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|Fire and Air|
Fire and Air
A warm summer breeze blew through the open doorway of the Air Temple building, brushing Rokan's hair from her forehead and soothing the cut on her cheek. The dying sunlight of the afternoon glinted off of Teo's octagonal goggles that sat on his head, ready for use whenever needed. With an amused sensation fluttering in her stomach, Rokan noticed that, due to the summer weather, Teo had shed his long sleeves, revealing pale arms that were strengthened from years of wheeling his chair. When Teo didn't speak, Rokan sat down on the floor beside him, dangling her legs out the doorway and onto the worn out stairs. They sat in silence for a time, alone in the shadow of the cliff that seemed to protect all beneath it from the passing of Time itself.
"You certainly took your time."
Rokan's heart raced as Teo's voice startled her. Brushing her bangs out of her eyes, Rokan cast the crippled boy a sidelong glance.
"Excuse me?" she asked politely, though in her heart she knew very well what Teo meant.
"It's been six months, Rokan. What on earth have you been up to? You look more beat up than when I found you after you'd been blown up!"
Rokan clenched her jaw and hesitated. She was ashamed of the life she had led for those six months. She had left the Air Temple with such strong resolve and yet fallen even deeper into despair and weakness.
"Well?" prompted Teo.
"I haven't done much."
Teo crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow mockingly.
"I might not know you very well, Rokan, but it's really easy to tell when you're lying."
"Oh, you know me better than most," Rokan said without thinking. Immediately she felt a hot flush rise to her cheeks. What was wrong with her?
Teo looked surprised and nodded contentedly.
"I'll count myself among the lucky ones then."
Rokan grinned and looked out at the Air Temple, wringing her hands. The silence that followed might have been considered awkward by some, but Rokan enjoyed it. She had forgotten how much she missed the silence...it seemed that wherever she went was filled with clamor and shouting. In most cases, she was the reason for both of these.
But she wasn't causing anything here...not good or bad, not anything. It was strange; though she was driven out of her hometown, forced to seek refuge in an ancient temple abandoned by Time, and in the company of a boy whom she had met but once, Rokan had not felt so at home since the fire that destroyed her family.
"So what's your plan now?"
Teo's voice startled Rokan out of her thoughts. A sense close to panic rose in her mind; how was she supposed to describe her failure to Teo? She had accomplished nothing good since they last parted.
"I can see that something's bothering you, Rokan," said Teo, turning the wheels on his chair so that he could look more directly at Rokan. Though they were face to face, Teo wouldn't meet Rokan's eyes. Was the sunset casting that pink light on his cheeks? "You—look, I know we barely know each other—but you can trust me. What's wrong?"
With a deep breath, Rokan sat down on the edge of the step and rested her elbows on her knees. Before she could stop herself, the entire account of her life since she left the Northern Air Temple spilled out. Admittance to her self-doubt and hints to her deepest thoughts were woven throughout, and with each word it felt as if a stone was being removed from her heart. Several times she felt a dampness arise around her eyes, but for the first time in many years she was in full control of her emotions. When she finished, she let out a long breath and with it the stress and weight of her troubles. Teo was looking at her intently now, and though the sun had long since disappeared Rokan could see his grey eyes twinkling.
"You've never said anything like this before, have you?" he asked. Rokan could hear that he was smiling.
"Well, I—no. I guess I haven't," she admitted.
Rokan's words dissolved in her throat, and she let out a few quiet stutters as she searched for a response.
"I—Idon'thaveanyonebutyou," she blurted out. Instantly she regretted her words and she put her head in her hands.
"Whoa, sorry, I can't quite decipher words that go by as fast as a hummingjay," teased Teo.
Rokan groaned and dropped her head onto her knees melodramatically.
"Don't make me say it again," she whined.
"Say iiiit!" Teo laughed.
With a sarcastic grunt of frustration, Rokan buried her head into her knees and sighed.
"I don't have anyone but you. You're basically my only friend. I don't know if that's sadder for you or for me.
"The truth is," Rokan continued impulsively, "I—I think of you a lot. You made a big impression on me when we talked at the Northern Air Temple. I thought you were just another mentor, like my old Firebending teachers or even my brother, but it's more than that. You keep me in check. It's like...this will come across as an extremely overdramatic analogy...it's like we're fire and air. Fire is uncontrollable if it's allowed to do whatever it wants. Air has the power to either blow the fire out or keep it alive. You could have blown me out at the Northern Air Temple, but you didn't. I—I'm not making any sense, sorry."
Rokan turned her head away from Teo and closed her eyes. A lightning fly alighted on her right arm, and Teo noticed the spider-web scars that crisscrossed over her skin, remnants of her injuries at the Northern Air Temple. For a moment he watched her; long hair slipping over her arms, the steady rise and fall of her scarred shoulders, the way her hands clenched as if she were bracing herself for the worst of something.
"Fire can't live without air...is—is that true, too?" Teo ventured cautiously.
Rokan lifted her head and looked at Teo, startling the lightning fly. It flew up near her face, and her golden eyes sparkled in the light. Despite the smudge of dirt on her forehead, the dried cut on her cheeks, the mussed up bangs that fell to her cheeks, she really was pretty.
"Yeah...I guess that is true," she whispered with a grin.
Teo's heart started to beat faster, and he smiled as well. In his mind he tried to convince himself that he was overreacting; he had met Rokan twice. They were friends.
More than friends...
In his heart he knew that, even if it weren't true, it would become true in time.
"It's getting late," said Rokan, breaking the silence. "Won't your friends be wondering where you are?"
Teo looked up at the sky and saw the first of the stars begin to dot the dark blue canvas.
"Yeah...they probably will be. But where will you go?"
"Oh," Rokan shrugged and looked around. "I'm sure there's somewhere I can hide away in this Temple. It's strange...you'd think I'd get spooked by such an old, empty place. But I love it...it's so peaceful. It's like—like what I'd want my life to feel like someday."
Teo nodded his head in the direction where his friends had walked earlier that day.
"Come on. I know a good place for you."
Within twenty minutes, Rokan was curled up on an old stone bunk. She had pulled the golden tie out of her ponytail, allowing her hair to cascade over her back and over the edge of the bunk. It was lighter than when she had been at the Northern Air Temple...no doubt the work of the sun's rays.
"Who'd have thought a rock bed would be comfy?" she sighed contentedly.
Teo chuckled. He wheeled forwards and backwards restlessly, unwilling to end his time with Rokan but not wishing to deny her sleep. Rokan looked at him through heavy-lidded eyes, stifling a yawn.
"How do you...you know...do you...well, do you have to sleep in that thing?" she asked, nodding at the wheelchair.
Teo shook his head, not ceasing his movement.
"Nah...I can get myself out just fine, and I can usually get back in. I just have to make sure I put the brake on so it won't roll away when I'm trying to pull myself back in."
Rokan smiled sleepily.
"Just curious. Goodnight, Teo," she whispered.
"Yeah...goodnight," he responded. "Oh, and Rokan?"
"Don't run away before I can say goodbye again, okay?"
There was no response. Rokan's breathing was slow and deep now. Teo wheeled up alongside her bunk and reached out his hand, but hesitated. Then, finding his courage, he gently pushed back a bang that had fallen across Rokan's cut cheek. Her fingers twitched at his touch, but she made no sound. Teo grinned and turned away, making his way out of the building and back to his friends. Haru and The Duke flooded him with inquiries, but he shook them off with the explanation that he had simply been exploring and no, he did not uncover any more secret rooms.
Rokan slumber—her first peaceful sleep in ages—was shattered by an explosion that shook her bunk and caused dust and rubble to fall from the already cracked ceiling of the building. Her heart pounding, Rokan sprang out of the bed and looped her katana onto her back. Another rumbling nearly knocked her off her feet and she scraped her hands on a jagged scar on the stone wall. Larger bits of the ceiling began to rain down, and Rokan panicked. She tore out of the building and ran beneath an old shrine for cover. Then, all was quiet.
"Not bad, Twinkle Toes, but not good either! Try again, but this time don't be such a sissy!"
Rokan heard the scrape of Teo's wheels before the shrill shout had ended, and she shot her friend a wary, confused glance as he rolled up beside her. Before she could speak, however, Teo waved his hand dismissively.
"Nothing to worry about; that's just Toph. She said she was antsy, so naturally she insisted on dueling Aang. Claimed he needed to work on his badger-mole stance or something," he said, rolling his storm-grey eyes.
"Aang? The...the Avatar?" Rokan questioned incredulously.
Teo nodded nonchalantly.
"He led us here after...after our invasion of the Fire Nation failed."
Rokan dropped her head back in exasperation.
"You invaded the Fire Nation? Is there a reason this wasn't mentioned?" Sudden recollections of the strange enemy tanks in the Capital flashed in Rokan's mind. "Wait...that was you! You attacked on the day of the Eclipse!"
Teo raised an eyebrow. "Word travels fast, huh?"
"I was there!"
Teo stopped short, his hand raised and his mouth open. Rokan would have laughed had she not been preoccupied with thoughts about Zhensu, her enemy. She wondered where he was now. If he hadn't followed her, what horrible revenge could he be planning? Could she ever return to the Capital?
"You were there?" repeated Teo. "Where? What were you doing?"
"Well, I did try and help the army, but I wound up bringing a little girl to a shelter. That was before I got cornered by the assa—well, his name is Zhensu."
Before she could stop herself, Rokan poured out the details of her fight with Zhensu; this seemed to be developing into a habit. There was just something about Teo...and air of welcome that encouraged Rokan to speak about her troubles.
When she had completed her unintentional monologue, Rokan looked to the ground, a flush rising to her cheeks. Several long seconds inched by, and finally she turned her gaze to Teo. It was unlike him to be so quiet. Rokan flinched in surprise when she saw Teo staring at her, his eyes glittering with sympathy. Without a word, he held his arms out welcomingly.
Despite her rotten circumstances, Rokan never ceased to hold onto her pride. He eyes flashed, and she stood up abruptly, clenching her fists.
"Don't look at me like that! I don't want your pity! That's all I ever get!"
Before she knew it, Rokan was shouting. Pressure pounded in her head and her vision blurred, but it was anger, not tears that impaired her so. Teo dropped his arms and instinctively back up his wheelchair. This did nothing to improve Rokan's mood.
"Yeah, see? You back up! You're afraid of me! When I'm the pitiful, homeless loser, everyone feels bad for me. They get all disgustingly sympathetic and it makes me sick! Then the minute I show backbone I'm suddenly terrifying! No one wants to be nice to someone who has a temper! No one wants to take pity on a jerk! Well, maybe I don't want pity! Maybe I just want help! I don't need anyone to tell me everything will be okay, or how sorry they are for me. I just want someone who won't leave! Everyone always leaves! I want someone who won't—who won't die on me!"
The pounding behind Rokan's eyes increased to such a point that she dropped to a squat and put her head between her knees. Her hands were clamped on the back of her neck, as if protecting herself from shrapnel. She screwed her eyes up against the red tint that was bordering her vision. An outburst like that hadn't occurred since Rokan's journey back to the Fire Nation with Private Zhu.
"Geez, I just wanted to give you a hug."
Rokan snapped her eyes open and lifted her head. Teo had resumed his previous position, reaching his arms out. But now, he was fighting a smile. Rokan glared at him and abruptly stood. They faced each other like this for a moment, each trying to stare the other down, before Rokan stomped forward and threw herself unceremoniously into Teo's arms. She didn't hug him back. No, she kept her fists clenched by her face while Teo clasped his hands on her back.
In truth, Rokan was afraid to hug Teo. The last time she had hugged someone, he had died in her arms mere moments after. But here, under the Western cliffs, beneath the serene statues of ancient Airbenders, they were untouchable. The Avatar was here, somewhere, and this knowledge gave Rokan a sort of comfort. She was with friends now. She was with Teo. Rokan heaved a sigh and unclenched her fists, pressing her face into Teo's soft green tunic.
"I really don't want to go back to the Fire Nation," she said bluntly.
Teo chuckled and released his arms. Rokan pushed back and leaned her elbows on Teo's bandaged knees, resting her chin on her hands.
"What should I do?" she asked imploringly.
Teo thought for a moment and ran a hand through his hair, making it stand up even more so than usual.
"You're not going to like it, but I think you ought to stay here."
"Well," Teo straightened his arms out over his head and stretched. "If you go back to the Fire Nation, Zhensu will find you, and he won't stop fighting you until he kills you."
"So...I'll just have to fight him back."
"No!" Teo cried. "The only way the conflict will be resolved is if one of you is dead, and I really don't think you want to kill anyone. Do you have any idea what that will do to you? How much it'll tear you up inside?"
Rokan remembered the blank, glassy eyes of the two dead Yu Yan Archers in the Earth Kingdom swamps, and she nodded slowly.
"I do, actually..."
"Then don't go back. Just...leave all this behind."
"And I'll never know why any of this happened. What will happen to Zhensu? If I don't go back it's only a matter of time before he finds me. I'll have to face him eventually. It's just the matter of whether I'd prefer to fight to the death sooner or later."
Teo shook his head adamantly.
"I don't like it. Please, don't go...you'll—"
"Oh please," Rokan interrupted. "Thanks for the vote of confidence. You said yourself, when we first met I had just been blown up. It's going to take a lot more than one guy with a couple daggers to beat me."
A laugh escaped Teo's lips, but he looked less than pleased. Their eyes, the grey and gold, met for a long moment, and Rokan felt a sadness that she hadn't experienced in a long time. She finally had someone waiting for her again...she had the hope of a better life. She knew that she couldn't afford to lose in a fight to Zhensu; not if Teo was waiting for her.
"I'll come back, Teo."
He believed it, deep down. He knew that Rokan was strong enough to survive.She doubted it, deep down. She has seen the wrath that Zhensu could deliver, and she wasn't sure she had the strength to come back to Teo.
Perhaps it was this doubt that inspired Rokan to lean forward and plant a kiss on Teo's cheek. It was this doubt that took the words of farewell out of her mouth, leaving her to turn around and walk away. Teo called to her after he emerged from his initial stupor, but Rokan didn't turn around. She tried to convince herself that she didn't need to see Teo another time; she would see him in a matter of days. But deep in her heart, she was sure that she would not return. In truth, she almost didn't want to return. She had caused so much pain, endured so much hardship, ruined so many good things. Teo deserved someone better.
Someone who wasn't so broken.
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