Aang the Brave

Chapter Ten

Sozin's strategy was brilliant. Sadly, even today, there is no denying that fact. The Fire Lord barely had to lift a finger until the final assault. He, like so many others, relied on the Nomads' innate kindness as momentum for his plan. The Airbenders fought back, betraying their beliefs and killing the men who were killing them. They fought knowing defeat was certain.

After the Fire Nation's first major victory, the siege of the Kwita Seaport, and subsequent takeover of ports along the east coast of the Earth Kingdom, isolated battles and skirmishes took on the dark shape of war. Worldwide, this news captured the minds and lips of people almost instantly, thanks, in a large way, to the Nomads who carried and dropped it like seeds on the wind. As Sozin's troops barraged the shores of the Earth Kingdom and the fleets of the Water Tribes, the Nomads felt themselves apart from the fighting, segregated from this world at war. But they didn't lull themselves into thinking they were safe. Stay out of the Fire Nation, they warned their brothers, if you value your life.

Realizing that there was no safe place for their people, the monks made the decision to open the Air Temples as havens. Nomad families from all over the world flocked to the temples. The hills were blanketed white with giant herds of bison as the stables overflowed. Hallways and courtyards were cramped with hundreds of families. Pupils complained as they were crowded six and seven to a room while strangers slept in their beds.

Sozin's army of Firebenders, collected and trained for years before the war and now strengthened by the comet's passing, was inexhaustible, endless. They attacked the Air Temples simultaneously so that no warnings could be sent. But the Fire Lord sent a warning to the world. You see what I've done to them. I can do it to you. I will.

Those few who escaped the massacre fled to the Earth Kingdom, abandoned their bison, and shed their robes. The Airbenders, fearing discovery, refused to bend. Any who were later born were forbidden to use their talents, and soon none were born at all. The spirit was gone.

The last bison died, the walls of the temples crumbled, the bones of the uncountable dead dissolved into dust. The last Air Nomad drowned in garments of green, and melded with the people of the Earth Kingdom until he became one of them.

--

Aang loved the Fire Nation. He loved waking up with the humid dawn covering him like a thick quilt. He loved the smell of the land, from the mind-numbing aroma of the cities to the crisp mountains. He loved the animals—every kind of scaly skinned lizard you could imagine, birds of every color. He loved the people; he thought of all the friends he'd made here, and watching Firebenders perform when he visited Kuzon.

When he woke up to Tatapi's yelling ("Rise and shine! Everybody up! Let's move it, people") and kids complaining ("The sun's not even up yet, Mom!"), he knew there was nowhere in the the world he'd rather be at that moment...Besides the Northern Air Temple.

They breakfasted on fresh fruit, just enough to wake them up and energize them for the tasks of cleaning up camp, repacking saddles and re-saddling bison. Despite the excitement around him, Aang found himself moving sluggishly. He should have been used to waking so early—he did it every day at the Air Temple. But they were so far away from the rules of the temple now, and if he didn't have to wake up at the crack of dawn for meditation and chores, why shouldn't he sleep in when he had the chance? Now he was paying for that lax attitude as his body and mind refused to cooperate.

Near the pond, Li and Gul sat deep in meditation, as still as carved statues in the early morning shadows, stirring only when Tatapi started yelling. Yuka called Li uptight, and, Aang had to admit, Li was uptight, but he could understand. Li had to focus for his evaluations—even on vacation. Aang remembered when he was preparing for his own evaluations and the anxious tingle that blossomed in his stomach every time he thought about them. Even if Li said he wasn't nervous, Aang knew he would be soon enough.

When the preparations were nearly complete Aang saw Gul pull Yuka aside, and they walked a short distance from the bustle of camp. He tried to watch them without being obvious. He couldn't hear their exchange, but Gul made candid gestures—pointing to Yuka, to the lambent sky, resting a gentle hand on his shoulder. Yuka, for his part, listened with an expression that was part I've-heard-this-lecture-before and part I-suppose-you-have-a-point. Finally, reaching some sort of agreement, they bowed and walked back to the camp.

Goodbyes, for Air Nomads, take ages since there was no telling if or when they'd see each other again. For almost twenty minutes Tatapi tried to force upon them supplies that she couldn't spare. Over and over they refused, insisted that all their needs would be provided for by the land, but the woman was convincing. Only after they agreed to take some vegetables and fruits and rice and a blanket and an old compass and four pairs of underwear and promised to bathe every day and wash their clothes because, "You're representing our temple, so you have to be clean," was she satisfied.

Next came the rounds of bows and hugs and kisses. "Come over here! Don't you know you're never too old to kiss your mother?" Tatapi reminded Yuka and Li as she plastered big kisses to their faces. Aang had to swear to stop by Haijan Valley after the tournament and relate every detail before Kripa would let him go. When Appa, too, had bid farewell to his new friends, the four Airbenders resumed their familiar places, Aang proudly taking the reins. Once her family was settled on their bison, Tatapi called roll. Laughing, Aang yelled "Present!" when she got to his name. Then, with all accounted for, Gul "yip-yipped" and his bison rose into the sky, the other three following without hesitation.

--

Some people claimed that in the Fire Nation there was only one season—an endless, cruel, and untamed summer. But Aang knew better. The people who said that, he was certain, had never really seen the Fire Nation. Had never seen the tiny islands that spotted the sea, carved entirely of black volcanic stone, or the tropical islands, ringed with coral reefs and turquoise water. Had never seen the dry desert plains speckled with lonely komodo rhino. Had never breathed the brisk mountain air, never seen the peaks taller than any in the Petola Mountains he knew so well. Had never heard vicious downpours shatter the surface of lakes and pummel the land, or felt the balm of rain forests fed by the spray of colossal waterfalls. Certainly they had never watched the sun rise over the Sukutai Mountains. Aang, quietly entranced by the display, reaffirmed his belief that nothing could compare to a sunrise in the Fire Nation.

--

About an hour after sunrise, Gul signaled that they were close to the place where they would separate. Aang hugged himself as they darted through the cool valleys, snowcapped mountaintops looming above them.

Gul gestured to a slope, and they turned to look, squinting against the bright reflection. Li spotted it first, and he guided their gaze to the trickle of melting snow that was the beginning of the Meiba River. The shimmering line inched downhill, joining with other headwaters as it carved a green niche into the mountain.

Aang tugged the reins, and slowly, with a moan of reluctance, Appa pulled himself away from the little herd. As they dipped into the valley to follow the path of the fledgling river, they waved, their goodbyes echoing off the rocky walls. "Blow a kiss to your girlfriend, Aang," Yuka teased, and he dropped his hand quickly, throwing the teenager a staunch glare. As he watched the family and bison shrink away, he was reminded of the sensation he felt when leaving the temple at the beginning of their journey—the feeling of leaving home.

They flew close to the ground, keeping careful eyes on the stream as it vaulted over crags, sluiced in and out of crevices, and hid beneath brambles and trees, to emerge only when they were certain they had strayed off course. They followed like children playing a game of tag. The Meiba grew by imperceptible degrees, and by afternoon the little creek had been swallowed up by white rapids.

Li and Yuka said no more to each other than the necessary one-syllable commands—"Move." "Stop." "Hey!" Their argument from the previous afternoon had struck a deep nerve in both teenagers. Yuka spoke to his two younger companions long enough to tease them; Li spoke to them long enough to boss them around. So Jinju, his newly won marbles a confident weight in his pockets, joined Aang on Appa's head, and they spent their time admiring the colorful globes and having contests to see who could make the most spin in the air at once. Aang won with five.

Cities and towns bloomed like gardens along the river, some nuzzling the shore, others boldly straddling the river with sturdy bridges, and they stopped in one of these at lunchtime. As luck would have it, they met a restaurant owner who was so delighted to see the Airbenders that he offered them free meals once the lunch rush was over. They dined on spicy lentil soup, a tangy fruit drink and, for dessert, fried bananas and mangoes smothered in cream. The attendants hovered over them, refilling their dishes before they were even half empty, so that Aang never saw the bottom of his bowl. They repaid the man with a dizzying show of twirling marbles before they took their leave. They were all full to bursting and Aang gladly relinquished the reins to Yuka, stretched out on the saddle, and slept.

--

Clothing hastily discarded, Aang floated like a pale leaf in a gigantic puddle. With his ears underwater, the only thing he could hear was the bubbly churning of the Meiba River as it cascaded over the slick gray and green cliff. Rock eagles rested on the gorge's walls, their immense wings spread to catch the last of the sun's rays. They peered with enduring eyes at the four Airbenders and the bison invading their pool, curious rather than indignant now that the boys had ceased their raucous play. Wavering in the water's effervescent shadow, undaunted little saplings clung to the ledges. Aang closed his eyes and savored the sensation of the waning sun on his belly and the cool current underneath him. It was the ideal place to stop for the evening.

He pulled on his pants and built a small fire when the sun set, and roasted some of Tatapi's vegetables for dinner. Technically, it wasn't his turn to cook because the last time they had camped, back on the cannibal island—was that really only four nights ago?—he had gone out to find the (stupid!) melons they ate. He was doing them a favor. But it was obvious that no one else was going to volunteer. When Aang finally dragged himself away from the relaxing pool, his fingers and toes pruney, Yuka was stretched out on a flat rock with his feet dangling in the water, sleeping or pretending to; Li had taken the opportunity to meditate by the waterfall; and Jinju was on his stomach, tediously arranging his marbles in rows on the sand. "By color," he informed Aang.

As he cubed zucchini, eggplant, and onions with knifelike slices of air—a trick he'd learned from Monk Gyatso—Aang forced himself not to daydream. He had to plan, he had to think. With early starts and steady flying, they could probably be out of the Fire Nation in a couple of days. Then the Air Temple would be just a hop, skip, and a jump over the Northern Sea. They could make up the time.

Aang found two big leaves, shook the bugs off, and carefully wrapped his vegetables inside. He'd seen the cooks do this once when he was on kitchen duty. It turned out to be a lot harder than he'd thought, and it took three tries before he could fold one that didn't tear. He used two sticks to maneuver the packets into the fire...and then watched as it burned to ashes in the flames. He groaned, although happy that no one was around to see his slip-up, and tried to hide the ruined food beneath some charred twigs.

He cut up some more vegetables, wrapped them up, then added a layer of sticky river mud before setting them in the fire. Once the mud had dried he removed the packets, cracked the hard shell with a rock, and uncovered his banquet, careful not to burn his fingers. It would have been even better if he had some herbs for spice, like the ones Gyatso grew in little clay pots on his windowsill, but he didn't want to risk accidentally picking something poisonous and killing everyone. The food still smelled fantastic, and it looked good, too. He didn't want to brag, but he was an excellent cook, once he got the hang of it. Aang was tempted to eat the meal by himself, but the others soon wandered over, and he had to forgo manners and grab what he could before it was gone.

By the time they finished dinner it was dark, and Aang decided to go to sleep early. That way maybe he would be able to get a head start in the morning. As an added bonus, by being the first to retire, he got dibs on the blanket. He asked Li to wake him when he got up to meditate, said goodnight to Appa and Jinju, and spread the blanket out a good distance from the fire so that the heat wasn't oppressive. He wondered if he should put his shirt back on, then decided that it was worth it not to wake up covered in mosquito bites, even if it was hot.

Instead, he woke in the middle of the night covered in sweat. His shirt was damp and stuck uncomfortably to his skin. Aang sat up and pulled it over his head and looked around, squinting into the night. He could see the lumpy forms of his sleeping companions around the embers of the campfire, and Appa as a giant lump of shadows a short distance away. He stood and tiptoed to a corner of the pool near the waterfall, where a group of big rocks were arranged like a miniature sitting room. Slowly, so he wouldn't slip into the dark pool, Aang crawled onto one and splashed water onto his face and over his arms. He cupped his hands and brought the cool water to his mouth, taking a long drink.

"Careful, Aang. We don't want you pissing yourself again."

Aang jumped, spat out the water, and nearly collapsed into the river. He scrambled on his slippery seat in order not to fall off. When he had calmed just enough to think straight, Aang searched the darkness until he saw Yuka, lounging with is legs propped up on a rock just a few feet away. He could just make out the amused expression on his face.

"Are you done?" Yuka quipped.

"How long have you been there?" Aang gasped, feeling his still frantic heartbeat.

"About half an hour."

Aang sighed and ran a hand over his head. "For the last time: it was the melon," he muttered. It was useless, he knew, but he felt that he should at least attempt to defend his dignity.

"Of course. My mistake."

"What are you doing over here anyway?" he asked.

"Counting fireflies and shooting stars. What the hell does it look like?"

Aang rolled his eyes and huffed. "Why do I even bother being nice to you?" he lamented.

"You say that like you're doing me a favor."

"Well," he started, but couldn't think of a good comeback, so he decided to take a chance and change the topic.

"Hey Yuka." The teenager grunted his acknowledgment. "You and Li sure got mad at each other yesterday."

"This is news?"

"I think..." he began cautiously, " I think Li might be right."

Yuka shrugged. "Remind me, Aang. Do I give a gopher-rat's ass what you think?"

Aang ignored him and pressed on, wondering in the back of his mind if this was wise. He kept an eye on the other boy in case he got violent. Dealing with Yuka was like trying to ride a hog monkey; you always had to be on your guard because there was no telling when it might go berserk, and then you'd better be ready to run like crazy.

"I mean, I don't think the Air Temple's so bad. Sure, it might get hard sometimes, always working, but then we get breaks like this. And we learn a lot there. You can't learn Airbending anywhere else. It's like...it's our culture. You know?" He glanced at Yuka from the corner of his eye.

"It's our culture, you know?" he mocked in a whiney voice. "You sound just like lemur head. And Gul. I thought he got it. I mean..." He leaned his head back and stretched his arms out. "You're just a kid. What do you know?"

"More than you, I bet," Aang said, recklessly.

"You don't know that you're just part of a joke. A huge joke."

"What are you talking about? You said that before." For a long time Yuka didn't answer. The steady crash of the waterfall blocked out the other sounds of the forest. It was calming, and even though he tried to stay alert Aang found himself relaxing a little. Beside the cascade, the breeze was chill and flecked with mist.

"Gul gave me all this talk about how you have to show respect, you have to take this seriously, you have to make a decision, da da da... He would've stayed at the Air Temple, donned the robes, all that. He wanted to. But, he said, he couldn't stand being away from his family. That's the only reason he left. That's what Tatapi said, you remember?" Aang nodded, patiently waiting for Yuka to make his point. Why did he always have to go off on weird tangents?

"Well, it got me thinking. I don't know my family. You don't either, right?" Aang shook his head, then he changed his mind and nodded, and then just said, "Right."

"If you did, do you think you might want to leave the temple and go back to them? Like Gul? I mean when you're old enough to."

"I don't know. I guess," he answered, not because it was true, but because he figured that was the answer Yuka wanted, and he wanted to keep Yuka talking.

"So..." Yuka watched him, waiting for Aang to come to his own conclusion. But he was still confused.

"So...?" he shrugged.

"So why do you think we come to the temple as babies?" he added, impatience clear in his voice.

Aang thought for a moment. Gul, babies, Air Temple...What was Yuka getting at? "You think they do that so we won't want to leave the temple and go back to our families?" he guessed.

"Exactly."

Aang frowned, mulling over the idea. Maybe...it could make sense. But it just didn't seem right. He shook his head to clear it. "I don't think so. That's not true."

Yuka tapped his temple with a finger. "Just think about it." Thinking about it just confirmed to Aang that Yuka was nuts. Imagine, monks tricking people into giving them their babies, just so they could have more monks at the temples. But it wasn't a trick, it was a tradition that had been held for hundreds of years. It wasn't...something bad. Aang wished he hadn't talked to Yuka at all now. However silly, the thought made him uncomfortable, and now it was stuck in the back of his mind.

"Is that the joke?" he asked.

"That's just part of it," Yuka answered. "If I explained the joke it wouldn't be funny anymore. If you don't get, you just don't get it. If you don't get it, you're part of it."

Aang bit back a frustrated yell. Talking to Yuka was exhausting. He just wanted to go back to bed. He turned and cautiously crawled back over the rocks. "Li says you're a bad influence. I think he's right," he called over his shoulder.

Yuka laughed. "He is! Two-faced son of a bitch. Hey, wait a second, I'm not done." Aang stopped and faced Yuka again, annoyed. He sure was in a talkative mood tonight.

"If you're just going to call him names, maybe you can wait until tomorrow when he's awake."

He laughed again. "He acts so pious and righteous all the time, right? Like he's above everyone else. You know what I mean."

"I'm serious, Yuka. I really want to go back to sleep!"

"Shut up for a second. I'm gonna tell you something." He lowered his voice to a conspirative hush, and Aang couldn't help but listen. "It's just an act. You know how jealous he is of you, right?"

"What!" Aang was taken aback. "That's stupid, you're lying!" Why would Li be jealous of him? He was just a kid.

"You're kidding me. Come on, you never noticed?" Yuka grinned evilly and wagged a finger at Aang. "See, it's the joke. He's part of it."

He squinted back at Yuka, wishing he could see inside his head and figure him out. Once Aang had watched one of the bison at the Air Temple giving birth, and it was repelling and fascinating all at the same time. Yuka, he decided, was kind of like that.

"Goodnight," he said finally, and walked away before Yuka could call him back.

He flopped down onto the blanket and closed his eyes. Li would wake him up early tomorrow, so he had to get to sleep. As his breathing slowed and evened out, he let his mind wander to the tournament which would be starting in just a few days. He imagined what it was like at the Northern Air Temple right now. People would be arriving in droves, families like Tatapi's, and his friends from the Southern Air Temple who had left before him. The pupils and monks of the Northern Temple would be busy setting up tents and opening stables and cooking lots of food. Aang imagined himself there, talking to friends he hadn't seen all year, meeting new ones, flying Appa around the temple to prepare him for the races. And somewhere among the crowd, hiding in a dark hallway or corner, someone was laughing, delighted by a joke Aang couldn't understand.