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|The Pain of Learning, Part 1: Night|
August 16th, 2010
The Grieving King
As they circled their home camp from above, looking for a place to land, Zuko jumped from Appa's saddle down to a nearby hilltop. As he fell, he brought his fists together in a hammer-like fashion down on the unsuspecting Earth. The massive blast burned everything alive in a twenty foot radius. Even Appa was shaken by the giant explosion.
Screaming like a madman, consumed by a blind rage, Zuko shot bolt after bolt of lightning at the heavens, as if trying to provoke the Universe into retaliation.
"You TOOK HER FROM ME! Why not TAKE ME INSTEAD! COME ON – I'll give you ONE HELL OF A FIGHT!"
Having finally managed to steer Appa into a safe landing, Aang had Lee, Tengu and Toph immediately taken to receive medical attention. He then grabbed his staff and was about to make way to try and contain his bereaved friend, when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Don't... He needs to let it out."
"Katara, he could hurt someone..."
She grabbed his arm. "Trust me Aang, there's nothing you can do or say right now..."
Iroh's troops had arrived early in the afternoon. Iroh came running to meet the team to ask them what had happened, but he did not need to ask questions. Katara's teary expression told him everything he needed to know. His face began to crack with pain, as he fled towards the enraged Fire Lord.
"DAMN YOU! You took my Father! You took my sister! You tried taking my CHILDREN! Now you take my MOTHER! Why don't you just FINISH WHAT YOU STARTED! Why don't you COME FOR ME? I'M WAITING!"
With that he roared and gigantic white flames spewed forth from his mouth and forearms, threatening to engulf the remaining plants and trees in its fury.
The children were terrified. Katara and Mai did their best to calm them. They knew their father to have a temper, but this was no ordinary tantrum. He was screaming, thrashing, cursing, and bellowing against everything and everyone that dared come near him. His men, completely unaware of what had just happened at Ember Island, were in utter shock, as they watched their Fire Lord display a level of power and fury equivalent to that of a small army as he sank into lunacy.
"Fire Lord Zuko! Stop this madness!"
A brief stillness ensued. Beneath the smoke and the ashes, one could make out the tiny glisten of the tears that ran down Zuko's face.
"She's dead, Uncle! She's gone!"
"I'm sure there was no other way, Zuko! Please let her go. Let her rest! She suffered enough!"
"I never had enough of her! I NEVER HAD ENOUGH!"
The white flames engulfed his fists once again, threatening to once again unleash their fury onto the surrounding elements.
"Why did she leave me Uncle? Why didn't she love me?"
"ZUKO! That's enough!"
"Ten years... Ten LONG YEARS, I've been fighting this slime – these BASTARDS, only hoping to one day get her back! All for NOTHING!"
Zuko began to bare his chest, revealing the scar that Azula imprinted on him the day of the Comet thirteen years ago.
"I know...I'll go – I'll go to her. Here, Uncle, right here ..."
Zuko outstretched his arms, exposing his chest.
"FIRE LORD ZUKO! That is ENOUGH!"
Zuko's trance was broken by Ursa's loud sobs. He looked at his daughter. He looked at his horrified wife. He stared into Lu Ten's blank, teary-eyed stare. He looked at his men, the charred grass, the surrounding trees... At last, his eyes fell on his beloved Uncle.
"She's gone, Uncle."
"I know, son. You must let her go."
Zuko fell to his knees sobbing, his arms still outstretched. His Uncle raced to hug and comfort him; then his wife and children.
"Daddy don't go, don't leave us!" Ursa cried.
"Oh honey, I'm so sorry. Daddy's so sorry – I'm not going anywhere, do you hear me?"
That was about all Zuko could manage to say before his voice broke completely.
The Broken Lover
The commotion had woken up Tengu, who stood watching from afar, filled with regret. I got her in there – What a fool I was to think I was trying to save her. It ended up destroying her. I should have known it would come to this.
He was startled by a high-pitched cry coming in from the sick bay. Rushing in, he saw Toph, being comforted by Katara. Toph had woken up seconds ago, and feeling Lee nearby, rushed over to him. She was horrified to discover the deep burn across his eyes.
"Katara, what happened? What did they do to him?" Toph sobbed, almost squealing the words.
"It was Gao: he was going for you, but he got in the way. He saved your life."
The tough, bratty, self-assured Toph dissolved. She was replaced by an anguished lover, crushed by the weight of her broken hero's fate. She allowed herself to crumble on her friend's shoulder.
"Don't cry, Toph, everything will be okay. He'll pull through honey, you'll see." Katara noticed that attention in the sick bay had been diverted to the men that had tried to control Zuko's outburst earlier, and that there was no one tending to Lee's wounds. In fact, Tengu had also been overlooked by the staff. Luckily for him, Katara had taken care of the worst on Appa's saddle.
"You'll make him alright, right Katara? Please! You can heal him!" Toph pleaded more like a little girl instead of the full grown woman that she was.
"I need to try to take care of the burn the best I can. About his sight, we'll just have to wait and see. Stay with Tengu. He'll take care of you."
"No! I want to be with him!"
"Honey, please, wait outside with Tengu. There's still people coming in, soon we won't all fit here. Go! – Tengu!" Katara had to force Toph out of the tent and into Tengu's arms.
"Lady Toph, please...let Master Katara tend to your friend."
As soon as they had left the tent, Toph shook off Tengu's grip, true to her usual, gruff self. No sooner she had done it, however, she broke out into quiet sobbing. After a few moments, chaos began to ensue in the makeshift hospital ward, and they were forced to walk back to camp to avoid being trampled by the rushing staff.
Out in the clear, the full moon and the night breeze slowly restored serenity to the campground. Toph finally asked: "Who brought him?"
"I did. Ursa told me he was worth saving."
Tengu allowed himself a faint chuckle. "Some of us were never meant to be there. We were just waiting to be rescued – to be saved."
"Like the way Aang saved you?"
"Yes, but not how you think."
"Who saved you then?"
"Well, that is a question I've given a lot of thought, and I have come to the conclusion that it was really no one in particular, but rather something they all had in common."
"Love. Love saved me. Love from an old tailor in your hometown of Gaoling, who saved an orphan from living on the streets. Love from a comrade friend who saved my life in the War. Love from my wife that saved me from loneliness. The love of a people and their Master, who saved me from self-destruction. The love of a Student, who sees in me something worth imitating... It was always love, Lady Toph."
"So what you're saying is that there is hope..."
"Is there?" asked Tengu.
Toph simply nodded as she broke into tears again and held her arms out to Tengu. Tengu returned the embrace. She felt at peace.
The Blind Killer
Katara could tell Lee was awake. She had heard the change in his breathing and could feel the tension build up in his muscles. She stopped the session and pulled back from the bed a couple of paces.
"If you have done anything to her, you can stop healing me and kill me already."
"I'm not Lian."
"Who are you? Where am I?" Lee lifted himself up on his elbows, trying to follow the voice.
"I'm Katara. My husband is Aang, Principal Elder of the Air Nomads and the Avatar. You're in our base camp, in the Southern Earth Kingdom."
"Why did you bring me here? Where's Toph?"
"Ursa asked us to take you with us. Toph is safe – you saved her life..."
Lee sat up on the bed and groped in the darkness before him "Can I talk to her? Where is she?"
Katara took Lee's right arm to help him back on the bed. "You should really lie down and let me finish working on your face."
Lee lay down again. Katara continued until most of the skin across Lee's face returned to normal. There was still a visible scar in the bridge of the nose and across his upper cheeks, but nothing like the hideous gash Toph had felt before.
Lee touched his face and felt relieved. "Thank you, lady. You really have a gift there. No wonder Lian is so afraid of you."
"Really?" Katara almost chuckled.
"Really! She usually drinks twice as much after she fights you..." Lee almost laughed, making Katara smile.
"May I know your name?"
"It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Lee."
"Same here!" Lee smiled, but almost immediately his expression turned serious.
Lee asked in a shy, low voice: "Are my eyes still closed? Were they, you know...sealed shut?"
After a brief silence, Katara answered, "No Lee. Your eyes are open."
Katara could hear his breathing accelerate. Lee tightened his lips as angry tears welled in his now darkened eyes. He clenched his fists and he mumbled a curse between his teeth. Katara drew closer to the cot and stroke his forehead.
"This is great! I used to be an assassin – now I'm a cripple. I'm less than nothing!"
Lee had used his sarcasm as an emotional painkiller many times before, but it wasn't working this time. Tears began to fall.
"How stupid of me, to ever think I could actually be with someone like her! Why wouldn't I expect everything to just fall apart like this. How will she ever want me now?"
"You mean my friend, the blind girl?" Katara asked in a sarcastic tone, as she leaned back in her chair.
"It's not like that – she's never needed eyesight to handle herself. I'm used to my eyes! Now that I've lost them I'm nothing but a handicap! Besides...she's a hero...I'm just a killer, a criminal..."
"You sound just like someone I know used to sound like."
"Well that would be a coincidence, since Toph is with him right now..."
Lee was impatient. "Who are you talking about, Ma'am?"
Lee was intrigued, "You mean 'The Demon Bird' Tengu?"
"No. I mean my husband's friend Tengu, who is also my daughter's Airbending teacher Tengu."
"So that's not the same Tengu who used to work for The Black Lotus before?"
"That's exactly him."
"Well, no offense to your friend, but 'The Demon Bird' is pretty famous. I mean – he was bad..."
"Well, he's not that person anymore."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Well - I used to be very unsure of him. I was quite scared, actually – to tell you the truth. But, one day he risked his life to save me and my daughter. He put himself in harm's way."
Katara put an intentional pause in her speech, and Lee stopped crying and began to listen. "From that moment on, I knew this man was much more than the rumors I had given so much credit to before. There really was good in him – and so much love and gratitude for my husband and our family that he was willing to lay down his life for us. And there's really no greater love I could think of than being willing to sacrifice yourself the ones you love."
Lee stayed quiet for a few moments. Finally he addressed Katara. "So that means I have your blessing?"
"Well, I'm not her mother." She said as she got up.
"But I'm pretty darn close." Lee smiled.
"I'm going to go get her." And with that, she left the tent.
- The title for the chapters was inspired by this song.
- Zuko's fury was inspired by both this chapter and by this other song.
- Lee and Katara's exchange at the end pokes fun at this chapter.
For the collective works of the author, go here.