He Thinks in Truths: The Combustion Man
Summary: A Combustion Man origin story.
There are few stories about the Combustion Man, and what few exist can be found to vary greatly according to the teller's whims (and his state of inebriation). He is not the stuff of legends. Legends have survivors, legends have witnesses, legends have names.
Still, even very guarded men can hardly pursue a career so flashy and conspicuous as that of a bounty hunter and not spawn at least some whispers of speculation, least of all if they happen to be seven feet tall and half metal. There are few stories about the Combustion Man – and fewer still true stories – but they do exist, hidden amongst the conjecture.
One of these lonely facts upon which the Fire Nation's drunkards have had to construct the Combustion Man's entire backstory is that this great battle tank of a man cannot be deceived; The Combustion Man tells no lies and suffers no liars. Beyond this, however, the realm of speculation must take over again. It is said that the awful, unblinking eye carved into his forehead can see right through a man's flesh and all the way into his soul. Another camp maintains that his light chakra, the pool of perceptive energy found in the forehead of every man in every nation, is so robust and mighty that no amount of illusion could possibly block its flow. It is even said that the talent is something of a myth, as all men are liars, all men who meet the Combustion Man are killed, and thus coincidentally it isn't lying to him that one should avoid, but meeting him in the first place. Some of these theories are better than others.
But the reality of the matter is that choosing silence reorganizes a man's brain. The Combustion Man does not think in words anymore; he thinks in truths.
Life is full of illusions. To be more specific (and fairer), human life is full of illusions. Good and evil, spirits and demons, natural and supernatural; all are products of the convoluted strata, the layers upon layers of symbols, that men call culture. This isn't to say that spirits did not exist, nor that these were unreasonable divisions, but to say that the absoluteness that culture invents is, in truth, quite finite. A man need not go far to find someone who disagrees with him, to discover that what he thought universal was not so.
The War was just one such 'universal' issue. Even among the people being subjugated, opinions about the Fire Nation and its motives were deeply divided. A great many shocked and angry people the world over were ready to assume that all Fire Nation citizens, from the lowest peasants to the loftiest royalty, were hell-spawned demons, entirely below human compassion and unworthy of mercy. They attacked because they hated peace, because they loved war, and each and every one of them had to be slain before the world could get back on its feet. Even so, a smaller, perhaps more optimistic group had been asserting for seventy years that the Fire Nation's attacks benefited no one but the royal family, that the citizens were at no fault. It appealed to their local universal worldviews to think that, aside from a very evil minority, the Fire Nation's populace was just as oppressed and victimized by the War as anybody else. If only Azulon were to be defeated, they claimed, the Fire Nation's vast legions of farmers and laborers, fishermen and factory workers, soldiers and civilians would all welcome world peace with open arms and celebrate their freedom in the streets.
For the most part, both of these rationalizations were patently untrue. Much of the Fire Nation benefited greatly from the War, and would continue to do so as long as the royal family saw fit to spend the great royal treasuries buying from Fire Nation factories. The War created jobs, stimulated industry and innovation, and brought a steady flow of exotic goods back to the homeland. The citizens' standard of living was higher than it had ever been. Young men were drafted and sent off to Earth Kingdom, never to return, and their families mourned their loss no less genuinely than did broken families the world over, but as far as pure economics were concerned, the War was the best thing to happen to the Fire Nation in a very long time.
Had he found occasion to consider it, fifteen-year-old Ban Shi Li would probably have agreed. The war had taken nothing from him, but given everything. His father, the foreman of one of the many great, belching war factories scattered across the Fire Nation's numerous islands (and himself the son, grandson, and great grandson of blacksmiths), depended on the War for his livelihood. He and Ban worked rigorous hours within the factory's smoky interior building the vast supplies of metal goods necessitated by an industrialized society. The majority of their work was for the Fire Lord, to equip his massive armies, but nonetheless the Shi Li family provided their town with the tools of everyday life, as their ancestors had for hundreds of years. They made tanks (little more, at this point, than steam-driven shells of armor and thus deliciously expensive), weapons, hoes and shovels, carriage wheels, nails and hammers, bolts and chains and brands and hinges, stakes and plows, silverware and shears and pliers, ovens and furnaces, and all manner of iron implement.
The Shi Li family could not be said to be incredibly wealthy, but they got along well enough. They lived in a comfortable house on a great, mossy terrace cut into the side of a long extinct volcano. They were respected and appreciated; if they went out to market, people would stop them on the streets to tell them how good a job they had done on their last commission, or to clap them bracingly on the back and assure them they were doing the Fire Lord's armies proud. Hardly a fortnight went by without a war minister visiting their factory, towing their newest weapons away atop the backs of komodo rhinos, and leaving them with stacks of gold pieces in trade. All of this prosperity depended on the War, and yet in Ban's mind, it all paled next to her.
The real treasure the war had given him was Jian. Her father had perished in battle a few years previous, and though he would never admit it aloud Ban rejoiced in this fact every day, as it had brought her into his life. His father and hers had been friends, and ever since Jian was orphaned, Mao Shi Li had provided for her as if she were his own daughter, raising her alongside Ban as siblings.
Of course Ban refused to see them as such, and indeed became rather defensive about it when anyone mistook them for brother and sister. She was important to him in a way a sister never could be; around her, he was gentler than his already great stature would seem to allow. Nonetheless, not even Ban's most impassioned defenses could make her any less a part of the Shi Li family.
One fateful morning found Ban and Jian navigating the narrow path that wove its way from their doorstep, down through the village, and to the distant Shi Li factory, the noonday sun shining pleasantly down upon them. On a normal day Ban would have already been several hours into his first shift at the factory, having woken up well before sunrise, but today he had been given the whole morning off and had the rare opportunity to enjoy Jian's company as he walked the familiar trail. Normally he would be uncomfortable breaking his schedule in the slightest and would long for the soothing rhythm of the factory's many cogs, but Jian's presence proved more soothing still and he was content.
The occasion for his morning off had been a meeting with Rilke, the local firebending master. Ever since Ban had nearly set a cup of tea to boiling with only his own body heat, his family had been trying to coax further firebending out of his calloused hands. His parents had been ecstatic – there hadn't been a firebender in either of their families for generations – and had insisted that he train under a master. Further attempts to harness his culture's deadly talent, however, had produced very little results, and it seemed no amount of tutelage could help. This morning had been no different, and Master Rilke had once again sported a poorly-concealed frown of disappointment as he returned to his home, defeated.
The truth was Ban did not much want to learn firebending. He had tried, certainly, not wanting to disappoint his parents (and least of all Jian), but in the end all of the hours of breathing exercises accomplished little more than to make him feel like an idiot, the sweat of his effort making his shaven head look like polished marble. Ban did not nurse particularly ambitious dreams. He was content to work in the same factory until the day that he died and come home each night to a loving wife, and learning firebending and getting drafted into combat did not fit within that plan in the slightest. Fighting earthbenders in exotic locales held no allure for him; he was a simple man with simple needs. And so he did not, as he and Jian entered the town that morning, express even the tiniest disappointment.
Fire Nation culture was diverse and colorful (even if most of those colors were red or some variation thereof). On any given day, the town market was crowded with the most peculiar sundry of diversions from all over the world. Traveling exhibits and street performers and shopkeepers of all sorts made every day as bright and flashy as any carnival. With a full hour yet until Ban was expected at the factory, the two friends stopped to take in the festivities. They strolled down the streets, gasping at the trick firebenders, inspecting the market's wares, laughing at the jugglers when they messed up, and were having quite the good time indeed when they were interrupted.
"You…" a voice croaked. Ban and Jian turned to see a stunted, lopsided old man, his almost skeletal fingers pointed ominously up at Ban.
"You, have… The Sight!" the man claimed theatrically, his eyes widening until they seemed they should pop out of his skull. "You are a seer! Your chakra of light, it is… it is…" he fought for words, "unbelievable!" Ban choked back a laugh.
"You're a seer?" Jian asked, face alight with wonderment. The man nodded proudly.
"Yes ma'am, I can read your future, and your friend's too, tell you anything you like!" he boasted, gesturing back towards his stall. Jian needed no further convincing and in an instant was pulling Ban towards the fortuneteller's domicile.
He had protested, of course, telling her how ridiculous all fortune telling was, but in the end put up only token resistance and allowed her to drag him inside the cramped booth (despite being nearly double her weight). The room was heavily perfumed and flowing purple sheets hung gaudily from the ceiling. They took their seats around a table as tiny and asymmetrical as its owner. Ban begrudgingly fished the fortuneteller's steep fees from his pocket and slid them across the table. The man snatched the coins up like a viper, quickly inspected them for genuineness, and, satisfied, pocketed them in a flash.
The fortuneteller bustled about, gathering armfuls of peculiar-looking supplies to add to the mystique of his performance. He burned incense inside of a bowl as wide as a battleshield and its vapors filled the tiny room in no time, joining the many perfumes to make an odor Ban considered positively repulsive (and he was well used to spending all day amidst the sulfur fumes of industry). The tiny little man lifted his hands to his head, drawing attention to the eye-shaped brooch atop his hat. He massaged the eye, kneading it with his bony fingers as if trying to press his prophecies out of it, and began to weave a tale of ambiguity, of pointless advice and vague glimpses into their futures. Ban resisted the urge to laugh derisively, if only to protect Jian's feelings. As the story wound on, however, a thought planted itself in his forehead. He did not know if it was the fumes or the man's exaggerated ritual, but suddenly he had to know.
And so, once their fortunes had concluded and Jian had skipped happily back out of the booth, Ban had leaned towards the fortuneteller and whispered his question. The man's eyebrows lifted in confusion until Ban gestured after Jian's retreating back and comprehension dawned.
"Yes, yes. I think you two will have a long, happy life together," he promised warmly. He hadn't even needed to touch the eye emblem on his hat, a fact that had Ban smiling, despite himself.
The two of them continued their trip, a new spring in Ban's step. He daydreamed as he walked, ignoring the path's rugged beauty. The factory loomed in the distance, belching a tower of smoke against the sky like a slumbering monster, but the two teenagers took little notice. Jian was largely kept away from the factory's many pounding machines, but she was a frequent enough visitor to know her way around, and the workers greeted her as she passed. Ban and Jian had just entered the smoky confines of the building when they were stopped.
"Ban! Jian! Come look at this!" It was Haor, one of the oldest engineers in the plant. His body was already caked with layer upon layer of soot, leaving only the whites of his eyes to identify him as anything other than a man-shaped charcoal briquette. He forced a long iron brand into Ban's hands.
"It's a dragon-moose brand!" he announced proudly. "Been workin' on it all week!" Ban inspected the fine curls of the brand's business end, recognizing immediately the elaborate insignia of one of the noble families from Ember Island. Haor grabbed the brand back. "Lemme show ya!" He grabbed a pinch of reddish clay from a small pile on the workbench and rubbed it into the brand's grooves, then did the same with a whiter clay, explaining as he did so. "See, the clay's like paint. You put the white on the parts you wanna be white an' the red on the parts you wanna be red and if you do it right," he held the end in the flames of a nearby furnace, "you get a darn nice mark, worthy of the Firelord himself!" He pulled the red-hot brand back out of the fire and thrust it into a thick strip of leather with a sharp sizzling sound. Setting the brand to one side, he proudly lifted the leather, which now sported a beautifully multicolored burn mark; black, white, and red. "The clay gets baked right into the skin. It's like an instant tattoo! Neat, huh?" Ban and Jian nodded their agreement.
"At first I didn't see why they couldn't just use a normal brand, but I gotta say this is one stylish scar. Might get one myself someday!" He laughed uproariously, causing soot and ash to slough off of his skin like black snow. The teenagers laughed with him, even as Ban searched for a graceful escape. Haor noticed and his brow furrowed suspiciously.
"Where ya' takin' her, Ban?" he asked, gesturing to Jian with the still glowing brand. Ban explained that he wanted her to see the coal belts; she had never seen them before and of course he would be ever so careful. In truth, manning the furnaces was one of the most boring jobs in the whole factory and Ban always viewed his turn with them with some amount of dread. It wasn't nearly as interesting as, say, the machine that stamped out armor plates for the Fire Navy's warships, but he was willing to pretend it was. Haor's features softened.
"Of course, of course. Be careful, you two. Oh, an' keep an eye out for my wrench. Lost 'er down there this mornin', and this one," he lifted a wrench from the workbench, a look of disgust on his face, "just ain't the same." Ban promised he would and grabbing Jian by the hand, led her into the factory's belly.
They maneuvered through cramped metal hallways, wound their way past towering columns of machinery, jumped down rickety metal staircases, ducked under scalding hot pipes, and generally ran the mazes of twists and turns that were the factory's bowels, until they finally found themselves in the very deepest levels, where conveyor belts laden with coal fed the four colossal furnaces that powered the entire facility. A constant stream of chalky black coal thundered down from ground level where it was delivered each week and had to be shepherded by some unlucky person. Large obstructions had to be kept off of the belts (lest the flow of coal be brought to a halt, at best slowing the entire factory's production and at worst proving a serious safety risk for the factory's many workers) and the great piles of coal that missed the belts shoveled back on. At present the piles were already a fair two meters high, making the spade leaning against a nearby wall look particularly meager in comparison, but Ban paid it no mind. He and Jian leaned against one of the safety railings, just out of reach of the wall of heat that poured off of the furnaces in a shimmering wave.
To anyone else, the view would hardly be considered romantic – the noise of the falling coal and the belts' many cogs was almost deafening, dense, acrid smoke filled the room with an unpleasant sulfur smell, and the air rippled with hellish warmth far in excess of the worst Fire Nation summers. All of this was lost on Ban and Jian, who instead only noticed the way the furnaces' glow lit one another's eyes. They kissed, deaf to the tumult around them.
They broke apart, both of them gasping for air. A thick layer of sweat and soot was already accumulating on their skin, but they were well used to this. Jian, however, wore a shocked look on her face, and Ban could not help but grin roguishly at her, proud of a job well done. His male pride did not last long, however, when she nearly collapsed, catching herself against the railing. Ban leapt forward to help her.
"Ban… It's too hot," she said, still choking on her own breaths. Ban looked up, a new realization dawning. It was hot; hotter even than normal. He was panting like a poorly tuned steam engine, despite having long ago acclimated to the factory's searing air. A shallow pain traced its way across his forehead and rapidly deepened until it felt like his mind was splitting in half. His eyes darted to the temperature gauge on the nearest furnace, which had swung all the way to its rightmost extreme, where it strained futilely. Ban's eyes widened in fear. He had already seized Jian's wrist to drag her away when the furnace exploded. There was a flash of white, all-consuming pain, and then darkness.
Ban didn't know how long he spent battling fevered dreams. Colors and patterns and powerful insecurities bombarded his unconscious mind for what felt an eternity, but waned as his senses returned and order was gradually restored, plunging him back into consciousness, his mental struggle forgotten. Such was the nature of dreams; awakening brought only a very vague sense of a very long and pitched battle, and even that faded quickly. Ban opened his eyes and found himself staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling. He took a hungry gulp of air, as if only now surfacing from deep underwater. His gasping quickly summoned a feminine face from the haze, which stared down at him with pity. He felt a hand touch his forehead.
"Hold on. I'll get your father," she said, and disappeared. Ban's mind was reeling, struggling futilely to piece his memories back into place. He tried to rise but could not summon the strength, managing only a lopsided fall back onto the bed. He tried again, to marginal effect, and only then invested a cursory glance toward his right hand, which was, for some reason, not quite keeping up with his left. A strangled cry of surprise tore from his throat as he saw not the well-muscled, functioning arm he had come to take for granted, but instead a bandage-swaddled stump that terminated with horrifying finality just below the elbow. Finding his right leg in a similar state was only slightly less disconcerting.
Sporadic images of what had happened returned to his mind in a series of disorienting flashes and it was only the timely arrival of his father's face that prevented him from crying out again. His father, clean and presentable for once, smiled weakly as he met his son's eyes. He leaned down carefully to hug Ban's neck, a gesture that Ban found himself unable to fully return.
"You're alright," Mao Shi Li observed quietly. His voice sounded far-off and distant, as if he were speaking from the other end of an endless metal tunnel, but his great relief was apparent. His moustache quaked with restrained emotion and his dark eyes twinkled with the remnants of shed tears. "Thank Agni you're alright… Your mother should be here –" Mao's words continued, but their meaning trailed off into the haziness that enveloped Ban's senses. Ban's mind struggled to reassemble a conscious thought, and it was only with considerable effort that he managed to open his mouth. It took him a few seconds to find his voice, which slurred and stumbled over itself as asked what had happened. His father frowned and looked away, the movement stirring the current of colors that assaulted Ban's eyes.
"One of the furnaces exploded. It turns out that…" he stopped, a nervous look on his face. "Well, Haor's been getting on in years, you know," he continued, "and he's liable to forget things from time to time. He…" he fidgeted anxiously, trying to decide whether to elaborate further or not, "Well he must have dropped his wrench into the furnace and plugged up the flow. The coal burned in the wrong chamber and overheated it." His words came out in a rush and seemed to swallow up the silence that followed them. For many seconds the words held no significance – they were just sounds reverberating, however ominously, about the room – and yet as Ban slowly translated them, an undeniable sensation of guilt took hold of his thoughts.
Ban's memories came thundering back in a distressing lurch. All the details of the fire and the pain jostled for position within his head. The furnace had exploded; Haor's wrench had blocked it. Ban had no doubt his father was truthful, and yet the utter falsehood of this explanation stared unabashedly in his mind's eye. He had been right there and had checked for blockage the instant he had noticed the temperature. He doubted such an obvious problem would have escaped his immediate notice, and he certainly wouldn't have put off work even to spend time with Jian had anything looked amiss. At this reminder of his friend, the puzzle took a sickening new color. She had been there with him. She had been the first to notice something was wrong, to notice the heat that very nearly killed him. An awful thought occurred, and he said her name.
The look on his father's face confirmed his worst fears.
To die by fire was the noblest way to go, and it didn't matter how or why. Fire released the soul from the body and sent it on its way to join its ancestors with the Great Agni, high in the sky. That the remains of all slain Fire Nation citizens were fully cremated was more a concession to the living than to the dead, a ritual that acknowledged the dead person's unification with the spirit world and thanked them for the power that they would shine down upon the living.
Jian's funeral took place atop one of the mossy hills east of the village. She had burnt to death by the time the engineers had discovered her and Ban amongst the rubble of the coal belts, and there could be no public viewing of her body. Instead she rested inside a wooden coffin, piled atop a great stack of lumber gathered from the nearby forests. Dozens arrived to pay their respects and watch the pyre's towering column of smoke twist into the sky.
Ban observed from a distance, not wanting to hear the sage's words, nor watch him ignite the sepulcher that contained his friend's remains. He stood wobbly on the first generation prosthetics his father had thrown together so that he could attend; little more, for now, than a crutch-like shaft of metal anchored to the knee. The construction of a newer leg with a jointed foot and a claw-like arm was well underway, and were the situation different Ban might have given thanks that he was son to such a mechanically-inclined man. Unfortunately, the accident's cost was much, much higher than a mere pair of limbs, and since no amount of fancy metalwork could bring Jian back, that the overbearing humidity of the day soaked Ban's bandages and his false leg cut painfully into the flesh of his thigh was of little significance.
The accident at the factory caused quite a stir, but life had to go on. Gossip and rumors about Ban, Jian, and Haor spread like wildfire, but burned out just as quickly as the masses turned their attention to newer tragedies. The Fire Nation rarely lacked for interesting news, as the seventy-year-old war in the Earth Kingdom dragged onwards. There were defeats and victories, soldiers were lost and territories were conquered, and the death of only a single Fire Nation girl faded from the public's mind.
This did not bother Ban. In fact, he wished that the world would forget what happened entirely. As it was, however, his metal limbs and the palpable darkness that had overtaken his mood since Jian's death made him a walking reminder, and everywhere he went people would stare at him piteously. He did not talk to them and they did not talk to him, a far cry from their previously friendly relationship, but in the end the villagers agreed that no one could really blame him. He had seen his sister killed and was himself forever maimed, they reasoned, the sort of thing that could mess anyone up.
Ban did his best to keep living but found it harder and harder to get through each day. In the days and weeks following the accident, his father became extremely lenient with his hours, letting him sleep in and only assigning him light work in the factory, a gesture that Ban did not appreciate in the least. He knew his father's heart was in the right place, but he'd long since found that only by throwing himself into his work could he keep his mind off of his troubles. Amongst the hellish smoke and heat of the factory, he could surrender his thoughts and become a mere machine, unburdened by regret. He frequently traded shifts with the other engineers, bent on retreating into the most strenuous work he could find.
In truth, Ban's missing limbs proved very little detriment in his field. He did not, as a rule, have to move very quickly, and so as long as his leg could propel him to the factory and back, he demanded little of it. His right hand, which bore a pair of curved iron hooks, could easily grasp the handle of a hammer, and more helpful yet was quite fireproof, allowing him to retrieve objects from the forges without the use of tongs. On a productive day, Ban could easily keep up with the best engineers in the factory, crafting sword after sword without tiring.
As the weeks passed, Ban began to get terrible headaches. They would first appear as a mere stitch across his forehead, but as time went on would grow more ambitious in size and severity until his entire head pulsed with agony like a burning torch. None of the doctors or sages his parents called to examine him could determine the headaches' cause, and usually attributed them to Ban having hit his head in the accident. Ban always protested, explaining how he'd felt the same way immediately before the explosion, but could provide no better conclusion. It was only when Master Rilke visited them for dinner that any of the Shi Li family connected Ban's headaches to his still-dormant firebending potential. He had not had a firebending lesson since the morning of the explosion; Rilke suggested, almost offhandedly, that his pent up firebending energy was manifesting as pain and that he ought continue his breathing exercises, if only to hold it under control.
And so Ban did, and found it immediately helpful. Early each morning, even before he began the journey to the factory, he would climb to his house's roof, assume a meditative stance, and stare into the sky, slowly filling his lungs to capacity with each puff of his broad chest. A mere half hour of this each morning served to fully sate the pain and force it deeper into his skull, where it burbled like a cauldron of molten lead. As he watched the first tendrils of sunlight peek over the horizon, Ban found himself thinking about things he'd never considered before, the restrained pool of energy in his head lending an uncommon clarity to his thoughts.
It was over two years before Ban realized what power that pool of energy could unleash.
He was plodding along the path towards the factory as fast as his metal leg would let him. The springs in his ankle squeaked like an old mattress and the prosthetic's polished edge dug into the calloused flesh on his thigh quite uncomfortably, but he ignored the discomfort and pushed onwards, panting from the effort. His father had, once again, 'forgotten' to wake him and he was late to work. The sun had already crested over the horizon in the east when Ban awoke, and he had decided to eschew his breathing exercises, saving his lungs instead for a steady stream of cursing as every other footstep sent a spark of pain lancing up his side. Accordingly, his head began to pulse uncomfortably.
He was roughly halfway to the factory when he could take it no longer and he doubled over from the pain, falling down onto the narrow, rocky path. His eyes clenched and he breathed deeply, trying to restrain the agony in his forehead. It did not abate, but only grew fiercer. He blinked furiously and rubbed at his scalp with his remaining hand in a futile attempt to knead the headache away. It worsened still further. Through his fluttering eyelids, Ban caught a glimpse of a nearby moss-covered rock browning as it dried, then rapidly catching fire, leaving only a thin layer of black ash on its surface. He managed to rise to his feet again and call raggedly for help, but the action unbalanced him and he found himself rolling down a steep hillside, finally coming to a rest in a muddy ditch. The mud began to boil almost instantaneously, sizzling and churning like bacon grease. The pain in Ban's head continued to roar.
Thrashing about with the adrenaline-laced fury and endurance that only truly endangered people can muster, Ban began to drag himself up the nearest hillside, sinking his clawed hand deep into the side like a grappling hook. He grunted with the exertion, all too aware that the grass was burning all around him. After several grueling minutes, he reached the top and collapsed. He wanted, truly wanted, to give a satisfied sigh, as if climbing the hill had in some way benefited him, but his pounding head remained unbearable. He staggered to his feet again and promptly bumped into a solid, knee-high object. He leaned down and grabbed onto it for dear life, begging it to steady him, until he opened his eyes.
It was Jian's grave, a polished stone block inscribed with her name. He had climbed the very hill on which Jian had been cremated. The cruelty of this coincidence welled up inside of him and he stood and roared, lending his anger a release that echoed across the landscape. At the same time, another, far more destructive release sent all of the pain and energy that had been welling up within his head forth in a noisy beam. It cut through the humid morning air like an arrow, impacting a rocky outcropping a few hundred meters away. The entire hilltop exploded with an earth-shaking boom, sending burning debris raining down in all directions. The recoil of his own head exploding, together with the shock at watching a mountain explode along with it, nearly knocked Ban over.
Ban stared at the decapitated hill for a long while as the smoke cleared and the damage he'd done became apparent. He rubbed at his forehead in wonderment. The pain was gone, but the barely-restrained energy still licked at the insides of his skull. Without considering the consequences, Ban shifted his gaze to another hill. He breathed deeply, feeling each breath swell the sensation in his head like bellows did coal, and imagined another explosion, nodding his head abruptly for emphasis. The second hill obligingly exploded, showering the land no less impressively than had the first. Ban looked about in amazement. No one had seen him. He glared at Jian's stone marker again and felt rage grip his innards, filling him with angry resolve. His face twisted into a frown and he marched resolutely onwards, out, away from the road, and into the wilderness.
By the time Ban finally made his way back to the factory, a spectacular swathe of destruction had been cut through the landscape. Nearly every hill for miles had been blown to pieces; the island had eroded more in that morning than it had in the previous five hundred years combined. By that afternoon, rumors of the 'forest fires' had spread even farther than the fires themselves, and people throughout the whole Fire Nation were puzzling as to what could have caused so much damage so quickly.
Ban was twenty-one when a commotion broke out at the factory. His father rushed into the room where Ban was forging swords and insisted that he go home immediately. The mixture of fear and excitement on his father's face was enough that he did not protest, but instead put down his half-finished sword and left without a word. He walked home, his mind latching onto the familiar thump-hiss of his pneumatic-cushioned leg against the ground.
It was almost two hours before his father finally joined him at their kitchen table. Father and son were, as usual, covered in ash, and Ban's mother would surely kill them when she saw the mess they had made of her home, but something told Ban it wouldn't matter. He asked his father what happened. The smaller man looked up at his son, his face unreadable.
"Well, we… That is to say, Loi Zu, one of the new engineers. You remember him, right?" Ban nodded. "Well, Loi Zu was fixing one of the coal belts, it broke last week, and had to disassemble the floor panels and get under it to do it. He fixed it just fine, don't worry; he's a smart lad." Ban remained silent until his father continued. "Well, when he was down there. He… He found Haor's lost wrench." His voice tapered off. "You know, from the accident. He had apparently dropped it through the floor, not into the furnace." Ban's eyes widened and he looked at his father fearfully.
"I know, I know," his father said, patting Ban's shoulder sadly. "I miss her too. The men fought over it; they want to know what really caused the explosion, accused me of covering it up. Haor vouched for me, Agni bless him. You know he never forgave himself for what happened." It was true. Ban's father had refused to fire him, but the old man had never regained the pleasant friendliness he once had.
"I sent you home to stop the others from pestering you with questions." There was a long pause as Mao fought for verbal purchase. At length, he continued. "I doubt we'll ever know what happened now, but I don't want you to get any more torn up over this than you have to, all right? Jian wouldn't want us to miss out on life because we were too busy missing her." Ban nodded sadly. His father had been offering the same advice for years; Ban knew he was right, and yet found it impossible to follow.
"I'll see you later, Son," his father said, his hand lingering on Ban's shoulder for a moment before he walked out of the room.
The thing about rumors is that, while any individual one is almost certainly fiction, so many are created and spread that they have a sickening ability to discover the truth, if only by accident. Add to the truth an element of intrigue like, oh say, a giant with two metal limbs who hadn't talked in public in years, and a veritable scorpion-beehive opened. After the news of Haor's innocence had reached the world's ears, Ban felt the suspicious glares of the townspeople wherever he went. Murderer they called him behind his back, even as they maintained their usual pitying faces in his presence. It was maddening. Ban didn't think any of them knew about his unusual abilities or how utterly possible their accusations were; they levied them only because he had been there at the time of Jian's death, and giving him an involvement was so much more interesting than the alternative.
More painful still was the way his father looked at him. Ban knew he would never ask him to elaborate on what caused the accident. He knew that his father knew how much he had loved Jian, how much he would have given up to save her the most minor of pains, and yet his father had been the only one never to mention the destruction of the hills to Ban. Usually, Mao was so earnestly interested in everything that happened in the world, and so bent on keeping his son from a complete social withdrawal, that he'd start up any conversation he could, just to keep Ban talking. He had remained suspiciously silent, however, on how so many hills, so nearby, had been blasted into rubble. Somehow he knew Ban had done it, and had forgiven him. Nonetheless, Jian had been very much his daughter, and Ban could not help but notice a cold new distance from the man he respected most in the world.
Most unbearable of all, of course, was that Ban knew the world was right about him. He had murdered Jian; it was no longer possible to deny. The pain in his head, the fast breathing, the way that the air had rippled and exploded, none were coincidences. He had forced the furnace to explode; he was to blame, and no matter how many times he forced himself to acknowledge that it had been an accident, that he would never have done such a thing willingly, the guilt gnawed away at him without mercy.
Ban's frustration built as the days went by. At work, he had to deal with the other engineers' constant questions, had to stay silent to avoid stoking the power struggle that threatened to overtake the whole factory. In the village, he had to endure the whispers and the new way the townspeople gawked at him. At home, he had to withstand the listless looks his father gave him. Even when he was alone, his own conscience asked those same questions, made those same whispers, looked at him the same way. His simple lifestyle was collapsing out from under him, and nothing he did brought his mind any peace. The sloshing presence in his head flourished, feeding off of his anger and begging for an explosive solution with greater and greater insistence until Ban could take it no longer.
He left late at night, shortly after his parents had gone to bed. He took nothing with him aside from the clothes on his back and the two lifeless metal souvenirs he carried at all times; he wanted as little to remind him of his old life as possible. He plodded his way down to the slumbering village, his foot taking him to one of the few buildings that remained lit so late.
Failure was short in coming. The clerk at the army recruitment office took one look at the metallic glint of his limbs and calmly explained that everything he did made a difference, that staying at home and raising a family was no less heroic, no less valuable in the Fire Lord's eyes, than joining the military. All of Ban's attempts to explain that his prosthetics didn't slow him down and demonstrations to this effect were cut off and ignored in favor of this obvious lie. Ban only barely managed to walk out of the building without (quite literally) exploding at the close-minded bureaucrat.
Ban took a dejected seat on the building's front steps, cradling his forehead with his remaining fingers and fuming quietly, trying to knead some sense into the wrathful tumult inside his mind. He had never wanted much; only a simple life, full of simple pleasures, safe and sound in the Fire Nation. He hadn't wanted adventure, hadn't wanted to see the world, only a quiet, happy existence – but that was too much to ask. Now that he wanted nothing more than to get away, to throw himself into danger in a desperate attempt to inject some meaning and order into his painful life, he was denied this as well. The injustice fueled the fires in his head.
Perhaps it was luck, then, that had him notice the local warden's notices. They were pinned in a row on the side of the building, bounties and warnings and commands, and Ban probably would not have offered them a second glance if he had not recognized a very familiar face. He stood and stared at the hand-drawn wanted poster. It was crude and caricatured, but from the drawing's scrawny feet and hunched posture all the way to the eye-shaped broach on its hat it was unmistakable as the very same fortuneteller Ban had visited the morning of the accident. Ban tore the poster from the wall, his frown deepening. The man was wanted dead or alive for loudly prophesizing of the Avatar's imminent return and the Firelord's defeat.
Ban quickly made up his mind.
The fortuneteller's tiny shack, hidden way out amongst the forested crags of the island's eastern border, did not stand a chance. Metal fingers hooked their way through the doorjamb and tore the door from its hinges without preamble, and the diminutive seer huddled to the ground in terror as a giant man stepped through the splinters.
Ban did not bother telling him why he was here, nor did he gloat about how easy his supposed best friend had been intimidated into telling Ban where he was. He did not offer the fortuneteller time to grovel at his feet or buy his life; he merely stared down at the awful, grimy little man writhing about on the ground, the seller of false hopes, with an unkind contempt. The fortuneteller looked up and a glimmer of hope and realization dawned on his face.
"You…" he accused, pointing up at Ban's forehead with the same rickety, skeletal hand he had those years ago. Ban did not respond for some time, and when he did, his voice was low and dangerously quiet.
A colossal boom shook the whole island.
That night, several among the townspeople awoke to the sounds of a single hammer and furnace echoing from the darkened factory. The peculiar, eye-shaped brand was discovered the following morning, resting in a smoldering fire.
A/N: There we have it, a (perhaps excessively) angsty background for the Combustion Man. I have tried, in this story, to be less encyclopedic and more stylistic, an endeavor in which I feel I was at least somewhat successful. I hope you enjoyed it!
And a very special thanks to Rasputin Zero, who edited this story and helped it along in the 2 weeks it's been since I started it.