Crown of Thorns

Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.

Warnings: Speculation, Spoilers up to Season Three

AN: For AtLA Land's bingo card writing challenge. Prompt was "Born to be Kings."

"Why?" Kuei asks.

They're alone in the private room that the Earth King has now claimed as an office, but he knows that the guards, that the Dai Li – once his Dai Li – wait just outside the door. Ready and willing to end him if he so much as breathes too heavily.

"Why?" Kuei repeats with eyes narrowed but pleading behind his glasses. "Why would you do these horrible things? And in my name? Why would you betray us?"

What can he say to that? To this man he watched grow from a boy?

He was there the night Kuei was born. He was there the night the former king and queen died by the hands of assassins. He was the reason Kuei survived when all the others of the royal family perished. He has lived and breathed the last two decades for the man before him.

He bows lower then. Head nearly to the floor but voice clear as he answers.

"I did it for the greater good. For the kingdom. For our city. We were at war. We could not crumble from within. We needed to be strong. Above all, we needed to survive."

Long Feng knows it isn't much of an excuse or even a justification. But it's the truth, and it's all he has to give.

Kuei simply makes a sound of complete and utter frustration.

Long Feng bows lower still. Sweat trickles down his back, and his heart beats painfully in his chest. But he can't quite understand why.

"My king…" he tries but falters.

He's always had dozens of plots ongoing at any one time with a hundred more in the planning stages of his thoughts. But right now, in this moment, his mind is blank. He can't even find the proper words to save himself, much less to explain his actions to the only person who matters.

"My king… I… I have always served your family. First, your father and then you. I have always been and always will be loyal at heart. It may not seem like that is the case, but I have done the best I can for our people and for you."

His forehead touches the floor beneath him, and minutes pass where he can't see his king's expression. Long Feng can only kneel and measure each breath like a lifetime spent waiting.

"Get up," Kuei says then, and it comes out like a sigh.

Long Feng feels his heart forget to beat. He's just waiting for the Dai Li to come and drag him away in chains, in disgrace with Kuei looking on.

But then, a hand touches his shoulder. He hadn't even heard Kuei move.

"Get up," his king repeats. "Come sit with me. I can't have you of all people kneeling on the floor all day, and it'll undoubtedly take that long to sort this out."

His back is straight, and his shoulders are square when Long Feng lifts his head in surprise. Kuei has never looked more like the king he is in reality. But there's an odd pull to his mouth, and his eyes hold something like soft and painful affection as he offers a helping hand up. It's such a common gesture. Something a king should never do. Something so far – too far – below his station.

Long Feng takes it anyway.

Ever Hopeful,