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|The Jasmine Dragon|
Chapter One: The Jasmine Dragon
Ba Sing Se, 100 AG
Aang, now a fully realized Avatar, master of all four elements, was sitting cross-legged in the middle of Ba Sing Se's finest tea shop. He had just concluded a great adventure and was perhaps one of the youngest Avatars ever to have learned the four elements, at the ripe age of 12. Well, technically he was 112, having been frozen in ice for a century, along with his sky bison. In addition to mastering the four traditional elements, Aang has also learned a skill from a fifth elemental art: energybending, where one bends the essential energy inside humans. But you would hardly be able to tell all this simply by looking at him sitting across from Momo, his pet flying lemur and close companion for the past year. At the moment, he was playing with a small, compressed ball of air, moving it up and down using airbending, his native bending art.
Aang was by no means alone. He was surrounded by friends who had helped him in his recent adventure against the militaristic domination of the Fire Nation. Iroh, the owner of the Jasmine Dragon, the tea shop in which they congregated, was playing a song on his Tsungi horn much like one he played while traveling by ship with his nephew in search of the Avatar. Like Aang, he was not all that he seemed. A benevolent old man, Pai Sho expert and tea enthusiast, he was also a retired Fire Army General who had tried to conquer this very city for the Fire Nation a few years ago and was one of the most skilled firebenders in the world, called "The Dragon of the West." His nephew – Zuko, the Fire Lord himself – was in an unusually humble position serving tea to his comrades, looking not the least bit regal. His girlfriend Mai was at the next table engaged in a game of Pai Sho with Suki, leader of the Kyoshi Warriors, who had served in the recent war on the opposite side of Iroh, Zuko and Mai. Katara of the Southern Water Tribe – now on the brink of extinction – was overseeing this riveting game. And painting this rather awesome but rather absurd picture was Katara's brother Sokka.
"I wanted to do a painting so we always remember the good times," Sokka claimed as he captured the moment on his parchment. However, some were less than pleased with the manner in which they were portrayed.
"Why did you give me Momo's ears?!"
"My hair is not that spiky."
"I look like a man."
"Why did you paint me firebending?"
"I think you all look perfect," Toph chimed in at the end, to the laughter of the rest of the group. She was ever so comfortable poking fun at her own blindness with sarcastic humor.
Aang, whilst enjoying himself, remained aloof through this episode. He extinguished his ball of air, got up and made to get a breath of fresh air on the balcony. Katara followed him out soon afterwards to share the moment with him. Neither of them needed to say anything. They embraced each other and then shared a long, wet kiss under the sunset. Things were looking up for the young Avatar now. It had been that way ever since he won his battle against Phoenix King Ozai, ending the War.
Not too long ago, Zuko's coronation as the new Fire Lord had served as a symbolic commemoration of the long-lasting peace to come. Aang remembered that day well – every detail of it. He had been meditating in the halls of the royal palace, waiting for Zuko to emerge. He was wearing a new set of Air Nomad garments he had nicked from the storage of the Southern Air Temple on the way over. Years ago they had been worn by his teacher Monk Gyatso – one of the best benders he had ever met – who taught him his first elemental art, airbending. Only now did that seem to him like it had really been 100 years ago – which, after all, it was. At long last, his newest teacher emerged – his companion and soon-to-be Fire Lord Zuko.
"I can't believe a year ago my purpose in life was hunting you down. And now..."
"And now we're friends," Aang finished.
"Yeah, we are friends," agreed Zuko. Aang was suddenly reminded of Kuzon, one of his best friends growing up, who had also hailed from the Fire Nation.
"I can't believe a year ago I was still frozen in a block of ice. The world's so different now." Aang stared into space for a second in a moment of reflection and sadness. Yes, the world is different, he thought to himself. But the world was a much different one when he was discovered in ice berg by Sokka and Katara than the one that he grew up in. Now the world was much different from the brave new world he had been thrust into, but still not quite the same as the one he remembered as a kid. The four elements were different. Everything was different.
"It's gonna be even more different," Zuko continued. "When we build it together." Zuko was right, Aang told himself. It was like Gyatso told him long ago. We cannot concern ourselves with what was. We must act on what is.
Zuko and Aang then made their way out to their awaiting audience. A roar of applause greeted Zuko as he began to speak. "Please, the real hero is the Avatar," he stated, stepping aside momentarily for Aang. "Today, this war is finally over. I promised my uncle I would restore the honor of the Fire Nation. And I will. The road ahead of us is challenging. A hundred years of fighting has left the world scarred and divided. But with the Avatar's help, we can get it back on the right path and begin a new era of love and peace."
At these words, one of the Fire Sages brought forth the royal fire-emblem-shaped crown and placed it in Zuko's hair. "All hail Fire Lord Zuko!"
Another round of applause greeted these words. It was a multicultural and diverse crowd that greeted them. All three remaining nations were represented. From the Water Tribes, Aang spotted Sokka, Katara, their proud father Hakoda and Bato, who was like an uncle to them, in addition to the members of the remote Foggy Swamp Tribe. From the Earth Kingdom he spotted Pipsqueak and the Duke of the Freedom Fighters, Toph, The Boulder and The Hippo who all had competed in Earth Rumble, the Kyoshi Warriors and the Mechanist and his faction of refugees. And also Haru, who Aang could swear he saw eyeing Katara in the crowd. Aang felt defensive for a moment. And of course several attendees were the citizens of the Fire Nation. Aang was unable to recognize any of them. But they gave just as much enthusiastic applause as anyone. It could be assumed that they were just as tired of a century-long war as everyone.
This coronation ceremony was in sharp contrast to Zuko's father Ozai's own. Still entrenched in a global war for domination, Ozai had taken the opportunity to give an inspirational battle cry amongst the all-Fire Nation audience as his predecessor Azulon was ceremonially cremated behind him. That had been a mere five years ago. How well would the world adapt to the new order of things? Not all people could be like the ones in front of him. After a lifetime of sweat and turmoil, some had to be unsatisfied with the outcome. The question was, how unsatisfied were they?
The coronation was followed by an elaborate reception for special guests only inside the palace. It was a mix of Fire Nation high society types and elites from around the world in the other three nations. That's right, only three...Aang thought to himself. It was much like the birthday party for the Earth King's pet bear that he had snuck into months ago. Zuko was absent for the moment. Aang passed the time mingling with some other guests. This was not very hard for him as the Avatar. There was scarcely a person in the room who did not mention him in their conversation.
He introduced himself to a group of Fire Nation generals standing in the corner. After giving a respectful bow to them, a couple of them smiled and bowed back in the same way. "It is an honor to finally meet you, Avatar Aang." However, others in the group did not share their sentiment. They kept blank faces with perhaps the slightest wince of the eye and returned Aang's bow with what was little more than an extended head nod.
Shortly afterwards, Zuko entered the room. From his expression, it seemed like he had something on his mind – something personal. Where he had been Aang could only guess, but Aang decided it was best not to intrude at this time.
Aang took Zuko aside "That was an inspiring speech you gave...Fire Lord."
Zuko blushed for a moment. "Thanks."
"I know there's a long and challenging road ahead of us...just like you said. This 'era of love and peace' isn't gonna come easy. For the world, I mean."
"Not just for the world. It's going to be hard for me keeping peace here at home, too." Aang knew he was referring in part to those Fire Nation generals he had just met. Some had not truly accepted the outcome of the War. After all, this outcome was the opposite of the outcome they had spent their careers working to achieve. Careers spanning years and even decades under the Fire Nation of Azulon and Ozai. Obviously, some resentment must exist within some of them. "But with what we've been through, I'm sure it'll be a piece of cake," Zuko finished.
Zuko was right, Aang thought. Things may not be perfect, but they had undoubtedly improved. At least no one was openly fighting each other now. Yes, there were challenges ahead, but that was to be expected. So there was no use worrying for now. With this Aang put his mind at ease.
Now, back at the Jasmine Dragon, Aang still had his mind at ease as he kissed Katara for what seemed like forever. After they finally broke away from each other, they held hands for a few minutes watching the sundown before finally returning inside. The rest of their friends didn't appear to have noticed their absence and had merely shifted around. Mai had apparently beaten Suki at Pai Sho and was now playing Iroh. Zuko now played the Tsungi horn. He was apparently as talented as his uncle. Toph had settled down into a chair and was sharing a table with Suki and drinking from a newly-brewed batch of tea. Sokka was in the same place as he was before.
"So how's the painting coming Sokka?" Katara asked. She apparently soon wished she hadn't after taking a look, judging by her facial expression. "I wish the Earth King and Bosco were here – they'd make our group more exotic."
"Um, they haven't returned from traveling the world yet, remember?" Toph reminded her.
"Oh yeah, heh," Katara blushed. "Wait, so who's in charge of Ba Sing Se right now?"
"My sources tell me some politicians were hoping for Long Feng to be appointed to his old post now that the war is over," Iroh entered. "But he would have little support now since the Dai Li are considered traitors."
"Wouldn't they have to cancel next week's victory festival?" Aang asked. "After all, according to them, the war never happened, so the end of the war never happened either."
"It'd be pretty hard for them to re-brainwash everyone now that the city was conquered and then later liberated. An army of Fire Nation soldiers marching in and the Order of the White Lotus kicking them out. I dunno...that seems like the kind of thing people notice," said Sokka.
"Sokka, people knew there was a war going on," replied Katara. "The people of Ba Sing Se weren't allowed to talk about it, but most of them already knew there was a war going on. Especially the thousands of incoming refugees. It was mainly the Earth King they totally brainwashed. Him and anyone who stirred up trouble."
"Okay, okay," said Sokka. "So who is in charge then? Don't tell me it's still Joo Dee – she was Azula's puppet."
"Nah, most likely the Council of Five will step in," answered Iroh. "General How has expressed an interest in forming a temporary government based on military leadership." Iroh was clearly distracted by his Pai Sho competition with Mai, which he was about to win.
"Well, whatever they do...I'm sure things are gonna be a lot different around here now," said Toph. "Alright, enough lounging around for now. I'm heading to the courtyard to do some earthbending. Care for a couple rounds of sparing, Twinkle Toes?"
"Nah, I'm all set," said Aang.
"Okay. You're not getting soft on me now, are you?"
"Not at all. I just think after defeating the Fire Lord and all, I can afford to take it easy for one night."
At this point, Aang noticed Iroh getting up as well. He was making his way to brew a new batch of tea. Aang followed him.
"Thanks for playing host to us here tonight Iroh. It feels good having the whole group here and all."
"Oh, my pleasure young Avatar," Iroh said jovially. "It's the least I could do after you helping save the world and all. Now that I've got back my tea shop, I can enjoy a quiet retirement serving tea and playing Pai Sho. All thanks to you."
Aang returned a modest expression to these words. "Yeah, it's finally over now."
"And hey, maybe I'll even pay my brother a visit one of these days and see if he wants to play in his cell," laughed Iroh. "I did not know he would still be alive now. I heard you blocked his firebending instead, much like Mai and Azula's little friend likes to do."
"No Sir. Ty Lee practices Chi Blocking, which targets one's muscles and leaves one unable to bend for a short while," Aang corrected. "I took away Ozai's firebending permanently by bending the energy and life essence within his body. It's a part of energybending, which is what people did in the era before the Avatar, instead of bending the four elements."
At these words, Iroh paused for a second. His facial expression suddenly became more serious and thoughtful and he stroked his beard. "Interesting..." he said just under his breath.
"What is it? You look like you have something on your mind."
"Have you heard of something like this before?"
"What? What makes you say that?"
"Well, you are a leader in the Order of the White Lotus, a society of spiritual and fighting experts from different nations. You'd think you would know something about it, if anyone would."
Iroh hesitated for a moment. "Well, the secrets discussed inside the Order of the White Lotus are – well – secret. But I guess since you're the Avatar and all, it's okay. Yes, I do recall hearing something about a fifth bending art a while back. And I also heard something about its being able to effect the traditional four bending arts. But I'm not the best person to ask about this."
"Do you think it's worth looking into?"
"Oh yes. Its only right for you to understand your abilities as best you can. And you are the Avatar, so you must serve the world with your fullest potential. Now let's see...it was years ago that I heard of this bending art. Who was it that mentioned it again? It was...Jeong Jeong. Yes. Jeong Jeong knew something about it."
"Okay, where is Jeong Jeong now?"
"He stayed here for a couple days right after we liberated the city. I know he has a small house in the Earth Kingdom. He's probably staying there. It's about a day's walk from Ba Sing Se. Probably a lot shorter on Appa. You and your friends are staying the night, right? You can set off in the morning."
"Sounds good. Thanks," said Aang. And with that they rejoined the others.
It was a relaxing evening for everyone. They passed their time reminiscing about their adventures, joking, drinking tea and taking turns getting beat by Iroh at Pai Sho. They had had little time for such things over their long journey. Iroh had enough guest bedrooms to accommodate them all.
Aang told everyone about the planned expedition to visit Jeong Jeong the following day. With the exception of Zuko and Mai, who were returning to the Fire Nation by airship, everyone else agreed to accompany him. Zuko had his Fire Lord duties to attend to now, so he would have less time for such things as this. They woke up nice and late the next day, packed their supplies and got onto Appa, with a new, comfortable saddle on his back. This was much to the relief of Toph and Suki.
Aang got up front. "Ready everyone? Yip yip!"
And with that they waved goodbye to Iroh and set off toward Jeong Jeong's house.
TO BE CONTINUED...
- This episode begins during Sozin's Comet, Part 4: Avatar Aang and continues on after it ended in Avatar: The Last Airbender. This is meant to bridge the gap with this series.
For the collective works of the author, go here.