshu snuffled him and bared her fangs. "This is a private conversation."
The Gauntlet gulped. Despite his fear, he stood his ground. "You are interfering in a matter of the G-G-Granite Gauntlet," he stammered, "L-l-leave now, and we will show leniency."
"That's right," Gorak cried from his prone position. "No one crosses the Guild! Those who do reap the consequences!"
But June's eyes were on the trembling lackey. "Leniency?" she chuckled. She flicked her whip, its tip lashing the air inches from the man's eye. "Run, little man, before you get on my bad side, because I don't show mercy."
The Gauntlet didn't budge. He expected his comrades to back him up, but a quick glance revealed that no one was eager to cross bounty hunter.
With June and their would-be captors occupied, the four friends huddled to devise a brilliant escape plan.
"We should split up," Zuko panted, an arm on his sore stomach.
"That's a horrible plan!" Katara whispered hoarsely. It was as close to a shout as she dared.
"There's too many of them for us to take," Zuko said. Aang opened his mouth to protest, but Zuko shot him down. "Without Aang going Avatar. Plus the shirshu, we'd never make it."
Tyro nodded. "He's right," he told Katara.
"Need I remind you we're still surrounded?" Katara pointed out crisply. "Not to mention you're injured."
Zuko released his stomach with a glare. It felt like he'd been slugged with a sledgehammer, but that wouldn't slow him down.
"Our best bet is to stand together and make a break for it," Katara insisted.
Tyro frowned. "Hmm, she's also right."
"They can't both be right!" Aang cried.
"You too are right." Tyro shrugged. "You're the Avatar; mediate. And better make it fast." He nodded at their two enemies. "I think they're almost finished."
Aang scanned their surroundings and made a judgment call. It was a tricky decision; he'd hear about this later. "We'll meet up at the city gates."
Tyro and Zuko nodded.
"I'll draw June away," Zuko said.
"What's she even doing here?" Aang wanted to know.
Zuko smirked. "Didn't you hear? She was looking for me." And he pelted off west, behind June's back. It only gave him an instant's head start. June had eyes in the back of her head. Soon the shirshu forged through Gauntlets after him.
The others took advantage of the confusion: Aang darted north and Tyro barreled south.
Katara scowled. "Men," she muttered, and made a break for the east. Momo chittered, lazily loop-de-looped and flew after her.
"They're getting away, fools!" Gorak cried, still helplessly paralyzed. "After them; don't let them escape! But first, get me off the ground!"
The Gauntlets were only too eager to follow their leader's first order; better to face their escaped prisoners than tangle with the dark-haired bounty hunter. They split up, taking after the escapees, before it occurred to help their fallen leader.
Gorak felt the emptiness. "Hello?" he called, lying alone in the abandoned square. "...Anyone?"
Katara had six Gauntlets on her tail, but she wasn't unduly worried. She was still spry and kept well-ahead of her pursuers. When she stumbled to the market's decorative center, Katara knew it was the perfect place to make her stand.
The Gauntlets shoved their way through the crowd, panting hard. The sight that met their eyes was anything but welcome: Katara waited patiently before the centerpiece fountain whose waters lurked up in a single wall of water. She was smiling, too.
The Gauntlets were already tired. With just the water from her pouch Katara had ensured their misery. They'd been tripping, slipping, dodging and thawing out the entire chase. When they spotted her poised with that giant wave, they lost their will.
After all, they reasoned, they were only supposed to warn the would-be rescuers. And it was really the Fire Nation scum they wanted, not a woman from the Water Tribe.
But Katara wasn't satisfied with her victory. Worse, she was irritated; frustrated at how weary she was after such simple exertions, annoyed at Aang and the others for their fool-hardy plan. She wanted answers. She channeled that irritation and the fountain water surged forward, catching one of the fleeing Gauntlets in its tide and enveloping him. With a snap, crackle and pop the water froze around the terrified earthbender in a thick shell. Only his head remained free.
"Who sent you here?" Katara demanded.
The man glared defiantly, though his teeth chattered from the cold.
Katara scowled. She clenched her fingers and the ice cracked audibly as it tightened its grip.
The Gauntlet yelped. He tried to wriggle free, but he couldn't even twitch his pinky.
"Who sent you?" Katara demanded again.
"One of the generals," the man whimpered. "A general of the Guild."
"I know someone from the Guild sent you," Katara said impatiently. "I want a name."
The man firmed his jaw. He tried to shake his head, but the ice was too tight around his neck.
"If you stay frozen much longer," Katara said darkly, "It could remain permanent." This was a lie, but he didn't know that.
The Gauntlet's lip trembled.
"Haven't you ever heard of frostbite?"
"Fong," the man relented. "It was General Fong!"
Katara beamed. "Thanks," she said brightly. She turned to Momo. "Should we go make sure the boys didn't get into any trouble?" She turned and dashed down the street.
She left the man on ice, to sweat it out. It was a hot day; he'd thaw eventually.
Tyro had mistaken the dead-end alley for a side-street. Knowing his pursuers were right behind him, he attempted to bend a hole through one of the buildings boxing him in. Not the best idea, he realized as the immense pressure of the thick rock sank onto him, causing his rigid stance to tremble. Finally, a tiny crack of light appeared to tease the aging earthbender, but the loosening stone grew too heavy. He fumbled.
Six Gauntlets strode into the alley, laughing at their easy prey.
"Better give up the bending before your bad back goes crooked, old man" one smirked.
Another merely declared, "Surrender; you've nowhere left to run."
"I'm not running," Tyro replied and yanked with his fists.
On either side of the Gauntlets a massive circle of stone tumbled from the walls and they realized they were no longer the hunter but the prey. Cries of surprise and pain filled the alley as first one disk, and then the other crushed down atop them.
"You really should have anticipated a trap," Tyro chuckled, dusting off his hands. "And I don't have a bad back."
He easily created a doorway in the wall behind him, sealing it up as he passed through. The family of the home started in understandable surprise as the dusty traveler waltzed through their kitchen.
"I beg your pardon," Tyro humbly apologized before slipping out the front door.
By the time the Gauntlets had pounded their way through the solid disks, Tyro had vanished.
Aang only got four rebels. He was a little insulted. Granted he didn't know how many were tailing Zuko, but he'd seen six each after Katara and Tyro.
Aang's first thought was to outrun his pursuers. It would be easy enough; even without airbending, Aang was light on his feet. But his second thought –triggered by an old familiar sight– was even better.
The Gauntlets behind him moved into bending stances, hoping to stop their fleet-footed quarry. Aang felt the slanted pillars as they moved under the earth and punched through the surface. One was going to erupt just ahead of him and, timing his pace perfectly, he used the pillar as a running platform to propel himself forward. The pillar rose higher and –to the dismay of the Gauntlets– Aang leapt nimbly from it to the awning of a market stall. From there, Aang sprang up and dug his hands into the thick support of Omashu's infamous delivery chute. Aang glanced back and waved cheerfully at his outwitted pursuers. "See ya!" He dug his fingers and toes into the stone and used his earthbending to scale the wall.
Soon Aang crawled over the lip of the chute and landed nimbly on his feet. He glanced down at the Gauntlets, but they were nowhere in sight. Not a good sign. "I better get out of here," Aang muttered, "Before they catch up." He took off running.
A sudden roar thundered down the chute, reverberating in his ears, through his toes and up his legs. The power of the vibrations overpowered every sense, nearly knocked him off balance. Aang glanced back to see a crate filled with melons charging toward him.
Perfect, he thought. Aang edged to the lip of the chute and leapt atop. He raced along it until the crate pulled level with him. He grinned; this really was the only way to travel up here. He jumped, nimbly landing with one foot on either edge of the crate.
Over the rumble, he didn't hear the groan of stone. Jagged rock shot up, skewered the melon crate, and missed Aang only by inches. He reacted with almost inhuman speed, swiping his arm in a gesture that sliced a huge chunk off the top of the skewer. The chunk of rock thudded to the chute. It would have been pulverized by the crate if Aang had not alighted atop it. The rock slab wobbled dangerously underfoot. Aang dug his toes in for balance and slalomed to gain speed.
Pain flared in his shoulder blade. He glanced back. Three of the attackers followed close behind him, pelting him with missiles. They'd mimicked his method of travel and were gaining. Aang turned back just in time to spot a Gauntlet on the lip of the chute, poised to attack.
Aang swerved, brushing the opposite lip trying to put as much distance as possible between him and his attacker. But it wasn't enough. The Gauntlet bent the stone of the chute straight up, cutting off passage. So Aang was forced to improvise. His feet firmly planted on his chunk of stone, he pushed up into the air. His stone ski ran up the side of the chute and landed on the lip, jarring Aang's teeth. He rode the lip past the obstruction, waving cheerfully at the Gauntlet as he went by.
It was a very cool exit before someone behind shot a rock to Aang's lower back that knocked him off balance. He teetered for a heart-pounding instant. His stone ski hit a chink in the wall and Aang was thrown off, plummeting to the ground far below.
He landed on the awning of a market stall, much to the surprise of shoppers. The awning dipped dangerously under his weight. It reached its limit and, for an instant, paused. One side snapped as it sprang back into place and Aang was sent careening into the crowd, crashing through people, merchandise, and one very sad looking cabbage cart.
"Ow," Aang moaned, struggling to disentangle himself from the wreckage. "That didn't go exactly as I planned."
A crowd gathered as Aang rose and dusted himself off. "Sorry about that," he said, "I just wasn't looking where I was going."
Several Earth soldiers began pushing their way through the crowd, led by a man in hysterics, doubtless the owner of the cart Aang had just demolished.
"That's him! That's the miscreant who pulverized my livelihood!"
New guy, same old story, Aang though tiredly. He considered running. This was the last thing he needed right now. He spotted three Gauntlets force their way through the crowd, snarling and coated in dust. Aang was just about to take to his heels when the enemy spotted the soldiers. They balked and, after a slight hesitation, turned and disappeared further into the market.
An Earth soldier stood towering over Aang. "The general warned us there'd be trouble-makers in Omashu," he growled. "Looks like you're coming with us."
The Captain reached down to take hold of Aang, but a sharp cackle stopped him.
"What exactly are you doing, Commander?"
The Captain froze. He half-turned to see the speaker and quickly dropped low in a bow. "I'm taking this trouble-maker to a holding cell, your majesty." He added, almost hesitantly, "And it's 'captain', sir."
King Bumi snorted. "Would you like to be a Commander, Captain?"
"Well, sir," the captain replied carefully, "Every captain would like to be a Commander someday."
Bumi cackled again. "Good answer, young man!"
The captain was somewhat distracted by the King's quivering, feathered headdress. King Bumi was known throughout the Kingdom for his gaudy clothing and eccentric personality.
"Now, tell me why you think this young man is a trouble-maker."
"We were told he caused a disturbance. Landed on and wrecked an awning, crashed through the crowd and destroyed a merchant's cart."
"Hmm," the King of Omashu mused. "And you always leap on these accusations without backing evidence?"
The captain glanced pointedly at the demolished cart, the market in shambles. "I don't make a habit of it, sir."
The King cackled. "Another good answer!" His wide, inquisitive eye probed the captain. "But have you asked for his side of the story?"
The captain faltered.
Bumi clicked his tongue pityingly. "For all you know, this young man could have been sitting by that window up there." He pointed up at a tall building. "Maybe he leaned over too far and plopped out. Maybe the awning saved his life. Maybe this was all just one big accident." He winked at Aang and cackled.
The captain frowned, but he turned to Aang. "Is that what happened?" he asked skeptically.
"Actually, yeah!" Aang said brightly. "I don't know what I was thinking: one minute, dozing in the sunshine, and the next I'm falling to my death!"
The captain did not look convinced.
"There, you see!" Bumi cried. "There's no reason this poor boy should have to pay for an accident. I'll recompense the damages myself."
"As you wish." The captain nodded, reluctant. "All right, everyone, there's nothing to see here. Move along."
"Very good move," Bumi declared. "Keep being so clever, young man, and they'll make a Commander out of you yet!"
The captain suddenly forgot his doubt. He looked very pleased.
"Now tell me, captain, what brings you into my fair city?" Bumi asked.
"I was sent by General Fong, your majesty," the captain replied. "He heard rumors of trouble-makers, possibly riots. He's concerned about the safety of Omashu."
Bumi snorted. "Fong ought to be more concerned with the safety of his own fortress! Omashu has guards; we'll be perfectly safe. It's not as if there's a war looming!" He cackled with laughter.
The soldiers glanced at one another uncertainly, shifting uncomfortable. They had all heard of the madman who had ruled Omashu for decades. He was robust, but rumor had it his long life and marginal measure of sanity were on their last legs.
Just as suddenly as it started, Bumi's laugh abruptly cut off. He pointed a gnarled finger at the captain and his men. "You go back and tell your general I said as much!"
The captain bowed respectfully. "Yes, sir." He turned on his heel and led his men away.
Aang made to slip into the crowd but Bumi hooked an old claw into his shirt collar. "Before you go on your way, young man," he hissed in his ear, "You and I should have a little chat."
"I'd love to, Bumi," Aang whispered, "But this isn't a social visit."
Bumi's cackle was interrupted by snort, but that too suddenly turned to a violent cough. "So I gathered."
Aang frowned, watching his friend. Was it his imagination, or was Bumi stooped even lower than usual? "Are you okay?" he couldn't help asking.
Bumi laughed. "I'm a hundred and twenty-four, remember?"
"Oh. Right." Amazing, sometimes, how easy it was to forget those hundred years trapped in the iceberg.
Slowly, Bumi tried to stretch his back. "Of all the rotten luck, I'm the one who really feels it." He pulled a face. "Oh, stop looking at me like that, Aang. I'm not dead yet!"
Aang flushed. He couldn't help it. Usually, Bumi seemed so young and healthy, but today...he looked old.
"I thought you'd like to know," Bumi told him, poking him in the shoulder, "And I have no proof, mind you, but I don't believe General Fong is any friend of the Earth King's. Or of the Fire Nation."
Aang's heart raced. "What are you talking about?" he asked, desperately trying to sound innocent. He glanced frantically about, searching for prying eyes. This place was too public to discuss such matters...
"I'm talking about the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet."
Aang froze. He stared at Bumi.
His old friend only shrugged. "I poke around in dark places sometimes and pull things up."
"What do you know about them?" Aang asked.
"Not much," Bumi admitted, "And that's a very bad sign. Groups like these, they like their opinions to be heard. The Guild is keeping quiet, and that most certainly means they're planning something. Something big." He eyed Aang knowingly. "And I'm guessing your own silence means you're up to something super-secret and earth-shattering yourself."
Aang glanced around for eavesdropping bystanders. He only nodded.
"Hmm," Bumi mused. He narrowed his eyes. "The time may come when you require assistance," he said quietly. He slipped something round and cold into Aang's hand. It was a Pai Sho tile of a white lotus. "We are not as active as we once were," he warned Aang. He chortled. "What do you expect? The war's over; now's the time to relax!" His eyes grew somber once more. "Use it wisely, my friend. Tongues wag where suspicions lurk."
Aang closed his fist around the tile. Gossip was something they definitely wanted to avoid. There was no telling what would reach the Guild's ears. "Thanks, Bumi. For everything."
"Take a look outside before trying to get through the city gates," the King of Omashu advised, releasing him. "Now, get out of here," he called loudly, "before I toss you to my giant ravaging pet! Or, if I want a real party, I might just throw you a feast!" He threw back his head in a mad cackle, snorting.
Aang ran. He knew how those feasts could turn out.
June alone pursued Zuko. Whether she had fought off any Gauntlets that followed or they had opted not to tangle with the bounty hunter and her beast, he didn't know. He wouldn't have blamed them if they'd decided he wasn't a prize worth such a price. Zuko himself didn't relish the idea of fighting her, but he couldn't run forever. Besides, he wanted to know who hired June.
Somehow, he had to put the shirshu out of commission. Contending with the bounty hunter would be hard enough. What he needed was a plan.
He veered toward the buildings undergoing reconstruction. People scattered at the sight of them, panicked by the race through unsteady structures and precarious materials. Bundles of bamboo and wood were stopped mid-haul along pulley systems, teetering uncertainly above their heads.
Zuko leapt onto a scaffold, wriggling his way deeper into the bamboo maze. Any hope that this would keep the shirshu at bay was quickly dashed; the beast plowed through the obstructions as though they were twigs.
Zuko kept moving. He threaded higher into the scaffold, above the shirshu's reach. Nyla scurried along the walking beams, but they collapsed under her weight. She scrabbled at the wall but the scaffold barred her way. Zuko managed to keep ahead of the beast, hopping nimbly from one bamboo limb to the next. It wasn't an ideal battleground, but so far he had the advantage.
As Nyla broke through the scaffold, the shattered ends dug and cut into her coat. She panted with the effort, unable to lash her tongue at their quarry. June was crouched low on the beast's neck, dodging scaffold beams and flying debris, cursing.
But Zuko was quickly running out of scaffold. Once they were back out in the open, the shirshu would once more have the advantage.
To his left a large net dangled from a heavy beam. It swung gently, its heavy load bowing the supporting beam. The net rested halfway between the ground and the building's roof. It was a good distance; an uncomfortable one, but not fatal.
Zuko glanced back. The shirshu was right behind him. He had nowhere else to run. He pushed off the scaffold and leapt for the net. Nyla followed, leaving the scaffold to continue its crumbling in her wake.
Zuko drew his sword in mid-air. As he caught hold of the net, he severed several of the ropes with his blade. The opposite side of the net tumbled open and its heavy burden spilled to earth with a thunderous crash.
Too late did June realize the trap. Nyla was already in mid-air, leaping for him, now latching her claws in the net for footholds. The shirshu scrabbled a few paces upward, toward Zuko crouched at the pinnacle.
The support beam groaned. June gritted her teeth. She caught hold of the net herself, climbing for the outer edge. The shirshu was already caught, thrashing madly in the net's unwavering embrace.
The beam creaked, splintered, broke in half. The net, Zuko, June and the shirshu plummeted to earth.
Zuko sliced his way free. From his position above the net, he had evaded becoming completely entangled, but a few stray ropes managed to catch hold of him. He raised his swords, blinking away dust from his eyes. He could barely see. Their crash to earth had generated a cloud of dirt that blanketed the street. He moved warily, circling slowly to keep his unprotected back from facing any one direction for too long.
Where was the bounty hunter?
He heard the sharp crack of the whip behind him. He dropped down and rolled aside.
"You're pretty good," June admitted, her voice hoarse from the dust in her throat. Zuko turned, climbing to his feet. The bounty hunter stepped through a curtain of dirt, recoiling her whip. She was smiling.
"But I'm better." She cracked the whip again. When Zuko sidestepped, the sharp tip curled after him. June satisfied smile widened.
Zuko lifted his swords. One deflected the tip with a sharp metallic clang, while he twisted the blade of the other around the whip. He tugged the whip forward, consequently yanking June to her knees. Zuko trapped the whip between his sword and the street. "I think we should talk, June."
She glared at him. "How do you know my name?" Her eyes narrowed as she scrutinized him. "Have I caught you before?"
"No," Zuko said. "But I hired you a few times."
An ironic smile tugged at her black painted lips. "And now you're the hunted."
Zuko didn't reply.
June smirked. "I hope you didn't think I'd take pity on you just because you've paid me money in the past."
"Who hired you?"
A cloud passed over June's face. "Someone I'd rather not disappoint," she muttered. She tugged at her whip, but Zuko's blade held it fast. "Are you going to come easily, or do I have to hurt you? Even if you get away here, do you really want to try to run? I'll tell you right now, you won't make it far."
Zuko ignored her. "But you were paid to catch me?" he pressed.
June scowled. "My reward is my life." She scoffed dismissively, but there was real fear in her eyes. June didn't like to feel fear; she liked to invoke it. "You've made enemies with some seriously dramatic people."
Zuko hesitated. "I could pay you."
June blinked. Then she laughed. "Are you really trying to bribe me?"
"Normally," Zuko said, "I wouldn't. But I won't let you catch me and I don't want you on my trail for the rest of my life."
"And what could you possibly offer me?" Her voice was skeptical, but her eyes gleamed at the thought of gold.
"What do you want?"
June's eyes narrowed with suspicion. There were several methods of bribing and she had heard them all. In her experience, the 'name your price' bribe only came from the obscenely wealthy or the desperately stupid. She studied her quarry for any sign of deception but his gaze was deadly serious. She noticed an odd mark as she scrutinized his face, an old scar perhaps or a birthmark.
She'd play along. Where was the harm in that? Maybe he really would turn out to be wealthy. He had the chance to attack her now at a serious disadvantage but instead he tried to negotiate, so he was either sincere or too tender-hearted. "Do you have any idea how much a shirshu weighs?" she asked.
Zuko glanced at Nyla. He shrugged. "I have some gold at my disposal."
"And yet you look like a vagabond," June pointed out, "Running from a mob."
"Do you accept or do I have to resort to other methods?" Zuko demanded.
June hesitated. "My clients...have I mentioned how bad they want to get their hands on you? I'd hate to disappoint them..."
Zuko knew what she was really saying. June was afraid. Of her clients, of what they would do to her if she failed. "You'll have to wait for the gold in Ba Sing Se," he said. "There's a man there; he'll help you."
June looked unconvinced.
"These people..." Zuko hesitated. "I'm not running from them. I'm trying to bring them down. Trust me, June; soon no one will have to worry about them."
June considered him for a long moment. By far, this was the most unusual bounty she'd ever hunted. His golden brown eyes burned with purpose at his vow and she had no doubt he would buckle his enemies –or die trying.
June smirked. "Where do I pick up my gold?"
- The chapter title was intentionally chosen to follow suit with the Omashu chapters in the series, The King of Omashu and Return to Omashu.
- "You too are right." -This bit of conversation is a reference to the movie (and play) Fiddler on the Roof
- The move Katara uses to escape from her captor's grasp has been tested. By me. It was the only time my family actually enjoyed helping me out/hearing about my Avatar-related obsessions. But then, they did get to put me in a wrist lock...
- This chapter includes a (rather obvious) reference to the beloved cabbage merchant. (Actually, there's two!)
- Tyro possesses what is known as 'Old Man Power', also a requirement for all applicants to the Order of the White Lotus. ;)
- The sole purpose in choosing Omashu was an excuse to play with the mail chutes and bring in Bumi.
For the collective works of the author, go here.