I broke the last chapter into two, so now there will be five chapters. Coming soon!
Enjoy and have a wonderful weekend!
Even the Sun Must Sleep
"Here, is this all right?"
Lin quickly shook her head, lip held tightly between her teeth to keep from crying out in distress. Tenzin released her to the ground again, letting her rest back against one of Oogi's fuzzy legs. The bison turned his large head around to gaze balefully at them, feeling their anxiety and wanting to help. They were trying to get her up into the saddle to no avail, and every way Tenzin attempted to move her caused a great deal of pain to shoot through her body, radiating from her core.
"Just do it," she muttered after a moment. "Just get me up there."
"Are you sure?" Tenzin asked in concern, watching her face as it paled even more with every second that passed.
They had spent almost an hour tunneling out of Kuvira's compound, and not once did Lin complain or make a word of protest. It wasn't until they had broken the surface of the earth into the coming light of dawn that Tenzin saw her for the first time since entering that darkness, saw her drawn face and trembling body. She had fallen to the ground almost as soon as he called for Oogi, arms wrapped around herself.
She nodded curtly in answer to his question, already raising an arm for him to slide his under and around her back. "All right," he murmured to her soothingly. "Okay. This will be over in just a moment."
His other arm found purchase under her bent knees and, moving as quickly and as gently as he could, he spun them both up into the saddle. Lin's voice broke out in a hitched sob, though she instantly pulled it back by biting her lip again and squeezing her eyes closed. Tenzin held her for a moment longer as she regained her composure before carefully laying her on her back, which seemed to be the most comfortable position she could find.
She was panting shallowly, trying desperately to get her pain under control, as she stared up at him. The fear there was not something he was used to, especially when she had been so in control just twenty minutes ago, and he touched his hand to her cheek. Something had changed for the worse in that time.
"Only a few hours," he told her firmly. "We'll be home soon, I promise. You'll be right as rain before you know it."
She continued to gaze up at him silently, unable to respond, and he swallowed. "Hold on a while longer, Lin," he whispered, raising his other hand to cup her face and lowering his forehead to touch hers. He wanted to feel her warmth against him, even in this unknown around him, and it gave him strength.
"Tenzin," she muttered beneath him, trying to move her hand to cover one of his and giving up on the effort. The sun was flaming over the far horizon as they spoke, casting the sky with deep pinks and fiery oranges. "We need to go," she told him weakly. "Now. We need to leave now."
He sat back on his heels, looking down at her and shoving away his intense need to be near her. The desire to touch her was almost a burn in his fingertips as he pulled them away, but she was right. They needed to leave, he was being ridiculous. "Absolutely. We have to get you to a healer."
"No…" Her hand was sluggish across the flat leather, finally finding his leg and grabbing at his cloak. "Kuvira – she was going to execute me. Now, at sunrise. She's going to – going to…"
"She's going to know you're gone," Tenzin finished for her, his body going numb. Lin just nodded twice, her eyes sliding closed with her piece said. "Spirits, Lin, she was going to – I – what was she thinking?"
"My fault. I made the first strike, brought it on myself by taking Su." The words finished in a faint mumble, head lolling to the side.
Reality came down harder than it had been before. If he had only been an hour later in leaving, if he hadn't found her as easily – if he hadn't come at all… The possibility that she may have disappeared from the world because of his own poor choices was a real one very abruptly, and the truth of it made him dizzy. He wanted to kiss her then, hold her hand to his heart and apologize until his words ran dry, until she understood the depths of how he felt.
But then – she already did understand. She knew him better than he knew himself.
"We're going," he told her, hands leaving her face as he began to scramble over her. But then he paused for just a moment, leaning back down to press his lips to hers, even unresponsive as they were. They moved against his slightly, barely enough for him to feel, before he pulled away and leapt over the front of the saddle to settle on Oogi's flat head, taking up his reins.
The bison took off, the sun blazing into existence around them.
Her voice was so soft over the rush of wind as they flew he almost thought he was imagining it. But he looked back anyway, just to be sure, and noticed she had moved slightly, rolled to her side with an arm extended as though she had tried reaching for him. The other was still clutched tightly around her stomach, fingers clenched in a fist against her waist. He could only see the top of her head rather than her face, given how he had laid her out in the saddle before they took off two hours ago.
"Lin?" he called back, worried then as he saw she wasn't moving anymore. "Are you all right?"
"Put me down," was all she said in return, the command dim and rasping.
"I'm not touching you, Lin, what do you mean?"
"Land," she mumbled, "earth."
"We're only a few hours from home, are you sure?" Tenzin watched her for a moment, the worry tripling when she didn't comment. "Lin? Can you hear me?"
She didn't respond at all that time and, wanting to see her fully without thinking about guiding Oogi while he was so distracted, he sent him downward toward a clear patch in the trees. Not to mention it was obvious she was asking him to let her down off the saddle; perhaps the jostling of flying was hurting her in some way and if he could find a way to make her comfortable before continuing on, he would.
Oogi's feet touched down with a resounding thud, sending dust up around him, and Tenzin crawled back into the saddle to reach for her. Lin's face was slack, her eyes closed, and she made no movement when he touched a hand to her cheek. He swallowed back his alarm, pressing two fingers to her neck and easily able to find her pulse there. He noticed a small pearl of blood then, at the corner of her lips coming from somewhere inside her mouth.
Acting quickly, he gathered her into his arms as gently as he could and lowered them to the ground, placing her flat on her back, legs sprawled. He could tell now that there was no wind rushing around them that her breathing was terribly labored, each rise and fall of her chest wet and rattling with great effort, but as soon as she came in contact with the earth her eyes fluttered open for a brief moment, her hand slipping down off her armor-clad stomach to find the dirt and pebbles beside her. She slipped her fingers under the surface and out again with the least bit of exertion from her bending, letting the soil cover her skin. Her bleary gaze slid upward to find his, holding it for only a moment before her eyes lost focus and closed again.
Tenzin tapped at her cheek, trying to bring her back, but it was no use. He reached for her pulse, still finding it easily, though he could feel the slightest change as it began to slacken off and then come strong again. She wasn't dying yet, but much longer without help -
"Lin. Lin, wake up." He put his hands on both shoulders as though about to shake her, even if he stopped himself from doing so. "Open your eyes. Open your eyes, damn it!" The curse slipped without intention and his own eyes stung until he had to blink hard. "Lin!"
"What the fuck did you land for!"
The sudden voice terrified him, and Tenzin scooped Lin into his arms to spin them both up high on a stream of wind before he even saw the crouched old lady shuffling quickly out of the treeline. He studied her for a moment, his heart pounding adrenaline through his limbs, before a vague recollection filled his mind. He released the air from around himself and placed Lin gently back on the ground. She didn't make any sound or movement against him.
"Toph?" Tenzin asked hesitantly, his arms still around his friend and ready to flee again in an instant should the situation warrant it.
"You are still flighty as your father," Toph scoffed. She came toward then, a frown pulling her entire face downward. "Again, why in the world did you land? My kid needs a hospital, not a break mid-flight."
"She -" He looked down at Lin, touching her face in the hopes of eliciting a response but to no avail. Her face was wan, her limbs limp, and long beyond being able to come to again. "She asked me to."
"Of course she did, you idiot! What kind of Earthbender wants to die up in the sky when she could feel the earth under her instead?"
Tenzin's aghast expression turned to Toph as he realized Lin's motivation from before, but she held up a non-negotiating hand before he could speak. "Too late for regrets. Hold her chest up off the ground for me. Hurry it up, boy, every second wasted is a bad one."
He hastened to comply, sliding an arm under Lin's shoulders and levering her upward a bit, enough for her mother to swiftly and efficiently remove her belt, cables, hauberk, and gauntlets. She left them in a careless pile on the ground and picked out the two arm pieces to dismantle them down to bare metal, the blades and gold-plated elbow joints clacking to the dirt. She made several gestures, unsealing the closures and flattening them both, and then resealed them end-to-end to create one long sheet of metal.
Tenzin wasn't even sure what to ask as he watched in confusion. Toph seemed to know exactly what she was doing as she worked and, after a moment, she spoke in a brusque voice.
"I've watched your mother long enough to know a punctured lung and broken ribs when I feel them. The earth doesn't lie to me about these things," she said pointedly with no emotion. "The ribs feel like they've been done for a while now, but the lung…" Toph paused, running expert hands over her work and sealing down any imperfections quickly. "Feels like that only just took the brunt of those broke ribs now that you two are on the move, since she can still breathe. For now. This -"
She flung the solid metal piece out and around Lin's midriff, closing it tightly about her ribcage. "This will hold her together until you can get to the city." She smiled slyly at him, patting her handiwork. "Tell 'er you did this, ruined her armor. Don't want to take that fury myself."
Tenzin lowered Lin back to the ground, staring down at her face and touching her hair. "Will it help?"
"Braces like these have given my officers a few minutes after a bad beating like she took, until a healer could tend to them. If your ma were here she'd be fine, but you need to get back on your way."
His brain flustered through her words, still confused at where she had even come from as he blinked at her and then looked back at Lin. Her breath was coming a bit easier now, though her face was not gaining any more color. "Why did she tell me to land?" he asked again, voice cracking. He was desperate for comfort, for someone to tell him everything would be all right. "If she knew she was dying?"
Toph put a heavy hand on his arm as she stood. "Maybe she wanted to feel that earth again instead of the wind. Or maybe…" She turned her blind gaze up toward the deepening sun, warmth falling on her face. "Maybe she just didn't want to be alone. You'll have to ask her." She turned back and, for just a second, reached out a hand as though wanting to touch her daughter. She pulled it back again abruptly. "Thanks for getting her out."
Tenzin just nodded slowly, his eyes wary. "Kuvira was going to execute her this morning for saving Suyin. We were both just in time."
That seemed to snap Toph back to the moment, and she punched Tenzin hard in the shoulder. "Get out of here!" she yelled angrily. "You blubbering idiot, thinking too hard about how much you love her – get her to a fucking hospital before she fucking dies anyway."
He didn't argue, gathering Lin into his arms again and standing, calling air around himself to lift them up into Oogi's saddle. He settled her gently and removed his cloak to fold into a makeshift pillow to put under her head. She was still unconscious, not aware of anything going on around her. As he began to rush toward Oogi's head and the reins, he caught sight of her discarded armor, glinting in the warming sun, and paused. He couldn't leave it, just like she hadn't.
"Aunt Toph -"
She was still several paces back, paying close attention to everything she could until they took off, and she turned her head in his direction. She seemed to know what he was after and, without pause she jammed her heel into the dirt to pop up the earth under the pile of metal. It flew into the air enough for Tenzin to catch in a ball of wind, guiding it to land in the saddle beside its owner.
Without another word, Tenzin urged Oogi into the sky toward Republic City as fast as he would fly.