Chapter Thirty- Five – The Diamond in the Rough
The earthbender dropped the stone over me, and I yelled preemptively. But the pain didn't come. When I looked up, the earthbender boy was standing over me, staring in shock as the boulder hovered inches from the leg he'd threatened to break.
"Wh…what's going on?" he said. He stomped on the ground, trying to push the stone back down. Nothing happened. "Why isn't my bending working?"
Then I looked past him, and saw Katara. She was no longer crumpled, helpless, on the floor. She stood with knees slightly bent, legs spread apart, hands in front of her with wrists gentle and fingers outstretched and rigid. Her eyes were filled with angry tears, but they were strong, too. She flicked her wrist, rotating her hips to power the strike. The boulder hovering over me shot out and hit the wall of the gymnasium, tumbling in pieces to the ground.
For once, the earthbender boy and I held the same expression. We stared at Katara's harsh green eyes, frozen in shock.
Katara stomped on the ground, deepening her stance in the process as tears fell indignantly from angry eyes. As soon as her foot met the ground, the stone holding my hands and ankles to the ground loosened like sand, and I was freed to scrabble away, wide-eyed. I was afraid to stand up. If I did, the shock might just knock me back down again. So instead, I sat on my knees with my hands on the stone beneath me, gripping for earth just to keep my mind there. But my blood rushed under my skin, and my breathing was like a elephant mouse's.
"You think earthbending is a joke," Katara hissed, thrusting a finger out to point at him. Her demeanor had changed entirely. Is this what she had been hiding all along? "And you use it to bully and hurt people!"
Katara stomped again, lifting to blocks of earth from the ground, and with a strong punch from each arm, the stones went flying to hit the boy straight in the stomach. He groaned as he hit the ground, and he rolled a short distance before finally coming to a stop. Katara swiped her foot across the ground, holding her body low to do so, and a piece of earth stood to push the boy's limp form over to this two friends. She arranged them, using the movements of her feet and the stones they were connected to, in a straight row, then narrowed her eyes at a garbage can at the edge of the courtyard.
What she did only stretched my shock to disbelief. The girl thrust both fists forward, then up, and the garbage can flew into the air. She opened her palms, spread them, and the metal of the trash bin flattened out, leaving its contents to scatter down to the ground. She swiped her hands diagonally towards the three boys lying in a row on the ground, and the metal slipped beneath them, and with a creak, wrapped around them and locked into place.
"We'll see what the city police think of bullies," she whispered to herself, filled with hate and barely loud enough for me to hear. "You'll be seeing them soon. They're the only ones who will be able to get you out of that."
I couldn't believe what I had seen. This girl, the delicate thing Rinzen protected so loyally, was not as delicate as I had thought before. The one I'd thought was handicapped for not having earned her arrow, might have been the best and most unique fighter out of the entire Beifong Clan. All this time, she tricked the world. But she wasn't an airbender, like the world believed. Her twin was an airbender, but Katara…Katara was an earthbender.
Suddenly, I saw Rinzen appear out of the corner of my eye. He rounded the edge of the school building out into the courtyard, looking alarmed at the sound. He looked at me, then Katara, and dashed forward to take her to his chest again. Then he looked at me, harshly but cautiously.
"What happened here?" he said coldly, his voice monotone but his eyes coming to life just a bit. "Kono, what did you – "
"It wasn't her, Rinzen," Katara said, putting a hand on his chest and pushing away from him. "She protected me, but they ganged up on her, too," she explained. The girl hung her head. "I'm sorry. I helped her, and…."
"You earthbended, didn't you?" he said, looking cautiously down at her. She nodded. "It's okay. We'll work on a plan. No one will believe them. The glider trick will work best for that."
"Okay," she said quietly. Katara turned to me and bowed in a very traditional way, a gesture I returned in mutual thanks. After a moment of silence, she turned, stomped her foot, and repaired the damage to the courtyard, possibly to conceal her secret. "Goodbye, Kono."
She scurried away, wiping away the tears in her eyes and disappearing around the corner. I felt the awkwardness rise in the air as Rinzen and I were left alone. At first he looked a bit awkward, and then he sighed and turned to face me square on. He gave a deep, traditional bow, and left me staring.
"Thank you, Kono," he said. "And…I'm sorry for the way I acted towards you. Please understand…."
"I think I do," I said quietly, looking at the ground. "You were just protecting her."
Rinzen came back up, regaining his ability to look down at me.
"I trust that you'll keep this secret for me," he said, submitting himself to me like a child confessing to his parent. "No one can know that Katara isn't an airbender."
"If you want me to, I will," I said. "But…why?"
"Why what?" he asked, relaxing a bit as I promised my silence to him. His eyes grew dull again, and somehow the gaze that used to make me feel uncomfortable was now kind of soothing on me.
"Why can't anyone know that Katara's an earthbender? She's…amazing, and everyone thinks she's helpless."
He sighed, and sat down at my feet. He cushioned himself with a pocket of air before landing gracefully on the floor. He didn't seem to care that I was standing as he explained, but the awkwardness got to me, and I sat across from him like a pair of children.
"The Beifong Clan is an airbending clan," he explained first. "We separated from the air temple, and we became a distinct part of the Air..nation, nomads, whatever you'd like to call airbenders. If the rest of the Beifong Clan were to find out that Katara takes after our mother in her bending abilities…I don't know what would happen to her."
"You mean…the other members don't know?"
"No," he said. "Just me, and Toph. It would be hard to keep such a thing from her twin."
"But…how could you manage to convince people to think she's an airbender when she can't airbend at all?"
"I helped her a few times…hidden, of course. She also has a glider made from metal rods. She manages to use metalbending to move it and carry her weight, but it's difficult for her to do. So…of course she's sensitive. That her bending has to be a secret in fear that she might not be considered a member of the Beifong Clan for not being an airbender. She cried when you pointed out her forehead because she's the only one of the family that will never earn those arrows. And she almost never uses her bending publicly because nobody knows she's an earthbender."
"That sounds…terrible," I said. "I'm…I'm really sorry for making her cry. I didn't know about any of this."
"It's fine, now," he said quietly. "I realize you had only the best intentions." He bowed to me slightly where he sat. "I apologize."
I nodded quietly, and he stood up to leave.
Wait, no, I thought suddenly, watching him turn his back to me. I scrambled to my feet, biting at my lower lip. The relief of this conversation…it was healing. After seeing him mad at me, feeling his coldness, I didn't want him to leave. If things were going back to how they were before – if he trusted me again – I didn't want the moment to end.
My heart raced in my chest so violently that I could barely breathe.
No, wait…I don't want…don't…don't….
The words left my lips before I could recall them. Suddenly Rinzen stopped in his tracks, turning back to lock pale green eyes on me. One of my hands was reaching out towards him. The other was pulled close, as if to allow me to hide behind it. But there was no hiding from those eyes. He looked at me with those lifeless orbs and spoke without a hint of emotion.