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|Misfortune and Reproach|
Previously on Energy Saga
Team Avatar fights it's first official battle with the Fire Nation rebels, now dubbed the "Phoenix Army." Aang and Katara quarrel about how close Kaddo and Vameira should be to the battlefield. As Aang appears to have a duel with Azula, he uses energybending against her and ends up fainting.
Chapter Twenty-One: Misfortune and Reproach
The Village, 120 AG
Migo had found himself lost several times since he was separated from the rest of his battalion in the midst of their retreat, but at last he was back home. The sky was pitch-dark and Migo relied on his night vision to see the way in front of him. It was probably the middle of the night and Brawki was probably asleep, but Migo was unconcerned about that. He needed answers and this was the place he had the best chance of finding them.
The wooden door creaked as Migo turned the nob and pulled it open. He was startled by a sharpened dagger in front of his face. "Halt! Who goes there? If you come to steal my stuff, I'll slit your throat right now."
"It's me!" Migo stammered, leaning back so that his head would not be cut open.
"Migo?" Brawki said quizzically as he lowered his weapon. "Welcome home, son. What brings you back? Are you done traveling with the Avatar?"
"I parted with the Avatar in Omashu," answered Migo. "Then I joined the Earth Kingdom forces to go to the Fire Nation. After our first engagement with firebenders, our army retreated and got separated."
"You joined the army. Good for you, my boy," said Brawki, much calmer than before. "Although I don't know how proud I should be since you're technically a deserter now. Come – we should have this conversation indoors. You can never be too careful around these parts at night time. I'll put on a pot of tea."
Migo entered the miniature dwelling and found a chair he could sit himself comfortably in. The place was just as he left it. Brawki lit a fire and placed his old rusty tea kettle over it. Then he poured their beverage into two small cups. It was not jasmine or anything of the fancy sort, but it served their occasion perfectly.
"So tell me about the battle," Brawki directed as he grabbed one cup and handed the other to Migo.
"It was near an old colonial settlement," Migo explained. "We had only just arrived, but it seemed like our side was about to win. Then we got ambushed by our enemy's reinforcements."
Brawki listened intently as Migo told the rest of the story – how the Earth Kingdom troops retreated, how the unit scattered and how Migo made the long and treacherous journey to the place he grew up. "I see. And what about General Fong?"
"We lost track of him."
"And what of the airbenders and Water Tribe warriors?"
"We didn't see them again after the Phoenix Army's reinforcements arrived."
"What about the Avatar? He fought in the battle. Did you see him again?"
"No," said Migo flatly. "I only caught a glimpse of him while we were there. Everything happened so fast. Last I saw he was running off after a crazed firebender who was burning down some people's houses."
"I see," said Brawki. "So...why did you come all the way back here? There were other places that were much closer you could've gone. The most logical course of action was to seek out some of your companions who also got lost." Brawki took a sip of his tea. "As much of a fiasco as that was, you seem like you have something more on your mind. That's why you came all the way here, isn't it?"
"Yes," concurred Migo. He proceeded to tell Brawki about his first day of training, being assaulted in the locker room when his peers found out who his mother was and what they said about her.
Brawki refrained from speaking for a moment. "Well, you don't believe them, do you?"
"You think they would all just make that up?!" Migo said indignantly. "Don't treat me like I'm stupid, Brawki." Migo slammed his tea cup on the table-top, spilling its contents.
Brawki sat quietly and stared into Migo's eyes, ignoring the mess that was just made. "Listen, your mother was one of the finest earthbenders I ever knew – and one of the most gifted students I ever taught. You shouldn't let any one thing you hear change your opinion of her. A lot of what you hear about her are lies and exaggerations, although most of the stories have a kernel of truth to them."
"What is the kernel of truth here?"
"I'm not worried about it." Brawkis shrugged. "Whatever it was, Ratana always had the best intentions at heart," Brawki answered. "She would never do the kind of betrayal they were talking about."
"You're not telling me everything," said Migo furiously. He was now standing up. "How did she die?"
"Calm down, Migo. You're in a testy mood. Why do you ask me this, assuming I have all the answers? I wasn't there when she died. You know that."
Migo breathed heavily, his eyes on the verge of popping from their sockets. Then he lowered himself back into his seat.
"When I went to the Cave of the Ancients years ago I found out that my life was about to change forever," said Brawki. "And I was right. Shortly afterwords, you came into my life."
"Maybe I should go back to that cave," Migo added sarcastically, "if it has all the answers."
"You've already traveled farther tonight than you should have," said Brawki sternly. "You need some rest. And you may not want to hear it, but this isn't something that warrants consulting the cave on."
Migo paused for a few seconds and stared into space. "Yeah, I think I will get some rest – assuming I can sleep. I've been through a lot. If I need to ask anything else I'll just ask you in the morning."
As Migo headed off, Brawki continued to sit where he was. When he was sure that Migo was out of ear-shot, he muttered to himself. "He thinks he knows it all now, but he still hasn't got a clue."
Fire Nation Waters
Iroh was standing on the deck of his Empire-Class Battleship and in the middle of giving a speech to the new troops which had come under his command earlier that day. "Men, from here on, your mission is to defend the homeland, restore order and make our country whole again. We shall take a stand for the peace delivered to us by our Fire Lord Zuko and his comrades. This venture may be a breech of that peace, but peace is a flame often best kindled with fire and sword. Some of you may think that our enemies deserve to die a traitor's death and that is what their leaders would want you to believe. But remember, at the end of the day, the men of the Phoenix Army are your countrymen and brethren. Once this war is over, we shall reestablish ourselves with them. It is not like the last war at all. You must capture before injuring, injure before maiming and maim before killing." Iroh was breaking many measures of regular military protocol in the softened tone to his speech. Perhaps his years away from his position had made it difficult for him to return to old habits.
As he dismissed the recruits and his men dispersed, General Iroh took notice of one that had been standing at the far end of the line. He was shorter and ganglier than the rest of them – and his helmet seemed crooked. He trotted slowly and nervously toward the door to the galley. He appeared as if he was out of place and he knew it.
"Soldier – come here!" Iroh called out to him.
The young man flinched and turned in Iroh's direction. He saw Iroh staring right at him, so he could not pretend not to hear. He walked over, not quite making eye contact with his superior officer.
"What's your name, private?" Iroh asked him.
"Zh-Zhang, Sir," he replied with a stutter.
"Zhang, eh? Do you have a last name, too?"
"Well, Zhang Sang, why don't you tell me what part of the country you're from?"
"I'm from the...ummm....the countryside."
"Have I seen you somewhere before?" Iroh asked, his eyes narrowing. "You look familiar."
"No, I don't believe I have ever had the pleasure of making your acquaintance before, General. I..."
"Wait a second! Aren't you the son of the Avatar?!" Iroh exclaimed.
"What? No!" He rose his voice defensively. "In fact, my dad fought against the Avatar in the last war."
"Oh, okay. What region did you say you were from again?"
"The countryside," he stammered.
"The countryside, eh?" Iroh repeated. "Like around Flaming Fire Province?"
"Y-yes. That's right."
"And from what town of Flaming Fire Province do you hail? Inferno City, perhaps?"
"Is it?" Iroh smirked. "Well, I've got news for you, Private Zhang Sang. There's no such town and there's no such province."
The young soldier was speechless. Busted, Tenzin thought.
Iroh stared down at the timid airbender. "Alright, why don't we go to my cabin for a quick chat and a cup of tea?" He gestured for Tenzin to follow him.
Tenzin kicked himself in the shin. How could he have been so stupid? Obviously a name like "Inferno City" in "Flaming Fire Province" had to be made up. If only he had kept a clear head and not cracked under pressure. Then he would not have been tricked by the old man.
Iroh's cabin was stuffy and filled with the scent of fresh jasmine tea. What was a regularly relaxing atmosphere for Iroh was now a place where Tenzin felt like he was on trial. The soft, soothing cushion where Tenzin sat opposite Iroh was unkindly and piercing for him. After an uncomfortably silent walk, Iroh began to inquire about Tenzin's recent past. "So what brings you here? Why are you so far from your parents?"
"I had to come," Tenzin replied meagerly.
"My parents don't understand me. They treat me like a child."
"Well, no offense," Iroh chuckled. "But you seem like a boy to me."
"I'm not just an ordinary boy!" Tenzin snapped. "I'm an airbender – and quite a good one, if I might say so. I'm actually somewhat of a prodigy. But my parents don't realize this. My father refuses to realize this."
"Oh, come now," said Iroh. "Do you really believe your father – the Avatar, of all people – cannot see how capable a bender you are? Give him more credit than that. Why are you really here?"
Tenzin was taken aback, but he quickly regained himself. "It's just that.... I try my hardest at everything I do. I have a lot of natural talent. And people say I'm one of the best benders of my age in a long while. But none of that matters – because I'll never live up to who my father is."
"What makes you say that?"
"Well, hello! My dad is Avatar Aang. He is the master of all four elements, the hero of the century, the one who saved the world from falling out of balance, who defeated Fire Lord Ozai and brought back one of the world's four nations after it had already been annihilated! You have no idea what it's like being his son. As good as I may be, what's the point in anything I do, since I'll never in a million years surpass anything he's done."
"Hmmm...okay. You have a point," Iroh conceded. "Your dad is on a high pedestal indeed. But you must still stop comparing yourself to him. My father and grandfather were both Fire Lords and I was in line to be as well, but I never bore the title. But I did things my own way. Just do the best you can with the hand that is dealt to you – it's all any of us can do. Now – ask yourself – where is it that you really belong?"
"Well, I suppose I did come here for the wrong reasons," Tenzin admitted. "But I would still like to stay here now and help out – if you'll allow it. Whatever I may do to help people with the ability at my disposal I would like to do – however large or small it is. I will return to my parents eventually of course – but I think I could do some more good here if you'll allow me to stay."
Iroh pondered Tenzin's request. "Alright. You make your own decisions. But remember – you must follow orders at all times while aboard this ship and in this unit. It's not a playground. I won't tell your parents that you're here because I know you will decide to return to them when it is right for you."
"Thank you," said Tenzin gratefully.
"Alright," said Iroh, now cheerful. He admired the boy's determined spirit. This reminded him of traveling with his nephew during his exile. "Now, while you're on this ship, you're going to have to make yourself useful in any way possible. You can start by organizing my cupboard" Iroh pointed to the small bureau at by the door to the cabin. "But first, why don't you join me for a sporting game of Pai Sho? The guest has the first move. You can get your butt kicked by me at this most esteemed game and then you can perform the menial task which has been assigned to you."
"Actually, I can do both at once," replied Tenzin. He grabbed a piece and placed it in the center of the board. Then he marched toward the cupboard. "Your move."
A confused Iroh took one of his pieces and put it on a square adjacent to the one Tenzin had put his piece on. "Err...it's your move now."
Tenzin turned around to look at the board. Then he pulled up his fists and thrust them gently forward. Another one of his pieces rose up and fell precisely on the square he had intended for it to fall.
"Ah, of course," remarked Iroh. "Airbending."
Fire Nation Royal Palace
Zuko and Mai had had a long day. Now they had a quiet evening. They were now in their private chambers together. Zuko sat on the edge of the four-poster bed, staring at his sleepless feet. Mai paced across the room in her elegant crimson sleeping robe. She did this under the pretense of looking for her hairpin.
"I always thought the world would be at peace by now," Zuko said aloud. "I guess things can only be perfect for so long."
"There's always going to be trouble, dear," Mai responded. "You just have to deal with it when the time comes. It's just another crisis to solve. You've been through them before. We all have."
"This crisis is bigger than the other ones I've dealt with," said Zuko. "And I don't know how I'm going to solve it. This war – do you think I could have prevented it if I'd acted sooner?"
"I think you did the best you could," Mai said, sitting herself beside him. "There's no use beating yourself up about it now. All we can do is the best we can with what we have now."
"I suppose you're right," said Zuko anxiously. "But I'm worried about our children and how they'll be effected.
"We'll just have to be strong together," Mai told him. She knelt behind Zuko and began massaging her husband's shoulders.
Aang felt a gentle breeze along his face as he raced up the long stairs of the Eastern Air Temple. No – not Aang. Yangchen. Yes, Yangchen felt a gentle breeze along her face as she raced up the long stairs of the Eastern Air Temple. The light above grew larger as she ascended the indoor stairway.
When she reached the top, she found another girl of about her age kneeling and twiddling her thumbs on the temple level overlooking the peaceful mountain range. She was stroking her left leg tenderly as she sat. The girl was startled by Yangchen's presence. "Oh, hello Yangchen. I didn't see you there."
Yangchen smirked. "Well, hello to you too, Vionna! I heard that your leg injury is healing. So that must mean your ready to fly again, right?"
Vionna was trembling. She kept her voice soft as she spoke to her visitor. "Not yet, actually. They say I need a little more time, although it does seem to be coming around..."
"It's coming around, you say?" Yangchen interrupted. "You know, that reminds me of an old saying. What goes around...COMES around!" With that, Yangchen began rotating her arms in front of her in a continuous motion. Suddenly, Vionna rose up, being lifted upon a spinning disc of air currents and floated above the edge of the mountain.
"Let me down!" Vionna screamed as she stared at the thousands of feet of empty space beneath her.
"Poor choice of words!" Yangchen laughed. "Let's see you try flying now. Practice without your glider for a change."
"When I get down from here, I'll..."
"You'll what?" asked Yangchen. "You can't do anything to me. I'm the Avatar!"
With the thunder of several more pairs of feet, the pair got some new visitors. About a dozen or so bystanders had entered the area. Most of them were speechless.
An exception was Manu, who was the glider instructor for both girls. "Bring her down, Yangchen," Manu bellowed at her. "This instant!"
"Why should I?" asked Yangchen.
"She could get seriously hurt," yelled Manu.
"She's already injured," shrugged Yangchen. "And besides, she's just a waste of space. She has no friends. She's a loser."
"If you don't put her down, I'll..." Manu began.
"You'll what?" scoffed Yangchen. "I've already become a greater master than you are. This isn't over until I say it's over."
The spirit form of the adult Yangchen had appeared in front of Aang and the entire memory-dream dissolved around him. Aang now became conscious of himself and no longer was thinking as Yangchen. He was speechless. Dumbfounded, in fact. How could Yangchen commit something like he just experienced? She was supposed to be one of the wisest of the Avatars.
"I'm sorry that you had to see that," Yangchen said sternly.
Aang was at a loss for words. "What was that about?"
"You needn't worry," said Yangchen firmly. "It was the unfortunate result of a momentary lack of good judgment."
"It was not," Aang shot back. "I was there. I was you. I felt what you felt. You were enjoying it. You had fun tormenting that poor girl."
Yangchen seemed to be holding back a good deal of irritation. "You felt what I was feeling at the time. My full thoughts were much deeper than that."
"It started when we were younger – before I found out I was the Avatar," said Yangchen hesitantly. "Vionna was one of the bigger girls in my year and she was a bit of a bully. She made life miserable for my friends and I for years. As we got older, things changed. I had my growth spurt and began my life as the Avatar. Then when Vionna had an accident on her glider when we were seventeen, the tables had fully-turned. I decided to pick on her now that she was the vulnerable one to get her back for all those years she did the same thing to us when we were younger."
"So it was revenge?" Aang said coolly. "That is not a core value of Air Nomad life."
"It's more complicated than that," Yangchen snapped. "In a twisted and immature way, I thought I was doing good. I thought I was providing justice for me and my friends who had been her victims. I'm not saying that what I did was right – it wasn't. And looking back, I'm not proud of it, either. But we all have our faults..."
"I was never cruel to anyone like that," said Aang defiantly.
"Maybe not, but you have been careless at times. You won't remember now, but I taught you an important lesson once. The Avatar is reincarnated as a human so that it may understand human struggles and emotions. The Avatar Spirit is one, but those who carry the burden are their own souls. Each of us must deal with human faults and those faults are different, just as no two regular humans are exactly the same. I learned to harness my motivation for justice and put it to better use. I always acted with peace and kindness as Avatar in later years. I left the world the best I could at the end of my days."
"Good for you," said Aang reproachfully with his arms crossed.
Yangchen snapped. "Look, you forced your way into that memory, I did not show it to you. You were invading my privacy by intruding into it and I do not appreciate it!"
"I would share all I have to offer with the next Avatar," Aang retorted. "Aren't you my past life? Your experiences should be learned from. Don't be selfish."
"There was no lesson to be learned from it," Yangchen countered. "And I'm sure you wouldn't want your successor visiting every experience you've ever had. Think of your deepest secrets, your private time with Katara and your moments of utter weakness." When Yangchen noticed Aang's hardened expression, she continued. "Look, the other past Avatars agree with me. They aren't fans of this new ability of yours. So stop what you're doing to get into these memories."
"I don't get into the memories on purpose," Aang replied defensively. "It's sort of...random. It tends to happen when I faint from exerting myself with energybending."
Yangchen's eyes narrowed. "You should cease your practice of that ancient and dangerous art. It's not just the memories. I fear it may endanger the balance of this world. And you most certainly don't want to lose the favor of your past lives."
"I have nothing to hide," said Aang. "And you're wrong about energybending. I use it to help protect the balance. I'm not endangering it in any way."
"Don't pretend you're merely being noble, with your energybending, Avatar Aang," said Yangchen. "As gentle a spirit you may be; I know what motivates you. And I would be lying to say I would not be tempted as well."
"Because you're also an Air Nomad?"
Yangchen nodded. "Those hundred years were tough for me. I thought that you might have been trapped in the ice forever. As hard as I had fought for balance in my lifetime, it was all shattered within a few generations. And my own people were gone." Yangchen's voice shook. If a spirit being could cry, she would most likely have done so.
"Don't be. Its not your fault. You brought the world back into balance. I know your motivations are pure. You are compassionate and caring for people. Your qualm about killing the Fire Lord stemmed from your belief that all life is sacred. And you truly believe that bringing back the Air Nomads is the right thing to do. Just don't be blinded by your good emotions. Doing the right thing is often not as simple and easy as we hope. That is all I can say for now. I may not agree with all your decisions, but they are yours to make."
Aang grinned. "Thanks Yangchen. I'll try not to randomly faint on your past again."
"Please don't," said Yangchen.
"Although, I would say this counts as a lesson coming out of it."
"I suppose so," she admitted. "Just don't make a habit of it."
"By the way, what happened to Vionna after I left off?" Aang asked.
Yangchen sighed. "I let her down a few minutes later when the Head Elder came by and threatened to banish me and have me resume my Avatar training at the Western Air Temple. Vionna was never quite the same, but I never spoke to her again after that day. I think she married a farmer. Farewell, Avatar Aang."
As Yangchen's form faded into the darkness, Aang wondered just how he would prevent himself from going into past life memories again. He certainly would not stop energybending, no matter what his past lives told him. He would simply have to prevent himself from reaching that point where he passed out from the exhaustion of it. Aang had gotten better at that since his first lesson with Yue. He only fainted this one time in the heat of the moment when he was battling Azula.
That was right. He had gone into this dream after he fainted while fighting the Phoenix Army. So if he fainted in the middle of a battle, where was he now?
TO BE CONTINUED...
- Iroh's line "You must capture before injuring, injure before maiming and maim before killing," is a variation of Tao law by the master Po: "escape before injuring, injure before maiming, maim before killing."
- "Zhang Sang" is "John Doe" in Chinese.
- The important lesson Yangchen said she taught Aang that he "won't remember now" is from Escape from the Spirit World, explaining why the Avatar is a human who makes mistakes rather than an all-knowing immortal spirit. At the end, she tells Aang that when he wakes it will be like a "forgotten dream."
For the collective works of the author, go here.