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|The Tale of Oma and Shu|
June 30, 2015
The constant presence of peril reigned at the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se during the ever-apparent wave of siege. On one end, there was the might of the forcefully-expanding Fire Nation; on the other was the capital of the Earth Kingdom: the impenetrable city. An unstoppable force had met an immovable object. And each side loathed the other, with most of those who fought having at least two generations before them in the same, unending conflict that had consumed the world. The very idea of peace no longer existed even in memory, but only stories. All those who recalled it were long gone, and the reality they knew might as well have been folklore, like the Avatar and the Air Nomads of old.
The Earth Kingdom had set up a more-or-less permanent base just inside the Outer Wall, where they coordinated their resistance and sent massive waves of troops to do battle with the Fire Nation on the other side. Above ground, countless benders and warriors were housed and trained for combat. Just below ground, in the lower part of this base, were a far more unkempt and quiet set of quarters. It was where prisoners of war were held, and was only accessible through a spiraling stairwell opened through earthbending. The stairwell was ordinarily closed, but it was ajar at the present. A pair of voices rang from above, which gradually grew louder. It was a man and a woman.
"This is ridiculous!" snapped Ratana. "It's unfair, Commander!"
"You're lucky you're not court-martialed, Captain!" Commander Lao snapped back, brandishing the word like a weapon as he emphasized her subordinate rank.
"How about just thanking me," she suggested. "Because of my latest assault, we gained more ground than we have in weeks and we brought back two armored tundra tanks."
The male commander shook his head. "You don't get it, do you? It was a foolish move you made. You nearly got your whole platoon killed, Captain. You behaved irrationally out there. General Sung is furious!"
"Hah, General Sung! I'd love to give him a piece of my mind. The most incompetent general ever – he has no nerve. I had to make a move for him."
"I'd keep your mouth shut," her commander told her sternly, "unless you want to be charged with insubordination, too."
She remained angry, but calmed herself with a deep breath. "How long have we been fighting the Fire Nation in this region for? A year? Maybe a little more? It's a dire situation when these fiery tyrants have finally grown arrogant enough to go for Ba Sing Se. It's time we ended it!"
"Hah – ending it," said the man, laughing without humor. "That's thinking impossibly far ahead. Now you really are being irrational. You are confined to barracks for the time being, where you will guard the new, important prisoner. Those are your orders, Captain Ratana."
Captain Ratana begrudgingly saluted her superior and hung her head, reluctantly accepting her punishment for going against the accursed general's wishes. She knew that her place was on the battlefield. It was where she belonged. Instead, she was down in this dump that harbored captives from the Fire Nation. Now, there was one from the Earth Kingdom, too. She marched gloomily to her new post: a confined area that held a single prisoner - meant for extra security. Aside from the bricked walls and the steel bars of unbendable metal, there was only a small desk that her direct commanding officer sometimes used, with naught but a messy stack of papers and a rusted tea kettle atop it. Ratana peered into the cell with her eyes blazing, at her only company down here, a man of about her age – one of those she fought.
The man was as cheerful as she was the opposite. "Ratana of Gaipan, my personal prison guard. I never thought I'd see the day."
Ratana narrowed her eyes. "You're the one I've been wanting to fight most. I'm a champion bender on my side, and you on yours. I've been looking forward to meeting you. Now, the time finally comes – and you're a damned prisoner of war!"
"Sounds like you're somewhat of a prisoner yourself," he said matter-of-factly. "I could hear your voices all the way down the hall."
"You should not have been listening!" Ratana snapped at him.
"Easy, there," said the man, putting up a hand. "You'd better control your temper down here. From what I hear, your general doesn't want me harmed."
"No," she replied, shaking her head. "Not yet, anyway. I'm sure he plans to give you a swift, public execution when the time comes." She was eager to wipe that smug smile off his firebender face.
The man, however, was not in the least put off by these words. "Doesn't matter. I'll have escaped from this place long before then."
"You seem awfully sure of yourself."
"Well, I'm not one to toot my horn... but I am my father's son. I've been captured three times before and I've never needed any assistance to bust myself out. This whole ordeal is nothing new to me. It's like a game I play, over and over."
"You haven't had me as your guard before," said Ratana, staring piercingly straight into his eyes. "Whatever you try to pull here, I'll catch you and stop you! I always find a way to do what I must. Since I was younger I've had to fend for myself. I don't expect one in your position to understand that. You've had everything handed to you."
The prisoner shook his head. "Oh, no. Growing up among us is no fire gummy cakewalk. Only the strong survive in my family. Any show of weakness is not tolerated, even from children. My grandfather doesn't believe in the concept of a proper childhood. My dad's different from the rest of them, though. He would bring me to play in the palace courtyard and tell me bedtime stories of the first firebenders... and the first earthbenders."
"Why would your father tell you of the badgermoles? That's ours!" said Ratana, as though the thought of them discussing the topic offended her.
Lu Ten shrugged calmly. "My dad always made a point of knowing and understanding everyone, not just ourselves."
"I was never particularly close to my father," Ratana said with her arms crossed. "But when I was little, he also told me the story of Oma, Shu and the badgermoles."
"Well, what do you know," said Lu Ten cheerfully. "We're not completely different."
"Not every version of the story is accurate," said Ratana, narrowing her eyes again. "I doubt the one you heard was."
"I'll tell you my version and you can tell me anything you find wrong with it," said the man, grinning slyly. "In the meantime, why don't you get us some tea," he added, gesturing to the rusted kettle on the officer's desk. "It's a long story, after all."
Ratana's eyes lit up in fury. She was aggravated that he dared to put forward such a familiarity with her, but in a few seconds, she settled. "Sure, why not? We're both stuck here for the time being."
"I hope it's jasmine. Jasmine's my favorite."
"It's oolong," Ratana told him as she lit the kettle and sat down cross-legged, opposite from her prisoner.
Lu Ten sighed. "It sure has been a while, hasn't it, Rang Xue."
"Indeed it has, Lu Tong," Ratana told him. "It's pretty obvious why I didn't tell you who I was, but why did you tell me? You didn't know that I wasn't from the Fire Nation at the time."
The smile on Lu Ten's face faded slightly. "Why don't you tell me why you were in the Fire Nation first?" he asked. "You're back here now, so it couldn't do any harm to know what business you had."
"That's a long story, too," Ratana told him as she got up to fetch the whistling tea kettle and a pair of cups. As a good host - or rather, prison guard - she poured Lu Ten's tea before her own.
"Good point," Lu Ten agreed as he took his cup of tea through the bars of the prison cell. "The story of Oma and Shu is long enough, and one can fit have so much long story in one day. Now, onto my dad's version."
"Yes," Ratana beckoned him to continue on with her voice. "The first earthbenders."
"As the story goes, Oma and Shu each resided on opposite sides of a great mountain," explained Lu Ten. "Being both loners and feeling out of place within their tribes, they were often seen going off on their own."
"Stop right there," interrupted Ratana. "Since when were they loners? Oma was a very patriotic woman in her tribe, and Shu was an integral member of his community, too. As a matter of fact, he was a member of the military and he was originally on a scouting mission when he first met Oma."
Lu Ten merely shrugged. "In general, the professions of Oma and Shu are what change the most from version to version. I was always under the impression that she was a sculptor and he was a painter. Whatever, that part doesn't matter as much. Let's say for now that they were both...cabbage merchants, or something like that. Anyhow, both of them had artistic sides as well, since they used that side of them when they mastered earthbending together later on."
"They were soldiers," said Ratana. "Not artists. They were both fighters."
"Who says that one can't be both? Besides, some of the best art that comes from depicting war ends up coming from those who have seen it first hand."
"Not everyone who experiences war is a soldier," said Ratana. "A lot of those who have seen war see it when it gets forced upon them. I've seen your nation do that to many people." In the process of saying this, Ratana reminded herself who Lu Ten really was and what it was he represented. "As a matter of fact, I shouldn't be having tea with you. You're my enemy."
"What a pity," Lu Ten mused, taking another sip from his cup as Ratana started to stand up. "I guess you'll miss out on the rest of my version."
"This is wrong."
"Everything is what you make of it."
"What is with you and proverbs?" Ratana asked.
"I am my father's son," said Lu Ten. "He has no shortage of making them, either."
Ratana gradually began to sit back down. "If I met your dad, I would have a lot more on my mind."
"You almost did meet him once," Lu Ten told her.
Ratana raised an eyebrow. "When?"
"The day you left me in Gangkouz. I was going to introduce you later that day, and tell you who I was. I just wanted to get to know you as myself first, and not as the son of the Crown Prince."
"I see," said Ratana, surprised. "Back to your story, please."
"So they were both exploring when they met each other on top of the mountain that separated their two warring villages."
"I wonder why the two villages were at war, anyway," said Ratana. "I don't remember any version of the story of Oma and Shu ever explaining that. If this was really ancient times, it would have been long before the great unification wars in the Earth Kingdom."
"Beats me, too," said Lu Ten. "Perhaps they had been feuding so long that the origins of their conflict faded into memory by the time Oma and Shu came along. Anyway, they met each other on multiple occasions, and ended up falling in love."
"I wonder if they ever knew each other before they found each other wandering on the same mountain."
"When those around them discovered the forbidden romance, they tried to put a stop to it," said Lu Ten. "Being from warring states, their families and their communities would never accept the romance. Oma was already even being forced to marry someone else within her community, someone whom she did not love, but whom her parents were constantly pushing her towards."
"I remembered Oma being an orphan," said Ratana. "And I thought that it was Shu's family that wanted him to marry somebody else."
"No," Lu Ten shook his head. "Why would Shu's family do that? Anyway, they of course were able to devise a way to continue to meet in secret by creating earthbending, which they were inspired to do from studying the badgermoles of the mountain that they met on."
"They didn't 'create' earthbending, as you call it," said Ratana. "The badgermoles were masters of the art which already existed. Oma approached the badgermoles, and Shu requested to learn the art from them so that they could learn how to create tunnels in the Earth, as the badgermoles did."
"They continued to meet secretly," Lu Ten continued as though uninterrupted. "In the center of what eventually became known as the Cave of Two Lovers."
"I remember visiting there," said Ratana. "It was four years ago when I first learned from badgermoles, to help refine my own earthbending skill. I met King Bumi around the same time as that."
"What an honor that must have been," said Lu Ten. "I hear that King Bumi is among one of the greatest benders of your art alive today, and he has a supposed secret on longevity as well. The tunnels they carved were elaborate and everchanging at the hands of the two great earthbenders who made them. Oma and Shu continued to meet in the tunnels on a regular basis. The tunnel was their haven together, where they could share their love. Inside of it, their love was secure, and the two of them were free. Outside of the mountain caves, though, life went on, and the two tribes continued their conflict which had lasted since before either of them were born."
"They must've been crazy," Ratana smirked. "Their love was strong, and they were passionate about meeting each other in the cave all the time, but could they really have kept their secret hidden from the world forever? How would their romance have worked out in the long run?"
"Hey, when love is strong enough, those who form it can find a way," said Lu Ten. "Maybe they were the craziest two people in the world at the time. And they might have actually been able to keep it secret forever, but then...well, you know what happens next."
"Of course," Ratana confirmed with a nod. "Shu dies. He was killed in the war between the two tribes."
"Yes," said Lu Ten. "Oma found out when she came to the cave one day and did not find Shu waiting there for her, as he had always been. Needless to say, she was devastated."
"I can imagine..."
"Indeed," agreed Lu Ten. "It was someone whom Oma knew well who had done the deed in battle."
"I don't remember that part."
"Oma's grief turned into anger," said Lu Ten. "Anger at her village, anger at Shu's village, anger at the war between their two societies, and anger at the world at large for being so cruel to her and to her late lover Shu."
"Then comes my favorite part," Ratana smiled.
"With a powerful and impressive display of her earthbending, Oma silenced all those in her village as well as Shu's village," Lu Ten recalled. "Standing above both of them on the mountain, they were marveled by this unscene ability of hers and they knew that she had the power to destroy them all right then and there. It looked like she had the urge to, from where they were standing, but Oma did not bring them destruction. Instead, she brought peace by declaring the war between the two villages over. The people of the two villages accepted this new order of things and assisted her in constructing a new city, where they would all coexist together."
"Omashu," said Ratana. "One of the largest cities in the entire Earth Kingdom, and even older than Ba Sing Se and Munn."
"The Axis of Earth Savagery, as my grandfather would call them," Lu Ten smirked, earning a look from Ratana. "Oma and Shu were great, brave, strong people. If anyone from their time deserved to have their names live through the ages, they did."
"Oma must have been really terrifying to the villagers of both tribes at the end," Ratana said thoughtfully. "I guess she had been through a lot, so she got pushed to the end of her fuse and lost all self control. Such a proud patriotic woman she was supposed to be, too."
"She could still be like that at the end," Lu Ten added, as if he had better estimation of Oma than Ratana did. "She loved her man, but she also loved her people throughout, and she never let that go. They got tough love from her. What she ended up doing worked out for the best for them."
"I guess," admitted Ratana.
"Hmmm..." Lu Ten stroked his chin as he sipped his steaming hot tea. "Well, it does sound like our versions of the story have distinct differences between them, but they're essentially the same."
"I was just surprised that your father told you the story of Oma and Shu," said Ratana. "Since it's an Earth Kingdom tale about earthbenders, after all."
"He always said that one must learn to draw wisdom from many places," Lu Ten explained. "If you draw it from only one place, it becomes stale."
"Well, I'll at least give the Dragon of the West credit for worldliness," said Ratana. "Every version is different for everyone, it seems, which is understandable after all this time. But the essentials are all there: Shu dies, and Oma comes in to bring peace and save the day. It's a pity that she didn't do so before, though."
"What do you mean?" asked Lu Ten.
"If she had the power to put an end to the conflict and tell everyone so, then she should've used it earlier," Ratana went on. "Had Oma done it while she and Shu were still meeting in the caves, Shu could've lived on and they could've continued their life together in the new community."
"I don't think that crossed her mind," said Lu Ten. "People only do the rashest of things when the deed takes place after something tragic or something involving love. That's why they were the two craziest people in the world. Besides, if Oma and Shu had took over earlier, they may have been perceived as tyrants without the backdrop of tragic love stories."
"They would have been the right kind of tyrants, though, from how it sounds," said Ratana. "Their villages needed them to step in or they would've been torn apart eventually."
"Sounds like you and the rest of your countrymen are more accustomed to the idea of tyrants than you would have others believe with your anti-Fire Nation rhetoric," said Lu Ten.
Ratana glared at him, though she was reminded somewhat of her earliest lessons from her mother about earthbending and not forcing one's will upon the stubborn element. "I guess you have to reminisce on the origins of other nations' bending teachers, now that your people hunted their own to extinction."
"You mean the dragons?" said Lu Ten. "I guess so. I remember you had a fascination with them, too, when you were in the Fire Nation. We went to see the dragon spirits on top of the mountain, at your insistence."
"Oh yeah," said Ratana. "I wanted to see them as part of my mission over there at the time, but at least I got to see a sunset with you instead. I wonder how horny's doing these days."
"Probably taken by the army," Lu Ten put forth grimly. "They poached up most of the wild komodo rhinos in the area in order to give to the military about a month ago. Why did you run off so quickly the next day, to get back to Gangkouz?"
"Oh," Ratana recalled. "Yeah. My bag had been stolen a couple days earlier and I spotted the person who took it."
"I see," said Lu Ten. "You must've had something important in there. "Did you manage to get it back?"
"Yes," said Ratana. "But only after running into him a third time and getting an assassin on my tail to tag along as we raided a gang hideout."
"Fun times, by the sound of it," said Lu Ten. "You should've pointed out the thief to me. I would've ripped him a new one for you."
"The thief actually ended up becoming my friend later," Ratana told him. "All this time I wondered what it would be like to face you again. I know that we're dictated to be enemies now, so I never expected things to be-"
"-so similar to last time," Lu Ten finished for her. "It's nothing to be surprised about. We're still the same people we met before, after all. Just we didn't know a couple pivotal truths about one another."
"I guess so," Ratana said with a shallow smirk, but she had no misgivings. "It's not the same, though, is it? We won't be watching a sun set together again anytime soon."
"We could try to watch it through the top of the prison cell if you bent a big enough hole,.
"That's not what I meant, Lu Ten," said Ratana. "Everything has changed."
"Yes, it has." For the rest of the afternoon, silence reigned between them.
- The first third of this chapter will likely look familiar to some of you. When it was first written, it was intended to be a first meeting between them. The extension of the scene and added dialogue have made harmony with the retcon.
- The "Axis of Earth Savagery", meaning Omashu, Munn and Ba Sing Se, a term being coined by Fire Lord Azulon, was inspired by the "Axis of Evil", which was used by American President George Bush to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
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