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September 10th, 2010
The Gentle Assassin
Following Council discipline, Tengu was submitted to Kuen Yin's service as restitution for taking Wu and Shu as pupils. He had spent the last two weeks helping Kuen Yin in anything and everything she would fathom. Clean out the rocks from her garden, seal her roof, clean and rearrange her scrolls, and even take notes on her history studies. Once Tengu tried to correct her, but that really didn't go well at all... He vowed to himself never to do it again.
Of course, Kuen Yin also was the teacher of the younger children. She taught them history, nature, music and poetry. She had never been able to take them on field trips, since she felt unprepared to take care of them by herself out in the mountains. Tengu's company, however, provided enough assurance that trips would be safe. Much to her surprise, the kids were not intimidated by Tengu. In fact, they seemed to enjoy his company very much. He was strong, tall, and kind and he let them play with his beard. As cold and formal as he was among adults, he was warm, joyous and friendly among children.
She did not notice right away, but eventually Kuen Yin began to open herself up to Tengu. She would spend more time actually having conversations with him than using him as her personal slave. They would talk about ideas for helping the children or discussing history, especially that of the Earth Kingdom throughout the course of the Great War. Both shared a particular fascination with the story of the Dai Li. After all, they were the cultural guardians of Ba Sing Se, appointed by Avatar Kyoshi herself. Their mutation from "armed curators" to secret police held great interest to them. Kuen Yin was fascinated to learn that Tengu had come upon them in the Siege and that he actually took on not one, but two at a given time.
One night after dinner, they were sharing tea with Master Chang, talking about the War and, of course, children...
The Rescue Mission
"It's just so unfair, you know? Children are entitled to being loved, cared for and protected and this War, you know? It just took that away from so many of them!"
Master Chang agreed, after a sip from his cup, "Even in the Fire Nation, casualties were enough that many children were left homeless. Mothers were usually jobless and unable to tend to their children when the father was gone. Azulon, and later Ozai did both a great job of hiding it behind the propaganda, but orphanages just began sprouting up everywhere!"
"I know, there's even one in Ember Island!" Tengu remarked casually.
"Really? Is that not like a posh, chic vacation place?" asked Kuen Yin.
"Oh!" Chang interjected right after another sip of tea "If you veer a bit off the main avenue, right between the Theater..."
"Between Theater and Garment District, like two miles down from Red County and Volcano Hills..." aided Tengu.
"Right! That's a pretty rough spot, right up there with the lower ring."
"Do you think it may still be operating?" Kuen Yin asked.
Tengu sighed "I haven't been there in almost 8 years now. I'd really have no way of knowing..."
"Wouldn't it be great if we could have some of those children brought here?"
"How exactly would you make it happen, Master?" Master Chang was curious.
"We could always go there," said Kuen Yin.
"Ember Island is somewhere I'd like to remain as far away from as possible." Tengu replied.
"Aw! Come on! Don't you think it would be great to help those kids? Especially since no one thinks Fire Nation children need any help!"
"I have no business going back there, Master."
"Aw! Big tough guy like you..."
Chang noticed Tengu's uneasiness and spoke on a hunch:
"Let me guess: something to do with your friends from the inn at Ba Sing Se..."
"Acquaintances really..." Tengu clarified.
"Oh... I'm sorry, Tengu."
"It's okay – there's no way you could have known..." Tengu assuaged, staring at the floor...
"You know, Master Aang is pretty close with Fire Lord Zuko. I'm sure the Fire Lord could talk with the orphanage people and provide necessary transportation, provided the request came from him." Master Chang reasoned.
Master Chang made it sound real easy, but negotiations with the orphanage took up almost two full months. Fire Lord Zuko was surprised to learn how much red tape had become attached to the adoption process. Nor his fiery temper nor all of his power and position were any match for the fierce, zealous Ms. Yeo.
Ling Yeo was a former aristocrat who had lost her husband to a roguish Earth Kingdom guerrilla some 30 years ago on a business trip to Gaoling. After losing her husband, her surrogate title, and nearly half her money, she began to befriend homeless children from the street who would help her tend to her large estate in exchange for a simple meal and an occasional bed to sleep on. Over time, this grew into a full-time orphanage, with Ms. Yeo using her influence and name to secure help and funds for the government.
Aang and Zuko were surprised to learn that much of the bureaucratic hassle required adopting an orphan Fire Nation child had been championed by none other than Ms. Yeo herself...
"You cannot possibly expect us to complete this much paperwork for every child, Ms. Yeo," uttered an exasperated Aang. "This will take weeks of work!"
"Avatar Aang, you will find that it takes years to nurture and guide a child into becoming a good man or woman, but only a second to corrupt. We need every assurance that they will be well fed, well dressed, well treated, and protected from physical labor, slavery..."
"Ms. Yeo, you are talking to the Avatar! He's the Principal Elder of the Air Nomads! He is taking these children to a temple!"
"Fire Lord Zuko, with all due respect, you seem like a noble, upright young man - much like your esteemed Uncle, in fact. However, were you aware of your grandfather's recruiting plan here in the slums of Ember Island? He picked up confused and angry young men from the gangs to use as killers in the front lines. Your father upped the ante by sending fake couples to recruit promising benders into early boot camps. I am not even going to waste my breath or your time describing the sick bastards who come offering money to buy my girls for the sex trade..."
Both the Avatar and the Fire Lord were shocked to even consider the kind of person who would do such things to a child. They understood Ms. Yeo's zeal and saw the need to provide her with proper assurance that the children would be well off. Aang then tried a different approach.
"Ms. Yeo: we've been at this for nearly two months now, and I feel we are making very little progress in the way of easing your mind about all this. What I propose is simple: why don't you come with the children to the temple? There you can personally meet Kuen Yin, see our facilities, our government, the children's daily routine and ask all the questions you want. If after a week you feel this is not the right thing to do for the children, we will drop everything and return you all here. However, if we do manage to put your mind at ease, you must promise to simplify the documentation process so that we can expedite the transfer."
Ms. Yeo thought for a few seconds before finally answering:
"We'll go and see this Northern Air Temple."
The Flying Men
If the blimp ride to the Northern Air Temple had been magical for the kids, it paled in comparison to when they finally arrived to "the mountain of the flying men". The children were simply ecstatic when they saw the other children practicing their gliding. Even before they had landed, they were driving Aang half crazy asking if and when they could ride "the big kites". Kuen Yin received each child with a wreath, fashioned from flowers from the moon peach tree, and with musical selection from the choir (with a little help from Master Lin).
Kuen Yin found Ms. Yeo to be quite intense at first. However, as the initial impact subsided, each found in the other a truly kindred spirit. Ms. Yeo was fascinated by the disciplinary system and loved the field trips and even the airbending classes. She had some observations and recommendations on daily routine and health inspections that Kuen Yin took to heart immediately. The children themselves loved the temple, the open space, the mountain air, the airbending children and the possibility of even becoming benders themselves.
It happened everywhere, but especially in the Fire Nation, that bending parents would sometimes be so ashamed of a child not being able to bend, that they would abandon them or give them up for adoption. After the war, all bending children had been adopted or were in due process. Ms. Yeo had decided to bring all non-benders to the Northern Air Temple, hoping they would be able to experience unconditional love and acceptance. Perhaps no one needed this more than Lu.
Lu was 17. He was taken to Ms. Yeo's doorstep in his sleep by his mother 10 years ago. Lu's mother had just become a widow, losing her husband in the war. Money had become scarce in the household, so he had to choose between raising her 10 year old daughter or her 7 year old son. She feared losing her daughter to welfare, but she was even more afraid to lose her son to the streets, so she took him to Ms. Yeo. Lu's father had been a prodigious firebender and a valiant soldier. His sister and her mother were benders too, leaving Lu as the only non-bender in the household. For years to come, he would have heated arguments with Ms. Yeo, convinced that this was the true reason for his mother to reject him.
Lu would often run away to the slums, hanging out with the gangs, who would consider him some sort of a mascot. Ms. Yeo would often spend entire days looking for him. When she found him, he would bicker and fight, insisting that he was "a man" and that he did not need "on old widow's pity". Ms. Yeo would outwardly ignore his insults and carry him back to the orphanage, although deeply hurt by his words. As he grew older he became harder to force back and would spend days at a time on the streets, returning only seeking a hot meal. Ms. Yeo had brought him along on this trip hoping for some kind of a miracle to take place. However, miracles have a tendency to defy expectations, as she would soon find out.
The Face Off
Most of Ms. Yeo's children were immediately taken to their new friends and the new surrounding. It seemed so warm and magical, that it was almost inevitable. Lu, however, thought of the monks as wimps, always backing off from fights and wasting their time praying and meditating. Surely it must have been easy to wipe them out in the first place, he thought. His trip had become particularly unnerving ever since Wu and Shu had decided they would try and earn his friendship. They insisted on showing him around the temple and demonstrating basic airbending moves and exercises. Lu mostly just acted disinterested. On the third day of the visit, however, decided they had to back off and began shoving and insulting them. Tengu took notice and intervened:
"There was no need to treat the boys so. They were only being friendly."
"What's it to you?"
Lu was irritated that his behavior should be called into question.
"Well, for starters, they're my friends – my brothers. Secondly, you seem to be overreacting."
"Well, your 'friends' here are nothing but a sorry bunch of wimps. Secondly, they're getting in my face, so I'll react however the hell I want, old man..."
Lu came face to face with Tengu. Tengu studied the stance, the accent, the clothes...then he saw the twin top knot...
He sighed and closed his eyes
It must be a curse – It has to be...
"I don't believe I caught your name."
"Name's Lu, punk..."
Everyone was tense. The boys expected Tengu to begin the onslaught any second. So did Aang and Kuen Yin... In fact, they were about to intervene when Master Chang stopped them, asking for a vote of confidence without words.
"Lu! What are you doing?" Ms. Yeo was both angry and embarrassed. "These people have been nothing but kind to you!"
"They need to show some respect!"
Tengu reacted "I believe Lu, that it is quite the other way around: I think you need to apologize to my friends."
"Are you gonna make me, punk?"
"I can ask."
"I'll give you what you're asking for!"
Lu shouted, as he took a firebending stance.
"Firebending is prohibited in the Temple." Tengu admitted only the slightest bit of severity into his voice.
"Afraid of fire, old man?"
"Let's just say some bad things happened some time ago involving firebending. Nothing personal." Aang intervened.
"Oh! The Mighty Avatar is also feeling like spanking the Ember Island kid? Why, you're nothing but a kid yourself!"
Tengu had finally grown tired of the kid's arrogance.
"You will show Master Aang the proper respect and you will apologize to the boys."
Then Lu broke his stance and delivered a kick to Tengu's gut. Tengu doubled over to absorb the pain and recover his breath.
"Come on punk! I thought you wanted to rumble!"
"I never said that. But if you wish, I can take you down in three moves."
The angry teenager then socked Tengu hard to the jaw. Tengu stood his ground.
"Come on man! Two moves, one to go! I'm not seeing any progress!" Lu bragged.
"I haven't moved yet." Tengu clarified.
"Lu! Stand down this instant!" Ms. Yeo was about to go in. The Fire Lord prevented her.
Lu then tried a sweeping left punch; Tengu ducked and did a sweeping kick, sending Lu hard to the ground.
"Move one. Stand down now." Tengu warned.
The boy got up screaming – he pulled out a knife he had been hiding in his pants and grazed Tengu across his stomach. Tengu saw the blade just in time and jumped back. However, the blade had cut through the robe and managed to make a small scratch. Tengu was angry now, but he showed no emotion. He only removed the robe. Mouths stood agape watching the nicks, scars, burns, cuts and bruises. Even Lu became worried that he had gotten more that what he'd bargained for.
Tengu started circling the boy, who could only revolve in the same place, keeping a firm grip on the blade. "I'm going to ask for the last time: stand down, and apologize. You are embarrassing yourself, dishonoring your hosts, and hurting your protector."
Lu averted his from Tengu eyes to see Ms. Yeo cry tears of shame and frustration. He felt sorry, but his pride was too strong too back down now.
"You're nothing but a bunch of wimps! I'll never stay here!" With that he lunged forward towards Tengu. Tengu took the boy's wrist and raised it up, kicked Lu's feet from under him, sending him face down into the floor. He picked up the knife from the floor and gave it to Master Chang.
He then went to the boy and grabbed him by the hair and made him stand up. He brought the boy's ear close to his mouth:
"Boy, did you know Hong Se and Little Wang?"
"Everyone knows about Hong Se and Little Wang! They were heroes; they were the kings of the hood!"
"No, they were not – they were nothing but self-important, dishonorable pieces of crap, just like you're shaping up to be: picking on the weak and the humble just to pump up their pathetic egos. You know what else they had in common?"
Tengu grabbed him by the shirt and hissed to his face:
"They both thought they could take me out, and they both died trying..."
He dropped the boy on the ground and grabbed his robe from the floor. He left to his room.
Master Chang sighed as he shook his head.
The Second Reprieve
Tengu was still cleaning his scratch when Kuen Yin stormed into his room like a hurricane:
"Congratulations, tough guy! You've just undone three months' work in less than 30 seconds!"
"I tried my best not to hurt the boy. I may have gotten carried away at the end..."
"You what? You may...? Tengu, you've just confessed being a killer to him and all the other kids in the courtyard, not to mention Ms. Yeo!"
Tengu tried to keep his focus on his wound "I was just trying to give the boy a lesson, that's all..."
"What exactly is the lesson now, Master Tengu? Step out of line and I'll take your life?"
Tengu finally let down his hands with a sigh.
"You don't have the least idea what those guys were like! You have absolutely no reference to judge my behavior!"
"I know those characters all too well – I dealt with them all the time in the lower ring. They were never able to lay one finger on my brother and sister! And guess what? I didn't have to kill anyone!"
"Then you know everyone loses something to those guys. They're like birds of prey! If you didn't get your hands dirty, then I'd love to hear how exactly you dealt with them! Money? Drugs?"
"No! None of that!"
"Then what!" Tengu was shouting. He was finally fed up with Kuen Yin's self-righteousness.
Kuen Yin's eyes welled up with tears, as she instinctively wrapped her arms around herself as if protecting herself from a cold draft. She averted her eyes from Tengu, as if unable to sustain his stare. When she finally faced him again, her mouth had formed into a shape, but no words came out...
Tengu closed his eyes and sighed. His tone softened immediately: "Kuen Yin..."
"I don't have to explain myself, least of all to you..." A single tear rolled down her cheek as she left the room.
"Kuen Yin, I had no idea... Please, Kuen Yin, don't go!" Tengu got out the door and caught a glimpse of Kuen Yin running down the hallway.
"Kuen Yin I'm SORRY!"
Tengu let his back slide down the wall as he fell, finally sitting down on the floor...
In the days that followed his fight with Tengu, Lu was rarely heard from. The boy spent most of the time alone, avoiding the group and sometimes, going as far as skipping meals. The other children found it better to give him the cold shoulder and avoid any further episodes.
The day before Ms. Yeo's return to Ember Island, Tengu was by himself in the temple's vegetable garden, weeding out the tomato carrots and pulling stones out of the ground. He was concentrated in his work, so the boy's voice took him by surprise:
"I guess I owe you an apology."
Tengu took a look at Lu. He was standing at the side of the garden, at the edge of the stone walkway. Tengu knew the kid was trying to reach out, so he decided to try his lesson again, unencumbered by disapproving eyes or ears.
"Not to me. I was simply the voice of the people you wronged."
"I already talked to the boys and to Ms. Yeo. She was pretty mad."
"And with good reason. What about Wu and Shu?"
"They were cool. You know, I started paying attention to those moves and they're pretty tight. They told me you taught them."
Tengu kept his eyes and movements focused on the ground "Kuen Yin is actually their Master."
"Come on, man: they already told me the whole story!"
Tengu stopped his chores. He let his hands fall to the dirt and let out a quiet sigh. He then turned his face to the boy and stood up.
"What do you really want?"
"If I stay, will you teach me too?"
"I'm not a Master yet. I'm forbidden to teach airbending."
"But not hand-to-hand..."
"Well, I don't know about that..."
"Well, when I was apologizing to Ms. Yeo, Master Aang showed up. I told him I took back everything I'd said about him and the people – especially about you guys being wimps..."
They both had a small chuckle.
"And I kind of made a deal with Ms. Yeo and The Avatar..."
Tengu raised an eyebrow "And that is...?"
"Well, I've been thinking about what you told me. Truth is I'm tired of the street: too much drama, too much stuff going down, you know?"
Tengu nodded. "It's dangerous out there."
"Right. Besides, I'm 17: it's not like folks are crazy about adopting me...Mom is not coming back...I can't bend..."
The boy let his gaze wander to the mountains, trying to stifle a pain that Tengu knew all too well: the pain of the outcast.
"You want me to teach you to fight."
"Yeah," said Lu, a small smile lighting up his somber expression "I would stay and live here and then, when I'm ready, I would head out on my own."
Tengu came up close "And then what?"
"Well, you know man, whatever..."
Tengu shook his head "I've tried whatever. Not good."
The boy just looked at him, and then dropped his gaze to the floor.
"Lighten up, Mr. Lu. I'll take care of you. Just let me finish up here and I'll talk everything through."
Lu smiled, "Thanks, Brother Tengu."
The next day, Ms. Yeo left for Ember Island. She had brought 13 children from her orphanage, 9 of whom decided to stay in the Temple. The four youngest were still too attached to her, and would not leave her side. The goodbyes were tearful and heartfelt. She was about halfway through the ramp, boarding Zuko's airship, when she turned around and went to Tengu. She took his hands and kissed them. Then she took his head between her hands and kissed his forehead, and with tears in her eyes she said:
"Ten years I've spent praying for a miracle that would save this boy. Thank You, from the bottom of my heart."
After all proper goodbyes were said and all the children had been distributed, Tengu returned to the courtyard looking for Master Chang. He saw him talking with Aang. When they saw him, Aang turned to Chang and nodded, then left to meet Katara in the garden. Tengu met with Chang.
"Master Aang has agreed to let you train the boy in hand to hand combat. You are very lucky that Ms. Yeo thinks of you the way she does. There is still the matter of Kuen Yin."
"Master I did not know..."
"Only the Council knows, Tengu. I hope I don't have to explain why."
"No, Master Chang. Of course you don't."
"Go talk to her."
Kuen Yin was in her garden, sitting on a small stone bench at the far corner, overlooking the mountain range. Tengu could tell she had been crying. He was about to announce himself, when she spoke:
"I was wrong to judge you."
"So was I."
Kuen Yin sighed, as a cool breeze blew. "One day my brother and sister came home early from school. They discovered me..." Her voice cut off as the tears returned. "He didn't even care to stop although he knew they were there, watching...I screamed and pushed him off." Kuen Yin was now talking between sobs. "I ran after them, I tried to explain I was only trying to protect them. They came back, but they never forgave me... I found them a foster home – a good couple. And then I came here... It was so peaceful, so lovely." Slowly, here serenity returned...
"When I found out about you, I thought 'they will never forgive him'. But the kids..." She began sobbing again. "...they love you!"
"Your brother and sister may not forgive you, but you must try to forgive yourself."
"If I could – you can."
Tengu came closer and crouched in front of her "For what it's worth, I forgive you. You're still my friend, and my saving angel." He kissed her hands and her tattooed forehead. Kuen Yin just threw her arms around him and cried.
The Shadow of The Past
The following months were torture for Tengu, as reports from clashes between the Gaang and the Black Lotus began to pour in. The Council began to become increasingly worried about the safety of the Avatar and his wife as reports of their attacks began coming in. Tengu felt his many conflicted emotions swirl within him like a maelstrom. He would lose sleep many nights, praying for direction, not knowing whether to speak or keep quiet. The prevailing option was to stay put, stay quiet and hold fort. No one could protect the Temple better than him – he knew that.
The first full-out battle had taken place three days ago and Master Aang was returning home. It was midnight and Tengu was sleepless in his bed, as usual, when he heard a noise. In a flash, he had pulled out his staff and was at the ready.
"You couldn't have killed Hong Se: he died in the War, at the siege of Ba Sing Se."
"You could have been dead, you know?" Lu looked back, unfazed. His expression was somber and grave.
Tengu lit a candle and took off his robe, exposing his scarred torso again and raised his arm to show a large burn scar covering most of the right hand side of his rib cage:
"This was Hong Se: flaming knives. I spent two weeks out of action. We served together in the siege – he was in my unit. He wanted revenge for Wang."
"He thought it was you who dusted Wang?"
"He knew it had been me. His friends gave him a very detailed description."
"It can't be you. You're a monk."
"Well, I think we can both agree that I'm a monk now, but obviously I was not always a monk." Tengu began putting his robe back on.
"Wang was killed by The Black Lotus."
Tengu almost froze; he had to think fast "I was your age when it happened. I was not with The Black Lotus."
"Word has it you were a hired killer before you came here."
"Yes I was...Not really proud of it."
"You know, back in the Island, they say the guy who snuffed Little Wang wasted half the gang before the police came and then half the patrol before the Black Lotus came to help him. Peeps even have a name for the guy. They called him THE DEMON BIRD."
No use hiding now. Tengu lifted his right pant leg, exposing the mark. Lu shook his head and scowled.
"You're letting them fight your fight for you."
Tengu frowned. "It's best that they don't know anything. If it were known, the Temple would be a target."
"It wouldn't be if you were out there fighting."
Tengu stood up to his pupil, his face burning with rage. Lu was expressionless.
"Besides, Master Aang will be home tomorrow, and I think they already know – the Temple is about to become a target anyhow."
"What do you mean?"
"Come with me."
Lu took Tengu to the Southern Wall. From there, they could make out the tiny flicker of a campfire in a far away mountain.
"They're here." Tengu said. "Go wake up Kuen Yin. Tell her to assemble the Council – I will meet them in 10 minutes."
Tengu took out his glider and shot his pupil one last remark:
"You're right Lu: this is my fight. It has now come to me."
Lu nodded and sped off.
Tengu soared over the mountains surrounded in complete darkness. From the cover of the night, he could make out a small outfit, about six strong, warming up in a small cave, about 8 or 9 clicks from the temple. The trip could take half a day, so they would be there before Master Aang could reach them from Ba Sing Se. He would make sure, they were safe.
He was about to return to the Temple, when he decided he would circle it just once more. He breathed the cold mountain air, invigorating every muscle, every nerve, every fiber of his soul. This was his home and these were his people. He would protect them to his dying breath. He loved them and they loved him back, even if they did not understand him completely. It really didn't matter. He was whole.
He was free...
- Red County = Orange County
- Volcano Hills = Beverly Hills
- Theater and Garment District are borrowed from Manhattan
Thanks to my Editors for this chapter:
- Twilitlink - for providing me with a creative way for Tengu to drive the point home: his own scars...and for allowing me to use his creation to express myself.
- - for providing me with the core element I needed to go out with a bang: the story of Lu...and for the endless fixes, repairs, the templates, the IRC conversations, the patience and the love.
- Evatar 114 - for helping me handle a potentially difficult passage and bring credibility to the story.
For the collective works of the author, go here.