Episode XIX: Bumi and the Earth
82 years ago (Bumi age 31), late fall.
"Shhhh… You're going to wake him up." Bumi paused and swiveled, fixing Kuzon with an exasperated stare.
"Honestly Kuzon," he whispered, swirling the jar of ink in his hand like it was an exquisite wine, "how many times have I done this?" The older boy shrugged.
"Just be qui-" he started before Bumi cut him off.
"A lot. A whole lot. I know what I'm doing." He flashed a rather rude hand gesture Kuzon's way and returned to his task. It was late at night – the Trio of Valor had been together for an unprecedented three days of hijinks – and tomorrow Aang and the other monks would be departing to continue their journey northward. Bumi and Kuzon had decided early on that they couldn't allow their friend to leave them that easily, and so, after a few hours of tossing around ideas long after they were supposed to have gone to bed, they'd happened upon the perfect sendoff.
At any given moment, any two of the Trio were probably in secret collaboration against the third, and their pranks grew more elaborate each time they met. Kuzon had more than once had his wardrobe haphazardly converted into ladies' wear (to match his hair, they always explained), and even Bumi had been caught unawares a time or two. Aang, however, was too easy. Ever trusting, he'd merely agreed and complied when Kuzon had suggested he turn in early, what with his hard day of travel the next morning, never questioning why his friends might care how much sleep he got. He hadn't even locked the door to the bedroom he'd been given! Once again, he would pay for his naivety.
It took all of Bumi's self control not to cackle aloud as he crept towards the stark baldness of his sleeping friend's skull. Aang was out cold, his head perfectly positioned. Bumi traded a sly grin with Kuzon and set straight to work, inking his brush and ever so gently applying it to his friend's scalp. His strokes were light and delicate, perfectly controlled and even. Sweat trickled down his brow as he drew.
"Sideburns," Kuzon whispered, barely restraining a fit of giggles. Bumi bit his tongue to hold in his own laughter and agreed, tracing a stark black line down where Aang's sideburns would be, if he had them. Aang shifted in his sleep but did not awaken as Bumi finished and took a few steps back to admire his work.
Bumi and Kuzon beamed, ever so proud of themselves, as they surveyed Aang's brand new head of hair. They snuck away, grinning ear to ear, and managed to get all of three rooms away before collapsing in laughter.
Bumi awoke with a shot, his eyes flying open as if he'd been bitten. He glanced at the window. It was still dark out; he'd awoken too early yet again. He groaned and tried to sink back down into his mattress, but of course now he felt wide awake.
Bumi rubbed the bridge of his nose, pressing down on his eyelids and sighing into his palm. He'd regained most of the mobility in his left arm, and every day the pain was less, to the point where even stretching his shoulder as far back as it would go barely ached at all. His cuts and bruises had all healed, his strength was returning (slowly – he'd continued to perform his daily pushups, or at least whatever lopsided approximations he could muster with one arm injured and the other chained to the wall). Indeed, by almost any measure, Bumi was fully healed, and yet the dreams had continued to plague him. He'd always been an insomniac, but he'd always slept deeply. Since his injury, however, he could barely get through a night without his nightmares awakening him at least once.
And nightmares they were. Some were worse than others, but even the very tame were so vivid that Bumi could practically taste his own emotions when he awoke. He'd never considered himself particularly emotional, and yet he'd awaken in crippling depression or at the very heights of elation. The change disturbed and infuriated Bumi. He wasn't against feeling, per se, but he wanted his feelings to reflect what was actually going on in his life, not what was going on decades earlier. The fact that so many of his dreams chose to remind him of Kuzon and Aang before the war made them that much more difficult to bear.
Lack of sleep made Bumi even more irritable than usual, and even though some parts of him balked at the unkind things he'd say to the people around him (jailors, he'd remind himself), he was too angry to care. Occasionally those same parts of him would pointedly ask why he was angry, but his angry parts were unreachable.
"There," he grunted, slamming a tile with unnecessary force atop one of Rehn's during their nightly Pai Sho game.
"Bumi, this is Pai Sho, not arm wrestling," Rehn informed him, annoyed. "Brute force does not make my tile any more defeated."
"No," Bumi agreed, slamming another piece down even more forcefully, "but it helps keep me entertained."
"Are you not entertained? We needn't continue if you aren't up for it. I dare say we've played rather a few g-"
"Fifty-eight," Bumi cut him off.
"Hmm… Yes," Rehn agreed. "And I believe the score is currently fifty-seven to one, is it not?" Bumi nodded, fuming. "I thought you enjoyed… what did you call it the other day… 'Breaking a proverbial table leg off in my wrinkled old ass every damned night'." He smiled, but Bumi just glared at him.
"Only so many times before it loses its novelty," he responded slowly.
"You could let me win then, perhaps," Rehn suggested in mock seriousness. There was an audible snap somewhere as Bumi lost it.
"Damn this game!" Bumi shouted, sweeping the table clean with a strike of his arm. Tiles rained against the floor.
"Or you could do that," Rehn observed dryly.
"And damn you!" Bumi roared. "You've got me chained to this damned wall all the damned day, even though you know damn well I'm healed. But nooooo… I've got to solve your damn little puzzle!" He slammed a fist into the table. "You know what, Rehn? I give up. I quit. You win. You play this game different every night," he gestured to the fallen Pai Sho board, "and yet I beat you again and again and again. What the hell kind of symbol is that? What does that have to do with anything? You're just screwing with me and you know it!" His chest heaved with rage, but Rehn sat back, unconcerned.
"So tell me," Bumi breathed dangerously, "you mind-screwing, stuck up bastard, why you left the Earth Army."
"I think you miss the point of the riddle, Bumi," Rehn stood up.
"You bastard!" Bumi roared at him as he started to walk away, stepping gingerly over the scattered tiles, "What the hell do I gotto do!?" Rehn ignored him.
Bumi raged and roared long after Rehn was gone. That night, he clenched his shackle as hard as he could for hours, praying to whatever spirit might listen that he could escape. As usual, the spirits were otherwise occupied.
As soon as he heard Rehn's approaching footsteps the next night, Bumi turned towards the wall, burying his head petulantly in the corner. He couldn't take it anymore. He'd been attached the wall for next to two months, racking his brain for every trick he could find. He had escaped Fire Nation clutches more times than he could count. He had almost single handedly turned back the invasion in the south. He had shut down an illegal market as a teenager. But no matter how much he thought it through, he'd been unable to escape his confinement in a farmhouse. It was just insulting. He couldn't do it. He was beaten. He didn't deserve his title. He would die in this very room.
Rehn cleared his throat, interrupting Bumi's sulking.
"I'm done, Rehn," Bumi grunted without turning around. "I'm not playing anymore."
"Neither am I." The older man's voice was quiet, laced with pity, and some part of Bumi roared its protests at such a dire insult. But there was something else there, something that Bumi took many seconds to identify as regret, and once he did he was compelled to turn and look.
"I have erred," Rehn admitted simply. He was sitting in his usual chair and had pulled up their table, but the Pai Sho board was nowhere to be found (Onbri had put it away in the morning). "I have misunderstood you and wronged you." Bumi's brow furrowed at the man's gall, to only now admit to any wrongdoing, but said nothing. Rehn seemed to take his silence as an invitation to continue.
"I believed we were the same, Bumi," he explained, "you and I. And we're similar. We're thinkers. We wake up in the morning and we wonder, we calculate, we weigh options. Our mental lives are rich, we are ruled by what we decide, what appeals to our thoughts. We see farmers working in the shadow of a mountain," Rehn gestured broadly up towards an imaginary mountain, his eyes almost glazed, "and we say 'how, how can you stand by a thing of such beauty and be not moved? Don't you see how insignificant you are to a mountain? Can't you see what greatness lies all around you?' But they say to us 'it is only a rock' and we are left to appreciate its greatness alone." Rehn's voice boomed, and Bumi could not help but feel moved by the image. The man was right, and when Rehn's eyes met his own, Bumi nodded. Rehn smiled, encouraged.
"We're thinkers," he repeated, "but I realize now we're not the same. I think in ideas, you think in objects. I live my life wondering who I am, where I belong, what it all means. You live your life wondering what you can do, where you can go, what will await you there." His face fell. "I did not take you seriously," he admitted, "I tried to treat you as if you were me, and I am sorry. I believed that if I left you alone, gave you the right clues, you would think like I would and learn what I wanted you to learn, but I fear I've only put you through torture."
"You have." Rehn grimaced.
"Well then I shall try to make it up to you. The games are going to stop. We are going to sit and talk and think."
"Frankly," Bumi began, gritting his teeth, "Talking to you is torture in itse-" he stopped in mid sentence as Rehn drew from his pocket a tiny iron key and set it atop the table. Bumi stared at it hungrily. He looked briefly to Rehn, who nodded in silent confirmation.
"I am going to release you," Rehn announced regally. Bumi was struck dumb for a moment. Just like that, he would be free? Not by escaping, but by simply being released? There had to be a catch. Rehn surely had a follow-up plan, surely he'd do something to Bumi as soon as the shackles were off, or if not then then while Bumi made his journey back… Bumi stopped himself as he realized he had no idea where he would go. Omashu, perhaps, but that was irrelevant. He'd never make it anywhere if Rehn decided to sick his so called 'associates' on him. Bumi's eyes narrowed.
"Why?" he asked. "I thought I was dangerous."
"Because I trust you not to hurt me, Onbri, or anyone else when I do," Rehn explained with a generous smile. Bumi chuckled darkly.
"And why would you believe that?"
"Because whatever can be said for your conscience, I think you know that we're telling you what you need to hear. We are helping you, can help you further, and somewhere inside of you, you want what we have to offer." Bumi scoffed.
"What have you offered? You've had me chained to the wall for weeks! I just want to get the hell away from you!"
"You regret your time here?"
"And you blame… me?" Rehn asked, his tone patronizing and eyebrows arched curiously.
"Who am I supposed to blame, myself?" Bumi asked, rolling his eyes. The awkward silence that followed echoed so loudly in the room that even Bumi felt a bit ashamed. He stole a sheepish glance at Rehn, who stared regally back at him, saying nothing. Bumi sighed.
"Alright," he said, "Alright. I made a mistake. If that's what you're after, if you just want to hear the formerly-great General Bumi say those words, then fine. I screwed up. I went after Kuzon without thinking things through. My strategy was wrong, I should…" he gulped, "I should have waited. He would have shown up again at some point. I let my anger get away from me and it cost me a lot." Rehn nodded sagely.
"But don't!" Bumi shouted suddenly, extending an accusatory finger so quickly Rehn jumped in his seat, "Tell me that what you've put me through is my fault. I made a mistake and it landed me here, sure, but I was ready to die to take Uijid. We didn't take it, maybe never had a chance, and I'm sorry I wasted my men on a bad call. But I acknowledge my part in what has happened to me. I have to pay for what I did, but I do not deserve the crap you give me! That is on you."
Bumi's eyes were wide, his face crimson, and his body language screamed hatred from every pore, but Rehn just smiled.
"Very well," he said, sliding the key within Bumi's reach and rising to his feet. "I am departing early in the morning. I hope you will join me." Bumi watched Rehn stride from the room and shut the door behind him. His gaze flitted down to the tiny key, and he stared at it for some seconds as if it were a venomous snake. Shrugging, he grabbed the key and jabbed it into his manacle. It turned easily, and the iron clasp he'd been fighting with for weeks fell off like chaff.
Bumi stared at his wrist for some seconds, flexing it this way and that and marveling at the way the air felt on his skin. He was really out. He paused to gawk at the closed door in disbelief, then sprung into action.
True to his word, Rehn departed the house early the following morning. He'd packed light, nothing more than a meager satchel of food, a pipe, and the clothes on his back. He'd returned to Bumi's room to find it unoccupied, many of the supply crates broken into, several documents stolen, and the window's shattered remains scattered across the floor. The sight had saddened him, and it was with a heavy heart that he hugged Onbri goodbye and began his trip. The former general left the paths behind, descending straight into the forests that sheltered the farmhouse and his headquarters from intruders.
Rehn made it perhaps half an hour and was nestled deep within his own thoughts when suddenly there was a sharp tearing sound and an arrow whistled a half-inch over his head, thudding into a nearby tree. He cried in surprise and fell backwards into a pile of leaf litter, smacking his head into the ground. The old man sputtered and batted the leaves out of his face as he struggled to rise, and found himself staring down the length of another notched arrow. Standing atop a rock ten meters away, a fully armored Bumi glared angrily down at him.
"Goodness, Bumi," Rehn panted, clutching at his heart. He rose to his feet, brushing the dirt from his tunic. "Aren't you a melee soldier?" Bumi leapt down from his perch with a thud.
"I am," he confirmed, walking casually up to his loosed arrow, buried halfway into a tree. "But I've acquired a new respect for archery." He grabbed the arrow shaft and tugged for a moment, but it held fast.
"I can imagine," Rehn replied, laughing. He glanced at Bumi, who was covered from head to toe in stolen goods, armored as if ready for battle, and sporting two large sacks of supplies over his shoulders. "I see you've helped yourself to our stores," Rehn observed. Bumi shrugged.
"I didn't know where we were going, figured I'd better cover my bases."
"So you've decided to join me after all!" Rehn exclaimed, clapping his hands together. "Delightful. So much better than you trying to take my head off with an arrow." He rubbed his head possessively, as if to ensure it was still present. Bumi shrugged again.
"I've got nowhere else to go," he admitted, stowing his bow on his back and staring into the distance. "Where we goin'?" Rehn wiped his muddy hands on his pants and continued his way through the forest. Bumi tagged along behind.
"We are going to a very special spot. I do not know how to teach you what I need to teach you, other than to bring you to those who can." Bumi sighed theatrically.
"That doesn't answer my question," he protested. Rehn smiled.
"It will have to do for now."
The two of them traveled in relative silence for some hours, weaving their way through the forest. Though it was difficult to tell beneath the canopy's shade, Bumi guessed that they were traveling northwest. The soil was rocky and sharp canyons overgrown with moss criss-crossed the terrain with impeding frequency. Some were thirty feet deep and twisted on for a great distance in either direction, with jagged, toothy sides that looked liked they'd been carved from the earth with a single, fantastic sweep of a giant's sword. The two men traveled on and on, moving steadily uphill.
Bumi found the travel disconcertingly difficult. He had tried to maintain his strength as best as he could during his confinement, but clearly it had not been enough – many times in his life he'd traveled great distances on foot without trouble, and yet now he found he could barely keep up with his much older companion. Rehn did not help in this regard, maintaining the guru-like serenity that only the truly self-satisfied elderly could pull off. He never broke a sweat and refused to maintain a straight course, weaving his way through trees, walking around canyons instead of across them, and Bumi decided early on that it did no good to follow too closely. However meandering his course, though, Rehn clearly knew where he was going, as if he were being drawn there by scent alone. Occasionally he would stop next to some particularly tall boulder, lean into it with one ear, and tap gently on its surface. He'd listen to the ensuing silence for a moment, nod his understanding, and resume course. Bumi did his best to ignore it.
Still, freedom after so long indoors made even Rehn's company tolerable, and Bumi breathed deeply of the fresh air.
That evening, they made camp. Bumi excavated a shallow firepit with a quick stomp of his foot (oh how liberating even this small act of earthbending felt) and set to gathering firewood. By the time darkness descended, he'd put together a humble campfire, which crackled cheerfully in the night.
Clapping his hands with finality, Bumi hefted his hatchet into the dirt next to his pack and flopped down on the ground across from Rehn. His stomach rumbled in protest, and yet he stayed still for some minutes, staring up at the few stars that managed to twinkle their way through the blanketing branches above. Eventually his hunger got the best of him and he returned to his stolen supplies. He withdrew one of the loaves of bread he'd been eating for the past several weeks, impaled it on the end of one of his arrows, and suspended it over the flames.
"Tell me about yourself, Bumi," Rehn said, shattering the silence. Bumi glowered fiercely at him, but Rehn did not seem to notice, and returned to puffing quietly on his pipe.
"Why?" Bumi asked cautiously, returning to his meal. He reeled in his makeshift spit, tore off a piece of blackened bread with his fingers, and popped it into his mouth.
"Just curious, I guess," Rehn admitted. "I know you only by reputation and by your behavior as my guest." Bumi scoffed loudly at the choice of word. "I think a man's actions can say a lot, and your actions are particularly loud, but what goes on in your mind remains a mystery to me. What has made you who you are?" Bumi glared at him.
"Don't think we're friends just because you released me from your prison," he snapped through a mouthful of food. Rehn held up his hands defensively but did not respond, and Bumi paused to stare at the ground.
"Born in Omashu," he grunted after a moment's thought. Rehn nodded. "Parents left me there to be a scribe." Rehn nodded his approval again, but again remained silent. "Ran away when I was a kid, I forget how old. Started living on my own, got involved with all the merchants."
"My father used to take me to Omashu's markets when I was a child," Rehn interrupted. "I used to love to see all the colors, all the funny vendors. So much to buy, more than anyone could ever use," he smiled at the fond remembrance.
"Definitely," Bumi confirmed, grinning as well. "But they'll use it. You know how to put the pieces together, and they'll use it. Bunch of vain, materialistic fools. Can sell them anything if you know how." He laughed.
"And I assume you know how?" Rehn asked skeptically. Bumi looked at him, an expression of mock hurt on his face.
"You wound me, Rehn. I am the very picture of charisma when I want to be." Rehn chuckled.
"Alright. Go on."
"Let's see…" Bumi continued, scratching his scraggly chin. "Ended up making a lot of money with a friend of mine. Got involved in some pretty big stuff. Made a few enemies, got a few enemies arrested." He nodded. "It wasn't a bad life," he admitted, more to himself than to Rehn. "Left when I was nineteen. Decided to travel the world, see what I could see," he lied.
"And you ended up seeing the Southern Landmass," Rehn supplied. Bumi eyed him warily.
"Yes, one of my fellow Order members from the south mentioned having seen you there." Bumi did not respond. Rehn knew more about him than he felt entirely comfortable with. It was one thing for the Order to have been following his military movements for years – that he understood – but to have been tracking him while he searched for Aang? "What were you doing there, if you don't mind me asking?" Rehn asked. Bumi stared dumbly at him.
"If your informant saw me, then he heard what I was doing," he mumbled. Rehn's eyes narrowed in curiosity.
"He did mention something," he admitted, "but I'd always doubted it myself." Bumi looked away.
"It's true." A yawning silence grew between the two of them.
"We have been looking for him for some time," Rehn said eventually.
"I know," Bumi replied. Indeed, he'd figured it out some time ago. It was the only thing that fit the maps he'd stolen. The Order and the Fire Nation were in a race to find the ultimate prize. Bumi wondered if the Fire Nation knew it had competition.
"Anything you might have found," Rehn began.
"I didn't find anything!" Bumi snapped, cutting off the conversation. He looked away again, taking a big bite out of his bread to hide the lie. Technically, he'd found something very significant. He'd found good evidence that Aang was, in fact, still alive. But where? The Guru had said to the south, and Bumi had looked the entire continent over, with no luck. It had been years since his disappearance. Where could Aang be?
"The Southern Landmass is a beautiful place, or so I've heard," Rehn observed, ignoring Bumi's outburst.
"Unfortunately, it is in a bad way these days." Bumi looked up from his meal. "Its peoples are beleaguered, encroached upon further every day," Rehn explained. "The Fire Nation is bringing new force to bear upon them. Hoping, no doubt, to eliminate them as a military factor entirely." Bumi gulped. "They have entreated the Earth King for aid several times, but been ignored time and time again."
"Really?" Rehn nodded sadly. Bumi growled aloud and nearly threw his food into the fire in anger. "Why didn't they tell me?" Bumi demanded to no one in particular.
"Would you have helped them?" Rehn asked, his brow arched curiously.
"Of course I would have!" Bumi shouted. Rehn stared at him as if he'd grown a second head.
"I have… friends there," Bumi explained, but the look on Rehn's face told him he hadn't said enough. "It just burns me up that the Fire Nation would keep at it like that. It's like attacking children at this point. I mean, we don't deserve it either, but at least we can fight back. It's the nomad massacres all over again." Bumi fell silent, lost in his thoughts while Rehn stroked his beard contemplatively and stared up into the sky as if searching for the right response.
"Of course, after this point I know a very great deal about you," Rehn said eventually, changing the subject again. "You made a name for yourself by being the noisiest, most disrespectful soldier the Army had seen in a long time. You lived through a series of battles and eventually rose to the rank of General, a rank which you used to ferociously, and quite successfully, combat the Fire Nation's advance in the south."
"Yup," Bumi admitted, but offered no more.
"There is one more thing I would ask though, if I may," Rehn said, blatantly ignoring Bumi's attempts to let the conversation die. "What happened between you and Kuzon?" Bumi glared fiercely across the flames and was shocked to find himself blinking away tears
"He betrayed me," he said after a moment. "He betrayed me and killed our friend…" Neither of them attempted to fill the silence that followed.
They woke up early and, after a brief argument over breakfast, continued on their journey, Rehn's mood still unflappable, Bumi's still sullen. Bumi himself was, after some weeks of forced vegetarianism, itching for some meat, and kept his bow at the ready as they walked, anxious for the sight of prey. Prey was few and far between, however, and by the time the pair stopped for lunch, Bumi had seen, shot at, and missed only a single gopher-dillo. He sat down to another glum meal of bread and cheese with much frustration, doing his best to ignore Rehn's satisfied grin.
With every step they took, the ground became steeper and the forest receded. Soon the trees had become sparse enough that the afternoon sun could warm their backs, and they were granted the first glimpse of the sheer mountain peaks that extruded majestically from the horizon. Bumi could not help but recall Rehn's words and found himself obliged again to agree with them. The mountain was a mighty, mighty thing, standing far above petty human concerns. It was there, it was seen, if not respected, it was an obstacle that the large and the small had to heed. There was no transience to its existence. It was older than the four nations themselves and would scrape the clouds long after they had gone.
"The Earth is a spectacular thing, is it not, Bumi?" Rehn asked, interrupting Bumi's thoughts. He grinned knowingly at the surprised look on Bumi's face.
"I guess," Bumi admitted, removing his gaze from the mountaintops. He purposefully looked away, trying instead to focus on placing his feet, but he could not shake the feeling that the world was following him. Even staring at the ground, he found himself noticing the trails of ants that he stepped over, found the cheerful war cries of the birds caught in his memory, saw the patterns in the rock strata. He could almost swear he felt the ground rumbling, as if the earth itself was demanding that he look at it, see its greatness. Bumi scowled and kept walking, crunching his feet into the gravelly ground with each step to block out the sounds.
"I have always been in awe of nature," Rehn said again some minutes later, as if purposefully keeping Bumi on the subject. "There is a peace to it that I think is important." Bumi grunted noncommittally and kept walking. "There is," Rehn insisted, undaunted, "And in fact there is much you can learn from it." Bumi scoffed.
"I know there's much you can learn from it," he insisted. "No need to try to sound wiser than you are. Men always try to figure out what makes us so different from animals, and smart men always give up, because we aren't. We are animals, fighting for resources and dominion like all the rest of the world. Even bending comes from animals."
"Hmm… Yes, and no," Rehn said with all the condescension of a schoolteacher. "We are the same and we are different." Bumi waved his hand dismissively.
"Bah. Why, because we believe in magic? Because we kill each other over whose imaginary friend is the best?"
"You're oversimplifying it, but yes, more or less. There is a difference between the man-made and the natural, and many of us ignore it our entire lives. We alone are in a position to consider what the difference may be. The natural is simple, free from artifices. You ignore your natural side when you live your life for money. We must not construct meaning where there is none. But the man-made is thoughtful, capable of looking beyond the natural,"
"Yes, yes. And making up stories about what could be there so that we don't have to shut up and accept our lot in life, so that we don't have to admit how little we know?" Bumi said, cutting him off. "Pardon me, but I don't think animals are missing out on much."
"You're right. We must remain always humble before the Spirits, before the Earth, before things we cannot understand. The Fire Nation is grossly out of bounds to believe our own peoples merely too stupid to believe in Agni, and more so to try to force us to their ways. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the way we feel. Maybe there is magic, Bumi. And ignoring that possibility does little good." Bumi rolled his eyes and the two were silent for some time, with only the sound of their boots against the ground keeping them company. Night began to fall, and a light mist coalesced about the forest floor.
"When you listen to the Earth," Rehn said as if the pause had not happened at all, "it will tell you the right balance."
"Uh huh…" Bumi drawled sarcastically. "Just like it told you to send me junk mail."
"Yes," Rehn admitted simply. Bumi glowered at him and was about to make a sarcastic comment when Rehn stopped. The old man shrugged the satchel from his shoulders. "This is far enough," he concluded aloud, leaving no room for argument. "We will rest here tonight." Bumi frowned.
"Fine," he said, throwing his own pack to the ground. "I'm going hunting."
The hunting went well, and Bumi returned with two fine turkey-hawks. Rehn helped dress the meat and the two of them cooked it over the fire until it dripped with grease. They ate it with their bare hands, and even food from the King's table itself, Bumi decided, had never tasted so good.
That night, as Bumi lie on the rocky ground, staring up at the stars, he thought about what Rehn had said. The dirt seemed to cradle him in its embrace, and Bumi drifted to sleep wondering just how old the mountains were.
Rehn stopped, once again, to place his ear up against the nearest rock. Bumi sighed impatiently and stood, arms crossed, a few meters away. Secretly, he didn't mind the pause. They'd been mountain climbing in the hot sun all morning, and his muscles ached with exertion. Still, the feeling of soil under one's nails was liberating, and Bumi did not complain.
"We're close," Rehn announced, tapping against the cliff face to which he was listening. He smiled and set off up the path that meandered its way towards the mountain's summit, a new spring in his step.
"Where are we going anyway?" Bumi whined, following behind.
"Have you ever heard the story of Omashu's origins?" Rehn asked by way of answer. Bumi sighed.
"I've heard the myth. Cave of Two Lovers and all that."
"Yes, yes. Our destination is not far from there. It is a lovely spot. A spectacular view, plenty of space. The perfect place to think. I discovered it some years ago." Bumi grunted and the two fell silent.
They continued to climb, and the peak grew steeper until Bumi was forced to take off his boots and hang them over his shoulder so he could dig his toes into the rock. Their clothes were soaked with sweat. The air was deathly still, the sun-baked rocks burnt their hands, and progress was slow. Still, they plodded on tirelessly, inching their way towards the peak, Rehn in the lead, Bumi following. Finally, Bumi looked up to see Rehn disappear over the cliff edge.
"We're here!" he announced from above. Bumi cleared the final feet in seconds and rolled himself over the edge. He lay quietly on his stomach for a few seconds, catching his breath, before scrambling to his feet and surveying their destination. It was a small, flat plateau, perhaps a hundred feet across and as much again below the mountain's peak. It was flat and featureless, not counting a scattering of boulders and the steady expanse of orange-red dust covering its every surface. Bumi frowned.
"We came all this way for a patch of dirt?" he asked incredulously. Rehn beamed as he took a seat in the plateau's center.
"Yes, yes. Didn't I tell you?" he asked, ignoring Bumi's sigh of irritation. Bumi tossed his gear into a haphazard pile atop a nearby boulder and walked about the area, kneading the tension out of his forehead. "Here is where I will teach you, Bumi," Rehn continued, his voice slipping already into that of the wise old teacher. "Sit," he commanded, but Bumi ignored him.
"Is there some particular reason why we've traveled all this way, or are you just screwing with me again?"
"You will see," Rehn promised, folding his hands passively in his lap. "Let us begin." Bumi glowered at him for a second, but seeing no reasonable recourse, gave in, flopping down to the ground with a sigh. "We will begin," Rehn started, staring out at the sky, "with my favorite question. Why did I leave the Army? I told you before that you remind me of myself at that age. I was, as you are, a very intense young man. Talented. Dedicated. I was the leader of the Omashu Council of Five by the time I was thirty, and I took my duties very seriously. There was little fighting back then, as I'm sure I needn't remind you – mostly disputes between provinces – but I was unafraid. I would have the perpetrators in chains or worse by the time Roku showed up, every time. I marched into the thickest of it and laid down my King's will. I was the boot on his foot, and any foe of his was a foe of mine. I was well respected. So why did I give it up?" Bumi listened without comment, but could not manage to picture Rehn as a war hero. The man looked altogether too serene, too non-threatening, to have ever been a general. Still, Bumi had read of Rehn's accomplishments, and they were many.
"I left, Bumi, to live my life," Rehn said, answering his own question. "I had nothing left. My family had already died, my wife and child. War was everything to me, and I threw myself into it to give my life meaning. But I came to realize war did just the opposite. Fighting cannot create meaning. The meaning has to come first, has to come from inside you, and it is for that that you fight. I had become a weapon, had lost touch with my spirituality. I had lost any value in myself, and so I left to reclaim it." Bumi frowned.
"And this relates to the Pai Sho games how?" he asked grumpily, thoroughly disappointed in the answer to Rehn's riddle. Rehn smiled.
"The Pai Sho games were a symbol in that they were not a symbol. I played them because I wanted to. Because I like Pai Sho. I was not trying to teach you anything tactical, to give you some edge over your enemy. I was encouraging you to value yourself, and others, as persons with value above and beyond what they can accomplish. It is okay just to live. There is a quiet nobility in living one's life, in loving one's country."
"No there isn't!" Bumi protested, shaking his head in exasperation. "Just living isn't something to be proud of, it's something to be ashamed of! So you're alive, big deal! We're all alive! Being alive doesn't make you special. Living your life makes you normal. Why should you feel good about yourself for doing what everybody does, what you have no choice but to do, while someone else goes out and works for something and achieves it? You don't get to be proud for something you have no control over." He crossed his arms angrily. "You of all people should understand that. People who are satisfied with sitting back and gloating about their nation should be punished for their stupidity."
"And yet people who fight for their nation deserve our praise?" Rehn asked, raising his brows.
"No. People shouldn't fight for their nation at all. They should fight because they choose to, because they decide it is the right thing to do."
"And loving one's nation should not affect this decision?"
"No," Bumi insisted. "Love what your nation does if what it does is worthwhile. Don't love it just because you were born there. Don't love it just because you're supposed to, out of some misguided sort of loyalty you have no control over." Rehn nodded.
"You speak wisdom, I think. I believe you are too harsh, and yet you are right to insist against fighting only out of patriotism. But you've missed a piece of it too, and an important one at that. Ultimately, I left the Army because I realized I was fighting for its own sake, because I realized that I had lost sight of what I was defending, but that's not how it began." He looked at Bumi. "What is your favorite question, Bumi?"
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Bumi faltered, thinking. Technically, he had put a great deal of thought into this question. What did he want to know, most of all? He tugged at his several-day-old beard for a moment, pondering the possibilities yet again. All the while, Rehn's piercing stare seemed to go right through him.
"I guess," Bumi started with some hesitation. He stopped and frowned again, before making up his mind. "Is the Spirit World a real place?" His voice was clear and even, and the question seemed to echo across the landscape. Rehn's eyes widened in surprise, and the general smiled.
"I'm afraid, Bumi, that you've surprised me again. That is a question that I think no one can answer, though I think many a smart man has thought about it from time to time. In the end, I think we must conclude that we do not know, and leave it at that." Bumi tried to mask his disappointment. "Still," Rehn said again, adjusting his position, "I think the answer I have prepared will be of some interest to you." He fixed Bumi with a narrow-eyed, almost unkind stare.
"Tell me, Bumi," he started, "Why can't you bend?" Bumi scowled.
"Shut up," he insisted.
"Such a smart and talented young man," Rehn continued, paying him no heed. "Good at everything he does. A master swordsman, strategist, thinker, survivalist, salesman, and at roughly everything else he's ever attempted, and yet, by all accounts, a mediocre bender at best." Each word felt like a kick to the stomach, and Bumi looked away, trying to shut them out. "Something is missing," Rehn continued cruelly, "Something that children all around the Earth Kingdom can find, and yet of which the Mad Genius himself has remained entirely oblivious. But what could it be, that it could hide so well from him?" Silence descended upon the mountaintop. Bumi scowled into his knees, mortified. Rehn was right. That was a rather pressing question of his, though he'd trained himself to ignore it.
"And I suppose," he managed after some time, spitting out each word as if it physically pained him, "You know what this thing is?"
"Certainly," Rehn replied. "For I had lost it myself. In the end, you see, I left the Army to live my life. In the beginning, however, I left because I was losing my ability to bend." Bumi looked at him in confusion. "It's true," Rehn continued. "I was considered a prodigy, even at a very young age. I far surpassed my peers, and was considered one of the kingdom's most powerful benders." Bumi grumbled, doing his best to control his jealousy. "But as the years went by, I found my talent slipping. It frightened me. Most benders become only more potent as they age, only more connected to their element, and yet here I was, a man of forty, barely able to make a sandcastle, let alone make the mountains tremble before me. I had lost something, and I quit the Army, indeed, left everything I had behind, to find out what." There was another long pause. "I found it," Rehn concluded, puffing out his chest with pride, "And I can show it to you."
From the look on Rehn's face, Bumi could tell that he was enjoying the drama of the moment. Bumi stared at him in disbelief.
"So let me get this straight," he started, "you've been trying to get me to grow a conscience by bribing me with a weapon?"
"No, Bumi, that's just it. Earthbending is not a weapon!"
"Fine, fine. Whatever. It's not a weapon," Bumi drawled sarcastically. "Just because we use it to grind our foes into paste, that doesn't make it a weapon." He adopted an almost mockingly studious posture. "Mentor away."
"Right…" Rehn began slowly. "Like I said, I can teach it to you, but you have to listen to me. The training will be hard. It will take a long time. But most of all, it will require you to make some decisions, to accept some truths," he warned severely. Bumi nodded, still smirking. Rehn cleared his throat and closed his eyes. "Alright. To begin, I would like you to attempt to commune with the Earth." Bumi rolled his eyes again. "It is a special earthbending technique of my own invention," Rehn continued, ignoring him. "It is, in a sense, a trance. You are connecting your own energy to the Earth. You are surrendering to Her. It is the ultimate expression of neutral jing." Rehn's breathing slowed to a stop, and in the space of a few heartbeats he became completely still. Bumi watched him, enrapt, for several minutes, but Rehn never drew the slightest breath. It was as if he'd become a statue.
"Huh," Bumi observed. That didn't look so hard. He'd commune with the Earth alright. He'd commune it so hard it wouldn't know which way to turn. He folded his legs, mimicking Rehn's pose, and closed his eyes. For many seconds he waited expectantly behind the darkness of his own eyelids, but of course nothing happened. It occurred to him that, if in fact it was an earthbending technique, then in some way he had to earthbend, only without applying the force to any earth in particular. He gritted his teeth and pictured himself earthbending, recalled to his mind how it had felt the first time he'd, a scrawny boy of nine, struck down a slab of rock that weighed more than he did. How the feeling of solid stone rippling and cracking under an arm that could barely carry a pillow without tiring had felt so out of place, and yet so absolutely right at the same time. He imagined the looks on his foes faces as the ground rose up to shatter their shins. He tried to picture all of this and yet focus it into his mind.
Nothing. Bumi opened his eyes after several minutes of trying. He was surprised to find himself panting with exertion. Rehn remained, still as a statue, exactly where he first sat down, the same focused expression on his face.
"Alright, I can't do it," Bumi admitted, wiping the sweat from his brow. Rehn had no answer, but continued to stare lifelessly at the horizon. Bumi frowned at him. "Very nice, Rehn. It's a lovely trick. How do you do it?" he tried again. Rehn did not move. Grumbling, Bumi rose to his feet. "Hey!" he shouted, then again, louder. "Rehn!" He waved a hand directly in front of the man's face, but again, there was no response.
"Great," Bumi muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose in annoyance. "Real cute, Rehn, real cute." He stared off into the distance and was surprised to notice that the view was rather spectacular. He'd ignored it at first, too distracted by his complaining, and yet now he could look down across the continent as if all the world had been placed at his feet. He could see the forest's beginnings, a few scraggly dots congealing into an endless mass of life as it extended southward. Bumi traced the path of the road with his eyes, following it until it went too far to be seen. In the distance, the shininess of the Si Wong Desert was just visible, glittering like a piece of broken glass.
Sighing, Bumi turned back to his silent companion. By all appearances, the man still hadn't moved, or even breathed (Bumi secretly suspected Rehn was cheating every time his back was turned.) Bumi crouched down to Rehn's eye level and poked him experimentally. His skin was stiff and cool. This was no trick.
"Fine, Rehn," he said to no one in particular, and sat back down to try again.
The hours trickled by and still Bumi found no success. He'd tried everything he could think of – tiring himself out, coating himself in a fine layer of ruddy dust, holding rocks in his hands – everything, and yet the closest he'd gotten to Rehn's trick was a short nap. Rehn, of course, was of no help at all. He continued to stare stony-faced out to the horizon, even as dusk began to fall. His mouth never faltered from its serene grin, which eventually made Bumi so mad that he had to turn his back to it to avoid punching it inwards.
Now he stared out over the mountain's edge, too exasperated to continue. It was rather like his usual battle with insomnia, he supposed – worrying about falling asleep was a sure way to avoid ever doing so. It was only when one became too frustrated with worrying and trying to continue that sleep could come. Bumi felt like that now, and breathed deeply, hoping with some part of his mind that the answer would fall into his lap. He sat for many minutes, watching the sky darken.
"He called it communing with the Earth," he observed to himself after some time, breaking the silence that had enveloped the mountaintop. His voice sounded strange and foreign, as if it were coming from someone else, and Bumi actually twisted around to suspiciously regard Rehn. He still hadn't moved (still smiling) and Bumi turned back, sighing. "Communing with a chunk of rock. Riiiiiight," he continued, hoping Rehn could at least hear the sarcasm in his voice. Still, a thought occurred to him. It was ridiculous, of course, but he had tried everything else, and it might be that Rehn would not awaken from his trance and help until Bumi had jumped through the proper hoop. Bumi rubbed his forehead in frustration and sighed. He would try it. No one was around but Rehn, who'd already seen Bumi as weak as he'd ever been.
"H… Hello?" he asked after some further minutes of silence. His voice echoed from the mountaintop for several suspenseful seconds, and Bumi was surprised to find himself straining his ears for a response. Unsurprisingly, there was none, and Bumi's frown deepened.
"Here I am," Bumi continued, feeling particularly silly, "Communing with the Earth." There was silence. "Well, perhaps the Earth is feeling a bit shy today," he drawled, "So it can just listen while I talk." Again, no response, and Bumi screwed up his brows in thought. What did one say to a planet?
"Lovely… uhh… weather we're having!" he observed. Once again, if the Earth had any opinion, it did not share it. "I was told by a crazy old man that you talk, and somehow that should help me. How about it, hmm?" Still nothing. Bumi placed his hands flat against the ground, feeling for vibrations. Nothing. The silence stretched on.
Bumi snapped. "Come on!" he roared, leaping to his feet. He raised his arms to the sky. "I'm trying! I'm actually trying! Give me a break!" His outburst reverberated across the mountain a few times, slowly dissipating back into quietude. Bumi's arms dropped to his sides and he flopped to the ground with a world-weary whump. He shook his head angrily. Why was he so disappointed?
"This is stupid," he thought.
"Very," he added after a moment. "Honestly now. Do I honestly believe Rehn can talk to the Earth?"
"Of course not," he answered his own question. "The Earth is a rock. It cannot talk." He nodded grimly and sat in silence, glowering down at the world until he was interrupted by the impatient rumble of his stomach. Making up his mind, he stood, brushing the dust off of his pants, and retrieved his bow and arrow.
"I'm going hunting, Rehn," he announced, and walked away without a second glance.
Bumi stalked mechanically through the darkness, an arrow notched and ready to fly. It would be the full moon in a few days time, and there was plenty of light to hunt by, especially for an earthbender. He felt as much as saw the maze of inky tree trunks and boulders in his path. The world was quiet (there were few insects at this altitude), but Bumi's sensitive feet could feel the patter of dozens of tiny footsteps, as the legions of nocturnal fauna went about their daily lives, oblivious to his presence. His stomach rumbled every so often, and Bumi wished he had not wasted so much time talking to himself before setting out.
His movements were well-rehearsed and perfunctory, and Bumi's mind wandered, leaving his body at the mercy of its considerable experience. As silly as it had been, he found his thoughts returning to the idea of talking to the Earth. It was a ridiculous idea, and yet apparently Rehn took it seriously enough that he actually did what he pretended the Earth told him. The more Bumi thought about it, the more something felt amiss. Rehn had admitted how little he cared for Bumi, and yet he'd gone to enormous trouble to help him. Rehn actually believed that the Earth spoke to him, told him to send all those letters.
"Of course he doesn't," he reprimanded himself, shaking his head. "Rehn's a jerk but he's no fool. The Earth doesn't talk. He means something else." He was momentarily distracted by the sound of trickling water, and in an instant his train of thought was shunted to the back of his mind. Following the noise, he came to a tiny spring leaking forth from a cleft in the rock. He steadied a hand against a nearby boulder, feeling for movement – the water might have attracted game. There was none. His stomach growled and he began to move on. He made it perhaps ten feet before stopping and turning back to regard the spring.
"Food will come. Wait," he told himself.
Taking up residence behind a nearby outcropping, Bumi sat down to wait. His stomach continued to voice its hunger, and he brought his thoughts back to occupy himself.
"It was a symbol," he decided. "Rehn did not mean it literally. He meant something else." But what? What could 'the Earth told me' possibly stand for besides 'I'm a senile old man with delusions of grandeur'?
"Think about it. What is the Earth?"
"A rock. An unconscious sphere of stone. No thoughts, no feelings, no why's. Perfectly explainable." But as soon as this thought had announced itself, doubt followed.
"Bending doesn't count," he amended.
"Why not? Can it not be explained?"
"It can, but not by me. I do not know enough."
"It doesn't match the rest of the world."
"It's not magic."
"It's close." And Bumi knew that he was right. He'd always grappled with the war between the natural and supernatural (or rather, the war to take everything away from the supernatural by explaining it). All in all, supernatural explanations were almost invariably cheap superstition when something could not be explained through better means. How many spirits and gods of the past had faded out of their believers' minds when science caught up and rationalized them away? Lightning wasn't magic, it was electricity (exactly what that was, Bumi wasn't fully aware, but he knew it was just a matter of time before Fire Nation thinkers had figured it out). Everything, everything had a natural explanation, it was just a matter of learning enough to find what it was. Bumi had always prided himself in building a worldview that didn't involve any deus ex machinae like spirits, and it had never failed him.
Still, bending had always been on the line. What was it? How could one possibly claim to see the world realistically when the ability to control the elements was commonplace? To be perfectly honest, it had never added up. Gravity should forbid it. Causality should forbid it, and yet it was real. Bumi found himself at a loss.
Even so, Bumi could hardly call himself a realist if he was willing to throw out time-tested, universe-governing rules just because an exception appeared to exist. No indeed, that only called for a re-imagining of the rules. It called for thinking, reevaluation, revision. Bumi was sure that, given enough time, the people of the world would advance enough to be able to explain bending. It wouldn't happen in his lifetime, but it would happen eventually, and that certainty was comforting. Still, the problem was troubling.
"Alright," his mental monologue started again, "Suppose for the sake of argument bending is magic. And while the idea that humans that can't even explain the natural world knowing anything about the supernatural world is ridiculous, suppose further that the legends about bending are true. Where do I go from there?" Bumi mulled it over and found he did not know. On the one hand, his mind was not being entirely cooperative. The idea of magic was so singularly repulsive, it had washed its hands of the whole affair and had focused back on filling his stomach. On the other, there was a certain appeal to the supernatural. At the very least, it would explain why he, genius as he was, had never figured out his bending problems – how was he supposed to know anything supernatural? He found himself rifling through every earthbending story he knew.
The answer was not obvious to him. As it was, legends about earthbending were the simplest, realest of the four elements'. As Gar had been fond of pointing out, there was no God of Rock that gave earthbenders their powers. There was no permission to ask, no taboos to practice, no catches. It was a simple, straightforward ability, just like walking or talking. Badgermoles had it, humans had it. End of story.
Bumi's thoughts were interrupted by the snap of a twig. In an instant, the philosophizing part of his mind finally rejoined hunting part and realization of his surroundings flooded his senses. Blinking the sleep out of his eyes, he silently craned his neck over the edge of his hiding place, looking down at the spring. Thirty feet away, a male mountain camel had stopped to drink. Even in the dark, Bumi could see the long, tufted ears on its horned head flicking to and fro, wary for danger.
Bumi frowned as he realized that he'd set the arrow he'd prepared aside on a rock. Ever so slowly, he extended a hand out to grab it, his eyes never leaving his quarry. The instant his fingers touched it, the mountain-camel bolted upright, its head swiveling atop its long neck. Its legs twitched with anticipation – it was ready to run, and mountain-camels were faster than the wind. There was no way Bumi could notch an arrow, aim, and fire before the beast had escaped. Cahim might have been able to, but never Bumi.
Whatever could be said of his speed with a bow, Bumi was a terrifically fast thinker. Hardly a moment passed after he realized his predicament had he smashed a fist into the ground, earthbending a pillar up behind the mountain-camel. The creature gave a bleat of fear and fled from the source of the noise, and directly towards the true threat. Bumi felled the creature with a neat shot to the neck.
Even as he hefted the carcass onto his shoulders and began the trek back to the mountaintop, two thoughts occurred to Bumi. The first was "let's see Cahim do that," which brought a conceited smile to his face. The second, however, felt instantly more important.
"Earthbending is a tool."
"Earthbending is a tool."
Bumi wasn't sure why this was important. When it came right down to it, it was a dull statement of nothing. Of course earthbending was a tool. So was all bending. So were legs and swords and pens, and he had no trouble with those. Still, the thought had lodged itself in his mind, and he looked at it from every angle all night. It had the distinctive, tip-of-the-tongue flavor of an idea already made but forgotten. It was a start of an answer. Bumi knew it.
It was still in his mind when he finally hefted his prize up onto the ledge where he'd left Rehn. The old general was still there, still gazing unmoving out at the world. It was midnight at least, judging by the stars, but Bumi's stomach had made it clear there would be no waiting until morning, and he dutifully set to work. He left the mountain-camel beneath Rehn's protective gaze and set back down the mountainside to gather wood for a fire, and once he had it burning merrily he set into the carcass, skinning and dressing the meat as he'd learned to do on the Southern Landmass. Bumi had never quite mastered the 'use every part of the yawning seal' mentality, and much of the meat was ruined by his clumsy hands, but before the night was over he had a neat little pile of flame-roasted meat. He ate slowly, still wrapping his mind around this newest puzzle.
The fire had burned down to a last few cheerless embers and the meat gone quite cold before he finally decided to call it a night. Technically, he'd made no progress – earthbending was a tool, but what that meant, he still did not know – but he was satisfied just the same. He was finally on the right track. Rehn stared blankly at him as if to mock him, and Bumi smirked.
"Have some dinner, Rehn," he drawled, piling the leftovers of his meal atop his teacher's head.
He slept well.
Bumi was roused from sleep by a peculiar smacking noise. Paying it no heed, he rolled over with a moan, willing his mind back onto the dream thread he'd lost. Of course, he now had no idea about what he'd been dreaming, but he knew it had been fascinating. The noise continued, and as Bumi's senses (quite against his will) sharpened, he recognized too the snap of bone and the slow tear of flesh. A scavenger, no doubt, helping itself to the remains of his kill. Bumi ignored it and bunched up a little tighter, but of course it was no use. He growled, opened his eyes and rolled to his feet.
"Take it and leave, you pesky little…" His jaw stopped mid sentence to hang loosely from his skull. Bumi's eyes widened as he faced the would-be thief and was encountered not by a stoathawk or carriontoad, but instead a vast expanse of fur. He craned his neck back to regard the beast. Spectacled, useless eyes as wide as dinner plates stared curiously back at him. The badgermole, the size of a house and still young, chewed absently on a mouthful of stolen food, which crackled between its sharp teeth. Bumi chuckled at the absurdity of the situation.
"Yeah… You can have that, I guess," he said, bowing his head respectfully to the mammoth beast. The badgermole gave a pleased purr that shook the ground. Bumi yawned, stretching his arms above his head, and stooped to collect his gear, which had been scattered liberally about the plateau. He could feel the great animal's stare on his back as he worked. Luckily, most of the supplies were still salvageable, though the iron pot they'd brought had been stamped flat. Bumi tossed it aside without a care.
When he had collected everything and arranged it in a tidy pile, away from the badgermole and his meal, Bumi regarded the beast again. Blind or not, it seemed to notice and perked up its ears.
"So I guess you're the teacher Rehn mentioned," he asked eventually. The badgermole chuffed happily. "Rehn has some funny friends, but I guess I'm not much one to talk." Bumi smiled, the thudding footsteps of a certain giant ape flooding his memory.
After minutes of chewing, the badgermole finally swallowed the last of the carcass and, once a few seconds of sniffing the ground proved that it was truly gone, shuffled over to the meat Bumi had piled on Rehn's head. It slurped up the offering with a meter-long tongue, lathering it through the old man's thin hair. Bumi snorted with laughter.
"Funny," he admitted (the beast cast another curious stare his way), "but not helpful, Teacher." He took a seat on the ground in front of Rehn, again imitating his posture. "You have fun with that," he continued, closing his eyes, "but I'm going to give this another try."
The seconds passed in silence and, like before, nothing happened. Bumi breathed deeply. He felt better, more serene than he had the day before. Whatever that missing piece was, something told him it was closer, and yet still nothing happened. He breathed deeper still, frowning. Minutes passed, and eventually the shuffling footsteps of a many ton animal receded into the distance.
Bumi's eyes shot open, darting to Rehn's face. The old man's hair was still drawn up in a comical, saliva-encrusted wave, but aside from that, he was as stony faced as ever. His command, however, echoed in the air. Bumi narrowed his eyes, watching Rehn's face for the slightest movement, but once again, if the old man was cheating, he was doing a damn good job of hiding it. Bumi sighed and rose to his feet.
"I hate you, Rehn."
The badgermole wasn't hard to follow. Even on solid rock, its enormous clawed feet tore great swathes everywhere it went. Its massive behind shuffled comically as it made its way across the mountain, Bumi in tow. The creature stepped easily from peak to peak, its weight sending fountains of pulverized rock sliding down the steep slopes. Considering that it was blind, it was surprisingly graceful in its movements, its feet landing perfunctorily on proper footholds (some of which were spaced so far apart Bumi had to leap between them to keep up) or, when it came to a slipperier stretch, summoning them right from the mountain's surface.
Bumi watched silently, tailing his new companion from a safe distance. He wasn't entirely sure what he was supposed to gather from watching the creature – it was beautiful, aye, and something about the primal strength with which it infused its every move combined with its almost comically affable appearance struck a chord in Bumi – but beyond that, how it was supposed to teach him earthbending, he could not see. Still, he persisted. It was not unbelievable that the only other earthbending species on the planet might hold secrets in its behavior – that was one legend Bumi might actually accept. Besides, it had to be another symbol. The badgermole would not teach him per se, but it was a clue to whatever truth Rehn wanted him to discover.
They'd traveled perhaps half a mile before the badgermole stopped at a great pile of boulders and smashed rock. Its long nose probed the cracks, sniffing insistently. Bumi sniffed too, and was immediately overwhelmed by a powerful, musky smell. He coughed quietly and retracted his nose beneath the collar of his shirt. The badgermole continued to snuffle about, and Bumi soon noticed the fine layer of dust and bone fragments that covered everything. An enormous skeleton, bleached white by the sun and pocked by giant toothmarks, lay in shambles to one side.
After a few minutes of focused sniffing, the badgermole kit seemed to find what it was looking for. Bumi watched as it shuffled backwards, and then with a quick heave rose to its hind legs, stabilizing itself with its thick, pink tail. It took a few tottering steps towards the rock formation (which were, except for the way the ground shook, humorously reminiscent of a toddler's first steps) then dropped down, slamming its massive knuckles down into the ground before it. There was a tremendous crack, loud enough to make Bumi's ears ring, and the mountain split apart. The great pile of boulders drained away like sand in a funnel, revealing a great, gaping hole that disappeared into the blackness of the mountain's innards.
The badgermole held its position for a moment, staring pointedly down what Bumi concluded had to be the entrance to its family's communal burrow, its ears cocked as it listened to the descending rocks clatter. Bumi's guts still shuddered from the force of the blow, which on another day he might have dismissed as brute animal strength. There was a surprising sense of purpose to the badgermole's stance, however, something about the way that its claws folded over its palms and its muscles bulged beneath its fur convinced Bumi that he was seeing more than just an accidental pose. He flexed his own arms, mimicking the way the badgermole had moved, and stooped to gently bump his knuckles against the ground. Nearby pebbles danced, and Bumi arched an eyebrow in surprise. He did not have time to try the move again, however, as the badgermole finally trundled its way into the mountain's maw. Bumi followed, knowing his lesson was not yet complete.
There is only so long a man can go without food, water, or sunlight (though Bumi's understanding of exactly how long that is would soon be radically changed). When a truly thoughtful man truly sits down to think, however, and especially if he chooses to do it deep beneath the Earth's surface, without the sun, moon, or stars with which to gauge the passage of time, that limit can creep up in a hurry. Bumi did not know how long he stayed in the company of the badgermoles (three kits and their irritable, battleship sized mother) – it could have been three days, it could have been ten – but it was only when his need for sustenance became too much to bear that he finally left. Lost in his thoughts, he'd put off his departure as long as possible, licking the dampness off of rocks to tide over his desiccated mouth. His attempts to scavenge from the badgermoles' kills did not go over well, and in the end, he was forced to return to the surface or risk starvation.
After so long underground, the sunlight was dazzling, and gut-wrenching hunger and thirst aside, Bumi was forced to wait in the dimness thirty feet into the badgermoles' tunnel until his eyes remembered how to see again. His head swam and his limbs tingled distractedly as he made his drunken journey. Several times he nearly swerved off a cliffside, and for much of the way he was too dizzy to do any better than crawl, but eventually he made his way back to where he'd left the still-statuesque Rehn.
His hands shook as he went for his backpack and fumbled ineffectively with the straps for a moment before managing to open it and withdraw a bladder of water. This he frantically emptied into his mouth, greedily swallowing every drop. When he'd squeezed it dry and then some, he tossed it aside and reached for another. The coolness of the liquid sloshing down his throat made his shrunken stomach burble with surprised discomfort, but he ignored this too as he moved on to the half dozen wrapped loaves of bread he'd stolen from Rehn's farmhouse. He devoured all six like a man possessed, tearing them open one by one and ravaging them. By the time he'd finished, there was a heavy knot of pain in his side, as if he'd swallowed a great stone, but even then he'd have eaten more had there been any more to be eaten.
The camp drained of food, Bumi collapsed onto his back and stared up at the swirling sky, gritting his teeth against the stomach pains. The pain came in waves of increasing severity punctuated by brief breaks – during one of these, Bumi twisted his head far enough to see Rehn, still apparently unmoved and unconcerned by the passage of time. Bumi grimaced at the man as another wave broke. However, even doubled over in pain, he was charged with excitement. He'd spent his time wisely over the past few days. He'd almost starved, it was true, but there was something about blinding the eyes (and, perhaps, the soothing aroma of a bevy of gigantic mustelids) that cleared the mind. He'd sat in the dark and pondered for many hours on end, piecing together Rehn's clues, and he knew he was close. He'd felt his ability to read vibrations grow throughout his time in the cave (until he could feel all four badgermoles, no matter where in their labyrinth they may be), and while he figured it could merely be his ears growing more attuned after so long in the dark, he had a feeling it was not. He had a feeling he had almost found what he'd been missing.
The pain did not subside, nor did the ravenous hunger, but soon Bumi's patience wore out. He teetered to his feet and attempted to walk over to where Rehn sat, but before he'd made it three steps he felt his furious meal coming back to revisit him. He stumbled to the edge of the peak and threw up over the rocks below.
He lay on his stomach, peering down the slope for some time. He'd clearly eaten too much, too fast for his atrophied stomach to handle. His abdomen still spasmed uncomfortably, and yet the primal urge to eat something would not go away. He had to go hunting, had to find something.
"No. I drank. I am not in danger anymore. Food can wait." He did not particularly want to make food wait, but he realized he was right. He could hardly hunt in his condition anyway. He steeled himself and rose again. This time he managed to stumble over to Rehn and, once again, mimic the older man's meditative posture.
"I think I have it, Rehn," he announced. His voice sounded sticky and foreign to his ears, but the words were clear enough, and he watched Rehn's face intently. For a time, Rehn did not move, and Bumi was struck with the awful thought that his mentor's game was just beginning. After a moment, however, Rehn's lips moved.
"Do you?" he asked, his voice gravelly. Bumi started abruptly – it was surprising how strange seeing any movement from Rehn was – it was like he really had become a rock.
"Y…Yes," Bumi managed, finding his voice. "I think so, anyway." He looked at Rehn, who might have inclined his head the slightest bit. "Okay," Bumi started, "So I followed the badgermoles and watched them. They are just animals, and yet they may be the greatest earthbenders in the world. Why? Because they're different from humans. They don't think in terms of plans and controls. They use earthbending to live their lives, and that's all. They're powerful, but they don't view the power as an end in itself but always as a means." Bumi was panting as he finished, and looked at Rehn hopefully. There was an impossibly long moment, and then Rehn smiled.
"Good enough," he croaked, and Bumi couldn't help but grin. He started to talk, but Rehn cut him off. "Close your eyes," he commanded, "And try to commune with the Earth again." Bumi did so. He heard a creaking sound as, no doubt, Rehn stood up from his long sit. Rehn began to talk, and as he did so, his voice reclaimed its previous warmth.
"I told you the answer to my favorite question is the same as the answer to your favorite question, and so it is," he began. "You are correct. Badgermoles are pure earthbenders, simple, honest creatures, commanding a simple, honest element. Earth is not like fire, not like water, not like air. They are all companions, all have their own will, all act with or without the bender's aid. Earth is the least spiritual, the most animalistic of the four, and yet we humans still manage to dilute its true purpose."
"Earthbending is a tool," Rehn growled, echoing Bumi's realization from earlier. "It is not a master, a slave, or a friend, but a tool. Badgermoles use it to build their homes and defend themselves, to live their lives. Remember what I told you about my last years in the Army? I had come to worship the fight itself, and not the life it was meant to protect. I had come to worship earthbending's power, without caring about what it was for. I had become a weapon, when I needed to be a hero." Bumi winced. When several seconds passed and Rehn did not continue, he spoke up.
"The secret to earthbending is to be a hero?" He asked, not managing to hide the doubt in his voice. "I'm pretty sure I could introduce you to quite a few talented earthbenders that fall just a pinch short of the 'hero mark'." Rehn chuckled.
"I'm sure you could, Bumi, I'm sure you could. But they will serve as a fine example. Are these friends of yours evil?" he asked. Bumi frowned, thinking. "Does the Earth dole out its powers to only those who it deems good, and keeps them from those it deems evil?" There was another pause. "Of course not. Earth is not a judgmental element. It is not a master, slave, or friend, but only a tool. Earth cannot measure a man's acts."
"No, the truth is, earthbending is connected to a desire to live one's life, to improve things, to be a hero. Your evil friends do not wake up in the morning and think themselves evil. They think they are revolutionaries, pushing for a better way of life against a misguided world morality. Every man thinks he's a hero, Bumi…" There was a long, pregnant pause. "Except you." Bumi accidentally opened his eyes at that, and saw Rehn staring at him with scholarly interest.
"Every man thinks he's a hero," Rehn repeated as Bumi closed his eyes again, "Every man looks for a better life, Every man seeks to fix the world… Except for Bumi. Bumi's always doing things, always heading for a goal, but what does he really want?" Bumi considered this, and was surprised to find that he did not know. Luckily, Rehn did not appear to be looking for an answer, and continued, his voice growing louder and more involved. "Bumi goes from place to place, always improving himself, always trying to be the best, always the winner, the master. He is the quintessential weapon. Joined the Army for all the wrong reasons, just a piece of equipment to be wielded." Bumi felt Rehn kneel down in front of him, felt rather than saw the chastising finger the old man pointed his way. "Earthbending is a tool, Bumi, but you are not." Utter silence followed, and Bumi felt his eyes grow wet. He did not bother to wipe them.
"So what you need to do, my friend," Rehn continued after a moment in a soft, soothing tone of voice, "Is take some time. Think about what you want your life to mean before it is over. Think about what is important to you. Live your life. And if you do, you will be able to speak to the Earth."
Bumi sniffled. "The Earth will talk to me?"
"The Earth is a rock, Bumi," Rehn said, and Bumi could hear the grin in his voice. "When you commune with it, the only one talking is you." And with that, he walked away.
Bumi's stomach roared its protests, demanding and rejecting food in the same insistent voice, but Bumi ignored it. His eyes were shut, his knees crossed in a meditative pose, the very picture of serenity, but his mind raced. The Earth didn't talk, it was a symbol, and Bumi was surprised he hadn't thought of it before. Another old, wise man had told him much the same thing, many years ago. "There are many incarnations of the spirit world, and they mean different things to different people," Pathik had said, "Many people seek to know the truth, but that is a thing that no one can say, so each person invents his own." And there it was. Communing with the 'Earth' was just a fancier way to picture self-evaluation. When a man looked inside himself, realized his principles, and made a decision, he wanted to give the credit to something bigger than himself, and so it became communing with the Earth.
"Okay, so let's do it, Self," Bumi told himself.
"Think about what you want your life to mean before it is over," Rehn's voice echoed in his head, and Bumi's mind returned to the boy soldier he'd talked to before his fateful battle at Uijid, the one who had wanted to go on living his life.
"What do you want?" he asked himself, and his mind was back on the Southern Landmass, traveling the hard-packed tundra underneath a star-studded sky, friends at his side.
"Think about what is important to you," Rehn's voice commanded, and his mind reeled back still further, this time to Mipsie, and Kee, and Shou, and Kihni. Further back, and the memories grew more intense. The colors popped, the textures rubbed at his skin. Further back, and he was with Kuzon and Aang again, laughing. Happy.
And when he opened his eyes, Bumi gasped.
There he was, atop the same peak on which Rehn had spent so many days without moving, and yet something seemed… off. Some part of the picture was wrong to him, but as soon as Bumi tried to decide what it was, his mind would muddy and he would find himself skipping through extraordinarily vivid memories again. His train of thought refused to be locked down, and eventually Bumi gave up and watched the sun trace an arc across the sky. It was beautiful, he decided. His thoughts, though scattered, were powerful – each one thundered across his brain with perfect clarity. More, he felt an unbelievable sense of calm of safety. The feeling enveloping him had an astonishing width to it that stretched out beneath him like a safety net (if he had measured it, Bumi was sure it would be as wide as the planet itself). It tingled like a phantom limb, but vast and unchangeable and immortal.
"Okay. Everything is okay," the Earth's voice (his own) spoke to him. "You are at peace, I am at peace, you have done well." He calmed and let his mind wander as it would. His eyes watched the sky, watched the alternating periods of light and dark as the sun and moon took turns rolling past. He followed their paths, grinning stupidly to himself. Eventually, even this lost its novelty, and he stared up at the mountain peak that extruded up above him. It was perhaps a hundred feet tall in reality (though Bumi could not recall that figure now), but it looked impossibly bigger, the thumb of a vast hand, the head of a vast woman (Oma?), holding Bumi in her arms.
"Do it." Rehn's voice cut through the murk. There was something realer, more gritty about it that made it grate on Bumi's ears and reverberate through his bones. Somehow, Bumi didn't need to be told what it was, and raised his hands high in the air. He brought his knuckles down on the ground.
The mountaintop tore itself in two with a spectacular crack. Vast boulders rained down in a thunderous hail, as if the spirits themselves had seen fit to show their power. The two halves, each many times the size of a house, slumped to either side, leaving a colossal fissure between them.
The first thing Bumi noticed when he came to was the split mountain before him, the great gulf in the rock, wide enough for a sky bison to fly through, that had not been there just minutes before. His eyes widened as he realized that it was he that had done that, he that had shown such strength.
The second thing he noticed was a small, neat pile of fruit and nuts, along with a loaf of bread, resting on the ground in front of him. His stomach reminded itself of its presence and his awe at his newfound power stepped aside. He greedily set into the food.
"I thought you'd be rather hungry after all that," Rehn observed, and Bumi turned to see the older man sitting on a summoned pedestal of rock, calmly sipping tea from a porcelain teacup. At Bumi's confused gawking, he gestured to it. "I've already been back to my house to pick up a few things," he explained. "Got some work done, brought us some fresh supplies." Bumi forced down a particularly dry lump of bread.
"Really?" he asked. "How long was I out?" Rehn smiled.
"Six days." Bumi's eyes widened even further, and he gradually turned back to look at the cloven mountain.
They started the journey back to Rehn's house that afternoon. Bumi's joints creaked and squealed when he stood up for the first time, leaving a lingering pain in his fingers and hips, and Rehn had just laughed.
"You'll get used to it," he promised, shaking his head.
They took their time, stopping early each day to build up a campfire and prepare a fine meal. Bumi's tone was significantly improved since their last journey, and he asked Rehn many questions about earthbending (and even answered a few about himself). Soon, however, they spotted a thin, cheerful wisp of chimney smoke curling into the sky. Their mood grew solemn, and as they approached the house where Bumi had been imprisoned (Bumi could not help but squirm a little at the sight), Rehn put a hand on Bumi's shoulder.
"Listen, Bumi," he commanded, and his face was serious enough that Bumi complied without hesitation. "You have done well, and I am very proud of you. You would be welcome to stay here, with me, for as long as you would like, but I think I know you well enough by now to know that you'll be moving on tomorrow." Bumi nodded. He would be. "I have, on this paper," he withdrew a folded piece of parchment from his pocket and caressed it nervously between his calloused hands, "the locations, as of three days ago, of your former unit, as well as General Kuzon." He handed the paper to Bumi, whose eyes widened in surprise. He patted Bumi's shoulder again. "I cannot tell you how to be a hero, Bumi. I've taught you all I can." He turned and walked down the path towards his house without another word.
Bumi spent the night in the very same bed he'd been chained in for weeks, thinking.
Bumi awoke the next morning to the smell of cooking sausage. His stomach growled, and, after shouldering his backpack, he followed his nose out to the front yard. Onbri and Rehn were seated around a firepit, talking as breakfast sizzled between them.
"Mornin' On', Rehn," Bumi grunted, squatting on one of the stone seats.
"Mornin' Bumi," Onbri replied, smiling prettily. "Did you survive Rehn?" Bumi laughed.
"Kicked 'is ass, is more like it." Rehn rolled his eyes and handed Bumi a plate. The three of them ate in silence. The food was good, but there was a tension in the air, and Bumi could tell his companions were anxious to hear what he was planning to do. Would he reveal their Order? What would he do with Rehn's teachings? It was Rehn himself who broke the silence.
"So," he started, clearing his throat. "I suppose you'll be leaving this morning?" He and Onbri stared at Bumi expectantly, watching him swallow a last bite of sausage.
"Yes. I am heading south." He produced from his pocket the note Rehn had given him the previous evening, and, after a grave pause, tossed it in the fire. He tried to do it nonchalantly, as if he didn't care at all, but he couldn't help but solemnly watch as the edges curled and blackened away. Some part of him longed to plunge his hands into the flames, to rescue his chance at revenge, and yet the feeling faded. Seconds passed, and he knew it was over. A great weight had lifted from his shoulders. He was done with Kuzon.
"How far south?" Rehn asked. Bumi grinned.
"Pretty far." Rehn nodded his acceptance and stroked at his bearded chin. He appeared on the verge of saying something further, but minutes passed and he said nothing. Bumi slowly poked at his last bite of food as long as he could bear, but when Rehn remained silent, he wolfed it down, set his plate aside, and stood.
"I guess this is goodbye," he told them, fumbling about inside of one of his pockets. "And thanks, I guess." Finding the object he sought, he palmed it in one of his hands. Bumi stared at Onbri, who nodded, and at Rehn, who did nothing. He held his gaze, then began to turn away.
"If you go south," Rehn's voice broke out, stopping him, "Your friends will still believe you dead." He said it matter-of-factly, not a warning, just a reminder. He stared warily at Bumi from behind steepled fingers. Bumi matched his gaze.
"I think I'd like them to believe that for a little longer yet," he admitted.
"You sure?" There was a long pause as Bumi outstretched one hand, held on for a moment, and then dropped something heavy into the fire to join Rehn's letter. Rehn's eyes darted down and rested briefly on the mangled remains of a manacle, then flitted up to meet his student's eyes again. The ghost of a smile appeared on his lips.
"I'm sure." And Bumi headed south.
A/N: Hey there, long time no see!
I've learned my lesson. No more promises about update schedules. None. That is all.
Well, first of all, sorry to my readers for taking so long. Life (in the form of my new job) and, more importantly, a general lack of interest took over. Since watching the ever-so-epic finale, however, some of that interest has been rekindled, and I decided that, considering I had some 10,000+ words sitting on my hard drive I'd not yet posted, I might as well get back to it.
I'll be honest, with the presumed end (or something like it) of Avatar upon us, I am beginning to doubt my ability to remain motivated enough to finish this story. I still have a good 6-8 chapters planned after this one, and at the rate I'm going, I wonder if they'll ever get done. Worry not, I am not quitting this story. At present, I am still enjoying it (in fact, after so many months away from it it was kindof a treat to go back and read what I'd forgotten). I am far too heavily invested to quit now. Still, a heads up. (If I do happen to quit, I'll be sure to write something of an abridged version of the ending, perhaps a series of oneshotish chapters, so at least the story can have some closure).
Anywho, this is the second of two chapters that have worried me since I started this story, and I think it turned out rather better than the first. Longest one yet (I really don't know why that keeps happening), and kindof philosophical to boot (I wrote much of this while taking a very interesting class on morality – we didn't cover the arguments mentioned here, but nonetheless an inspiration). That last bit there might anger some Toph fans, but I thought it was too cool an image to resist.
Once again I must thank my beta, Rasputin Zero, for his help in editing, and shepherd my few readers over towards his excellent epic (which I note also hasn't been updated in a while…glares)
Next chapter: Dual identities abound and Bumi's talents, new and old, are put to good use. Also, canon rears its head again!